Four Things I Learned About Sequels From Watching The Empire Strikes Back A Billion Times

Hey there! I’m on a big, whizzing blog tour right now to support my new book The Flux, writing about twenty entries and interviews – and I still want more!  If you have a Literary Blog Of Note or a podcast you’d like me to be on, let’s talk!

But as y’all know, I’m a big Star Wars fan, and when it came time to write the sequel to Flex, I cribbed from the best.  Over at Sci Fi Bulletin, I wrote the Four Things I Learned About Sequels From The Empire Strikes Back (and how I applied them to writing The Flux). So if you want to know what Empire did right in following up Star Wars, go read!

Rock Band 4: The Best Party In A While

When Rock Band was ascendant, we used to have Rock Band parties every week. People would come to La Casa McJuddMetz from all over to play fake plastic instruments and sing at full volume.

But that dwindled as the game did, and then Rock Band died after the stupendous effort of Rock Band 3.

Yet when I discovered that Rock Band 4 was releasing on the same day that my book The Flux did, well… that was kismet.  Left to my own devices, I’d refresh Amazon sales ranks obsessively and check for new reviews.  Having friends over, drinking cider and fumbling at the drums was the best distraction I could hope for!

So how was it?

Preliminary feedback on Rock Band 4 is… not good.  We bought it for the XBox One, and none of our old plastic instruments worked – including, annoyingly, our Ion Drum kit, the badge of how truly obsessed we were at the height of it –  so we had to buy all new plastic instruments.  (And let’s be honest – Rock Band has the better gameplay, but their guitars have always been mushy and awful. I want to use my old Guitar Hero guitars.)  They said we could import all our old favorite songs purchased on the XBox 360 platform, but as of last night only about a third of the songs we’d bought were actually marked as “purchased.”

They’re working on all of that, but what a rough start.

The game itself is… weirdly mixed.  If you like Rock Band, well, it’s more Rock Band.  But it feels unpolished thus far.  Gini and I started, with the game not knowing us from Adam, and when we played our first song (B.o.B’s “Airplanes,” a very easy one), it said, “Hey do you want to do an encore?” and gave us a selection of four song types (“A song from the 2000s,” “A Devo song”) to vote for.

Pretty cool.  So we selected “An alternative song.”  And on our second song ever – again, not knowing our intrepid skill level – it chucked us straight into the five-star difficulty of Muse’s “Hysteria,” a song that no beginner would ever be able to complete.

So yeah. Not so great.

But the core of Rock Band is pretty untouchable, and pretty soon we were all arguing who got to be on drums and choosing songs and being baffled by the (still extremely large) selection we’d cultivated.  We sang at full volume regardless of talent, and bombed out a couple of times, and the people who weren’t playing were off by the snacks yakking it up, and we made new and awesome friends and saw people we hadn’t seen in months.

So that was good.

And that’s why Rock Band keeps chugging along; the central gameplay brings people together. You all work to surpass this song, and it brings people together.  They may have better things in store – they had “freestyle” guitar solos, where you weedle away needlessly and the program creates appropriately okay guitar solo guitar noises, but it was mostly confusing for people.

So is it a great game? I’ll let you know when I’ve put in some more hours.  But for now, it gave me a great party with some of my crushes and friends all coalescing, and that was what I needed.  So I’ll give it a shot.

(SIDE NOTE: Nathan asked me, “So are we ever going to find out what happened with your webcomic My Name Is Might Have Been?  And the answer is, I actually tried to find the old plot notes for that to sync with the Rock Band premiere, going into my basement and searching through my last three laptops to see if I could locate the overview Cat Valente and I wrote.  No dice on two laptops, and could not locate a charger for the the last and oldest laptop.  If it ain’t there, I may try to recreate it, but I’d rather have what Cat and I agreed to.  So some day.  Assuming I can find a charger for an ancient Toshiba.)

THE FLUX Is Out Today!

If you are an author, you understand the importance of Tuesday.

Tuesday is when new books release in the USA.

