Anime Analysis: Demi-chan wa Kataritai

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Cute monster girls doing cute things.

It’s tempting to summarise Demi-chan wa Kataritai (Interviews with Monster Girls) with that line, but the anime puts a fresh spin on an otherwise well-worn trope. An adaptation of the manga of the same name, Demi-chan wa Kataritai is a slice of life anime that posits the existence of demi-humans and explores the lives of four demi-humans in a high school in modern-day Japan.

As a slice of life anime, Demi-chan wa Kataritai has no overarching plot, no villains to defeat, no extended conflict to overcome. Without any of the elements that drive a plot, the franchise relies on its characters to sell the series.

And it does that in spades.

Four Monster Girls Walk Into A School…

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Takahashi Tetsuo is a high school biology teacher whose dearest wish is to meet demi-humans and learn more about him. By a stroke of fortune, when the school year begins, four demi-humans enter his school. He seeks them out and talks to them, leading to the titular interviews with monster girls.

Genki girl Takanashi Hikari is a vampire who drives much of the story’s comedic moments. By contrast, Machi Kyoko is a quiet and intelligent dullahan who secretly wishes for more human contact. Being a yuki-onna, Kusakabe Yuki represents Japanese folklore in the series. The final monster girl is Sato Sakie, a shy and awkward succubus who joins the school as a math teacher.

In this world, demi-humans represent a minority of the population (Machi is just one of three dullahans in existence), but at least in Japan they are accepted as regular people with special needs. The conflict between the demi-humans’ natures and their needs drive their respective arcs.

Hikari is the most well-adjusted demi-human, and she is the glue that bonds the rest of the cast. Her drama arc centres on her relationship with her twin sister Himari, who is a regular human, and her interactions with her fellow demi-humans and teachers. Machi, being a dullahan, has her head constantly detached from her body (it’s suggested that her neck is a wormhole joining her head and body), requiring her to learn how to adapt to the modern world. She longs for more social contact, but people feel awkward around her because of her head. By contrast, Kusakabe believes that she can accidentally harm people around her, and avoids getting too close to anyone. Sato’s arc is a variation of that theme: being a succubus, her body produces aphrodisiacs that drive men wild. She wonders if she will ever have a romantic relationship, and comes to believe that Takahashi is immune to her powers. (Spoiler: he isn’t.)

Demi-chan wa Kataritai finely balances the monster girls’ dual natures, highlighting both their monster and girl selves. Throughout the series, the audience is constantly reminded of their biology, expressed through their human selves. Hikari and Kusakabe are susceptible to heat, and as the story moves into summer, they start complaining about the sun and retreat to Takahashi’s air-conditioned biology preparation room. Kusakabe herself has a constantly cool body and needs to manage her body temperature. Being a dullahan, Machi feels safe and comforted when someone is holding her head. Sato wishes to be a responsible adult and teacher, so she dresses plainly and avoids touching males — and her lack of experience interacting with males comes painfully to the forefront when interacting with Takahashi.

This tension between the monster and girl selves drives the story, allowing Takahashi to shine.

Great Teacher Takahashi

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Lesser studios and creators would have treated the series as a harem story with a perverted pushover as the protagonist. Instead, both the anime and manga portray Takahashi as a teacher who is genuinely concerned about his students. He thinks, talks and acts like a teacher, offering counselling when they are troubled and scolding them when they underperform. In Sato’s case, he treats her like a colleague, going out of his way to hide his reaction to her aphrodisiac.

Like the rest of the cast, Demi-chan wa Kataritai constantly reminds the audience of Takahashi’s physiology and character. Takahashi is buff and strong: he is occasionally seen carrying heavy loads, and among the cast he carries Machi’s head the most. When interviewing the demi-humans, he showcases his knowledge of biology, and sets up impromptu experiments to learn more about them. When interacting with Sato, we see his iron will in resisting her aphrodisiac — and he actually succeeds. Mostly.

Takahashi’s portrayal as a competent, (literally) strong male is refreshing in an industry marked by bland and/or weak and/or perverted male protagonists. The default Western approach of having a Strong Female Character demonstrate her ‘strength’ by tearing down a male is conspicuously absent — the one time this happens the male was a creep who got was coming to him. Indeed, everybody is portrayed positively in the series, supporting each other instead of tearing them down. In modern-day entertainment, this is an unusual approach, and all the more refreshing for its positivity.

From Character, Tone

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The worldbuilding and character-building lead to a relaxed, light-hearted tone. None of the monster girls are monsters; they simply have biological quirks. Vampires don’t need to feed on human blood, yuki-onna can’t cause fatal cold spells, succubi don’t need to seduce men to survive, and dullahans aren’t innately dangerously. None of the demi-humans face widespread societal discrimination; indeed, all of them receive help from sympathetic authority figures.

Because of this approach, the drama in the series is heavily character-focused, revolving around how the main cast interact with other people. As the setting is limited to a high school context, there are no wider conflicts with higher stakes. With every character doing their best to accommodate and support each other, the moments of drama and teenage angst are easily and plausibly resolved within the length of a chapter instead of being drawn out. There are also plenty of comedic moments, further softening the tone and reinforcing Hikari’s role as the joker of the crew.

Demi-chan wa Kataritai demonstrates how character-building and worldbuilding influences the tone of a story. The story minimises opportunities for discrimination, oppression and physical conflict, focusing instead of social interactions and relationships. The series deftly balances the characters’ physiology and personality to produce a cheery, leisurely slice-of-life story punctuated with moments of drama and humour. It is highly recommended for people who want to see light-hearted slice-of-life tales and for creators looking to study the intersection between worldbuilding, character-building and story-telling.

Image credits:

  1. https://myanimelist.net/anime/33988/Demi-chan_wa_Kataritai
  2. http://elvortex.com/guia-de-animes-invierno-2017-parte-1/
  3. https://www.animenewsnetwork.com/news/2016-09-10/interviews-with-monster-girls-demi-chan-wa-kataritai-tv-anime-teaser-introduces-characters/.106315
  4. https://myanimelist.net/anime/33988/Demi-chan_wa_Kataritai/pics

Can post-cyberpunk fiction be superversive?

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“The important part in Cyberpunk is just that: it’s not the technology, it’s the feel. It’s getting that dark, gritty, rain-wet street feeling but at the same time getting that rock and roll, lost and desperate and dangerous quality. Cyberpunk is about that interface between people and technology, but not in that transhumanist way where it’s all about the technology changing or improving them. It’s about how people use things… Cyberpunk isn’t about saving humanity. It’s about saving yourself.”
Mike Pondsmith

Cyberpunk is the literature of subversion. There are no clean, shiny and prosperous utopian futures promised in old-school science fiction; here you find the dirty streets of dystopias born from the unholy union of untrammeled megacorporations and state power. Technology doesn’t elevate people; it twists them into man-machine hybrids, exposes their secrets for all to see, and creates fresh prisons for the mind and body. Heroes are dead and forgotten; in their places are marginalised, alienated loners at civilisation motivated only by self-preservation. Where the best of science fiction tries to take humanity to the stars, cyberpunk drags humanity into the gritty, nihilistic underbelly of the world.

