I Was Looking Forward to Holly Lisle’s Rebel Tales, But…

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I read something today that made me want to pull my hair out. As you may know, I’ve been looking forward to Holly Lisle’s upcoming fiction journal Rebel Tales, because I love Holly’s work, and I’m expecting Rebel Tales to reflect what she values in a good story.

Today, John Dye, the Rebel Tales SF editor, announced his first season’s theme and editorial requirements. On the subject of the latter, he writes:

I believe that the magazine, especially early on, must attract a majority readership before it can begin catering to niche groups… To me, this is simple nickels and dimes.

אוי (Or for you non-Hebrew readers, “Oy!”)

Upon reading this, I retched a little, and I swear I tasted something funny in my mouth.

This is the strategy of mainstream publishers, as they call for the death of the midlist novelist. They’re only interested in the lowest common denominator, what will appeal to the greatest number of people. They have no vision, except for what will sell the most copies the fastest. That is why Stephanie Meyer is famous, while more and more actually competent authors go starving.

I absolutely loathe lowest-common-denominator fiction. Because it has no soul.

Moreover, if you care about what you write–and I gather that Holly does want to attract those authors who do–and if you want to stand out in this environment, and especially if you want to make it on the midlist, you must do the opposite of what the midlist killers are doing. You must appeal to a niche. You must give very specific readers something that challenges the lowest common denominator, something they will lust after, so that they’ll keep coming back to you over and over again. Holly has successfully done just that with this specific reader, as with many more like me.

But wait! It gets better!

John goes on:

Holly’s Requirements: Heroic but ‘human’ protagonist; Protagonist wants something desperately; Sense of Wonder… My Requirements: Character-Driven; EPIC: Sweeping Narrative, Boggling Scale, Adventure; Underdogs; [etc.]

I agree with all the items on this list… kinda. Holly’s list in particular is right on, because these are elements that make her novels IMNSHO worth reading. John’s list, too, sounds good. I like complex, bigger-than-life stories. I like underdogs who prevail in the end. That’s one of the reasons I like football; part of me finds satisfaction when the disfavored team comes from behind, pulls ahead, and wins in the last few minutes of the game. Especially when it’s my team.

In particular, I agree with the first of his requirements, “Character-Driven,” which he expands on:

This was the attribute yalped barbarically from rooftops everywhere… Now, I don’t want “character pieces”–there wasn’t a single cry for character pieces–but I do want stories that sport multidimensional characters, complex relationships, and emotional interaction.

The tendency in science fiction is to populate your world with either emotionless Ambien junkies or over-the-top caricatures whose personality is basically what they are wearing. Having sterile zombie characters doesn’t make a story intellectual; it makes it boring. Having a character wear a buzzsaw blade around his neck in place of a personality doesn’t make him wacky and interesting; it makes him flat. People want characters that feel real, and that’s what I’m looking for.

Hoot! Preach it, brother! (Except, “yalped barbarically”? Not so sure I know what that means, but it sounds good, doesn’t it?) He’s 100% right about what makes characters rich and deep. I also indeed do not want to read literary character descriptions, which I assume is what he meant by “character pieces.” I want full, 3-D, realistic, people-like characters, with compelling needs, who live “Aha!” moments. And I want to take part in that part of their lives.

But then he continues:

Epic

“High stakes! Conspiracies! Badasses! A general sense of EPICNESS.” … The word epic kept appearing over and over again… “Big guns, big adventure, and things going BOOM.” … We didn’t get any requests for stories about characters doing globally insignificant but personally meaningful things…

Underdogs

Everyone here wants to read underdog stories. They don’t want to read stories about the space marine who trained his entire life for the mission and then walks into the room, kills everyone, and walks out without breaking a sweat… [They want] “the little guy”… an “average Joe [who is] thrust into an unfamiliar situation yet [he] overcomes it.”

And that, my friends, is what we call “gimmicky.”

This is where my stomach starts to roil. I’ve only quoted parts of these paragraphs that make me tense, because I want to highlight them. John does say that “epicness”–and I’m not sure I know what that means now–can’t be over-the-top or interfere with character. So that’s good… I think.

But let me explain why I’m having second thoughts, why I’m not so sure that Rebel Tales will be the stream of pure enjoyment that I originally assumed it would. Let me explain by comparing these requirements to Talyn, one of the most exciting and enjoyable SF-fantasies Holly’s ever published, which I’ve raved about before and which I will rave about again.

So, in summary, I’m still looking forward to Rebel Tales, because there’s so much fiction out there that only half does it for me (or even less). Sometimes, I literally feel starved–that empty feeling you get in your gut–for compelling stories to read. Moreover, character truly is the most important element in a story, and if they do that right, I’m willing to forgive a few gimmicks–and I still expect Rebel Tales to do character right. But I’m not quite as excited as I was yesterday. Still staying tuned.

-TimK

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Comments

Hey man, I appreciate the post. Your perspective is well considered and well articulated. I’m sorry to hear my season profile dented your excitement for Rebel Tales.

