Too real, too soon

I've had a few questions arising from the think piece I did for io9 this week on indie publishing, so this seems to be the best place to address them.

One thing that I didn't go into is the curse of the Real World Book. I've had many stories get overtaken by real world events. It's a particular curse for journalists who also write fiction (as opposed to journalists who write fiction labelled "news") because we're really, really skilled at extrapolation. Give us a scenario, and we can crunch all the variables around it like a mainframe to come up with a likely next move. It's based heavily on the data sets of experience, i.e. the older you get and the more you see as a journo, the more likely you are to predict things, and not in a Nostradamus kind of way. On a smaller scale, it's the same kind of analysis that enables me to create characters. So, multiplying characters together and factoring in all kinds of stuff, a news hack of the old school can make a reasonable stab at what's coming next – not enough to play the stock market with huge success, alas, but enough to say, "Bloody well told you so."

Anyway, when you're writing a novel, and you're linking significant parts of the plot into the real world around us, you run the risk of some real human being in the real world doing stuff that blows your book. Everyone's heard the story about the bloke whose novel about Bin Laden (alive) came out or was due out around the same time that the bearded chap met his end at the hands of SEAL Team 6. That's every writer's nightmare. Well, among several events that got in the way of Going Grey was the Snowden revelations. And the sound of ripping paper, or at least delete keys, was heard in the land.

There's a fine balance between writing the most realistic book you can and making yourself a hostage to fortune. There's also the curse of the politically logical: you sit down, look at a scenario in the world, and think: "What if that government reacted like this? And then what if X did Y, and Z responded by...?" It's a predictive habit. I believe it's one of the reasons why "formative causation" seems to be alive and well among journalists. One slow news day, you'll be sitting in the newsroom, trying to think of a story to follow up to fill the void, and you suddenly get the urge to make a few phone calls and check out the latest on a story that you filed maybe a year ago. It's a cold case, a dead story, but a follow-up is a follow-up, so you think it'll be fresh because nobody else is thinking what you're thinking.

But as soon as you make your first call, the spokesman or contact on the other end says, "You're the sixth reporter today to ask me that. What's started you all off? Is there something I don't know?"

It happened to me so often that I was pretty sure it wasn't random. I don't think it was paranormal weirdness or a collective unconscious, either, but I do think that journos read microscopic, subliminal signs all around them, they learn to read them in the same way, and then, when they find themselves in a situation where a number of factors occur at the same time, they all have the same response – to pick up the phone and find out what happened to Joe Bloggs.

Anyway, the point is that when we come to write fiction, as quite a few old hacks do, we tend to extrapolate real world events in such a way that we end up looking clairvoyant, and usually at the most inconvenient time. The relevance to indie publishing is that once I've finished writing and editing a book, I can get it through my own production system and on sale in a day, provided I get stuck in and don't get distracted. Yes, one day. Not one week: one day. Traditional publishing can get books out very fast if it really has to, which is normally real world memoir stuff rather than fiction, but we're still talking weeks or months even when they're going flat-out. The usual cycle for fiction is now often eighteen months, even two years. There are reasons for this, part of which is the practice of having to sell titles into the bookstores that now have two sales "seasons" rather than three, according to a sales-savvy editor I know, but it still means that writers whose stuff rests on real scenarios are left sweating all that time, hoping that they don't get caught by external events.

So once I've written a novel and it's ready to roll, I can get it on sale immediately. I can do the sequel as soon afterwards as I please – I don't have to worry about the publisher's catalogue or the sales team selling the book into a chain that has its own schedules geared to a much longer timescale. If I've written enough to publish an entire series in a year, six* books or more, then I don't have to factor in how long the books will take the publisher to feed out into the market, or having too many titles out at once. It's just not relevant when the titles will go on sale online and will always be on the virtual shelves as long as I want them to be, so that readers can work through them as fast or as slowly as they want.

And that's a really significant advantage that indie authors – and small publishers, who can be equally agile – have over traditional big publishing companies. I won't get into why having a critical mass of titles for sale helps increase sales, but it's a factor in visibility and building a readership. But for writers who sail perilously close to the disruptive potential of the world actually doing stuff that messes up their story, getting to market fast is a life saver.

(*No. Just no. I'm too old and tired now. But I'll keep taking the vitamin C and see how far I get.)

Keywords, caveats, and rough cactus affection

If you've been following me on Twitter this week, you'll have noticed that I'm a bit preoccupied with book categorisation. Which is why I'm asking people who actually buy books to tell me how they work out what a book is and if they're going to be interested in it or even offended by it.

You'd think it would be fairly simple to work out what kind of book you've written and which people are likely to read it. But the book world's not the tidy, controlled marketplace it used to be, when books knew their place on the shelves and librarians wore cardigans. The internet has brought us maximum choice and the ability to find what we want with ever more precise keywords, but with maximum anything comes a need to sort stuff out. And that's my challenge. It came about because of the way new categories spring up way ahead of anything BISAC (the book industry's categorisation standard) can get to grips with.

