The Whisper Campaign Against SFF Author Jon Del Arroz

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Jon Del Arroz, a Dragon Award nominated science fiction and fantasy author, is facing a whisper campaign of blackballing, harassment, threats and ostracism. His crime: exposing the institutional sexism of the SFF short fiction field.

On 8 September, Del Arroz published a blog post highlighting the rampant misandry within the premier SFF magazines. He discovered that nearly every magazine was biased against men. 2.8% of female submissions were published — but only 0.8% of male submissions were given the nod.

Cat Rambo, the President of the Science Fiction Writers of America, decried the report as ‘alt numbers’ and turned on him. Previously, she was on cordial terms with Del Arroz, but after he published the article, she immediately turned hostile. In a clear violation of SFWA rules, she used SFWA’s Twitter account to tag Jon to discredit the post.

“I of course messaged SFWA and they did not care,” Del Arroz said in an online interview.

A week later, Jon offered to host her on a YouTube show to patch things up. Instead, Rambo threatened to sue him for ‘harassment’ if he ever contacted her again.

To Del Arroz, it was the last straw.

“That being a war declared, I started memeing about her / mean girls,” Del Arroz said. “She started Facebook messaging calling me a harasser — as if I attacked her — and stirring up industry professionals against me.”

Messages started pouring in across social media, calling him a “harasser”, with some originating from “people who get published in the big mags like Analog”. These are the same magazines whose sexist practices he exposed. A former editor of Clarkesworld took things one step further, calling Del Arroz on Facetime to berate him and his writing.

“Very bizarre,” Del Arroz remarked. “I don’t know him.”

The harassment campaign continued to escalate. A troll posted on his website with information about his children, while others did the same on Twitter.

“[Rambo] never disavowed that,” Del Arroz said.

Del Arroz has since deleted the offending comment, and Twitter has suspended the doxxers.

Throughout this ordeal, Del Arroz has received messages demanding he should make a public apology. As the whisper campaign continued, former friends distanced themselves from Del Arroz, unfriending and blocking him on Facebook. Among them are industry professionals and editors, including those who work at Baen — previously the only major SFF publishing house that strives to remain apolitical in its publication decisions.

Del Arroz believes Social Justice Warriors applied pressure on them to isolate him.

“A person who has worked for Baen told me he received messages warning him about being my friend,” Del Arroz said.

A whisper campaign of this magnitude is deliberately designed to isolate and pressure the target into admitting defeat, and threaten everyone who supports him. For an independent author like Jon Del Arroz, who depends heavily on social media to sell and market his books, this campaign is a threat to his writing career.

Jon Del Arroz is not a troll. While his communication style is upfront and direct, he has always comported himself in a sincere and friendly manner. Whenever he comes into conflict with someone, his first reaction is to attempt to bury the hatchet. In addition to his offer to Rambo, Del Arroz also entered into a spat with SFF author John Scalzi. Del Arroz publicly offered to have dinner with Scalzi, and later to watch a baseball game together, in an attempt to reconcile their differences. Scalzi ignored both offers.

The SFF community was once a big tent where people of all backgrounds could come together to celebrate a shared love for wonder and adventure. Now, a den of vipers has infested the tent, driving out everyone who disagrees with them. Jon Del Arroz is merely their latest target. The moment you question the narrative, they will turn on you and everyone you know. These harpies and backbiters will stop at nothing to destroy your reputation, your friendships and you.

Cat Rambo’s silence is deafening. The behaviour of the SJWs driving this mob is damning. By word and deed, by silence and treachery, they have shown that they are not interested in civilised conduct. All they want is to hang on to their crumbling empire as the seas of change relentlessly batter their strongholds, and to drive off everyone who isn’t one of them. The response to such behaviour is simple.

We will replace them.

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If you want to support Jon Del Arroz through this trying time, you can pick up a copy of his Amazon Top 10 bestselling novel Star Realms: Rescue Run, his Dragon Award nominated novel For Steam and Country, and new novella Gravity of the Game.

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Current serial fiction: INVINCIBLE Part 1 and 2

Dragon Awards 2017 Winners

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The results of the Dragon Awards 2017 are in. The winners have my heartiest congratulations for producing such fine stories, and the voters have my thanks for making the Dragon Awards the premier fan awards in science fiction and fantasy.

While my own novel, NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS did not win the award, against a titanic figure like Harry Turtledove there simply is no competition. Turtledove has writing since long before I was born, and has contributed immeasurably to the field. Likewise, while none of the authors I recommended for the award won, this was simply because they were up against names even more famous and accomplished than themselves. I am particularly pleased that John Ringo, Larry Correia and Jim Butcher have won awards; they are giants in their field, and such recognition is long overdue.

