Old timber to new fires
In my beginning is my end; a look ahead at my newest work
In this newsletter:
Reflections on literary influences
I want to hear from you
Reflections on readings
Any sort of writing career requires you to walk a fine line. Success often comes in the first place from following wild impulses and taking real risks, but your subsequent survival often requires consistent, predictable outputs. If you are lucky enough to find your lane, there are strong incentives to stay in it. You succeeded at something, and the safest strategy is to keep doing the thing you succeeded at. People don’t necessarily want to hear a deep cut from your new album. Who can blame them? They want the hits. They want you to play Blister in the Sun, or Aqualung. They want you to keep following the path laid out in front of you.
A formative book in my life was Nine Princes in Amber, the first volume in Roger Zelazny’s fantasy series The Chronicles of Amber. The titular princes gain the power to shape reality by walking the Pattern, a maze-like magical ordeal, inscribed on the floor of gymnasium-sized hall. It’s very important to follow the correct path, which leads to the center of the room. As explained in the book:
“It's an ordeal, but it's not impossible or we wouldn't be here. Take it very slowly and don't let yourself be distracted. Don't be alarmed by the shower of sparks that will arise with each step. They can't hurt you. You'll feel a mild current passing through you the whole time, and after a while you'll start feeling high. But keep concentrating, and don't forget—keep walking! Don't stop, whatever you do, and don't stray from the path, or it'll probably kill you."
The Pattern is both a metaphor for my career and very specific jumping-off point for this edition of the newsletter, which will include some reflections, an announcement, and an invitation to a dialogue. If you’d rather I keep following the path of developing my nonfiction expertise and scholarship, no need to worry. I’ll still be doing that, and you can feel free to skip the rest of this. If you’d like to hear about my other ideas for addressing the same issues in new ways, read on for a little while.
I was a nerd before the nerds took over the world, escaping into fantasy and science fiction as a kid growing up in a small, rural Red America town. I read too many to recount, but The Chronicles of Amber was an early favorite, for its immersive, transportive world filled with colorful characters. It had very definite flaws—the nine princes had four sisters, for instance, and the emphasis of the title was reflected in the book. Even back then, in the Reagan era, long before I got infected with the “woke mind virus,” I noticed that the book’s female characters were woefully underimagined.
Yet Amber remains a favorite in many ways, not as problematic as some of its peers, but far from unproblematic. I won’t argue it’s the very best of the genre, but its transportive quality is as good as it gets, and it’s a series bursting with images and ideas. Amber always stayed with me, even as I graduated to more challenging material.
A few years later I started reading The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever and quit after about 50 pages because of the monstrosity of its anti-hero protagonist (if you know, you know). I picked it up again months later and decided to gave it a few more pages before throwing it out. I never got around to throwing it out. It’s definitely not for everyone and comes with all the trigger warnings for all the things, but for those who can bear its darkness, it has rewards to offer.
Like Amber, the series was immersive and transportive, thanks to its richly detailed setting and multidimensional characters. The first trilogy was also male-centric, but later sequels redressed that, with a female co-protagonist, an anti-hero as unlikeable and almost as monstrous as the eponymous Thomas Covenant.
Many years passed, with very many other books under the bridge, but I always returned to and revisited these two series. One recent entry captured that old magic, without a lot of the baggage—The Broken Earth trilogy by N.K. Jemisin, a brilliant work that again transported me to another world, every bit as compelling and immersive and imaginative, but now with a fantastically diverse cast of characters and a powerful female protagonist. The Broken Earth also brought a breathtakingly complex narrative style, with dizzying timeline shifts, unafraid to make readers think, unafraid to make them work. It expanded my idea of what was possible as a writer.
If you read my first novel, Optimal, you will probably understand how inspiration drives me. While hopefully not derivative, Optimal wears its influences on its sleeve, from Brave New World to Rollerball to The Prisoner to The Third Man and more.
I ended up writing Optimal after failing to sell a nonfiction book about the long history of the dystopian genre and its ties to extremism (with some of that content eventually finding its way into this newsletter). Because Optimal came from such a “meta” origin, it naturally paid homage to what went before, remixing many aspects of the genre’s tropes and themes. But that’s also just how I roll. I am pretty meta by nature. And that meta quality, with reference to the works above, can be found aplenty in my new novel—which brings us to the announcement promised above.
My next book: The Knowledge of Dead Secrets
The book is complete, but still a long way from publication. Below I will talk about the various tradeoffs of that process and pose some questions about how best to proceed, but first I want to talk about the book itself. (The cover is a placeholder; it helps me to have something to look at.)
The Knowledge of Dead Secrets is the first book in a fantasy series called The Testimonies of the Basin. I’m hoping to do four books, but we’ll circle back to that.
The Basin is a world set inside a crater, exactly one thousand miles wide and surrounded by an impenetrable rim. The peoples of The Basin have knowledge of science and technology, but lack the raw materials to implement them at any scale. Fortunately, a variety of magicks exist to help fill the gap.
