Don’t you think Amazon looks tired?

by Suw on August 11, 2014

Amazon recently returned fire at Hachette and Authors United with a particularly ill-considered new website, Readers United. Authors United is a group of 900+ authors, published by all sorts of companies not just Hachette, who support Hachette and are calling on Amazon to end their sanctions against Hachette authors.

There is a lot of commentary on Amazon’s open letter already.

There’s no value in me rehashing those points, so just take a moment and read the above, if you haven’t already.

Now, let’s pull back a bit, let’s get more of the picture in our viewfinder.

There is a common narrative thread throughout many responses to Amazon which relies on the belief that it has an unassailable position in the publishing industry, that it cannot be argued with and that publishers depend upon it too much to really do it any damage. It’s an easy narrative to take up, because Amazon is big, and it is in a very strong position controlling, as it does, such a vast swath of the book/ebook retail market.

But it’s not invulnerable. I wrote in 2012 that I thought Amazon was ripe for disruption, although few people bought in to that argument. Baldur Bjarnason said the same thing in Frankfurt a few years ago, got the same response, and reiterated his thoughts this past weekend. And Jake Kerr has examined just how fragile he thinks Amazon’s position really is. If you haven’t read the last two pieces, which both cover similar territory, then please do.

Now, what if Amazon is starting to feel the pressure of the narrow margins that plague its book retail proposition? It has made a bit of a rod for its own back in creating the expectation amongst its customers that 60% discounts are normal, and that books should be almost trivially cheap. Publishers are all complicit in this — they like Amazon’s discounts because they sell more books and Amazon eats the loss. Fantastic, eh?

Well, not really, no. Because Amazon is coming under pressure from Wall Street to start showing some sort of profit and to create some sort of return for investors. Shares dropped 6% after Amazon’s second quarter financial report, which showed a loss of “27 cents per share on revenue of $19.34 billion, while Wall Street had been expecting, on average, a loss of 15 cents per share.” This, despite net sales rising 23%.

It may be a coincidence that Amazon’s tone has become increasingly shrill at around the same time that Wall Street is showing displeasure at Amazon’s performance. Certainly Amazon, a company previously noted for its wall of silence, has shown itself to be lacking in skill when it comes to its external communications. I can’t help but think that Amazon thinks its being clever, but as Linda Dawson says, it is instead sounding over-emotional.

What is almost certainly not a coincidence is that the Hachette conflict is not an isolated case. It’s certainly the one that Amazon has escalated the highest, but Amazon is fighting for bigger margins and more money on a number of fronts.

Amazon is now in a spat with Disney, and is this time using the availability of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Maleficent, Muppets Most Wanted and Million Dollar Arm DVDs and Blu-Rays as leverage.

Amazon is in dispute with Bonnier in Germany over ebook terms and, as the Bookseller explains, the “German trade association Börsenverein officially lodged earlier this month with the German competition authorities has attracted the attention of the EU Commission.” Börsenverein is describing Amazon’s actions against Bonnier as akin to blackmail. Sound familiar?

Amazon halted pre-orders of Warner Bros’ The Lego Movie earlier in the year, in another pricing row.

And that’s just this year’s spats — Amazon has long-standing form with these sorts of negotiating tactics.

It’s clearly not just ebook prices that Amazon has a problem with, so you have to ask yourself, why all these arguments? Why use these blackmail-like “negotiation” tactics? What would drive Amazon to behave in a way that makes life harder for buyers, damages its reputation as being customer-focused, whilst also managing to piss off half the publishing industry and sections of the movie industry?

None of this strikes me as just ‘business as usual’. You don’t normally tell your customers to buy from a competitor. You don’t normally invoke WWII and misquote famous people in a way easy to debunk. You don’t normally create special web pages to get your press release out to as many people as possible, or email customers (in this case KDP authors) to outline your position about a news story. Unless, of course, you believe you need to create popular outrage because your hand is weak and you want to use the court of public opinion to strengthen it.

Amazon does not just look like a bully now. It looks like a crazed ex who just can’t get over the fact you’ve walked away. It looks like a cornered, scared animal fighting for survival. But more than anything, don’t you think Amazon looks tired?

 

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This was going to be a comment on Damien Walter’s blog post about Amazon’s recent statement on their row with Hachette, but it seems to have metastasised so now it’s a blog post. It’s a bit rough and ready because I am so behind on other work that I can’t devote as much time as I’d like, but here we go:

Damian writes:

It’s worth noting here that ebook prices now behave much more like the dynamics of crowd-funding than traditional book pricing. Your product is essentially unlimited so you price at the point that produces the highest volume.

No supplier should price anything in order to get highest volume, they should price to get the highest revenue. If you price at 99p and sell 10,000 that’s a revenue of £9,900. But if you price at 2.99 and sell 5,000, that’s £14,950. Books aren’t entirely fungible – whilst there’s superficial interchangeability between books, mostly people want a particular book either from a particular author or because they particularly like the look of it.

Amazon want to control prices, and they say of this dispute with Hachette:

A key objective is lower e-book prices. Many e-books are being released at $14.99 and even $19.99. That is unjustifiably high for an e-book. With an e-book, there’s no printing, no over-printing, no need to forecast, no returns, no lost sales due to out-of-stock, no warehousing costs, no transportation costs, and there is no secondary market — e-books cannot be resold as used books. E-books can be and should be less expensive.

But because books aren’t fungible, pricing shouldn’t be capped, even for ebooks (because the price of ebooks is only nil if you wilfully ignore all the production costs associated with producing the content in the first place, and if you don’t pay anyone to create the file that is the ebook, and we all know how crap ebooks get when they are simply converted without human oversight). If there’s a keen but limited market of 1,000 that is willing to buy at £14.99 then the revenue of that price point is more than at £2.99 or 99p – it’s £14,990.

Amazon is being very disingenuous when it says:

It’s also important to understand that e-books are highly price-elastic. This means that when the price goes up, customers buy much less. We’ve quantified the price elasticity of e-books from repeated measurements across many titles. For every copy an e-book would sell at $14.99, it would sell 1.74 copies if priced at $9.99. So, for example, if customers would buy 100,000 copies of a particular e-book at $14.99, then customers would buy 174,000 copies of that same e-book at $9.99. Total revenue at $14.99 would be $1,499,000. Total revenue at $9.99 is $1,738,000.

The may well be true in general, but it will not be true in all cases because demand for all books is not equal. It may be that some books have a market that is small, but willing and able to pay more. Forcing a pay cap on publishers means that they are no longer going to be able to service a small but affluent markets. This is going to be especially true for the sorts of books that get bought for business or development reasons, where the customer is much less price sensitive because either the money isn’t coming out of their own pocket and/or they are looking to make a return on their investment in some way, as opposed to books bought only for the pleasure they bring.

You simply cannot take statistics that apply to a population, in this case the population is all the books that Amazon sells, and then apply it to a specific book, because there will always be outliers, there will always be exceptions, and there has to be enough flexibility in any system to accommodate those exceptions. Capping the price of books artificially reduces publisher’s options and makes it less likely that they will consider serving niche markets where the audience is small.

Amazon do say that they believe that there “will be legitimate reasons for a small number of specialized titles to be above $9.99”, but who will get to decide which books are to be deemed specialised? Amazon doesn’t say, but the implications are that it will be Amazon’s call, as it is Amazon who are trying to dictate prices. That would be unacceptible.

Furthermore, even if publishers are overpricing ebooks, that is their right in a free market. We may disagree with how ebooks of novels are priced, we may think that they are often too expensive, that’s our prerogative. But it is the publisher’s prerogative to price high if they want, even if it’s a mistake. They have the right to fuck it up if they want to, and it is not Amazon’s place to stop them; it is our place to stop them by refusing to buy books that are too expensive.

