Charlie's Diary

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Sun, 27 Feb 2005

Why I am able to write

Last weeks' essay on how to whomp up a fantasy series notwithstanding, it occurs to me that this isn't how I normally write: nor were those books written entirely for the normal reason. Now I stop to think about it I'm not sure why I write. Some time before I was ten years old the idea that writing books was what cool grown-ups did sort of soaked in through osmosis; as my literary diet at the time was about 95% SF and fantasy, that's what I fixated on.

I cannot account for this fixation other than by analogy. Most normal kids decide they want to be a football star or a ballerina at some time; a few of them are stubborn enough that they actually persist with the ball-kicking or dancing for years after their less fixated peers give up on it, and get good enough to fully develop their potential. I just knew I was going to be a novelist. If I'd realized back then just how unlikely this ambition was -- and indeed, it's even less likely than becoming a football star or a prima ballerina -- I'd have settled for something reasonable, like training as a brain surgeon or running for parliament. But nobody told me until I'd already persisted for more years than was sensible, written probably a million words of complete crap, and was beginning to acquire some basic skills: by which time the thought of giving up on those wasted years was too depressing to contemplate.

Let me qualify the "less likely" I used in the previous paragraph. Very few novelists (as opposed to authors of non-fiction) begin selling books before their early thirties. The reason for this should be obvious after a little thought. Fiction (as Stephen King observed in his memoir On Writing) is the nearest thing to telepathy we've got. The skill in writing lies in taking your own internal mental states, and serializing them as language in a form that, when someone else reads the words you wrote, recreates those mental states (or something corresponding to them) in a pleasing form. To be able to fully conceive of the internal states of another human being takes a modicum of life experience. The mechanics of writing grammatical sentences and paragraphs, of generating interesting situations, of weird scientific ideas, were all things I got down in my teens; but the ability to get under someone else's skin (to whatever extent) is much harder to come by and usually only arrives once we've kicked around the world for a few decades. By the time I was 22 I was writing and selling short stories successfully, but I think I was closer to 25 before I wrote a novel that included something approximating real human experience, and even then it was badly flawed. I began work on the novel that eventually surfaced as "Singularity Sky" around the time I turned 30.

By that point, I'd been following that fixed irrational goal for close to twenty years. Your average professional footballer is nearing retirement by then, and your average pop star is either working behind the counter at McDonalds or -- the lucky ones -- earning an unspectacular living as a session musician. But as a novelist, I was only getting started. (I've put in another decade since, and I think I'm just about getting into my stride.) There are occasional young prodigies who succeed earlier: in the SF field the names that spring to mind (since the 1940's, anyway) are Bruce Sterling and Cory Doctorow. But in general this isn't a profession over-burdened with teenage stars, and I mention the exceptions to demontrate how rare they are.

So what goes into making a successful novelist? Dogged persistence taken to an irrational extreme: check. Willingness to work for years without reward: check. Crap wages: check. For every best-seller there are a thousand writers making £2500-5000 off their books. Even if you hit the jackpot, the return on your investment of time isn't that great. (Susannah Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is a publishing sensation with a reputed million pound advance, but that's the return on ten years of work with no guarantee of success, and if it doesn't earn out (or at least deliver break-even to Bloomsbury) it might be the last novel she ever sells, in which case that's all she gets for her entire career: megadollar failures stain reputations indellibly, rendering it impossible for the writers to sell subsequent work however different it might be or modest their expectations.)

So let's add "selective stupidity" to the list of attributes that go to make a successful writer and move on.

Let's suppose you've got all these attributes. There's still a very important item missing off the list of ingredients for a successful novelist: a willingness to understand how the publishing industry operates. The romantic mystique of the artist starving in their garret while preparing a work that will revolutionize our conception of literature is, frankly, a load of rubbish: artists who starve in the attic either die in obscurity or eventually wise up and get a real job. Romanticizing deprivation and fetishizing ostracism is not the way to get your ideas in front of the reading public. While writing fiction is an art form, it's necessary to bear in mind that art is pointless without communication; if your form of art fails to attract people you have an audience for very long. Funnily enough, since editors are people too (in fact they're one of your two main audiences -- a point I'll get back to later), if they find your fiction repellant they won't buy it. If you want to revolutionize our conception of literature, it therefore follows that you must get us to pay attention to you ... which brings our romantic mystique into a headlong collision with the base requirements of entertainment, because there's a dirty little secret that literary columns don't make a big point of: people usually read fiction in order to be entertained.

