I Really Kinda Hate Populism, but…

…right about now I understand the hatred, or at least the general disdain for the so-called experts.

Once upon a time, I wrote a book I titled THE OBSIDIAN PYRAMIDS, which featured a villain named Ben Tobagho. In the first few drafts, though, his name was Don Tobagho.

When I started working on this project, I knew that creating interesting villains was one of my weaknesses. My previous antagonists were generally the old-timey, black-and-white, Lord of the Rings I’M EVIL BECAUSE I’M EVIL villains. So I decided to model the antagonist for this book after something I think is really shitty and terrible, and yet is something many people are attracted to for *somewhat* understandable reasons.

And so Don Tobagho was born. A populist leader who had genuine reasons to hate his own enemy, the “enemy of the people” in his own mind.

Now, the thing is, I chose his name only because it sounded dramatic in my mind. Months later, I realized I had heard a similar name, somewhere, sometime (while drunk, imagine that!). Doctor Mantis Toboggan was a pseudonym Danny Devito’s character, Frank Reynolds, played in one or two episodes of Always Sunny. I didn’t mean to steal any such name, it just happened.

Only trouble is, Don Tabagho’s initials are DT. I honestly didn’t even think about this until the third draft, when I considered how other people might view him as a stand in for POTUS. I try to make my books as apolitical as possible, even though I’m still going to take aspects from society that I find interesting. So Tobagho the villain stayed as he was, but Don became Ben.

I’ve written another book since then, with a different villain. I still hate populism, but just right now I’m probably more sympathetic to it than ever. I’ve been following the COVID-19 crisis to an obsessive level. Of course you have, too, but how many spreadsheets and python scripts do you have and update daily? I HAVE MANY MULTIPLE OF THEM.

A few weeks ago I started to record my current thoughts and projections, along with reasons for why I changed my mind on each day. I don’t think anything I’ve recorded looks embarrassingly bad, but here’s the thing: based on yesterday’s new info, I’m more uncertain than ever.

A large group of top-level researchers published a serological test study estimating that Santa Clara county had a COVID-19 prevalence of around 2.5%-4.5%. One of the most confusing elements of this whole thing for me is that this area’s official data show very low prevalence. Given the characteristics of the county, I thought it should be one of the hottest spots in the US, if not the hottest spot. And yet… almost nothing. Officially.

The authors of the paper claim the official data misses a massively large amount of cases. This may be true, but collecting this type of data is really difficult, and who the fuck knows if it’s correct or even means anything. Here’s good check on the issues with the study for anyone who’s interested.

So here’s my takeaway on all of this: not a goddamn one of us knows anything about this, other than that we don’t know much about it. Studying this thing is really hard. Different regions and populations will differ greatly. About the strongest conclusion I can draw from this is that the infection fatality rate (IFR) needs to be put in context. Given the age/health dependency of COVID-19 deaths, each country/state/region/city will be different.

Anywho, bringing this back to my main point about how populism sucks because experts are experts for a reason and science is awesome but some of us suck sometimes, and by that I mean all of us suck most of the time…

Nate Silver is maybe the best known “data scientist” in America. He clearly puts a lot of effort into what he does, but I’ve at times had issues with his methods and thoughts. I’m pulling this chart from his (not his alone, other smart cool people are working on this, too) well-known website:

It’s now been long enough that, even as uncertain as things still remain, we have strong reason to believe these guesses are far too low. Given the death count (undercounted by some unknown amount) 21 days after the date given here (and assuming the average time from infection to death is about 3 weeks, again uncertain, but that’s my best guess as of now), the actual infection rate at this time would be over 2 million.

Now, it would be silly to criticize the “experts” for getting this wrong. I’m from the future here, and I still think the uncertainty on the actual infection prevalence here is really large. But here’s what these amazingly smart (ass) “experts” deserve criticism for, and why maybe, just maybe, we should possibly stop listening to (some of, not all!) these chuckle-fucks: look at the bottom half of that graph. A majority of these experts put their confidence intervals so tight that the best guess we have of the true number now – from the future, with much better information – is so far off that any person would have been willing to bet their life, and the life of everyone they care about, that it could never happen. And yet it appears that it has.