And every Tuesday is a new “book birthday” for a host of authors – that day when their baby is shoved out a window, and there’s either a teeming crowd of people cheering in the street to catch it, or bouncing baby boy hits the pavement.

And with that cheery thought, it’s all done! This book I have been talking about for months is now in the public’s hands, and either y’all will like it or you won’t!

If you’re interested, well, it’s out.  At AmazonBarnes and NoblePowell’s, or, well, just about everywhere.  And it’s getting some nice reviews on Goodreads!

And Ken Liu – one of the most honored writers in modern science fiction – had this to say:

The Flux is the best kind of sequel: bigger, deeper, scarier, funner. The emotional journey it takes the reader on is just as thrilling as the jaw-dropping wonders of videogamemancy and bureaucramancy. With the ‘Mancer series, Ferrett Steinmetz has achieved something rare in contemporary fantasy: a world that feels both truer and more magical than our own.”

So… yeah.  If you feel like promoting this sucker further, I told you how last week.  (Hint: Talking about it on social media and reviews are the life’s blood of any nascent author.)

Fly free, little book!  Now fail or succeed on your own damn merits!

Miscellaneous Weasel: Thoughts On Sales Numbers And Bifocals

Book Weasel: 
When I first heard that Flex was at the printer, I set myself a “Fuck You, Ferrett” number.  I knew what an “average” book sold over the course of its lifetime, and I added 33% to that, and that was my “Fuck You, Ferrett” number.

That was the number where, if I sold that many copies of Flex, I would never ever ever be allowed to whine about its sales.

The thing is, I don’t actually know whether the “Fuck You, Ferrett” is a good number.  Book publishing is a kind of terrifying landscape if you’re a numbers-oriented person like I am, making it impossible to know where you stand. You know for sure if you’re a triple-A success – but a midlist or debut success is harder to measure.  Only a scant handful of authors actually reveal their sales numbers (Kameron Hurley being the most prominent), and they usually only do it when they’re successful.

So if you’re numbers-oriented, you try to gauge from other statistics.  Amazon Sales rank?  Too volatile.  Reviews?  Again, on Amazon they’re all over the map, and they rely heavily on who ya know.  (Flex is disproportionately reviewed.)  GoodReads numbers tell you something – for example, The Mechanical came out the same month that I did, and it has 1,200 reviews where I have 500. So it probably sold a lot better.  But it’s Ian Tregellis’ fifth novel, and does that matter?  He got George R.R. Martin to blurb him – does that matter?

Basically, whenever I think about sales, I can either feel like a proud debut novelist or a fraud of an underperformer, depending on who I’m comparing myself to and in what ways I slice the data that day.  And that’s exacerbated by the fact that yeah, authors rarely talk about that novel that only sold 500 copies.

The good news is that the “Fuck You, Ferrett” number is close.  We may nudge past it next week, when The Flux drops and Flex gets the inevitable sales boost.  So thanks to everyone who supported Flex, because that literally wouldn’t have happened without y’all talking about it.

The bad news – at least for me – is that when I get some firmer numbers in, I will do a Kameron Hurley post discussing how many books I sold.  And I have this depressing fear that I’ll reveal that number and people will go, “Aww, you went to all that fuss for that?” followed by a head-pat from people who write in Young Adult, where they have real sales.

But I’ve kind of made a history of revealing personal details and saying damn the consequences because I know for a fact that other people feel this way, and they deserve to know they’re not alone.  And I know that other authors also want data points, so that’s coming.

Hoo boy.

Bifocal Weasel:
I got bifocals last Friday, and it took me about four days to adjust.  I’m still not happy.  I thought bifocals would solve my close-up vision, but it turns out that for real close-up work – about six inches or closer – I’m better taking them off. And there’s still a lot of blur in my peripherals, which I’ve never really gotten used to.

As it turns out, with glasses, you lay back and let your eyeballs do the work.  Bifocals are a more active experience – you have to turn your head constantly, like an owl, to bring your gaze into the immobile focal spot.  I get lazy when reading, and let some of the words in the periph get blurred.  It’s basically more work, and it’s ironic that these are the old people glasses, because man, I’m mentally tracking this new step-count for my head.

