Monday, October 8, 2018

Going Horse

A while back I wrote about the significance of properly writing horses and their behavior into your stories.  Too many -- nearly all -- fantasy stories treat a horse as a sort of living motorcycle you can ride all day long and just park somewhere while you adventure.

But there's more to the story, so to speak, than just the horse.  Horses require a great deal of care and special equipment.  Even if you ride bareback and have no bridle, you still have to care for your horse in a lot of ways which might not occur to the modern author.

And someone has to sweep up after all this
In a city, town, or even hamlet, there were stables everywhere.  A city like London had a stable on nearly every block.  There were blacksmiths everywhere as well, often at the stables.  There were specialty stores that sold riding clothes, tack, harnesses, and gear for horses.  Watering troughs were out for public use on nearly every block.  Simply feeding horses was a huge economic sector.  Cleaning up after horses was so critical that children would run and clean the street for the richer folks to walk through, hoping to get a ha'penny for their efforts.

To get a proper sense of how much horses dominated public life, look around you at the automobile today.  Nearly every street is lined with parking.  There are gas stations regularly scattered through the entire city.  Bums run up and try to wash your windshield for a handout.  Car lots are set up in every town to sell more cars.  Business chains entirely dedicated to fixing, selling parts for, and even merchandise related to cars are strewn through every country.  Special businesses that wash your car for you are set up all through cities and towns.  Kids raise money by washing cars.

That's what it was like for horses.  You can't just leave your horse standing outside the shop while you buy your groceries and supplies.  That horse has to be put somewhere there's shelter and food if you're going to stop anywhere for any length of time.  It has to be rubbed down and cared for.  All of that means an infrastructure set up exclusively for horses and riding.

Like the section in the supermarket where they have windshield wipers and motor oil, shops had riding and horse-related goods for sale.  In a culture where riding a horse was the only real way to get long distance comfortably and swiftly, learning to ride was as critical as learning to drive today.

Consider a single trip to town.  
Sam sets out
You get up, and you get food and get dressed.  You can't wear your nice clothes, because you have to ride.  You  have to have something particular on your legs because horse hair chafes, and your legs will get cold danging there out in the open.

Your horse has been in a stable or barn, being tended either by a stable boy or yourself: fed, brushed, protected.  In order to be ready, someone had to fork hay or fill the feed bin with grain enough for the thing to eat, but not too much or some horses will just eat until they are sick or even die.  Someone has to provide water for the steed, and that often means carrying buckets from a pump or creek.  Horses drink a lot of water: 5-10 gallons a day.  Each gallon weighs just over 8 pounds, and someone has to collect and carry that unless you have an enchanted water trough or some rain-fed cistern.

To set out, you have to saddle the horse including a blanket, cinch it all down snug but not too tight (you're literally wrapping this around the horse's lungs, it has to breathe, so there needs to be some flexibility), put on the bit and bridle, and lead the horse outside.  This all takes time, its not like leaping into your car and firing it up.  Its a good 2-3 minutes at least for an expert to get it all ready, and part of that time is soothing and readying the horse mentally: its not a machine, its a rather skittish animal.

Then you set off.  A good horse will work with you and be ready to go, a bad one will fight you and have to be calmed and controlled before you can really ride.  Some horses are barely broken: they fight you every single morning, requiring a few bucks and circles to get the ornery out of it before it will set off.  This sounds bad, but its actually good for some situations; such a steed has a lot of spirit and is more likely to fight than run.  A really eager, strong willed horse can often run further and faster because of that spirit.  

And the less gentle and domesticated a horse is, the more keenly aware of its surroundings and dangers it will be: horses have significantly better hearing and sense of smell than humans and a good rider can rely on that for themselves to survive.  That few minutes of rough riding can save your life, later; something to consider for your hero's mighty steed.