When you're marketing your own stuff you have to face keywords and meta tags sooner or later. Now, I already had problems working out whether GOING GREY was a techno-thriller, a military thriller, or military SF that wasn't really what I'd call military SF. (Blokes in armour, aliens, unfeasibly large weapons, and that kind of thing, of which I've penned my share.) I ended up taking a vote among my beta readers. Techno-thriller won, but this week I decided to switch the categories to SF/ Military and Thriller/Military after checking the titles I could actually see on Amazon in those sections.

Categories, though, are plain sailing compared to the keywords you also have to add to help readers find your book when they're browsing.

GOING GREY is about a lot of things – identity, friendships, corporations, soldiers, even strong female characters although it's primarily a book about maleness – but it's also about coming of age. Ian has to work out who he is and transition from an almost monastic life to something much more risky and unnerving in the adult world. So when colleagues were talking about "new adult" as a category, i.e. protagonists who are in their late teens or early 20s and starting out on their own for the first time, some of us thought that would fit our stories.

Unfortunately, we hadn't grasped that it had now evolved pretty rapidly into what I, being old and crotchety, call soft pr0n. One way or another, "new adult" had become a term in many readers' eyes for erotica. Now, GOING GREY is violent, full of bad language, and there's frequent blokeish obsessing about sizes of appendages and getting enough female attention, but it ain't erotic by any definition. The trouble is that "new adult" as a keyword can filter you out of some searches because of its erotica rating, which can cost sales. So I spent this morning revising the keywords into terms that were (I hope) accurate, valid for most search engines, and not accidentally misleading.

I admit being educated in a way I didn't want to be when I first looked at categories on Smashwords. (A sales channel I ended up deciding not to use.) I typed in some innocuous term like "marine" or "soldier" to see what suggestions the site threw up, and the more harmless words I added, the further I fell down a rabbit hole of erotic fiction. (Unfortunate choice of metaphor, I admit.) There were things I didn't even realise there was a market for, and that looked anatomically ill-advised to me. I gave up. I just wanted to find out how a nice girl like me could sell books full of blood, swearing, anxiety, betrayal, and willy jokes.

And that's another issue. I make a big point in the book section of this web site that I don't write YA books*. Most of my novels are M for Mature, and the ones that aren't are just as full of equally mature stuff but minus the cussing. But there are still people who might hand GOING GREY to little Johnnie because they've seen the name Karen Traviss on SW books, and that's all harmless, isn't it? I suspect Johnnie has heard a lot stronger language in the playground than in my dialogue, but I still worry about the delicate of sensibility passing out when they run into their first F bomb or colourful discussion about bodily functions. Should I stick a warning label on the cover? The consensus from an admittedly unscientifically small sample is that there was no point. Yeah, it's not like it makes much difference with games, after all.

Okay, there's a nails-looking bloke on the cover of GOING GREY, clutching a pistol and carrying a baton. He might or might not be turning into a leopard. However unusual the cover is, it still indicates an absence of unicorns or steamy sex. Caveat lector, as the Romans might have said, and those blokes knew what they were talking about.

(*If I did, I'd be much better off financially.)

Cranking up a story (Warning: movie spoilers)

I was watching SUSPECT ZERO tonight for maybe the fifth time and it struck me that it's a great example of how to lift a story from a fairly solid thriller that's nothing exceptional into something that really engages the audience.

I often get mail from aspiring writers who say they're struggling to work out where their stories should go next. My stock answer is to follow the characters, get into their heads, and push the questions to the nth degree. Then the story will follow naturally. Now, that makes perfect sense to me because it's how I write. I know what I mean. But it's a bit like trying to explain colour, so an example like this movie makes it easier.

SPOILER ALERT: if you haven't seen the film and don't want to ruin it for yourself, then stop reading this now, get hold of it on DVD or something, and watch it before you come back to this blog. If you're not fussed, read on. It's more about the character development than the twists of the plot anyway.

I think SUSPECT ZERO (Aaron Eckhart and Ben Kingsley) is a cracking little movie. I'll watch almost anything with Aaron Eckhart in it (although I, FRANKENSTEIN was right on my pain threshold) but there was more to it than that. It could have been nose-bleedingly predictable, but it wasn't. And it was all a matter of asking one extra question that a lot of screenplays wouldn't have bothered with.

It's about an FBI agent tracking a serial killer of serial killers, and the killer appears to have a personal fixation with the investigating agent (Eckhart). Eckhart's character has Serious Personal Issues and is trying to redeem himself after being suspended for breaking the rules when arresting a throughly nasty bastard. Seen all that before? Yeah, they're all familiar elements. There are no new stories under the sun, remember, and all that varies is how well they're executed. Anyway, there's another layer to this: the serial killer (Ben Kingsley) is actually an ex-FBI agent who was trained to do "remote viewing," a fringe-y paranormal technique whereby you focus on a map and then images of what's happening at that location come into your head. But that's still not the factor that makes the film rock. It's the examination of what it does to a man to have that ability developed in him.

