Impopular Culture

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Coming at the world from an unexpected angle, far too fast to stop.

The Business End - 2

WritingPosted by Pelotard 2011-01-11 20:16:40

How do I do, Sir, how do I behave?

Last time I ended on a question: How do you make them like you? And actually, the situation when I submit a manuscript isn’t all that different from when I try to find clients for a translation agency. The service and the target audience are a bit different, but the same basics apply. If anything, I’m in a better situation when I send out a manuscript, because I know I’ve got the acquisitions manager on the other end. It’s their job to read those letters and try to figure out which one to buy. If any.

This is where it helps to be professional.

Imagine that you’re a salesperson trying to sell them something. A new office chair. Or better still, something expensive, like a new telephone switchboard. How do you go about it?

One possible strategy is to tell them how much you want to sell it, because you need the money.

Rather silly, right?

So... tell them how much they’re going to like it, maybe? Or hand out chocolate? Or print a leaflet saying All Brand New, Be The First In Your Block To Own One?

Are you selling any switchboards?

No, you’re not. What you need to tell them is how much more money they’re going to make when they have the brand new switchboard. They’re going to like it, but not because it’s green, but because it filters out useless salespeople like yourself so they can focus on making their own sales calls. Or whatever.

In short: What’s in it for them?

That’s how you do business. You tell the prospective customer how they’re going to benefit from owning whatever it is you have to sell. (And one thing you’ve never seen, not even in your spam email, is advertising telling you how stupid you are for not buying the product. Insulting the customer is not the way to make them change their mind, it’s the way to make them tell all their friends what a loser you are.)

And since it’s B2B, you simply point out the strengths of your product, in a low-key manner. You’re quietly confident. Because you know that you have the best product on the market. At least, that’s the impression you want to give.

And if they disagree, you smile, wish them a nice day, and move on. It wasn’t for them. They already bought a new switchboard, or only have one phone, or prefer them in yellow, or promised to buy their cousin’s old one. Whatever the reason, it’s not your problem. Forget them already, there’s another waiting for your call.

And if you do this consistently, you will, underneath it all, give the message they really want to hear. You show them that you understand their situation. You show them that your goal is aligned with theirs—to make copies fly off the shelves and be brought home by readers. You show them that you’re easy to do business with.

There’s no way to over-estimate that. I have about 100 suppliers that I use with some regularity. Most of them aren’t the cheapest, or the best quality, or the fastest delivery.

They’re easy to do business with. Things may go wrong, but they take it seriously and do whatever they can to fix it. They don’t argue endlessly over small issues, but see to it that the greater picture works. They want the same things I want. They want my clients to be happy. Happy clients are returning clients.

And again, sending out a manuscript is a lot easier than selling what I’ve sold—translations. Because there’s any number of companies around that simply have no need whatsoever for a translation. Your average agent or editor really wants you to convince them to buy. It’s their core business.

And if you show them what’s in it for them, they’re going to love you.

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The Business End - Lesson 1

WritingPosted by Pelotard 2011-01-05 22:55:57

In blogs and message boards, I see a lot of confusion when aspiring writers approach agents and publishers. Most of us seem to take everything personally. A select few have groked that we’re approaching a business, and try to remember what marketing is supposed to look like.

We invariably fail.

I’ve decided to do a series on business in my blog. Sure, what I know about the publishing business could be written on a stamp without having to rub the Queen out first. But I do have some business credentials. I’ve run a translation agency, for instance. And almost all I’ve done for a living for the past 15 years has involved what is known as ”B2B”—Business to Business, i.e., a company selling something to another company.

If you don’t know what this has to do with writing, you absolutely need to read this.

The moment you send something off to a publisher, a magazine, an agent, anyone in publishing, you’ve stopped being a species of artist. You’ve become a businessperson.

Repeat this: ”I’m a businessperson”. Keep repeating until you believe it.

You are trying to sell something (your text) to a company (Random House). They see you as another company, trying to sell your services to them. OK, they don’t expect you to suddenly acquire a degree in sales. But they do expect you to behave with something akin to professionalism.

Lesson One:

Do Not Take Anything Personally.

