Reader Request Week 2008 #13: Diminishing Returns

Mike Lyon is concerned about:

The Law of Diminishing Returns in Series Science Fiction & Fantasy.

Don’t tell me it hasn’t come up before. And no disrespect to you, Scalzi, since thus far the three Old Man’s War novels have been of a uniformly excellent quality, but everyone from Orson Scott Card to Frank Herbert have suffered from the endless serialization of their greatest successes.

How far can a high concept and beloved characters be taken before they descend into fan-service for a paycheck?

I don’t know, Mike. Let me write six other “Old Man’s War” books and get back to you on that.

Having just written a fourth book in the OMW universe (which, depending on how you want to slice it, is the fourth book of a quartet, the second book of the second of two duologies (OMW and TGB being one, about military life in that universe, with TLC and ZT being the other, about colonial life) or just a simple stand-alone, with the possibility of being the first book in a sub-series; really, take your pick, and the answer could very well be “all of the above”), this is something that I do think about. As most of you know, after The Last Colony I said I was probably going to take a step back from the Old Man’s War series and do some other stuff — and yet the next novel to come out will be a OMW series book. Was it because I suddenly had a good idea I just had to do in the universe, involving a character there? Or was it to cash in on an increasingly successful series, and strike while the iron was hot?

The answer, as you might expect, is: Yes.

Which is to say they are both correct. After I finishing TLC, I developed an interest in Zoe as a character, and thought it would be a worthy skill challenge both to try to credibly write a 16-year-old female protagonist and to write a book in parallel time to another story in the universe. But also, I know what my sales and royalties are, and I know that the OMW series is selling at a very nice clip, and I knew that Tor would be very happy to have an OMW-universe hardcover to put out when The Last Colony was slated to go into mass market paperback, so that each could build sales for the other.

So I talked to Patrick, my editor, about this, and the conversation went a little like this:

Me: I know I’m supposed to be writing something else, but I have an idea for another OMW book and I was wondering if you’d like me to go ahead with that one first.

Patrick: You’re kidding, right?

And here we are.

It’s pretty obvious that publishers like series, since they put out a whole lot of them; it’s hard to think of a science fiction/fantasy author who gets by only on standalone books. But publishers like them because people like them, and the reason people like them, as I said to another writer friend recently, is because when they read them, they know when to stand and when to sit. Which is to say, they know the players, they know the rituals and they know the lay of the land. Even when the series takes place in world that’s aggressively fantastical, once you’re in, you’re in.

It works the same way with the writers, too —

<cranky writer hat>

— because, look, people: World building is hard. You want us to have to build an entire universe from scratch every single time we write a book? Well, okay. You want us to have to run a marathon every time we walk down to the corner store to get some milk, too? Or maybe assemble a car from the wheels up, every time we want to drive to the mall? We spend all this time building this ginchy universe and its rules, and then you say “Oh, that world again?” No one ever pulls that shit with other genres. People don’t go up to Carl Hiaasen and say “What? Another book on Earth?” And he didn’t even make up that planet! It’s an open source planet! Damn slacker.

</cranky writer hat>

So that’s why it’s nice to have a series, and why so many of us write them.

How far can you take a series before it turns into hackery? It really depends on the writer, doesn’t it? I’m reading Iain Banks’ Culture series at the moment, in a backwards way — I read Matter, the latest, before reading Consider Phlebas, the first, and if there’s a descent into hackery from first to last, I’m missing it. On the other hand, without naming names, I can think of plenty of series which should have been strangled in the womb, preferably by going back in time, sneaking over to the author’s computer, and replacing the very first as-yet-unsubmitted manuscript in the series with the sentence “GET A DAY JOB” repeated out to novel length. Lesson: Authors are important.