Going by the numbers alone, it’s clear that the Dragon Awards is far more representative of fandom. With double the total votes of the Hugo Awards, the Dragons have demonstrated which award fandom would rather be a part of. Bear in mind that in recent years the Hugos have benefited from press coverage (and lies) about Puppy-related drama, while the Dragon Awards have by and large flown under the radar.

Of course, the Social Justice Warriors aren’t going to take it lying down. N K Jemisin and Alison Littlewood failed to discredit the awards after they withdrew their nominations (and disrespected their fans). John Scalzi failed to win an award in spite of the drama he generated by first withdrawing from, then returning to, the ballot. To further discredit the Awards, the new narrative is that the Dragon Awards is sexist, because all the winners are men.

To this, I have the following rejoinders:

  1. Women swept the Hugo Awards. If this isn’t sexist, then it’s not sexist for men to sweep the Dragons.
  2. For women to have a chance to win an award, they have to show up and stay in the game. Jemisin and Littlewood, both women, abandoned the field of honour. Such a pity, too: being a double Hugo award winner, Jemisin would have had a decent chance at unseating James S A Corey.
  3. Patty Jenkins, a woman, won the Dragon Awards for directing Wonder Woman.

I have no doubt that next year the SJWs will again try to besiege the Dragons. And again, I must recommend that the organisers establish a firm withdrawals policy. They should either prevent authors from withdrawing works, or allow them to do so on the condition that they are permanently banned and blacklisted from future awards. They must be ready to stand fast in the face of pressure from SJWs.

As for myself, I’m in the final stages of preparing my next story. For those who have voted for me, thanks for your support, and please look forward to the sequel HAMMER OF THE WITCHES.

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If you would like to get your hands on the Dragon Award-nominated novel NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS, you can find it here.

When In Doubt, Go Epic

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Whenever I plan a story, I occasionally run into hang-ups. The setting isn’t coherent, the technology and/or magic system isn’t evenly applied, the characters aren’t plausible, the plot lacks history or context, the stakes are too small. In every single instance, they are resolved by the use of a simple expedient: make everything bigger, brighter and more beautiful.

Science fiction and fantasy is the literature of ideas. It is the celebration of the human spirit and a paean to the imagination. SFF readers don’t want to be reminded of the dreariness of everyday life; they want to be immersed in strange new worlds with cultures and characters and tools similar enough to ours to be understandable, yet strange enough to be exciting. They want adventure and treasures and righteous battle, they want romance and chivalry and intelligence, they want to be taken to the depths of despair and just as quickly be elevated to the rapturous heights. They want, if only for a short while, to be transported out of this time and place and be reminded of the glories of the universe.

Epics, in the original sense of the term, fulfilled that purpose. The great epics celebrated the deeds of legendary heroes, pitting them against gods and monsters and cosmic forces. They reminded the audience that evil lurked everywhere–and that even mortals can overcome the most terrible foe. Through the epics the people tasted strange foods that no human could create, saw riches and wonders beyond human ken, smelled the salt of the wine-dark sea, and heard the compelling, majestic and irresistible voice of the heavens. Through larger-than-life characters and conflicts, the epics showed the people that there was much more to life than everyday mundanity — and in doing so, expanded and elevated their minds. And, most of all, they were fun.

SFF continues the grand tradition of Beowulf, The Eight Immortals and Nieblungenlied. It doesn’t matter that it’s fiction written for a contemporary audience; there will always be a human need to experience awe and beauty and just plain enjoyment, and among the established literary genres, SFF fulfils that need. It is its raison d’etre. It is why a century ago, pulps were the best-selling stories in the world.

Much contemporary SFF no longer fulfils that desire. Pink SFF — SFF more concerned about virtue-signalling and evangelising causes — has perverted the purpose of SFF. Where we once had heroes, we now had amoral nihilistic villains; in the place of wondrous kingdoms we have rotting empires; virtue is punished and the evil elevated; gods were no longer mighty and dignified, but rather weak and piteous, or simply satanic. There is no beauty to admire, no virtue to celebrate, no heroes to adore, no truth to learn. This is why SFF is now the least popular literary genre in the world — and quite likely at least part of the reason why many people just don’t read any more.

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Story worlds are fragile things. They are consensual hallucinations held together by skeins of words and dollops of imagination. To be complete, to be coherent, these settings must have histories, peoples, politics, cultures, religions, believable geography and climate, technology and magic, language and art. These seemingly-disparate elements feed into and build upon each other, organically growing into worlds. If you replace or subordinate these elements with a single overriding political message, one that must reign supreme over every other ingredient, the result is a bland and colorless word stew, barely fit to be called a setting.