Now run for 8 hours, daddy!
You ride to town.  Overall riding isn't that much faster than walking, because the horse has to rest and water every so often for best long-term maintenance.  Horses can go all day like a human, but they suffer just as much as you would doing so, and consider that with a rider on their back, they're packing the equivalent of a 30-40 pound pack on your back.  That's like carrying a toddler piggyback all day long while you run.  You can do it a while but you're gonna notice that.

So if its a ride of more than a couple hours, you'll want to stop and let the horse rest a bit, get a drink, crop some grass or a feedbag, and you can rest your hips and legs (its uncomfortable to ride for long periods for humans too).  Get a lunch while the horse rests.  While this is going on, you have to stay near the horse for comfort to the beast and so it can also tip you off to strange things nearby.  A horse will look up and perk its ears like a deer when it senses something odd nearby.  

And sometimes they will freak out for no good reason and you need to be close by to calm them and let them know you're protecting them.  Yes, its a 1000 pound beast that could easily kill you but it doesn't understand that unless its a warhorse.  Its natural instinct is to run, not fight, even the stallions.

When you reach the store, you have to park your horse: that is, you either tie it off at the rail outside (rural areas) or if you're in a city, take it to a stable and pay to have it kept there out of the elements.  And if its a really lousy day, your horse doesn't like being out in that any more than you do: its not good for old paint to stand out in the thunderstorm either.  So you stable the horse even if its just a short stop in a rural area then, too.

While you're shopping, your horse is just standing there.  Its a living, thinking creature (to some degree) and is aware of its surroundings.  But its tied to a post by its face.  So if some kid sets off a firecracker nearby or something bright suddenly flashes in its face, or it gets the smell of something dangerous, it might freak out.  But its tied to the rail by its face, remember.  So that can be pretty harmful to the poor dumb brute.  

Thankfully pretty much everyone in a horse culture understands that and knows horses, so they can and will tend to help out to calm the thing even if you're not around.  But again: something for writers to consider.  And all the while that horse's digestive system is dumping poo out the back end, filling the street more and more.

Meanwhile, everyone else who rode also has their horse, quite a few usually.  This is why so many stables, its like parking lots, you gotta put that horse somewhere, and lots of people need that somewhere.  They need food and water for the horse.  They need saddles and blankets and bits and bridles and harnesses and boots and riding pants and brushes and horseshoes and all the rest.  So a goodly portion of the town is dedicated to just horses.

When you come back out of the shop, you get your horse back and head out, reversing the previous process.  Often, goods were delivered to your home rather than packed because you couldn't carry all that much extra on the horse.  Its not a pack mule, and its already carrying you, remember, plus there's a limited amount of space and you can't pack some stuff very neatly tied to the back of your saddle.

Comb my mane, baby
And when you get back home?  You have to drop off the horse in your stable, where either you or someone you pay to do so will remove the saddle, blanket bridle, and all the rest.  And that's not enough.  The horse's hooves and legs need to be checked; still healthy?  The horse needs to be wiped and brushed down like a runner, get the sweat and dust and everything off.  Plus the horse really appreciates this and it forms not just a bond with the rider, but helps them relax after the trip and look forward to another ride.  This also takes time, quite a bit of time.

And that's just one short trip.
Horse culture doesn't just extend to a guy riding his mighty steed.  It has ripples that affect the entire society, economy, and architecture of a nation.  A good author has to reflect that at least with description and worldbuilding, if not outright narrative.  Consider those western movies, how much of the town is centered around and structured around horses.  All those ranches with the remuda, all the guys who do nothing but train and break horses.  The blacksmith, the watering trough, the hitching post, the stables.  All basic tropes and patterns in all westerns.  That's what your fantasy world has to be like too, if it has horses or jackalopes, or anything people ride.