I don’t think series decay is inevitable, but I do think you have to work at it to make sure it doesn’t happen. One thing working against that, from a practical point of view, is that publishers want books on a regular schedule — Tor would have rather have had Zoe’s Tale ready a year after the release of The Last Colony, and if given their druthers, I’m sure they’d want another OMW universe follow-up roughly a year after Zoe’s Tale goes out the door, too. And that can be a real challenge in maintaining really high quality. To come back to Banks, Matter is high-quality stuff (I wouldn’t at all be surprised to see it as a Hugo contender next year), but it’s also been eight years since the release of the last Culture novel. And maybe that’s made a difference; sometimes letting the field lie fallow works.

As for me, well. I don’t ever deny that I keep an eye on my financial bottom line when I write — I’m an unapologetically commercial writer, both stylistically and as a matter of personal philosophy — but I also know myself well enough to know that writing novels in a series just for the paycheck would bore the ever-living crap out of me. Which would mean books that suck, which is not something I want. I’m fine with people not liking my work for whatever reason, but what I don’t want is to have people get the impression that I don’t care about what I’m writing, quality-wise. I write books for money, but if I was just writing books for money, I can make more money writing other things that take a lot less effort. I did very well financially as a writer before I started writing novels; I could do just fine financially without them. This is actually a positive thing for you guys, because it means that I don’t actually have to stoop to mere hackery to pay my bills. There has to be something else going on there, some element that makes the writing of the book in itself interesting to me, or else it’s not worth my time.

This is something I’ve talked to the Tor folks about as well. I don’t think it’s any secret that Tor would like more OMW books, because, to be blunt about it, they sell great and two of the three titles in the series to date have gotten Best Novel Hugo nods. If Tor didn’t want more of ’em, they’d be dumb. They’re not, so they do, and this has been communicated to me — which I appreciate; it’s nice to feel wanted. But to Tor’s additional credit, it’s also been communicated to me that their quality control concerns mirror mine. We’ve both got a good thing going here, and it would be dumb for either of us, writer or publisher, to let the series descend into mere hackery. So we do work hand-in-hand to make sure a) individual books don’t suck, and b) that I have enough opportunity to other stuff so that when I come back to the OMW universe, it’s fun for me and not a drag, which is key to making sure the rest of you enjoy those books too. It’s a nice partnership so far.

I think maybe the answer to your question, Mike, is that the distance you can take a series until it descends into hackery is the distance after which neither the writer or publisher sees the novels as work, but simply as product. I’m happy to say we’re not there yet with the Old Man’s War series. And we’re working to stay off that particular road.

Interesting Cover

John Legend covering “Pride (In the Name of Love).”

Quite obviously, there’s a reason I’m noting the video today.

Reader Request Week 2008 #12: Soldiers and Support

Chris asks:

At what point does or should personal distaste of the War in Iraq translate into disdain or disapproval for the Service members fighting in that fight? Is it possible to support the Soldier but not the War? If not, is it ‘unpatriotic’?

In general I think it’s perfectly possible to support the soldier even if one does not support the war, and I think at this point, regarding Iraq, this is what a lot of folks are doing. Likewise, I think most people are wise enough to recognize that individual service members are responsible for their own conduct (and when under their orders, the conduct of the soldiers below them), not the conduct of the war in a general sense. Distaste or disapproval generally comes when and if a service person’s own actions are reprehensible.

Now, sure: There probably are some folks who believe that war (or this war) is so wrong that anyone having anything to do with it has a mark against their soul, just as there are people who believe there’s no atrocity that we might commit that’s not excusable, simply because “we’re the good guys.” In either case, there’s not much to say about that. However, I strongly suspect most people are capable of threading the moral needle here, and of recognizing that individuals in a war can act and serve justly and with honor, even if the person believes the conflict itself is unjust or dishonorable.

