A few weeks ago, I asked people who host kink parties how they’d deal with one guest claiming that another guest was under investigation by the police for sexual crimes.* And I’d say about 75% of the respondents said some variant on:
“Well, I’d talk to both sides and see who sounded more reasonable to me.”
Now, let’s set some opening criteria here by invoking the nerdiest possibly comparison: The Kobayashi Maru.
In Star Trek, there’s a training mission called the Kobayashi Maru, which puts Starfleet cadets into an unwinnable situation to see how they deal with defeat. (Kirk won, but only by reprogramming the computer to allow a victory.)
People do not like unwinnable scenarios. People like to think that their tactics have no down sides, and once they’ve decided on a course of action, they have this funny habit of shrugging aside the costs of doing business as somehow not being harmful.
My point in these writings on public spaces is that no matter what you choose, your choice carries the risk of harming someone innocent.
Ban people based entirely on hearsay accusation? Well, false reports do exist, and even if you act discreetly – because remember, you don’t have to tell someone why you’ve banned them from a private event – you still risk ostracizing an innocent who’s been targeted by a malicious person.
Ban people based entirely on whether the law has taken action? That’s got two problems: first, the sexual offender registry is notable for sweeping up teenagers who’ve accidentally had sex with someone a year too young, and second, have you noticed the humiliation that rape victims have to go through on the stand in order to get a 7% conviction rate? The court system is designed, as I’ve noted in the past, to make it very hard to convict – and for good reason! – but “not being convicted in court” does not mean that someone is harmless.
And you know what I feel the result of “We’ll just talk to them and see” is?
That you should stop fucking being surprised when yet another charming predator turns out to be a serial offender.
“I’ll determine who’s guilty based on who feels right to me” is as decent a method as any other, but you give up your right to go “HOW COULD THIS HAPPEN?” when hey, the person who’s very convincing turns out to merely be a great liar.
Because what you do in situations like that is to send a clear message: If you want to get away with abuse, make sure you’re likable. And the top-tier predators are smart. They figure out really quickly that “doing favors for other people” is a great way of incurring likeability, and they learn how to spin stories to gaslight other people, and they’re smart enough not to victimize every person but to only target a precious few.
And that’s not even counting the charming folks who’ve gone all rock star and have come, quietly, to believe that they’re such studs in the community that every person desires them. These folks can do serious damage – not because they’re trying to be evil, but because they’re like “Hey, if I’ve got her tied up, the last five people liked it when I stuck my fingers inside of them without warning, so this is sure to please!”
When you ask them? They’ll be confident, poised, sure that this was just a misunderstanding. They’ll be Very Concerned, just enough to ensure that you get the impression they’re a good person –
– and then the flip side of the “Who feels right to me?” test comes in, because not only are you disproportionately rewarding people who are charming, but you’re disproportionately punishing people who are traumatized in ways you think are unseemly.
Because not everyone’s a convincing victim. There’s a scene in the movie Spotlight, where reporters find a guy who’s on a crusade against molesting priests – and this guy is stuttering, and alternately brutally nasty and then cringingly apologetic to the reporters. He’s literally got folders full of sketchy evidence that he hands out to anyone who asks.
He looks like a complete nut case. The problem is, he is a complete nut case – but that’s because the abuse made him unhinged. He didn’t react well to being betrayed by an authority figure he idolized, and as a result he’s not together enough to present himself as being convincing.
And like him, lots of legitimate victims are angry, and appear vindictive, because shit, if someone hurt you or someone you loved, wouldn’t you want them not to get away with it?
Being violated is like grief: there’s a script you’re supposed to follow when someone you love dies, complete with weeping at the coffin and clutching loved ones for support, but everyone reacts in different ways. Some people go for isolation. Some people get nasty. Some people run away to drugs or sex.
That doesn’t mean they’re not in pain. It just means they’re not following the script.
So what happens when you adopt the “Who feels right?” means that you reward socially adept people and punish those who don’t follow the “good victim” script. And as such, when another superstar turns out to have a rotting underbelly, you shouldn’t really be too shocked.
Our community, largely, rewards these behaviors.
Now, at this point I anticipate a lot of rage and people shouting, “Well, I’m not a trained investigator! Yet you’re telling me not to necessarily trust the court system, and you’re telling me not to automatically believe the victim, so what do you want me to do?”
I want you to acknowledge the path you’ve chosen has drawbacks.
I want you to be aware of the failure modes of your choice, and to be prepared to walk things back when something hits those failure states.
I want you to admit fallibility.
Look. When I say, “My preference is to believe the victim, in the absence of better evidence,” I do so knowing full well that some percentage of victims make false accusations. And were I running an event, I’d be prepared for the eventuality of uncovering a false accuser, and ready to potentially undo a ban based on new evidence.
If you talk to people to see whether they feel right to you, I’m asking you to recognize that you’re not trained at this, and that manipulators can abuse your system just as off-the-script victims can fuzz your senses, and to be ready to try as best you can to correct for that liability.
If you only ban court-convincted people, acknowledge that the court is not a perfect method of safety – it’s the best way we have to administer justice, but “justice” and “safety” are not always linked.
This is the Con-Bayashi Maru. There’s no perfect solution. And what you do in a time of imperfect solution is to acknowledge the failure modes and try your best to apply workarounds whenever you can.