I do not mean to say that entertainment is the only valid reason for reading fiction. Reviewers read it for money, academics to inform their theoretical musings, and one or two desperately sad people read it so that they don't feel left out of conversations at dinner parties. But in general, most people read fiction for fun. If it isn't fun, they put the book down and pick up another. The definition of fun varies from one reader to the next (that's the only way I can account for the enduring popularity of the Victorian novel) but it's still there.

So. In addition to the previous list of characteristics of successful authors, let us add: willingness to compromise on pure artistic integrity and go for base commercialism to at least the extent necessary to sell books.

Here's an odd little piece of folk wisdom; rumour has it that editors at publishing companies actually have to work for a living. To this end, they select, edit, and publish books which they hope will prove sufficiently popular with the reading public to repay the cost of production and a little profit on top. It is not their job to bring your work of undying genius to the attention and edification of the reading public. They are not the pastoral authorities of a grim-faced theocracy of fiction, placed in your service to drag miscreants up before the pulpit so that you can preach a fire and brimstone sermon at them. They hold no mysterious candle-lit conclaves at which they decide who's getting a turn in the best-seller barrel next month. Their weird and arcane business practices are merely the surviving subset of those methods that have been tried and tested and which didn't cause some other publisher to go bust. They are under no obligation to publish you. And they, not the reading public, are the first audience you must satisfy. If you don't satisfy at least one editor, you ain't going to get published and the rest of the audience won't even know you exist.

So we come to another item: you won't succeed unless you're willing to learn how the industry works and to work within it. It's that, or get a job in a meat packing plant and throw your surplus income at a vanity press who will reward your dedication by showering you with bills. This, too, is not the way to reach an audience: to quote or paraphrase Teresa Nielsen Hayden, the first law of Real Publishing is that money flows towards the writer. (If it flows in any other direction, it's not Real Publishing.)

Anyway. If you can get through a checklist consisting of all of the above points (willingness to understand how the publishing industry works in all its insane baroque stupidity: willingness to suppress your artistic ambitions in order to achieve base entertainment appeal: ruthless refusal to romanticize your life's ambition: willingness to work for no reward at all for decades and then for a paltry and uncertain income: selective blindness directed at the sheer insanity of what you want to do: and dogged persistence in developing your skills) then congratulations, you've got 90% of what it takes.

The other 10% is luck -- either good luck, or the ability to pick yourself up after a bout of bad luck and keep going until things break your way.

In my case, I had a couple of lucky breaks. (I had to wait about fifteen years for them, but by the time they happened I knew what to do to capitalize on them.) Break #1 was a near nervous breakdown, followed by my failure to sell a short story. I'd settled down to the idea of getting noticed by writing short stories around 1998, when I realized I'd sold one short story the previous year (a reprint from something I'd first sold two years earlier). And I was working in a high pressure job, as the very first programmer at a dot-com that was due to go public in another eighteen months. Some folks thrive on pressure. I don't; I eventually buckle. But before I buckle I can get a fair bit of mileage out of the weirdness and tension and loathing that comes from being right on the edge of going crazy. It's not a good place to live, but sometimes it's worth visiting. In this case, I visited it and came back with a short story called "Lobsters", into which I dumped all the weird tension that was then afflicting my life, as a way of getting my head out of a vice. "This is great, but only geeks who've spent the last six months reading slashdot will understand it," said one of my friends. But I sent it out anyway, to (I think) Patrick for Starlight 3 (the slushpile for which was reputedly three feet deep) and then to Paul Fraser for Spectrum SF. To my great and enduring luck both editors (assuming I'm not actually hallucinating sending it to Patrick) rejected it. My third choice was to send it to Gardner Dozois at Asimov's SF magazine, whereupon it got bags of exposure and made three awards shortlists and suddenly people had heard of me.

My other lucky break also consisted of not getting published. Around the time I was writing "Lobsters" I had an earlier novel in circulation -- the one written between 1994 and 1998. In April 2000, a small British publisher suggested I send it to him (this isn't how publishing normally works, but the publisher was Ben Jeapes at Big Engine, and Ben and I had known each other via a writers workshop years earlier). Ben read the novel and said, "if you do some re-writing I'd like to make you an offer for this." At which point I decided to go hunting for a literary agent.