Do you want to read a story that hammers home on every page the evils of racism and oppression and sexism, or would you rather follow Conan the Cimmerian as he travels through fantasy Europe, Africa, South Asia and the Middle East, fighting men and monsters and wooing beautiful women? Does a family drama following the travails of a pack of werewolves who live in a tiny island sound interesting, or would you rather follow the exploits of a masked black-clad vigilante who dispenses rough justice with psychic powers and twin .45s? Which sounds more like a space opera: The story of a young boy who discovers he has supernatural powers, joins an order of warrior monks, participates in a galaxy-spanning war to overthrow an empire, trains to be a fighter pilot and swordsman, struggles to stay on the side of light, redeems his evil father and destroys a superweapon capable of destroying entire planets; or some kind of revenge tale featuring someone from an empire whose major identifying marker is that its people refer to each other as ‘she’ — even those with masculine titles.

The answer should be obvious.

World-building is the Bifrost that connects the author’s vision to the reader’s perceptions. A story world must allow for adventure and romance, fantastic cultures and fascinating peoples, vice and virtue, horror and honour. Without these, a story lacks colour, coherence, and cheer. It lacks fun — and if a story isn’t fun, people aren’t going to read it.

If you’re an SFF writer and you hope to make a profession out of it, your stories have to be fun. It doesn’t matter if you’re with PulpRev or Superversive or you just fly solo. If you want people to read your stories, they have to be fun. To make a story fun, the story must be set in a compelling world where fun adventures await.

If you get stuck crafting a world, if you’re struggling to bind plots and ideas together, if your magic or technology feels boring, there is a single ready solution: go bigger. Don’t let yourself be hemmed in by your beliefs or assumptions; let your imagination run wild. Escalate your stakes to encompass cities, countries, continents, worlds. Enable your magic or technology to solve increasingly larger plot problems – with an appropriately higher price. Make your villains more crafty and well-resourced and intelligent, and your heroes more skilled and brilliant and dynamic. Make everything more.

Make everything epic.

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If you want to help make SFF epic again, do consider voting for my novel NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS for Best Alternate History novel at the Dragon Awards. You can pick up a copy on Amazon here, and with 36 reviews and an average rating of 4.4 stars out of 5, I daresay it deserves a shot at winning.

Drama at the Dragon Awards

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The Dragon Awards made a colossal mistake: it caved to the whims of writers who disrespected their fans.

Alison Littlewood and N.K. Jemisin withdrew their novels from the Dragon Awards nomination. John Scalzi, who initially withdrew, decided to withdraw his withdrawal. The former two claimed they were being used as proxies in the culture war. Scalzi came back because the organizers asked him to reconsider.

This isn’t obvious to outsiders, but these are classic social justice entryist tactics.

The Dragon Awards was conceived of as an award by the fandom. No gatekeepers, no entry fees, no backdoor politicking. Just fans nominating their favourite works.

None of the major SFF blocs — PulpRev, Superversive, Puppies — had any intention to destroy the Awards or drag personal politics into it. The recommendations they made were in good faith. None of them recommended Littlewood, Jemisin and Scalzi; those works do not meet their tastes — but they didn’t go out of their way to actively discourage people from nominating the trio either.

The fans of these authors nominated them in good faith. By withdrawing their stories, the writers spat on their own fans.

Littlewood and Jemisin demonstrated that they didn’t have faith in their audience. In Littlewood’s case, she believed that she was nominated because Vox Day, the most controversial blogger in SFF, recommended her work. Jemisin claimed there was “no way to know if [her] book’s presence on the list was legitimately earned through individual, freely-chosen votes by a representative sampling of DragonCon members.”

Littlewood is saying that she didn’t want fans with the wrong politics to read her works. Jemisin’s rationale is utter nonsense: there is no way to enforce block voting over the Net, and Dragoncon had measures in place to prevent repeat votes. Jemisin was simply posturing to her loyal fanbase, allowing her to win the Hugo Award.

It seems odd that a writer would accept the Hugo Award for her latest novel, but refuse any chance of winning a second award for the same novel. But that’s because the Hugo Awards have been converged.

The Hugos used to be about recognising the finest SFF works. But for three decades and counting, it’s been about recognising the most propaganda-heavy message fiction produced by the most superficially diverse group of creators. The Hugo Awards is where SJWs in SFF go to congratulate themselves and shut out everybody else — it’s little wonder that the number of nominating ballots and final ballots dropped by 50% from last year.

Social Justice Warriors aren’t going to fight fair. They want the rules to be changed in their favor, and in so doing change the nature of the organization they are targeting.

By pushing for the right to withdraw their nominations, these entryists want to change the Dragon Awards from a fan-centric award to a talent-centric award — an award dictated by the whims of the people involved.

As for Scalzi’s case, when he first tried to withdraw, the Awards’ organisers refused. Then they changed their minds and allowed the withdrawal. Then they asked Scalzi to reconsider. This flip-flopping signals that the organisers lack spine, and aren’t willing to enforce their own rules and standards. Organisations that cannot stand fast will bend to suit the whims of the outrage-mongers.

