RSS Feed Subscribe to our rss feed to stay updated with Bennett R. Coles http://www.bennettrcoles.com/ http://www.bennettrcoles.com/assets/images/logo.png RSS Feed http://www.bennettrcoles.com/ <![CDATA[A No-BS Tour of Modern Publishing Part III - The Traditional Industry: The Publishers]]> Author: Bennett R. Coles
Date: September 9, 2016

Many authors feel that the only “real” way to publish is to go through the well-established method of querying an agent, having your agent pitch to publishing houses, and then signing a deal where the author pays nothing and gets an advance from the publisher. This is called “traditional” publishing – or trade publishing for short. In this article I’d like to give some idea of what this industry really looks like from the inside.

Note: I’ll be focusing on the North American traditional publishing world as it’s where I work and what I’m most intimately familiar with. This article will talk about the publishing side of things –the next article will talk about the bookstores.

First of all, as the CEO of a small press, Promontory Press, let me explain what the traditional publishing model is from the publisher’s point of view. This is how it works:

1)I pay you, the author, money up front for your IP (the manuscript);

2)I pay a bunch of talented folks to edit, design and otherwise get this book ready for market;

3)I pay to prepare an amazing sales pitch to either my distributor (for the big American bookstores) or to the book buyers themselves (here in Canada and to independent bookstores);

  • Note: the chances of any particular title on my list (such as yours) actually getting picked up for a major, nation-wide buy, is slim at best – despite all my efforts as publisher to make it irresistible;

4)I pay to print the book and ship it to all the places who want to sell it;

5)I pay to market the book in various ways;

6)Four months after the book launches, bookstores will start to actually pay me for the books they’ve bought, less their 40-65% discount – BUT, bookstores have the right to return, for full credit and at any time, any books of mine which haven’t been sold to customers.

So it’s a lot of money up front, and the only path for revenue starts to pay between twelve and twenty-four months after I’ve signed you, and those revenues are unreliable at best.

What a stupid business model!

But that’s how traditional publishing works. And woe be to anyone who suggests to the establishment that maybe we should re-think some practices. That’s the way it’s always been, and damn your eyes if you think it’s going to change! (More on this when I talk about self-publishing and hybrid publishing in later articles…)

I hope this enlightens you to why publishers operate the way we do. Every time we sign a new book we’re committing ourselves to considerable financial risk. So when we look at submissions, we’re of course looking for excellent writing, but just as important we’re looking for a book which we think we can make enough money selling to at least cover our risk (to say nothing of making a profit). Call it cold and hard, but if publishers don’t make money they go out of business, and then they don’t publish anything anymore.

The North American traditional publishing industry is dominated by the Big Five. These are New York based publishing groups which together control about 80% of trade publishing sales. They are:

  • Penguin Random House
  • Harper Collins
  • Macmillan
  • Simon and Schuster
  • Hachette

All of them have multiple publishing imprints – for example, you as an author may sign with the publisher Morrow, but Morrow is just a division of Harper Collins – and most publisher names you might recognize are just small components of the Big Five. Each of the Big Five is in turn owned by a larger business group, many of which are actually based in Europe, and none of the Big Five represent the majority of sales for their parent company.

You will definitely need an agent if you want to deal with these publishers. Each company produces between 1000 and 15000 new titles a year, so there’s plenty of opportunity for authors, but keep in mind that you’re competing against thousands and thousands of other aspiring authors, plus thousands of established authors, too.

The Big Five bring with them the clear advantages of dominant market share, powerful lobbying abilities and vast pots of money to throw at books they want to support. Most best-selling authors come from the Big Five. For an excellent summary of the current (and shaky) financial positions of the Big Five, please have a look at this recent article by Thad McIlroy at The Future of Publishing.

As almost (but not really) a side note, Amazon is considered the Great Satan by the traditional publishing industry. And Amazon is now doing its own traditional publishing through its imprint Thomas & Mercer. We might need to talk about The Big Six before too long…

Beyond the Big Five, there are hundreds of small presses and micro presses. They can produce anywhere from one to a few hundred new titles each year, and many specialize in their favourite niche or genre, so be sure to research this before submitting your manuscript to them. Small presses often deal directly with authors, but agented submissions are also usually welcome. Small presses pay much smaller advances than the Big Five, so agents aren’t always interested in dealing with small presses as they get a percentage of whatever advance they negotiate for their author.