The best time to get yourself an agent is when you have an unsigned contract in your hand -- it tends to concentrate their mind on the 15% of the advance they can pick up without having to actually shop the book around first. If I'd been young and naive I'd have gone looking for an agent to the stars, but being older and more cynical (and with prior unfortunate experience in that direction) I went looking for an agent who was, if not wet behind the ears, then less likely to have a long list of clients ahead of me in the queue. In general, by the time you learn that a given agent is any good, they've got a full client list and if you manage to interest them at all you'll be right down at the bottom. However, a bad agent is worse than no agent at all: you can end up with your rights tied up in legal paperwork and contractually obligated to an idiot who is randomly screwing your reputation with publishers, damaging your ability to sell your work in future.

In my case, I lucked out. I'd heard of an SF editor who was leaving their employer of some years to join an agency as junior partner -- someone who'd know the way the industry worked, who had a fair amount of experience already, but who wouldn't have a full list of clients. This sort of lucky timing doesn't happen very often, but when it does it's good. By virtue of having the unsigned contract I got her undivided attention and she subsequently sold the US rights to the book as "Singularity Sky", and did a much better job of managing the rights than I would have been able to. (After Big Engine shut up shop in the UK -- prior to publication -- she then re-sold the book to Orbit in the UK, hence the reason my books tend to be published first in the US, in case you were wondering).

The point of bringing this up is to highlight the effect of blind chance on your publishing life. If Paul hadn't hated "Lobsters" on sight, the story could have been published in a limited circulation outlet and subsequently sunk into obscurity (and you wouldn't be waiting for "Accelerando" to come out in July). If Caitlin hadn't been setting up as an agent at the precise same time that Ben offered me the contract, it's possible that "Singularity Sky" wouldn't have been sold in the US at all (because without an agent I might have ended up selling world English-language rights to Ben, who it later turned out was not in a position to effectively expoit them). I got lucky: not million-pound-advance lucky, but realistically lucky nonetheless, and most importantly, I was experienced enough to know how to handle the lucky breaks. If anything haunts me it's the possibility that I might have had bigger breaks years earlier, and not recognized them for the opportunities they were. (But I try not to lose sleep over might-have-beens.)

Luck. Dogged persistence to the point of insanity. Flexibility. These are the reasons I'm able to write fiction and you're able to read it (if you want to). But I'm still looking for the reason why I write fiction. If you find it, be sure to tell me?

[Discuss writing]

posted at: 16:04 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

Fri, 25 Feb 2005

Holding pattern

I was planning on writing something about the mechanics of writing SF this week, but I got mugged by (a) a head-cold and (b) protracted attempts to get a friend's ADSL line working. (The problem, once solved, turned out to be a password incorrectly supplied by the ISP -- a zero turned out to be a capital-O. Aaargh.)

Maybe I'll get back to the blog essay later, when I finish sticking pins in this wax telephone support voodoo doll.

posted at: 21:13 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

Mon, 21 Feb 2005

Five rules for cold-bloodedly designing a fantasy series

I've just returned the page proofs of the paperback edition of 'The Family Trade', due out in May in the US, and my thoughts turn to the history of the book: why and how it got written, and how things have turned out. For some reason this doesn't seem to be a topic novelists discuss much in public, so I thought I'd jot down some notes here.

The story begins in late 2001. I'd had a breakthrough year; in addition to being nominated for one of the major awards in the SF field for the first time, I'd acquired a literary agent who successfully sold my first two SF novels to Ace. I was working like a dog, trying to write at least one and a half novels a year on top of a workload of freelance computer journalism -- in early 2000, when the bottom dropped out of the dot-com boom, events had caught me between stools and I ended up writing two magazine columns and numerous features every month to make ends meet. Writing books looked like a less stressful way out (at least you get to measure your cash flow in months rather than weeks), and I'd sold two, so why not try to sell some more?