It’s hard to do when rejections pile up in your mailbox. But the people at the other end are running a business. They’re trying to show a profit, not because they’re evil capitalists trying to debase everything that’s beautiful and artistic, but because they have to put bread on the table, every day. If they don’t believe your text can put bread on their tables, they’re not going to offer a contract.

Sure, most people in publishing are there because they love good writing. Some even publish poetry, for the luvva, the only reliable way to get rid of money faster is to set fire to it. But they have mortgages to pay, children to clothe, stomachs to feed. Remember this. It’s not about the writing being good (although that’s certainly a factor), it’s about the writing being sellable. For the bread to arrive on the table, ultimately, people will have to be willing to hand over money for getting the experience of reading what you wrote. If you can’t accept that, go do something else.

So, the first thing you need to do is to get rid of your ego. Approach everything with an analytical mind—a bit like Spock, if you will. Another rejection? Your covering letter isn’t doing its job. Or your writing. Don’t mope (OK: fifteen minutes of complete self-pity is acceptable), don’t whine, try to find the problem and fix it.

Swedish has a beautiful phrase for this: Gilla läget. ”Like the situation”. No matter what mess you find yourself in, the way to get it sorted is not to sit and stare into space, wishing that things were otherwise. You have to like the situation, deal with it as it is, and find a solution.

This does not mean being rude to the publisher who rejected you, gloating in front of agents who rejected you when your novel tops the bestseller lists, or hating the ”gatekeepers” and believing that the fault must lie with the thousands of people in publishing, not with you. It means that you try to behave in a way that makes them like you.

More on that in the next post.

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#Themefail

WritingPosted by Pelotard 2010-12-09 23:20:06

I'm just through reading Surface Detail by Iain Banks. As always (or at least very neraly always), Banks' writing is top class, and I enjoyed it all the way through, which isn't bad considering 1) it was 600 pages, 2) lately, I've taken to chucking books across the room about one third of the way through because they annoyed me. Usually because the protagonist was described as a super-genius but became a complete moron the moment the plot required it of him.

I haven't blogged about any of the chuckers. It's not a done thing for an aspiring writer to tell the world how much some named, published writers sucked.

Here, I'm sort of making an exception. I feel I can do this because it's a book I actually liked, by one of my favourite authors. Not that I'm going to say that anything in it sucked, as such. But there was one rather spectacular failure that's of interest to writing in general, so I though I might say a fe words about it. It's to do with theme.

Surface Detail is one of Banks' Culture novels; you don't have to have read any of them to follow my reasoning—or let's say that my reasoning will be equally confusing and pointless whether you've read any or not—but it takes place in an extremely high-tech civilization spanning a huge amount of worlds (some of them artificial). The premise is that people's personalities can be stored in what I suppose you'll have to call "computers" in the same way that you might use the word "boat" for both Queen Elizabeth 2 and a log that you sit on while paddling with your feet. And when the physical person dies, the softcopy of the personality can be incarnated in an artificial body, or in a virtual world designed to any specs you care to name.

On some planets, it has been decided that if you've been bad when you live, you'll be incarnated in a virtual Hell. Other planets take a dim view of this, and war ensues.

This is, of course, a situation which could be full with all sorts of ethical dilemmas and interesting conflicts. There's potential to have people who are mostly bad but happen to side with the good, and vice versa.

Unfortunately, this is mostly absent from Surface Detail.

What you have is one of the Hells, described in loving, gory detail so that we can have no doubt that this is a Bad Thing. Certainly something that only the weirder sort of religions can applaud, and their single representative on these 600 pages is an Obviusly Bad Person. It isn't even felt to be necessary to explain why the good guys are opposed to this; they don't even have to have their moral reasons for their opposition displayed—opposing Hell is actually enough to qualify you as Good Guy, initially, although it's revealed later that some of the Bad Guys are also opposed to Hell. No reason is given for this, either; it's simply assumed that any civilized person (or alien) must be. This is the only shading available: it's so obviously bad that even the bad guys are opposed to it.

I strongly suspect that this lack of deeper detail in Surface Detail is because the premise, on closer inspection, has difficulties holding together.

On a very basic level, the software copies of personalities have legal rights. But the extent of these rights are never defined. Probably just as well.

