DAVID NEES

Creating new worlds, one story at a time

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Thoughts on Post Apocalyptic Literature

Post apocalyptic (PA) literature is an interesting genre in which to write.  Modern examples of this genre go back to the thirties through the fifties with Brave New World, 1984, Alas Babylon, The Earth Abides and others.  They are the grandparents of the modern tale.

The interesting element for a writer is that the world as we know it is stripped away.  The author can insert whatever he/she wants.  In this respect, the genre is a form of science fiction where the author has a free rein to create his/her own worlds, even though fantastic, non-existent, elements may not be a part of the story.

The challenge for the author is to not stop at describing the details of the destruction and chronicling the protagonist’s reactions to the apocalyptic event, but to go deeper; to examine what happens to society when its supports are stripped away.

In western society we live (as does the whole developed world) in a web of dependency.  That web supports the smooth functioning of our large suburban and urban areas, allowing people to live in close proximity with a modicum of privacy, and an amazing level of cleanliness, hygiene and health.  This all happens so smoothly and behind the scenes that most of us are oblivious to the unseen support systems and workers that sustain the marvel that is a modern city and its suburbs.  In the nineteenth century everyone was more connected to the systems needed for humans to survive:  growing and preserving food, making clothes, making shelter, repairing tools and self defense.  Today we can be ignorant of such skills and still function quite well.

Take the modern grocery store for example.  It is a marvel of just-in-time inventory containing a bewildering array of choices, many fresh, seemingly always available for you to put in your cart.  The economics consist of very low profit margins but very high turnover rates (how many times the whole inventory is turned—sold and replaced).  Due to those high turnover rates and the demands of freshness, the average grocery store has only a three day supply of food on hand.  That is why you see empty shelves when a snowstorm is coming.

Now, insert some apocalyptic event and have transportation cease.  Just to make things more interesting, have all communications cease (as with an EMP attack as I postulated in my novel).  Now the cities become centers of starvation, panic and mayhem.

One reader asked why writers in this genre seem to always describe civilization becoming violent, going so bad when structure and authority break down.  What lies behind the question may be a belief in the perfectibility of humans; that we are essentially good in nature and this goodness can come out just as easily as the bad side of our nature.

It seems to me that history doesn’t support this idea.  A review shows civilizations arising and suppressing some of humanity’s bad traits, but only through the pressure of laws and regulations backed with force and punishment that keeps everyone in line.  Take that control away and anarchy breaks out.  Consider utopian societies; they attempt to establish groups that can achieve harmony.  Most are driven by the belief in the perfectibility of humans.  But, as C.S. Lewis put it, they form, thrive and then it all seems to go wrong.  Greed, lust, aggression assert themselves, a “strongman” emerges and they slip into some form of totalitarianism.

Groups organized around religious doctrine, which establishes a uniformity of view and purpose, a monoculture so to speak, seem to last the longest, but they generally become stagnant, not evolving and growing in intellectual or material achievements.

This is all no surprise for those of the Christian faith.  The Christian believes that humans are “fallen” creatures and so need the help of God to attain their true (original) nature, which probably cannot be realized in this lifetime.  They do not expect perfectibility and recognize the futility of trying to achieve it through human means alone.

The secularist retains a belief in the perfectibility of humans (we can be better) in spite of the overwhelming evidence of history.  Great efforts are put into society’s structures (many to good effect), but they keep coming up short of the goal in the end.  Still the effort goes on.  Back in the sixties, Lyndon Johnson, set up a group of programs called “The Great Society”.  He was going to win the war in Vietnam and the war on poverty.  He accomplished neither, but we still spend billions and even trillions on the legacy programs that he created to eliminate poverty.

Personally I think politics can only put band-aids on society’s ills; it is only triage.  Society cannot be fundamentally fixed or healed until people’s hearts are changed.  Politics cannot do that.  Maybe only God can; I’ll leave that your judgment.

So for the novelist, the PA genre allows one to dig through the collapse, when the thin veneer of civilization breaks down, cracks and falls away.  The theme of breakdown and collapse evidences the writer’s assumptions that humans are not perfectible, or have not yet achieved it.  Our baser instincts come to the fore and have to be dealt with by the protagonist.

Bad people thrive because they are used to operating outside of the structure of laws.  They are practiced in taking advantage of their fellow human beings and do not shy from violence to achieve their ends.  They are well equipped for anarchy.

A writer’s challenge and enjoyment is to describe this conflict, showing how those deeper tendencies, the “fallen” side of our natures, come to the front and how we have to defend against those who give into them and then learn how to create space that allows for the “better” parts of our natures to emerge.  In short, we must begin to erect the “structure” of civilization through which people can again begin to flourish.