Note for the uninitiated: a literary agent is the jobbing novelist's white knight. Your agent takes a cut (typically 15%) of your earnings. But if you don't earn, you don't get paid, and neither do they, so their job is to figure out how to get you as much money as possible. As a recent survey shows, agented novels get significantly higher advances, on average, than unagented ; like an accountant, a good agent should earn you a lot more money than they cost. So when talking business (as opposed to art), your agent is the first person you turn to -- they'll shoot down unsalable ideas before you waste six months pursuing them, and provide helpful advice on how to make your good ideas sell better. (But note the qualification about talking business, as opposed to art.)

When I raised the idea of writing some more books with my agent, her first comment was, "you realize that 'Singularity Sky' probably won't be in print for two to three years? And 'Iron Sunrise' won't be out for a year after that? Ace have a backlog, and they've also got an option on your next SF novel. On the other hand, if you really want to write for a living, can you do something that isn't specifically SF, so we can sell without breach of contract? Like, say, a big fat fantasy series?"

This made me stop and think hard. The thing is, I've read a lot of extruded fantasy product in my time -- and I don't much like it. Fantasy and Science Fiction are co-marketed in most bookstores, but this conceals the fact that they're actually radically different genres in outlook. Loosely speaking, if Science Fiction is often a literature of disruption (in which change is, if not good, at least embraced), Fantasy is frequently a literature of consolation: a warm feather-bed of social conservativism disguised as nostalgic escapism, a longing for feudal certainties. While there's nothing intrinsically wrong with Fantasy, the marketing mechanism applied to it tends to promote those aspects of it that I really don't like: the hordes of marching sub-Tolkien clones. (I'm with China Mieville on this.) And besides, Robert Jordan is still alive and selling.

Rule 1: Don't steal from living authors, their ecological niche in the publishing jungle is already occupied. (Alternatively: nobody needs another Robert Jordan.)

If I was going to write extruded fantasy product, I'd have to write it from the point of view of the young lad growing up with poor but honest folks somewhere in middle earth who discovers that he's, er, destined to grow up to be the Dark Lord, overthrow the established order, and start a revolution.

I said as much to my agent and she sighed (inasmuch as one can sigh in email) and said "don't do that, the readers will hate you." Readers who hate authors do not buy their books. I kind of realized I could see her point, and shelved the idea. Score one for commercial pressure over art.

Idea number two: I've been interested in alternate history as a sub-field of SF for a while. There are a couple of ways of writing alternate history; you can do it straight (as an historical novel set in a history that never happened) or if you bend the rules enough to allow for a visitor from our own world to get a tourist visa to the universe next door, you can use it as a tool to poke at our conceptions of how our own world operates.

One fly in the ointment is that AH fiction is often marketed as SF. But I happened to recall a precedent for doing it in fantasy -- noted SF/fantasy author Roger Zelanzy's masterwork, the Chronicles of Amber, all ten books of it, featured a family of rather paranormal protagonists who could walk between worlds. The Amber books sold like bandits, but since Zelanzy's untimely death in 1995 the ecological niche has been empty.

Rule 2: Steal from the best. There's no point stealing from the worst.

Why not take the basic premise (a family of folks who can walk between worlds) and strip off all the superstructures Zelazny added to the mix? Reboot it in the context of a coherent alternate history set-up and see where it goes. Maybe even (being mischievous) add the "child of poor but honest folks who grows up to be the [thematic] dark lord" sub-plot to anchor it more firmly in the marketing soil of the contemporary extruded fantasy series while laying the groundwork for a later refutation of the key thesis of consolatory return? I could get to have my cake (a long fantasy series) and eat it (the intellectual challenge of doing something new).

Rule 3: If you steal an entire outfit from one writer's wardrobe, people will mock you for being imitative. So steal from at least two, and mix thoroughly.

The mere theme of a bunch of relatives who can walk between time lines does not a novel make. You've given them the means, but not the motive or method. Luckily it's not virgin territory; other writers have been here before, and it's always worth looking at the prior art. In the SF field one author in particular stands out -- H. Beam Piper. Dead since 1964, his books are nevertheless still in print: a sure sign that he had something to set him apart from the majority of writers (who go out of print for good within two years of their demise). Among his most enduring works are a handful of stories and a short novel ('Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen') about the Paratime Police -- an agency established by an imperialist time line that ruthlessly exploits the resources of its neighbours. While I really didn't like his key ideological assumptions, I really did like his technique. So, in accordance with Rule 3, I decided to use Piper as my other wellspring.