When getting hitched was literal
And that's what good writing is often about: the little details that build an immersive, plausible world that feels complete.  A world that fits together reasonably even if its just in the background and readers don't really even notice.  I mean, when's the last time you paid any attention to that hitching post outside the bar with the batwing doors in the western you watched?  But if it wasn't there, it would be wrong.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Desensitizing

Social Media in one image
One of the hazards of modern writing is a sector of the public who is ready to find fault and discomfort in nearly anything they encounter.  This oversensitivity and zeal to run to social media and decry what one finds objectionable.  An author can run into this movement to their discomfort, particularly in certain genres.

There is such a thing as the "Sensitivity Reader" being used at big publishing houses, and you can hire one or more personally as an independent writer. What they do is go through your book to see if there are any of a certain sort of stereotypes, biases, or what they consider to be "problematic language."

This has the advantage of giving your work a seal of approval that is likely to avoid most of the social media outrage machine, and prevent people from complaining to your publisher (or you) about certain elements of your book.  However, there are many disadvantages.

I would warn authors to be cautious having a "Sensitivity Reader" edit their book for the basic reason that conflict and uncomfortable characters and situations are what make for drama and engaging storytelling. If you sanitize everything out of the book that certain groups may find objectionable, you're likely to defang your story and may even ruin your plot.

Its important to remember that an author has a story to tell and uses characters, situations, language, and events to move that story along, entertain, inform, and interest readers.  Having someone pore though your manuscript to remove all the objectionable bits is very likely to ruin the story. 

Mark Twain's books include racist terms and peoples.  Should that be removed for being objectionable to minorities?  JK Rowling's Harry Potter stories have very unpleasant people doing mean things, should those be removed for triggering those who have experienced similar events?

We are literally turning umbrage into an industry.

...if all the characters speak with the same courtesy, and voice the same standard left-of-centre views, contemporary fiction can’t hope to contribute to the understanding of a world that elects Donald Trump. Fiction won’t help younger readers to make sense of their real lives
OK the rest is allowed
Sensitivity Readers are expensive, one quoted in the Guardian piece about them quit while making $100 an hour to go through books.  Another reference states that it cost $250 for a single book examination.  

Further, based on the article, they can be difficult to work with.  The retired reader complains:
“I quit doing them because they were exhausting and sometimes authors wanted to argue with me,” she says. “They weren’t open to the feedback. They weren’t trying to understand the feedback. They were insisting on the rightness of what they were writing.”
Now, that's not the voice of a skilled, engaging editor, that's the voice of a tyrant.  And to be honest, anyone who reads other people's writings in order to find things the consider objectionable is not very likely to be flexible and understanding.  They aren't typically the sort of person who is there to engage in a discussion or consider what other people think, only to impose their viewpoint.

And it is important to understand that these readers only come from a specific and particular viewpoint.  They are not going to worry about how poorly white men are portrayed or what insults are directed at Christians.  They won't care if a conservative nationalist is treated in a story.  They will not object to the depiction of southerners as ignorant incestuous bigots. 

So the end result is that an expensive Sensitivity Reader is likely to just slant your book in a manner that is objectionable to another group of people, rather than clear up any objections.  And that's not a big win for authors at all.

Monday, April 16, 2018

The Write Sisters

Lauren is dead to me
Recently a piece of news reached me through the Ace of Spades HQ blog and it made me chuckle.  It seems a Cleveland Ohio book store decided to highlight all the books by female authors (that they were aware of) by turning the books by men backward.  See, that way you can't see their titles or author, just pages.

They did it for a few weeks for "Women's History Month" according to the article at the Cleveland Scene, as a way of "silencing the male voice."  One publishing house raved:
This articulates the display’s effect admirably in terms of speaking and silence, but the visual effect—a clear picture of the gender disparity in the canon—is what’s stunning.
But are there so few female authors out there?  Are women in  disparity in publishing and literature?

As a published author with 8 books under my keyboard, I've got some experience in the publishing and literature business.  I have self-published them all, for a variety of reasons I've gone into elsewhere.  There was a time when I tried very hard to pitch my book to agents.  My theory was, self publish the first one and establish that I have readers and the ability to do it, and use that as a springboard into what at the time I thought was the "mainstream."