Kingsley's character has been trained to "remote-view" serial killers, which means letting his mind receive images of actual events as they happen and then identifying the location on a map, an inverse version of the technique. (If you think that sounds batty, then bear in mind that the CIA and the KGB attempted to use remote viewing to spy on secret locations, presumably when they weren't busy staring at goats.) And that's the key. The poor bugger is actually set on receive all the time. Murders have to come to him, because he can't predict them. He's always getting these nightmarish images intruding in his mind. And it really screws him up.

Any other movie (or book) might have been satisfied that it had a plot with a lot of twists – serial killers being killed by a serial killer with a freaky paranormal skill. (There's one more twist after that, and it's neatly signposted, although I only picked it up on the third viewing.) But SUSPECT ZERO ratchets it up by getting detailed and personal: what must it be like to be able to remote-view awful things and not be able to stop it? The answer ties into Eckhart's character's problems and sets up the ending, which isn't a happy one. It's not a twist, not some revelation injected at the end: it's a perfectly logical progression from the moment you realise what Kingsley is doing, that extra and very obvious question that needs asking, that awkward question. Train a man to do something like that, and you've condemned him to a waking hell. And that won't end well.

Take a look at this movie and then revisit whatever story you're working on to see if you've taken it as far as you can. It's a good example of pushing things to their logical end.

When fiction replaces reality

If anyone's still in any doubt about the impact that fiction has on shaping real world opinion, some of the coverage of the Yazidi refugee crisis in Iraq is a classic lesson in how pervasive myth can be, especially when there's no equal volume of reality to displace it.

I finally stopped watching a particular morning news show this week because of its increasing tendency to populate its studio sofa with Z-list celebs, minor sports stars, and others with no qualifications to shed light on actual news events. Now, everyone's entitled to an opinion: but if we're discussing what can be done to sort out an ongoing genocide, or the latest advance in particle physics, I want to hear from someone qualified in the subject, not Mumsnet or someone from reality TV. Talking about whether to launch a massive airlift by helicopter? I want to hear from a helo pilot, a pundit from the RUSI, or UNHCR spokesman. But no, we got a random bunch of minor entertainers who dished out great advice to the RAF on why it was wrong and what it should be doing with its Chinooks.

I know you have to take who you can get at the time a live programme's on air. I worked in TV for years. I know it's a slog to get studio guests within certain windows. But even so... this was feeble.

The sad thing was that these people looked genuinely moved by the crisis, but they seemed to have formed their opinions on what was physically possible in warfare and humanitarian relief from the mishmash of movies they'd seen – maybe even books they'd read. They had no idea of what it takes to get a helicopter to a location or why you just can't run aircraft like mini-buses getting people home from the pub. The logistics of what you do when you need to move thousands of people in a war zone was beyond them. There's no reason why they should know, of course: it's not their job. But somehow fiction in its various forms is so much more seductive, and so much better able to lodge in the brain than facts, that these people thought they knew how things happened in the real world. And if you start basing real decisions on myth, or voting accordingly, then it's dangerous.

I don't know how to fix it. The tendency is as old as humanity, just more pronounced these days in a world of global media. All I know is that I make every conceivable effort to tell the truth in fiction for that very reason, even if it's aliens and pulse rifles*. I know how powerful fiction is: I've been a news journalist, and I've also worked in political PR, so I know first-hand that myth trumps fact most of the time. Emotional memory is more persistent than factual memory. Alzheimer's patients may not even recognise their loved ones but their emotional memories can be triggered. But PR worked that out many years earlier. The first rule of PR was pinned to my office wall: they may not remember what you said, but they'll remember how you made them feel.

I worry about what's called the CSI effect. Friends who are cops tell me that juries are more prone to judge forensic evidence by the impossible fictional standards set on TV. If CSI can prove X did it with their super-fast tests, why is this test in the real trial not 100% conclusive? Worse, other cops tell me that fellow officers base their expectations of forensics on what they've seen on CSI too. It's wrong to pass off fiction as accurate fact when it isn't. It's why I object to docudramas both as a fiction author and as a journo. You blur the line at your peril. It can end up doing damage to real people.

Swedish cop show Wallander (the actual Swedish TV one, not the UK version) manages to entertain without losing sight of reality. When Wallander asks an officer to enlarge and sharpen a blurry security camera image of a suspect, he gets a very real world answer. "Sorry, that's the maximum resolution on that camera." If that had been CSI, it would magically resolve into an HD image verging on the minute clarity of a bloody electron microscope.

People absorb that stuff not because they're stupid but because they have no real-world data to compare it with, or because they're exposed constantly to it ("drip-drip" PR) in a medium that they're not on their guard against. Fiction gets under the radar; it produces emotional reactions, and emotions stick in the brain. They're an integral part of the learning and reinforcement system we depend on for survival. And that's the principle behind product placement and all those agenda-ists trying to get their particular cause or idea aired in a TV soap series. Next time you're watching a movie or a TV drama and taking something for granted as accurate, ask yourself what you really know about it.

(*Don't get me started on why Battle: Los Angeles is actually a more authentic military movie than The Hurt Locker, either.)

The Fall Of G.I. Joe – first pages.

Isn't this gorgeous? Great colouring. See the rest on IDW's FB page.

And keep an eye on Isaac in this series, because Steve Kurth's done an amazing job with him.