In my last post, I stated that while you may not care about the culture war, the culture war cares about you. This is what the opening shots look like: an attempt to influence the targeted organisation to abandon its mission and serve the whims of those who will not respect their fans.

I don’t want the Dragon Awards to go the way of the Hugos. Nobody from the fandom does. We must roll back the entryists before they can gain a foothold.

John Scalzi cannot be allowed to win an award. If he wins, it will galvanise his fellow social justice warriors, giving them incentive to put even more pressure on the Dragon Awards next year. I would urge you to vote instead for Brian Nemeier’s The Secret Kings. Nemeier is one of the leading indie SFF authors of this generation, and should he win the award, he will cede it to L Jagi Lamplighter, whose work catalyzed the Superversive movement.

The Dragon Awards’ organisers must enforce their mission through a clear and unbendable withdrawals policy. Either they prevent authors from withdrawing once nominated, or they allow withdrawals on the understanding that it will irrevocably bar those authors from ever being nominated for the Dragon Awards again. I am personally in favour of the latter: any author who withdraws his work from a fan award has betrayed the trust of everyone who deemed his work worthy of the award.

The Dragon Awards is for the fans. Anything that compromises that cannot be tolerated. It’s time to kick out the entryists, enforce the core mission, and get back to celebrating the best of SFF. Life is too short for drama like this.

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I am grateful to my fans for nominating NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS for the Dragon Awards under the Alternate History category. If you’d like to check it out before voting, you can find it on Amazon here. When you’re ready to vote, click here to sign up.

My Winding Road To PulpRev

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I wasn’t always a science fiction and fantasy reader. Despite what my bibliography says, in some ways I still am not. At least, not the kind of reader most SFF is aimed at.

As a child I read voraciously, but I was always drawn to world myths, folklore and fairy tales. One day I would read about how a boy and a girl outmatched Baba Yaga with kindness and intelligence; the next I saw Thor slaying Jormungandr and in turn dying from the world serpent’s venom; the day after I witnessed Krishna opening his mouth to his human mother Yashoda to reveal the entire universe. These were tales of courage and cowardice, sin and virtue, heartbreak and sacrifice, duty and destiny.

When I finally meandered over to the fiction section, I found myself utterly bored. Age-appropriate stories had their own charm, but they paled in comparison to the stories I had read. How could a girl who used her photographic memory to solve small mysteries compare to the Aesir’s cunning scheme to bind Fenrir and prevent a premature Ragnarok? Why should I care for the everyday tales of the Bookworm Gang when I could read of the tragedies, labours and triumphs of Hercules? What were the exploits of Mr Kiasu when placed next to Scheherazade’s tales?

Nevertheless, I kept reading everything I could get my hands on. The TintinAsterix and the Hardy Boys series made regular appearances in my household. Readers Digest sent condensed novels to my home then, and there I ventured into adult fiction. At the age of 13, a classmate lent me a copy of Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six, and there I discovered a new genre: thrillers.

I read every Tom Clancy work I could find, and sought other writers in the same vein: Chris Ryan, Andy McNab, Larry Bond, Dale Brown. Here were stories of geopolitics, terrorism, war, of issues that mattered to readers of the day. These were events that could have happened and worlds that might have existed. Here I studied tradecraft, politics, human motivations, tactics, technology and absorbed the lessons of research, meticulousness and mindset.

When the Harry Potter craze hit Singapore, I got my hands on the first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. It was a decent story in its own right, but to someone who had grown up reading the tragedy of King Arthur, Xuanzang’s journey to the West, and the exploits of John Clark, Harry Potter was… underwhelming. It had its merits, but it wasn’t worth a second read. I understood its appeal to regular children, but I, having achieved the Grail with Galahad, slain the Medusa with Perseus and defeated terrorists beside Team Rainbow, was no regular child.

Nevertheless, I attempted to read other modern science fiction and fantasy stories. Storm Front by Jim Butcher was one of the few I remembered: it was raw, but even then it was entertaining, and to be fair Butcher got better with each successive novel. But the rest? There was no sense of tradecraft, no sense of stakes, no plot, wooden dialogue, characters who avoided death simply because the enemy lacked intelligence. They weren’t worth my time.

I turned elsewhere. Michael Connolly, Daniel Silva, Charles Cumming, Max Arthur Collins, Barry Eisler, Marcus Sakey, Stephen Hunter, Sean Chercover. In crime and spy thrillers I found a different emphasis: where the technothrillers of my youth paid fetishistic attention to technology and weaponry, these thrillers sketched out all-too-human portrayals of people and their achievements and failings. And yet… they still lacked something quintessential, something I had seen in my childhood books but not quite replicated.