* – The actual investigation was for possession of child pornography, and there was some discussion of whether having child porn was a bannable offense or whether even “being an active child molester” was reason to bar someone from a party, but most people seemed to take this specific instance as a more general “What do we do when someone comes to us with serious hearsay?” Some may have altered their answers if it had been a case of, say, rape, which is a failure state *I* heartily acknowledge.
Do I have to give a spoiler alert for something that was broadcast across headlines yesterday? Well, in case you were sleeping, Marvel made a big change to Captain America yesterday, and in case you don’t know I’m giving you until the end of this sentence to get out.
All right. So the latest issue of Captain America: Steve Rogers #1 retcons events so that Steve Rogers has been a Hydra agent all along. That’s right: Captain America is, and has always been, Hydra’s greatest asset.
I told my wife Gini about that and she said, flatly, “No.” And left the room.
Which was pretty much the Internet’s reaction. Never before have I seen so much hatred heaped on a comic book’s decision. But the #1 response to the hatred from turning, you know, one of Marvel’s greatest sources of moral certainty into a secret supervillain was this:
“Hey, we don’t know where this is going, wait for the whole story to come out before criticizing.”
Except there’s two reasons why that reasoning of “Why you should wait” is blatantly wrong.
First off, we probably do know where it’s going. Long-time comics fans have seen a lot of stunning changes to major characters – The Spidey we love is a clone! Superman’s two zappy twins! Batman’s been crippled, and Azrael’s taken over! Charles Xavier’s turned evil, Magneto’s turned good! – and we know ultimately there’s one of three options here:
Option #1: This becomes the new status quo, now and forever, which means we’re absolutely right to hate it as much as our initial gut reaction tells us to, or:
Option #2: As is more likely, this will be the new status quo for about three to five years, as long as editorial stubbornness holds out against the fans’ desires, and eventually we’ll see an awkward year-long storyline where this is all undone and this becomes That Awkward Storyline That Most People Would Like To Forget About Except That Hipster Writers Keep Reverting To This When They’re Out Of Ideas.
Option #3: As is even more likely, the plan is that this is all a dream! Cap has had hidden memories implanted by Hydra! It’s an alternate-universe introduction to the Evil Captain America that the real Cap will ultimately fight to show him what he could have become if he wasn’t so awesome! It’s the Cosmic Cube warping history! But whatever happens, it’s not real, it’s a bubble universe that passes at some point and hey, okay, sure, thanks for playing.
(And if it is #3, then fuck the Marvel Editorial Team for getting out there in TIME Magazine and USA Today and convincing the fans by saying, “Oh, no, this is really how it is.” Lying to mislead us didn’t work out for JJ Abrams in Star Trek II, and it would be similarly icky here.)
So it’s possible that the team has some new trick up their sleeve, one we’ve never seen before in eighty years of comics stunts, but it’s highly unlikely. Chances are very good that what we’re reacting to is entirely valid. Because turning Marvel’s paragon of moral certainty into a compromised spy is either a really ham-handed insult to Kirby and Simon and Schuster’s legacy (remember, two Jews literally created Captain America because they wanted to have the strength to punch out twenty-five Nazis), or it’s the exact sort of shoddy linkbait PR technique that was done largely for shock effect. (We’ll get to “What if I’m wrong?” in a moment.)
But let’s be honest: Anti-heroes are lazy fucking writing.
Anyone can write a character who is morally compromised. The storylines come quick and easy when you have a hero who does the wrong thing periodically – when they get backed into a moral corner, fuck it, they murder somebody and mourn! Oh, it’s easy! They get to do whatever they want!
The reason Captain America and Superman are hard to write is because creating adventures for a hero who must a) retain the high moral ground, b) be challenged, and c) win is, as Tailsteak once said, like writing a haiku. Yes, it’s hard to do that and make it interesting. That’s the point. That’s why Captain America is iconic when thousands of other similar heroes have failed – he’s one of the most heroic heroes ever.
Compromising his moral identity makes it a lot easier to tell stories about him, in the same sense that playing football gets a lot easier when a player carries a submachine gun onto the field. Maybe there’s still some strategy, but it’s not football any more. Writing a Captain America story involves finding the real tensions that tempt even a paragon to shave a few moral corners, putting enough pressure on that you can’t possibly see how he’ll get out of it, and then watching him do it.
The reason Marvel did this is because they know this isn’t how Captain America isn’t supposed to be, and yet either they see “Taking the thing away that made Captain America interesting” as a positive achievement – which is bad – or they’re willing to burn fans’ good will towards Captain America to generate cheap publicity over an event they know they’ll have to erase, which is even worse.
But! My own personal objections aside, let’s say that the team has found some way to thread the needle, and this new Captain America will become utterly amazing down the line. It’s happened. I was violently against bringing Barry Allen back in the Flash, back when Barry Allen had died to make a noble sacrifice for the world and Wally West had taken over for eight years – but damn if Mark Waid didn’t turn that into one of the greatest Flash storylines ever.
So let’s say it’s going to get good. Really good.
Should people judge the story by this first issue?
Fuck yes we should.
Look, part of art is knowing where the reader’s going to pause, and manipulating that expectation to be satisfying. One of the reasons the world is glued to Game of Thrones is because yes, it’s good for binge-watching – but the creators know that for many, the experience of GoT is tuning in once a week and waiting in anticipation for what happens next.