By contrast, superversive fiction is fiction for a more civilised age. Where subversive fiction undermines, superversive fiction builds back up. The best superversive fiction is a celebration of the values and ideas that underpin civilisation: family, law and order, morality, religion, tradition. To quote from Russell Newquist, superversive fiction is marked by at least some of the following:

Heroes who are actually heroic. They don’t have to be heroic all of the time, or even most of the time. But when the time comes, they must actually be heroic.

People are basically good. Not all the time, not in every case – and certainly not every person. But basically.

Good Wins. Not every time – a good story always has setbacks in it. But evil winning is most definitely not superversive.

True love is real. Again, maybe not for everybody. But it’s real.

Beauty is real. It’s ok to show the warts. But show the beauty, too.

The transcendent is awesome. There’s no obligation to show any particular religion, or even really religion at all. But superversive literature should show the glory and splendor of the wider universe around us, and it should leave us in awe of it.

Family is good and important. Not every family, sure. But those are the exceptions, not the rule.

Civilization is better than barbarism. This doesn’t mean barbarians are evil, or that they aren’t fun. But in the end, they’re… well, barbaric.

Strength, courage, honor, beauty, truth, sacrifice, spirituality, and humility are virtues. This can be demonstrated by showing people breaking the virtues. But they must be recognized as virtues.

There is hope. Superversive stories should never leave the reader feeling despair.

Cyberpunk is opposed to superversive fiction at every level. There are no heroes, only blackhearted characters either performing fell deeds or manipulating people into performing them. Love and beauty are either alien or transient, and functional families are unheard of. There is no hope of transcendence, except maybe as a ghost in a machine. The primary characters reject civilisation and its virtues, instead living by their own codes at the edge of society. Cyberpunk fiction rarely has happy endings, and those that do tend to be bittersweet or temporary.

Blend everything together and you have a recipe for darkness-induced audience apathy.

Meaningful conflict is the heart of drama. Readers need to empathise with characters. Actions should not entirely be in vain. Evil is punished, good prevails, civilisation endures or evolves. Without these elements, it becomes exceedingly hard for a reader to care. Why should a reader care about a self-destructive misanthropic loner who remains a self-destructive misanthropic loner? Why should a reader be concerned about the fate of an oppressive dystopia? Why should a reader cheer on a traitor, a liar or a murderer with no redeeming traits? With such societies and characters, it takes great skill to hook a reader and keep him invested in the story — a skill few cyberpunk writers, if any, have. Indeed, it is telling that the authors once associated with cyberpunk no longer write cyberpunk.

Is there room for superversive cyberpunk?

Probably not, but that’s what post-cyberpunk is for.

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Epitomised by works like Ghost in the Shell, post-cyberpunk draws upon the cyberpunk ethos and places its own spin on things. Shaped by the technological development and societal attitudes of the 21st century, post-cyberpunk represents an evolution of cyberpunk without necessarily retaining its nihilistic post-modern attitudes.

As Mike Pondsmith says, cyberpunk isn’t about the technology, but the feel. It’s the contrast of high tech and low life, of desperate struggles in the dark, of how people use and abuse technology. Even with this aesthetic there is room for superversion.

Ghost in the Shell (the anime and manga, NOT the live-action movie) features a secret police officer who protects a future Japan against terrorists and corrupt bureaucrats while exploring heavy philosophical themes. Psycho-Pass stars an idealistic police officer who struggles to retain her humanity as she defends a dystopian police state. Deus Ex: Human Revolution and its sequel Mankind Divided features Adam Jensen, a former police officer and later counterterror agent who uncovers a conspiracy to rule the world. Watch_Dogs features hackers fighting a powerful megacorp and the omnipresent surveillance system it has created.

These stories are all called cyberpunk in the popular press. They certainly share the same ethos as older cyberpunk works. But instead of descending into the depths of nihilism, at the end of these stories their worlds are just a little better and brighter, and the characters emerge with their spirits tested but unbowed. Victories may be small, but they are meaningful to the characters and the story world.

Post-cyberpunk fiction can be bent to the ends of superversion without sacrificing the core aesthetic that defines it. In a dark, oppressive world, kindness and virtue shine brilliantly. Tsunemori Akane’s humanity and idealism stands in stark contrast to the inhumanity and utilitarianism of the Sibyl System. Adam Jensen can choose to spare every enemy he meets. By creating sharp contrasts of virtue and vice, humanity and alienation, idealism and cynicism, post-cyberpunk is able to unmask the heart of darkness while still making a stand for truth and beauty and justice.

Like cyberpunk, post-cyberpunk is still dark and gritty and dystopic. There is still plenty of chrome and tech, and there are no end of villains scheming in the night. But here, there is also room for hope. Ruthless megacorporations, politicians and criminals are held to account or punished for their misdeeds. Civilisation chugs along, and ordinary people are better able to live in peace. The Leviathan may not be slain, but you still retain your soul, and even an all-powerful state can be convinced to reform itself for the better. You may not be able to save humanity, but you can still save yourself and everyone else around you, and lay the foundations for a better tomorrow.

Post-cyberpunk may be as black as pitch, but the darkness accentuates the brilliance of a candle.

And the flame can be passed from candle to candle, fiction to consumer, heart to heart.


First image: Cyberpunk 2077 trailer
Second image: Psycho-pass anime poster

Behind the Story: WE BURY OUR OWN

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Writing stories is a gruelling experience. Mostly it’s like mining: you show up, you punch away at the keyboard, and you keep at it until the task is done. Sometimes it’s like squeezing blood from a stone, and most of the blood will be yours. And sometimes, the words flow unceasingly from a source higher and deeper and truer than anything the naked eye can perceive.

We Bury Our Own is most definitely the last.

The genesis of the story was an odd one. In late 2015 I stumbled across a strange manga:Shuumatsu no Maristella. It was the most surreal manga I had ever seen. It featured soldier girls with assault rifles sworn to the church who take drugs to spawn angel wings to fight sea creatures spawned from the information sea and copulating with certain monsters to produce valuable materials, in an attempt to retake the world.

I’m probably understating the craziness of the whole affair; that’s how strange it was.

But it stuck.

It bounced around my head, merged with my martial arts training, the omnipresent Mist of Final Fantasy IX and the monsters of the entire franchise, the Kabballah and other concepts. From there came the spark of an idea.

But inspiration alone isn’t enough, of course. The first time I tried writing a story based on those ideas, nothing came of then. There was too much Shuumatsu no Maristella, too little of myself.

Then came the 2016 Baen Fantasy Award I started pondering the possibilities. Baen wanted heroic fantasy. Tales of warriors solving problems with weapons or wits. Not boring allegories, talky political drama, angst or any draggy stuff. It was right up my alley. And I had a concept ready for it.

I tore down the old story. Re-examined every assumption, every concept, every pillar of the story. Created an overarching storyline, characters, concepts, settings, and more. There was enough material in there for a novel, maybe a series. And from there I fished out just enough for a short story, a snapshot of life in the Order of Saint Joshua.

Thus was born We Bury Our Own.

It was unlike anything I had written to date. It was a story of pride and consequences. Of men who tried to be like gods and fell prey to their hubris. It was about men with unusual powers, seen as angels and monsters, who had to venture into the all-corrupting mists of the world and wield the powers of creation to save humanity without falling prey to the mist. It was nothing more and nothing less than a battle between an angel who saw himself a men and a man who saw himself an angel.

Or, in simpler terms: a story about sci fi battle angels armed with blasters and swords versus mist monsters spawned from thought.