It is a shame that publishers don’t seem to yet understand how to operate in a world of abundant content but scarce attention, but it is their choice. We can only try to help them understand, we cannot force or coerce them to behave in a way that we want.
And neither can or should Amazon.

Amazon goes on to describe how it thinks the revenue from any given book should be split up:

So, at $9.99, the total pie is bigger – how does Amazon propose to share that revenue pie? We believe 35% should go to the author, 35% to the publisher and 30% to Amazon. Is 30% reasonable? Yes. In fact, the 30% share of total revenue is what Hachette forced us to take in 2010 when they illegally colluded with their competitors to raise e-book prices. We had no problem with the 30% — we did have a big problem with the price increases.

It is no business of Amazon’s how publishers split their revenue with authors. There’s certainly a case for giving authors a bigger slice of the pie, of course, and I suspect there are a lot of authors out there who would agree with this. But it’s not Amazon’s argument to have. It’s not Amazon’s place to define the terms of the agreement between an author and their publisher. All Amazon is doing here is trying to appeal to authors, trying to turn them against publishers, which is also why it uses language such as “forced” and “illegally colluded” – it’s a way of framing the debate so that publishers look like evil overlords and Amazon look like knights on white chargers. It’s playing on author’s emotions as a way to distract from the inappropriate nature of its comments on author royalties.

Let me just say it again, though, to be absolutely clear: It is not for Amazon to dictate the terms of the contract between author and publisher.

Damien, perhaps spurred on by the above paragraph from Amazon, says:

This begs the question, if Amazon are fighting for higher author royalties and more profits overall, what are Hachette fighting for and why does anyone support them? It’s clear, Hachette are fighting for their existing and increasingly outmoded business model. They’re fighting for stasis in the face of inevitable change. Worst of all, they are fighting against changes that are vastly to the benefit of writers. I still say this is a fight authors do best not to take sides in. But if you are going to join the battle, you’re a fool not to see Amazon as your ally.

Amazon are not fighting for higher author royalties for any reason other than to turn authors against publishers. There is no altruism at work here, Amazon doesn’t give a flying fuck about authors, as born out by their unwillingness to deal with fake reviews on their site and bullying on Goodreads. They don’t ever care about self-published authors, as shown by their shitty tools, lack of customer service, and frankly sometimes bizarre behaviour that goes unexplained and without apology.

Amazon care about Amazon. That’s fine, but don’t believe that Amazon are anyone’s ally. Amazon will shoot authors in the back if it ever becomes profitable to do so.

Hachette are fighting for survival, but also for their own authors. If they get a smaller chunk of the pie from Amazon, then their income is squeezed and they’re going to have less money to spend on things like marketing, editing, advances, etc. for the authors that they already have on their books. Those authors will be in a worse position, as will any authors that Hachette might take on in future.

Whilst it is true that publishers are not perfect, and sometimes they act like total cockwombles, there are plenty of people who work for publishers who genuinely care about their authors, who genuinely want to put out great books that readers love, who want happy, well paid authors. It is a fallacy to believe that all publishers are evil, or that they are all corrupt, or all stupid, or working against their authors. As William Gibson so famously said, the future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed yet, and that’s as true of publishing as anything else.

I do not believe that the changes Amazon wants are to the benefit of writers. I do not see Amazon as my ally. I see them for what they are: A self-interested corporation that wants to exert as much control over their suppliers as possible. That’s it. They aren’t saviours, they aren’t allies, they aren’t white knights. They want to control as much as possible in order to make as much money as possible, whilst not paying taxes and treating their workers like shit.

If I were Hachette, I’d be thinking about moving away from any sort of percentage-based deal with Amazon and towards a more sensible retail-wholesale agreement. “We sell you these many books at £x, and you can sell them at whatever price point you want.” Hachette would have income predictability, authors would know how much they’re getting, and Amazon could still discount as much as they like. It’d be no skin off Hachette’s nose if Amazon decided to take a bath on a popular title.

Whatever Hachette is thinking, one thing is very, very clear: Amazon are fighting a propaganda battle, working hard to alienate authors and demonise publishers. Taken with their other practices, this shows just how untrustworthy they are. So this is one occasion where I would strongly counsel those who loathe publishers that the enemy of your enemy is not your friend.

UPDATE 31 July: Interesting post from Mike Shatzkin on this.

UPDATE 2 & 3, 31 July: Steve Mosby examines the implications of Amazon’s claim that “For every copy an e-book would sell at $14.99, it would sell 1.74 copies if priced at $9.99.” Well worth a read, as is John Scalzi’s post covering similar ground.

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Strange noises in the chimney

by Suw on July 15, 2014

I’ve been in the US for two weeks now, and I’m starting to feel settled in. Our house is lovely, if still rather empty and echoey as our furniture is still in the Port of New York, going through customs and, eventually, making its way here. We have a couple of chairs, and yesterday picked up a table at a garage sale, but the house is mostly empty at the moment.

There’s a lovely fireplace in the lounge, and a couple of days ago we went to light the fire. It was a bit cool that evening, and we thought a fire would be cosy and make the place seem a bit more homely. Just above the fire grate, in the chimney, there is a dampener which shuts off the chimney, and which you have to open if you want to set a fire. Kevin did, and there was a very odd noise coming out of the chimney:

It turns out that we have a nest of chimney swifts in residence. According to what I’ve read, they become audible at about two weeks, and will fledge in another two. They are now very clearly audible even with the dampener closed. When the parents return with food, you hear a brief drumming sound as they claps their wings to their body at speed, and then the chimney erupts in enthusiastic chirping. This happens frequently throughout the day and although Grabbity and Mewton were perplexed at first, they’ve now decided it’s just background noise.

(I did try to record the sounds of our swifts specifically, and my phone did take a hit of bird poop in the process, but the resulting video was too quiet to be useful. I will try again tomorrow.)

Chimney swifts are classed as ‘near threatened’, possibly due to a decline in the insect population because of pesticide use and the loss of habitat. Chimney swifts used to nest in hollow trees, but when humans started cutting down trees and building houses, they shifted to chimneys instead. Many people now cap their chimneys to prevent animals like the swifts from gaining access. Ours obviously hasn’t been capped and, now we know a bit more about these delightful birds, we won’t be adding a cap in the winter.

Migrating birds are protected in the US, so we wouldn’t be allowed to disturb them whilst nesting or roosting even if we wanted to, but they are so cute and the sounds so adorable that I’m happy to share our home with them. The only real adjustments we’ll need to make is to sweep our chimney at the end of the season when they migrate back to Peru, to get rid of the nesting debris and prevent potential chimney fires, and then again in mid-March to make sure that the chimney is clear of creosotes and other deposits from our winter fires.

I expected some new and different experiences when I moved to America, but I can’t say that I expected to share my house with chimney swifts!

UPDATE: I managed to get some decent video of the swifts. Watch full screen and in HD if you can. The fun starts around 00:20.

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Amazon’s offers are pure propaganda

by Suw on July 8, 2014

In the long-running dispute between Amazon and Hachette over their terms of trade, Amazon has used its power over Hachette’s book sales to hurt authors and publisher alike. Amazon has removed pre-order buttons from Hachette books, de-stocked so that some titles appear to be unavailable, suggested to Amazon users that they buy alternative books from other publishers that are similar (and cheaper), and told buyers to go elsewhere if they can’t find the Hachette books they want.

These sanctions are designed purely to strong-arm Hachette in to agreeing the terms that Amazon wants, but Hachette are resisting even though it’s not just the publisher that’s hurting from lost sales, but also authors, especially those with books newly released or due out soon. Debut authors may be hurt particularly hard if their book’s early sales tank due to lack of visibility or availability on Amazon, where a large majority of purchases are made.