They set up their cliffhangers very carefully, because they know that most of their viewers’ expectations are shaped by when this chapter ends.
Narrative is governed by tempo. If a dear friend came up to you and told you, “I have a cancer problem,” and then disappeared for a week, leaving you to stew and wonder what had gone wrong, you’d be furious when they came back and said, “I was born in July! I hate my astrological sign! Ha ha!” But that joke, cheap and stupid as it is, might work if you gave them a second’s pause before dropping the punchline.
Writing is about rhythm. It’s about satisfying all the audiences that might watch this – LOST and X-Files were very satisfying to people who watched it chapter by chapter, but in the end they couldn’t pull together a coherent storyline, and that’s the opposite failure, and it’s just as bad.
So it’s not wrong to judge a story by how it’s satisfying in the short term. This is how it’s initially told. Marvel knows that at some point, this first issue of Captain America would stop and then people would have reactions to it that determined whether they bought the next issue. That’s how the biz works.
And they chose to go for shock value.
Which is, I should mention, fine. I don’t agree with this artistic decision, but they have the right to go for shlocky shock, just as DC had the right to turn Batman vs Superman into a grit-fest. But they set the tone for a storyline that people appear to be roundly rejecting, and you know what?
If I write a shitty first chapter to my next novel (coming out in September, I remind you!), it is not wrong for you to conclude, “Wow, I won’t like the rest of this book.”
Your conclusion might be wrong. Plenty of stories start out slow and build to brilliant endings. (I infamously had to make five running starts at Dune before I got hooked.)
But if you fail to read the rest of the book with the shitty opening chapter, that’s not a failure on the reader’s part. That’s a failure on the author’s part in drawing you in. Or it’s a marketing failure on the publisher’s part by giving you a cover promising shiny space unicorns and giving you an opening chapter with gritty military violence. Or it’s just a generic failure that’s really nobody’s fault because hey, the greatest epic poetry ever written won’t appeal to someone who hates poems.
But it’s not a failure on your part, because reading should not be an experience in “Who can chew this tin foil the longest.”
If you don’t like it, leave when you’ve had your fill.
Maybe this storyline is going somewhere unexpected and wondrous. But by presenting that first issue as they did, Marvel and crew set up an expectation that either a) this is pretty damn disrespectful to Kirby’s legacy, or b) this is the kind of tawdry stunt-PR crap that’s destroying comics.
Would I know how to fix this error in the first comic? No. That would depend on knowing where they are going with this. And even then, it’d be hella-tricky. But as I said, it’s not the reader’s job to make it easy on the writer.
And Marvel knew this would cause a shitstorm. It’s why they had stories ready to go in major media outlets. I don’t feel all that sorry for the hatred they’re enduring, because they had to know this was part of the cost of doing business. They’re not surprised, they’re braced, and they’re hoping this generates new sales. I can’t feel all that bad for someone who purposely triggered a barrage of social media. (Especially when the writer of this storyline seems to be sniggering at the rage trollishly on Twitter, but Twitter’s a remarkably hard place to read strangers’ state of mind.)
And in my heart of hearts, I hope that I’m as wrong as I was when Mark Waid brought back the Flash. I stopped reading after that first “Barry Allen is back!” issue, and later picked up the back issues when someone told me that wow, this was way better than he’d thought, and even if it was ultimately option #3 on the Menu Of Grand Comics History Changes, it was perhaps the best Option #3 that anyone ever did.
So I’ll hope this is a good story, in time.
But I’ll also argue that when they’ve only given you this issue to ponder for the next month, it’s not wrong to base your decision to dislike it upon literally everything they’ve presented to you.
Oh, and one last thing about the guy who wrote this storyline:
While we’re discussing what Captain America would or would not do, pretty sure he wouldn’t be saying “Let’s send death threats to artists!”
— Ferrett Steinmetz (@ferretthimself) May 26, 2016
Here’s the thing nobody denies: speaking out helps other people. Every time a gay person comes out, they help normalize “being gay” for other people. Every time a depressed person speaks openly about their struggle, they help to reduce the stigma of a crippling condition they didn’t ask to have. Every time someone smacks down racist or sexist talk in public, they help send the message that that kind of talk is not cool.
What few people mention is that those discussions help other people but may harm you.
We’ve all heard about the kid who came out as gay and his family disowned him. Someone openly admitting their mental health struggles can be passed over for promotions at work because, well, they’re crazy. Yelling at your friends for racist or sexist language can cost you friends – and it’s all well to go “Well, those aren’t the kinds of friends you should have!”, but that’s scant consolation when you’re lonely.
Speaking out hurts.
And yet there’s often this liberal narrative that good people burst out of the closet, muscles rippling, while these sad poisoned Gollum-like people stay within. If your game store is full of homophobic assholes, a good person would charge in there like a bull, call them on all their shit, face them down mano a mano until they bent underneath your herculean will!
What kind of weak asshole would just choose not to play at that store?
But here’s the truth: Speaking out helps other people, but protecting yourself is also a priority.
This does not make you a bad person.
Look: I’m openly polyamorous… now. But my wife and I were poly for several years before we acknowledged it on the Internets, and I’m not ashamed to say that we kept that shiz under wraps because we had two teenaged daughters who lived with their biological father. Maybe he’d be cool with our open marriage, or maybe he’d decide this was time to go to court to get the kids out of the hands of those perverts.