Do they have the right to be run? (Would they than ever elect to be run other than in a simulation full of extreme bliss?) Or are they only safe against being deleted? Can they own property? (What would they want with property?) Do they own the original person's property? If they are copied, does the copy own all, half, or none of the property? Can they vote? Can they still vote after they've copied themselves onto a billion trillion computers (which they may or may not own)? Are there safeguards against them ganging up on the living? Or is that discrimination? Either the safeguards or the ganging up; pick either. Or both.

Nothing of all this is covered in the novel. Fortunately, the character it happens to didn't own anything anyway. And noone thought to make a few copies of her. Could have become awkward otherwise.

Then we have a problem that runs deeper. It's in all of the novels where "copy your personality" is used as a plot device. Is the copy the same person as the original?

Peter Hamilton's Commonwealth Saga sidestepped the question altogether. From society's point of view, the copy was the same. Most characters believed that their recording, when inserted into a clone, was still them. Some, though, didn't—so the narrative wasn't decided on the issue.

The transporters in Star Trek do it differently. They take Spock apart into his constituent atoms, zap them through space, and reassemble them on Vulcan. (The reason for this particular technical solution is that it was too expensive to shoot the Enterprise landing on a new planet in every episode.) In that case, planet-side Spock is arguably the same person as Enterprise-side Spock: it's the same atoms put together the same way.

Other novels featuring transporter technology will have the transporter scan the exact quantum state of every particle, which destroys the original. Then a copy is assembled at the target location, using locally available atoms. Still, it's a fundamental tenet of quantum mechanics that all particles of one type—neutrons, say, or electrons—are completely indistinguishable, so it is still arguably the same Spock: you can't really tell whether it's the same atoms or different ones. Then again, quantum mechanics seemingly forbids you to record a complete quantum state due to complementarity, so maybe we shouldn't talk too loudly about this, in case quamtum mechanics notices.

For the software variety, it's a bit easier. Since you can make the backup while I'm still alive, the software personality, although a perfect simulation, can't be me. I'm still here. The other bloke's in the machine, doing whatever it is ghosts do to pass the time.

So, does it make sense to punish the software version because I've been bad?

Not really, huh?

Sure, the software version is probably also a bad person. But this person hasn't actually done anything. He's just a simulation of someone who has. And if he has legal rights, as per above, they should presumably protect him from suffering eternal torments for something that was done by a different person altogether.

But, maybe, if the legal system was run by one of the nuttier religions? Well... they would probably be dead set against the machine person being a continuation of the living person. They would, in fact, be more likely to make the entire ethical problem go away by branding the machine person an abomination and pressing Delete.

Basically, the idea of a religion being nutty enough to go to the trouble of creating artificial Hells to punish artificial persons for something that someone else did, while still being sane enough to run entire planets with no apparent trouble, sort of stretches the logic to breaking point.

Not that I think that this was what Banks was out to get at. The whole Hell thing is more of a plot device to get the story up and running with a huge conflict and huge stakes. Based on that, he did his usual thing with a myriad of people (some of which are spaceships) running around trying to outwit each other or using advanced machinery to kill each other, all for very good reasons, or at least so they seem to them. Even the bad guy is somewhat normally bad, unlike e.g. the one in The Algebraist.

And while he was constructing a plot, he took the opportunity to take a dig at religions.

Sure: I've been contemplating asking the Pope if Jews really go to Hell for failing to believe in Jesus, and if this is so, pointing out that Hitler at least only tormented them until they died, while Jehova will go on for all eternity. But Banks doesn't ask that sort of questions. He only succeeded in taking a dig at his ideas of what an insanely fundamentalist religion should be like, but none actually are.

You can read this one even if you are very devoutly religious. Unless, possibly, you have religious reasons to believe that artificial people should be punished for things they didn't do.

But in that case, I believe you deserve to go to Hell.

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This is the News

WritingPosted by Pelotard 2010-11-25 17:44:35

Since last update, this has happened:

Machine of Death got a very positive review by award-winning SF author Jeff VanderMeer on Omnivoracious, the official Amazon blog. That's, like, mind-boggling. I've got books he's written in my bookshelf.

They're also entering negotiations about foreign editions. I signed away my rights for three of David Malki's Engineering t-shirts.

Just as award-winning SF author Cory Doctorow recommends Machine of Death as Christmas gift, and mentions MoD on his blog.

I've also found MoD mentioned on German and apparently Croatian blogs, but I'm not linking to them in case they say something nasty.

