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rogue planet
rogue planet
A little space opera, cosmic horror, action/adventure... and synthwave.
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rogue planet
Public post

Should authors care about reader feedback?

Authors care too much about what unimportant people think

Do you care about the reviews on your books?

Do you obsess over one-star reviews on Goodreads? Are you losing sleep because somebody didn't like your book?

Before I get into this post, if you've got a minute, listen to this bit from shock-jock Howard Stern:

Love Howard or hate him, doesn't matter your feelings about the man himself.

Listen to the attitude.

He knows that his value as a creator is not about responding to what his fans think.

He didn't build the brand of Howard Stern by asking his listeners what he should do better.

He did it by being Howard Stern.

HOWARD: The way that I was an innovator was to IGNORE the feedback.

If you make things and send them out into the world, you must understand this.

Get it tattooed somewhere if that will help you. But remember this.

You are not in the game of responding to feedback from the audience.

Reader reviews are like the rules in a game

Imagine you're off on a relaxing vacation.

You meet a group of friendly strangers who invite you to play a game of Monopoly.

After a few moves, you make a couple of bad deals and you're on the hook for a lot of money.

Are you on the hook for your bad investment in the Short Line railroad?

No way. It's just a game.

A group of people got together and agreed to obey these rules until somebody won or flipped over the board.

What would you think of somebody that treated the game as if it were a real part of his life? Everybody else picked up and moved on, but this guy's still acting like you owe him rent on Park Place.

You'd think he was pulling your leg, or a total nutcase.

The game's rules only matter as long as you're playing.

When you stop, nobody cares.

Feedback from your readers is no different.

It only matters if you're playing the game.

What game are you playing as a writer?

Are you a writer because you need everyone everywhere to like your work?

I won't speak for anyone else, but I write for me.

If you like my work, great. If you don't care for it, it wasn't for you. No problem.

I'm not playing the game of "everybody please like me".

My game is "I write what I want to write"

Don't get me wrong. A good review is always a boost to the ego. A bad review can sting, even if it's one of those one-star reviews from a person who couldn't make ice in Antarctica.

But you must remember one thing...

Your response is your responsibility

If you aren't playing Monopoly, then it doesn't matter if you landed on "Go to Jail".

The police aren't going to come arrest you.

Things happen. Nobody can control that.

Whether things matter is your call. Not me, not the cliques on social media, not the cartels of reviewers.

Their power begins and ends with your decision to give them attention.

If you don't play the game of "reader feedback" then you don't have to play by its rules.

PS – If you enjoy these posts, why not subscribe? That way you can receive them directly in your inbox... and you'll get the members-only posts.

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rogue planet
Public post

How the "music meltdown" of the 90s made everyone miserable

Keep your head clean and clear with the inspiring music of 80s

The words in your mind are the laws of your world

A couple of days ago Vox Day put up this excellent post about how words shape our reality:

... this is why relentless positivity of mind, the determined avoidance of negativity, and the refusal to live in fear are vital for the Christian. It's also important to pay attention to the lyrics of the music one listens to; classical music is much better for your mental and spiritual health than imprinting your mind with emo goths droning about how unhappy they are or metal gammas screaming about how they hate the world because everyone hates them.

Skeptical? Test it. The next time it's late at night and you're feeling down, or feeling afraid, or wallowing in self-pity, listen to the following three songs. Crank them up. Sing along. Then measure how you feel versus how you were feeling previously.

  • Tubthumping by Chumbawamba
  • Move Any Mountain by The Shamen
  • Indestructible by Disturbed

He's absolutely right.

The words that you let into your mental space shape what you think and feel.

You can't separate your experience from the words that you have available to describe it.

That rabbit hole runs deep indeed.

It starts with an assumption about the mind's place in the world.

Today's materialist has a simple-minded take on psychology

Over here, there's stuff. Medium sized dry goods plus a system of weights and measures.

Over there, we have you, the observer. Touch feely experience.

That divide between the subject and the object is an influential piece of modernist dogma. Minds and bodies, fact and feeling, they are classified into separate boxes.

This is not a scientific conclusion, I should add. It's entirely the work of philosophers who reasoned their way to it. Science, and more precisely the materialist metaphysics behind atheist naturalism, supposes the division between mind and world -- it does not prove or argue for it.

This is despite generations of philosophers and artists telling us that human beings aren't passive observers of reality. We are also active participants in the world.

What we find is partly made. By making, we also discover.

Aristotle knew this all the way back in the 4th century BC.

Modern science has had to play catch up. Quantum physics already has a problem getting a handle on the influence of the observer on the observed reality.

Then there's all the work on complex self-organizing systems which brings up its own set of observer problems.

Human minds don't just take in information like a camera watching a game from the sidelines. We're out on the field playing ball.

But that's all high-minded abstract stuff. What's this got to do with music?

The quality of your music is the quality of your life

Your Host grew up with 90's grunge on MTV, back when MTV still played music. Lots of anger, angst, and depressive lyrics.

It seemed normal. Why wouldn't it?

The goldfish doesn't notice the water.

When you don't know any different, you take what you're given.

But after a deep dive into soundtracks to 80s movies and TV, it hit me square in the face.

These old songs were full of positive, inspirational, uplifting and encouraging lyrics.

Even the hair-metal glam bands of the day had a (mostly) optimistic message.

By the mid-90s that was all gone

That upbeat music was replaced by angst-rock, violent hip-hop, and at the turn of the century, the auto-tuned bubble-gum pop that is everywhere to this day.

The causes of this are beyond this article. Author Brian Niemeier dates Cultural Ground Zero to 1997, and I'd suggest reading his posts on the subject if you wish further illumination.

The point of this modest post is to point to the effects of this on your mind.

When you shift from a cultural climate of sunny optimism to depressive whiny angst, what would you expect to happen?

Would you expect a jump in anxiety disorders and depression?

A spike in drug addictions?

Unprecedented levels of political polarization as people organize into friends and enemies?

A loss of social cohesion?

We could list symptoms all day long.

It's too quick by far to blame all this on the music. The music reflects the attitudes of the culture as much as anything does. But we'd have to be blind to the fact that the music also influences the culture. This isn't a one-way street.

Even the kinds of stories, and the kinds of heroes, have changed. The never-give-up grit of characters like Rocky are nowhere to be found. Instead we're given the snarky ironic anti-hero with few redeeming qualities.

Either way, for your own sake, you must understand this.

The words in your world you affect you on a level you can't consciously sense.

That "harmless" pop or hip-hop that you keep on in the background affects your mood in ways that you don't notice.

Then you wonder why you're miserable.

Filter that noise out of your mental world and replace it with beautiful & fine things

PS – If you enjoy these posts, why not subscribe? That way you can receive them directly in your inbox... and you'll get the members-only posts.

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rogue planet

Why a "ticking clock" is the best productivity tool you'll ever use

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rogue planet

Why fiction authors should be good marketers (but usually aren't)

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rogue planet
Public post

That time John Carpenter found the devil in quantum physics

The surprising depth in this little-known gem by a legendary film-maker

Catholic priests and scientists aren't supposed to agree about the nature of the world.

That's key to the mythology of our modern age.

The Science shows us that the world is nothing but matter and energy out there banging around.

Christianity is a hangover from a less enlightened age when man still believed in gods and demons haunting the night.

The scientists turned a floodlight on the dark and discovered it was all an illusion. There's nothing out there but more particles banging around.

John Carpenter's Prince of Darkness takes that idea out with the trash

Today's viewer can't help but notice how Carpenter totally fails to ridicule the Christian faithful in the name of atheist materialism.

Any snark-filled sci-fi film worth its salt today couldn't wait to sink its ironic venom into the soft necks of any character stupid enough to believe in God.

Religious characters must be dull, emotionally troubled people prone to psychotic meltdowns.

While Carpenter isn't quite a friend to the Christian believer, he's not an outright opponent. That by itself makes for a more interesting sort of story than the one-sided hit piece.

The film's premise is standard horror-movie stuff

Satan's alive and well as a green goo locked in a million year old glass jar, hidden away by a secret order in the Catholic church.

Then we add a team of 80s grad students led by the sorcerer Egg Shen – no, wait,  hang on, that's long-time Carpenter collaborator Victor Wong, playing a physics professor.

The character of the priest, played by Donald Pleasance, brings these jaded academics into the fold of the church – literally, as this is where the action takes place.

But it's the metaphorical dimension where this tension between modern science and old-time religion gets interesting.

The thematic core of the movie sets it apart from a B-tier hack-n-slash

What if the weird world of quantum physics and the religious doctrines of Christianity were two ways of describing the same thing?

The professor of physics teases the viewer with hints of the weird quantum world, which challenges all of our intuitions about matter and time and causality.

The Catholic priest tells a secret tale of the Church's origins – hinted to be aliens – as a defense mechanism against the circulating green goop and the chaotic "Anti-God" it seeks to revive.

What if the creator of the universe were incompatible with our experiences of the world?