Amazon then suggested a slush fund for Hachette’s authors affected financially by Amazon’s sanctions against the publisher. Hachette declined that “offer”. So now Amazon has floated the idea that it and Hachette both forego their usual cut of sales and instead give 100% to the authors. Hachette has again declined, saying: 

“Amazon has just sent us a brief proposal. We invite Amazon to withdraw the sanctions they have unilaterally imposed, and we will continue to negotiate in good faith and with the hope of a swift conclusion […] We believe that the best outcome for the writers we publish is a contract with Amazon that brings genuine marketing benefits and whose terms allow Hachette to continue to invest in writers, marketing, and innovation. We look forward to resolving this dispute soon and to the benefit of the writers who have trusted their books to us.”

Amazon’s offers are nothing more than propaganda. Amazon decided to punish Hachette and its authors by taking actions that it knew would hurt sales, and it decided to do that as a negotiating tactic. Both the slush fund and the royalty offer are no more than sops to appease authors and persuade readers that Amazon are the good guys really and that it’s Hachette that’s being mean and intransigent. That’s utter bullshit. 

Contract negotiations do not require Amazon to impose sanctions on its suppliers. It is perfectly capable of running its shopfront normally whilst negotiations are ongoing, which would result in no authors getting hammered, and no readers being told to go elsewhere. Of course, then Amazon wouldn’t then have as much leverage, which is why they’re doing it in the first place. 

Hachette is absolutely right to reject Amazon’s disingenuous offers: Agreeing would imply that Amazon is in the right and Hachette is the aggressor which is simply not the case. 

If Amazon actually cares about Hachette’s authors and whether they are losing money, it has a very, very simple remedy: Resume normal service, and don’t impose sanctions again in future. It’s easy, and there’s no need to change any royalty rates or set up slush funds (or figure out how to fairly apportion that money, a question that I suspect is much more complicated than it might seem).

So try implementing normality within 72 hours, Amazon. You know you can.  

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Loving an alien, part 2

by Suw on July 2, 2014

Read Part 1. Also, please note that immigration processes vary from country to country, and in the UK they vary enormously over time as the Government thinks up new ways to torment immigrants. The below advice should not be thought of as comprehensive, nor always applicable to your personal situation, but is based on my experience of UK and US immigration processes, for whatever that’s worth. If in doubt, see an immigration lawyer.  

When I was 16, I probably would have laughed in your face if you’d said that I’d marry. And an American, to boot! You’re ‘avin’ a larf, mate. And even if I had believed you, it wouldn’t have done me any good without the advice I am about to give you.

If you have fallen in love with an alien, if an alien has fallen in love with you, if you’re even flirting with a foreigner or considering going on holiday or working abroad, then there are are a few little things you should do, right now, before they become necessary. This may seem silly, but trust me, if you ever need this information you’ll be very, very glad that you spent a little time preparing.

1. Make a list of everywhere you’ve ever lived

Literally, everywhere. Even those three month stints you spent at home in between years at university. In order to fill in some immigration forms, you need an unbroken record of everywhere you have ‘established a residence’ since you were 16, which for many people means ‘since forever’. It’s a tedious job, but start now and keep the document up to date and when you move house.

It took me hours on Google Maps and on the phone with my parents to reconstruct my residential history going back to, eventually, 1976. Luckily, I’d recently spent time on Google Maps finding the house I’d lived in back in Sydney, Australia, when I was 18, so that shaved about an hour off the process. But there was still a lot of “Do you have the address for that place with the bonkers landlord?”, though given that the majority of my landlords have been either bonkers or total assholes that didn’t narrow it down much. Remembering the walks home from the tube station helped too, but it was a tremendous stress at a time when I really didn’t need any more of that particular evil.

You’ll need the date (at least month and year) you moved in and moved out, and the full address.

2. Police certificates

Some visas require a police certificate for every country you’ve lived in for more than a year, no matter how long ago, and for any UK address you’ve lived in during the previous X years. It’s an easy process in the UK, but do not put it off once you get to that stage because it can take time, and the longer you put it off the more you delay your own visa.

If you have ever lived in another country for more than a year, start researching now how to get the appropriate document so that when the issue comes up you know what to do. The particulars of the process may change in the intervening years, but the basics won’t.

I only found out about the requirement for a police certificate for other countries late on in the visa process, and had I spent another three months in Australia, I would have had to get a certificate from them. That could have delayed my visa for months, which would really have piled on the stress.

3. Make a list of everywhere you’ve ever travelled

When Kevin had to do this, we spent a long time with his passports and calendar listing everywhere he’s been for the last ten years. That was relatively easy, if tedious, because an American travelling in Europe gets a stamp in their passport every time they enter a country, and usually when they leave too. (For some bizarre reason, the UK doesn’t do exit stamps.)

For me, it would have been a disaster if I wasn’t so zealous about putting things in my calendar, as a lot of my travel was within the EU, meaning that I don’t get any stamps in my passport at all. But with my calendar and my propensity for booking everything online and keeping electronic copies of tickets, I could draw up that list.

You’ll need the departure and return dates, plus city and country. Make a note of which flights are overnight – I tend to count duration in nights not days, which makes it easier to deal with nights spent in the air and the crossing of the date line (not that I’ve ever done that, mind!).

4. Check your vaccination record

Some countries require you to be vaccinated against specific diseases, so it’s a good idea to make sure that your medical records are up to date with your childhood jabs. You can get a print out of your vaccination history to give to the medical examiner.

You may need to get additional vaccinations in order to complete the immigration process: I had to have an MMR jab because I hadn’t had a mumps vaccination as a child (it didn’t exist then). As an adult you can get MMR free on the NHS, though I’ve heard that some GP surgeries are reluctant to give it. Don’t take no for an answer!

5. Check your medical records

Some countries require you to tell them your medical history, which sounds like a trivially easy thing right up until the point where you’re in the middle of the medical and being grilled about events that were so long ago that you’re a bit hazy on the details.

In the UK, you have the right to see your medical records and it should cost no more than £10. You are “entitled to receive a response no later than 40 days after your application is received and any relevant fee has been paid”, so start this application sooner rather than later. This is especially important if you have any history of mental illness, including depression, at all, because you could be asked quite detailed questions about what happened, when, and what medication you were given, if any. If you know exactly what is in your medical records, then you can be much more accurate in your replies to questions.

Be aware that, depending on the country’s requirements, if you have any history of mental illness, including depression, you may need to get a letter from your GP confirming that what you say is true. That can add a month or more on to the process, depending on how efficient your GP is. Again, do not delay talking to your GP if you run into this problem, as the sooner you ask them, the sooner your letter will get to the head of the queue.

At my GP’s, the process was that the GP writing the letter rang me up, asked for further information about when my brief period of depression was, read out what the records said (very, very little, as it turned out), and then wrote the letter. When it was ready I picked it up, read it through and had the opportunity to discuss it with the GP if I had wanted to, so they didn’t communicate directly with the embassy medical panel. This was a huge reassurance, because it was very stressful not knowing either what my medical record said (I didn’t check first) and not knowing what my GP would say.

6. Get your household bills in joint names, and keep them all

For Kevin’s Indefinite Leave to Remain in the UK we needed to prove that we had a legitimate relationship, not a marriage of convenience, and to do that the government wanted us to produce six utility bills in both our names from the previous two years. What wasn’t in the guidance was that they were expecting those bills to be evenly spread out over those two years. Our happened to come in three clusters, which they said wasn’t good enough.

As I said in my last post about immigration, their logic is just insane. Do they really believe that a couple would move in together, get joint bills then split up for 10 months before moving in together again to get more bills, then split up, and then do it all again? Seriously? On what planet does that happen? Especially as we had at that point been married a while. It’s just mindboggling that people would think like that.

