One Kickstarter I'm In, One Kickstarter I'm Not – Both Danged Cool

So my story “Shadow Transit” – the tale of a desperate mother trying to play games with her government-interred psychic child – is reprinted in Shadows of the Abyss 2, which is currently Kickstarting right now and damned close to funding.  They have all kinds of cool rewards tiers for fans of H.P. Lovecraft, including shotglasses, Shoggoth posters, and Miskatonic University stickers.
(Also, my college-ish buddy John Palisano is in it – we both grew up in the same town, and he went on to be a Stoker-nominated horror writer, also blooming in his late thirties.  Must be something in the water. GO NORWALK CREEPINESS.  But I’m happy to finally be sharing a table of contents with him!)
And in other news….
If you liked the magic system in my novels Flex / The Flux / Fix, you may remember that it was heavily influenced by roleplaying games.  Unknown Armies was the seed of inspiration from which ‘mancy, flex, and flux all grew, because in Unknown Armies magic is literally made entirely of obsession and ritual.  I guarantee you you’d never have seen Paul Tsabo, Bureaucromancer, if I hadn’t read about UA’s pornomancers and dipsomancers.
And now UA is rebooting with a phenomenal Kickstarter.  I’ve pledged, of course, because frankly I owe these guys big – but I’ve had people ask me, “If I was going to run Flex as a campaign, what system should I run it in?”  The answer: Unknown Armies, no question.
So, you know, I can’t encourage you to pledge to this one enough.  If you like roleplaying games or the ‘Mancer series, I’m pretty sure you’ll enjoy this one (even if the rewards tiers boil down to “Get book, get more of book, get book in alternative format”).  So, you know, go check it out.

How To Leave A Convincing Comment

For some reason, I decided to write an essay that took on both anti-vaxxers and libertarians.  Unsurprisingly, I was flooded with, er, spirited comments.
Many of which sounded like total nutballs.
Maybe they had a good point.  But these folks left a comment, then came back and left another comment unrelated to the next comment they left, then left another comment with a link to some obscure site, and then left another comment….
They weren’t replying to anyone.  They just were so incensed they kept coming back with more information – but on the Internet, continually leaving stream-of-consciousness comments is a lot like that crazy guy on the subway who collars you for five minutes about how the Gold Standard was undermined by the Illuminati, gets up, leaves, and then comes back to go, “Oh, yeah, I forgot!” and harangue you some more.
I’m not saying it’s never happened, but I doubt most sane people will be convinced by anyone leaving twenty comments in response to their blog post.
(One guy is up to thirty-three unrelated comments, including “If Donald Trump gets in office the chances of all people of color being sterilized becomes a possibility,” which doesn’t make you sound like a whackjob at allllll.  That came around comment #25, which is just proof that you should stop while you’re ahead.)
(Though alas, there were three separate anti-vaxxers, each returning with a minimum of six comments apiece, each of which reads like a blustery “…And another thing!”)
So that’s Tip #1 For Leaving Convincing Comments:  Leave one and only one comment, unless you’re replying to someone else’s comment.
Tip #2 is be short.  The fifteen-page essay is something people are going to skim.  Figure you start with two paragraphs max, and then maybe expand to three if you can’t fit it all in.
This is actually scientific, weirdly enough. OKCupid did a study of what sorts of mails people respond to – and being a writer, I was shocked to find that “wall o’text” actually had next to a nil response rate.  But looking at it from the perspective of someone who receives emails, when I get a wall o’text email I think, “Okay, I should get back to them, but there’s sooooo many things to address,” and I mean to get back but then I forget.  And if I remember, it always takes more time than the people who I can reply to with a quick paragraph.
Wanna be convincing?  Brevity counts.
Tip #3 is go easy on the hyperlinks.  You’ve got people who seem to think that hyperlinking every fact lends them an air of believability, but in the absence of credibility it makes you look like a paranoid nutball.  You may think this gives you the appearance of a scholarly professor, but half your links are probably from heavily-biased sources anyway, and you don’t look like a professor so much as you look like that serial killer who’s got a corkboard full of pictures and newspaper articles connected by thumbtacked string.
If you’re making a point, linking to one serious article will be more widely read than fifty billion links.
Tip #4 is read carefully.  Before you get all outraged, read it again to ensure that you read it right.  If you’re going to argue against someone, be sure they’re saying something you actually oppose.  Too many people read a headline and miss nuance, and then wind up getting destroyed in the comments because, well, the article doesn’t actually say what they think it did.
Finally, Tip #5 is if you’re going to be a dick, be a clever one.  Calling someone an asshole is never going to convince anyone who wasn’t already convinced already – and hey, if that doesn’t bother you then you’ve shifted from “I want to leave convincing comments” to “I want to leave harassing comments,” in which case you should die in a fire.
See?  That totally didn’t convince anyone who didn’t already believe “Calling someone an asshole is bad behavior.”
No, if you’re going to be snide, be subtle: undermine their arguments, not the person.  Point out the oh-so-obvious flaws in their logic and how a man of normal intellect should have noticed that.  Unbury all the facts they omitted.  For extra style points, bring up their inevitable rebuttal and dismantle that.
But if you stick to the argument, you’ll do a lot better, because one of the core lessons of writing is show, don’t tell.  Saying “Ferrett is an idiot” doesn’t work because people don’t meet you halfway.  But if you take apart my arguments line-by-line, demonstrating my incompetency, then you have led people to the conclusion that I am an idiot and they will then believe it with much greater vigor.
None of this, of course, ensures that you are correct.  But the sooner nerds can recognize that “being correct” and “convincing other people that you are correct” are two separate skills, the better off the world will be.  Donald Trump is quite excellent at convincing (certain swathes of) people that he is correct, but he is lying 75% of the time.  Whereas the global warming people were correct about, well, global warming, but their ability to convince people of that is sub-par.
(As my friend Bart pointed out, if these scientists were persuasive, they would have never started out calling it “global warming,” because sure enough, every time we have a cold winter you have dumb people going, “Yeah, right, this isn’t global warming.”  The proper term, which they’ve tried to switch to too late, was “climate change” or maybe “your weather gets fucking terrifyingly erratic,” but too late.)
So!  Maaaaaybe you’re correct about Donald Trump using vaccinations to sterilize Mexicans and the injection internment camps that will inevitably flow from his election.  But remember, your being correct about this is not the same as appearing to be correct, so leave better comments!
Oh, and actually, you’re wrong about that Donald Trump thing.  Sorry.