I turned to the classics. Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley. Here, I found it again: recognition of elemental evil, celebration of the human spirit, the triumph of transcendent goodness. I found adventure and excitement and philosophy and science and reason. In Around the World in Eighty Days I saw how decisiveness, technology, creativity and an obscene amount of money could take a man on globe-spanning adventures; in War of the Worlds I caught a nightmarish vision of an unstoppable alien invasion, on par with the Apocalypse; in Frankenstein I saw the consequences of mad science and an exploration of the human spirit; Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea mixed romantic adventure with then-cutting-edge science.

I had found the pioneers of science fiction and fantasy.

Once again I looked at modern science fiction and fantasy. And once again I was repulsed. I was the child reading a poor version of Harry Potter: having seen the enlightenment of the Buddha, the twilight of the gods and the resurrection of the Christ, what were these stories but pale shadows? But for a few glittering jewels, these stories were dull and flat, inspiring little more than boredom and contempt.

Then I found John Ringo. And from Ringo I found David Drake, David Weber and Larry Correia. These were the descendants of the stories that had fired my boyhood imagination: heroes facing mortal and moral peril, exotic locales, excellent tradecraft and tactics, weighty actions whose consequences rippled through the story universe, coherent technology and intricate settings. I looked at what inspired them, and I found Robert A. Heinlein, Raymond Chandler, H. P. Lovecraft, Dashiell Hammet, Mickey Spillane, Frank Herbert, Elmore Leonard.

In these stories I rediscovered what I had lost: expansive worlds and settings, characters clothed in their culture and their beliefs, exhilaration at overcoming impossible odds, unflinching explorations of the dark heart of man, epic struggles of good against evil, inhuman monsters and alien beings. In these stories I rediscovered the universal elements that lurked at the heart of the grand tales of my childhood. I saw the lineage of ideas and story elements linking these stories to the classics, and from the classics to the world myths.

I had rediscovered the pulps.

How could science fiction and fantasy have fallen so far? When did tales of galaxy-spanning empires give way to interchangeable dystopias in generic Earths wrecked by the predictable boogeyman of climate change? How did military science fiction, the literature of high strategy and wartime ethics and futuristic tactics, become stylized shoot ’em ups or bland sludge about everything but the military? Why do modern SFF stories have characters clinging to 21st century progressive cultural and political values in settings that could not justify them, while old-time stories had entire schools of thought and cultural norms that flowed organically from their settings?

These questions, and more, haunted me as I explored fiction. When I took up the pen, I decided I could not follow in the footsteps of modern SFF writers. Against the old masters, they were like candles to the sun, and I refuse to craft dim candles when I could ignite new stars.

In my writing and my research, I strove to keep one foot firmly in the Golden Age and the other in the present. As I studied the pulp masters I blended their techniques with the rest of my arsenal, drawing upon what I have learned from war stories and mythology, fairy tales and thrillers. And in doing so I found others who shared my approach.

This is where I found PulpRev. Be they members of the Pulp Revolution or Pulp Revival, the people of PulpRev respect the tales of the past while training their eyes on the future. They are the children of the Internet era: they banter on Twitter and Gab and Discord, they haul up the books of the past with Project Gutenburg, they make full use of blogging and self-publishing platforms to get the word out. They tell stories for a modern audience while honouring what made their literary inspirations timeless. For PulpRev, the answer to the doldrums and the blandness of modern SFF is simple: regress harder. Regress to the glory days of pulp, and revel in the forgotten era of SFF. Rediscover the tales of lost cities and atomic rockets, planetary romances and adventure fiction, and breathe new life into a stale, insipid, calcified industry.

PulpRev is a rapidly-growing movement in SFF. We are writers and readers, indies and hybrids, and we have come to create a new epoch. We uphold the old masters, and we birth new works of our own. Neither politics nor borders divides us. Ours is a big tent: all who appreciate the pulp aesthetic is of our tribe. If you wish for fiction that sends the spirit soaring, fiction that is romantic and heroic and thrilling, fiction that is just plain fun, come join us, and together we shall make SFF great again.

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If you’d like to see the fruits of my research in pulp and writing, you can find my novel NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS on Amazon and the Castalia House ebook store.

Initial Reviews for NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS

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Reviews for NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS are rolling in, and reader reception has been highly positive. Here are a few samples from Amazon:

Ray, May 5, 2017

Great book, that took a surprising twist on the usual mixing of Urban Fantasy and Military cloak and dagger genre, plus a bit of alternate history. I’ll need to re-read it because there is a lot under the surface of this hard to put down well written book…
The action is fast paced and it reminded me of Larry Correia’s Monster Hunter series that is just a fun read, but with a much more sophisticated, serious world view… The mythology makes sense and is not the usual urban fantasy drek. The attention
to detail reminds me of the Laundry Series by Charlie Stross. I look forward to reading the next book in the series.