Less than a year before I defended my dissertation and received my PhD, I told my advisor I felt like I knew absolutely nothing. I was an arrogant ass going into college, even more so after I got my MS. And then after a few years working on my own little narrow corner of the research world, and seeing everyone else working on their own, I realized how little I actually knew. And the thing my truly wise advisor said to me when I told him that: that’s it, now you’re ready to become a doctor(ate).

It was a wonderful life lesson that required most of my twenties to learn. This jackass virus has made me feel it even more now than ever. But from goddamn near everything I’ve seen on social media and other sources such as FiveThirtyEight, a whole hella lotta people need to learn that lesson.

I don’t know if we can beat this virus until we do.

 

 

NaNoWriMo Hates Me

Or possibly, I hate NaNoWriMo? I guess it’s all the same, really.

I skipped NaNoWriMo last year, as I was focused on revising THE OBSIDIAN PYRAMIDS, which I’m still trying to sell. I hadn’t planned on doing it this year either, though I’m just over halfway through the first draft of my current WIP, PLAGUE OF CATACLYSMS. But I’ve been writing much slower on this WIP than normal, and I felt I needed some kind of motivation to push me to write more words per day.

When I logged into my account to set up the page for the new WIP, I noticed that I had created a project and tracked my progress for each of the last four manuscripts I’ve written. I hadn’t realized that before looking, but this stretches all the way back to my third MS, THE BOOK OF TERRORS, all the way back in 2012.

I’ve posted on this before, but I’ve never been a binge writer, and haven’t come close to writing the goal of 50,000 words for NaNoWriMo in any previous attempt. My best attempt is only 25,000. Lame, I know.

I can say with full confidence that I’ll never “win” NaNoWriMo, and you know what? Oh, well. I’m sure other people have fun with it, but it really just ain’t my thing. After two days, I have a whole 1,099 words, on pace for 16,485. I do hope to write more than that, as I’m trying to finish the first draft of Plague before the new year. I started the month with 60,000 words, targeting 110-115k for the full first draft. I’d like to return the the Chicago writing convention I’ve attended previously this upcoming summer so I can do at least a couple pitch sessions, and I figure I’ll need at least six months of revision before I’m ready to start querying agents on this MS. This is assuming, of course, I don’t get any offers on Pyramids before then. I just sent out another round of queries to 8 agents this week, and I have 9 left on my list.

If I can match my all-time best of 25,000 words in November, I’ll be pleased, and that should put me on pace to finish in 2019. But we’ll see…

So Close…

I’m not a big fan of cliches, and the phrase “so close, and yet so far away” has always seemed silly to me. And yet, it describes my most recent experience in querying pretty well.

I’ve been trying to sell my most recent finished manuscript, THE OBSIDIAN PYRAMIDS, for almost a year and a half now. I’ve queried about 35 agents, and I did 2 verbal pitch sessions at a writer’s convention in Chicago last summer. If you haven’t read my earlier posts on this book and others, THE OBSIDIAN PYRAMIDS is the seventh full MS I’ve completed, and the fourth book I’ve queries agents on.

At the end of January this year, I received my first ever request as a reply to a query. I sent in the current version of the MS, and a little over 3 months later, the agent responded with a revise and resubmit request. She said she loved the concept, and that the MS had a ton of potential, but gave me two general criticisms on the writing (too much internal dialogue, and not enough description to go along with the external dialogue). I spent almost two months revising based on those comments, then sent in the new draft at the end of June.

This morning, I received a reply to the submission. Sadly, a rejection. The agent did say she thought I did a good job of revising based on her feedback, so at least I have that to provide some level of comfort.

I went from a 100% rejection rate in the slush pile to an R&R and (I think) almost an offer with a single agent. So close. And yet, now I’m essentially back to square one. I have about 15 agents remaining on my list for THE OBSIDIAN PYRAMIDS, and none of them have ever heard from me before. Starting over from scratch, so far away from getting an offer.

Plotting vs. Pantsing

A long time ago in an apartment far, far away…

I was a pantser. Full on discovery writer, gardener, whatever you wish to call it. With my first two books, I started writing them. That’s it. I started with word one and just kept going.

Many years later, I consider myself a pretty heavy plotter/outliner. I HAVE MANY SPREADSHEETS.