Small presses can be advantageous for a new author as it is marginally easier than with the Big Five to get your manuscript reviewed. Another advantage is the care and effort a small press will put behind its titles – it only does a small number each year, and the likelihood of a blockbuster is slim, so the publisher needs to ensure that every book does at least reasonably well in sales. However, small presses have much less access to major bookstore shelves and cannot afford (or even execute) huge marketing campaigns.

It’s pretty clear that the traditional publishing industry is in trouble. Sales are mostly flat, there are a lot of mergers going on and with the rise of online selling and ebooks the traditional sales routes (ie, through bookstores) have been seriously disrupted. Self-publishing, although derides as “vanity publishing” by most trade professionals, is also becoming a noticeable threat because traditional books now have a much larger field of competition online, stunting sales growth online even as traditional bookstores are reducing their orders (more on that next time).

Originally published at Life as a Human.

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<![CDATA[Thoughts on my first World Con]]> Author: Bennett R. Coles
Date: August 25, 2016

Last week I flew to the far-off land of Kansas City, Missouri, to partake in what many science fiction fans consider a pilgrimage: I went to the annual World Science Fiction Convention – otherwise known as World Con.

Home of the Hugo Awards – which continually fight it out with the Nebula Awards for rights to call themselves the MOST PRESTIGIOUS science fiction literary awards – World Con is a pretty big deal. I packed all my geeky shirts (Dr. Who, Firefly, Stars Wars and Game of Thrones), brushed up on my nerdy arcana and arrived with camera phone ready to capture all the cosplay and crazy stalls selling everything from Pokemon stuffies and Sailor Moon dresses to real-life broadswords and actual chainmail.

Now I’m not a fresh off the applecart kind of con-goer. I’ve been to local cons, like VCon in Vancouver, and I was thrown way out into the deep end with the massive Phoenix Comicon last year. So having seen the extremes, how did World Con compare? It was big, but not labyrinthine. It had some quirks, but nothing zany. I got a few compliments on my shirts, I saw some cosplayers and a few, modest stalls selling artwork, jewellery and books, and I don’t think I ever once got into a furious argument with anyone about whether Kirk acted recklessly in Episode 47. (We universally agreed, however, that Han Shot First.)

So in the end, I was comfortable meeting World Con somewhere right in the middle on the SF convention spectrum. There were lots of people, and lots of fun, but nothing to make a casual onlooker get spooked. And there was plenty to do, from morning walks with the stars (famous authors) to the evening Bar Con events. There was the Hugo Awards ceremony itself, of course, but most of each day was spent going from one fascinating panel discussion to another. These ranged from the presentation of full-on academic papers (on anime, no less!) to fan-led discussions on the popular legacy of Star Wars.

I myself mediated a very entertaining panel called “We Don’t Need Another Hero” and participated on two others. “Political Worldbuilding in SF” was an intellectual discussion to a standing-room-only audience where we examined the creative process of building the future or alternate world which supports the story. In contrast, “What’s New in the World of Dinosaurs” was a raucous affair, also to a full house, where five SF authors tried to present ourselves as somehow knowing something more than our audience about dinosaurs. There wasn’t a paleontologist in sight, and probably a good thing, too.

For me as a relative newcomer to the professional author scene, it was a thrill to be able to mix it up with some of the biggest names in science fiction. George R.R. Martin, Greg Bear, David Brin, Joe Haldeman, Cory Doctorow and William C. Dietz are just some of the shining stars in the galaxy of talent I had the chance to meet.

It was meeting all these authors, and seeing how they were the real centrepiece of the week, that made me realize what really distinguishes World Con from the mega-cons like Comicon and Dragon Con. World Con is all about books. Yes, TV and movies are welcome, but World Con has never forgotten the fact that it is a literary celebration. It exists to bring together the fans of books and the authors who write them. This is very special, because it’s easy for books to get out-glamorized by the visual spectacle of Hollywood, HBO and Marvel. At the other big cons there is always a literary element, but you have to look hard to find it amidst all the TV star autograph sessions, exclusive releases of the next superhero movie, and legions of stormtroopers in the corridors.

All this worked to create a comfortable, collegial atmosphere for everyone at World Con. Famous authors could walk freely in the exhibition hall and the conference corridors, mixing easily with fans and creating an accessibility and intimacy that is impossible to replicate at a mega-con. I myself, as a fairly junior member of the professional club, was welcomed as a peer – there was no “pecking order” of A-List celebs and then the rest of us.

So, World Con gets a thumbs-up from me. It was big enough to draw in the industry’s heavy hitters, but still small enough that I would bump into the same folks each day. Call it the Goldilocks of cons. I look forward to our next encounter.