But, we dealt with that bit of jobsworthing by adhering to the next rule, and it is a rule that you should live by no matter what sort of visa you are applying for, no matter what country:

7. Over-document

When the immigration official asked for more bills, Kevin whipped out a sheaf of papers about half an inch thick, and the objection to the timing of our bills magically evaporated. We had been advised to over-document, and it was advice we were happy that we followed.

In short, document everything, and keep everything. Get as many bills and other official proofs of your relationship as possible. Every time you get a relevant email, or fill in a form online, keep a print copy. Two copies. Make photocopies of all your official documents. If you have any phone conversations (although I have not spoken to any officials on the phone for my visa), make detailed notes including date and time of call.

It’s also a good idea to log every action you take, if only for your own peace of mind. Note when you submit forms, when you send emails, when you get documents through the post. The visa process takes ages, but it feels as if it takes aeons. It is good to be able to look at your log and realise that it was only last week that you submitted that form, not last month, and so the fact that you’ve not heard anything is not a bad sign.

Non-EU immigration is very, very hard work. If you can afford a specialise immigration lawyer, then that’s certainly a help, but many people can’t. The rhetoric of the media, especially in the UK, would have most people believe that all you need to do is turn up and bingo, it’s all good. But that’s not true. There are a lot of forms to fill, a lot of money to pay over, a lot of tedious information gathering and underneath it all the lurking suspicion that immigration officials can be capricious and that your application may fail for reasons entirely opaque to you.

If you are in the process of, or about start, any immigration process, then good luck. And if you’ve been through it, what do you wish you’d known before you started?

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Authors, books and choices

by Suw on June 21, 2014

Doing the rounds this morning on Twitter is a rather forthright review by Christopher Priest of Jon Wallace’s debut novel Barricade. Priest has never been one for pulling punches and, although he acknowledges that “first novels are traditionally given a gentle ride by reviewers”, he does go on to wonder if “a well-deserved duffing up might have been more memorable, and in the end more useful.” That duffing up duly ensues. 

Priest sets the scene for us: Barricade takes place in a reality where natural humans are called Reals and artificial humans are called Ficials, and the world is a hellscape of our own making. So far, so meh. But then this clause about one of the key protagonists, a Ficial photojournalist, leapt out at me:

…Starvie, who has been fashioned to resemble a sex-goddess…

Starvie. Sex-goddess. This doesn’t bode well. 

And then this: 

There’s also a distinctly dodgy passage in the middle of the book, when the unappealing Fatty and the unemotional Kenstibec plan to send a compliant Starvie out as a sexual lure for a gang of randy Reals. “Listen,” Fatty says to Starvie, after he has bound her wrists with plastic cuffs, “I know you’re upset about having to go whoring, but no more of your looks, okay?” Her response is to tilt her head, and say sweetly, “You don’t like the way I look at you?” Soon the Real sentries are predictably drooling over her, as only men can do when a shackled sex goddess is dragged past. The sequence goes on in the same lacklustre way for several inconsequential pages. The whole of this scene seems likely to start an argument I don’t want to get drawn into, but I think when your book has been read by a few more people you might well be.

Oh ho ho. There is a large punch very definitely pulled by Priest. How very out of character. Priest has never really struck me as one to avoid an argument, but maybe he felt that his review was already long enough and that going off on a tangent would distract from his main point.  

Overall, the review reads as if Priest is the most disappointed English teacher you could ever have: 

In case you are thinking otherwise, I was not scouring the text for these solecisms, setting out to set you up, but like all people who are preparing a review I was keeping notes throughout the reading. The protocols around a first novel by a young writer do matter. I kept noting all the bad stuff (much more than reported here), but I was looking for good bits with which to try to encourage you. I found none. It gradually dawned on me that I was wasting my time. Barricade was unyielding in its awfulness. It was a book I did not wish to write about.

You are spared the rest.

That was, by itself, enough to put me off Barricades, with a slight nagging feeling that there was a lot worse that could have been said, which Priest had backed away from, stuff about women and objectification and how attempting to portray women in an edgy way usually fails. But maybe I’m just reading too much in to a few lines by a reviewer.

And then I read this guest post by Wallace on the Civilian Reader blog, titled “Writing Real Women”. 

My head. It a splode. 

Wallace kicks off his post by explaining how, as a teen, he was told that he was no good at writing women. 

Once I’d cooled down I read over the script again and saw what he meant: my female characters were either blanks, or saintly projections of whoever I happened to be in love with that week. Rarely were they believable. Rarely were they real.

Well, Wallace wasn’t the first and won’t be the last. Many teenaged boys (and a fair number of men) seem utterly flummoxed by women, perhaps in part because women are so often portrayed by the media as one dimensional creatures who are impossible to understand. We are wallflowers, bitches, nurses, mothers, sexual objects, although we are never more than one of those things at a time. How can we expect teen boys, already struggling to cope with all that puberty brings, to be able to understand women when they are never given the tools — the stories, the examples, the understanding — to do so. 

But, Wallace assures us, he “worked hard to write believable, fleshed-out female characters”, right up until the point that he started writing Barricade and decided not to. 

The lead female character, Starvie, is in many respects a construct of unrealistic male expectation and base desire. Why? Because she was designed that way.

I suspect Wallace thought he was trying to be clever and edgy, subversive and shocking. But let’s just see, from what we know of this book and characters, whether he succeeded. 

  • We have a female character who has been designed to “do nothing more than have a perfect appearance. Starvie’s model was a singer, a model and an actress, but most of all she was beautiful.”
  • As an entirely artificial creation, we are lead to question her agency. She was “optimised”, she was “programmed to display a series of modeling ticks and gestures”. How much freewill does she have? 
  • Her name is Starvie. Where does this name come from? It’s very odd. Starvie was a model, and we all know that models are very thin and some suffer eating disorders in which they starve themselves… Am I reading too much in to those two syllables? Maybe, although it’s hard to read “Starvie” and not hear “starve”. 
  • Starvie is used as bait in a honeytrap, a passage which made Priest uncomfortable but which we cannot judge.
  • She, of the two Ficial characters that we know of, is the only one with emotions. The male Ficial, Kenstibec, has none. Because we all know that women are hysterical, whereas men are cold and calculating. I’m not sure which gender comes off worse there, but I am sure that it makes Wallace look as if he has a rather lame imagination. 

On the face of it, this looks just like thinly veiled misogyny. It’s doesn’t look edgy at all, but predictable and stereotypical. It might have been edgy if Kenstibec was also a woman, perhaps a Real woman traumatised by war, her emotions buried, who has allied with this Ficial in order to survive and find some kind of redemption for them both. That might have been interesting, but this book, this story with these characters as described, just sounds terrible. 

There are two issues to think about here, beyond the obvious one around how women are portrayed in science fiction. 

Firstly, Wallace portrays his decision to write Starvie as a surprise to him. “Something odd happened”, he says: when he went to write a proper woman, this stereotype popped out! Heavens above, how could anyone have predicted or controlled it! It just happened! 

Which is, of course, bollocks. As so beautifully described in the film Wonder Boys (which, btw, if you haven’t seen you really should), all authors must make choices. Everything your characters are and do, everything that happens, it’s all your choice as an author. The tail cannot wag the dog, the book cannot actually write itself, because the tail — the book — is not sentient. 

Many authors talk about being surprised by what comes out when they write, but the unexpectedness of their creative process does not relieve them of responsibility for what the final story says. Wallace wrote Starvie because he wanted to, because he chose not to stop himself, because he didn’t change her, or Kenstibec for that matter, as he edited and rewrote his work.

His juxtaposition of his efforts to write “believable, fleshed-out female characters” with the fact that he “ended up doing the complete opposite” implies that this was some sort of freak occurrence, inevitable and outside of his control. This is Wallace glossing over his conscious decision to write Starvie exactly as she reads, it’s him attempting to abdicate responsibility for how she turned out by blaming… what? The story itself? It doesn’t wash. 