But I see better on the whole.  It’s just odd.

When You Hear “Consent,” Think “Safety Protocol.”

A bit of context: over on FetLife, the Facebook for kinksters, there’s a constant cycle that goes like this: 

a)  Dude writes rapey essay on this beautiful experience he had with his sub where, say, he ties her up and ignores their negotiated boundaries in an extreme scene, and she loves being pushed past her stated limits and all is well. 

b)  People point out, “Dude, that’s kind of rapey, what you did there – and are you sure she was into it as you think she was?”  

c)  Dude freaks out, because this is a personal story and how dare you criticize my wondrous tale? 

d)  And everybody complaints about the “consent police,” and how dreary it is that we spoil everyone’s good time.  

This happens, I shit you not, once every two months or so.  It’s the cycle of (Fet)Life.  

So in the wake of this latest flurry of CONSENT IS GOOD/CONSENT IS BAD newscycle, I wrote this essay to describe why these sorts of essays are troublesome.  And it had a concept about consent that I liked, and thought I’d present to you.  

Anyway.  Here it is. 

“She had this long black hair, and I was jabbing my fire-torch into the nape of her neck,” the guy says. “Just burning all the little hairs at the base, then slapping out the sizzling fires before they got out of hand. She was terrified. What a great scene! At the end, she cried, and collapsed into my arms, and thanked me.”

And if you know the dark art of BDSM fireplay – or even if you don’t, I reckon – you’d hear this story and cringe. There are safety protocols in fireplay, and one of the biggies is “Don’t set fire to the hair on the head.” That stuff can get out of control fast – Michael Jackson fast – and cause permanent scarring and injury. Heck, a rogue drip of burning alcohol off the fire wand might turn those beautiful black tresses into a face-obliterating inferno.

But, you have to admit, this scene went well. You’re glad of that. Yet this fireplay dude telling the touching story of “burning her neck with love” without any disclaimers carries the heavy implication that this kind of fireplay is a good thing to do.

So you say something.

And the dude gets mad. “I’ve been burning people’s hair for years now!” he says angrily. “Nothing’s gone wrong! How dare you butt in?”

The girl gets involved. “Yeah! That scene was precious to me! He’s really good at knowing when to slap out the fires on my scalp! How dare you tell me he’s a bad guy?”

The next thing you know, there’s a huge argument, largely based on the concept of “Everything went well up until now,” which works well until the people in the burn ward weigh in.

And that, my friends, is how Internet flame wars start.

Yet the thing is, there’s a difference between “This went right” and “Best practices.” You can get lucky lots of times with bad procedures, as any rope rigger who’s watched dangerous suspensions understands. Good outcomes are not necessarily the result of good planning – people drive home drunk all the time and make it home safe, but that does not mean they’re safe to drive intoxicated.

And yet even if you have some statistical outlier who can drive better on a fifth of Scotch, it’d still be dangerous for him to write an essay on the relaxed, wonderful feeling he gets gliding home soused in his SUV. Maybe he can do it well, but by giving the impression that everyone can, he’s making the streets more dangerous.

There are safety procedures which work. And maybe experts, in given situations, can circumvent certain safety procedures if they know what they’re doing – but in an unknown situation, relying on the tried-and-true rules like “Don’t jam a blazing torch into the nape of her neck” is wisdom.

That’s what consent is.

Too many consent fetishists imply that “lack of consent” == “bad outcome.” That’s the insidious thing about consent! Sometimes, someone pushing past a mushy consent works out great for all parties concerned, just like these torch-jabbing folks got lucky and had a really intense scene that bonded them. You can get lucky, pushing boundaries, having sex with drunk people, deciding unilaterally that hey, let’s put these fingers here.

But like the torch-jabbers, when shit goes wrong, it goes really wrong. And fast. And permanently.