Nobody knows for sure why The Basin was made this way, but everybody has a theory.
For nearly 3,000 years, The Basin has been locked in an intermittent war between two of its three major powers. On its western rim, the Blood Divine, an enclave of Elves whose unique magicks are said to be tied to their racial heritage. To the east, an oppressive theocracy, the Truth Alone, professing to wield God’s power. Caught between these mortal enemies is the Concordance, an economic powerhouse operating under the aegis of a relatively young democracy.
In the first book, the story is primarily related through the first-person narratives of multiple protagonists, one from each of the Basin’s major powers, which have been received as mysterious magical transmissions known as “testimonies.” The testimonies describe the dominos that fall after the king of the Realm of the Blood Divine is mysteriously assassinated. The book has a massive roster of characters, but in the first book, we focus on three:
Demetre, the second son of the murdered Elven king, who is pulled back home after a decade of removing himself from his family and his society.
Magdalena Rue, a fanatical warrior-priestess of the Truth Alone, rigidly committed to enforcing God’s laws on earth—as she understands them.
Dominique Freeman, the Concordance’s leading investigative journalist, pulled away from her desk and into a web of conspiracies and violence.
For me, the vibe of Amber prevails in the first part, and Covenant in the second, although there are very substantial differences. The not-entirely-linear narrative structure owes much to the Broken Earth throughout, but again, with significant differences that become increasingly important to the plot. Dominique is, I think, pretty unusual in the fantasy genre, which tends to favor bards over journalists. Spoiler alert: Dominique doesn’t sing, and her stories doesn’t rhyme.
And of course, there are extremists. Lots of them. The Testimonies of The Basin are deeply connected to my day job. I believe there are a lot of ways to communicate important truths, and fiction is one of them. This book isn’t a treatise or manifesto, but its human interactions are powered by insights from my years of research.
Sharp-eyed readers will notice one other literary influence in the title, which is a quote from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. Each of the currently planned books (and this edition of the newsletter) uses a phrase from the Quartets as its title, and the collection of poems is referenced in various ways throughout the text. Eliot is, of course, another problematic fave, a fact that will also be addressed in the course of the series in ways you (hopefully) will never see coming.
(I have another whole newsletter brewing on the topic of problematic faves, but that’s a ramble for another day. Suffice to say that this book arises in part from meditations on works that I love despite their flaws, and on the flaws themselves.)
So you’ve had the tease. Now to the practicalities.
Figuring out the next steps
I completed Optimal in January of 2020. You all know what happened next. The pandemic came crashing down, and the publishing industry was (somewhat bafflingly to me) among the hardest hit. It’s still not entirely back to normal.
My own life was also hard hit by the pandemic and a variety of loosely connected events surrounding it, including significant family and health challenges, some of which have abated, some decidedly not. With publishers pushing their release schedules back by years, I decided to release Optimal through Amazon Kindle Direct.
I was not graced with an excess of patience when I entered this world, and I felt that Optimal was extremely timely. It had been written before the pandemic, but its dystopian future meshed perfectly with the moment. I added five sentences or so in the spring to make the pandemic connections explicit, and I pushed it out.
The good news: Most people who read it liked it. The bad news: Too few read it.
Writing fiction is, for me, a pleasure, one of life’s joys, which is extended and amplified when people read my work and enjoy it. In an ideal world, that joy would be enough. For Optimal, it was enough. I had saved up some money, planned the project carefully and pushed it out pretty quickly. I didn’t earn nearly enough to cover my time, but it made me happy and sparked some great conversations. Some people I really like, including some of you, enjoyed it.
The calculus is a little different for The Testimonies of the Basin.
To be clear, it was written out of love. After the thrill of returning to fiction after a long hiatus, I wanted more. The pandemic was raging, and I had a lot of stuff on my plate. I’d re-read the old faves (including the three mentioned above), read them so many times I could recite them. So I set out to create a new immersive, transportive, escapist experience for myself, one that could be shared with others.
Working on the The Testimonies of The Basin kept me sane during some very challenging times. I have no regrets.
But it took years to write. The Knowledge of Dead Secrets is a monster, just slightly shorter than A Game of Thrones, the opener of the A Song of Ice and Fire cycle. There’s precedent for such lengths in fantasy, but the economics of big books are tough for publishers, and large tomes are usually reserved for authors with a record of selling more books than I have to date. I am a pretty successful author in many ways, but not so far successful enough to make my living as an author. I’m not complaining. But at some point, I have to pay the rent, and that affects my bandwidth to write.
There are three more books to come. Maybe I could finish the story in two, if a publisher insisted. I’ve done most of the world-building by now, so the writing will go faster, but I worked on the first book close to full-time. It’s going to be tough if I have to write the next three on weekends and during vacations.
I’ll do it! If it comes to that, I’ll do it! But I am not getting any younger, and as you might infer from the vaguely ominous allusions above, I have come to the realization that life is short, sometimes unexpectedly so. I’ve dodged a few icebergs recently, but when I stand on the prow of the ship of my life, I can spy a shore on the distant horizon. I want to accomplish quite a few things before landfall.