The Vaccination Problem Is The Military Problem Is The Regulation Problem

So here’s the problem with vaccination:
It works.
It works really well.
It works so well that there’s not enough residual problems left to remind people Hey wait, this will make our lives miserable if we stop doing it.
It’s not like fighting terrorism, where even the best anti-terrorism campaign slips up occasionally and then we get a bloody reminder of The Need To Stay Vigilant: no, a successful vaccination program is defined by the absence of kids in wheelchairs, of zero deafened children, of not watching 10% of the five-year-olds at your local pre-school get mangled by measles.
Vaccination is so goddamned successful that people forget what the pre-vaccination world was like.
So they start to think, “Well, all this health is the baseline.”  They forget that vaccination is the reason for all this health, and come to believe that somehow, naturally, in the wild, things would just go fine.
Which is the logic of a six-year-old believing that everybody just gets a house to live in, and it’s so terrible that Daddy has to work for nine hours a day because if he just quit his job then they’d still have a house and everyone would get more time with Daddy…
But that’s what happens when people are shielded from the downsides.  Most six-year-olds haven’t been close to the realities of being homeless.  Even if Mommy and Daddy are working overtime to try to stop their landlord from kicking them out, the kid’s clueless – they just see the stress of working so much, and they’ve always had this apartment, so why is everyone so concerned about losing it?  You can’t lose a home, that’s silly, it wouldn’t happen.
So the anti-vaxxers start dismantling vaccination.  Because they have no concept of what the alternative is like.
Which is a lot like regulation.  Regulation works.  It works disturbingly well.  Yet you see tons of libertarians asking not the sensible question of “Why do we need these particular regulations?” but the more terrifying question of “Why do we need regulations at all?”
And these libertarians haven’t read up on their history, because the 19th century was exactly what they wanted – almost no taxes, practically zero regulations, things mostly handled by private industry – and if you want a glimpse at what this glorious future brought us, read The Poisoner’s Handbook for a solid compendium of nonregulatory horrors that the free market failed to solve.
(Spoiler: things were bad enough that the voters demanded these regulations.)
But it’s the same problem.  Because this new and safe generation have never dealt with butchers putting sawdust into putrid meat to sell it to you for cheap, or personally watched a tenement burn because a cheap home-owner built his fireplaces out of wood – no, that happened – they think that businesspeople will just miraculously be nice to their customers because the customers have infinite time to research and infinite alternatives to buy from and the business people certainly won’t indulge in propaganda to muddy the waters.
Your restaurants are sanitary because regulations force business-owners into actions they wouldn’t normally take.  And it’s fine to argue to reduce regulations if there’s too many to follow, because regulations do start choking business after a time – but when you start saying, “Hey, business would just fix this stuff on their own if we left them alone, why do we need regulations at all?” then you’re back to the vaccination problem.  You forgot history.
And it’s the same way that American liberals seem to think that the military is just this frippery we keep around for no good reason, and all the other countries would just miraculously be nice to us if we sold all of our F-18s off in bake sales, simply because America’s in a comparatively isolated area and the military’s been good at keeping local revolutions down.  (And you may be like, “I don’t like it when they suppress our revolutions,” but then you look at the way the National Guard got brought in to keep the civil rights movement safe from the locals who’d overrule the law, and realize that it cuts both ways.)
That’s a problem.  If a solution works really well, within a few generations we have naive idiots who think that this new, hard-won order of things is just how things are naturally.
And they start looking at all the downsides of this solution and come to the foolish conclusion that the downsides outweigh the upside because there is no upside, things would be exactly the same if we removed the solution, so why not get rid of the military or regulations or vaccination?
How do you convince them when they refuse to look at the past?
And that’s an insolvable problem.  It’s frightening to think that our future may be this continual battle for civilization, because things won’t collapse all the way.  The people who remember how bad things are won’t let them collapse all the way.  And the forgetful idiots won’t see the problems they’re causing – because remember, to them, all the goodness is just what happens naturally.  So when more kids get measles, then a microscopic-and-also-totally-imaginary chance at autism is worse than the school-wide pandemics they don’t realize they’re causing, and when businesses have their regulations taken away and yet still mysteriously choose to fuck over their workers and customers, that’s because something else is blocking these job-creators from unleashing the kindness that’s clearly present in their hearts.
The truth is, we’ll probably be battling naive idiots all our lives, and these people will never understand that they’re actually agents of total fucking chaos.
I don’t know how to solve it.  The only way I can think to solve it is to start with almost propaganda-like levels of schooling – long curriculums showing kids the horrors of the days before vaccinations and regulations and a sturdy military.
The problem is, if that worked, then eventually some idiot would start saying, “Come on, man!  Who wouldn’t understand that regulations and the military and vaccination were good things?  People just know that.  There’s no need for these classes.”
Next thing you know, it’s another battle. And there we go again.