You can watch this film as a group of hapless 20-somethings stumbling blind into an ancient horror as they're picked off one by one.

That's the low-level viewing.

The dialogue between science and religion is the real meat of the story. Carpenter dramatizes this effectively, using mildly graphic action to show us the darkness waiting just outside the lights of reason.

It turns out that those illuminating spotlights didn't show the scientists as much as they thought.

Our confidence in science turns out to be a fatal arrogance.

But what if it turned out that God was not the benevolent creator of Christianity, either?

That's the truly unsettling message of the film

What if religion were all a sham? What if the force sustaining the all creation was an inverted, evil power?

If science turns out to be powerless against the chaotic forces of reality, religion is not exactly in a better position.

That's the conclusion of at least one character.

And a bleak conclusion it is. That, combined with the "explaining" of religion in materialistic terms, might seem like talking down to any religious-minded viewers.

It might seem like an entirely pessimistic conclusion.

This is compounded by the prophetic dreams which appear to be broadcast into the mind from the far-off future year of... 1999.

But it's not so simple as that

The fusion of religion and science doesn't get rid of faith in the name of all-knowing science.

That's how it would go in any of today's snark-fests.

Carpenter's bold enough to challenge that central dogma of the modern age.

Good and Evil aren't found only in the hearts and minds of human being.

Evil is more than the corruption of the human will.  

These aren't subjective projections on to a neutral reality of facts.

Good and Evil are real and objective aspects of the natural order. As real and natural as the particles studied by physicists.

The climax of the film shows us the physical embodiment of that evil in all its glory.

What about that mysterious figure seen leaving the church in the time-warped dream from the future?

The question of freedom and fate hangs over the conclusion of the film. Carpenter's a wise enough storyteller to leave that question unanswered.

Whether that future can be prevented, or whether fate wins, would tell us a great deal about the prospects of Good in a universe of quantum evil.

We don't get those answers. Rightly so.

The unresolved tension between two potent but incomplete worldviews is much more interesting getting all the answers handed to you

PS – If you enjoy these posts, why not subscribe? That way you can receive them directly in your inbox... and you'll get the members-only posts.

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rogue planet
Public post

Why Blindsight isn't all that great a story

Peter Watt's grimdark nihilism mixes the best of SF speculation with unlikeable people and a depressing message

You wake up one day to discover that your family lives in a computer and a race of hyper-intelligent vampires hunts the survivors

I'm talking about Peter Watts' much-remarked book Blindsight.

There's a lot for the sci-fi geek to like here.

Mind uploads into a shared VR reality which is more fun than living out in the real world.

Biologically realistic vampires revived from extinction by genetic cloning tech.

The selling point of the story is the wildest aliens like you'll never see on Star Trek. They don't even have mushy foreheads.

Even the human crew of the starship Theseus (a prophetic name if there ever was one) isn't quite normal.

Not surprising. The central conceit of Watts' existential SF horror story is that normal ain't what it used to be.

The headline of this post might give the impression that I don't like the book.

Not true.

There are things I like about it. There's things I don't like about it.

The discussions of consciousness and evolution are some of the most interesting parts of the book.

What I don't like is how one-sided it all is. The deep thinking is put out there in the service of an agenda.

And that agenda? Nihilistic grimdark fatalism.

Nothing matters woe-is-me I forgot my Zanax today.


If nothing matters then why'd you wake up and create this beautiful piece of art for the readers to enjoy?

Existential nihilism is so boring because it's so clearly the author's own psychological hang-ups intruding into the writing.

If the author coughed up a wad of black phlegm all over the page it would be less of a heavy-handed intrusion into the story.

The philosophical story about consciousness as an evolutionary dead-end sounds plausible enough. As a story premise, it's fantastic. What we have here is a tantalizing tale that wraps up reflections about mind, life in a purposeless world, Fermi's paradox, the hard problems of space travel, and more themes I'm certainly forgetting.

I don't agree with any of Watts's conclusions, by the by, but my philosophical disagreement is less important than the broaching of the subject, or its use as a dramatic core.

In story terms, what the crew of doomed Theseus discovers at that rogue planet beyond the edge of the solar system explains a whole lot about the haunting silence of the stars.

The difficulties of space travel for warm, wet Earth-adapted beings like ourselves hit home hard.

That stuff is the best part of the book. The problem's different.

The story itself is ultimately unsatisfying, like all nihilistic stories. Who cares what happens to any of these people if nothing, nothing done by any human ever, matters?

Horrific dread and terror have a place in all kinds of fantastic fiction. The depressive nihilism of the story runs well past that. We cross the line beyond unsettling to the point where you have to wnder what's the point of reading stories.

We get it, the world sucks and everything sucks and nothing matters and I forgot to take my SSRIs today.

Here's a dirty secret about philosophy. Very few abstract ideas are motivated by rigorous argument and supporting reasons alone. Many of the deepest problems about knowledge, ethics, and What Exists could be better explained as psychological scruples.

Worried about free will? Think ethics are just somebody's opinions? Believe that nobody can know anything?

It won't surprise you to learn that the people who believe these things almost always fall into a certain psychological profile.

You'll know it when you meet them because they are by temperament jaded, cynical, pessimistic people.

Around here at RP we love to dabble in the bleak side of things. The empty black void of space. The inevitable impact of technology on the human condition. Synthesizer music. Cultural wastelands. Existential terror. All that and more.

But Your Host also recognizes the other side. Bleak for bleak's sake isn't satisfying.

If you want to look at the ugly, you have to contrast it with beauty.

Ditto for the contrast of good and evil.

It's the contrast that makes the meaning. Get rid of that and all you've got is a boring wasteland of grey-scale junk.

PS – If you enjoy these posts, why not subscribe? That way you can receive them directly in your inbox... and you'll get the members-only posts.

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rogue planet
Public post

The "dark side" of futuristic science fiction stories

What happens when sci-fi storytelling gets taken over by superstitious materialists

Is science fiction is supposed to be scientific?

A lot of fans seem to think so.

But what does it mean for a story to be scientific?

Facts are boring. If you want scientific facts, go read research papers (and try to stay awake).

There's a reason you're reading a story instead of a factual report.

Stories have characters. Stories are about something happening to characters, and how those characters respond.

Stories entertain you with dramatic conflicts.

Somebody has a problem and goes searching for a solution. But something else stops that progress.

Will our hero figure it out?

That's the magic of stories. Stories draw you in to a created reality using the power of unanswered questions.

Science fiction stories use themes and ideas and situations drawn from science and technology to create these characters and their problems.

That's how you get aliens, spaceships, ray-guns, and Big Dumb Objects. That's how you get Galactic Empires and pink mind-control lasers sending you messages from orbit.

But are science fiction stories really scientific just because their authors and fans fancy them to be more true-to-life? Does the presence of problems and situations drawn from the cutting edges of lab research make a story more scientific?

There's two ways to look at this question.

There's the part which we can call scientific. This has to do with the fundamental intelligibility of nature to the human mind.

There is an order to being, which scientific study can reveal to us. We can rationally determine the laws that describe repeatable phenomena.

Science fiction stories take place in futuristic settings with imaginary technologies. The author begins from the conviction that the intellect can comprehend and resolve the story's problems.

But there's another angle to think about.

Science has a "dark side".

Every new truth discovered by the scientists raises 100 or 1000 new questions.

Instead of moving towards complete knowledge, science leads us off into a growing field of darkness.

An explosion of ignorance.

If nature is fundamentally understandable to the human mind, there's a deep mystery about how this fact can square with the infinite horizons of uncertainty that open up before us after each new finding.

Good science-fiction, properly done, concerns human responses to problems created by technology and science. They express the conviction that human ingenuity can explain the events of the story and restore order.

That's unlike the weird tale and the horror story, where man has a glimpse of the unknown and runs away screaming in terror. These are two fundamentally different worldviews.

What's worth seeing here is how both of these have some claim to a scientific attitude.

Asimov, Heinlein, and Clarke all took their own "handwaving" liberties with the science in order to tell a story.

The rule says that the SF writer gets ONE rule violation.

A moment's thought on that should tell you two things.

One, physics doesn't hand out free passes. Breaking one law of nature for the sake of speculation is as good as breaking many or most of them.

Two, authors don't earn good-boy points for being more realistic or true to scientific theories.

The only good-boy points you get as a writer are more book sales and more raving fans.

All speculative stories are imaginary. They are stories of the fantastic that take place in imagined worlds.

This is not a way for Your Host to degrade a certain kind of "hard SF" story. Quite the opposite.

The more interesting kind of storytelling understands itself as a modern-day form of mythmaking.

The mythmaker doesn't limit himself to boring rules set out by boring nerds who appoint themselves gatekeepers.

We can ask more interesting questions.

Where do the supernatural monsters, the inscrutable aliens, and the fantastic new sciences and machines collide in this conflict between the intellect and the unknown?

How can we tell fun, exciting, wicked-cool stories when all of these possibilities are on the table?

The materialist wants to get rid of all myths, legends, and religions as "silly superstitions".

