Casual Fridays: Outlandish Flanking

It's been a very busy week.  I spent the first half of it plotting, sorting out arcs for Demon Knights up to #12 (and we know what the arc after that's going to be too), and Saucer Country to the same point, and carrying on with the heavyweight task of plotting out the sequel to Cops and Monsters.  I also finished a new draft of my spec script fantasy TV series pilot, met with my agent, and did another edit on Jac Rayner's fantastic Love and War audio adaptation.  (This is beginning to sound like the start of Prime Minister's Question Time.)

Demon Knights #5 came out on Wednesday, and I'm loving the response to it in reviews and on message boards.  I think we've now got a dedicated audience behind us.  I'd like to say to you lot: the title's not going anywhere, so stop talking about it like it might be cancelled at any moment.  (Doing that in public encourages comic shop owners to get nervous and order less.)  My editors are keen to plan way ahead, the sales figures are utterly healthy.  Just because you like it and it's not a full-on superhero title doesn't mean it's under threat.  (I'm now wondering at what point this will sound like I'm protesting too much.)

Here is the lovely variant cover to Saucer Country #1, by Sean Murphy.

And here is the blog that features it, by my excellent editor at Vertigo, Will Dennis.

This week my attendance at two more comic conventions was announced, the small but perfectly formed first iteration of Wiltshire's finest (only?) comic fan event, Melksham Comic Con with Mike Collins, Sonia Leong and Barry Kitson, and the huge and Spanish Barcelona International Comic Con, with Rags Morales, Scott Snyder and many others.  I'm very much looking forward to them.

I received, this week, my freebies of the Superman: Reign of Doomsday hardcover, and the softcover of volume one of Superman: The Black Ring, so they should be in your comic shops and book stores very soon.

So, to the meat of this week's post.  I got into a little bit of a fight on Twitter this week.  Not a huge row (I'm very conflict-averse or yes, wussy if you prefer), but more of a slightly heated debate.  It all started when someone tutted about an author, this being the start of Hugo nomination season, who 'suggested readers buy a supporting membership for Worldcon so they could nominate them'.  Now, I thought that, at a stretch, that might have been me.  (It turned out not to have been.) Because I do let people know, online, what I have that's nominable (that's a word now) in any particular awards system, and I also tend to push the 'buy a supporting membership and get all the nominated books as e-books!' deal.  But no sooner had I established my innocence than a few others started chiming in, saying how much they hated authors 'self-publicising' at this time of year, how tasteless and shallow it all was.  Which is when I took the perhaps bold step of saying to a beloved and esteemed SF author the words 'my arse it is'.

When it comes to awards, I don't at all object to authors self-promoting.  In fact, I'm all in favour of it, and think it should be encouraged, even mandatory.  I know that sounds a little counter-intuitive, but let me explain.

Some awards systems have rules in place about whether or not you can nominate yourself (the Nebulas say you can't) or vote for yourself (the Hugos seem to expect you to).  I personally wouldn't do either.  However, that's just me.  Quite often there's nothing in the rules to disallow it, and if it's in the rules, then I would never object to someone else doing it.

But no awards system (except the new version of the British Fantasy Society Awards, which I'll come to in a few moments) has a rule in place about not promoting your own work.  What they have instead, and this used to be very much the case with the Hugos, is an unspoken agreement, an understanding.  Which reminds me of the worst aspects of British society.  Because unspoken agreements, understandings, always benefit someone.

Now, I'm absolutely not saying that the handful of people tutting about these terrible self-promoting authors on Twitter were doing it because they're the sort of author who benefits under the old 'nobody say anything out loud' system.  I genuinely don't think that entered their minds.  I should think their motives would be an awkwardness with the idea of putting themselves forward, a dislike of showiness and a desire that a book be judged on its own merits.  These are fine ideals, but ideals they are.  A book will only be judged on its own merits if readers have heard of it.  People will always vote subjectively and we can't stop that, all we can do is make sure that social pressure doesn't distort the level playing field.