We had to weigh our desire to speak out against the very real cost of maybe not getting summer visits with our kids.
I don’t regret that choice one fucking bit. I regret not speaking out, of course. But in the end, it’s nice to do good by giving poly workshops and helping other poly couples feel represented and sharing my experiences… but I wouldn’t be able to do any of that anyway if I wasn’t able to talk to my kids, as I’d be too miserable to function.
Likewise, not everyone has the energy to fight grand battles at their schools or family meals or game stores – or even if they do, they don’t have the energy to fight every battle that comes along, because shit, you can grind yourself to dust grappling with every microaggression, and is it really worth the progress you’ll make if you destroy yourself along the way?
It’s not wrong to pick your battles. It’s not wrong to prioritize your own survival over forging paths for other people’s future benefits. You should fight wherever you can, of course, and don’t make the closeted gay Republican mistake of trashing your own people to fit in, but…
In the end, any good movement is about finding compassion. And we should celebrate the people who fight the good battles, because they make headway. But those stories all too often end like Christ Himself did, with some poor schmuck dying horribly and a weeping family and a legacy that only kicks into play years after the pain and the survivors have faded.
And your movement should be understanding enough to not view you as a soldier to be shot up in the front lines, but as a human with needs who deserves as much love and support as anyone else.
Your activism can be part-time, when you have the strength to do it. Not every combatant can be a warrior on the front lines; there should be room for guerrilla tactics, and spies, and even noncombatants who occasionally lend hugs to the people who need them.
You have to protect yourself so you can fight whenever you can, in whatever way you can. You might not be up for every battle. You might, in fact, be totally unable to fight some battles because you know that losing your kids or your parents or your social group is not something you can afford to do right now.
That’s okay. Protecting yourself does not make you a bad person. Find the places where you can afford to make change, but don’t beat yourself up for not being able to be as “bold” as other people, because part of this journey is in finding your own strengths and learning how you can contribute even with the very real compromises that everyone has to make.
Just don’t give up.
So I’m looking to do another book tour in the fall to promote the final book in the ‘Mancer series, Fix. Last year, I hit Cleveland, New York, Boston, San Francisco, San Diego, Seattle, and Portland: this year, I’m hoping to add a couple more stops, because apparently I dislike this whole “rest” thing.
That said, I had people saying, “Come sign at my town!” – and while I love showin’ up places, remember that this book tour is on my dime. It’s not really a book tour, where publishers pay for my hotel and plane fare – it’s more like a book vacation, where hey, I have a few weeks to go new places and visit friends, so why not anchor a big swingy trip with bookstore appearances?
So if you’d like me to show up in your town this September/October, it involves some mild legwork:
1) Find me a contact at a bookstore who wants me to come there.
Simply saying, “Oh, $BOOKSTORE exists!” is not enough, sadly. When I planned my first book tour, about half the stores I called rejected me. And even now that I have people at Angry Robot to do the legwork for me (thanks, Mike Underwood, whose Kickstarter is running even as we speak!), I’d prefer not to ask them to do all the gruntwork of cold-calling a bookstore to have them go, “Who? Oh, fuck, no.”
So if you’d like me to come, give me a name of someone who’s happy to have an author there.
2) Unless that bookstore is willing to pay for me to go out there, said bookstore should be within a night’s driving distance of Cleveland, Ohio.
Hey. If you want to pay me to come to Australia? I will go, man. For any reason. “Ferrett, come to Europe and don’t sell books, just do that funny little dance you do.” I’ll be putting on my tap shoes before you finish that sentence.
That said, as noted, this is a vacation, and while I’d love to fly to Austin or Las Vegas, I’ve got a limited budget. I’ll literally go anywhere if you’re willing to pay my travel expenses, but otherwise I can reasonably drive six to eight hours before I collapse.
(This also applies for convention appearances. People ask if I’ll give polyamory talks at their convention. I absolutely will! But I need to not lose money getting out there and back, so if you can fly me somewhere, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll talk details.)
3) Uh, Actually, That’s It.
So if you can do those things, lemme know, we’ll talk it over. Otherwise, maybe some day I’ll hit your town – I’d love to! I like doing signings and visiting new cities and meeting people and buying too many books at indie shops! This shiz is fun for me!
And, you know, I hope you enjoy the book, too. Which I am putting the final edits on this week. Wish me luck!
There’s a lot of blog entries I call “load-bearing entries.” Those are the ones where, if I write one wrong paragraph, I’ll risk the wrath of the Internet falling upon me for something I didn’t mean to say. I write maybe two of those a month, even though I get ideas for them pretty much daily. But those sorts of essays require a lot of forethought and the willingness to deal with asshole responses for the rest of the week, so I don’t write ’em all.
There’s a lot of blog entries inspired by questionable things that other people I know are doing, and writing about that now would have those people feeling personally attacked. And even if I didn’t mind hurting people’s feelings, the problem with personal attacks is that it transforms the experience of the essay from “This is bad behavior that has these negative consequences” to “YOU JUST DON’T LIKE THIS PERSON,” and the message is lost. So I make a mental note, wait a few months, file off the serial numbers, and write an essay on the exact same behavior when everyone’s forgotten who it is. Sometimes those people who inspired it by being buttheads thank me for writing such an insightful essay. It’s weird.