Now, here's an important point: I was planning a series. Conventional publishing wisdom is that you can only publish one book a year in a given genre -- if you publish more, you risk cannibalizing your own sales (unless you have an avid fan base). So if I was going to get to grips with this project, I was going to be in it for the long haul. How long is long? Well, I didn't particularly want to limit it to a trilogy -- what I'd decided to look from the attic of ideas was a background and a basic premise, not a story, and I had some big ideas to explore. It would take at least four big, fat books to get to grips with it.

The first book: thesis. We're introduced to the world-walking folks, get to see why they engage in this activity (which, on the face of it, is personally risky). It's probably the oldest reason of all -- economics. They do it to get rich.

This series is going to be sold as fantasy, so a mediaevalist or at least very non-contemporary setting is pretty much mandatory. This has Implications. If the family of world-walkers come from a society that's backward and primitive by our standards, that puts a whole new spin on the premise. Usually, in this sub-genre, visitors from other time lines have Advanced Super Science mojo, which invites unwelcome plot non-sequiteurs. In contrast, making them primitive is (as far as I know) a first.

For our protagonist, I can use the "child of poor-but-honest folks coopted into the aristocracy" cliche, only, like, inverted, so that being coopted into the aristocracy is bad. They find it stifling and unpleasant -- a big clash of cultures. They rebel. (Hey, I'm back to the disruptive protagonist theme again!) But a poor-but-honest character from a society dominated by aristocratic time-line traders is going to be at a marked handicap. How about making them a long-lost by-blow who's grown up in our world, and gets sucked in against their will? And who's pre-wired with a curious urge to look in dark corners? A journalist, say. Who starts digging places they shouldn't, is forced to go on the run, and then has to desperately struggle to build a secure power base for themselves before the assassins close in ...

And that's how 'The Family Trade' gets the first inkling of a plot skeleton. I scoped it at around 200,000 words, or 600 pages.

The second book: antithesis. The first book sets loose a whole flock of pigeons. Pigeons shit everywhere, get eaten by hawks, and lay eggs: they have side-effects. Somewhere down the line, the consequences of our protagonist's arrival are going to start making themselves known. They're from a relatively advanced culture and they've been dropped into a relatively backward -- but not politically unsophisticated -- one; shades of the old time-travel classic Lest Darkness Fall by L. Sprague de Camp. Meanwhile certain other sub-themes (that fell out of the first novel outline) suggested themselves, which I'm not going to go into here. Truth and consequences: I scoped out 'The Clan Corporate' at around 250,000 words, or 750 pages.

There were two more books in the original series pitch I prepared and sent to my agent. I figured I had enough loose ends to tie myself up in enjoyably for five years -- but no longer. I'd already been through sequel hell in writing 'Iron Sunrise', and figured out that no series should outlive the author's interest:

Rule 4: When choosing the themes to pilfer, only pick ones that you, personally, find interesting -- if you pick something boring you'll only have yourself to blame if it's successful and you end up chained to the desk to write more of it for the next decade.

Anyway, I sent the pitch to my agent, and she said, "huh, I think I can do something with this. Want to write the first book?"

So I did. The first draft ran to 155,000 words, was written in a twelve-week frenzy, and had an ending that sucked mud through a straw. My usual test readers told me this, so I re-wrote it and the manuscript bloated to 190,000 words. I'd run out of energy at the end of the first draft. The second worked. It's still the longest book I've ever written.

During the writing of the book a whole bunch of extra ideas occured to me. It acquired a lot more texture and complexity, and the series outline mutated in line with it. This is a good thing. I may have spent the first 90% of this essay writing a frank endorsement for deriving all your ideas from your predecessors, but it's one thing to steal the floor plan and another thing entirely to steal the wallpaper:

Rule 5: However much you're stealing, make sure it doesn't look stolen. Genre publishing is a beauty show, and originality wins prizes (but not too much originality).

All writers are periodically asked "where do you get your ideas?" Our dirty little secret is that ideas are cheap. You've got ideas. Your pet cat has probably got ideas. You can find ideas in the back-catalog of authors who died forty years ago, or you can go sit in a cave for forty days and nights and bring back ideas. Or you can slavishly ape Roger Zelazny's technique. What matters isn't the ideas, but what you do with them. I managed to take a grab-bag of ideas pioneered by other writers, and by inverting a couple of assumptions and hybridizing a handful of unrelated strains I came up with something new that, as far as I know, hasn't been done before.