The good teller-of-tales knows that science doesn't conflict with myth.

When you take the two together, you walk through fertile fields of imaginary treasures.

Even the tension between mythic and materialist world-views can be the engine of fantastic SF stories.

PS – If you enjoy these posts, why not subscribe? That way you can receive them directly in your inbox... and you'll get the members-only posts.

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rogue planet
Public post

When the "write to market" advice goes south

The market doesn't know what it wants... but your readers know what they love

Direct marketing legend Gary Halbert once asked the audience at a seminar:

"If you were starting a restaurant right now, what kind of competitive advantage would you need to succeed?"

The crowd listed off a range of predictable answers. Location. Staff. The best burgers.

Halbert listened carefully and then nixed them all.

"I'll give you all of those things, everything you want. And I'll still beat you if you give me just one thing."

The one thing that he needed to make a killer restaurant?

A starving crowd.

He's not wrong. Desire for what you're selling is a key ingredient for any business.

The more intense, urgent, and burning the desire, the better your chances.

If you're selling books, you're in business... and you best be writing what readers want to read.

Halbert said this back in the 90s or late 80s even. What's old is new all over again. Up here in the age of indie self-publishing -- "NewPub" as the younger set calls it -- some of the more savvy book marketers and self-promoters have rediscovered the power of tapping into market desires.

Now it's called "writing to the market".

The kernel of the idea is undeniable. If you write like a good MFA graduate, you'll please all your peers, get published in all the right journals, and maybe win a coveted award or three.

If you're aiming to sell books, you'd best appeal to the tastes of a larger, hungrier readership.

What's the problem, then? Give 'em what they want and you'll win.

So you thought it was that easy? C'mon.

If you give the market more of what they're already buying, that's a good way to sell books.

For the short term.

But there's a downside.

You're always chasing trends and hoping that you time it just right to catch the wave.

What happens when you think about the long-term goals?

What do you want to achieve as an author?

You want to sell books, clearly, if you want to pay the bills as a full-time author.

So how do you do that? What goal are you aiming for?

There's a saying in the marketing world: "Different is better than better."

What if, instead of looking over your shoulder at what people bought last month...

What if you showed your readers a new way of looking at the kind of story you tell?

What if you gave them new possible worlds to play in?

What if you gave them an iPod instead of a better CD player?

When you see that phrase "write to the market", it's not wrong.

But it's split between these two meanings.

You can give them more of what they're already buying...


You can fascinate your readers with a unique experience that they can't resist.

PS – If you enjoy these posts, why not subscribe? That way you can receive them directly in your inbox... and you'll get the members-only posts.

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Public post

Writing speculative fiction without finger-wagging gatekeepers

The moralizers wanted to eliminate 'adventure stories' and gave us garbage moralizing with shallow characters instead

I would like to see more psycho-literary ideas, more meta-biological and meta-chemical concepts, private time-systems, synthetic psychologies and space-times, more of the remote, sombre half-worlds one glimpses in the paintings of schizophrenics, all in all a complete speculative poetry and fantasy of science.

- J. G. Ballard

Why is it that popular adventure, weird/horror, and space opera stories never seem to get made?

Your Host grew up imbibing 80s action/adventure films starring Stallone and Swarzenegger and Harrison Ford and Sigourney Weaver.

Those films all nod back to an older age of wild and weird stories, back in the days of the pulp magazines.

How'd that happen? And why is it that we don't see so much of this genre anymore, written or filmed?

Author JD Cowan wraps up his detailed deep-dive into the history of the Science Fiction Genre as we know it.

Be warned: deep dive means deep. This is a close reading of a book outlining the conscious agenda forced on readers of the fantastic.

A small clique of self-appointed gatekeepers decided to remake the realm of fantastic literature into the vehicle for a materialistic ideology.

Here at rogue planet, Your Host is far more interested in the lay of the land before all these geeks took over.

Give me E. E. Smith, Edgar Rice Burroughs, or Clark Ashton Smith any day.

They got the science wrong, you say? Get this:

I'm not reading fantastic stories so that the author can cough up last week's physics tutorial.

I want bodybuilder action stars punching monsters in the face.

I want psychedelic experiences with cruel mega-corporations and off-world colonies.

I want adventure stories that cook up the wildest and most fun experiences that the author's imagination can bring to the page.

Around here, we're partial to that small but growing movement of writers calling themselves Superversive.

I'm glad to see the NewPub -- that's independent self-publishing by entrepreneurial authors unafraid to write their own unique stories -- take over from the dying publishing houses who insist on forcing "woke" down our throats.

I want to see the PulpRev authors succeed in resurrecting the hard-boiled noir detective, the Western, the space opera, even the planetary romance.

Forget the science. I want them to butcher the science.

For the sake of storytelling, forget the science.

To anger the sputtering nerds who think that realistic science trumps story, forget the science.

Tell me a fun, exciting, breath-taking story that I can't put down.

Writing that elevates and entertains is more enjoyable, and sells more books, than critical, nasty, snarky, moralizing stories about unlikeable characters.

Futuristic/Mythic Adventure Fiction has a bigger and brighter future than today's "award winning" stories and novels.

Write fun stories that people want to read and you can't go wrong.

PS – If you enjoy these posts, why not subscribe? That way you can receive them directly in your inbox... and you'll get the members-only posts.

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Confused writers blindsided by unruly Creator Economy

You aren't going to grow an audience by writing a newsletter that nobody wants to read

If you're old enough, like Your Host, you might remember the early days of the web when people went online without a digital footprint the size of an asteroid crater.

If you wanted to post something online, you only had a handful of options.

You could post it to a forum. You could fire up a blog. You could use that eldest of the elder online media, the email list.

Today, in the age of the Creator Economy, what's new is old all over again.

Enter "the newsletter".

After everyone woke up one day and realized that trading their privacy for "likes" on a free surveillance platform wasn't the best of ideas, we're seeing a growing wave against the centralized Big Tech platforms.

Not to mention that the platforms themselves are more interested in thought-policing and laundering ideology than serving their users.

None of this was hard to see coming. I saw it coming 10 years ago when everyone raced on to these platforms without a care, posting up every intimate detail of their lives without a care.

If you're old enough, you remember when the advice was to never say anything online that you wouldn't want on the front page of the newspaper. The newspapers are gone now, but the moral of the tale is no less true.

Now the masses, clued in to this piece of wisdom from 2001, flee the lidless eye of Big Tech back to their semi-private curated communities.

Good. That's a development worth encouraging.

But there's another problem.

What are you writing for?

Maybe you think that getting into the habit of writing on the regular is a good thing in itself. No argument there. What you don't practice you don't improve.

Still, most people getting into this arena aren't there to say they showed up to practice. They want readers. They're dreaming of publishing contracts and millions of views each month.

They want to make a living with their writing.

If there's one thing you must understand as a creator, it's this:

You are in business.

Doesn't matter if you want to be, hate capitalism, don't want to sully your work by making it a commodity, or whatever excuse you cook up.

If you want to make a living, you have to make a living.

But few people have any idea of what they're saying, who they're saying it to, and why that matters to their audience.

There's no training for this. You sure won't learn it in English classes.

The strategy... no, let's not call it a strategy. The approach most people take is found in this five-step checklist:

  1. Write something
  2. Post it online
  3. Hope
  4. ???
  5. Money!

Most of these newsletters are going to fail. The same way that most blogs failed, most social media accounts never get any real traction, and most new businesses don't make it to five years.

This is an approach, but it doesn't even rise to the level of a strategy. Strategy involves thinking. You have to have a goal. You have to think about a process for getting there.

Show up and hope doesn't tick either box.

If you want to get paid with your writing, there's two ways you can look at it.

Your writing is the offer. You're going to write stuff and people will pay you for access to that writing.

This is the Substack business model. This is what most folks jumping on the newsletters bandwagon expect. They're going to write things and grow an audience of thousands of readers, just like that.

Your writing promotes your real offers. You write stuff that people want to read, and then you pitch your wares to the captive audience.

This is the classic direct-response business model. Your writing captures attention and builds interest in your real business offers.

There's a lot of untapped space for writers in both business models.

But consider this.

If you're writing a free newsletter to "give value" (whatever that means) while hoping to maybe one day attract an audience...

While going up against cut-throat competition with deep pockets and an industrial-strength PR machine...

You're a guppy trying to swim in the tank labeled "hungry tiger sharks".

You might be able to compete on Substack, at least enough to make a decent living from your work...

IF you have a clear business model, a unique take, and have the will to promote yourself.

Does that describe you? Be honest.

Step back and think strategically. Do you understand your business model? Do you really understand your the business you're in?

Writers must create offers that are attractive to readers who are willing and able to pay. Even authors of fiction. Especially authors of fiction.

It's not enough to 'write to market'. Chasing trends leaves you eating dust.

It's great that you're showing up with work to share. Now how are you going to get paid for it?