“Consent” is not a panacea. “Consent” does not guarantee satisfying sex. “Consent” is merely a form of protocol where we say, “In an absence of more specific knowledge, these are the best practices designed to guarantee everyone’s safety.”

And when we see people violating safety protocols and presenting the good outcomes as proof that “See? This went well, and felt magical, and was therefore correct,” the safety protocol-positive people are going to go, “Ya know, that carried a risk, and I’m not sure you should be presenting it as though it was something people should do regularly.”

Which, yeah, risks harshing your buzz on that beautiful scene you just had. And I apologize for stomping on your squee. We’re not trying to tell you that this didn’t work for you – although maybe your interpretation of her pleasure wasn’t as clear-cut as you’d like to think it is.

What we’re trying to say is “Dude, you’re taking some mighty dangerous edge play and presenting it as though this was what people should do, and that is potentially hazardous.”

So call us consent police, if you gotta. But in the absence of knowing someone better, “Clear and enthusiastic consent” is the equivalent of “Don’t jab that torch into her hair.” It’s not that we’re consent police, we’re “safety protocol police,” and when you start presenting good outcomes as proof of good practices, we’re gonna kick up a fuss.

Because somewhere, there’s a woman with a keloid-scarred scalp, and a sagging eye where they reconstructed her cheek muscles. We owe it to her to point out the risks that other people are taking. And to provide that counterweight that maybe this beautiful, beautiful hair-burning scene arrived as a result of a lucky spin of a roulette wheel, and to point out those odds.

The Fucks In THE FLUX: The Statistical Analysis You’ve All Been Waiting For

I have long claimed that The Flux is a bigger, better sequel to my book Flex – but doubtlessly, you’re all wondering about that one unassailable hallmark of quality:

How many times does Ferrett swear in The Flux?

If you’ll recall, my favorite review for Flex came from my Goddaughter Carolyn, who said “I would recommend this book to people ages 15+ because f*** is in the book on almost every page.”

Further investigation turned up that Flex contained the word “fuck” 95 times,  or roughly once every three pages.  (Most of that is from Valentine. She swears a lot.)  (Also, my friend Angie noted with amusement that I proceeded to toss off three more “fucks” in the acknowledgements like it was no big thang.)

So if The Flux really is bigger and better than Flex, should it not have more fucks in The Flux?  I did a little survey, and the answer is:

Yes!  The Flux is fuck-superior to Flex, with 101 fucks.  Fuckmathematically speaking, The Flux is 6.3% bigger than Flex.

…but honestly, my friends, I feel like you deserve better than statistical jiggery-pokery.  The truth is that The Flux is also a longer novel than Flex, so if you’re qualifying quantity as fuck-density, we’re still averaging the same rate of roughly one “fuck” every three pages.

But hey.  The Flux has origamimancers, culinomancers, bookiemancers, [REDACTED]mancers, [EVEN MORE HEAVILY REDACTED]mancers, Valentine falling in love, Aliyah learning to kill, Paul learning to fight dirty, and of course more heavily implied pegging scenes.

So it’s bigger in the ways that count.  Just not a greater density of fucks.  And I am sorry about that.

I Feel Awful About Killing Her

Last night, I killed a woman. It wasn’t quite murder, honestly – more like involuntary manslaughter – but I actually had problems getting to sleep, because I kept seeing her mutilated face just before her body plummeted into the mineshaft.

My crime?

I didn’t hit the button fast enough.

And it’s weird, because if we’re counting pixellated bodies, I’ve perpetrated genocide several times over, starting with accidentally dropping dudes to their death in Defender back in 1981 and ramping all the way up to a full-fledged eating of Manhattan crowds as the Blacklight Virus in Prototype.

Yet this one girl?  She bothers me.  And the next morning, I’m still filled with regret that I didn’t act fast enough.