Regular blogging to resume as soon as my head stops spinning.

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B-b-b-bad to the Bone

WritingPosted by Pelotard 2010-11-08 00:10:59

I've read a book.

I'm not telling you which one, although I'm likely to write about it elsewhere. This is because it contains a problem, and one which has affected far too many books I've read lately.

It's the bad guy. Commonly known as the antagonist. The one who has a goal opposed to the protagonist, whatever it might be: anything from world domination to stealing his girlfriend to besting him in dominoes.

Nothing wrong with this. Every story needs one. There has to be a conflict, even if it's only the protagonist wrestling with himself (think "story of a recovering alcoholic") or with the weather (think "polar explorer").

One thing that's often missing when beginners write is the antagonist's motivation. "He's bad" won't do. "He's a killer" is only marginally better. "He's a Nazi" is edging into acceptable, because that's sort of shorthand for a whole host of disreputable attitudes and actions. "He's a psychopath" is a possibility, although that's too often used as a hand wave for excusing any irrational behaviour that pushes the plot in the desired direction.

But for a serious writer, that won't do. You'll have to have reasons for the antagonist to be bad. The murderer had a motive - say, jealousy - and the Nazi had a horrible childhood: now we're getting somewhere.

This story I've read now had a bit of that. The villain was quite carefully crafted, with a deep trauma which made some of his quirks understandable, possibly even reasonable, after a fashion.

But come the end, this all got lost. It was a straight shoot-out, with the protagonist eventually outwitting the bad guy. The effect was to make the antagonist's backstory seem plastered on, added in editing.

Why was this so?

The writer (and quite possibly the writers of very nearly all thrillers I've read this year) had forgotten one fundamental fact.

From the viewpoint of the antagonist, they were writing a tragedy.

And the tragic part of a tragedy isn't just that it ends badly. It's that the unhappy ending is inevitable. It was built into the setup from the beginning. It was part of the antagonist's character to be a person who could not succeed at the task at hand. The downfall of the antagonist must happen because of something that's intrinsic to him (or her, if you're e.g. writing a romance, where the supermodel must fail to steal the protagonist's boyfriend because she's unable to realise that she might not be irresistible to all men, which is possibly the worst example I've come up with for half a decade but it's past midnight now).

You can't have the hero defeat him in a straight shoot-out. You'll have to have the antagonist defeat himself in a shoot-out. Over-confidence would have done the trick in the one I read, even if it might have seemed a bit cheap after all the setting up.

But ideally, the protagonist should, after arranging the situation to his satisfaction, only have to watch everything fall apart.

I did that. Promise.

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It's a Splash

WritingPosted by Pelotard 2010-10-28 10:06:15
And now Publisher's Weekly noticed. At least enough to blog about it. At some length. :)

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1/34th of a success story

WritingPosted by Pelotard 2010-10-27 23:00:12

OK, so, I told you all about the Machine of Death, right?

And that I have a story in the anthology, "Nothing." It was selected, together with 33 others, out of 680 stories submitted from all over the world.

Now, after a long process, involving an agent loving the project to bits but failing to find a publisher willing to risk it, it finally made it into print, when Ryan North, Matthew Bennardo, and David Malki ! decided to run for it on their own. (Don't believe the picture in that link, by the way. They managed to get Cory Doctorow to blurb it.)

And then they went even wilder. Let's put it on Amazon, they said, and ask everyone who was involved, and everyone they know, and everyone we know, to buy it on the same day. Tuesday October 26th.

It reached #1.

It's so far beyond anything I'd have considered "success" that you can't see it on a clear day using this one.

And there's a review at Tor.com. Which mentions my story by name. Twice. Favourably.

Guess where I'll submit the next short SF story I write...?

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Second Best Thing

WritingPosted by Pelotard 2010-06-08 11:00:19
I actually think I've pestered everyone I know about this, but I really ought to have a link here too, right?

Litopia's e-zine is out, and I've got a story in it! "That's the Ticket", on page 21. It's not a "real" publication history, since I didn't get paid for it, but it's really as close as you can get - it looks absolutely professional, the editor John Quirk knows a thing or three about publishing, and the estimable Peter Cox expects a circulation of about 20,000.

Yeah, I'm pretty pleased :)

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