In truth, I agree with you on pretty much every point. Pandering to the lowest common denominator does take the soul out of writing. See all the vampire fiction flooding bookstores. However, as you pointed out, the goal of Rebel Tales is to respark the midlist. The bottom line there is that the writers HAVE TO make money off their work. That’s the whole point. Good writers writing good fiction who can live off their writing.

Early in the magazine’s construction, Holly posted a forum thread asking readers to explain what they liked and didn’t like in fiction. I took this as a decent sample of Rebel Tales full readership–or at least the readership that would be interested in the first seasons. Some of their preferences go against mine. For example, I too am a fan of personally significant stories rather than global stories of sweeping grandeur. However, that wasn’t what our readers were crying out for.

My goal as an editor isn’t to create my own personal fiction indulgence magazine–it’s to identify my audience and seek out the kind of fiction THEY want. If we want to save the midlist, we have to pay the writers. If we want to pay the writers, we have to find fiction that has a substantial audience before we flesh out the niches.

You’re correct in pointing out that many good characters, like Talyn, evade the classifications I’ve laid down for my season. Very true. My list is by no means a guideline for creating solid protagonists. It’s a reflection of the audience base’s opinion. If they wanted vampires–heaven help me–I’d wade through the blood tide and find some vampire stories with heart and zeal and strength. Fortunately for my sanity, they don’t want vampires. They want underdogs. There are only so many times you can read “Underdogs! Give us underdogs!” before you start to think that maybe your readership wants underdogs.

But never fear. I will not publish soulless fiction. And gimmicks make my eyes bleed. It’s a medical condition. Spontaneous Ocular Hemorrhaging. Also known as Michaelbayitis.

Bottom line: if it’s good, I will publish it. If it doesn’t fit my current season, I’ll frikkin invent a season that it’ll fit in. For a story to be good, it has to have personal depth. Without depth, I don’t care if it hits every other bullet: I will not publish.

Anyway, thanks for the post. You’ve got a nice blog here.

Sincerely,
~John

“The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me—he complains of my gab and my loitering.
I too am not a bit tamed—I too am untranslatable;
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.”

~Walt Whitman
From “Song of Myself”

Thanks so much for your well authored and kind comment, John. I didn’t mean to denigrate you personally in my post. (And I hope I didn’t do so.) And I can definitely sympathize with where you’re coming from.

I’m a huge fan of Holly’s, and I definitely will be keeping an eye on Rebel Tales. It is true that good underdog-saves-the-world-fiction does exist. (That is, “good” by my measurement.) And from what you say here, it also sounds likely that you’ll be publishing some authors that I’ll fall in love with. And for that, I’ll be eternally grateful.

-TimK

John, I’d be a little wary of assuming readers can accurately (a) identify and (b) express the reasons that a particular book grabs them. There’s a saying in IT support that you should listen to a user’s problems and what a user needs, but not necessarily to what they say you should do about it.

A lot of enjoying a book is visceral, emotional and even subconscious reaction that doesn’t always correlate with what we THINK we like. I certainly am constantly surprising myself with which books I enjoy or not. 🙂

It may well be more informative to get examples of books/stories that readers loved/hated then analyse that as an experienced professional for popular/unpopular stylistic, thematic and other elements, rather than expecting the reader to be able to isolate that.

P.S. I ended up here because I visited the Rebel Tales website after a casual mention by Holly, and couldn’t find a clear explanation of what Rebel Tales was. I’ve just realised that the home button is also a dropdown (which isn’t very intuitive or obvious) and neither the “About” or “What is…” menu items are working for me using IE8. Thanks.

That’s what was bothering me. I didn’t quantify it at the time, but I’m certain of it. I have seen the same thing as a software developer and as an indie author. In software, you commonly run across clients, customers, and managers (and business analysts) who think they know exactly how you should code up such-and-such a feature. And after many meetings, when you’ve finally hashed out the real requirements, you can finally get down to designing the software to actually meet their needs, usually more gracefully and more quickly than they could have fathomed. Because after all, you are expert on building software.

Similarly, I’ve learned not to pay too much attention to what people say they enjoy reading, because most likely they’re only identifying surface elements, which they subconsciously associate with the subliminal qualities that actually cause them to enjoy a work. Even among authors, it’s rare to find introspection deep enough to give you a good picture of what’s happening below the surface. If you want proof, ask a room full of writers why they write. Practically all of them will say something like, “Because I have to. Because I have a story to tell!” And that’s a non-answer. That’s like saying I eat because I’m hungry, and there’s food there, which may be true, but it doesn’t tell you anything about how your digestive system actually works.

On the other hand, sometimes the only way to get people to buy is to give them what they think they want. (This is the marketer in me talking.) Then while they’re not looking, you slip in what they really wanted but couldn’t put into words.

I’m actually looking forward to Rebel Tales again, almost as much as before. Maybe that’s a side-effect of just having finished Hawkspar. Staying tuned.

-TimK

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