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Weyland-Yutani's got nothing on these mega-corporations

Cyberpunk isn't dead, but it has changed since the heyday of the 80s style

You know that scene in the original Alien when Ripley asks the computer what's going on with this kill-beast eating the crew?

It tells her that the Company wanted samples of the organism no matter what. Priority One.

The crew?


That's one luxurious health-care plan. A brutal co-pay and we'll throw in a free monster exploding out of your chest.

Cold blooded.

You hear folks saying that cyberpunk's a dead genre because we're living it now.

We've got companies just as warm and fuzzy as Weyland-Yutani.

You won't get any spirited defenses of Facebook, Google, and Amazon out of me. They are what they are, good and bad and evil.

The thing that irritates me the most about them is the way they're in total control.

Even Bill Gibson never foresaw the total omni-presence of today's multi-national mega-corp.

Philip K. Dick did see it coming, I think. His mental and drug problems aside, PKD was a remarkable prophet of today's world.

For instance:

Think of how many people rely on pharmaceutical drugs to get through the day.

How many are "addicted" to the virtual worlds on the other side of their phones and tablets.

How many aren't just willing but ear-to-ear grinning that they're giving up privacy and living under near-total surveillance for a hit of soma.

East Germans would risk everything to escape that just 40 years ago and we're doing it voluntarily.

Weyland-Yutani was ruthless and psychopathic, but they could be avoided.

Cyberpunk isn't dead so much as transformed.

High-tech, low-life – we tick that box.

Back in the 80s it was harder to see where it was all going. They could predict the computer networks. It was harder to see how invasive the virtual worlds would become.

And they're getting more and more invasive. Elon Musk wants to put a chip in your brain. Companies have patents on the seeds that grow our food. They'll be patenting genes in bio-engineered humans soon enough.

If you think there aren't plenty of stories to tell about the intersection of man and machine, all the existential dread and noir aesthetics, you aren't paying close enough attention.

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How cybernetics became the metaphysics of death worship

When we study humans as if they were machines, we lose everything that makes a life worth living

Cybernetics is the metaphysics of the atomic age.

- Martin Heidegger

The science of cybernetics studies self-guided, goal-seeking systems.

There's a long and interesting history to this discipline, which traces back to the works of Norbert Wiener around the time of World War II.

Wiener believed that his new science could show the way to create machines that thought like a human being.

The result was something far more sinister.

Cybernetics didn't show us how to build machines that think like humans.

It transformed man into a kind of machine.

Metaphorically speaking. For now.

We're talking about a revolution in thought. It became possible for the first time to think of human beings as nothing more than a pattern of loops between stimulus and response.

Cybernetics lies behind (almost) every major innovation in psychology and sociology in the later half of the 20th century. Today's cognitive sciences study human beings as if we were a type of computer or information-processing device.

It may sound cool. But there's a darker implication here, well beyond the punk status of the cyborg aesthetic we had back in the 80s and 90s.

Cybernetics carries on the same process of subversion, the 'disenchantment of the world', that got started in the scientific revolution and entered full swing after Marx, Darwin, and Freud got their hooks into intellectual culture.

But there's a kink in the works here.

Science doesn't answer questions about values. It doesn't take any official position on what is worth doing. Science doesn't explain why we ought to prefer one course of action over another.

Science isn't supposed to be metaphysical.

There's a lot of weight resting on that word "supposed".

Truth is, it's probably impossible to get rid of all metaphysics. You can't just drop in neato buzzwords like "objective" and "impartial" and "logical" and get rid of all your background assumptions.

That might be only because it's impossible to believe certain things that your great-great-great-grandaddies believed. There's a "negative" metaphysics at work.

The philosopher Martin Heidegger has a lot to say about this. Any new revelation of truth requires covering up something else. Every discovery also hides assumptions that can't be stated.

And modern technology? The cybernetic understanding of man as machine?

These new sciences try to understand human nature without making any value judgments or metaphysical assumptions.

They don't quite get there. The metaphysics hides just out of sight.

We may no longer be able to believe in gods or God. But we haven't gotten rid of the old-time theology. We've only replaced God with our own human interests. We talking apes think mighty highly of ourselves, and cybernetics puts us completely in charge.

But there's a catch.

You and me, that thing we like to call "I" or the self? That's just an illusion.

We're rattling around in a hall of mirrors full of dead machines.

If cybernetics is the metaphysics of the modern age, then we're all living in a bizarre death cult.

Living things aren't really alive. They're just concoctions of chemicals and information.

Your mind isn't really your mind. It's an evolved system of 'hacks' that work to keep your body alive and able to reproduce.

Humans put ourselves at the center of the universe and then discovered we were never really here to begin with.

If you've ever wondered why so many people today feel anxious, hopeless, without meaning or purpose, bored, empty, and pessimistic, you've got a glimpse at the answer.

We believe we've mastered nature. We've put ourselves into nature as another object to control.

And look where it's got us. Technological marvels... and more people than ever can't see any point in it.

It doesn't have to be like that, though.

If we humans are up to our eyebrows in metaphysics and values no matter what we do, then we've got more options than the eggheads in labcoats want us to think.

Follow the science? If it says anything worth saying, sure.

But that's up to us to decide, not for the death-worshipers to dictate to us.

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Great stories aren't subversive

When the writers try to critique everything, they're only telling bad stories

The subversive, by its very nature, seeks to tear down that which has been built up over the years, decades, and centuries. We see it at work whenever we watch the news on TV or on the ‘Net.

We even see it in the realms of fiction within the last decade. Long established characters and franchises with followings created over decades, are being “re-imagined.” The alterations tearing down what had been built up and what has emerged from the rubble is hardly recognizable.

-- Richard Paolinelli

You know what they say to writers?

"Show, don't tell."

That means that you, if you're a writer, want to paint a picture for the reader.

Let them experience the scene through the character's five senses, opinions, judgments, beliefs, and emotions.

For the reader, showing through description draws them into your created world.

You want the reader to experience the first rays of a warming sunrise on a morning where the wind bites your nose and burns your lungs.

The description creates immersion. Writing "The sun rose and it was cold" doesn't have the same hit, does it?

It's the same in the movies.

Many a horror film can carry suspense and a real hint of terror... right up to the moment when you see the monster.

What is implied by the monster is always more terrifying than the thing itself. The reader's own imagination can create demons worse than any artist.

Masters of horror and suspense stories understand this. They use the power of "Show, don't tell."

But not today's pop culture entertainment. Today we're going to tell the hell out of you.

Ridley Scott's Prometheus, which Your Host considers an otherwise satisfying (if flawed) movie, single-handledly wrecked the cosmic horror of the original Alien.

Discovering the long-dead "Space Jockey" in the crashed ship remains one of the most powerful and chilling scenes in the 1979 original.

We never get any idea of who or what this thing was. What's this weird-looking elephant thing doing there? Why is it plugged into a massive telescope thing? How long has it been there? The dialogue hints that it's been there long enough to fossilize.

The image works because it raises more questions than it answers. Since the Space Jockey is incidental to the main plot of the film, as the crew is far more interested in surviving a rampaging kill-monster, the audience leaves the film with nothing but a mystery.

That's weird fiction at its best.

But, no, wait. Actually that horrific cosmic mystery was a 9 foot tall albino bodybuilder in a flight suit. The ship's only been there maybe 2000 years. We've got a prequel to explain it all for you.

It's bad storytelling, yes. But let's call back to Richard Paolinelli's quote at the opening of this post.

This tendency to explain everything, to get rid of the showing and replace it with all the telling they can shove down our throats, doesn't stop at the ruination of storytelling.

Seeing the man in the rubber suit is the beginning of a subversive project. The "telling" explanations aren't there because the writers and directors and producers think the audiences are dumber.

Telling rather than showing opens the door to subversion.

Once you bring all the background assumptions into the light, you can start to question them.

Criticism isn't just about stuffy art critics writing mean-spirited sarcastic reviews.

It means challenging your most basic assumptions about how the world works.

The lack of creative energies in Hollywood and other once-fertile sectors of art and culture maybe isn't about laziness.

It's also a creeping sense of nihilism. Nothing has any meaning, we're going to critique it all, and then we'll rebuild it as we see fit.

They can try.

The only problem is that subversive art usually isn't entertaining. It's often humorless, unsatisfying, and insulting the reader with heavy-handed moralizing.

Burroughs, Howard, Lovecraft, and Smith may be "problematic", if you buy into that scam of language, but they knew how to tell a fun, exciting, entertaining, page-turning story.

I'd rather have a tale of Conan hacking a space-squid to bits than another boring sanitized lecture told by humorless drones with an agenda.

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How fast do you create a story?

The gatekeepers aren't looking out for the writers.

Don't answer yet. There's a trick in the question.

It isn't asking how fast you can write the story down on the page. You can get up to a blinding speed typing with your own fingertips. You can dictate your story faster than almost anybody can type it out.

That's the easy kind of speed.

Let's look at the question from a different angle.

How long does it take you to come up with an idea to write about? How long does it take you to develop the idea in your mind? How long does it take you to go from "idea" to completed story?