Someday, I should talk about my evolution in this aspect as a writer, but that’s a much longer, more involved blog post. For this, I simply want to put down in words as it happens, in case this goes horribly wrong, or horribly right, what I’m experimenting with on my new WIP.

Back in 2007, when I was still (sort of) young, when I started writing my first book, for a few days, I tried writing two books. At the same time. When I’d never written (finished) a book before. Seriously.

It was dumb. I gave the unfinished book a working title of Hell’s Gate. I think I wrote about 10,000 words in it, but unlike every other MS, I tried writing it out of order. It’s a strange concept to me now, and I found with that it was much easier to stick with my other project, The Doorway, by writing linearly. Like normal. Strange, but…

I’m doing it again. Kind of.

I’ve been working on my newest creation, Plague of Cataclysms, for some time now. Way too long, given that I haven’t started writing the first draft yet. But I have written a few scenes. I’ve decided to try playing around with each POV character at once, in her/his opening scene. And heavily revising before moving on, which is something I never really do.

I’m doing it because I want to work on character voices before I really dive in, and also because I want to practice with some fundamental aspects of writing I think I’m weak on. I’m not sure how this will impact the finished product, but I hope it makes me a better writer in the long run.

The outline is far from finished, and I still have worldbuilding details to work on. I count what I have as the zeroth draft. I feel like I’m pretty deep in this thing, but I still don’t count this as a start of the WIP.

So I guess the question is: Am I pantsing or plotting? In between? Or some freaky, mutant combination of the two?

Finding Motivation to Move On

I’ve spent more time working on my most recent MS, The Obsidian Pyramids, than any other book in my past. It even feels like I’ve spent more time on this one than the others combined. Unfortunately, the querying process hasn’t gone much better than before (though I did at least receive a couple personalized rejections for the first time ever, so maybe I should count that as a win).

But the world moves on, and the time approaches when I need to focus on the next project. I’ve worked on my next book a fair amount (mostly pre-writing), but I haven’t been able to get myself to stick with it consistently like I have in the past. Part of that is my career – I started a big, new project a month ago and I’ve been devoting most of my evenings working on it. But the hardest part is convincing myself I’ll find more success with book 8 than numbers 1-7. Creating a novel takes a lot of time and effort, and it can be hard to ignore distractions and put words to page (screen? hard disk?) when I expect only a handful of people will ever read it.

Still, I must push forward. I am excited about the premise, and I think the characters should be pretty awesome, but even though I’ve spent a good deal of time “designing” them, and I know about them, I don’t know them, know them yet. Not like my already-written characters. These new people seem so distant right now.

Anyway, I just sent out round 3 of queries for TOP, so now I hope I can get myself to fully focus on my new WIP, The Plague of Cataclysms. At the very least, I think I’m winning with the title…

Pitching

As in pitching a book to a lit agent in a pitch session, not baseball. Though the Brewers pitching staff has been quite good this year, especially the bullpen.

I’m headed down to Chitown tomorrow to my first writers conference, and I signed up for two pitch sessions with agents. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but as it’s now here, I wonder what I was thinking when I decided I would try to sell my work by talking to people. In person. Oops.

Anyway, I’ve seen some conflicting advice regarding how to go about the pitch, so I probably won’t do it right. My pitch is about 45 seconds in length, provided I don’t break down in tears in the middle and need time to recover. When I was in college and needed to give presentations, even including a couple at academic conferences in foreign countries, I always thought I did a pretty decent job, and never really felt that uncomfortable. But with those, I had visual aids to help guide my thoughts, and the stakes weren’t quite as high if I did a poor job. It mattered, but it didn’t mean crippling rejection over a book I slaved away for 17 months on.

Oh, and I wasn’t sitting directly in front of a single person who will probably want nothing more than for me to leave so she can get the damn day over with.

But we’ll see how it goes. I’m stuffing a portable box of wine in my laptop bag so I can start drinking the instant I’m done shaming myself.

Deep in the Query Trenches

After 17 months of hard work on my most recent MS, The Obsidian Pyramids, I sent out my first round of queries seven weeks ago; four rejections so far, but I’m still waiting to hear on four others. I also decided to enter #QueryKombat last minute. We’re supposed to hear who made the cut (64 out of 428 entries will make the tourney) next Friday.