There’s a lot of blog entries on topics that are really dear to my heart, and I want to get the emotions on them right, but I’m just not finding the right entry point. And rather than knocking out a quick essay on this really emotionally-critical topic that misses the mark, I stash it and hope one day I’ll find the way to write it as well as this not-often-discussed topic deserves.
There’s a lot of blog entries where someone else said it, and I think I have something new to add, but whoops, I don’t. Deleted.
There’s a lot of blog entries where something important is happening, and while I have Very Severe Feelings, I don’t feel like pretending that reading two essays and a Wikipedia article makes me an expert on the topic. Deleted.
There’s a lot of blog entries where I can say what I need to on Twitter, and while in the old days maybe I would have coalesced a couple of other thoughts around that single idea to make a blog post, Twitter is now where I get my little thoughts out of the way.
There’s a lot of blog entries where I’ve been talking about the same topic for days in a row, and because I’m responding to people’s responses, the general interpretation is that “Man, Ferrett is really mad about the way people are reacting to him.” But I’m not. Ferocious debate interests me, particularly when people are wrong. But after three days of response essays I find that, much like the “personal attack” essay, the lesson people start taking away is “Wow, is he thin-skinned,” so I stop responding after a bit because my points become increasingly lost.
There’s a lot of blog entries where it’s inspired by a relationship question I’m pondering, but if time has taught me one thing, it’s that opening your relationship to Internet debate hardly ever settles the question even if you’re telling people that you’re probably on the wrong side of this debate. So I’ll wait a few months on that one, too. Until it’s no longer a question, but an answer.
There’s a lot of blog entries where I’ve said that before. So I don’t again.
There’s a lot of blog entries I forget, particular when I’ve laid ’em fallow for a few months.
There’s a lot of blog entries. But man. If you could see all the topics I consider, you’d realize how easy blogging is for me, and how hard.
So someone on FetLife wrote this about popular bloggers, referencing me in particular:
“These people don’t need my encouragement or my praise. They swim in a sea of it. They get more responses in a single day than I do all year long… my praise doesn’t help them through a bad day or give them courage to face the next challenge. ”
Funny story: At one point, Neil Gaiman – you know, one of the most popular writers of this generation – wrote a Doctor Who episode. And I Tweeted something along the line that “Someone of Neil Gaiman’s caliber doesn’t need to know that I loved his Doctor Who episode, but I fucking loved his Doctor Who episode.”
He wrote back with something like, “Actually, I’m really relieved to know you like it.”
There’s this perception that people who are sufficiently “big” don’t need positive feedback, but lemme tell you – that “My praise doesn’t give them the courage to face the next challenge” is a ball of purest lies.
You think it’s easy writing about my depression? It costs me, man. And there are days when I’m like, “I can’t do this, I’m just making a fool out of myself, highlighting my mental illness is costing me friends, it’s costing me my career…”
And someone will send me an email that says, “Thank you for speaking up. I don’t feel like I’m alone any more.”
And I remember: Right. That’s why I do this.
Or I’m looking at another clusterfuck of an essay, the kind of hot-button topic where I know I’ll be dealing with nasty, angry commenters dropping by all fucking week to make personal insults, and I’ll be like, “Wait, why would I want to subject myself to abuse again?”
And someone writes me to tell me to thank me for speaking up, and that helps me keep going as a blogger. It really does.
Or I had a massive rejection that day, and someone pings me on Twitter to thank me for my fiction. All this helps.
Which isn’t to say that you shouldn’t support the smaller writers that this blogger also supports! (It’s why I read Twitter a lot, finding weird essays and retweeting them when I can.) It’s wonderful to lift up new voices, encouraging them to get in there.
But this idea that “Oh, they’re big, they don’t really hear you” is not true 99% of the time. I’m sure Neil Gaiman gets more fan mail than he can read, so there’s a certain point at which you vanish – but Kameron Hurley wrote an essay recently on how “fame” used to come with a certain dollar value, and doesn’t any more, and how “famous” authors with 20,000 followers on Twitter still have to work their damn day job, and deal with the abuse that someone who has 20,000 fans on Twitter endures.
In other words, 99% of the “famous” authors you know most likely get paid mostly in pleasantries. And as someone close to the industry, I see talented writers walking away every day because their novels don’t pay their rent and they’re struggling on this manuscript that as of now no publisher wants and it feels like they’re shoveling their heart into the void.
One fan mail can still make their whole goddamned day.
The right fan mail can keep even an “established” author going.
So sure. Praise the up-and-comers, highlight the newbies, seek out new voices. That’s wonderful. Do it. But don’t write off the “successes” as “Well, they don’t care any more,” because chances are you’re probably overinflating the number of nice things they hear a day – and even if you are, they get pummelled by critics in ways that lesser writers don’t, and the nice things don’t happen as often as you’d think.
Drop ’em a nice comment, if you like what they do. For anyone, high or low.
I got my royalty check the other day, and I learned several very nice things about my debut book Flex:
I Earned Out.
This is a very happy deal, because when publishers buy your novel, they pay you an advance fee.
That up-front cash is all many authors ever see.