Writing it was…strange. It was as though my consciousness had stepped back, letting something else, something greater, take over the keys. I only had the barest inkling of a plot and characters, yet as I went along I saw the story take shape before my eyes. In the prose I saw bands of gold and gray, streaks of steel and silver, thunderbolts turned solid and swords fading into mist.

Normally I would discuss the hows and whys of writing this story but I don’t think there was much of ‘me’ writing it. Not this time. I only made a few conscious decisions: incorporating sword and gun, how the world was set up, how the characters were seen and what defined them. Everything else…

Call it God, intuition, the muses, whatever, but I got out of its way and let it do the writing. The resulting story was unlike anything I had ever done before. But it felt right. It was clean. Beyond a few edits for typos, no further changes were needed. When I sent it in to my writer’s group, there was nothing but praise.

When I sent it to Baen, I received new response. Then I sent it to Silver Empire’s Lyonesse project.

And it was accepted.

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Lyonesse went online three days ago. For the price of a single ebook, Lyonesse will release one science fiction or fantasy story a week for a year. It’s practically a steal — and if you’re a writer, Lyonesse is still looking for fresh material.

When I read We Bury Our Own again, I did so with fear and trembling. Never before had people praised my work so highly. By publishing it I had set a new benchmark for myself. A new standard I had to meet and surpass. I don’t know if I can ever do it, but I have to try: in this business you’re only as good as your last remembered work.

And yet…

Everything about the story was different from what I had previously done. The themes, the abstract concepts, the vocabulary, the aesthetics, even the cadence of the dialogue and narration. It’s so vastly different that I don’t know if I could do it again, much less replicate it if I ever revisit the universe.

And yet…

In this business you’re only as good as your last remembered work. You cannot settle for being good enough, for being mediocre, for plateauing out. You have to keep getting better. It’s the only way to master the craft and stand out from a market deluged with self-published wannabes and pretentious pseudo-literary message fic. You have to be the best you can be, and I know that I’m nowhere near there yet.

If there is one lesson I need to learn from this story, it’s that I shouldn’t think too much. I found that after a certain point, when the worldbuilding is settled and the characters understood, rational thought gets in the way. Thinking through every tiny detail becomes a waste of time and energy. I just need to show up, set my conscious mind aside, and write.

Time to see how that works out.

Artwork by Andy Duggan

Lyonesse picture by Silver Empire

Writing Through the Churn

 

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Show up. Sit down. Write.

Time-honoured writer’s advice. For the nine months I did exactly that. Whenever I had a spare moment, I booted up the word processor, sat down, and wrote. Between blogging and fiction I must have churned out hundreds upon thousands of words. Going by word count alone, it was an unqualified success.

It’s not.

Of the hundreds of thousands of words I spilled on the page, I only produced two stories that I can reasonably hope to publish.

Just ten percent of the words I wrote.

In the profession of writing most people only see the successes. The marketing copy, the press releases, the interviews, the blog and Facebook and Twitter announcements of the Next Upcoming Bestseller by Another World Renowned Author.

They don’t see the uncounted hours at the keyboard, banging away against the keys, squeezing every spare second from the clock while simultaneously wishing that the session was over. They don’t experience the joy of visualising something transcendent in one’s daydreams and the agony of watching it turn to clay on the screen and the horror of knowing that you are not good enough to fix the story and elevate it to that rarefied state in your vision.

It’s tempting to give up and walk away. But the difference between success and failure is often determined by how long and how well you stick to something.

The old-time SFF greats and the pulp masters of the early 20th century could sit at their typewriters and churn out ten-thousand-word short stories and hundred-thousand-word novels in the sure and certain hope that publishers would buy them, no questions asked. They had to: with their livelihoods on the line, they couldn’t afford to waste a story.

And they only got to that stage after innumerable hours of toiling at the keys.

Jerry Pournelle advised writers to be prepared to write and throw away a million words of material. I suppose at this stage in the game I’m still paying the toll. Eliminating nine in ten words sounds horrible, but it’s better than ten in ten. And I still have stories that have turned out well.

Up to this point, I’d been reliably turning out at least one novel and one novella every year. I was limited not by output, but by how fast publishing platforms, editors and artists could act. So I wanted to try something new. New genres, new concepts, new tones, new stylistic choices.

And found the difference between my ambition and my ability.

Coming up with ideas is easy. I can recite from memory at least five dozen story ideas at any time. But in this business only completed and published stories count.

To get published stories you need completed stories. To get completed stories you need to write. But in the course of writing or editing you may find that what you thought was literary gold was little more than dust.

This isn’t the first time it’s happened to me. I don’t think it’ll be the last either.

It’s easy to chuck failed stories into the recycle bin and forget them. When you’re churning out words and discover the story isn’t what you think it is, it’s easy to give up and do something else. But the better approach is to approach it as a learning experience.

You have to write through the churn. Even if the story feels like it’s falling apart, if the prose you produced doesn’t come anywhere near your standards, if your characters don different masks and become other people, if your own writing voice metamorphoses into something else, you have to keep writing. You have to keep going and see the story through. In the worst case scenario, you’ve found what doesn’t work. In the best case, you can come back to it later and fix it, when you’re no longer so emotionally invested in the prose, or recycle the key concepts elsewhere.

But there is a time to know when to give up.

You can’t count on your feelings. Emotions matter in the moment when you’re writing. When you take the long view and read a story from an editor’s or reader’s perspective, how you feel about the story while writing it doesn’t matter. What matters is the bones of the story: the worldbuilding, critical plot elements, underlying assumptions about characters and organisations. The only reason to give up on a story is when you realise it is fundamentally flawed, and by fixing the flaw and following through you have to change the rest of the story. At that point, you’re basically writing a new story from scratch. No sense spending time and energy on something that has already died; better to refocus your energies on a better concept.

Even then, you shouldn’t give up on the idea of the story. The manifestation of the story may be fatally flawed, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that the idea itself is wrong. If the core themes, character traits, technology or magic systems, or other aspects can be salvaged, then they must be retained. One should never throw out the baby with the bathwater.

When I was 17 years old I came up with an idea of a secret organisation that travelled around the world dispatching monsters. Its distinguishing feature was that its members were directly supported by supernatural entities, and would be drawn into an epic battle between good and evil.

That story didn’t work.

Even so, I kept at it. I generated idea after idea, smashed them together, blended them in different ways, discarded the ones that didn’t work. I created and destroyed plots and technologies, characters and critical historical events — and I finally got to writing stories to see how well they would work.

I had a story about a civil war between factions of a religious organisation — it didn’t work. I had an arcanepunk story with energy blades and teleportation and rogue agents — it didn’t work. I had a story that mixed Final Fantasy and Task Force Talon with Rainbow Six and Ghost Recon — it didn’t work.

Yet over the years, I kept going back to the core concepts, refining them, thinking about the setting and characters, contemplating what else might work. Even as I focused on other stories this one was still in the back of my mind. In 2015 I tried again, and I produced a novel.

And that novel, No Gods, Only Daimons, will be published soon by Castalia House.

Writing is a long game. It took 11 years to turn the original concept into reality. And over the course of 11 years, I developed a basketful of ideas that be recycled into other worlds, if or when the time is right.

My latest works haven’t panned out so well, but that’s nothing to get upset over. Now I think I know what works for me and, more importantly, what doesn’t work. I have a better understanding of where to focus my energies to manifest my ideas and deliver maximum impact. And I’m going to keep writing, always.