I should point out here that these authors that benefit from the 'nobody say anything' system I've conjured up are not my own alternative folk devils to those the phrase 'self promoting authors' brings to mind.  They're also successful and useful authors, who've made a lot of friends, and, rather than go on the internet to announce their nominable (I do like that word, no, it really is a word) works, they'll just, probably without even realising they're doing it, talk about them in the right company, because the right company is the company they're naturally in.  I'm probably one of these people. Or I'm trying damn hard to be.  They don't have to tell you what they have up for a particular award, because, well, everyone who might nominate just naturally knows.

Now, I'd say it's a fifty/fifty bet that when I used the phrase 'self-promoting authors' before, it was that sort of person you thought of.  That's because this whole business, like all 'unwritten laws' is entirely subjective.  That's what makes it all so dangerous.

Hanging out with the right people at conventions, letting a small group of nominators just naturally know that you've written stuff that's up for awards in the process of merely hanging out.  Is that okay?

Going on the internet to tell the world, in the open, like anyone could.  Is that okay?

Which do you prefer?

The people who do the former, in private, would accuse the people who do the latter, in public, of being 'self-promoters'.  The latter probably also have some nasty words that describe the former.

Some people (including a prominent critic who responded to my Twitter posts with a truly nuclear level of anger) would say neither is okay.  I responded, and still respond, that it's impossible to legislate against the former.  Even using the word 'novelette' in describing one's own story, even describing one's own story, even smiling at someone who might vote for you, these are all forms of campaigning.  You'd need to have cameras placed in front of every author at every moment of the day (and you haven't seen authors in the morning, nobody wants that) in order to fairly monitor this 'unwritten law'.

So I say, how about we accept that chatting up your electorate in private and going on the internet to announce your works are both, in principle, absolutely fair things to do?

Of course, the electorate will complain when an author does it arrogantly, or at boring length, or too much.  That's the risk any promoter takes.  The electorate will then not vote for said author.  When you, dear reader, complain about authors who 'self-promote', I suspect that you were actually complaining about those who did it badly.  You often won't have noticed the self-promotions of those who do it well.

And there's also the possibility that what you're complaining about is the idea that others might not agree that said self-promotion is a bad one.  That others might be 'taken in'.  That others, erm, might not share your tastes.

Welcome to democracy.  It's truly horrible.  But it's the best horrible we've got.

An agreement that all self-promotion is, in general, fine, expected, mandatory even, would make tutting at those terrible people who self-promote, without ever having to define who those terrible people are (because a definition would mean we might have to end up including one of our friends and that would never do), out of the question.  (One thing I noticed when people starting tweeting me about this was that everyone's definition of what was and wasn't allowed was completely different.  But nice people always get a pass.)

I said I'd mention the British Fantasy Society Awards, which do now have in place a rule against self-promotion.  (Well, a 'discouragement', the rule actually reading 'The BFS discourages the practice of canvassing for votes'.)  This came about as a response to our last round of awards, where, in a society with a tiny electorate and a culture of silence about the nominations process, author Sam Stone had a reasonable number of people willing to vote for her, and so won basically everything she could win.  I'd say she did that fair and square. Her being able to do that fair and square is an indication that our Awards needed fixing, but not because there was a need for an anti-self-promotion clause.  I think she mostly did that through friendly chat in person, in a way that would be impossible to police, rather than going on the internet.  And I think that, if everyone nominated had felt free to campaign as hard as they could, in public and in private, then she wouldn't have won.

I can also see a nightmare scenario ahead for the BFS, because while it 'discourages' self-promotion, the new awards system doesn't actually define what that is.  (And how could it?)  And it doesn't say what might happen if someone ignores that discouragement.  When the first nominee is barred (because who knows what the punishment could be?) for 'canvassing', I should think they will be able to point to every other nominee and say how that individual has done the same thing, in a different way that was probably just a little more charming.  A law without a definition is a law that says 'we'll decide who the nice people are'.  And if the use of the word 'discourages' means there's no penalty at all, is it really okay to have officially put in place the sort of Crucible-style awards culture where one can have aspersions cast on one's character because of people whispering 'In the bar, I distinctly heard her use the word "novella"'?