That's harder to answer, isn't it?

If you're like most writers, you tell yourself that it's hard to get ideas. It's hard to come up with anything to write about. Then you have to write it out. You feel blocked. You're tempted by all the distractions on your phone. You want to do anything BUT write.

Then you've got to rewrite it all once you've got it on the page. Edit, rewrite, get feedback from first readers, beta readers, reader groups, let the book doctor take a pass over it...

Forget eating the elephant. It feels like eating a whole buffet of elephants.

Then there's Dean Wesley Smith.

Dean's going to write four novels in July.

While he's doing that, he's going to write a non-fiction book about writing four novels in a month.

Crazy? Impossible? No way?

Don't be so hasty. This isn't a soft brag by a rank beginner. Dean's got the track record to prove it.

How does he write books at a pace that would kill a thoroughred?

He does it by following Heinlein's Rules:

  1. You must write.
  2. You must finish what you start.
  3. You must refrain from rewriting except to editorial order.
  4. You must put it on the market.
  5. You must keep it on the market until sold.

Write, finish, forget the endless rewriting, and ship it.

That's all.

But writing's supposed to be hard.

Who told you that, anyway?

Why did you trust that person?

Is it because you sit down at the keyboard and draw a blank? Because you can't ever come up with "a good idea"? Is it because you tell yourself your writing isn't very good?

You think writing is hard because you've been told it's hard.

You think that you can't do it because you've been told that it can't be done without the angst of the tortured Romantic artist.

You've been told that your books have to be sanded, filed, polished, and chiseled down to meet the standards of literary agents and New York editors.

Who sets those standards, anyway?

Ask yourself this question:

Does any of that mess matter unless you decide it matters?

The pulp writers of the old days turned out novels by the bushel. We remember many of them, their stories and their characters, than almost any of the serious artistes.

We write to entertain the readers.

Not to please the gatekeepers on the NYC cocktail circuit.

Not to get good marks from the failed English majors who appoint themselves grammar police on review sites.

All writers are involved in a craft.

You're learning. Always.

The best way to learn anything is to immerse yourself in the practice.

Make an ugly bird feeder. Aim to make the next one a little better. Repeat that pattern with patience and consistency and before long you'll be making nice looking woodwork.

So you wrote an ugly story. So what?

Throw the sucker on Amazon and see if anybody likes it.

Then go on to the next story.

Hemingway hated me. I sold 200 million books, and he didn't. Of course most of mine sold for 25 cents, but still... you look at all this stuff with a grain of salt.

- Mickey Spillane

This is a total mindset-flip.

It was for me, anyway. I bought into all that dogma. I treated the stories in my head as if they were special precious beauties that had to be treated with kid gloves.

These weren't just stories. They were special. They had to be treated with care.

Which meant I was staring down a year-long process just to get one book into shape.

I don't mind the work... but with that kind of climb in front of you, and no certain rewards behind it, that's enough to demoralize anybody.

Which is why those stories stayed in my head.

If you want to write, see yourself as a writer.

That means you show up to work. You practice. You aim to improve your technical skill.

You finish the work and you ship the work.

It's just a story.

If your readers like it, great. If they don't, you learn your lesson. Then move on to the next story.

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Why religion belongs in science fiction (even if you're an atheist)

Atheism has a place in speculative fiction but it shouldn't be the default assumption

Writer of horror Laird Barron once wrote in an interview:

Nyarlathotep and Jesus. Cthulhu and God. The Bible and the Necronomicon were the greatest horror stories ever told. Against the illimitable blackness of the cosmic ocean, my puny hardships were as the travails of a flea. We all have our bad patches, even the supreme and inscrutable overlords who exist beyond known reality.

-- Laird Barron

Mr. Barron raises a heckuva point that strikes right at the core of speculative fiction.

What is religion? What does it tell us about ourselves and the world?

Amongst the writers and fans of "hard" science fiction you're more likely to find an attitude of atheism. These hard-nosed minds fancy themselves as disciples of logic and observation, with no time for any silliness about the supernatural.

Religion is a just an old myth, using that word in its most un-kind meaning. The more science progresses, the more we learn that the universe isn't designed for us and we aren't exceptional in the greater scheme of things.

Copernicus, Galileo, Darwin, and Freud put an end to any serious possibility for believing in God or gods.

Your Host used to subscribe to that view. Then things got complicated.

The story of modern progress is a story of gradually replacing old-timey superstitions with the crystal-clear explanations offered up by science. The more we uncovered the hidden causes of events around us, the less we had to tell stories about gods and demons and faerie-folk and all that. The modern world is an exercise in understanding how things work by explaining what they do.

Here's the interesting thing about this tale of modern progress.

It's a story.

You could say it's our story. Certainly one of the most important stories we tell ourselves.

You could say it's part of our own cultural mythology.

I don't mean to imply that facts aren't facts. When Newton wrote down the laws of motion he didn't just cook up another fairy tale. He'd found out an interesting set of facts about the material universe.

Around here we're firmly in the camp that believes that science in general discovers real facts about the real physical world. The facts are not all relative to our choices, our culture, our language, whatever.

(It's also an unfortunate fact that a lot of what goes on in today's academic-industrial complex is flat-out wrong, unreliable, unable to replicate, and motivated by shady interests.)

But I also don't buy the arguments that science hands us a neat package of facts that show us the complete truth about the world and our place in it. The truth science shows us is much weirder than that.

We're all participants in reality, and nobody, not even the scientist, can claim a fully neutral viewpoint.

There are no spectators in this game. We're all out on the court, playing ball.

If you're wondering what's all this got to do with religion and the Necronomicon, here's the point.

Religious belief is one way that we make sense of ourselves in the world.

Rocks, toasters, and clouds don't ask themselves "why?" Those things all behave according to the laws of physics and chemistry.

Why are we here, what are we doing, what's it all for? Toasters don't care. But not humans. We do ask those questions. The answers matter to us. We're the only things that want to know why (so far as we know).

Materialists want to say that the difference between making sense and explaining causes isn't real.

When we ask these "why?" questions, we're just making noises. You can find the causes of those noises in the brain, if you look hard enough.

That sounds air-tight to a whole lot of people.

But there's a catch. Several catches.

Here's one of them. Materialists say that you're fooled by an illusion of meaning. But if there's an illusion, there's a true reality behind it. Who, or what, is being fooled if there's only illusions?

And what makes the materialist so sure that he's seeing the real reality instead of his own illusion?

Here's another catch. If you want to argue for materialism, you have to argue for it.

But there's no such thing called an "argument" in physics, chemistry, biology, or any natural science. Arguing, which is at heart asking for reasons and giving them, is a thing that humans do with other humans.

None of this is iron-clad proof that religion is true.

Which is the whole point.

Reality has mystery baked into the recipe.

It's way more interesting, fun, and exciting when there are no hard answers, when there's ambiguity and uncertainty.

Is there a God, or is it all electrical storm in your brain? Is the Bible a horror story, or is there really a divine principle looking out for us humans? Are we saved, or are we simply the playthings of a higher, malevolent form of intelligence?

Whatever your personal convictions, if you're writing in the speculative genres...

No definite answer will be as compelling as the uncertainty of the question.

Existential terror is fine and dandy, and I like few things more than a quality hit of Lovecraft or Clark Ashton Smith at their finest.

But the existential terror has to be tempered with a seed of humanity. Even if it's just a seed.

Nobody likes bleak for bleak's sake.

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Is it a good idea to colonize other planets?

Don't pack your bags just yet...

If we go by what Star Trek has told us for 60 years, you'll be able to rock up to any mid-sized planet and take a stroll without so much as a pressure suit.

You wouldn't believe that if you had a look around our local backyard.

Venus can melt lead at the surface. The big-boy outer planets don't have a surface to stand on. Jupiter's five times the distance from the Sun as we are, and it gets longer from there. Their moons are cold, airless, and lifeless (probably).

Mars is the "best" choice for setting up shop off Earth. Though that's like saying that eating broken glass with Tabasco sauce is the best choice when the only other option is to drink battery acid. Mars resembles the worst deserts on Earth, only without a trace of water, little atmosphere, pelted by radiation, covered by rogue sand-storms, and there might be sleeping tentacle-monsters we don't know about yet.

That's the best option.

Sci-fi on the tee-vee creates the impression that we're going to find a lot of Earth-like planets out there. That's possible.

But "Earth like" doesn't mean like Earth.

Is RP drinking again? Not yet.

"Earth like" means that we're talking about similarities in the gross physical parameters. Mass, diameter, orbital distance from the local star, surface temperature, chemical make-up.

That sounds optimistic until you realize that Earth-like is very general... while the conditions that support life on our home planet are extremely specific.

Look at how much the climate-change stuff freaks people out and they're only talking about a couple degrees change in the global mean temperature.

That's only one example. There's dozens, hundreds of variables. Air pressure. Chemical make-up of the atmosphere. Gravity. Tides. Moons to create them.