I’ll try to keep track of my query adventures here, starting by posting the current version of my query and the first page of my MS (this is essentially the submission to #QueryKombat).

Query:

Dear [Agent],

Twelve obsidian pyramids have stood since before memory, conferring arcane powers upon those who seek them out. Most who pursue them become Endowed, acquiring one of twelve special abilities. But a few unlucky initiates are instead marked – physically and spiritually – as Accursed, and are treated as little more than animals, thought to possess stained souls.

Alaeric Helskor is one of those unlucky few. After years traveling lost and alone, he’s visited by a mysterious shadow-woman who grants him the unique ability to temporarily siphon Endoweds’ powers – but only after he’s slain an Endowed of matching ability. Promising him redemption, she convinces him to travel to Lake Celes, where a self-proclaimed prophet named Ben Tobagho has taken control of ancient ruins that contain the secrets of the pyramids and their creation.

After an Endowed poisoned his daughter years ago, revenge sparked in Tobagho’s heart; he now plots the destruction of the pyramids and the end of the Endowed, playing on the fears and jealousy of normals – men and women who’ve never visited the pyramids. When the shadow-woman prompts Alaeric to steal a mystical artifact from within the ruins, he quickly makes himself Tobagho’s enemy.

As Tobagho’s vitriolic message spreads and his power grows, Alaeric becomes caught in the middle of the ensuing war between Endowed and normals. To save the pyramids, and the shadow-woman who granted him his powers, he must expose Tobagho as a fraud. But the prophet holds all the cards, and Alaeric must decide if redemption is worth his life.

THE OBSIDIAN PYRAMIDS is a 110,000 word adult high fantasy that melds the western-style setting and innovative magic of Brandon Sanderson’s THE ALLOY OF LAW and the morally flawed yet likeable characters of Scott Lynch’s THE REPUBLIC OF THIEVES.

I work as a portfolio manager for Crabel Capital Management, and I earned my B.S, M.S., and Ph.D. in electrical and computer engineering from Marquette University. My greatest writing influences include Robert Jordan, Brandon Sanderson, and Jim Butcher.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Best Regards,
Kevin Indrebo

First page:

Alaeric pressed his body against the rock outcropping that concealed him, fingers wrapped around the hilt of his sword. He controlled his breathing, keeping it slow and calm. The eerie silence of the late afternoon was loud in his ears.

Below, the woman who’d been tracking him picked her way along the gully. Her blood-red hair stirred as a slight breeze picked up, and she glanced around, eyes wide and alert for anything – not the look of someone who assumed she was alone. Days since he discovered her, this was the first time he’d managed to gain the advantage and get a good look at her.

She was quite striking. Beautiful, even. She wore tight, black leather pants and a matching jacket, with a small bedroll strapped to her back. She walked with an otherworldly grace, one that made her appear out of place among the stunted plants and rocky, dry terrain. Like a thorny, vibrant flower in a dying, unkempt garden.

A Dancer. No doubt about it. She floated over the uneven ground Alaeric had stumbled and struggled his way through a few hundred heartbeats earlier. A high-level Dancer, at that. Too high for Alaeric to sense how many pyramids she’d seen.

This complicated things. For a time, when he first noticed the signs, he’d wondered if he was imagining the woman’s presence in his wake. The djinn knew he was having a fuck of a time distinguishing real threats from fake these days. But even when he’d convinced himself someone was tracking him, he’d still held out hope it was a simple brigand. Simple, but persistent. Alaeric may not have looked like much of a target, but out here, in the lonely and vicious Miraji Desert, some folks were desperate.

The Epic in Epic Fantasy

A few weeks ago I had the flu. I had it bad. I get sick somewhat frequently, partly because I fly a lot, partly because I drink too much and that probably weakens my immune system I can only assume. But I haven’t had the flu much since I was a kid. This was definitely the worst I’ve had it since I turned 18.

I couldn’t get out of bed for 3 days except to go to the bathroom. Could almost eat nothing.

It was also hard for me to sleep during the day, feverish and sweaty that I was. Fortunately, I had one little piece of luck on my side. Something that made it easy to get through. OK, not easy, but possible. I was reading Brandon Sanderson’s Oathbringer (Stormlight Archives 3) at the time.