What happens after that is a bit like a loan – the publishers have paid you thousands of dollars when they bought the book, and every sale after that goes to paying off your advance. Once you’ve sold enough books to pay it down, you’ve “earned out,” and after that every book sold puts new money in your pocket.
Earning out is a rite of passage among authors, and I wasn’t expecting to do it on Flex, and yet yesterday I got a check for $221 – not a big royalty, to be sure, but definitely enough to pay the light bill. And that means every book I sell from today on for Flex will eventually generate another check.
So, you know, thanks for buying it, talking about it, recommending it. This is a very happy day for me.
I’ve Sold Nearly Double My “Fuck You, Ferrett” Number Of Copies.
As you’ll recall, I am a relentless neurotic. You can give me any triumph, no matter how cataclysmic, and within days I’ll pull it apart.
So when I sold Flex, I made a secret bargain with myself. I chose a number of copies sold – a number that, according to nebulous sources, was the number of copies the average book sold in its lifetime – and added a thousand copies on top of that.
If I sold that many copies, I could never ever complain again about Flex’s sales. I had beaten my goal. I could only say good things about how Flex was doing. That was my “Fuck You, Ferrett,” number, the number I could use to bludgeon my brainweasels into oblivion.
As of yesterday’s royalty statement, I had sold nearly double that “Fuck You, Ferrett” number. (Well, 178%, but close enough among friends, say I.)
…And That’s Only Through December 31st, 2015.
I was cheering all day yesterday, and then looked at the statement again, and realized that my “Fuck You, Ferrett” number was only tallying books sold in 2015.
…I’d somehow achieved 178% of my “Fuck You, Ferrett” number in only nine months.
The last five months of book sales hadn’t even been counted.
So, you know, this doesn’t make me a bestseller or anything – a $221 royalty check means I can buy you a beer, but not champagne – but it’s a happy personal triumph. I’ll probably sell more copies of Flex when Fix, the third and final book in the ‘Mancer series, arrives this September – and I just got my preliminary editorial notes on that, which look good. (He said “Book 3 is very good, better than Book 2, which was better than Book 1.” So hey, prepare to have hearts broken.)
So this is just a happydance. My debut book did way better than I expected. Is that an objective triumph? I don’t know. Solid mid-tier book sales numbers are hard to come by, as the public data usually reveals either Harry Potter smash bestseller numbers or nothing. I honestly don’t know whether my “Fuck You, Ferrett” number was chosen accurately.
We’ll see when I discuss exactly how many copies I made in a future post! But today? We celebrate.
So you lend Phil $20. Months go by. They don’t pay you back.
Another friend tells you he’s thinking about lending Phil $500 to tide him over until his next paycheck. And you say, “Well, I lent him $20, and I’m still waiting.”
Your friend looks you dead in the eye and goes, “Come on, man. You know I can’t accept that information. It hasn’t been proven in a court of law.”
And you go, “Oh, shit, right. I forgot. Phil’s innocent until proven guilty by law! I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have brought it up.”
You finish your lunch, a little embarrassed. And you know, you’d thought of having Phil’s untrustworthiness put on the record – taking the day off from work to go to small claims court, paying the court fee, putting your word against his on the judge’s docket and hoping the judge sides with you – because it’d be nice to have your loss of a $20 be, you know, a fact. That you could discuss with people. And have them take it seriously.
But your lunch buddy’s right: unless the law has acknowledged this was true, it’s not actionable data. And there’s no sense discussing it, because you have a date later this evening. Rumor is she’s monogamously dating an angry boyfriend with a shotgun, but that hasn’t been proven in court either, so what are you going to do?
Obviously, that’s a crazy fucking example, but it proves my point: Whenever anyone discusses consent, people often cite variants on “A person is innocent until proven guilty by law.”
Which is true, when you’re facing the penalties of law. It’s really good to have the highest possible standard when you’re dealing with an entity that can strip you of your money and force you to live in prison for the rest of your life.
In fact, the dangers of innocents being hurt by malicious or incomplete testimony are so high that the noble principle of the court is, “We’d rather let multiple guilty men go free than mistakenly convict one innocent person.”
As happens all the time. We’ve all heard of mobsters who’ve gotten off because the testimony wasn’t enough to put them away, but that doesn’t mean that in real life these Goodfellas weren’t putting bullets in heads. We’ve all heard of incompetent corporations/doctors/cops/contractors who made massive, sometimes fatal, mistakes, where the court could not find enough evidence to put them to the full penalties of law.
This is a wonderful system. It means that corrupt cops can’t just manufacture evidence to toss people into jail at will.
But you start making foolish, foolish mistakes when you believe that the lofty, purposely-difficult standards the court has set to acknowledge something as true before they are willing to jail a person for life are the same as “This is what actually happened in real life.”
Most people, when confronted with “This doctor has been sued seventeen times by different patients for fatal malpractice, but never successfully,” would not go, “Oh, well, I’m psyched he’s doing my appendectomy tomorrow!” even though by every standard of court, he is completely innocent.
Why? Because the stakes for your personal safety are now higher. Now that your life is on the line, you might want to explore using alternative standards of “I’d rather penalize an innocent doctor than risk being harmed” instead using of the court’s standard of “I’d rather let a guilty person continue to operate than convict an innocent doctor.”