I noticed something while pouring through the lists of thousands of literary agents.  There was a consistent theme, a repeated fact that stood out very noticeably after a short time.

Literary agents are mostly women.  By a fairly large margin.  In fact, it became surprising to find a man who was an agent.  After a while it was kind of an amusing game, picking through the list like looking for a four leaf clover.  This is a pretty well established and known fact, one examined in this Quora article.
I was going to question whether there really are, since in general people tend to seriously overestimate the percentage of women in any mixed group, but then I checked the AAR membership list and saw that 37 of the first 50 names are indeed female.
The author claims this is some cruel trick by the publishing business to keep women down because of the "glass ceiling" of course. But if you examine publishing, you find the same phenomenon in place.  Most editors and people who work at publishing houses are also women.  That article about the bookstore above?  No men work at the shop.  In fact, women's voices are very well represented in publishing overall.

Publisher's Weekly ran an article about this phenomenon entitled Where The Boys Are Not.  They said comfortably that everybody knows that women dominate publishing:
It’s no secret that lots of women work in publishing. But just how many more women work in publishing than men? In PW’s recent Salary Survey (Aug. 2) one statistic stuck out: 85% of publishing employees with less than three years of experience are women.
In Random House, they reported that more than half their executives are female.  Women by a huge margin are the ones in publishing from top to bottom.  Even in this Book Seller article that complains too few women are in charge of publishing they admit:
  • Eighty percent of Pan Macmillan's staffers are female 
  • Women sit on HarperCollins' UK executive board 
  • Penguin Random House UK has core divisions run by women 
  • Hachette UK operates with women as division heads
Its not your glasses, the writing really is that bad
Look over a list of desired books from publishers and the genre agents are looking for the most: Women's Lit.  Chick fiction.  Strong female characters.  Romances (strongly preferred by women over men).  They are actively seeking these kind of books.  Why?  Because women read more than men, on the average.  According to industry studies, women account for a whopping 80% of the fiction market.  And that's the audience publishers are trying to reach.

They do worry about how they aren't getting the male 18-35 market which for some reason advertisers believe is their sweet spot (the age range of adult men with the least disposable income and interest in books).  But they focus on their reliable market.

Further, women are dominating sales.  Female author sales have been accelerating over time.  In the last decade, the top 10 best selling authors in the last 10 years are women.  21 of the top 50 are by women.  Women's total sales are booming, dominating the literary book sales for 2017.

This has long been my perception, particularly with the Harry Potter, Twilight, 50 shades and other books written by women dominating sales and public interest, but I didn't have raw data until I started digging into this.  I'd figured it was true when I was looking for an agent and they were mostly women.  Incidentally, I found another oddity: many agents who said specifically that they would only take female authors. Not a single one said that about male authors.

There was a time, long ago, when female authors would pitch a book under a male name, in order to be published.  Women were considered frivolous, not writing serious books, and often the male-dominated publishing industry wouldn't even consider a book by a girl.  Now, its getting to the point that everything is reversed: you're better off using a female name to get an agent and a publishing contract.  Mind you, I wouldn't go through traditional publishing, but its an interesting thought.

Why do women dominate publishing?  I don't know, probably a natural attraction to editing and print, probably the same reason women buy so many books, and probably at least in part because of a deliberate effort by publishers either to achieve some social justice goal or because as I've seen happen a lot, when a woman gets into a position of hiring, they tend to hire other women.

This effect it does cause some problems for men trying to get books published that men like, which then leads to fewer men buying and reading books, which makes women dominate the industry even more.

What does this all mean?  It means that more men are going to be self-publishing, and that women will for now at least have an easier time getting traditional contracts.  At least for now, it seems that women will continue to dominate reading, if men are going to be given less focus by the industry.  And that doesn't really help anyone.