Treat every story you write as a learning experience. Whether you’re riffing off familiar concepts or doing something new, you should strive to do better than your last. You have to write through the churn and see stories to the end, whether it be bitter or glorious. You can always go back and fix things, and even if you can’t, at least you know what doesn’t work. For now.

The secret to writing success is simple. Show up. Sit down. Write.

Always.

How to Bring Out Your Characters’ Personalities in Action Scenes

Everybody loves action scenes. The thrill of the fight, the kinetic spectacle and suspense combine to create a high emotional beat in the story. Action scenes are also a great way to show the reader what kind of person a character is. To elevate action scenes to the next level and integrate them into the story, every action scene should reflect the personalities and backgrounds of every character involved.

Heart, Mind and Soul

Violence is the crucible that brings out the best and worst of people. Different people will react differently to violence. A 6’12 bodybuilder with huge, bulging muscles may cut and run at the first sight of blood. A 5′ soft-spoken woman may transform into a furious wolverine when gangsters threaten her children.

Fighting is not simply about techniques, angles, positioning or other technical matters. Every conflict is a clash of wills between everyone involved. When choreographing an action scene, delve into how every party involved will react to violence. What are their attitudes towards violence? What are they comfortable with? What hang-ups do they have? What are their goals in that scene? How far are they willing to go to achieve them? Do they think they are engaged in social violence or asocial violence?

For more information, please see my earlier post on the subject of writing violence.

Once you have an idea of what your characters can and cannot do, and will and will not do, see how these mesh with your characters’ personalities.

In Ken Bruen’s novels, his antiheroes and villains readily turn to violence to settle their affairs. In the stories set in Ireland, the hurley stick is the weapon of choice. Armed with these sticks, characters routinely beat down other characters to send a message or to kill them.

Here we see the characters’ personas . Weapons are highly limited in Ireland, but the characters don’t want to fight fair. They turn to hurley sticks because they are legal (“We’re just off to play a game of hurley, Garda!”), and because they are so widely and cheaply available they can be disposed of after the job. The use of legal sporting goods as weapons, the disposal of evidence and the use of seemingly unfair advantages emphasise the dark and criminal nature of these characters. When the characters go to work with the hurleys, they viciously batter their targets to a pulp, either killing them or sending a message the targets will never forget. The brutality of such scenes reflects the darkness in the attackers’ hearts and lives — either they feel they have no recourse to softer and more legal means, or they simply enjoy the violence.

Contrast this with Team Rainbow from Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six (the novel). Rainbow is a secret multinational counterterrorist organisation staffed by NATO military and police personnel. They operate with the latest equipment and hone their skills to a razor’s edge. When they are called up, they meticulously plan every step of the operation and seize every tactical advantage they can get. Once they blow in the doors, violence is swift and precise. They are all trained to perform headshots, and they never miss.

When put together, this portrays Rainbow as an elite group of special operators. They are swift and efficient, protecting the weak from terrorists. They also harbour a professional contempt for their prey. After a terrorist executes a child, a sniper punishes him with a highly painful and assuredly fatal wound. However, their focus is on preserving life: if a situation can be resolved through negotiations or arrests, they will take that option. As they operate with the blessings of national governments, they can focus on getting the job done with the best gear. Between their gear and the actions, the reader can believe that they are truly the best of the best soldiers in the world.

Violence is an expression of a character’s will. Understand the will and manifest it in his actions.

Personality, Skills and Physique

Let’s say your characters have more than a modicum of experience or training in violence. Maybe they are hardened street fighters, or they have training in martial arts and other combat skills. They aren’t going to react to violence like civilians (or, frankly, many Hollywood actors and fiction characters in action scenes). To portray them accurately, you want to go a step further.

Different people will have different ways of fighting. Scott Bab, Founder of Libre Fighting, says it best:

A martial arts system is a tool box. A tool box that was hopefully assembled by a skilled craftsman. The instructor shows the student how each tool works, but it is up to the student to determine which tools they will put on their tool belt and carry around with them.
Although each has been trained in person, by my own hands, when I look at my own senior ranks, in my own class, each of them fights entirely differently.
One is lightning fast and crafty. He teases his opponents with opportunities then exploits the openings when they take the bait. He rarely engages directly, he plays games and manipulates his opponents.
Another is a bruiser. He is stocky and powerful, and overwhelms his opponents with the sheer intensity of his presence. He yells, stomps, and powers forward like a machine tearing through whatever is in his path.
Yet another plays chess. He knows every angle that can come his way and knows how to negate each one. He has a deep inherent understanding of the tactics and approach I teach and relies on his technical proficiency to overcome opponents.

A character’s martial expression is the sum of his personality, skills and physique. A trained and/or experienced fighter will find a set of techniques that meshes well with his body dynamics and his expected threat. He will pick a set of tactics that enable him to make full use of his favourite techniques, be it charging in, deception or counterattacking. These techniques and tactics together reflect the person’s character.

In my American Heirs series, Master Sergeant Christopher Miller is a soldier with a distinguished career in the Combat Studies Unit of the Cascadian Defense Force. He doesn’t have any formal training in martial arts, just generic military combatives and other specialised programs for Spec Ops types. His training emphasises fighting as a unit instead of working solo, seizing every advantage possible, and taking no chances. He would rather shoot a threat than touch him, but he won’t hesitate to go hands-on if he must.

This is portrayed in the combat scenes. If a subject tries to grapple with a Unit operator in close quarters battle, the operator will shove the subject aside into a corner, clearing the way for his buddies to continue the fight. After gunning down a threat, Miller and his fellow operators will fire insurance shots if they hadn’t landed a headshot. In the latest story, I, Eschaton, Miller employs stealth, speed and violence of action to overcome his tactical disadvantages. At the same time, he takes care to avoid hurting innocents and will not engage in gratuitous violence. Miller is a professional soldier par excellence: decisive, cunning and ruthless, but he will never harm anyone who doesn’t deserve it.

Contrast this with Luke Landon from my upcoming novel No Gods, Only Daimons. Landon is a black ops agent, and often has to improvise weapons in denied environments. His preferred weapon is a knife, and he is an expert in Filipino martial arts. While Landon is no slouch with a firearm, he is far more skilled with a blade. He is also a highly intelligent operator who regularly employs deception. Before opening combat, he employs deceptive speech and body language to get his enemy to drop his guard, then lunges in for a pre-emptive strike. When engaging threats, he uses feints and footwork to set up and exploit openings, crashing in for the kill. Where possible, he will make use of the environment, slamming targets into walls, objects or each other. Landon knows that he is not fighting bodies; he is fighting minds. He approaches combat like a high-speed chess game with the highest stakes, creating and exploiting advantages.

Everybody has preferences. Discover your character’s preferences and employ them in action scenes, distinguishing them from other characters and other stories.

The Cost of It

Violence is a two-way street. Violence professionals will stack the deck in their favour as far as they can, but the other guy always get a vote. Injuries and diseases and fatalities are the price of the profession. They stack up over time, changing how a person views the world. And even if a person walks away physically unscathed, his mind may not.

Combat is the most toxic environment known to man. A single exposure alters the brain forever. It shakes up the soul, alters brain chemistry, and leaves psychic scars — especially if combat were particularly intense, harrowing and emotional. After the action scene is over, show your reader how your characters cope with their experiences.