My agent took the book and sold it to Tor. Where David Hartwell gave it a thorough editorial working over (in the course of which it swelled to just under 200,000 words). Then the dread words came down from on high: "can you split this into two volumes?" This is my sole apology to those readers who are annoyed at the abrupt ending of 'The Family Trade' -- it's the first half of the original book, splitting them so that the series would run in 300-page chunks (rather than 600-750 page doorsteps) wasn't my idea (in fact, I protested it), but in the final analysis I can only tell my publisher where to get off if I'm willing to get off (and go find another publisher -- after acquiring a reputation for being "difficult to work with"). I appreciate the reasoning behind the decision, and indeed if I'd been working with the publishers before I wrote the book it would have fitted the form factor they wanted -- but that's not how the business works, and these are the breaks. At least the second half of the story will be in the shops in roughly twelve weeks' time.

That original four-book outline now maps out to four story arcs spread across eight to twelve books (assuming Tor want to buy them all). And I'm staring a decade-long project in the face, which just goes to reinforce Rule 4.

In the meantime, it turned out that my agent was wrong about Ace sitting on 'Singularity Sky'. It ended up coming out six months ahead of original expectations, leaving me scrambling to keep up. And the price of cynicism is a to-do list measured in years. Because the final sting in the tail of the series pitch is this: if you have a better idea for a series a year down the line, you won't be able to start it until you've finished the first one. So here's hoping that this one is a success ...

[Discuss writing]

posted at: 13:40 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

Fri, 18 Feb 2005


I've just been to see The Dresden Dolls, who're doing a European tour right now. They played The Venue in Edinburgh, a seedy basement with room for maybe 300 people -- packed audience, great atmosphere, and above all an excellent performance. Best gig I've been to in several years.

If you haven't run across The Dresden Dolls, try to imagine what Kurt Weil would be doing if he was alive today and writing songs: they do a sort of punk reinterpretation of Weimar-era cabaret, with added topical bite. They're a twosome, Amanda Palmer on piano and Brian Viglione on drums, and they rock. I've got an eerie sense that this is a band on the way up, and seeing them now is like getting to see the Eurythmics in 1981 or Nirvana in 1989.

If you happen to be close to one of their tour dates, go and see them. You won't be disappointed.

[link] [Discuss]

posted at: 00:00 | path: /fun | permanent link to this entry

Sun, 13 Feb 2005

Evolution is history

This has been doing the rounds for a while now, but I figure it's worth dragging up again just in case you missed it: Carl Woese's theory that evolution (Darwinian evolution, that is) is just a passing fad -- a side-effect of the formation of the first cells, about three and a half to four gigayears ago. Here we have Freeman Dyson discussing it, and pointing out that the Darwinian interlude can loosely be considered to be coming to an end.

We humans are a substrate for memes; the self-propagating unit of cultural evolution, intermediated and transcribed from brain to brain by the human language faculty. Memes don't obey strict Darwinism, because we can selectively acquire advantageous memes -- in this respect, they follow a Lamarckian evolutionary model. (Lamarckism has been pretty much debunked in terms of applicability to the DNA/RNA world, but is a good match for the acquisition of useful ideas.)

Despite this, prior to the evolution of language we, well, we evolved via the straight Darwinian shtick. Survival of the viable get from a random sprinkling of unhappy mutants. Rinse, cycle, repeat across a million generations from pond scum to pithecanthropus.

Now it looks like some folks are working on new replicator realms (ProtoLife's proposed system doesn't use DNA or RNA) or just building an organism with a minimal genome.

Looking at it from a distance, if either of those ventures are successful (and there are others out there, working on rather different projects) we'll be able to point to them as marking yet more phase-changes in the prevailing mode of evolution.

And I am left scratching my head and asking, how in hell are the young-earth creationists and the "creation scientists" going to handle that? (Other, of course, than by denying that anything's happening at all -- "it's a fraud" is the last defense of the over-exposed ideology.)

You've been trapped by last year's selfish memes. How are you going to survive in the new ecosystem?

[Link] [Discuss strange wildlife]

posted at: 21:48 | path: /weird | permanent link to this entry

Wed, 09 Feb 2005

"First we take Manhattan ..."