On Beyond Two Souls And The Fatal Flaw Of Interactive Storytelling

So I played Beyond Two Souls this weekend, and I absolutely adored everything about it. It had a strong storyline that justified just about every quirky narrative choice, a female lead who my heart ached for, and a large-scale story that ended solidly.
My daughter and I also mocked it relentlessly over the entire weekend.
The problem is that Beyond Two Souls is a videogame in the new “Interactive Storytelling” genre, and the failure mode of Interactive Storytelling is that you wind up pressing buttons to do the most trivial of tasks. (Heavy Rain, in particular, features you using the controls over the course of ten minutes, to get the protagonist off the bed, maneuvering him to the bathroom, working the joystick to shave him properly, turning on the shower, drying himself off, choosing his clothes, during which it is impossible to fail.)
So Amy and I kept shouting things like “Press X to coffee!” and “Press X to shiver from cold!” and “Press X to battle this ever-encroaching sense of ennui!” and “Press X to baby!  Baby harder, Jodie!  Baby harder!”
Interactive Storytelling is both glorious and ridiculous, and as such it is polarizing in the videogame community.  How can you call it a videogame if the game itself is an appendage, this sad dotting of Quicktime events?  I’m usually down for a good challenge in videogames, but I put BTS on “Easy” mode because frankly, I’d made a character choice to beat up this faux-Somali on this mission, and I didn’t feel like watching my heroine fail dismally because I forgot which button was the triangle.
Yet there is something compelling about being part of a story.  Yeah, you can watch movies, but when you’ve made the decision to either forgive or flay your parents, you get engrossed.  I couldn’t wait to see what happened next in Beyond Two Souls, just as I couldn’t wait to see what happened next in Until Dawn, just as I’m itching to complete Heavy Rain even though the controls suuuuuuuck.
The problem is the story’s never deep enough.
See, the issue with all the storytelling games I’ve played is that they promise “Interactive choices!” – by which they mean to imply you can change the plot.  But because these videogames are big-budget adventures, graphically beautiful, every genuine plot divergence is millions of dollars put into branching paths you may never see.
So after you’ve played through once, you realize that there’s never any real variance.  Heavy Rain is a mystery, but the murderer is always the same person.  Beyond Two Souls is a science-fiction action adventure, but it’s filled with lots of dramatic chokepoints of But Thou Must where you’re obliged to kill this bad guy or sneak out of this Navajo home.  You control who lives or dies in horror game Until Dawn, but the same sequence of events will play over and over again, with plot-dependent characters being immune until the final scene.
The Interactive Storytelling allows you to make choices.  And those choices can affect some of your emotional shading – if I decide to choke my father in Beyond Two Souls, well, he’ll be mad at me.  But my dad is leaving forever in that scene regardless of what I do, so the effect is that I feel bad but no events change.
And I think Interactive Storytelling will be forever stunted until they figure out a way to fuse plot and choices.  You can be furious at Ryan or you can be in love with Ryan or you can be indifferent to Ryan, but you can never leave Ryan.  And they give you all sorts of good rationales for that, because Ryan is your CIA partner and the missions need you, but past a certain point you realize that the stories they tell are constricted because they can only tell stories where you can’t alienate or leave certain people.  Every Interactive Storytelling tale in this has people in boxes, and after you play through for the first time you see the rails.
What would really blow the genre way open would be the introduction of true plot-changing decisions.  Like Ryan?  You keep doing CIA missions for him, and you have a plotline that blossoms into global politics.  Don’t like Ryan?  You branch off into another storyline where you go it on your own and never see the global politics thread.
Ah, but budgets are tricky, and it’s hard to justify spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on visuals that you’ll never see.  If they design a setpiece, they need to justify that you’ll see it, and pouring the cash into a scene that at minimum 50% of the game’s players would never see on the first playthrough because they told Ryan to go to heck is hard to swallow.
(And that assumes you don’t get the usual heavy videogame abandonment rate issues.  Lots of people never finish a game.  That “50% don’t see it” number might be closer to 80% when you count in the folks who never got that far.)
Yet if you had a true plot, well, you’d have more than one branching plot choice – you’d have this glorious iceberg of a game where 90% of it was hidden from you because you made choices that took you away from fully-fledged levels.  One decision early in the game would wall you off from 50% of the levels, and then another crucial decision an hour later would wall you off from 50% of the remaining levels, and so on until you talked to your friends and realized that hey, they played an entirely different game than you did.
That would be a game people would play in droves – assuming the storytelling was equally compelling in every segment, and you’d have to write dialogue and quality controls and graphics for each of these levels that were different, and economically I don’t think it’ll ever work.
As it is, I loved Beyond Two Souls.  But I don’t think I’ll play it again.  All the differences converge in 24 different endings, and hell, I know what happened until those final ten minutes of the game, I’ll just watch it all on YouTube.
But I long for a game I won’t see.  I want a game where my psychic character can walk away from The Institute and evade the FBI and have some plotline utterly unrelated to the ones where the character went to boot camp and became a psychic soldier.
Won’t happen.
But I can dream.