Secondly, I am sure some people will say that I have not read the book therefore cannot judge. This, too, is bollocks. Every book goes through a period where no one has read it except those close to the project: The author, his editor, their team, some reviewers perhaps. All that the rest of us have to go on are reviews, blog posts, blurbs, reactions, descriptions, all produced by other people. 

This means that the author and their publishers need to be aware of how their story plays in summary, and how publicity material such as blog posts can be interpreted. If you write a character in what seems like a misogynistic way, then you should be very, very aware of that interpretation before you publish, and be sure to provide the would-be reader with the context they need to understand how this character fits in to the rest of the story. You need to be very, very clear when discussing your books, and the misinterpretable character, so that you don’t alienate potential readers. 

You especially need to make sure that when you, as the author, write about this character who looks so very, very dodgy, that you don’t shoot yourself in the foot and make it all sound so much worse than the reviewer duffing you up does. Wallace fails spectacularly to convince that Starvie is anything other than a one dimensional object of male sexual fantasy. Indeed, he does more to put me off his book than Priest did, and that’s really saying something. 

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Loving an alien, part 1

by Suw on June 19, 2014

There were many things that occupied my mind when I was 16, but thinking about the kind of man I might marry was not one of them. Revision for my O Levels was a pretty big thing in my life about then, as was thinking about what I’d do at university, and which of my Dad’s science fiction books I’d read next. I gave no thought to who I might marry, or even whether I might marry.

By my late 20s, I had started learning Welsh and had ‘decided’ that I would probably wind up marrying a Welshman, if only to be able to move to somewhere picturesque and spend my time speaking the the Language of Heaven. I failed quite spectacularly on that front, only eventually meeting Kevin once I’d given up not just on the whole Wales thing, but the whole marriage thing as well. I was convinced that my natural state was single, and that I was going to be ok with that.

When I met Kevin, I was smitten the very moment he walked through the door to the foyer at BBC Television Centre out in White City, despite not knowing who he was, or that he was the person about to interview me for the radio. And even though it was very obvious that he Wasn’t From Around These Parts, I never for one moment considered the implications of falling in love with an alien.

I mean, you don’t, do you? You can’t. You have no way of knowing what’s in store for you, because no one ever talks about the practicalities of immigration. But as soon as you fall in love with a foreigner, immigration policy becomes a major force in your life, one that might destroy your relationship, destroy your future, if you make even just one, tiny slip.

Lots of people talk as if they know all about immigration. They have opinions, and they spout them unchallenged by reality, because no one really wants to discus the nitty gritty of immigration, they just want to throw a few soundbites around so they can ingratiate themselves with an audience who know even less.

Try falling in love with one of those dirty, rotten foreigners, one of those selfish people who come over to our country, stealing our jobs, shagging our women (or men) and spreading love and happiness in their wake… oh.

Loving an alien means putting your life in the hands of politicians. It means wading through pages and pages of barely comprehensible legalese. It means hoping that the rules don’t change whilst you’re in the process of legitimising your love’s presence in this country not of their birth. It means being given advice by people who only two years ago had a totally different experience because everything has changed in the intervening time. It’s knowing that if you hadn’t gotten lucky and applied when you did, the new rules would see your love thrown out on their ear because of an arbitrary decision made by someone with no grip on reality. It means wondering, especially in the early days of your relationships, whether your love might be tested to destruction by bureaucracy.

The worst part is the feeling of powerlessness that often comes upon an immigrant and their partner. The fact that there you are, standing in front of an immigration official in Liverpool, and they are complaining that the utility bills you have given them to prove that you’re in a legitimate relationship aren’t evenly spread out, one every three months, over the previous two years, despite the fact that nowhere in their directions do they explain that ‘requirement’ (which you suspect they’ve made up on the spot). As you wait for this anonymous stranger to make their decision as to whether your love can stay, you hear a couple at the counter next to you being told that no, his wife cannot stay because he does not earn enough money, even though this financial requirement is so new the media still think it’s just a suggestion.

I was sitting in a taxi the other day talking to the Bengali driver and explaining my current immigration situation. Whilst we were chatting, I explained how long it had taken Kevin to get his citizenship here, how torturous it was, how touch-and-go at times. He was shocked.

But, you’re married! he said.

Doesn’t count for anything here, I replied. The bureaucrats are so divorced from reality that they seriously believe that my husband and I might get married, move in together, get some bills in both our names, then move out again, then move in again a year later for another batch of bills, then move out again, faking it all the time just for him to get a visa. Seriously, anyone who believes people behave like that is capable of believing anything, and they will choose to believe the worst.

!!! he said.

Seriously, I said.

But you said he’s American, he said. I thought people like that just, well, walked in?

I laughed, a sad, frustrated laugh.

My Bengali taxi driver had internalised the media’s and politician’s lies about who immigrants are, and how easy it is for different types of immigrant to arrive and stay in the UK. His assumption was that, because we were white, we could just do what we wanted to. For him, it was an eye opener to discover that we did not, in fact, have it easy, we did not get special treatment.

Indeed, the UK government has so much shit to give that they like to spread it around as much as they possibly can. No favouritism here (except for the EU, but that’s only under protest – don’t believe they wouldn’t throw out all European immigrants if they could). My Bengali taxi driver was sympathetic, if surprised, and I felt a momentary bond with someone whose life has been and will be very, very different to mine.

But what about the times when Kevin has talked to people in America about how long it has taken to get my US visa, only to have them say something like, Why don’t you just smuggle her in illegally, ha ha ha. Or, my favourite: Those Mexicans come here illegally, so why can’t she?

Because nothing says ‘love’ so much as selling your wife’s safety to human traffickers and risking not only her physical and emotional wellbeing, but also any future you might have had together in America. But oh, it’s so funny to think of a Western, white woman being an illegal immigrant when we all know those people are nasty, brutish and brown.

These people suggesting that illegal immigration is a sensible replacement for the formal immigration process are just idiots who’ve never given a moment’s thought to how they would like to be treated if they had married a foreigner. They make the assumption that illegal immigration is easy, but they also seem to think that it’s in some way fun, that it’s a choice people make as simply and easily as you might choose to have a cup of coffee or an ice cream. They have no comprehension of the risks and danger involved, so they make weak jokes as a way to avoid having to think about immigration in human terms.

The problem is that there is no credible civil discourse on immigration, no way for people to learn about the realities of immigration: the limitations, the tedium, the risks inherent even in the official process, the fear of getting it wrong, the expense. The nonsense that the media dredges up comes from the sewers of their imagination bears no resemblance to reality.

People who haven’t been through an immigration process tend not to know the least thing about how it works. They have no idea even of what the rules are, particularly with regard to whether immigrants can claim benefits (hint: EU citizens, refugees and asylum seekers can, everyone else can’t). This means that they cannot spot the hyperbole, the lies, and the misrepresentation because they simply don’t have a reliable understanding of reality with which to compare the rubbish published by so-called news outlets.

This ignorance of the mechanisms of immigration allows prejudice and misinformation to flourish. Prejudice and misinformation causes public outrage, which then shapes the political agenda. Politicians and civil servants then use the outrage to shape public policy to meet their ideological desires, or to try to win votes from an increasingly reactionary and ill-informed electorate.

And caught up in the middle of all this are couples whose only crime has been to fall in love, and families who just want to be together.

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iTunes & Me

by Suw on March 26, 2014

I put off upgrading to iOS7, for fear my phone might be broken by the process. Today I thought, ‘Oh, don’t be silly, it will be fine’, but oh, no, no, no. The update failed halfway through. I managed to get the phone to finish its upgrade, but it needed to restore itself from back up, the back up that I had so very carefully taken this morning, just before I upgraded, because I am sensible.