According to a rather neat article in First Monday, musicians and artists for the most part don't earn their living through intellectual property rights; there's a power law at work, with maybe the top ten individuals in a given country earning twice as much as the next 200 put together, and more than the bottom 10,000 professionals in the field put together. Meanwhile royalties captured from sound samples used to create new works of music, for example, eat up almost all the profitability of the new works. And as Tobias Buckell notes in his survey of SF writers' book advances (in the USA) "the typical advance for a first novel is $5000. The typical advance for later novels, after a typical number of 5-7 years and 5-7 books is $12,500."

So I think I'm standing on defensible ground when I say that artists and musicians mostly don't benefit much from their copyrights, and genre authors (us working stiffs who are supposed to rely 100% on our intellectual property rights for our income) also do pretty badly overall.

So it was with some surprise that I stumbled across the ideology of Galambosianism. At first I wasn't sure if it was an April Fool entry in the wikipedia; it's just too bizarre, especially the second paragraph. But on second thoughts, it matches what else I know about Objectivists (Galambos is of course a follower of Ayn Rand). I'm going to reproduce the current WikiPedia entry in full:

'''Galambosianism''' was a short-lived doctrine of intellectual property absolutism, founded in the 1960s by Joseph Andrew Galambos, also known as Andrew Joseph Galambos, and descended from libertarianism and/or the teachings of Ayn Rand. The primary concept of Galambosianism was that one's ideas were one's "primary property", a higher form of property than physical assets (which were merely "secondary property"), and second only to one's life (one's "primordial property"). In Galambosianism, property rights were absolute; Galambos was quoted as saying that freedom is the condition in which everyone has 100% control of their property and 0% control of anyone else's property. This held that any new idea belonged irrevocably and in perpetuity to its inventor and their heirs, who were entitled to control and profit from its use in perpetuity. Galambosianism did not allow for a public domain; the owners of ideas or their heirs could not renounce ownership of an idea or even waive payments due to them. It is said that Galambos believed, for example, that the word "liberty" was the primary property of the heirs of Thomas Paine, and would drop a nickel into a fund, to give to Paine's descendants, every time he used it. It is also said that Galambos changed his name from Joseph Andrew to Andrew Joseph to avoid owing his father (whose primary property, by his own arguments, his birth name was) royalties for using it.

Galambosianism never caught on as an idea because, under its own laws, Galambos was the only person allowed to disseminate it; remaining consistent with his own rules, he made all attending his lectures sign confidentiality agreements, prohibiting them from divulging the content of his lectures. As such, in memetic terms, Galambosianism was sterile. It has been argued, though, that recent efforts to extend the scope of copyright and patent laws (such as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and various WIPO treaty proposals) are the intellectual heirs of Galambosianism.

I'm still trying to absorb the implications of Galambosianism if taken to its logical conclusion -- especially in view of the obviously contradictory position of Galambosian information property rights and the actual utility of such rights to creative individuals trying to earn a living from them. Might, perchance, the current fad for intellectual property totalitarianism, as campaigned for by bodies like the RIAA and MPAA, be the outcome of a cabal of underground Objectivist/Galambosianist campaigners working to inflict their views on us through interminable committee processes and international treaty law? Stranger things have been alleged: and knowing that, for example, Alan Greenspan was a young follower of Rand, and that the Frank Furedi/Spiked!/Institute of Ideas crowd (currently admired by the Adam Smith Institute) started out as the Revolutionary Communist Party of Great Britain, does lend a glimmer of plausibility to the idea of an octopus-like Galambosian Entryist Underground, with its tentacles embedded in the upper echelons of the music and film industries, thereby to bring Objectivist nirvana and universal mandatory property rights to us all -- whether we want them or not.

[Discuss politics]

posted at: 16:51 | path: /weird | permanent link to this entry

Mon, 07 Feb 2005

Typo hunt!

It's the time of year when it rains proofs. To be precise, the proofs for the paperback edition of The Family Trade have turned up. Presumably they were typeset from the same files as the hardcover edition (after all, they were published by the same people), which means they contain the same typos. What typos? I don't know!