Take the case of Audie Murphy. Murphy is one of the most decorated American soldiers of the Second World War, winning every US military award for valour, including the Second World War. But his wartime experiences shook him deeply, leaving him afflicted with post-traumatic stress disorder. He became addicted to drugs, and suffered from insomnia and depression. Murphy is clearly brave, skilled combatant — but even he was not immune to the psychological ravages of war.

Looking at fiction, Barry Eisler’s John Rain is a hitman who kills without remorse…but his conscience droves him to make amends. In Redemption Games, his conscience causes him to botch a job, turning him into a target. At the end, his guilt drives him to atone for his deeds.

Here we see people dealing with the cost of violence in markedly different ways. Murphy was clearly shaken by the war, affecting his everyday life. In contrast, Rain experiences no psychological stress from the act of killing, but he is haunted by the knowledge of the long-term impact on the people affected by his kills. Rain isn’t a wreck, but his guilt informs his future actions and mindset.

The more intense an actions scene, the higher the price the character has to pay. This comes in the form of injuries, permanent loss of function, maladjustment to civilian life, psychological trauma, and more. How they cope with this trauma shows the reader the depths of their souls. Is a character prone to spiralling into self-destruction? Or will he rise above his new wounds and strive to overcome them? This drama creates greater depth in writing.

Putting Everything Together

Violence is a tool for people to impose their wills on others to achieve their goals. Every act of violence is an expression of the actor’s being. His physique tells you what he can and cannot do. His mindset and beliefs show what he will or will not do. His tactics show his preferences. The best action scenes combine these three elements, bringing out the actor’s character. And when the action is over, different people will find different ways to cope with what they have done.

To create top-notch action scenes, learn your characters inside and out, pit them against each other, and let them be themselves.


Further Reading:

This is just an overview. To create verisimilitude, you have to do your research. Study the techniques and mindsets of fighters and warriors and survivors, and embody them in your characters. Here are some books that point the way.

  • On Combat, Dave Grossman and Loren W. Christensen
  • On Killing, David Grossman
  • Meditations on Violence, Rory Miller
  • Warrior Mindset, Dr Michael Asken

A Deeper Silence

On Wednesday my computer broke down without warning. I suspect it’s a hard disk drive failure, but time will tell the true cause. The digital silence that followed gave me the time I needed to coalesce some thoughts that were floating about in my mind, specifically pertaining to silence and speech.

As an introvert, silence comes naturally to me, and in prolonged silence I find the space and concentration necessary for deep thought and creativity. As a professional communicator, silence is a potential harbinger for disaster and long periods of it means you will be ignored and forgotten. I’m coming to understand this fundamental tension between my inclinations and my profession. Now I’m trying to put this into practice, discussing very recent events and making some updates.

Firstly, I’m pleased to report that the third entry of the American Heirs series, I, Eschaton, has completed the first round of proofreading and is entering the final stage of edits. I also managed to back up the last round of changes before my computer’s untimely demise. Work is on hold for the moment: I’m working on a loaner at the moment, and I would rather not keep sensitive information on it if I can avoid it. I am, however, planning for publication within the next couple of months, and am doing what preparatory work I can.

Secondly, I have also begun planning my next set of stories. It is not necessarily the fourth installment of the American Heirs series. It is not necessarily the same mishmash of science fiction and military tropes either. In the early days of the creative process I’ve noticed ideas come and go very often. I don’t think it’s prudent to raise expectations by talking about a product that may be dramatically transformed between conceptualization and publication.

Thirdly, I regret to say that my video game project, Odyssey: Remnants of Terra, is on hold indefinitely. The problem was mechanics: Odyssey was originally conceptualised as a shooter, and despite my best efforts I could not find a way to fit it into our chosen game engine, RPG Maker. After some intense discussion we concluded that the only way for Odyssey to work is if we choose another game engine, learn it from the inside out, and maybe expand the team. This takes time, money and contacts. Not to say we have given up on it completely, but we need to line up our ducks in a row before we can execute.

With that in mind, we are still going to create a game. Odyssey was a learning journey, and we came to better understand the ins and outs of the RPG Maker engine. As it transpires, I have an (as-yet) unpublished story that would, with some reworking, fit RPG Maker’s mechanics far better than Odyssey. Time will tell, but with this new pivot I hope we can finally create a product.

Finally, in spite of my quasi-weekly update schedule I noticed that readership has significantly tapered off. Part of this can be attributed to the shift in URL. In hindsight I should simply have maintained the old wordpress site and redirected visitors here, but it’s a bit too late to cry over spilled milk. All I can do is keep on keeping on.

Beyond that, though, sometimes it just feels like there’s nothing to say. That I’m either too busy working or else too preoccupied with other matters to blog. With a personality like mine, I’m beginning to understand and appreciate the need for quiet time, to process and analyze before acting. I don’t like to fill my pages with empty talk, and usually if I only have a few lines or paragraphs to talk about something they go on Facebook instead of my blog.

Content is king, as the saying goes. Now the question is what kind of content goes here, and how much. I have a headful of ideas. Some will stick true to the core Benjamin Cheah brand of deep analysis of politics and other issues. Others will take it into different directions. With a very small readership I’m effectively rebooting my brand. The question is where it will go from here.

That, I think, is something I need to answer first in a deeper silence.

Lessons from Failure

In the technology field, a popular mantra goes, Fail early and fail often. The idea being to try out new ideas while the company is still new, understand your mistakes, then incorporate these lessons into future products. I’ve been applying this to my writing, figuring out what works and what doesn’t. Along the way I learned that this idea is incomplete.  The full mantra should be: Fail early, fail fast, fail often, fail smart, fail forward.

Fail early

A writer’s career doesn’t start with publication. It begins when he puts pen to paper, when he commits to writing. It doesn’t matter how famous that person is; when he’s got nothing to his name he’s writing on a blank slate. At that point, with no writing brand to his name, he can afford to make mistakes. The kind of mistakes needed to grow. Mistakes like telling too much, using overly fanciful writing, switching points of view too many times. He needs to finish his stories and send them out, and learn what he can from the inevitable wave of negative feedback. In my case, I learned these mistakes with the first series of Michael Chang stories, and all the other stories I wrote along the way that never saw the light of day.

Later in the writer’s career, when he has an established brand, failing early takes on a new light. ‘Early’ no longer means finishing a story and publishing it or sending it out. ‘Early’ means the space between writing the first word and before publication. If a pro’s story has to fail, let it fail before people see it. This minimises the risk to a writer’s professional brand, and maximises the space, time and resources available to fix the mistakes that led to the failure. This skill can be thought of as internal quality checking, and it’s a skill that can only be learned by failing early in one’s career.

Fail fast

Writing is work. Writing is an investment of time and energy. As an indie writer, it is also an investment in money — to cover the cost of publication. Failing fast in this context means reaching the point of failure fast enough to minimise sunk costs. For instance, when a short story reaches a point of failure, the writer would have spent between a week to a month working on it. A 300000 word doorstopper, on the other hand, requires much more time to write, and to pick out points of failure. And in that time, that story is not generating any return on investment — only costs. By failing fast, one minimises costs and the time needed to incorporate new lessons. It also enables the writer to produce even more stories, eventually leading to success.