Having said that, I don't find folk devils there either.  I am also one of those people.  (Yes, this whole post is a stridently-worded version of 'let's all try to get along'.  Have we met?)  Apart from that one glitch, I'm all in favour of the new BFS voting system, and indeed contributed to the design of it.  You lot know from many posts past that I'm an avid supporter of the new BFS.  I just think we've made a rather terrible rod for our own backs there.

I'd also like to mention the case of writer Tony Lee and the Eagle Awards.  Similarly to Sam Stone, a few years back, he had a lot of people willing to nominate him in the small electorate of a rather shaky system.  He was shocked to find himself accused of ballot rigging and struck off the ballot in several categories.  Now, I think the definition of ballot rigging is using multiple email addresses for your own votes, creating fake identities, getting people who have no idea what they're voting for to line up by, say, paying them.  Having a lot of friends in the community who want to vote for you isn't ballot rigging, it's a successful campaign.  Following that ruling, myself and a lot of other comickers completely shut up about the Eagle Awards, because if what Tony had done was ballot rigging, any kind of self-promotion might be.  We were hoping for people to nominate us, but not too many people.  And who knew how many was too many?  Surely that number would be much higher if one was Grant Morrison?  (It's at this point that award organisers might as well just give the gongs to the people they expect to win.) The Eagles suffered from this echoing silence, and, as part of a renovation in many aspects of their organisation, did a u-turn, and, in a very healthy move, declared that everyone was free, indeed, encouraged, to promote their cause, and the awards, as much as possible.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is the way to do it.

I was heartened, in the end, by the Twitter debate, by how many people came out in favour of 'everybody self-promote as much as  they like, let the electorate decide', including Jon Strahan and Gary Wolfe on the Notes from Coode Street podcast and a number of noted authors.  I think, in terms of numbers, we won the day hugely.

So I'll continue to let you know what works of mine are nominable (I do like that word, and it is a word, right?) for awards, present you with the voting form but otherwise shut up from then on, and not nominate or vote for myself.  But that's just my practice, not something I want or demand others to live by.  Everything is, in principle allowed.  It not only should be, it usually is.  Even if people tell you it's not.  Hence the banner line at the top of this website.

And you may want to go and cast your votes for novels, short fiction, comics and book covers in the (refreshingly open about accepting the turnouts from author campaigns) 2011 Readers' Choice Awards.

I know.  Shameless. 

Today's music choice (from my list of tracks that I love) is the extremely exciting Ash with 'Kung Fu', which dates me horribly.  No video could match the images this piece of music puts in my head.  I've always wanted to write a fight scene to go with it.  And it mentions the X-Men!

And now we come to our guest, Aussie TV showrunner John Richards, who I first met at the Melbourne Worldcon.  Take it away, John...