In a spirit of masochism, I hereby declare open season on typos. If you've read THE FAMILY TRADE in hardcover and spotted a typo, tell me about it here, and I'll abase myself and grovel shamelessly in return. (This offer valid for one week only, to be followed by "mutter, grumble, why didn't you tell me before the paperback went to press?")

[Discuss typo-hunt]

posted at: 11:10 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

Sat, 05 Feb 2005

Iron Sunrise

The first UK hardcover copy plopped through my letterbox this morning. Which means they've reached the warehouse and should be in bookstores within the next two weeks. (The official publication date is March 1st, but at a guess the smaller SF specialist shops should have it in stock by the middle of the month, along with the paperback of Singularity Sky.)

[Discuss writing]

posted at: 21:52 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

Wed, 02 Feb 2005

Good(ish) news

It turns out that the official UK publication date for ACCELERANDO -- which was set at September 1st, more than a month behind the US publication -- is officially being moved forward to August 4th.

This means that copies should be out in time for me to sign them at the Scottish worldcon, Interaction, this summer. (It also avoids the risk of Orbit's UK sales being eaten into by US imports, and vice versa, but that probably doesn't matter to you.)

[Discuss writing]

posted at: 15:14 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

Tue, 01 Feb 2005

Site update ...

Please bear with me, I'm switching to a much newer version of blosxom, the blogging software I use. You might notice some minor changes to the page layout and content; more to the point, the new version has a bunch of handy features I'll be deploying over the next couple of months. Among them: flat archives, my own comments system (to replace QuickTopic), anti-spam features, and a load more.

I'm also -- I freely admit -- short on time for blogging due to a combination of books to be read (for cover blurbs) and books to be written (for money).

[Discuss discuss]

posted at: 12:33 | path: /admin | permanent link to this entry


Is SF About to Go Blind? -- Popular Science article by Greg Mone
Unwirer -- an experiment in weblog mediated collaborative fiction
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"Nothing like this will be built again" -- inside a nuclear reactor complex

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Some webby stuff I'm reading:

Engadget ]
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The Memory Hole ]
Boing!Boing! ]
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Walter Jon Williams ]
Making Light (TNH) ]
Crooked Timber ]
Junius (Chris Bertram) ]
Baghdad Burning (Riverbend) ]
Bruce Sterling ]
Ian McDonald ]
Amygdala (Gary Farber) ]
Cyborg Democracy ]
Body and Soul (Jeanne d'Arc)  ]
Atrios ]
The Sideshow (Avedon Carol) ]
This Modern World (Tom Tomorrow) ]
Jesus's General ]
Mick Farren ]
Early days of a Better Nation (Ken MacLeod) ]
Respectful of Otters (Rivka) ]
Tangent Online ]
Grouse Today ]
Hacktivismo ]
Terra Nova ]
Whatever (John Scalzi) ]
Justine Larbalestier ]
Yankee Fog ]
The Law west of Ealing Broadway ]
Cough the Lot ]
The Yorkshire Ranter ]
Newshog ]
Kung Fu Monkey ]
S1ngularity ]
Pagan Prattle ]
Gwyneth Jones ]
Calpundit ]
Lenin's Tomb ]
Progressive Gold ]
Kathryn Cramer ]
Halfway down the Danube ]
Fistful of Euros ]
Orcinus ]
Shrillblog ]
Steve Gilliard ]
Frankenstein Journal (Chris Lawson) ]
The Panda's Thumb ]
Martin Wisse ]
Kuro5hin ]
Advogato ]
Talking Points Memo ]
The Register ]
Cryptome ]
Juan Cole: Informed comment ]
Global Guerillas (John Robb) ]
Shadow of the Hegemon (Demosthenes) ]
Simon Bisson's Journal ]
Max Sawicky's weblog ]
Guy Kewney's mobile campaign ]
Hitherby Dragons ]
Counterspin Central ]
MetaFilter ]
NTKnow ]
Encyclopaedia Astronautica ]
Fafblog ]
BBC News (Scotland) ]
Pravda ]
Meerkat open wire service ]
Warren Ellis ]
Brad DeLong ]
Hullabaloo (Digby) ]
Jeff Vail ]
The Whiskey Bar (Billmon) ]
Groupthink Central (Yuval Rubinstein) ]
Unmedia (Aziz Poonawalla) ]
Rebecca's Pocket (Rebecca Blood) ]

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June 2006
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December 2005
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September 2005
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