The key to failing fast is producing what is termed the minimal viable product. This is the smallest possible package that encapsulates the functions and ideas of the overall concept. In a computer game, this would be a single sequence that showcases the core mechanics. In the manga industry, publishers test the market by publishing a lengthy one-shot piece, and if the audience is receptive the author is given a contract to extend the one-shot into a series. When seen in the context of writing, this means short stories and novellas. American Sons, for instance, was a proof-of-concept story that opened the way to a wider series. I’ve also been working on a fresh set of short stories, banging out the ideas in my head, and modifying or rejecting them accordingly.

Fail often

One failure is not going to be enough. The craft of writing encompasses a staggering array of fields, some relevant to a given writer, some not. Some writers (like myself) have a huge array of interests, and the only way to tell what works and what doesn’t is to write stories and see which work the best. When a writer goes pro, he has to decide what price points and distribution channels work for him, because everybody’s situation is different. The only way to learn these lessons is to see what does not work and adapt accordingly.

This ties back to the earlier principles. Failing fast and often is practically a necessity in fast-paced fields, and the indie publishing revolution is transforming the industry into one. To fail often, one needs time, energy and resources; to minimise expenditure of these assets on failures, one has to fail fast and fail early. I have a portfolio of about two dozen short stories, written in the past two years; a number of them are too poor to be published, but they served as lessons for the road. By failing often, a writer learns that much more often.

Fail smart

Failing is easy. One simply refuses to experiment, refuses to think, refuses to plan, refuses to do. But that’s not the point of the failure mantra. To fail smart is to look back on one’s failures, to understand what worked and what did not. This is the point of failing so many times. By not picking up these lessons, there is little point in failing to begin with.

Failing smart requires a great deal of honesty and professionalism. Creators need large egos to stand true to their work during the process of creation, but when it is done they need to be able to stand apart and understand what went wrong. This means knowing when to stand fast and when to adapt, when to defend yourself and when to acquiesce. This means being so well acquainted with the bitter taste of failure and criticism that it is no longer repulsive. At that point, the writer can look back on his work with a critical eye, and learn what needs to be learned.

Fail forward

The final edition of Keepers of the Flame was nowhere close to the first draft. The novel went through five major revisions and multiple minor ones before taking its final form. And yet it only took a little over two years of total writing and editing time to complete. That was because I made a point to apply the lessons I had learned and quickly turn things around, revising over and over and over again until I could not improve on the manuscript any further. I failed early and fast enough that mistakes could be corrected, often enough that I picked out the major flaws of the story, and set myself up to fail with an eye towards learning.

The principle of failing forward is to apply the lessons you have learned. If you must fail, do so with an eye towards self-improvement. Do it consciously, so that it becomes a learning process. Failure is something to be acknowledged, to be embraced, and to build upon. Otherwise, failure simply becomes the equivalent of mindlessly bashing one’s head against a concrete wall over and over and over again.

Embracing failure

Singapore is a risk-averse culture. Singapore is a place where failure is verboten, a sign of weakness and lack of capability. I suspect this is true for every culture and institution that seeks to create people who to perpetuate the system instead of creating new things. Yet failure is precisely what is needed to grow and to create. The school of hard knocks endures because sometimes it is the only way to truly learn something.

Embrace failure. The road to success is pitted and rocky, and those who walk the way of the pen will trip and fall many, many times. But each failure contains the seed of success, showing how to avoid future pitfalls and how to find smoother roads. This is the philosophy I choose for my work, and maybe, just maybe, it will pay off soon.

Revisiting Writing and Marketing

In the days and weeks following the publication of Keepers of the Flame, I’ve been writing short stories and novellas, some standalone, some proof-of-concepts for future stories. It was practice, and it was to build up a portfolio of works for submission. But through the pen I am beginning to uncover the enigma that is Benjamin Cheah.

Once I believed that someday I would write my name alongside the stars of literary history. Once I believed I could find my way in life through sheer bloody-mindedness. Once I believed I could haul myself up into glory.

Once I believed.

When I look back now I realise how improbable my career has been. My chances of ever publishing my fiction in Singapore is somewhere between laughable and none. Singaporean publishers want Singaporean stories about Singaporean culture by Singaporean writers for the Singaporean market. They want capital-L Literature. They want assemblies of words to probe the depths of language and bring out the human heart, to hold up a mirror to Singapore and in it find a reflection of the reader.

I can’t write that.

There’s a lot of bestselling fluff out there. The Twilights, the Fifty Shades of Greys, the derivatives that try to cash in on trends and jump on bandwagons. Or else ‘stories’ and prose held together by strings of pretty words, words that when seen as a whole hold no substance and no meaning. Stories that tap into some collective zeitgeist without offending too many people.

I can’t write that.

The prestigious science fiction magazines want specific stories. They want stories about how technology influences society, people and language. Stories that with certain je ne sais quoi, or stories that bring up the nastiness of humanity. Stories that celebrate diversity by hammering it into the reader.

I can’t write that.

What I can write are stories of action and adventure. Stories with gee-whiz gadgets and huge explosions, stories about the clash of civilisations and the end of empires, stories that examine human frailties and wonder at the next stage of humanity. Stories where freedom is won at the point of the sword, when evil is resisted with fire and ethics, where good people must stand fast in the face of temptation and corruption. Stories that harken to the epics and sagas of my childhood while looking to brighter futures yet to be born.

I haven’t seen a publisher in Singapore that will want to do that, not the least because the target audience of my stories are not necessarily exclusively Singaporean, nor are the themes those that Singaporeans would readily grasp. As for foreign publishers, I have heard too many horror stories about bad contracts, under-reported figures, and how marketing resources are prioritised for bestsellers and newcomers are left to flounder. Call me sceptical, but I don’t see why I should put up with the risk of that in this day and age.

Even if I could get a publisher, the simple fact is that the majority of those who can reach my target audience are based in the United States. Between absurdly low royalty terms and the IRS’ insistence on taking their cut, what little royalties that come my way likely aren’t worth the effort.

The best publishing solution is independent publishing. It’s my default option. Without it, as recently as ten, maybe five, years ago, I would never have been able to be published. Or else have to content myself with peanuts forever. The indie route is the only way Keepers of the Flame could have been published, as would my other stories.

And yet, the IRS still wants its 30%..And now with the EU imposing the new VAT taxes, I’ll make even less money from European sales. No matter which way I cut it I just won’t make as much money as someone with the same sales figures as me. Which, in turn, means I need to put in even more effort into marketing just to make the same amount of money.

As much as I believe in the indie publishing revolution, there is still a massive gap between royalties of 45% and 70%.

All that means I can’t adopt the methods used by other authors and expect the same degree of success. The numbers are not with me, and neither is the law.

There are a lot of obstacles stacked against me. The easy option is to sigh, throw up my hands and focus on something else. Another option is to place writing on a back burner, to hold off on writing until I can get back to it at a more favourable time and place. Yet a third option is to simply choose to write for fun and ignore financial considerations. But the blood of entrepreneurs runs in my veins, and I cannot give up so soon. With this in mind, I’m changing my publishing/distribution and marketing strategies.

1. Writing and publishing short(er) stories and/or anthologies on a regular basis. To make up for reduced royalties, I am thinking of putting out shorter stories regularly. This is my least preferred option, not the least because it requires the ability to cover fixed costs. But maybe, if employed as a means to bridge the gap between core stories (like what I’m doing with American Heirs), or if published on different markets, it could maintain buzz and market presence until the next major story.