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<![CDATA[A No-BS Tour of Modern Publishing - Part II: Making sense of the lingo]]> Author: Bennett R. Coles
Date: August 10, 2016

One of the biggest challenges an author faces in today’s publishing landscape is just trying to understand what’s what. Taking money from authors has become a billion-dollar business in the past ten years, and there are all kinds of terms floating around out there. As authors unravel one scam after another, the charlatans and pirates are forced to repackage their scams with fancy new terms.

But to make matters much more complicated, not everyone out there charging money is a scammer. Many of them offer legitimate, valuable services which authors are well-advised to consider. Even those authors dead-set on traditional publishing.

So which is which? And what’s what? This article is going to attempt to offer some clarity.

Traditional publishing:

Also known as “trade” publishing, this is the old school method of getting books to market – it hasn’t changed much since it was established in Edwardian times. The publisher pays for all the production and distribution costs and in return owns the rights to the book and keeps 90% of the revenue. The author is usually paid an advance on royalties. The publisher will have a sales team who actively sell the book to bookstores and they will probably have a marketing team who will promote the book in the month leading up to launch.

The publisher carries all the financial risk and is motivated to sell as many books as possible in order to make money.

The strengths of this model are:

  1. Books are rigorously curated, usually ensuring that the quality of writing is very high;
  2. There is a team of professionals working hard to ensure that the book is excellent in all aspects;
  3. The publishers have the best access to brick and mortar bookstores and other major distribution channels;
  4. The author gets paid for their book and does not have to contribute financially to the project.

The weaknesses of this model are:

  1. It is very hard to get in – bordering on impossible for an unknown, first-time author;
  2. It is driven fundamentally by economics, not art, making it very difficult for unusual or ground-breaking books to get accepted;
  3. It is utterly dominated (in North America, at least) by the Big Five publishers in New York;
  4. Each book has only one shot at the market – if it fails, it is relegated to the backlist and forgotten.

Examples of traditional publishers are Harper Collins (one of the Big Five) or my own Promontory Press (a small press).

Self-publishing:

This is a relatively new way to publish books, brought about mainly through the development of three key technologies: print-on-demand (POD) printing; ebooks; internet selling. In this model the author retains all rights to the book and pays a self-publishing company to do many of the things a trade publisher would do. The self-publishing company will “publish” the book – although in reality, it will merely list the book on bookstore and distribution databases. It is important to note that a self-publishing company has no sales team or marketing team and they will make no effort to pitch or promote the book to bookstores.

The author carries all the financial risk. The self-publishing company makes all its revenue from the fees authors pay up front and has no stake in the ultimate success of the book. Because of this, there is no quality control by the self-publishing company – their business model is based entirely on quantity, not quality.

The strengths of this model are:

  1. The author retains full control over the final form of the book;
  2. The author retains all rights to the book;
  3. The author receives a high percentage of revenue from sales;
  4. There are no barriers to entry beyond cost.

The weaknesses of this model are:

  1. There is no quality control – this industry has justifiably earned a reputation for producing junk – and therefore it is harder for an author to be taken seriously in the market;
  2. There are a lot of false promises made to uninformed authors;
  3. There can be a great deal of “opaqueness” and the author can struggle to know what’s actually happening with the book;
  4. There is no access to brick and mortar bookstores.

Examples of self-publishing companies are AuthorHouse and Tellwell.

Hybrid publishing:

This is a middle-ground method of publishing, trying to take the best elements of trade and self-publishing and create a new way. There are very few true hybrid publishers, and it can be difficult to distinguish them from self-publishers who cloak themselves in names like “partner publishing” or “assisted publishing”.

The author and publisher both make a financial contribution to a hybrid project and share the revenues more equally than in trade publishing. The publisher has the same sales and distribution access to bookstores as a trade publisher, and they will have a sales and marketing team dedicated to supporting each book.

The financial risk is shared between author and publisher. Both parties are dedicated to selling as many books as possible in order to make money. The publisher does not profit from author fees – rather, anything an author pays goes toward producing and distributing the book.

The strengths of this model are:

1)usually ensuring that the quality of writing is high;

  1. There is a team of professionals working hard to ensure that the book is excellent in all aspects;
  2. The publishers have access to brick and mortar bookstores and other major distribution channels (but often not as good as trade publishers);
  3. It is more accessible for new authors than trade publishing;
  4. The publisher will usually promote a book longer than a trade publisher will.