Novel Revision and Sequel Update

Just finished revising After the Fall: Jason’s Tale; a friend read the book and she has a natural gift for proofreading. She uncovered about 15 small proofing errors which I corrected over Memorial Day weekend. I smoothed out a few other passages along the way and toned down one scene.  It was important as a driver for subsequent action in the story, but I didn’t need to be so graphic; that was a distraction to the overall story. I also made some revisions in my references to the smell of the battlefield; for those detail oriented readers.  If you haven’t read it yet, the story is even more improved.  If you have, you can recommend it to others knowing I’ve improved it and smoothed it out.  The revised version is available now as an ebook and the paperback will be available in two days.  You can go to here to order.  And if you like it, write a short review; reader reviews are very important.

Speaking of the proofreading challenges, my experience convinces me of what brain researchers tell us. Our brains are programmed (wired) to fill in “blanks”. We can see partial shapes and identify them, partial words, partial sentences are part of that phenomenon as well. It must have an evolutionary use, such as helping us to quickly assemble a picture of our surroundings with incomplete input. I can read over a passage multiple times and not see a missing word…or a word misspelled, because my brain fills in the blank or corrects the error.

I’m going to hire a proofreading professional for the sequel. I spend too much time on the task and it still is incomplete when I’m done. Speaking of the sequel, I feel the hot breath of public demand. That’s good, but I don’t want to rush something into print. I’m not being smug or pretentious when I say that my readers deserve my best efforts. The work an author produces goes out there for the whole world to read (hopefully), so, in a way, we are exposing ourselves. That is something new to me. But it is not just my pride that makes me want to present only my best, it’s my respect for the readers; you deserve my best efforts if I am to ask that you spend your time with what I’ve written.

I have read bad books, as we all have, especially in this era of self-publishing. The reader purchases a book on an act of faith and I want the reader to feel a sense of satisfaction when they finish a novel of mine. I hope to write many more and want the readers enjoy and appreciate the fruits of my labors, even if I don’t get a new novel out every three months.

I’m a little over half way through the sequel (by word count), but am reworking the beginning once more (third time now). I woke up around 2:30 am last Saturday with a new slant to the story, one which allows me to get Catherine into the narrative sooner (the working title is “Catherine’s Tale” after all). It shouldn’t negate what has been written, so all the previous work is not lost.

None of this is said as an excuse for not getting the work done. I’m showing up every day so inspiration can find me working. I will do my best to make the wait worth it.

The Big “UN”

No, it’s not the U.N. but the “un” agented and “un” published.  More correctly referred to as the great “un” washed.  These are the masses of people who write stories and have the temerity to try to sell them.  Literature is unique amongst the arts.  Many people cannot carry a tune, read music, play an instrument or draw, but everyone can write and most do it every day.  So, many people can be induced (self-induced?) to think they can write for commercial consumption.

From that pool of would be writers, many actually give it a try; give it a go.  They write something, family and friends say it’s good and they offer it up to the world.  If they go the traditional route, they solicit agents in hopes of acquiring one, which will lead to a publishing deal and author nirvana.

Decades ago publishers accepted manuscripts from writers directly.  Over time, starting after WWII, literary agents saw a value in inserting themselves into this process, similar to how real estate agents inserted themselves between the buyer and seller of a house.  They made a fine art of providing some added value to earn their cut of the deal.  They do the work to find the offerings (if working for the buyer) or create the listing (if working for the seller).

In this same way literary agents found it profitable to get in the middle of the writer/publisher process.  In doing so, the writer was helped by having a “salesperson” on his/her side.  The publishers also benefited as they quickly realized the agents could be a first “filter” and relieve them of a huge work load, evaluating manuscripts.  The process kept developing until it is now hard to find publishers who will accept writer’s offerings directly.  The agents have become the gate keepers.

Why does the industry need gate keepers, you might ask?  Think how art galleries could be swamped if everyone thought they could paint and many started submitting their bad paintings to galleries.  It’s hard to imagine because so few of us claim the skill of painting or drawing.

So I have this image of the great “un”washed, clamoring at the walls and gates of the castle.  Inside reside the publishers and their stable of authors, those who had survived the gauntlet and are now the insiders.  The walls are too high to climb; the would-be authors beat their heads and bodies at the gates and the blocks of the walls.  Agents look through this thick stream of literary traffic, looking for a winner amidst the crowd.  They are doing their agreed task for the privilege of earning a cut of the author’s profits for as long as they both can hang on to each other.

Agents get up to 50 query letters a day.  Due to this volume, I’ve read that agents will look for anything, even something in the first sentence, to disqualify a piece and throw it in the reject pile.  This is a tough situation for an aspiring writer.