“What’s your password?” asked iTunes.
“What password?” I replied.
“Y’know. Your password,” it said.
“Um, I didn’t set a password,” I said. “I don’t remember setting a password. But hey, does this one work?”
“No.”
“This one?”
“No.”
“How about this one?”
“Nooo.”
“Any of these ones?”
“Nope.”
“Any hope of recovering my password?”
“Ha ha ha ha ha.”
“And you don’t make me enter the password each time I back-up just to make sure that I know I’ve got a password. Also: still don’t remember setting a password!”
“Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me. Of course not.”
“Right.”
“Right.”
“So, my carefully backed-up phone is, well, knackered then?”
“Fun, isn’t it!”
“No, it is not fun.”
“Turn it on! Turn it on!”
“I think I’ll search the web first, see if there’s anything I can do about it.”
“Oh, you can try. You can, indeed, try. I wouldn’t bother though. Turn it on!!”
“How about this password?”
“Still no. But I will sync it for you! How about that?”
“Ok, a sync is better than, well, no sync.”
“Aren’t I kind!”
“How about this password?”
“A ha ha ha ha, you kill me.”
“The internet says try backing up to iCloud.”
“Ooh, try that! Try that!”
“I am getting a bad feeling about this…”
“Look what I did! The iCloud back-up of your borked phone has overwritten the older, intact-if-inaccessible, back-up on your computer. I win!”
“Bastard.”
“There can be only one back-up.”
“So this isn’t like Time Machine, then? Where I can go back as far as I have memory to back-up?”
“Ha ha ha. Oh god, you’re still killing me.”
“Asshole.”
“No need to be rude. Go on. Turn it on.”
“It looks like it’s been factory reset. You’ve lost everything.”
“Keep going. You’ve got nothing left to lose now, have you? After all, you’ve lost it all already.”
“No, you lost it.”
“You forgot the password.”
“What password!”
“Y’know. The password.”
“Fucker.”
“Now, now. Oh, look, let me sync it again for you.”
“Bastard.”
“Right, done with that. Have another go at turning it on.”
“Ooh! Wait! There are my photos! And my contacts! And my text messa… wait a minute.”
“Tee hee.”
“Wait… there’s nothing on this phone newer than December 2011. You’ve… you’ve wiped all my contacts, photos, music, and everything else that’s been added over the last two and a half years. You utter, utter bastard.”
“But I synced your apps!”
“And lost most of the settings!”
“iOS7 is really shiny though!”
“No, it’s fucking not. It’s a fucking affront to anyone with even half a design sensibility.”
“I like it.”
“Arrrgh!”

 

With apologies to Muse & Me

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Two lessons in dialogue

by Suw on March 10, 2014

Dialogue. How I yearn to be awesome at dialogue. With good dialogue you can not only move the story forward, you can also draw the characters personality, background, attitudes, prejudices, class status, relationships to others and much more. Yet it’s only too easy, and I say this from experience, to use dialogue simplistically, either as a form of exposition or as a way to just glue actions together. Using it to reveal personality and background requires a more deft touch that I certainly am still trying to develop. 

Recently, I have come across two fantastic writers whose dialogue is really worth taking the time to study. The first is Naomi Novik, whose Temeraire I recently read and loved. Novik’s dialogue is fantastic, giving us an insight into not just what is going on in that scene, but also where her characters come from, what they’re like, how they think, and what their station is in life. It really is a delight to read, and if you haven’t read Temeraire (His Majesty’s Dragon in the USA) then I cannot recommend it highly enough! 

One of my favourite scenes is this: 

They landed together, to the anxious lowing of the cattle that had been delivered for Temeraire’s dinner. ‘Temeraire, be gentle with him,’ Laurence said quietly. ‘Some dragons do not have very good understanding, like some people; you remember Bill Swallow, on the Reliant.’

‘Oh, yes,’ Temeraire said, equally low. ‘I understand now; I will be careful. Do you think he would like one of my cows?’

‘Would he care for something to eat?’ Laurence asked James, as they both dismounted and met on the ground. ‘Temeraire has already eaten this afternoon; he can spare a cow.’ 

‘Why, that is very kind of you,’ James said, thawing visibly, ‘I am sure he would like it very much, wouldn’t you, you bottomless pit,’ he said affectionally, patting Volatilus’s neck.’

‘Cows!’ Volatilus said, staring at them with wide eyes.

‘Come and  have some with me, we can eat over here,’ Temeraire said to the little grey, and sat up to snatch a pair of the cows over the wall of the pen. He laid them out in a clean grassy part of the field, and Volatilus eagerly trotted over to share when Temeraire beckoned. 

‘It is uncommonly generous of you, and of him,’ James said, as Laurence led him to the cottage. ‘I have never seen one of the big ones share like that; what breed is he?’

‘I am not myself an expert, and he came to us without provenance; but Sir Edward Howe has just today identified him as an Imperial,’ Laurence said, feeling a little embarrassed; it seemed like showing off, but of course it was just plain face, and he could not avoid telling people. 

James stumbled over the threshold on the news and nearly fell into Fernao. ‘Are you— oh, Lord, you are not joking,’ he said, recovering and handing his leather coat off. ‘But how did you find him, and how did you come to put him into harness?’

Laurence himself would never have dreamed of interrogating a host in such a way, but he concealed his opinion of James’s manners; the circumstances surely warranted some leeway. ‘I will be happy to tell you,’ he said, showing the other man into the sitting room. ‘I should like your advice, in fact, on how I am to proceed. Will you have some tea?’

‘Yes, although coffee if you have it,’ James said, pulling a chair closer to the fire; he sprawled into it with his leg slung over the arm. ‘Damn, it’s good to sit for a minute; we have been in the air for seven hours.’

What I love about this is how the dialogue and the description work so well together. Temeraire, we have already learnt by this point in the book, is a smart dragon and although he speaks in short sentences with relatively simple constructions, he clearly has a level of understanding and intelligence that poor Volatilus wouldn’t even know how to dream of. He shows kindness, compassion, imagination and empathy; his actions and speech both reflect these personality traits. 

Poor old Volly, on the other hand, is a much simpler beast and can manage only one astonished word. But even with such restricted dialogue, we get a clear impression of Volly’s intellectual limitations, warmth of heart, and enthusiasm for cattle. 

When it comes to the humans in the scene, we can see Laurence’s stiff formality, sharply contrasted by James’ lack of the same. Again, dialogue and action reinforce one another, but you are also provided with a bit of extra information. Like his dragon, Laurence is solicitous of others’ wellbeing, but is also very aware of status and propriety. 

Throughout the book, Novik uses dialogue to flesh out her characters, using speech patterns appropriate not just to the period — the book is set in the Napoleonic wars — but also fitting to station, career path, and even family position. Laurence is a Navy man from an aristocratic family, but he’s not the first born son so he’s highly aware of interpersonal relationships and status differentials, and thus how people should modify their behaviours according to whom they are speaking.

When surrounded by and talking to his subordinates on ship, for example in the scene shortly after his ship has captured a French vessel and, along with it, Temeraire’s egg, he’s very formal: 

No one spoke, and in silence Laurence stared at the shining curve of eggshell rising out of the heaped straw; it was scarcely possible to believe. ‘Pass the word for Mr. Pollitt,’ he said at last; his voice sounded only a little strained. ‘Mr. Riley, pray be sure those lashings are quite secure.’

But when talking privately to the people on board that he trusts the most, and with whom he has the closest relationships, his formality drops a little: 

He [Pollitt] bustled away, and Laurence exchanged a glance with Gibbs and Riley, moving closer so they might speak without being overheard by the lingering gawkers. ‘At least three weeks from Madeira with a fair wind, would you say?’ Laurence said quietly. 

‘At best, sir,’ Gibbs said, nodding. 