It’s all about what standards you hold yourself to – and as I demonstrated in the opening discussion, the court’s standards are pretty damn high for real life. In fact, they’re supposed to be high, as I’ll mention for the third time, because if the court gets it wrong, we’re talking the full force of the government being brought to bear upon you.
Which is entirely different than the standard of evidence you might want to apply if the penalty is, say, “Phil doesn’t get the $20 he wants to borrow.”
The standards for court are high, because the penalties are high. But literally any lawyer will acknowledge that what you can prove in court is not the same as “What actually happened.” There’s always a distinction. And idiots who conflate “A person is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law” without adding the “because the penalties inflicted are very high” is either thoroughly foolish or purposely omitting stuff to try to fool you.
Which is not to say that Phil is always wrong. Maybe Phil needs the $500 because his wife died and he can’t pay the rent without her income. Okay, fine, in that case the penalty for Phil is pretty stiff. Maybe Phil paid you back and you forgot. Maybe you have a grudge against Phil, which is why you’re mentioning this $20 when you’ve never mentioned all the other loans that have never been paid back. All sorts of shit happens, because life is complex.
And all the complexity comes to a boil when we’re discussing how to handle missing stairs in a community – potentially dangerous people who have gossip swirling about them, but no definitive proof. (Because most consent violators are smart enough not to do terrible stuff in public with witnesses.) And what do you do to keep your parties free of dangerous players when the only proof you have is the equivalent of “She said Phil didn’t pay her back”? Do you ban people on someone’s word?
Maybe you think the court’s standards are worthy for any institution, which is a noble goal. There is a strong case to be made for “I will hold the people who would spread rumors to the highest of standards,” because yeah, the ugly truth is that there are corrupt cops and there are people who’ll trash folks they don’t like. Having standards for evidence is good, and though there’s no single True goal, having high standards when the penalty is “Banning someone from a party” is not necessarily a bad thing.
But stop extending that to the idiotic argument of “If something someone says has not been proven in a court of law, it is automatically untrue.” No. If that happens, you are adopting the court’s standard of, “We would rather have someone guilty attending our parties than risk ejecting an innocent person.”
And because nobody’s devised a 100% safe method of keeping rapists, molesters, and otherwise people-hurting people from parties with an arbitrary number of attendees, that’s a legitimate call to make. But stop pretending that “unless someone can prove it in a court of law, it’s not true,” which carries the heavy implication that that every rumor is malicious and that your parties are safe.
No. It means your parties are as safe as the real world, which is to say occasionally you’ll have malpracticing doctors and mobsters – doctors and mobsters who exist in part because the people they’ve hurt know how much effort it takes to prove someone wrong in court may be more than they have the energy to expend right now.
(Before you start complaining, by the way, I had my wife the bankruptcy lawyer vet this for factual accuracy. She said “Yup. Why would this statement be controversial at all?”, though mentioned I was utilizing the standards of a criminal case.)
There was a writing on FetLife recently that lamented the loss of the love letters men wrote to their wives in the Civil War. Oh, the instant message has all but destroyed romance! she cried. And I felt that writing overly romanticized the past and disabused the future; there are thousands of passionate love texts and emails being written daily.
You just don’t see them.
The world is still full of romance, but it hasn’t been boiled down neatly into a selection of the finest texts for your enjoyment. You think the Civil War is a florid selection of romance because historians sifted through the thousands of surviving letters and picked the most heart-wrenching for your enjoyment; they didn’t leave in the curt letters to “take care of my estate properly,” and they probably fixed the spelling, and the old-timey language makes it seem more beautiful to you because, well, what once was common speech now seems formal and elegaic.
But I guarantee you: I write beautiful texts of love, as do my lovers. There are always soldiers, and when they send emails home, some of them are writing beauty. The world still snaps and hums with romance, and if I could boil them all down to a selection of the finest texts, you’d walk away with the impression that the 2010s weren’t dick pics ‘n’ Tinder, but a great woven romance to put Shakespeare to shame.
And what worries me is not that we’ve somehow become less romantic as a society, but that we are losing that record of modern romance.
All those beautiful texts to my partners will be lost to AT&T when this is all done. There are long-distance lovers writing passionate emails to each other, but unless Gmail’s records are thrown open at the end of the day then those too will disappear.
I don’t think texts have made us worse, as a whole; they’ve exposed more portions of who we are, now that communication is so trivial. Yet 150 years from now, what will we have to remember of this? Authors used to exchange letters, which were scooped off their desks and archived into the complete correspondences of so we could see friendships develop, stories be built, the artist’s struggle.
Now it’s all done via text and Gchat. That’s almost gone as soon as it’s done. And the reason we remember these great romantic Civil War letters is because they were stored in someone’s attic to be pulled down, but now all these glorious emotions will dissolve into meaningless electrons once someone pulls the plug.
There is magic in the world, still, great beauty that deserves to be collected. So it was; so it will always be. But now that we’ve shifted everything onto electronics, what happens when the file formats change and the [http://www.npr.org/sections/alltechconsidered/2014/04/26/307041846/stopping-link-rot-aiming-to-end-a-virtual-epidemic][link-rot] sets in?
And I write this, knowing fully that it’s not as permanent as a letter. Once I die, my site will go dark. Eventually LiveJournal and Dreamwidth and Facebook and Twitter and FetLife will fade. I write this knowing that it is ephemeral, that more of our society is migrating our personal history to platforms that won’t stand the test of time, and what will be left to say about us when 150 years have passed?