The question to me brings to mind not Iraq, but the US Civil War. Anyone who has read the Whatever over the years knows that I believe that the Confederate States of America was an elementally evil institution, because it explicitly and affirmatively incorporated the institution of slavery into its Constitution, and I believe slavery is fundamentally immoral and evil (before anyone attempts to sidetrack in the comments, yes, the US Constitution made provisions for the accounting of slaves, but neither mentioned slavery by name, nor — key point — was owning slaves encoded into it as a fundamental and constitutional right). So, the CSA was evil, the war it precipitated was to defend an evil entity, and thus the soldiers who fought on its side in the Civil War were ultimately fighting for an evil institution.

But that does not mean the Confederate soldiers were in themselves evil, or that their personal reasons for choosing to fight were necessarily evil. Some fought because they felt obliged to defend their homes or their home states or may have felt that the political concept of states having the right to secede was worth defending (Confederate general Robert E. Lee, for example, opposed succession, but once it happened, chose loyalty to his home state of Virginia over national loyalty; he turned down Lincoln’s offer of command of the Union forces). I suspect the number of rebels who fought because they thought slavery itself was worth rushing the Union forces for was small (although probably not as small as some Confederate apologists would like to suggest).

Overall, I feel sorry for these Confederate soldiers that their efforts were in the service of an evil nation, and it’s well and good that their efforts failed and the CSA was destroyed. But I don’t feel that each and every soldier who fought to establish the CSA was evil, or deserved disdain or disapproval. Ultimately, it’s something like this: “You were a fine soldier. Shame your country sucked.”

I’m explicitly not comparing Iraq to the US Civil War, nor the US with the CSA, to be clear. The Iraq war is its own singular thing in our nation’s history. Nor, to yet again remind people, was I opposed to invading Iraq five years ago, although that was for my own reasons, and even at the time I recognized that the reasons we were going in were bad ones (I wrote: “even those people who fully support a war against Iraq are rather painfully aware that the stated reasons that the Dubya administration wants to gear up for war are window dressing for a revenge fantasy. It is possible to fight a just war for less than entirely just reasons. We’re about to do it”).

In retrospect, I wish I had twigged to the concept that fighting an unnecessary war is never a good thing, even if one has theoretical reasons for not opposing it; I wish we had left Iraq alone and just focused on Afghanistan. I also wish that I had realized the Bush administration had an Underpants Gnome war policy (“Step One: Invade Iraq!!! Step Two: ???? Step Three: Profit!!!”) rather than one that had an actual plan for what to do after we satisfied Dubya’s need to avenge and/or best his dad by deposing Saddam. These are the things one learns, alas at an unfortunate cost which this country will be paying for the rest of my life (and given the deficit spending of the Bush years, for the rest of my daughter’s life, too).

My personal regrets and observations regarding the Iraq war, however, have almost nothing to do with my opinion of those who serve our country there. Our service people went to war and they and their families have disproportionately sacrificed for it, since this is a war that has entailed almost no sacrifice or contribution on the part of civilians (hell, we got tax cuts). The vast majority of those who have served in Iraq (and so as not to dismiss by omission, in Afghanistan) have done difficult jobs in a difficult situation, and have done so with honor. They have done what their country has asked of them, and have done so longer than anyone ever expected — we’ve been in Iraq rather longer than we were in WWII, which is a thing I think people know but may have trouble conceptualizing — and have done so as volunteers. In sum, our service people have worked hard, worked long, and served with honor.

I’m not sure how one disdains them for doing any of these things, except to rig the deck such that there is nothing these service people could do to satisfy one’s sense of personal moral outrage over Iraq. At which point, one may have to entertain the notion that one is being a bit of a dick, and back off and give these service people a break.

Because here’s the other thing: Those folks who have served in Iraq will be carrying around what they’ve seen and done there for the rest of their lives. Even if they acted justly and correctly in all cases, and did their jobs competently and with honor, what one sees and does during wartime is still a burden, and can’t be unseen or undone. They’ve got a lot to carry already. The last thing they need is you putting something else on their back, something they don’t actually deserve to have to carry. Give it some thought before you try to push it on them.