Odds of finding a planet that is dialed in precisely, or even close enough to walk around with minimal protection? I don't know and I strongly doubt anyone can make an honest calculation. But I wouldn't put money on it.

Kim Stanley Robinson's novel 2312 has a line that really brings home the problems with this whole project of colonizing other planets (no spoilers).

It goes like this.

If you colonize a planet that can't support life, you'll have to bring all of your survival needs with you on the trip.

If you find a planet that does support life, you'll have to compete with it... meaning you'll have to bring all of your survival needs with you on the trip.

That's right. Even if we find life out there, which is likely to the point of almost certainty IMHO, there's no guarantee it will be anything like us.

We're not talking about primitive humans with spears and different forehead shapes. Think deeper than that.

We're talking about differences in the fundamental units of life. The genetic code and the amino acids that alien life uses are unlikely to be similar to our own. Everything from the bacteria and viruses and all the other tiny organisms you never think about would be totally different.

Which means you can't eat them. Which means you can't grow your own food without a whole lot of trouble.

And they'd be everywhere, much the way that life on Earth is pretty much everywhere.

It's real easy to forget how much Earth gives us "for free". Air, water, protection from space-rage, gravity. Out in a spaceship, on another planet, you don't get any of that. You have to haul it all out there with you.

Life-supporting planets may be rare, and if a planet can support life you can expect life has already taken over.

The Culture has the right idea. Living on planets is for chumps. If you want to live in space, build luxury habitats.

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Space is terrifying

Lots of people could be watching you right now (and they aren't in Silicon Valley for once)

The eggheads have made a shocking discovery:

The researchers identified 1,715 stars that could have spotted Earth transits since about 5,000 years ago, which is about when civilizations began to bloom on Earth.


It gets better (worse):

... the researchers estimated that 29 of these 75 stars may possess rocky worlds in their habitable zones.

Seven of the 2,034 stars are known hosts of exoplanets that have had or will have the chance to detect Earth just as Earth's scientists have detected them. Three of these seven exoplanetary systems — K2-65, K2-155 and K2-240 — can currently see Earth.

A key tenet of ours around this slice of the cyberspace:

You DON'T want to discover the aliens.

If they're out there, let 'em be.

Why's that? Aren't they going to be fuzzy forehead people with warp drives, just like mass pop culture drilled into your brain for the last 70 odd years?

Far be it from me to challenge what's programming your brain-waves on the TV.

But the puzzle known to normies as "Fermi's Paradox" implies strange and frankly worrying consequences.

Why's it so quiet out there?

All those nearby stars... lots of them with rocky planets in the star's habitable zone... and not a peep.

No signals. No signs of high-energy propulsion. No antimatter farms. No visits from self-replicating probes (maybe).

Earth's about four and a half billion years old.

Best guess is that the median age of planets is close to six and a half billion years with the oldest being around 9 billion.

That's a huge gap.

If Earth is a typical, unexceptional, not-special occupant of the universe, then we should expect the average age of civilizations to be much older than ours.

All modern science does assume this. It's called the Copernican principle. We are not special.

With all the stars out there...

Some of them very old...

And the likelihood that a few of these very old stars ought to have civilizations older than Earth's continents...

Where is everybody?

Maybe they're all dead. Maybe civilizations don't last that long. Maybe they're at a sleepover with Chtulhu.  

You can cook up any number of explanations.

But you mean to say that not one of them sent out self-replicating devices? Not one of them sent out a signal that we’d detect? Not one of them made a neat-o decoration out of stars?

That defies belief.

That should terrify you down to your frozen bones.

It means either that our scientific studies of the stars have gone badly wrong somewhere, somehow...

Or else we are badly mistaken about some of our key assumptions – about how common life should be, about what minds are like, about how species evolve, about intelligence and its motivations... and so on.

Maybe Earth isn't as typical as the scientists and natural philosophers assume.

Maybe there's another reason it's so quiet out there.

Maybe everybody else knows to keep their fool mouths shut.

And if somebody did turn up out there? It might be better to skip the "hello".

Instead of E.T. you might find The Thing knocking at your door.

It might not be as bad as all that. Instead of carnivorous shapeshifters in flying saucers, it might just be that everybody dies out in the cold night.

Though I'd rather have the crazy aliens I think.

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How to sell books when everybody's selling books

What happens when books become a customer acquisition tool?

If you're old enough to remember Napster, you remember a time when people had to go to the music shop to buy music on CDs or tapes.

Music shop? CD?

Barely memories from a more barbarous time. Back before we had more music, of more styles, than we could ever listen to in 100 lifetimes.

It took a few decades, but what went for music will be the fate of all art and culture.

Right now, Big Publishing is next on the chopping block. Many writers have gotten a clue and turned to indie publishing as publishing houses consolidate, agents and editors become harder to find, and contracts become more onerous for writers.

But that's just the beginning. Publishing insider Mike Shatzkin informs us of bigger upsets waiting in the wings.

What happens when anybody that wants to be a publisher can be a publisher?

These will be books delivered by a vast unaffiliated network of entities doing publishing as a “function”, not publishing as a “business”.

Publishing is a function rather than a primary business. Marinate on that for a minute. Then ask yourself what that means if you're out there trying to hustle books. If that's your livelihood, you'd best have a Plan B.

What happens after this:

Across what will be many times the number of titles as are now being published, making money will sometimes happen. But in most cases the payoff from the publishing “investment” will be expected to be realized in other ways. The new players who are doing “publishing as a function” will also band together in countless opportunistic ways. But, once again, that asymmetry of economic purpose will be poison to people trying to publish books as a rational, stand-alone economic enterprise.

The 20th century model of writing a book, selling it to a publisher, and sailing off into the sunset on a yacht of gold is done.

(Not that it ever worked but for a handful of mega-stars anyway.)

The books aren't the business. For the most part they never were. So...

How do you sell books in the tsunami of books?

Answer: The (profitable) business is not selling books. Changes in publishing, writing, and reading mean that you've got to stay innovative.

First: You aren't selling BOOKS.

That's hard to grok for creators who grew up pre-internet and those poor lost souls who fell into the avant garde literary circuits.

That crowd believes that the book is the product. Your success is determined by reviews, praise, five-star ratings on Amazon, and sales numbers.

You win when you get a lot of sales. That's the game they're playing.

That's not the game anymore.

Writers aren't selling books.

The book is a commodity. With printing and fulfillment and distribution now cheap and available to anyone who wants it, that bottleneck is gone. Poof.

Being in the book-selling business right now is like being in the CD selling business in 1999.

Not the place I'd want to set up shop.

But you aren't selling books, are you?

As a writer you're really in a different business.

Writers sell entertainment.

Entertainment is medium-agnostic.

Readers like to read, so you give them that experience.

But you aren't limited to that. That's not your primary business.

There's lots of ways to sell entertainment.

Have you considered some of them?

Second: You aren't SELLING books.

Professional authors aren't in the business of writing stories, printing and binding them, and then selling those copies to buyers one transaction at a time.

Think bigger.

You're selling YOU before anything else.

A personality. A brand. You're a person that fascinates and commands attention.

You're building an audience. A community. You're building a world for people to play in.

Too many authors out there – amateurs and pros alike – still peddle the belief that the writing business is transactional.

I make thing, you buy thing.

These folks don't know business and don't want to know it.

While I can sympathize...

That ain't how it works.

If you're stuck in the mindset that your business is selling book-units to customers, you're going to lose the new game.

Treat your work as a commodity and it will vanish into the infinite shelf space with all the other mediocrities.

To stand out, you must stand out. That's the real game.

Third: You get paid by getting paid

And how do you do that?

The same way every successful business does it.

You put a desirable offer in front of the right person in the right situation.

Easy enough if you've got a business behind it. Use the books as a customer-getting tool, build your house list, and sell them the real stuff on the back end.

But what about the fiction authors?

Direct marketers may be able to publish books as channel for acquiring customers, but what happens if you're a storyteller who wants to write fiction? How's that going to work?

The answer's the same.

You have a lot of stuff to sell your readers.

That might lead you to thoughts about merchandise, but it doesn't only mean that.

It does mean having a lot of stories to sell. More stories means more opportunities for promotion. More chances to show up and be found. More items of conversation for people to talk about. More goods for sale in your shop.

It won't be quick and it won't be easy at first, but you really can make a living by writing a lot.

From there, the only limits are your imagination. Expand into other media. Collaborate with graphic artists and musicians. Create premium editions of your works. License your creations (wisely).

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How nerd culture turned curiosity into a vice

Why listening to fans is a horrible idea for any creator

Listening to customer feedback is one of the worst things you can do as a creator. 

Let's take liberty with that word "customer". If you're an author (in any medium), you probably don't think of your readers as customers. That's a mistake.

Shouldn't you care what your buyers think?

Yes. And no.

Yes, because they have to buy from you. If you aren't giving them stuff they want, then you aren't in business. You might win literary awards on the cocktail circuit... but just try to pay your rent with a Booker prize.