Now, I read a lot of big books (I love big books and I cannot lie). Epic fantasy has always been my thing. I used to go to the bookstore and randomly choose books from the fantasy section based on which one was the thickest.

But I’m pretty certain this is the longest book I’ve ever read. Over 450,000 words. More than 1200 pages in hardcover with basically no margins. That’s about four Kevin books in one.

The final sequence, which involved about a thousand threads converging on each other in an epic confrontation, was the equivalent of a normal-sized novel. And holy shit was it emotionally exhausting.

It was incredible, and the only bad part about it was: I was sad it finally came to an end. 450,00 words and I wanted more immediately.

I want to be able to write like that. To create something so epic, so gripping, so dramatic, an epic fantasy reader can read the longest book she’s ever read and think it was too short.

But I can’t. Or at least, I can’t imagine ever getting to that level. I’ve learned more from Brandon than any other author, and I think a lot my strengths as a writer are similar (though not as good by any means) to his. To do what he did in this book, though? I just can’t imagine ever having that ability.

But it doesn’t mean I won’t try. I just finished the fifth draft of my seventh novel, The Obsidian Pyramids. Shortly after publishing this post, I will be embarking on one of the scariest, most painful, frustrating experiences a young(ish-in-a-way) writer can have. I will be sending out the first round of queries.

Pray for me. If you do that sort of thing. I’d say have a drink for me if not (or if so!), but I will be having plenty for myself this weekend, so I think I have that covered.

Writing Other

After a holiday break (with a bit too much drinking, if there is such a thing), I’m back at editing my WIP, The Obsidian Pyramids. With some helpful feedback, I’m pushing toward the fourth draft.

One of the comments I received was a request to add a POV for one of the secondary characters. I was hesitant at first, but I’m giving it the old college try, and I think if it works, it can solve multiple problems with the MS.

As a quick aside, one of the things I’ve discovered about myself as a writer over my last two novels is this: I enjoy writing women characters much more than men. Am I good at it? Ha, lol, probably not. Though I do personally feel like my ladies are better than the boys, I’m very much a dude, and I probably don’t get it.

In my previous book, Daughters of Darkness, most of the characters were women. I was scared, figuring I would fuck it up, write ridiculous, unbelievable, or offensive characters. But I was pleased with how it turned out (even if lit agents seem to disagree with me). Now, as I look to add this new POV, I’m faced an even scarier proposition: writing the character I understand the least, and probably will get horribly wrong, forever shaming myself…

A popular, charismatic dude.

Seriously, I have no idea how these people work. I’m an enginerd, and I’ve recently learned that I’m probably mildly autistic. I have a PhD, I write algorithms to trade hundreds of millions of dollars in institutional money, but ask me to initiate a friendly conversation at a bar/party/whatever, I’m like, uh… I don’t… what?

So getting inside the head of this magically (in a literal sense) charismatic guy  is daunting. Fuck, even writing him from other character’s perspectives was scary and hard (and I’m not sure I succeeded).

I figure I’ll do what I always do in these situations: focus on the magic. Royne is a Charmer, which means his magical ability is to instinctually understand what other people want to hear, how to stroke their egos, how to connect with and impress them.

We’ll see how it goes.

No NaNoWriMo For Me

I won’t be doing NaNoWriMo this year, for the first time in several Novembers. Personally, I always looked at NaNoWriMo as a cute little thing, something to talk about on social media a bit. I’ve never been a fast writer or a binge writer, so I never came close to winning.

But I’ve also never (at least from a certain age) had a problem sticking with my writing and getting to the end of the draft, even if it took a little time. When I’m writing a first draft, I write six days a week, skipping very few schedule days during the drafting process. It usually takes me 5-6 months to produce a first draft in the range of 100k-120k words.

Last year, I made a mistake by forcing myself to start writing on Nov 1st. I clearly wasn’t ready, and should’ve spent another month or so on pre-writing. A mistake that’s led to more needed revision on the book – I’m currently finishing up the third draft. I’m trying to take my time and make sure I don’t rush things. Quality over speed for me these days, even if I feel a little impatient now and then.

For everyone that is participating, good luck this year and have fun.