All of this has been an incredibly long way to say: I’m not sure how to proceed. I am planning to start querying agents after the holidays, for lack of a better idea, and I may try some publishers who accept unagented submissions. As noted above, the book has three major parts, the three testimonies. I am considering shopping the first two testimonies as “book one,” since I’ve already had rejections based solely on the word count. If and when I get in the door, I can try to upsell the third testimony.
This path is the long path, and maybe the smart path. Publishing Optimal on KDP had many benefits, but two big downsides. It made it almost impossible to get reviews from major commercial outlets, and it made it hard to shop ancillary rights such as TV and film. A traditional publisher empowers these things simply by virtue of being a traditional publisher.
The tradeoff is time. We’re probably talking three to four years from the start of pitching to the book going on sale, if I’m lucky. Meanwhile I will be sinking another 600,000 plus words of costs on the hope that it somehow all works out in the end.
Thus I am inviting a dialogue with you, the readers, on the slim chance that any stuck it out this far. I not currently looking for pledges of support so much as ideas about how I could have handled Optimal better from a business standpoint, and whether there’s a non-traditional approach that could bring The Testimonies of the Basin to bookshelves faster without sacrificing any chance of making enough money to write the next three full time.
I will throw out some possibilities below, and I would ask you to use the comments here, or ping me on Twitter or Mastodon or LinkedIn, or via email. I am looking for opinions, suggestions, contacts. Do you know a publisher? Do you know an agent? Do you have experience writing successful queries? Reach out! (I can answer “yes” to all these things but lol I obviously still need help.) Dig deep into your six degrees networks.
The most obvious idea to start is doing a Patreon, Kickstarter, or IndieGoGo. The problem with this approach is the same problem I had with Optimal. I was unable to convert a large percentage of my 50,000 Twitter followers to spend $3 on a completed book that they could download instantly. How many can I expect to convince to spend even more money on a process rather than a product?
I suspect this was a failure of marketing on my part. I don’t have much head for that game. In retrospect, I obviously should have solicited endorsements before publication. I felt like I tweeted the link as often as people would stand for. Can I do better in pitching the value proposition? Should I have reached out to specific people? Should I have called in all my chips, asking favors? I hate this stuff, to be perfectly honest, but I feel like I should probably have done more of it.
What happens if/when Twitter dies? My largest audience lives there. I’ve had good engagement on Mastodon, but it’s not necessarily built for selling. Can I even make any non-traditional route work without Twitter?
What about doing it on Substack? I could publish the book one chapter a week for paid subscribers. I could publish part or all of the book. But the same questions I posed above come back to haunt me. I need a lot more subscribers to make this work, and I need to convert them, and I don’t like thinking of my readers as a commodity. Should I just get over that?
Would Substack even work? I am optimistic that this is a can’t-put-it-down, sink-in-over-a-long-weekend read. And for balance, it’s nice to have it all together in one volume. For instance, the first testimony with the Amber vibe is somewhat male-centric, while the second two are female-centric. If you’re reading the first testimony serialized, you might get the wrong idea. There are also a lot of characters to keep straight, and reading one chapter a week over a year and a half might that even harder.
Alternatively, I could tease the first couple chapters here, or even the first testimony, if it would help build momentum toward an audience. I have 280,000 words. I can afford to give a quite of few of them away for free.
What else? I have an idea for a shorter prequel, in the vein of The Hobbit. I could possibly serialize that, but I’d have to write it. I could no doubt come up with short stories set in the Basin, introducing the world, it’s unique magic systems, its social structures… Again, I’d have to write them.
Can we find a way to get Optimal out there more broadly? Aside from any direct money I might earn, better sales would definitely engender better opportunities with agents and traditional publishers. But it’s been a while now. If it was going to go wide, surely it would have by now.
Or would you rather I just keep walking the Pattern? Stick to the nonfiction focus that brought me this far. I would be saddened to hear that, but I would understand. For the record, I expect much more focus on extremism studies in 2023 and a return to publications, regardless of all this. But I’d like to pursue both tracks.
Anyway, I don’t know! Thanks for hearing me out, and let me know if you have any thoughts. I may stand up a chat on this later in the week.
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I have no direct knowledge BUT as I was reading this I was thinking about Mike Bennett (https://underwoodandflinch.com/) who wrote a vampire series called Underwood and Finch and generated his audience by podcasting the first chapters (I know...MORE work) and then made future stories Patreon only...AND edited and printed the whole thing and generated them as ebooks.
I'm not sure how viable that is for you but hope it helps. FWIW...I'd be more than happy to support a Patreon or other fundraising platform.
Berger I have no advice. I have enjoyed you since I read your musings on consciousness for the quantum chakras book many years ago on some random internet post. Since that time you have achieved so much. You seem to have anxiety? Concern? in this moment when all you probably need to do is determine precisely what you want for the future, envision it and allow it to come into form. Simple but not easy but I look forward to reading and seeing more of your creative success. There is no limit