My older son was born in 1991. That summer for the first (and last time) in a long while we found ourselves with enough money to visit Portugal.
It was very odd. Kindly remember this is Portugal, no one’s idea of the great Western civilization dreamland. Portugal is often sneered at as second world by other Europeans. Portugal throughout the entire time I had lived there was a net exporter of people. Labor is still very cheap, unemployment still high. It always was. People went from Portugal everywhere in the world and during my lifetime to Germany and France driven by the direst necessity and often illegally.
So it was jaw dropping to find Portugal flooded with Eastern immigrants, some seeking to find work, some trying to make it overseas or to England. I swear it can’t have been that bad, but everywhere we drove that summer, by the side of every highway, under every underpass, in fields, abandoned in woods, there were cars I’d never seen or heard of, and some of which looked homemade from found materials.
A lot of them, my mom informed me, were Trabants.
As far as the people in Portugal understood the events, as soon as the wall went down and it was obvious they wouldn’t be shot leaving, citizens of the DDR, and those who could get to the DDR got in whatever makeshift vehicle they could find and started driving.
This is what happens when your country is a virtual prison. At the first whiff of freedom people just want to get away – far far away. So far away that, if you change your mind, if you manage to get hold of the reins of power again, they can’t get you back. The destination isn’t so important and even a “second world” many-centuries senescent potentate will do, if it’s the farthest you can get from your prison.
I know it sounds melodramatic to outsiders when writers call the old state of affairs, the old way of doing business “a prison.” But considering how difficult it was to get in, and how many factors were selected for that had nothing to do with your ability to, you know, write a good book, how opaque the marketing was, how little control you had over it, and how bizarre things could get if your agent/editor/anyone connected with the house took offense at anything you did or thought, it felt like a prison to many of us. Don’t take my word for it. Go to any blog of anyone who is successful self publishing and the substratum of all of it is “ah, ah, I’m free, I’m free.”
We saw colleagues fired for associating with the wrong public figure, for saying the wrong thing, for being rude to the wrong person, for trying to market a different work and even – yes, indeed, this made for happy friendships – for hanging around with the wrong (as in someone the editor disliked) friends at cons.
So we lived in constant fear and watching our step EVERY second, particularly when in public. But you also didn’t know when an email might be forwarded.
We could have walked away from it all. We could. But we had this writing habit. And let’s face it, most of us are incompetent at LIFE. So we stayed. And we tried to fit the mold, even if it meant filing our round shapes into sharp corners.
And for most of us the reward was ONLY “not dying.”
Among other things it was assumed that we would pay our own way, we’d expend our money for publicity, we’d give good work on time, even though we had a full time job, and anytime we got tired of being the one pony in town we got told to shut up and act like a professional. (And yes, I’m excluding Baen from all of this. They’re more like family. I hear DAW is too. Don’t know. The other houses I worked for weren’t.) On top of that you had to go through agents. Read this week’s Kris Rusch column for how fun that could get.
Was it a prison? Well, we could pretend the bars weren’t there, but…
Now we have the possibility of indie. For most of us it is an uncertain, unknowable thing, and we’re all thumbs. My friend Amanda Green is great with the conversions and the pretty-pretty ebooks, but frankly, I’m still doing it by the rough, ready and ugly method. This needs to change, of course, and it is, as I cram some learning into the spaces. We have to find stock art (or have art done.) We have to do covers. What sells and what doesn’t is trial and error (mostly error) and the old models don’t always apply (hard to when you are selling something the size of a postage stamp. That lovely detailed art? Invisible. Going bold and clean seems to work best, but of course it’s also far more difficult.) Then there’s pricing – do I price up, do I price down? Do I paint it purple?
It’s a lot like being a teen again trying to learn the only game in town — Should the skirt be shorter? A little off the bottom? Should it be tighter on the butt? Do you think guys like green skirts? What do you mean no matter what I do it won’t work because he’s gay? How can I tell if he’s gay? – and I never wanted to go through my teen years again, not for half the time and double the pay.
I keep thinking “D*MN it, I’m fifty, I’m too old to be doing this.” Then I see people older than I thriving on it, and I shut up and try again.
But through it all there is this feeling “no matter how well or how badly it does, I’m in control, and I can try things that relate to the book, to the story, to the cover – not to my politics or whether some guy at a book show thought I was rude, not to what my agent thinks of my work, not to whether some big name thinks I’m a terrible terrible person because I was wittier than she was at a panel. What people whisper behind my back doesn’t matter, not unless I engage in epic battles with my fans on the internet. (Yes, of course I might. But that’s why I have secret pen names.)
Am I making a ton of money? Not yet. I’m still working on putting stuff out. And what I’m making so far is about what I made from one of my other houses. But you know, day old bread tastes better in freedom.
This is me, in my Trabant, waving the old chains goodbye.
And this is what is fueling the “war in science fiction” – in the old days, we’d have shut up when the crazy wymen went hunting for Malzberg and Resnick. What’s more, their nuts (nutsy – say it aloud, you’ll get there) behavior would have got them perks form publishers, “visibility” and “committed to equality” and such poppycock. And when none of us spoke up, they’d think that “the entire community agrees.” Not anymore.
What’s more, I’m looking around and seeing signs of the same everywhere. Friends in Journalism were even more buttoned up than we were, but they now go “Oh, yeah? Well, if you fire me, I can go on a blog. I might starve, but I’ll be able to sleep nights.” And stories break out. Such as the fact that the NSA is spying on everyone, all the time. Yes, even you.
Cracks are appearing in all the old fields. The figures of the establishment in almost every field are saying and doing the things they always said and they can’t see that EVERYONE can see the truth and is laughing at them behind their backs, or behind our hands, because there are other ways of doing things.
The wall isn’t quite down yet, but there is a crack, and the crack is enough, push-pull for friends to get their buggy buggies over and start driving towards freedom.
We might not get very far. We will be strangers in a strange land. G-d knows we might starve.
But there’s no going back, and now the old ways seem like an iron jacket.
Get on your Trabant and ride!