A television show is like a baby.  You conceive it, and then there's a gestation period.  You worry about how it's going to turn out, you question if you're doing the right things and then... Finally!  The big day!  When – just like a real baby - you throw it out the door, abandoning it to an uncaring world with the vague hope that random strangers won't be mean about it on Twitter. 
     Except that with a TV show that's legal. 
     If my show Outland was a baby, I'd currently be in the waiting room, nervous and clutching an unlit cigar.  Or possibly in the delivery room, with my feet up in stirrups.  Or maybe I'm the doctor?  Actually, this whole 'baby' metaphor is just causing confusion now, so let's move on.  
     In 2005 Adam Richard and myself were having coffee, discussing sitcom ideas that might be suitable for Adam to star in.  After a string of involved, intriguing and difficult-to-write ideas - including one called The Kylie Show - Adam said 'Or we could just do something about a gay science fiction fan club'.  After all, we were both gay, and we were both science fiction fans.  So at least the research would be minimal.  And thus the journey began. 
     Outland follows five people who are are forced to meet in each other’s homes when they are unceremoniously evicted from a larger science fiction club.  This forced intimacy reveals parts of their lives that have previously been too personal for public consumption – they may all be out of the closet but their skeletons aren't.
     There’s Max, insecure and looking for love; the sexually-adventurous, muffin-baking Andy; Rae, the moral centre and unofficial head of the group; the high-camp, high-maintenance Fab; and the wealthy but socially-inept Toby. 
     One of the central ideas in Outland is that our characters are all openly gay, but largely closeted geeks.  I should point out that – unlike in the UK – in Australia the words 'gay' and 'Doctor Who fan' are not synonymous.  There are no 'friends of Davros' here.  (Well, there are, but that's considered as correlation, not causation.  A gentleman's love of cock and his love of Quarks are considered two completely different things). 
     Each episode takes place at one meeting and mostly in real time.  There's pain, deceit, secrets, recriminations, anger and regret – it's comedy gold! 
     I'm really pleased with the final result – it's a beautiful-looking show, the cast are great, it's got a lot of heart and – fingers crossed – it's funny.  And to be honest, while all the characters are gay and lesbian, in some ways that's irrelevant.  It's not about being gay any more than it's about being geek.  It's about being different, how everyone feels the odd-one-out from time to time.  It's about finding a place to fit in, and how you really have to find that place within you. 
     And there's fisting jokes. 
     Joss Whedon once said 'I'd rather make a show a hundred people need to see, than a show that a thousand people want to see.'  I'd go one step further and say I'd be happy if Outland was watched by ten people, as long as those ten people thought it was the bestest show ever, and their favourite show of all time. Although that would make for a terrible business plan. 
     It's seven years since we began this project and Outland is finally about to debut on ABC1.  It's been a long gestation period – if I was still pushing my laboured 'birth' metaphor it would be like a frilled shark being pregnant twice in a row with the same baby.  Since starting this project we've been through three Prime Ministers and as many Doctors.  
     But come February my baby will be out there in the world, blinking in the light and generating angry letters to the tabloid press.  And I couldn't be happier. 
     We're in discussions with UK broadcasters and the region 4 DVD will be available later in the year.

Thanks very much, John.  I think I can tell which sentence of my blog today is going to generate the most comments.  Cheers for that.

And now it's time for this Friday's writing tip, in our continuing series, it's:

42: Flanking.  Whenever there's a military action in a US TV show, and the writer wants to convey some tactical expertise on the part of a commander, 'flanks' will be mentioned.  There'll be 'outflanking'.  This has probably evolved to be the shorthand for every other form of tactics because a viewer with no knowledge of military goings-on will have heard of outflanking someone as a metaphor, and so gets that this is a clever thing to do.  But it's been used so much now that it's a sign of laziness.  Sooner or later, a writer will do a bit of military research and find another word that does the same job, and the first use of it will be the rolling out of a devastating new weapon that makes said writer look damn clever.  How about that writer is you?  It could even always be you.  But then you'll have become a writer of military fiction, the job of whom is to delve deeply into these matters, to know what all those tactics words mean, and to find some new ones from truly extraordinary sources, such as actual soldiers.  It's not just military matters, of course; every specialist field that's touched upon by the general media probably has its 'flanking'.

And that's it for today.  I'll see you midweek if something interesting happens, otherwise let's meet back here at 5pm next Friday.  Until then, Cheerio!

19 Response to "Casual Fridays: Outlandish Flanking"

  • Anne Lyle Says:

    I have no problem with authors promoting the awards in general and encouraging people to vote, and also clarifying which of their works are eligible if there's any possible confusion. But I think if you're going to be self-promoting, why not be more inclusive? Where's the harm in saying "I read X, Y and Z this year and thought them all excellent. If you liked them too, why not vote - and of course that goes for my own book, W, as well."