Five Myths About Writers That Non-Writers Don't Get

Hard Work Does Not Equal Talent.
It helps, to be certain. The more you write (as long as you’re writing with the idea to improve), the more you better your chances of creating something magnificent.
But every writer knows some prodigy who writes rings around them.  Someone whose talent blossomed much younger.  Someone who doesn’t work nearly as hard as you do, yet creates stories of beauty and majesty that you can’t touch.
What sucks about this business is that all you can do is cultivate your own talent.  Some people just write better than you do, and you can drive yourself crazy wondering why they’re so good and you’re so struggling.  There’s this myth that the person who puts in the most effort magically succeeds – yet just like there are gifted athletes, there are gifted writers, and most basketball players have to come to terms with the fact that no amount of practice will give them Michael Jordan’s instincts.
That doesn’t mean you can’t be on the All-Star Team, though.  You just have to remember that every moment lost to envy is a moment you’re not bettering your own skills.
Talent Does Not Equal Success.
What is success, anyway?  Is it awards?  Money pouring through your door?  The adoration of people who admire?
Whatever it is, every writer knows an exception.
There’s always some immaculately-reviewed writer who, somehow, never makes the awards ballot.  There’s always some critical darling with a cancelled series and friends wondering why more people aren’t reading them.  There’s always some bestselling author fuming about bad reviews.
Look, if publishers knew how to generate bestsellers on demand, they’d do it.   But as William Goldman, the guy who wrote The Princess Bride says, “Nobody knows anything.”  Publishers buy a bunch of manuscripts because honestly, nobody in the world knows why one novel takes off and another one sits on the shelves.  Publishers have thrown million-dollar marketing campaigns at books that landed with a thud, whereas self-published books with an initial print run of 200 copies turned out to be bestsellers.
And then there’s the luck factor.  Fun fact: a few months ago, a prominent agent read my book Flex and raved about it.  I know that agent has recommended Flex to their friends, because some of their friends have written to me and told me how grateful they were that this agent told them about it.
I sent Flex to this agent.
They were one of the first three people who declined to represent me because they didn’t think Flex was good enough.
But that doesn’t mean the agent is terrible: it means they were in a different headspace that day, or that some minor change I made to the first chapter really made a difference, or that their assistant read it that day instead of them.  So much of success involves the right person reading your book on the right day that it can drive you crazy.
All you can do is write the best book you’re capable of, and hope to hell it resonates with the public.  It may be a brilliant book, one that broke the hearts of your agent and your publisher and all your friends and all your author buddies, and even then it might flop.  And then Fifty Shades of Grey will outsell you a million to one.
The alchemy of writing is mysterious.  Success is elusive.  And while we’re talking about that…
A Talented Writer Does Not Produce Consistently Talented Works.
The late great Jay Lake had a theory he called The Bathtub Theory, and I’ll quote it in full here (his site has illustrations):
Think of the publishing world as a bathtub.
In that bathtub there is a line which represents the level of professionalism one must reach before one can begin selling pro stories.
Into that bathtub flows the water of your talent and effort.
It fills over time, as you practice your craft, learn new techniques, refine existing ones, submit to markets, apply consistent effort to producing new materials and generally do all the writing and writing related program activities which your favorite pros spend their time at. Note that the waterline is wavy, like a child’s drawing of the ocean. This is because while you have a baseline, or mean, level of quality in your output, at any given point in your career path some work will be better than other work. Variability within an established range, so to speak.