Now practical self-publishing comes along.  With modern, high speed, digital printing and binding machines a quality paperback book can be printed on demand (POD).  The author doesn’t have to resort to what were derisively called “vanity presses” to self publish.  Such presses may soon be things of the past, like typewriters.  Add to this innovation, the ebook and you have a revolution.  Many of the great “un”washed are turning from their assault of the castle and simply going around it to find their own publishing platform.

Amazon leads this revolution, having purchased CreateSpace for POD and having invented the Kindle.  They have 75% of the ebook market in the U.S. so they have become the marketplace.  I spent 6 months, soliciting over one hundred agents with only one request to read the full manuscript (to no avail).  Now, to be honest my story (my product if you will) was not fully ready for prime time.  Six months passed from my turning away from agents to self-publishing.  During that time I continued to learn my craft, so my novel was much improved by the time it came out this spring.  (I was making changes to it within days of publishing.)  That said I’m not sure I could have gotten a look by continuing on the traditional route and submitting to agents.  It was time to move forward.  Both the economics and the timing called for pursuing a different path.

But it isn’t all sweetness and light.  It’s just as big a challenge to break out in self-publishing as it is to get noticed by an agent.  One is still competing with the immense volume of work that is not ready for commercial presentation; remember, there are no barriers.  All it takes is a little ambition, very little talent, and one can put out an ebook or paperback.  The challenge is to rise from the mass of new works offered and get people to read what you’ve written.

I think I have a novel that rises above what can be called the amateur level.  The reviews from people I don’t know are bearing this out.  In my life, racing and business, I was acutely aware of the difference between an amateur and profesisonal.  I always tried to place myself on the professional side of the equation.  That meant more work, more time refining, more practice and less trusting to luck.

I think it’s worked; time will tell.  The good news  for readers is that there are no more walls or gates to publishing for all practical purposes.  The bad news is there are no more walls or gates—filters, if you will.  So, as consumers of books, especially ebooks, you, the reader, must become your own filter.  Let me know how you do your filtering.  I’m curious.

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Getting There

t has taken a lot of work and a lot of time to get to the point of publishing a professional novel. Along the way I wrote a second full length novel (in the process of polishing) and started a sequel to this first one.

There was a lot to learn; it was like drinking from a fireplug at times. For those contemplating writing, I’d like to recommend some resources that helped me along my journey. The first one (and the first one I came across), is a site called Author! Author! published by Anne Mini. The site is not active at the moment, but it was filled with an enormous quantity of blogs sharing her wisdom about writing and publishing. From the site I learned how to format a manuscript for submission to agents; something I did faithfully to no avail before turning to the self-publishing route. Her most important advice was to print out my manuscript, and read it aloud, word for word. That is the best advice I can offer any beginning writer. It was amazing to me how many typos, missing words, bad syntax and artificial dialogue I rooted out by following her advice. In the end I did that three times with my manuscript.

To try to get out of the trap of being a member of the big “UN”; “unpublished” and “un-agented” (a whole other blog discussion in itself), I turned to some on-line journals to try to get published. Most of them don’t pay any money, but that wasn’t my purpose. I’m thankful for the following journals for accepting my work; excerpts from After the Fall: Jason’s Tale as well as a short story I wrote:

Even though most of these on-line journals don’t pay, they have some pretty high standards. If you can meet them, you’re getting close to publishing standards.

Below are some of the other sites that were helpful. The list is not exhaustive as there are many routes to knowledge in this arena, but I’d like to publicly acknowledge some that I found helpful.

  • Duotrope; this is a site that I used to query on-line journals in my initial search to be published.
  • AgentQuery.com and AgentQueryConnect.com; the first helps you search the thousands of agents to, hopefully, find one. The second is a community of budding writers all sharing what they’ve learned in their journey. It’s very helpful for a newbie. They are evolving to focus more and more on self-publishing as the trend grows.
  • Ellen Brock, a professional editor produces some informative videos on YouTube that I found helpful.
  • Hugh Howey, the author of “Wool” is the inspiration for all self-published writers. He is very knowledgeable and convincing on the economics of being your own publisher.
  • J.A. Konrath is a prolific self-published author who also writes convincingly about the benefits of being your own boss. Often acerbic but always entertaining.
  • Pikko’s House; Crystal Watanabe offers professional editing/proofreading services. I hired her to do a “beta” read of my novel which helped a lot. It would have been even more helpful to have hired her earlier in the process…but what did I know? I was still trying to figure it all out.

There’s a ton of proof readers, editors out there catering to the self-publishing market. I haven’t used any of them so I can’t recommend them, even though I’ve visited their websites. My guess is that the prolific and successful self-published authors use copy editors, proof readers and cover page designers to help them produce their work which helps them spend more time in creative writing. I hope to get to that stage…it’s a process.

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