2. Focus marketing on several channels. Applying the Pareto principle, it seems 80% of my royalties comes from 20% of my marketing channels. That means Smashwords and Payhip. Going forward, I will focus my promotional efforts primarily on Smashwords and Payhip, relying on Amazon mainly for reviews and print books. Perhaps this focus in marketing might pay off through increased sales.

3. Work with small presses. At some point, marketing just becomes a chore with diminishing returns. When I look at publishing contracts, I’m essentially asking myself if the difference in royalties accounts for marketing efforts, ready access to customers, and covering the fixed costs of publishing. When it comes down to it I can be agnostic about publishing methodology, and if working with select small presses means I get more books to more people, all the better.

4. Hold workshops. In the medium term (ideally, after publishing American Heirs #3), I’ll see if I can conduct writing workshops. I’ve come to realise that writers with much less experience than me are passing on the lessons they have learned, and if they can do that, I reckon I have some tips to share too. And maybe this might translate to more connections and more sales in the long run.

There’s a lot of maybes and perhaps here. There are no guarantees in this line of work — except a gaurantee of failure if one does not do. And if there is one thing I cannot abide, it is failure to do.

Notes from a Singaporean independent writer

Channel NewsAsia interviewed me today on the topic of trends in self-publishing. You can find the full clip here.

In this post, I’ll expand on the key talking points in the interview, addressing the big debate between independent and traditional publishing from a Singaporean perspective.

What is an independent writer?

I defined an independent writer as a writer who is not compelled by contract to write for a publisher. With the advent of self-publishing and print on demand technologies, every writer is also potentially a publisher. Writers are no longer beholden to publishing houses to publish and sell their works. This means that writers are free to pursue self-publishing or fairer contracts with publishing houses — or both. Regardless of the path to publication, the writer gets paid higher royalties and the reader gets more books, leading to a win-win situation.

Previously, I called myself a self-published writer because that was the path I took. Now, having adopted a hybrid publishing path, I define myself as an independent writer. I self-published my stories American Sons and At All Costs, and I will be self-publishing my next novel Keepers of the Flame. In addition, I sold a short story, War Crimes, to Castalia House for its upcoming anthology Riding the Red Horse. This hybrid approach suits me best, because through self-publishing I can build up my core brand, and Castalia House lets me tap markets I could not have reached otherwise.

Self-publishing: With great responsibility comes great rewards

Self-publishing offers many benefits over traditional publishing, and very few of the disadvantages. Through self-publishing, the writer retains total control over intellectual property rights, the publication process, distribution, promotion and sales. This is the pitfall and the promise of this approach.

Writers who take the self-publishing route have to think of themselves as writers and publishers. The work does not stop when the writing is done. After writing comes editing, cover art and formatting. These have to done to a professional standard to attract and retain customers. Following publication, the self-published writer needs to think about distribution, marketing, branding, pricing, legal regulations, and accounting. If the writer cannot handle these, the writer has to hire someone to do it, which drives up overheads.

Yet this responsibility comes with opportunities. Publishing houses want to make money, and they will focus their efforts, resources and energies on their bestsellers and the best-selling genres of the day. Newcomers are left to fend for themselves. A self-published author chooses which editor to work with, instead of an editor who might not understand the genre he writes in. A self-published author decides what the cover art looks like, instead of relying on a graphic designer he may not be able to communicate with and may not know what the book is about. A self-published author can choose when, where and how a book would be sold and at what price, responding directly to the state of the market, instead of relying on a marketing team that is likely too focused on promoting established bestsellers. A self-published author gets to define their brand instead of letting a marketing team do it. A self-published author cannot be locked into unfair contracts by unscrupulous publishers, allowing them to retain full rights to their work, to use as they wish.

Most importantly, self-published writers are not beholden to the whims of publishers. Publishers want to make a profit, and this means publishing books they believe to be profitable, written by high-profile or connected writers. Without a network or reputation to rely on, or a manuscript that happens to fit the hot genre du jour, many writers are out of luck — unless they take the self-publishing route. Nate Granzow writes men’s adventure fiction, but traditional publishers do not think the genre is profitable (notice the dearth of books in that genre on bookshelves these days). By publishing on Amazon, he got his opportunity to shine — he was one of the 1000 finalists of Amazon’s Breakthrough Novel Awards 2012, and ranked first in the Mystery/Suspense/Thriller category in the IndieReader Discovery Awards 2012.

By shouldering the responsibilities of self-publishing, self-published writers get to reap much larger rewards than their peers. Smashwords offers 70% royalties, plus distribution to affiliates and marketing tools. Amazon also offers 70% royalties, plus extra promotional tools for Kindle exclusives, access to a global supply chain, and its brand name. (Note for Singaporeans: after the Internal Revenue Service takes its 30% withholding tax, the actual royalties are closer to 45%, and because Singapore does not have a tax treaty with the US at this time, there is no way around this.) By using online ecommerce tools, writers get to sell directly to consumers, earning royalties between 90% to 100%. I use Sellfy and Gumroad, which you can find on my website’s bibliography page.

In addition to creative control and royalties, there are three other ancillary benefits: dexterity, flexibility and economies of scale.

Using self-publishing tools, writers can update their works very quickly. If they want to upload a reworked cover or an corrected manuscript, all they have to do is upload them on their distribution or publication platforms, and the changes will be committed within 24 hours at no additional expense. Publishing houses cannot boast the same turnaround time, and for publishing houses that rely on traditional print-to-warehousing-to-retailer solutions, the cost of changing manuscripts can be prohibitive.

This low-cost dexterity also leads to story flexibility. Thriller writer Steven Hildreth Jr. began his publishing career with The First Bayonet. The story started off as a novella on the Kindle store. He received so much positive attention, he expanded it into a full-length novel. The novel-length version generated even more positive press, giving him an inroad to writing success. This is especially important since, compared to the former Special operations Forces or established writers on the market these days, it is extremely unlikely that he would ever be published. With very few exceptions — virtually all of whom are bestselling writers — publishing houses would not allow their writers to do what Hildreth did.

Self-publishing also grants writers economies of scale. For publishing houses to be profitable, they have to sell novels and novel-length books. It is too expensive for publishing houses to sell novellas, novelettes and short stories, except perhaps as ebooks, and even then they have to charge higher prices than self-published authors to cover overheads. The self-published writer, on the hand, can dash out shorter stories and monetise them from the get-go.  This allows the self-published writer an opportunity to make money off these works, promote their existing fiction and reach wider audiences.

Working with publishers: Lessons from Castalia House

I said in my interview that Castalia House ‘knows what they’re doing’. By that phrase I meant that Castalia House is keeping a very close eye on the publishing revolution, and they are doing the things traditional publishing should be doing to stay relevant.

Castalia House is committed to publishing quality works by talented writers. One of my fellow contributors, William S Lind, is Amazon’s No. 1 bestseller in military strategy. Another is Tom Kratman, bestselling author of the M Day and Legio del Cid series. Other writers in Castalia House’s stable include John C. Wright, considered to be the modern C. S. Lewis, and Vox Day, whose novelette ‘Opera Vita Aeterna’ was nominated for the Hugo Award. By attracting and retaining such an august collection of writers, Castalia House is able to tap into their fanbases, reach larger markets, and reassure writers and readers that the works they produce are worth every cent. I feel this is how traditional publishers can survive in the new world of publishing: by being synonymous with high-quality work.