James Nealon, May 6, 2017

The book is damnably technical, or is it technically damning? Mr. Cheah wrote a very good military spy/thriller, of the type that pulls you into intense action… The book is very well written, with very good characterization of heroes and villains… I can’t wait for more in the series. Great action hook for the book, and a great hook for the series.

Koba, May 11, 2017

This is an action-packed story of “counter-terrorism with a twist”…The alternate Earth is extremely well-realized and convincing. It is just “different enough” that it is not too predictable… The system of magic and the “theology” of the book are also well thought-out and coherent… I would compare this favorably with Larry Correia’s “Monster Hunter” series – action oriented, lots of weapons, but with supernatural elements. If you liked his books, you will like this book. I am definitely looking forward to the sequels from this exciting new author!

NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS can be can found on Amazon and the Castalia House ebook store. If you have already bought a copy, do consider leaving a review on Amazon or your blog if you have one. That would help others find and enjoy this novel too.

Thanks for your support, and please look forward to the sequel, HAMMER OF THE WITCHES.

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

Retrospective: Ghost in the Shell (1995)

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When I first watched Ghost in the Shell, I was impressed by the fluid animations, the detailed visuals, the melancholic atmosphere and the slick action scenes. A dozen years later, after watching it again, I picked up the finer points my teenage self didn’t: the post-cyberpunk ethos, the characterisation, the tight storytelling, and most of all, the reversal of emphasis on philosophy and action.

When put together, Ghost in the Shell is a philosophy film disguised as a sci fi thriller.

(Spoilers ahead!)

Post-Cyberpunk, NOT Cyberpunk

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It has often been claimed that Ghost in the Shell is a cyberpunk franchise. It’s more accurately described as post-cyberpunk. Major Kusanagi Motoko and her colleagues at Section 9 are members of a secret police agency. Their job is to uphold the current order. They may face corrupt government officials, terrorists and cybercriminals, but they act under the colour of the law — even if the government cannot officially sanction their deeds.

Cyberpunk stories depict amoral, nihilistic underworlds populated by unscrupulous hackers, slick corporate representatives, hardboiled cops, well-heeled businessmen. Cyberpunk media such as William Gibson’s Neuromancer, Neil Stephenson’s Snow Crash or the Cyberpunk 2020 tabletop role-playing games, emphasise the punk of cyberpunk. They focus on high tech and low life, powerful megacorporations and corrupt governments, and the people caught in the games of power and wealth. Cyberpunk is about how money and politics and technology conspire to degrade the human soul — and how people scrape out a living at the ragged edge of an increasingly dystopian society while trying to retain their sense of self.

Ghost in the Shell sets itself apart by making its protagonists members of a secret police organisation. This allows the protagonists to come into contact with the coterie of cybercrime archetypes, but it also charges the protagonists with upholding civilisation instead of eroding it. By being government agents, they will naturally have access to state-of-the-art tech and training, letting them plausibly have an edge over their adversaries, while giving them multiple opportunities to encounter black market tech. They see at first hand how predators use technology to hollow out the human spirit — but instead of dirtying their hands, they take a stand against it.

Post-cyberpunk contrasts those who use technology to uphold civilisation against those who abuse it for their own ends. The characters of Ghost in the Shell inhabit a world filled with corruption and dirty politics, but Section 9 still tries to serve and protect the people. Unlike traditional cyberpunk works that shows how technology dehumanises people, Ghost in the Shell aims to examine whether technology can elevate humanity, and the cost of doing so.

Merging Character and Plot

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In the original manga, Kusanagi was a vivacious woman who enjoyed practical jokes, had a casual approach to romance and violence, and had a wide range of emotional affect. Batou was a support character who played the role of comic relief, but otherwise sank into the background until the focus was no longer on Kusanagi.

The anime radically changed the characters. Kusanagi was now serious and focused. She rarely shows emotions, but when she does it emphasises the gravity of a scene. Instead of sticking her tongue at people behind their backs, she is more likely to exchange philosophical argument. Batou, in turn, was promoted to the role of her unofficial second-in-command, assisting her during key scenes and also voicing deep thoughts of his own. Now he is both a shooter and a thinker, able to match Kusanagi and drive both the action and the dialogue.

This character shift elevates the anime above the manga. Manga Section 9 comes off as a unit of cowboys just a few steps away from being loose cannons, who have no qualms turning their skills on their allies and superiors on a whim, and only slightly more skilled than the criminals they face. Anime Section 9 is an elite group of operators who take the time to ponder their humanity.

The anime characters created a somber, introspective atmosphere lacking in the manga, conforming with the anime’s philosophical core. With Anime Kusanagi and Anime Batou portrayed as intellectual cyborg shooters, it now makes sense for them to contemplate their navels when they’re not chasing bad guys. This, in turn, makes the ending believable.