So, as the water of your talent and effort continues to flow into the bathtub, the waterlevel rises up.
At first you sell one or two stories over a span of time. The peaks of your waves have touched the “pro line.” Then you begin to sell with some consistency, still missing sometimes. The midline of your waves has touched the “pro line.” Eventually, if you are smart, persistent, lucky, and most of all consistent in your practice, even the troughs of your waves will rise to the “pro line”.
Think of success not as a point which you pass, but as a state which you enter with increasing frequency.
The point of this is that people seem to think that a Good Writer writes A Good Story.  And the truth is, some stories you write are brilliant because you’re on fire, and some stories just aren’t that great.  Good writers have a baseline level of talent, yes, so when Stephen King writes a bad story it’s like sex and pizza – which is to say, pretty good even when it’s not good –
– but some stories you write will be wonderful, and some won’t, and damn if you know the difference.  Which leads to the next myth…
Love Does Not Equal Quality.
A friend of mine told me that the third book in my series had to be good because she knew I loved these characters so much.  “You can tell when an author doesn’t really love what they’re working on.”
Sadly, no.
Again, history is rife with authors churning out classic works they didn’t really care for – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle most notably came to loathe Sherlock Holmes and actually killed him off in the hopes of shedding light on the works he adored more.  (It didn’t work.)  Those stories were still golden.
Whereas every author has a story they adored that never got the success they’d hoped for.  And most writers have a story that fans liked way more than they, the person who actually wrote the story, did.
There is no steady correlation between “the amount of adoration you poured into this work” and “how much people like it.” We wish this was so – but according to Stephen King, Lisey’s Story is his best work, not IT or The Stand or The Dark Tower.
You may be sensing a theme here – that there’s no guarantee in publishing.  This may seem frustrating.  I assure you, it is.  But there’s one benefit to it all…
We Are Not In Competition With Each Other.  
I graduated from a Clarion class with seventeen other writers.  My classmate Monica Byrne’s The Girl In The Road debuted to fantastic reviews. My classmate Emily Jiang’s book Summoning the Phoenix won awards.  My classmate Kat Howard’s upcoming book Roses and Rot got personally blurbed by Neil Gaiman.
Their success does not eclipse my own.
Look.  My ‘Mancer series is a crazy urban fantasy series about obsession-based magic and the love of donuts.  Monica’s Girl In The Road is a cross-cultural science-fiction journey about a woman who flees assassins by walking across an energy-harvesting bridge.  Emily’s book is a children’s poetry book of Chinese music.  Kat’s book is fairy tale magic.
None of us are writing for the same audience.
And frankly, even if we were, there’s always room for good stories.  J.K Rowling’s success did not mean Lev Grossman’s The Magicians and Scott Hawkin’s Library At Mount Char got squashed, even if they were basically all the same concept.
People want to read fascinating tales, and if you write one they will buy them.
Yeah, it’s sometimes a little intimidating looking at other authors’ sales numbers, but they’re not stealing from my pocket.  Rowling got a lot of kids into reading, and chances are a couple of people who were spurred to a love of books by Harry Potter picked up Flex.  What matters is the story, and yeah, maybe other authors write better or have bigger sales or are more beloved by critics…
But as always, all you can do is make your own space.
That’s the truth about writing.
Good luck.