The game is Until Dawn, and it’s an interactive storytelling game in the style of Walking Dead.  You’re watching a narrative – in this case, a horror narrative, where eight dumb teens gather up in an isolated mountaintop lodge and are killed by a supernatural killer out for revenge.  As the story goes on, you make choices – do you show the infatuated boyfriend how his girlfriend is making out with her ex? As a girl, do you try to make out with your boyfriend or tell him you’re just friends?  Do you hide in closets and scare your friends in this creepy-ass lodge, or do you try to get them to work together?

If you search you can find totems, which give you maddeningly incomplete flashes of future events – that maybe you can use to change the awful destinies in store for you.

The game does not allow reloading.  You play it through like a movie, with no rewinding.  And the murders don’t come for a while, so… you get attached.  It’s a little soap opera, where you want Shy Nerd and Shyer Nerdette to fall in love, where you like the snarky way that Rude Jock talks.

Then the killings happen, and you’re responsible.

I’d been trying to get this couple together because she was unabashedly slutty and he was witty. They got out into the cabin alone, where she revealed that she wasn’t quite as sexual as she portrayed herself as – and I chose to be compassionate, telling her we were all fronting, and it was okay who she was.  And they started to make out, and that’s when the killer abducted her.

I chased after them.  I had a choice: take the shortcut, or go down the long way?  And I took the shortcut, which had three mini-Quicktime events, and…

I missed the third event.

I fell in the river.

And ten minutes later, when I finally caught up with the killer, and found her body, they flashed back so I knew exactly what button-press I had missed that had taken this young girl’s life, and I still feel bad.

I have never felt this horrible about “missing the square button” in all my life.

And I can’t get her back.  Getting to that stage in the plot took three hours, and there’s still several hours of story to go, and even if I could restart, I doubt I could remember the exact sequence of decisions I made to make the dead girl the dead girl that I was rooting for.  I know from reviews that the decisions you make change their personalities, and it wouldn’t be quite the same.

I was invested in a way that videogame fiction doesn’t normally do.  Yeah, there’s Sephiroth moments where shocking things happen in the narrative, but those are hard-coded – she’s going to die no matter what you do, and it makes the tears flow but you could play through Final Fantasy a hundred times and she’s going to die, she’s always going to die.

Until Dawn, however, a human being died because of my lack of skill.

And as I drifted uneasily off to sleep, I wondered: What if I’d made that square button press?  What if I’d taken the long way?  Would the long way have still been too long?  What if I had been less compassionate, would she have been safe if we hadn’t tried to have sex in a genre where sex == death?

This is an unsettling game. The temptation is to put it down and not be responsible for killing any of my other favorite characters – and the game knows which characters you like, because it asks you, tailoring the game to your terrors.  When I play, I’ll be putting them in danger again, and yet I have to know what happens.

Until Dawn is making me complicit in murders.  I could just turn off the game, return it for Gamestop credit, look at FAQs and YouTube videos to find out what happens in the “butterfly effect” branches of the game.

But I’m going to play.  I have to do better.

I hope I can do right by the survivors.

THE FLUX Is Out Next Week! What Can You Do To Help?

So the sequel to Flex drops next week, and hoo boy am I nervous. This is where I figure out whether my follow-up is an Empire Strikes Back or a Matrix: Reloaded.

And, unfortunately, it’s also another make-or-break moment for me as an author. Flex did well, but that could just have been “People were curious to see what Ferrett the blogger could produce”; The Flux will be what tells publishers whether I have legs as an author.

So the past few weeks have been a little tense.

But! If you liked Flex, and would like to help juice the sequel, there’s several things you can do:

1) Pre-order the sucker. It’s available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powell’s, and frankly, just about anywhere that sells books. (It might not be on the shelves, but it’s easy to order in.) Pre-orders, as noted, are largely what drive authors’ careers, so if you have been on the fence about picking it up, well, doing so would help.

(No, I don’t care where. Anywhere you get the book is great for me, frankly. You’re being kind enough to entrust me with a couple of your dollars in the hopes I’ll tell you a good story, I’m not going to tell you what format or store to purchase it from.)