In the manga, the Puppet Master abruptly launches into a pages-long exposition on life and transmission of information. It is a jarring departure from a manga otherwise filled with gunfire and cyberwarfare but little explicit discussion of higher concepts. In the anime, the exposition is reduced to a minimum — and since the characters are already established as deep thinkers who also act decisively, the concluding scene fits with the overall tone and direction of the anime.

The manga characters were action-oriented; the reader either had to tease out philosophy from the plot, or the mangaka had to break up the action to make the themes and philosophy explicit. The anime characters give voice to the philosophy explored in the franchise, showcasing their characters and explicitly drawing out the ideas the filmmaker is exploring. The latter approach makes the philosophy more accessible and digestible to the audience — and in doing so, raised Ghost in the Shell above other sci fi stories that merely used cybertech as stage dressing.

Lean Storytelling

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Ghost in the Shell does more in 82 minutes than what other films try to accomplish in over 2 hours. The anime achieves this through a minimalist cast and efficient storytelling.

The only extraneous scene takes place in the middle of the film, showcasing daily life in 2029 Tokyo. Otherwise, every sequence is tightly plotted, with ramifications down the line. Of great importance is the use of technology: every key bit of technology is used at least twice, first to introduce the audience to the tech, and then to facilitate the plot.

The opening scene has Kusanagi using thermoptic camouflage to assassinate a bad guy. It’s an iconic moment that defines the franchise, introducing the tech and the murky politics of the world. Later, while preparing for a mission, Kusanagi tells Togusa that she brought him aboard Section 9 because he has the least amount of cybernetic enhancements and Kusanagi values his different perspective. During that mission, their target uses thermoptic camouflage to evade pursuit, suggesting that the antagonists also have access to such tech, and showing that such camouflage can defeat Section 9’s sensors. When the Puppet Master appears, thermoptic camouflage plays a critical role in aiding the antagonists’ plans, and this allows Togusa to demonstrate his out-of-the-box thinking to detect the invisible intruders, enabling the final showdown later on.

In the movie, technology drives the plot and characterisation. We see this again in the use of high velocity rounds. During the chase scene, the target loads his submachine gun with high velocity rounds to disable Section 9’s truck. Batou later comments on how the ammunition damaged the weapon’s internals. Later, Kusanagi employs HV ammo against a spider tank, but takes the trouble to swap out the barrel of her rifle — and even so, the HV rounds don’t do squat.

The chase scene sets up the existence of HV ammunition and its limitations. This prepares the viewer for Kusanagi using them later and sets up the expectation that the HV rounds would tear the tank apart. Her taking the time to swap out her weapon parts solidifies her characterisation as an operator. When the HV bullets bounce off the tank, it undermines the viewers’ expectations and justifies the following scene which has her try to hack the tank’s cyberbrain, in the process ripping off most of her limbs. This in turn makes the climax possible, showing why she can’t simply evade the snipers targeting her, and ratchets up the tension further.

By compressing technology, characterisation and plot into as few scenes as possible, the director made the philosophy scenes work. When discussing the philosophy and implications of technology in the work, the characters don’t stand around and exchange lines in a context-free vacuum. They always talk philosophy in transitional scenes.

In these scenes, the characters are either on the way to somewhere or waiting for something to happen. One exchange takes place while Kusanagi and Togusa are on the road, preparing for a mission; another takes place on a boat when Kusanagi and Batou are off-duty and awaiting orders; a third is inside an elevator as Section 9 prepares to head out.

In other movies, these scenes would be short takes, empty of beats. Here, the director used the opportunity to fill the gap by delving into matters related to prior scenes, making the philosophy feel organic instead of being forced on the audience. It also eliminates the need to have separate talky scenes dedicated solely to philosophy.

Ghost in the Shell is an exemplar of lean storytelling and a masterclass in the craft of maximising the efficiency of every scene.

Reversing Action and Philosophy

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In most movies, action scenes are the highlight of the film. Scenes in between the action are crafted to lead up to the combat.

Ghost in the Shell reverses this logic: the action scenes lead to the philosophy.

Conventional films feature lengthy action sequences featuring kinetic gun battles, furious hand-to-hand combat and waves of mooks, creating spectacles that hook the audience and keep them watching. The payoff of the film is watching the protagonist overcome the antagonist through wit or violence (or both), saving the day and winning the girl. Any deep thought is incidental.

Ghost in the Shell, by contrast, treats action scenes differently, with long periods of building-up and short bursts of overwhelming violence. The action scenes are much shorter and feature a far lower body count than conventional action films, because they do not exist to create spectacle, but to set up the scenes where characters ponder their humanity and their place in the world. The assassination in the beginning reveal the political system of future Japan and sets the stage for the rest of the plot; the chase scene later on reveals the possibility of false memories, in turn leading to Batou and Kusanagi musing on what makes them human; the final showdown creates the setting for the actual denouement.