    There are good, tasteful ways to do this stuff, and an obnoxious "Me! Me! Me!" way :)

  • Paul Cornell Says:

    As I said in the blog. (I'm going to be saying that a lot in this comments list.)

  • Kari Sperring Says:

    I'm not troubled by other writers promoting themselves. It's not, however, something I'm comfortable with personally and I'm rather horrified by the idea that it should be almost mandatory. I'm not good at talking about my work, I'm not sure that this new world in which writers have to be all-singing, all-dancing road-shows is suitable for all of us. Maybe I'm a dinosaur and deserve to die out. I don't know.
    But what really, really troubles me, beyond my own diffidence, is that what is considered 'acceptable' self-promotion by writer A is often labelled 'pushy' or 'over-the-top' when done by writer B -- and the difference between those two writers is often that A is male and B is female. We live in a culture that does not always look well on women acting assertively, and female behaviour is policed far more heavily than male. So what is easy for a male writer can be much harder for a female one. And if we are all having to go out and sell ourselves, the women are probably going to be at a disadvantage just because they're women. So self-promotion and how it's received becomes another stumbling block on a playing field that's already not level. I sometimes feel that this self-promotion culture is yet one more barrier that makes it even harder for women writers, writers of colour, LGBT writers and anyone else is vulnerable to social distaste, reprimand or policing.
    Like Anne,what I am happy with -- what I do, in fact, come awards season, is talk about those books and stories that I've read and loved. I'm happy to do so. But promoting myself is a lot harder.

  • Paul Cornell Says:

    But wouldn't it be immensely easier for you if you were given a big card saying 'you're *allowed* to do this'? I think you're actually agreeing with what I've said, while expressing anger at it. This stuff gets us to that place inside us where we're not sure what side is what. And that works to the advantage of the forces that, historically, oppress women.

  • Eddie Cochrane Says:

    I actually look forward to the surge of promotional posts about awards, they build my enthusiasm and interest in the awards, and doubtless add a number of new works and writers to my to-be-read list.
    As for "flanking", I noticed a similar outbreak a couple of years ago when everyone decided to used "Schwerpunkt" at the same time.

  • Paul Cornell Says:

    I use 'we' there to indicate that I'm equally vulnerable to that effect.

  • Muccamukk Says:

    I'm immensely pleased that Demon Knights is ding so well. It's my favourite comic of the new 52, and I would be very sad to see it go before at least fifteen issues and an annual. It's really nice that DC appears to be running all these new titles for at least a year. I was doing the Dance of Please Don't Be Cancelled every month before I clicked through to the solicits, especially last month with the new arcs starting up. It's great that the smaller titles especially are getting a fair chance.

    I don't really have many thoughts about self-promotion past the fact that I appreciate the annual reminder of what an author has written in the past year. Often I'll pick up things I've missed.

    Thanks for letting us know about Outland. Hopefully someone in Canada will pick it up. If not, DVDs. Only the one lesbian, I see. Oh well. One is far, far better than none at all. Plus Christine Anu's fantastic.

  • NickPheas Says:

    I thought the real Sam Stone problem was less to do with her, and more that her husband/publisher should have had the sense to step back as soonas he realised she was dominating the award. But I wasn't a member, so might have missed some details.
    There easily could be excessive self promotion. "Send me a screenshot of your voting for me, and I'll send you an eARC of my next novel." anything short of that strikes me as crazy to object to. If writers have ever been able to just write, and not sell themselves then those days are long gone.

  • Mark Clapham Says:

    It seems that in all these cases of 'excessive self-promotion', the nominee has won by pushing against a tide of electorate apathy and/or lack of promotion for the awards in general. Where potential nominees and voters are actively engaged with an awards system there shouldn't be a problem. I'll be very interested to see how the Eagles pan out this year, for instance, now that the nomination system is so open and widely promoted.

  • Graeme Says:

    I guess the question I have about all these award contents is don't they all just boil down to being popularity contests rather than actual awards for outstanding merit?