But here comes the "but..."

You care what your readers think as long as they're buying.

That doesn't mean that they themselves have the first idea of why they buy.

If you listened to nerds, the reason why they like things is because they can obsess over it. 

The Marvel Cinematic Universe isn't too much different from the gossips obsessing over celebrities. 

Nerds will ask for stuff that nerds know and like.

They want lists of rules and stats and backstory. They want that stuff by the truckload.

What nerds want and will buy – the stories that get their attention in the first place – that's different.

Tolkien may be the one exception to this rule. He really did spend decades digging into his created world.

Most writers just make stuff up. 

A throwaway line here, a cool sounding name there, a mysterious phrase in chapter 9... that's how worlds get built.

Fan the flames of curiosity and leave 'em slobbering like a hungry dog. 

But then it gets weird. 

Harmless entertainment degenerates into an obsession with trivia:

And the most absurd manifestation is the rise of “geek culture” – of people who devote enormous amounts of time and energy to learning and thinking about the minutiae of fictional universes from movies, comics, and games, or who obsess over the work and personal lives of favorite actors, musicians, bands, etc.  My point, as longtime readers know, is by no means to disparage such things per se.  But for many people today, such trivial pursuits have gone well beyond a point that is spiritually healthy, and have become a kind of substitute religion.‌
‌– Ed Feser

Creator Mode isn't anything like Consumer Mode. 

They occupy two different mental spaces.

That kind of feedback shouldn't guide your creative process. If it does, you won't be creative for long.

Sure, you can build a steady income by chasing trends over at the Kindle store. 

But are you building a career by doing what everybody else does, only a little bit different?

Doubt it. 

The best writers, the writers you know by name, didn't do that.

They took a stand and wrote from their own unique point of view.

They don't follow the herd, they lead it.

Getting feedback from consumer nerds is one more way to chase trends.

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Why your heroic character shouldn't be a moral saint

When writing characters becomes an exercise in virtue signaling, you've lost the plot (and your readers)

What kind of character are you writing when you write a hero?

If you follow today's pop culture out there in the Land of Netflix and gaming and comics, you might come away with one of two impressions.

  1. A hero is relentlessly kind and nice to everyone
  2. There are no heroes, only shades of moral grey

You either write an always-smiling "Nice Guy/Girl" who makes everyone nauseous... or you turn into a goth kid who only preaches despair because it's more realistic, man.

Writing real people almost seems to rule out writing a "moral" character.

Real people have conflicting motives. They want different things. They place different values on different goals. They have living bodies that need food, water, and shelter.

Et cetera.

How can you capture that rich palette of realistic motives driving a well-rounded character, and still tell a story about the boring guy who only cares about doing his duty?

Here's one thing to think about. A good-guy doesn't have to be obsessed with duty.

No realistic character can be a piece of cardboard. He and/or she will be a conflicted mess of motivations, incompatible values, and mutually exclusive goals. Ain't nobody perfect what's born in the mortal flesh.

Many slow 'n shallow thinkers would take that fact and reason their way to despair. If nobody's perfect, then there's no standards at all.

Heck, maybe the only good thing to do is be kind and tolerant of everybody's choices no matter how silly, awful, or dangerous to others.

Not so fast.

Like I wrote the other day about the existentialist hero in a grimdark world, the absence of perfect people doesn't mean you can't orient yourself in the general direction of Good and Evil.

I may not know the exact geometric proportions of the line between Black and White, but I can sure tell which side we're standing on.

Here's another thing. Doing the right thing doesn't mean being kind and nice to everyone without exception.

That's a pretty silly thing to believe if you think about it for even half a second.

If you see someone in immediate danger and don't shove them out of the way because it might be rude... you've acted badly.

Extreme example though entirely true. Morality isn't about making people feel good, loved, recognized, accepted, or esteemed.

Do you really believe that you live in a world where anything a person wants is "good" just because they want it? Up here in 2021 that's the running standard for those lost souls still plugged into the Cable TV. Out here in the real world of humans, we know better.

Slippery standards or no, there is such a thing as a bad decision.

If I wanted to bore you with moral philosophy, I'd point out to you that there's an old tradition of treating "moral" as synonymous with "pure".

A real good-guy must be pure-hearted, selfless, altruistic to a fault, working for the Higher And Greater Good Of All. He acts for higher reasons than his own silly human motivations.

I draw your attention to the interesting choice of words here: "to a fault".

The words raise an interesting question. Can somebody be "too moral"?

Can a person be so selfless and pure-hearted that it becomes a character flaw?

Some resist the conclusion. A good person is a saintly person.

Me, I'm a realist. You can take almost any positive characteristic and find a situation where it becomes a vice.

Funny enough, ancient minds were far more perceptive about this angle on human behavior.

There's reason why Aristotle put practical wisdom at the head of the list of virtues.

A truly good person knows when it's proper to behave according to the rules of impartial morality -- and he also knows when it's time to throw down like Batman.

Being a good and moral person doesn't mean being a rube, dupe, or any kind of mark. You can't be a good moral person if you're crippled, sick, or dying in the streets. And not only that, a good person is able to freely choose his or her own goals and take responsibility for them.

Part of morality is taking care of yourself and those closest to you.

Any realistic hero worth caring about is going to be a writhing seething mess of psychological motivations.

Heroes are going to experience conflict. They're going to doubt, second-guess, and make bad calls. They might even do bad things from time to time.

The point of the Hero is not flawless goodness to a fault. Superman is a fun and admirable heroic character, but you can only tell so many interesting stories about the immortal demi-god. Superman never feels conflict over his sense of duty.

If there were any moral saints, they'd make for boring characters and bad role models.

Batman, now there's a guy with problems. Batman lives in the shadows. He knows pain and fear. He's not the ideal represented by the Big S, which only makes him all the more relatable.

We "get" Batman because we all know what it's like to have to choose between good and bad. We understand that struggle to figure out the right thing and then make ourselves do it. The higher the stakes, the harder that choice gets.

That struggle (and the occasional stumble) is what makes an interesting hero.

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Public post

How are your readers using your stories?

What you think you're doing when you write... and what you're really doing

The most tempting mistake made by an author of stories, fictional or non-fictional, is the myth that the quality of our work matters.

"What? Why wouldn't quality matter? Of course it matters!"

And of course it does. A minimal competence in the craft and a basic familiarity with the English language are prerequisites. That isn't in question.

That isn't the point.

Many bright, over-qualified, over-credentialed, grammar-obsessed writers out there will never publish a single story in any form. Of those that do, most will produce that one, or a small handful, and sell less than 1000 books in a lifetime.

Meanwhile, the low-brow "genre fiction" catering to the proles sells books in the tens of thousands, creating memorable characters, ideas that shape the culture, and often moving on into other media like film and TV.

The most natural thing to focus on is what we think we have control over: the "quality" of what we do/make/write. But the assumption is that the quality of what WE do maps directly to quality for the end-user, and this is rarely the case.

It is not that our users (whether they are our readers, app users, conference attendees, etc.) don't appreciate quality... but it is never OUR quality that matters, it is the quality of what our users are able to do as a result.

– Kathy Sierra

Creative works serve a function for us as human beings – for us as creators and for us as consumers.

The biggest mistake you, the creator, can make is to confuse the two. What YOU want isn't the same thing as what your readers want.

Does that sound like sacrilege to you? Art's supposed to be outside the realm of pragmatic interests. Art springs from supernatural, divine, or at least extra-ordinary well-springs of creative power.

No argument there.

You can (and should) still look at your creative work from the standpoint of what it does.


Readers don't read your books for English lessons. They aren't there because your perfect grammar and sentence construction warms their shy cockles. They don't pick up your latest novel in order to be blown away by the struggle and the torment and the time it took your battered soul to create.

What’s it actually there for? Decoration? Showing off? A conversation starter? An ice breaker? A way of telling a story? Something to brighten up the room? A symbol of social status? An expression of individual worldview? An expression of emotion? A totem to remind oneself of something inspirational and/or important? Perhaps a bit of all these?

– Hugh MacLeod,

Readers read your stories because your stories do something for them.

It might be that your book is that book – the one that all the hot-shot critics and NYC editors (the few of those left) rave about – in which case your work signifies status to a certain in-group. If you're one of the elect few willing and ready to bow at the altar of the failing "OldPub" culture, this could be you – if you've built the right network and the stars align over sunken R'lyeh.

For most of us writers, the "what it does" comes down to a single word.


Our readers want a few minutes of escape from the drag of their boring lives.

To get even more abstract, readers want an experience built up of specific emotions. Readers are much like movie-goers and game-players in that respect.

One more reason to think twice about letting geek-fandoms give you "feedback" to shape your writing (a post for another day).

It would be to your advantage, writer, to think of yourself as an entertainer first. Forget about the medium of the telling and get on with the telling.

What business are you really in?

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Why different is better than better (authors, pay attention)

"Write to the market," say the experts to the writer.

"There's a hungry crowd out there. Give them what they want and your book will be successful."