This writing is for you. And it will never speak to the future.
“I get tired dating just one person,” the comments say. “How the hell do you date five women at once? You know, and keep them happy? And also work full-time, and spend two hours an evening writing?”
It’s actually pretty simple:
1. Our Physical Dates Are Few And Far Between.
If you’re dating me, at best you’ll see me every two months or so. And that’s a pretty dense schedule. Usually, it’s more like three or four times a year.
This is because currently, all my partners are long-distance – but even if you live in town, seeing The Wily Ferrett is a comparatively rare sight. As mentioned, I’m working a minimum of 10 hours a day, and usually my workweek is something like 55-60 hours when you factor in writing and exercise.
And I might travel to see you, but I’m a writer – and most of my vacation days are committed to conventions or book tours. (I’ll be doing one for the final ‘Mancer series book Fix this autumn! Mark your calendars, reserve your copies!)
So that’s one filter: If you need regular actual Ferrett, well, I am not the mustelid for you.
2. No Phone Time.
For me, phone or Skype time is like a physical date in that it’s a long block of time I reserve for you, and that’s really tricky with the work hours I’m setting already. One of my “DANGER WILL ROBINSON” signs is when a partner says, “It’s great texting and all, but I’d feel sooooo much better if we could just Skype periodically…”
It’s not wrong to ask for that, but it is wrong to ask for it from me. I fucking hate the phone anyway, generally tossing it away like a grenade whenever it rings, so that’s another filter.
3. But I Will Text You A Lot.
So do I ignore someone when we’re dating? No! I am a writer. I write at you. And generally, that consists of me texting you a couple of times a day to see how you’re doing, and sending you goofy photos of wherever I’m roaming that day, and forwarding on jokes.
I’m not with you physically, but my natural tendency when I’m with someone I love is to say howdy and share what’s going on. I’m there checking in, telling you what I’m up to, sending pictures of butterflies.
Basically, the communication flow is through texts, not phone or physical contact. And that works for me.
4. And I Will Want To See You.
One of my sweeties sent me a text the other day, saying, “Do you know how good it feels to know you WANT to be with me?”
That was the sign I was doing things okay.
The trick to dating a Ferrett is to realize that I always want to be with you – I just have a busy goddamned life, because I have a job to pay the bills and I have a career of writing I’m fanning the flames on and I have a wife, and that’s like twelve hours a day minimum. Seeing you three times a year is not my ideal situation – it’s just the reality on the ground after all the work is done. I mean, even if you were my only girlfriend, that “Let’s visit” time would still be maybe once a month. Maybe.
But I send texts because I think about you, and I wonder how you are. I do little happy-dances when I get the texts and you tell me what’s happening in your life. I mark the day on the calendar and I count down.
But a sad filter is that if you feel inadequate because text is what we have, well, that’s just what I’ve got to work on. Physical time is rare. I’ve always loathed the phone. I can do emails, but text is more immediate.
So… lots of texts.
5. And If You’re Sad, I’m There.
Emotional support’s also on the agenda here, because if you’re having a bad day I’ll be texting the shit out of you to see what I can try to do to help. If someone dumps you or you’ve got family issues, I am on call.
This should be part of the Standard Partner Package for anyone, but it often isn’t, so I found time to say it.
6. They Do Not Need To Date Public Ferrett.
One of my most frequent breakup issues is, “Someone needs me to acknowledge them in blog-space on a regular basis.” I have found, through rather painful trial and error, that the person who needs me to put “In a relationship with” on my Fet page is usually the sort of person who won’t do well with me in the long run.
The reason why is subtle: It’s not that I’m unhappy to mention the thrills of dating you when it’s an interesting post for the day. But generally, whenever someone needs to have me grabbing my bullhorn and shouting, “I AM DATING YOU!” that means they are, on some fundamental level, uncertain about the relationship we do have and needing public proclamations to feel better.
Look. If I can’t make you feel good about dating me through private methods, taking to the rafters does not help. Yes, I get a lot of attention sometimes. Yes, sometimes women flirt with me. (Sometimes they even mean it.)
But in the end, another and vital filter is understanding that “dating other people” does not mean “you are replaceable,” and if that can’t be addressed without blog-public acts of affection, then we’re not going to work out.
What you get is the real me. That has overlap, but it is substantially different from, the persona on my blog. (He’s smarter. He only gets to write about things after time has passed and he’s come to conclusions.)
So In Conclusion….
How I date five people and keep them happy is by finding the kind of partner who is genuinely happy with the kind of attention I have to offer. Which is why I have such a long-term dating process: Lots of people say they’re fine with all of this, which lasts until the NRE runs out. Then they start getting itchy, and that’s when the subtle requests for Skype dates or maybe a public post creep in.
But I think that’s all dating, really: finding someone who’s content with what you can realistically offer. And I think most dating disasters come when you try to become something that you’re not in an attempt to make someone else happy, and discover that you can’t do it.
And I think if you’re reading this and going, “God, I could never be happy like that!” then that’s awesome. I’m not trying to date someone like you. I’m trying to date someone who I mesh with, whose neuroses and needs fit with me, and that’s not you.
The question is, as it ever is, are you finding the people who mesh with what you have to offer?