    I mean, most awards are popularity contests I suppose (the Oscars for example) but I thought the self-selecting geeks who make up fan culture would know how troubling popularity contests were from losing them consistently throughout life and find a system that awarded merit rather than whoever had the most friends.

    And I should be clear. My problem isn't with the authors who do this. My problem is with the system itself.

  • Sean Says:

    What Paul said largely covers my response. I was of course aware of the hugos and the nebulas but it wasn't until listening to Coode Street and Galactic Suburbia that I had any real sense on when the occurred or how one might vote.

    It's largely through author self promotion that I remember when they are are on.

    It strikes me that determining what has "outstanding merit" falls prey to all sorts of biases (including Gender mentioned by Paul).

    I think the best thing for the health of awards is that the voting base be increased, so that you get less of a clique determining what's good .

  • Paul Cornell Says:

    Indeed, Eddie. Mucc: relax about that dance, we're fine, and your support is much appreciated. Nick: I don't think anyone had many options at the time. Mark: yes, what I'm urging is 'everyone is engaged' rather than 'one person is'. Graeme: but I think that system is human life, I don't see a way to fix the nature of mankind. Sean: absolutely.

  • Martin Says:

    If you are going to complain that critics of eligibility posts get away "without ever having to define who those terrible people are" then it seems like you should name the "prominent critic who responded to my Twitter posts with a truly nuclear level of anger". Was it Niall Harrison? Because people can quickly look up the conversation and see how massively inaccurate that characterisation is.

  • Paul Cornell Says:

    It was indeed Niall, he's a prominent critic, and as I've just confirmed by a quick phone call to him, he was indeed angry. So, as that's the only characterisation offered, I don't quite see what you're objecting to. Niall and I are friends, we apologised to each other after the Twitter debate, and I deliberately didn't name him or say anything negative about him, because I didn't want to return to us being at odds. He assures me we haven't. I hope that reassures you.

  • Niall Says:

    I certainly assumed Paul was referring to me. I think our disagreement was robust enough (and I was annoyed enough) that while I wouldn't have called it "nuclear" I can recognise why Paul does. Which also means that while I think Paul really should have named names, linked and cited sources, I'm a little sheepishly grateful that he didn't this time ...

  • Martin Says:

    I guess mileage varies but for me there is a world of difference between being angry and displaying a truly nuclear level of anger. The phrase jumped out at me to the extent that I thought "wow, who was that?" and checked. All I could see was the conversation between you and Niall and not only does it not fit the bill but if anyone should be sheepish about their behaviour in that discussion I don't think it is Niall. So, whilst it might be water under the bridge, I think it is dishonest to bring it here anonymously (particularly in a post on the benefits of getting everything out in the open).

  • Paul Cornell Says:

    I'm terribly sorry.

  • SK Says:

    I simply don't see the point of any award given by an electorate not compelled to have read/watched/listened to/otherwise experienced preferably all the eligible works, but, in cases where that isn't practical, at the very least the shortlist.

    How can anyone make an informed choice about, say, which novel should win an award if they have perhaps only read one or two of the contenders, or worse haven't read any but are voting on the basis of which one they assume must be the best based on some extrinsic factor? How can anyone think that the result of such an award tells anything about which is the best novel published that year, when it probably is just the one most people read?

    So while I agree that pushy campaigning is distasteful, mainly because it might encourage such partial (in all sense of the word) participation -- and I think that the fact it's impossible to legislate against such campaigning in person doesn't make it okay: things aren't made acceptable simply because they cannot be economically stopped, in the same way that, for example, copyright piracy does not become okay just because it's not practical to stop it -- it doesn't really bother me because I think any award for which it might be worthwhile (ie, ones with an unregulated electorate) is basically, fundamentally, meaningless. Possibly a nice sideshow and an excuse to scrub up and have a bit of a party, and that's not to be sniffed at, but no guide to actual quality.

  • Paul Cornell Says:

    So under your system there would just be panel-awarded awards. Fair enough.