Castalia House also offers fairer royalty rates. For Riding the Red Horse, Castalia buys first-time publication rights. With the exception of editors Tom Kratman and Vox Day, Castalia offers fiction contributors 25% of revenues, divided according to the proportion of words contributed to their section of the anthology. Non-fiction contributors also receive the same terms for the anthology’s non-fiction section, as the non-fiction pieces tend to run shorter than the fiction ones and Castalia wanted the non-fiction contributors to be compensated fairly too. Castalia House prices its stories comparable to market rates, which tends to attract plenty of customers. By comparison, professional rates for science fiction short stories are defined as at least USD 3 cents a word, but this is a one-off payment. Riding the Red Horse could potentially generate royalties that exceed professional rates, paid twice a year for as long the book is sold. While this in no way compares to the monthly payouts of 45/70% offered by self-publishing platforms or the immediate 90+% if you sell directly to customers, it is a far sight better than a one-off payment of USD 3 cents a word or royalties of 1% to 10% from traditional publishers. Personally, I could accept these terms, since this anthology allowed me to reach a far wider audience and monetise what began life as a literary experiment.

Castalia’s last major advantage is that they handle all the backend work: marketing, distribution, pricing, branding, etc. This meant that after I submitted my piece, I was free to pursue other projects. Castalia House uses promotional tools like blogs, newsletters, and free ebooks to market their products, which means I would not have to. Furthermore, by working with the editors I learned a few tricks of the trade, which I am applying to my other works. They also have an in-house ebook store on their website to sell directly to customers, which in turn can be paired with marketing campaigns and special promotions to generate sales and publicity. Their cover art is of a consistently high standard and so is their editing and formatting. I’m confident that Castalia would handle Red Horse Rising, and by extension War Crimes, the same way.

Do note that this is the best case scenario. Many publishers do not necessarily think the way Castalia House does, especially in the realm of marketing and royalties. Writers who want to go the mainstream publishing route must do their research and pay very careful attention to contracts and rights.

Picking the right path

With so many options at their disposal, writers need to decide which path suits them best. I see myself as a craftsman and a professional. Self-publishing allows me to express the totality of my vision and be paid fairly for my work, and by working with Castalia House I can reach out to a wider audience. This hybrid approach suits me best — but it’s not necessarily for everyone.

The choice between self-publishing, engaging a publishing house or a hybrid approach depends on entirely on the writer. Writers need to decide early on how much work they are willing to put into learning the industry. They need to ask themselves if they are willing to shoulder the burdens of running a business, or just want to focus on writing. They need to decide how much money they want to make from their stories, and how much time they can dedicate to writing and the post-writing process. Most of all, they must find out which path would actually get them published.

Whichever choices they choose, one thing is clear: a writer cannot be an author without publishing a story, and self-publishing virtually guarantees publication. But, only publication — actual success is dependent on the writer’s definition and efforts.

I hope you have enjoyed this article as much as I have writing it. If you find value in this post, please leave a donation on the way out using the options below. Thanks!

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The 90/30, 8/10 Rule

For the past month, I’ve been tinkering with ways to enhance my overall productivity, trying to squeeze out more work without being exhausted by day’s end. Burnout was a constant companion, and I wanted to be rid of it for good. Among the life hacks I discovered was the 90/20 rule: work for 90 minutes, rest for 20. Based on studies into the human ultradian rhythm, 90 minutes is the optimum length of time a human can concentrate intensely on a task before needing a break. The idea sounded good to me, save for one minor detail.

I know for a fact I’m able to sustain greater periods of intense concentration when writing. Call it inspiration, grace or a state of flow, but when I’m burning hot and the fingers are flying over the keys, stopping is not an option. I can’t just stand up and walk away in the middle of a scene that flows. Flow, I’ve found, is a delicate thing, and once the brain leaves that elevated state of consciousness it becomes extremely difficult to go back to. Maybe this is just a personal quirk, but all I know is that I can’t limit myself to merely 90 minutes of work. Not when the words are overflowing, when the conscious mind takes a step back and my hands do their best to deliver a scene, a character, an action, a concept from the fuzzy mists of unlimited uncreated potential into the page.  I do my best work simply by sitting down and ignoring the clock and writing and writing and writing until I’m done.

But when the work is done, it leaves me spent. Writing is bleeding your soul all over the page, and there’s only so much you can give at a time. You need time to rest, to regenerate, to gather up what is left and allow your body to replenish its energy stores. 20 minutes isn’t enough, not for me. 30 is a more realistic minimum rest period. As a bonus, it makes life easier to schedule.

Flow doesn’t come every day, though. It’s the exception, not the norm. More often than not it’s just sitting at the desk, banging out words, trying to string ideas together. It’s the mental equivalent of laying down bricks to build a wall. I may not like the work, but I still have to get the work done. Especially when I’m on contract with a deadline to meet. Days like that, the 90 minute limit comes into play. It’s the chronological version of a piston in a pressure cooker, sealing off time and concentrating one’s willpower on the task at hand. It’s also a promise that the brain only needs to slog out the next 90 minutes before it can go do something else, making it easier to focus exclusively on the task at hand.

90 on, 30 off looks good, but throw in working with a flow state and the neat boundaries of time break down. That;s when 8/10 comes in.

Hara hachi bu is an Okinawan concept, meaning eating until you are 80 percent full. The Okinawans believed that filling up the other 20 percent merely nourished the doctor. This combination of caloric restriction and excellent dietary choices have contributed to the long lifespans the Okinawans are famous for. Yet hara hachi bu isn’t just an eating plan. It’s a life plan too. Work up to 80% of your capacity, leaving some energy in the tank. That prevents you from burning out, so you can come back to work refreshed.

And, if you’re under a tight deadline or if you enter a state of flow, you have sufficient reserves to see you through.

For eighty percent of my scheduled working time, I adhered to the 90 on, 30 off schedule. For the other twenty percent, I burned through scenes, paragraphs and sections until the state of flow finally stopped. I was working an average of six hours a day, leaving weekends free.

The result: a short story, a novella, two blog posts, a series of research notes and concepts, and eleven contracted articles. Enough for a short novel, just over 50000 words. That works out to roughly 2500 words a day. I also spent less time going back to make minor edits and correcting mistakes, freeing up brainpower and energy for more important work. My previous writing goal was 2000 words a day, no matter how long it took. With a productivity increase of 25%, plus less time lost to recovery and fatigue, these rules seem to be a keeper.

I can’t say for certain if this will work for everyone. I know full-time writers who live and breathe the written word, churning out 4 to 8000 words a day and regularly producing bestsellers. I know other writers who are happy spending their workday writing however much they can write, or shooting for a couple thousand or hundred words a day. They have their goals and their methods, as far as they’ve let on, seem to work for them. For me, 90/30 8/10 seems to work best.

Concentrate when working, take time out to rest, leave energy in the tank, and occasionally go all-out. I think these principles are universal, or at least apply to a broad spectrum of activities. The trick is figuring out the right proportions. And that means experimenting, quantifying and honestly examining the results. If you’re a writer looking to increase output, a worker interested in doing more, or just someone interested in productivity, maybe 90/30 8/10 may work for you. Or maybe not. The devil may be in the details, but the details don’t matter so long as they work for you. It’s your work, nobody else’s, and that’s the only goal that matters.