The lesson is that, what worked before will continue working as we move ahead. Keep writing those zombie vampire romances topping the charts this month and watch your sales rank soar.

You know the saying, "the map is not the territory"?

Here's a new and improved version:

The map isn't the journey.

The map in your hand codes all the information about the territory into a single unit. It's all laid out right there in front of you.

It's nothing like that when you make the hike, is it?

You can't see everything all at once. There's a surprise around every corner.

The map might make you think you've got it all figured out.

But maps can be wrong. The landscape can change. There might be a grizzly bear on the path you need to take.

When you write to the market, you're looking behind you. You see what worked. Stress on the past tense.

That's reading off the map. The safe, easy, simple, secure approach to artistic creation.

Those bestseller trends you're chasing didn't happen because the writer looked at what was working.

They happened because somebody got the bright idea to wander off into the unexplored spaces.

They had the courage and the vision to write a story that was different.

Bucking the trends instead of chasing them.

In direct marketing, there's a saying that goes like this: "Different is better than better".

If you want to sell a better pain pill, you don't tell the buyer that it's better. Nobody wants a better widget.

Instead, you offer them a different widget.

A widget that doesn't work like the other widgets. A widget that won't do the same things in the same ways.

A new opportunity always pulls better than a tweak to the stuff they already know.

The problem with unique and distinct is that you can't tell in advance if it's going to work. Lots of things are unique and never gather up attention.

Writers have a simple solution for this. Write more books. Tell more stories. Find your audience. Somebody will like your work. There's an audience for almost anything.

But you won't find it if you dilute your unique point of view to sell to what you believe the market wants. Let the market decide that.

Read on the site:

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rogue planet

What a quiet painter can teach fiction authors about creativity (and building your business)

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Is science fiction a myth?

What happens when fanboys and bean counters take control of the writer's imagination?

The story goes like this:

Once upon a time, silly foolish humans believed that the world was flat and the stars hung in crystalline spheres around the firmament.

Then along came Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, and Darwin bearing the Truth of Science, and finally humankind could set aside our superstitious myths to see the world in the light of Reason.

Several hundred years into this process, this has become a firmly established bulwark in our culture.

Defenders of the so-called "Enlightenment" tell us that it's more than a cultural process. The truths uncovered by science are really-real stuff revealing the secrets of the universe. We've hit on truths which are unique, timeless, and universal.

Critics of the project have argued, for better and worse, that the process of revelation is hopelessly caught up in culture. The desire for pitiless objectivity remains above all a human desire, caught up in human projects and directed by human interests.

The narratives of the Enlightenment do have some claim to real innovation, if only because of their effects on our quality of life and our ability to do things. But they are narratives, all the same.

The dividing line between the old myths and the new sciences isn't nearly so clear as the "Pro" side of the argument wants it.

This battle won't be settled here. It raged, and still rages, through nearly every part of our culture.

Even in the arts, the push-and-shove between hard-line realists, who believe that art has an aesthetic and even an ethical duty to mirror reality, and those more "myth minded" creators who live in the airy-fairy spaces of the imagination, hasn't worked itself out.

It likely never will.

In a recent series of posts, author JD Cowan has lately explored the nerdish gatekeeping and corporate mediocrity that manufactured the genre of "Science Fiction" out of nothing. The series is well worth reading in its entirety.

If storytelling is about evoking certain patterns of feeling in the reader, then the narrative form, the use of evocative metaphor and figurative language, the telling of heroic and (yes indeed) moral tales, these are all central to science fiction.

They aren't distractions that you can dismiss with a wave of the hand and an appeal to The Rules.

The quest for faultless accuracy, excess attention to "the numbers", letting your story be told according to the limits of our best scientific theories, and other tropes of diamond-hard sci-fi can situate themselves within the genres of the fantastic.


I don't deny that part, and I'm not sure anyone would.

But we've all seen the nerds. We all know about "Fandom" and its bizarre obsession with details.

The issue comes when nerdly gatekeepers take it on themselves to build an iron fortress with a gator-filled moat around their special territory.

"That stuff", the likes of Burroughs, Howard, Lovecraft, and even Tolkien, goes over there in the fantasy box. We'll only allow the good stuff in here with us.

The obsession with manning the gates was only aggravated by its convenience for traditional "OldPub" publishing houses and the bookstore shelving format. Robots and spaceships go in Science Fiction, everything else is Fantasy.

Convenient, maybe, though not the stuff that a writer wants clogging up the imagination when it's time to create.

It's all fantastic literature. Even the sciency looking stuff with shiny chrome rockets and "nano-" prefixed to everything.

All speculation, all drawn from the well-stocked imagination of a creative mind.

All of these stories are Wonder Literature meant to evoke emotional responses in the reader with tales of far-off times and places.

As David Farland points out:

The big hits of all time have almost always been wonder literature—from Homer’s The Odyssey, to Milton’s Paradise Lost, and Shakespeare’s plays like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Tempest, and Hamlet. All of these were wonder literature, along with other such classics as Swiss Family Robinson, Treasure Island, and The Jungle Book.

Versimilitude matters -- but the point of imaginative literature is not to give the most accurate report on the facts and laws of nature.

It's to tell a story about interesting people with interesting prolems in interesting places.

We forget that at our own risk.

If I sound like an old romantic poet, then so be it. Romantics understood the human condition to a depth that no scientist -- or science-obsessed geek -- ever will.

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Can you write an existential "anti-hero" without the grimdark?

Fiction needs real good guys & bad guys.

That life is chaotic, unjust and apparently blinded without reason or direction anyone can see; if the universe leans either way it is toward evil rather than good, as regards life and humanity. That there is any eventual goal for the human race rather than extinction, I do not believe nor do I have any faith in the eventual Superman. Yet the trend of so many materialists to suppress all primitive emotions is against my every instinct.

– Robert E. Howard

I confess – I don’t read much modern-day fantasy or science fiction.

I don’t watch TV and see very few movies made after 2000, but from glancing at the reviews, I see I’m not missing much.

There are many reasons for this, though none stands out to me more than the nihilism absorbed so easily by today’s writers (in my experience with them).

Barring certain exceptions – such as the superb and uplifiting works found in the Superversive SFF movement – too many “genre” stories run to the bleak for my tastes.

When I say bleak, I don’t mean the express sort of total cynical pessimism and pessimistic cynicism that you find in a Peter Watts or R. Scott Bakker novel.

We’re all swimming in a vast and empty ocean of postmodernism. Ask the fish about the water and they’ll meet you with a question mark.

Even the superficial good-guy characters turn out to be enigmatic ciphers with no personality of their own.

Which raises the question:

Can there be any such thing as a real hero in a colorless world?

Heroism supposes villainy. Such an opposition can only exist in a world painted with rich shades of moral color.

Moral valence raises unavoidable questions of freedom and responsibility. If we’re all postmodernists now, living by the rules set by doctrines of materialism and scientific naturalism, can there be heroes?

If villainy can be explained away as a motley assortment of medical disorders in the brain, a result of socio-economic forces, the conclusion of historical class-struggle, the action of impersonal “power” on living bodies – in short, as anything and everything but the product of an individual’s own responsible volition – can there be a real hero?

What to do?

The pragmatic advice to writers is simple enough: Write heroic heros and bad bad-guys.

When the critics come – hell with them. Find your audience and give ’em what they want. There’s enough of us out here starving for good fun writing without oppressive grimdark or ideological finger-wags.

Nagging philosophical worries are best put aside when getting on with the important creative work.

Still. Yes, there’s a still.

Even the bleak nihilism that seems handcuffed at the wrist to scientific materialism isn’t incompatible with heroism or a robust concept of villainy.

Freedom is a shifty mutant thing, but that doesn’t mean we can obliterate it with a handful of influential scientific theories in physics and biology.

Freedom persists despite the march of science and technology.

Robert E. Howard, like Lovecraft, believed the world to be without purpose. But he still wrote the likes of Conan, Soloman Kane, and Bran Mak Morn as if they lived in a universe of Good and Evil, and where a man of good will could outmatch even the Devil by wit or weapon.

Conan, the amoral barbarian? There’s more ambiguity, harder choices, more gratuitous swordplay in a Howard story compared to, say, Tolkien or C. S. Lewis.

Even so, for the most part, the reader is never left in doubt.

You never doubt who the bad guys are, and who you want to win.

Conan has a point of view. He is capable of good and evil. And he exists in a world where he, and the reader, can make sense of the difference.

That little provocation leaves us with a few tantalizing threads.

What’s going on with this attraction to heroic barbarism when we’ve got a comfortable and safe civilization going on up here?

Is the world as meaningless as our sober-minded rational-humanist intellectuals tells us must be?

Does a heroic character have to be a pure and saintly helper of the weak and downtrodden without exception?

Might our moral intuitions be as confused as our postmodern culture’s worship at the altar of Desire?

Might good and evil appear in the mundane world of everyday deeds rather than grand gestures of Kindness and Justice?

Tune in next time for more...

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