Unlike traditional movie logic, the true antagonists of Ghost in the Shell aren’t directly dealt with. Indeed, at the end Batou describes the resolution as a ‘stalemate’. This wouldn’t work in a film that places spectacle first: audiences would expect nothing less than total victory after experiencing one action extravaganza after another that consistently raises the emotional tenor and stakes of the story. However, in a story that places philosophy first, underscored by an introspective atmosphere, it is appropriate: the true resolution lies with the merging of the Puppet Master and Kusanagi to create a higher life form. It is the ultimate payoff for an audience already primed for a movie that promises to explore transcendental matters in the guise of sci-fi action. The stalemate is an afterthought, but it fits into the overall cyberpunk culture, in which there are no major lasting victories, just personal successes at the individual level.

Philosophy with a Dash of Action

 

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In an industry defined by visuals and spectacle, Ghost in the Shell dares to do something different. While it employs a high standard of visual quality, instead of relying on the Hollywood standbys of intense action scenes, Ghost in the Shell delivered philosophy with a dash of action. It made full use of its sci fi mileu, setting up scenarios that organically explore the implications of these technologies and characters who combine combat skills with intellect.

Lesser filmmakers would have stumbled, either by making the philosophy ultra-abstract and the action scenes boring, or by concentrating on action and neglecting deep thought. Ghost in the Shell finds the perfect balance between the two, cementing its position as a masterpiece.

All images from Ghost in the Shell (1996) and publicity materials.

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

To 2017: Write Less to Write More

If you’re a writer, nobody cares about how many stories you’ve written. Only about the stories you’ve published.

Ideas and stories are meaningless if they are locked away in a hard drive or scrapbook. They only hold value when they are shared with the world. You’re not an author if you don’t publish your works.

In 2016, I wrote the most number of stories I ever had. In 2016, I also published the fewest number of stories since I became a published writer.

How did that happen?

Half of the answer is that a couple of stories I submitted this year would, with any luck, be published next year. WE BURY FOR OWN, for instance, will be published when Lyonesse goes online in 2017. The other half is that I wrote too much stuff that had to be thrown out. On the order of 500,000 words.

Five. Hundred. Thousand. More than enough for a trilogy and then some.

Those words comprise of a novel, its sequel, and assorted deleted scenes. The deleted parts overwhelmed both stories combined. Worse, I cannot in good conscience publish either story at this time. Despite the months I’ve thrown into them, the hundreds of thousands of words committed to the page, they’re not good enough.

The reason for this is simple: my old writing style just isn’t good enough.

I used to write like a classic pantser: little if any pre-planning, just open the story and pound away at the keys. It worked, mostly, allowing me to create scenes that organically built upon events in previous chapters.

The problem with that approach is at the meta level: there was little time and space dedicated to worldbuilding, setting and character planning. Exactly the wrong thing to do for the stories I was working on.

The stories are hard science fiction. Diamond hard science fiction. Every piece of technology inside the story would be entirely within the realm of modern understanding science. Everything would be an extension of what is known and possible today. That kind of undertaking required copious amounts of research — and ensuring that everything remained consistent.

More than that, the story was a space opera driven by a romance. A completely new genre of writing. One that demanded in-depth knowledge of the human heart, and how every human and faction within the story would believe, feel, think and act.

Pantsing, I’ve discovered, isn’t adequate to the task. I found myself revising scenes over and over and over again, and at the end of it all, feedback from my writers’ group indicated that it still wasn’t good enough.

In 2016, I found that my old style of writing wouldn’t work anymore. Not for the standard I aspire to.

For 2017, I have to do things differently. Writing less to write more.

I went into pantsing because I wanted to write as much and as quickly as I could. That approach won’t work. I intend to spend less time writing and more time planning. More time on worldbuilding, researching concepts and technologies, understanding characters, planning events.

In other words: I plan to spend more time building the foundations and getting things right before I commit to paper.

That should lead to less time spent on revisions and edits down the road. Which means more time working on the next story, and the next, and the next. In the end, what matters isn’t so much the act of writing as writing excellent work, publishing it, and maintaining the drive.

The same approach applies to blogging. For the past month, I’ve been planning my posts, researching them, focusing them on a single topic. My new posts are between 50 to 75 percent shorter than my old ones. The time and energy savings allow me to post more often, leading to more pageviews.

I’ve already experimented with the new approach for a certain story I wrote this month. Initial feedback has been positive, and next year I hope I can share it with you. I also have other writing plans for 2017. More will be revealed as I execute them.

2016 was a year for learning the hard way.

2017 will be the year the writing bears fruit.