2) Mention it. If you’re excited about reading the sequel – which features beloved daughters in danger, Valentine falling in love, the weirdest ‘mancy seen yet, and epic showdowns between teams of ‘mancers and heavily militarized police squads – then mention it on Twitter, or Facebook, or wherever you roam.

(Oh, and for the record: you can always, always post a photo of my books on a shelf and tag me in it.  That has yet to get old.  I get giddy every time I have proof that my words are on actual shelves!)

But mentioning it is not nearly as nice as…

3) Review it! Fun fact: I’m told Amazon decides which authors to promote based on a combination of Amazon reviews and Goodreads reviews (which they also own). And one of the reasons Flex has done as well as it has is because so many of you lovely people left reviews at Amazon (currently 120 reviews, most of them good).

If you really want to promote an author, any author, leave a review somewhere. And if you want to help The Flux along, leave a review after you’re done.

(But please – an honest review. The flat-out worst review I saw of Flex was someone saying, “Well, I’d normally give this book four stars, as I thought it was a B, but Ferrett’s a friend so I’ll give him five.” That was like a knife to my heart. Judge my book not on your love for me, but whether you enjoyed what I wrote. I’ve seen some two-star reviews from friends – not many, but a few – and I still thank you guys for telling the world what you thought of a book you didn’t much care for.)

4) Attend my book release party! If you’re local to Cleveland, show up at the amazing Loganberry Books on Friday, October 9th. There will be cupcakes and Flux-themed nails and a nice suit and a reading.

5) Nothing more! The truth is, all this promotion only helps a book so far. But the thing that really sells a book, more so than any other shill-criteria the marketroids can engineer, is this:

“Did you read Ferrett’s book?”
“Man, you should.”

And I can’t force that. I wouldn’t want to force that. All I can do is hope to get the book into as many people’s hands as possible, and then see what you think. I did next to no promotion for Sauerkraut Station, and you people loved that. (So did I, which is why I’m working on the sequel to that.) If The Flux is as good as I think it is – and I fucking love it – then it’ll resonate with you.

And if it isn’t, then it deserves to drift away.

But I think it is good, and I think if you liked Flex you’re going to love this thrill-ride, and so if you’ve been kind enough to enjoy my debut novel, well, your continued push keeps me in this business, and that’s awesome.

So. Pre-order. Review. Maybe come to my book release party.

And after that? Enjoy.

“You Have A Sister”: Unboxing A Whole Damn Box Of My New Book!

One of the best things about being an author is getting a box of your new book, and getting to introduce it to the old books:

I don’t know if I’ll ever stop tearing up when the new books arrive. But I sure hope I don’t.

Marking A Transition Time: Bifocals Ahoy!

I’d been putting off going to the optometrist for months now, which is unwise for a boy whose mother and grandmother went blind due to macular degeneration. But I knew the signs: taking off the glasses to read close-up text.

I did not want bifocals.

Ah, but God has ways of forcing my hand.  When visiting a friend at her motel this weekend, I accidentally sat on my glasses after removing them to read some tiny text indeed.  Now I have skewed glasses that only fit on one ear.

And sure enough, presbyopia has indeed set in, and I need bifocals.  I’m told by many it’s not that bad; you get used to them quickly.  I wouldn’t know; because I go for the top-end bifocals with the UV protection and lightweight lenses, I have to wait a week for them to arrive.  I’m sure I’ll spend some headachey time next week craning my neck to look at things.

But it’s necessary.  I’m getting older.  And I wanted an entry to mark this day when I transitioned, because I am getting older.  I feel that friction of the sand running into the bottom of the hourglass.  And it’s not bad – I’m approaching the peak of my powers now, writing better things than ever, squeezing more things into a satisfying life.

The end of a grand meal is approaching, and we’re still well into the main course, but it makes me appreciate each bite a little more to know that the check is arriving.

But hey. Despite the fact that I couldn’t find the kind of glasses I like in town (metal rims without nose pads), these new glass frames are pretty badass:

Bifocals, here I come.

For an old dude pounding on the keyboard, I’m still pretty hipster, no?

…oh well.