‘I cannot imagine how they came to be here with it,’ Riley said. ‘What do you mean to do, sir?’

His initial satisfaction turning gradually into dismay as he realised the very difficult situation, Laurence stared at the egg blankly. Even in the dim lantern light, it shone with the warm lustre of marble. ‘Oh, I am damned if I know, Tom. But I suppose I will go and return the French captain his sword; it is no wonder he fought so furiously after all.’

Notice that we not only get signals regarding Laurence and Riley’s relationship, but we also get action in the dialogue, as Laurence talks about returning the French captain’s sword.

The richness of Novik’s dialogue is a delight, and the way she uses it to progress the plot and develop characters and relationships makes the book zip along at a very satisfying pace. It is my aim over the next month or two to really study Temeraire and Novik’s use of dialogue in order to improve my own, as her’s is some of the best I’ve read in a long time. 

My second example of awesome dialogue is a bit of a cheat, really, as it’s a radio comedy. Cabin Pressure is written by John Finnemore and concerns the slightly hapless crew of a charter airline, MJN Air. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Captain Martin Crieff, Roger Allam as First Officer Douglas Richardson, Stephanie Cole as airline owner Carolyn Knapp-Shappey, and John Finnemore as her rather gormless son who also works as the airline’s only steward, Arthur Shappey. 

Cabin Pressure is one of those radio gems where every word is exactly where it should be. There is no flab in the script, and no gun gets put on the table in the first scene without going off before the last. Jokes are set up with meticulous attention to detail and timing, and the voice acting is just superb, as you’d expect from such an awesome cast.

Of course, radio comedies are all dialogue, with only a few sound effects to add any necessary extra information, so they have to be sharp and well observed. But they also have to tell you everything you need to know about the characters without exposition. Here’s a snippet of Cabin Pressure, Series 1, Episode 1, from the Cabin Pressure Fans website

MARTIN: Blessed.

DOUGLAS: Ah, yes, of course. May.

MARTIN: Mm-hm, yep. Cant.

(Flight deck door opens.)

ARTHUR: Here we are, gents. Coffee with nothing in it; tea with everything in it. Great cabin address, Douglas. I love cargo flights.

DOUGLAS: Thank you, Arthur.

MARTIN: Ooh, Eno!

DOUGLAS: Ooh, eeno?

MARTIN (more slowly): Ooh: Eno.

DOUGLAS: Ah, yes! Sewell.

ARTHUR: Ooh, what are we playing?

MARTIN: Brians of Britain.

ARTHUR: There-there must be loads of them. Umm … uh …

DOUGLAS: Well, not to worry. As they come to you.

ARTHUR: Ooh, who was that guy? Umm, oh, grey-haired, did that game show, “Can I have a P please, Bob?” Umm, oh, what was his name?

DOUGLAS: Your hope being that it was Brian?

ARTHUR: Yeah, Brian … uh … Brian …

MARTIN: Bob Holness. It was Bob Holness.

ARTHUR: That’s it! Oh. Well, does he count anyway?

DOUGLAS: Does Bob Holness count in our list of people called Brian? What the hell, yes, he does. Well done!

FITTON AIR TRAFFIC CONTROL (over radio): Golf Tango India, expect twenty min delay due runway inspection. Enter the hold at Arden; maintain seven thousand feet.

MARTIN (into radio): Golf Tango India, roger hold at Arden. Maintain seven thousand feet. Can you confirm delay only twenty minutes?

FITTON AIR TRAFFIC CONTROL (blowing out a breath): Probably. All depends, really.

MARTIN (exasperated): Thank you, Tower. Hugely informative as ever. Out.

(Radio off.)

MARTIN: Sorry, chaps. Looks like we’d better divert to Bristol.

ARTHUR: Bristol? Why?

MARTIN: Fitton’s got a runway closure. We’d have to hold for twenty minutes.

ARTHUR: But Bristol? That’s miles away.

MARTIN: Yes. Luckily enough, though, we’re in an aeroplane, especially designed to be good at going miles away quite quickly.

ARTHUR: Yeah, but my car’s at Fitton.

MARTIN: Oh, well, then, let us by all means circle round it until we drop out of the sky.

DOUGLAS: D’you know, Martin, all these years and I’ve never been to Bristol.

MARTIN: Well, get ready for a treat.

DOUGLAS: I dunno. I was rather hoping not to break my duck.

ARTHUR: Skipper, are you sure there’s not enough fuel to wait? ’Cause there’s always a little bit left when the gauge shows red.

MARTIN: Yes, oddly enough, Arthur, a jet aircraft isn’t as precisely similar to a Vauxhall Corsa as a stupid person might imagine. We’re going to Bristol.

ARTHUR: What do you reckon, Douglas?

DOUGLAS: We could go to Bristol. I believe people do. However, we’ve easily enough fuel spare to hold for twenty minutes, maybe even thirty.

MARTIN: No, I’m sorry but we’re diverting.

ARTHUR: Yeah, hang on a tick, though. If Douglas reckons twenty minutes …

MARTIN: No, let’s not ‘hang on a tick’. Let’s listen to the captain, shall we?

DOUGLAS: Of course, Martin, if you say we divert, then divert we shall.

MARTIN: Thank you.

DOUGLAS: Unless of course we were to smell smoke in the flight deck.

MARTIN: What?

DOUGLAS: I’m just saying: if by any remote chance we smelled smoke in the flight deck, we would of course be duty bound to land at the nearest available airfield with immediate priority – in this case, by a happy coincidence, Fitton.

MARTIN: Yes, maybe; but I don’t smell smoke in the flight deck.

(Sound of a match being struck.)

DOUGLAS: How about now?

MARTIN: What are you suggesting, Douglas?

DOUGLAS: We tell the Tower we smell smoke, which we do. We get to land straightaway. They check the aircraft, don’t find anything; “One of life’s little mysteries, but jolly good boys for taking no chances.” Everybody’s happy and there’s jam for tea.

ARTHUR: Right! That’s – you know, that’s really clever!

MARTIN: No, I’m sorry, but absolutely not.

DOUGLAS: I used to do it all the time at Air England.

MARTIN: Well, you’re not at Air England now. Where you are now is in the co-pilot’s seat and on the way to Bristol. You’ll like it. They have a lovely suspension bridge.

DOUGLAS: Well, shall I just sat comm Carolyn before we make our final decision? It’s rather an expensive diversion …

MARTIN: No, we have made our final decision. I have decided, and as Carolyn knows, whilst in flight, I am supreme commander of this vessel.

DOUGLAS: Golly. Captain Bligh flies again.

MARTIN: Douglas, I’m not impressed by your Air England mates. When you’re on Captain Bligh’s aircraft, you can do it his way, but when you’re on mine, you do it mine. Is that understood?

DOUGLAS: Yes.

MARTIN: Yes what?

DOUGLAS: Yes it is.

MARTIN: Yes it is what?

DOUGLAS: Yes it is understood.

MARTIN: Yes it is understood what?

DOUGLAS: Yes it is understood … please?

MARTIN: I’m waiting.

DOUGLAS: Martin, you’re not seriously asking me to call you ‘sir’.

MARTIN: Yes I am. Why’s that so hard to believe?

DOUGLAS: Well, to select just one reason from the fifteen or sixteen that present themselves, I’m old enough to be your father.

MARTIN: Not unless you started very young.

DOUGLAS: I did.

MARTIN: Right, well, I think your age and your previous role is giving you a rather skewed view of the chain of authority on this aircraft, and maybe a little observation of the formalities will help remind you which one of us is still the captain. So: is that understood?

DOUGLAS: Yes …

(Long pause.)

DOUGLAS (grimly): … sir.

MARTIN: Thank you. (Into radio) Fitton Approach, Golf Tango India. In view of your delay, request diversion Bristol.

Even without hearing the dialogue spoken, we get a very clear idea of who these people are: Martin, the captain, is impatient with other people, overly cautious, insecure (particularly with respect to his position as captain), officious, and not as intelligent as he likes to think he is.

Douglas, on the other hand, is possibly too clever, and looks down on people who think they’re smart but aren’t. That said, he’s got more empathy than Martin and doesn’t take his frustration with Martin out on Arthur, who really is rather lacking in the intellectual capacity area. Douglas is frustrated by the fact that he’s a first officer and not the captain, and his causal disregard for authority turns into something more deliberate when it’s Martin’s authority that he’s disregarding.

Now, Arthur. What Arthur lacks in intelligence he makes up for in enthusiasm, being easily impressed and even more easily pleased. He’s the sort of person you’d find hard to actively dislike, but his similarity to a Labrador puppy might get a bit tedious after a while. 

Listen to the whole episode, or indeed, the series (plural), and you’ll rapidly see how well rounded the Cabin Pressure characters are. Again, the dialogue does more than just tie scenes together or set up the next chunk of description or action, it actually tells us almost everything we can ever know about these characters.

My aim for future stories is to produce dialogue that is as fat with information as Temeraire and Cabin Pressure. It’s not just about what people are saying, it’s how they say it. It’s the the words they choose and the cadence of their speech. And it’s also what they don’t say, the words they don’t use, the meaning they leave between the lines, even without knowing it. 

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Create more than you consume

by Suw on March 3, 2014

Hi. My name is Suw and I’m addicted to reading meaningless crap on the internet. 

There. I’ve said it. I have a procrastination problem. It’s a very specific problem, though, because it doesn’t affect my paid work. When a client is paying me to write a report, do some research, or write, I generally have no problem getting my head down and cracking on. If I do have a moment of procrastination, it probably means that I am hungry as a lack of calories often results in my brain switching off, but that’s easily fixed by getting lunch or a snack. 

No, my procrastination problem is most acute when it comes to my creative writing. I try to treat writing as work, so that it gets equal billing in my priorities as client projects do, but it’s not always that easy to convince my hindbrain that what I’m doing — indeed, what I’m doing right now — is making a valuable contribution to my career and quality of life. It doesn’t make me any money, so I find it difficult to put it on an equal footing as the work that pays my rent. But when I am not writing, I’m really quite miserable, so the calculation should be easy: A Suw that is writing is a happy Suw, so Suw should write. Somehow, though, that calculation doesn’t convince my hindbrain one little bit.

The trouble is that writing is infinitely put-off-able, and the internet is full of mildly interesting things to read and, occasionally, useful information that I need to know. It’s also full of people and, as someone who works from home, social media gives me a comforting level of social contact that I wouldn’t otherwise get. Unfortunately, much of that social contact is via random chitchat on Twitter, and Twitter is phenomenally good at piquing curiosity. What was that tweet in response to? Why is this person angry about this link? What funny cat picture lies behind that link? 

It becomes incredibly easy to while away the hours when one is not working by reading vast quantities of stuff that has very little utility, but which sates one’s innate craving for novelty. In fact, as I’m writing this, sitting in an apartment in Sheboygan, WI, without internet access except for via my husband’s iPad, the urge to put my laptop down and pick up his iPad just to see if anything interesting has been posted on Twitter feels almost physical.

The internet has wormed its way into my brain and is eating it. 

Add to this the fact that it’s also incredibly easy to lose one’s writing mojo to insecurity and soon enough you’ll find that months have gone by and you’ve not written a thing. You may even find that you’ve picked up a new hobby to fill the time that you once would have used to write, and are using the fact of that as another stick to beat yourself with. Soon enough, your urge to write might appear to have evaporated completely, and you start to believe that you’re not a writer at all anymore. 

Havi Brooks deals with this latter point most effectively:

There are many ways to know you are a writer, and doubting it is something writers go through, so let’s drop this pain-heavy rule that you must be writing now in order to claim that lost part of you.

That isn’t how it works, it isn’t helpful, and it isn’t the loving spark of truth. Sometimes writing lives in the spaces in between the words. Sometimes the process of not-writing is how you get quiet enough to return to it. Blame about the not-writing make this harder.

Let’s not perpetuate that. Let’s not tell these stories anymore. Let’s not pretend that ASS IN CHAIR is the only answer.

Let’s end it here and now. With love.

It’s a powerful read, and full of truth. But, even if I can forgive myself for my long periods of not writing, that still leaves me procrastinating actual writing far too often and for too long, and my delaying tactic of choice is always to read shit on the internet. No number of hopefully conceived but ultimately doomed New Year’s Resolutions will solve that problem. 

But, just recently, I read the blog post How to be useful, despite your smartphone addiction by Mark Schaefer, and whilst most of the post I can take or leave, one subheading leapt out at me: 

Create more than you consume. 

This. So very this. My resolution to publish a new piece of work per month was, in retrospect, a hard ask because it put artificial pressure on me to complete stories without giving me a sense of where the time to do that might come from. But this edict, to create more than I consume, gives me a clear choice to make. I can read shit on the internet, or I can stop and use that time instead to write. I can binge-listen to multiple episodes of my latest love, Cabin Pressure, or I can eek them out a bit by only listening to one if I have spent half an hour writing first instead. 

Creating more than you consume is not about finding extra time, it is about choosing carefully how you use your time. It’s not forcing me to make a choice between, say, going to the gym first thing in the morning or writing, it’s giving me a choice between doing something that is having an increasingly negative impact on my state of mind and is thus something I should stop, ie reading crap on the internet, and doing something that makes me happy, ie writing. This is an easy choice. Framing it in this way makes it not just easy, but compelling, a choice that will decrease the crappiness and increase my happiness. 

I have no doubt that my implementation of this edict will be prone to stumbles and falls. I checked Twitter four times whilst writing this post, though to my credit I didn’t click on a single link. Making any kind of major change to habitual behaviours is hard, but bad days can be followed by good days, and all you need to do is keep on trying to increase the number of good days. 

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Adobe Creative Cloud subscription warning!

February 20, 2014

If, like me, you’ve signed up for one of Adobe’s Creative Cloud subscriptions under the assumption that because you paid monthly, after the first year the contract was also monthly, I’m afraid I have some bad news for you. Your subscription is yearly and if you cancel at any point, you will pay a penalty [...]

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Hello, Sheboygan! *Waves at Chicago and New York*

February 13, 2014

For those of you who know Kevin or me well, it will come as no surprise to hear that we are finally moving to the USA: Kevin yesterday started his new job as Executive Editor of the Sheboygan Press and the Manitowoc Herald Times Reporter, both a part of Gannett. I am still in the [...]

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Why Amazon isn’t going to plug the shit volcano, and the one revolution that will fix the problem forever

February 6, 2014

Mike Cane wrote a blog post in response to Chuck Wendig’s and mine, saying that he thinks the self-publishing shit volcano will come to an end, because Amazon will end it. I left a comment on Cane’s blog, but it was starting to get longer than his initial blog post and I had more to [...]

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Why the self-publishing shit volcano isn’t going to stop erupting any time soon

February 5, 2014

Author Chuck Wendig has written a long post about how self-publishing is turning into a shit volcano. Vast quantities of terribly written rubbish is being published, and this is damaging to everyone in self-publishing. He says (emphasis as original): […] one of the features of self-publishing is that the door is open to anyone. Everyone. Always. [...]

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Awesome Ada Lovelace Day news!

January 23, 2014

This week saw the announcement of a couple of pieces of Ada Lovelace Day news that I’m very excited about. Last year’s day was fantastic, but this year’s is already shaping up well and, dare I say it, may be even better! Ada Lovelace Day at the Royal Institution We’re partnering with the  Royal Institution [...]

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