The weaknesses of this model are:

  1. The author usually makes a financial contribution to the production of the book;
  2. It can be very hard to determine from the outside whether a publisher is truly a hybrid or just a self-publisher in hybrid clothing;
  3. The author will have to do much of the marketing after launch;
  4. Some industry groups (such as major awards and grant-giving organizations) consider hybrid to be self-publishing and do not recognize it as legitimate.

Examples of hybrid publishers are She Writes Press and BQB Publishing.

(Full disclosure: Promontory Press has done some hybrid contracts in the past in addition to our traditional contracts.)

Author Services:

This is a recent industry trend which developed from the backlash against self-publishing companies. As authors become more informed and comfortable with the self-publishing landscape, there is less and less need for “hand-holding” by a self-publisher. Self-publishing is much easier for authors than it was even five years ago and there is a growing demand from authors for greater transparency and control over their books.

Author services are simply that: individual, tailored services offered for a price with no ongoing commitment to (or interference with) the project. There is no “publisher” besides the author. There are thousands of contractors who offer their paid services to authors (editors, cover designers and website designers are the most common) and in this landscape it is very much a “buyer beware” for the author. Most contractors are honest and talented, as ultimately it is their reputations which will sustain their businesses in the long term.

The advantages of this model are:

  1. The author has complete control over every aspect of the book;
  2. There is more transparency than with self-publishing;
  3. The author can pick and choose exactly what services he or she wants;
  4. There is no “hard-selling” from a self-publishing company to buy more services.

The disadvantages of this model are:

  1. The author has to act as project manager of the book;
  2. The author has to be very discerning about which contractor is signed;
  3. The author carries all the financial risk;
  4. There is no access to brick and mortar bookstores.

Examples of author service companies who provide a wide range of services are CreateSpace (owned by Amazon) and Cascadia Author Services.

Examples of distribution providers (for the author looking to publish without an intermediary) are Ingram Spark, Smashwords and Lulu.

 

Originally published at Life as a Human.

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<![CDATA[A No-BS Tour of Modern Publishing - Part I: Author Motivations]]> Author: Bennett R. Coles
Date: July 1, 2016

The centre of all publishing is the author. Without the author, there is no art form. There are no manuscripts for agents to pitch, no covers for publishers to design, no books for stores to sell. Without the author, the publishing ecosystem would not exist.

So why is the author at the very bottom of the food chain?

If you are an aspiring author, or are just musing on how you’d like to one day write a book – welcome. My name is Bennett R. Coles and I’m an author. I’ve been traditionally published through New York, I’ve self-published my way to awards, and I’ve even tried out that mysterious new “third way” of publishing, hybrid. I’m still active as an author through Titan Books, but I also happen to be the publisher at a small (but mighty) publishing house called Promontory Press. This dual role gives me a fairly unique perspective on the industry, but in my heart I’m always an author first.

So… you want to be an author. Awesome. The very first question I’m to ask you, though, is this: why?

There are plenty of valid reasons to want to be an author. Perhaps you’re an angst-ridden intellectual desperate to steer the collective will of the people toward a greater tomorrow. Perhaps you’re happiest when writing and nothing would give you greater pleasure than to share your words with the world. Perhaps you have a business which could benefit from having a companion book which can offer value to people over time and serve as a high-quality business card for you. Or, just perhaps, you’re naturally good at writing and you want to make a ton of cash from your skillset, no matter what the genre or style. These are all good reasons to write, and all equally valid, no matter how different from each other they might be.

But, the approach to publication is very different for each one. Before you set out on a publication path, take some time to really ask yourself what motivates you. Are you an artist first, or do you just want to get rich? Is the book a means to an end for you, or is it the end itself? Most people will feel that they have a bit of everything in their motivations. I mean, who wouldn’t want to keep their artistic integrity while raking in bazillions of dollars in author royalties, proud of their book as an accomplishment all on its own while recognizing that it supports something greater. Sounds good to me!

Unfortunately, the reality of publishing rarely winds up being so generous. If you are an author who really has something to say – be it a political position or just a specific genre of fiction – you will likely find yourself fighting to even get your work read by publishers hungry for market success and wary of outliers. Likewise, if you’re just writing whatever the market demands for a bunch of cash, don’t hold out a lot of hope of winning any awards or changing the world.

What I’m trying to say here is this: before you even start to think about which publishing route to investigate, be honest with yourself about what really matters to you as an author. Here are some typical writing goals which you should weigh:

  • Money – would I still write if it paid almost nothing, or am I doing it to make serious money?
  • Fame – do I want to be mobbed at writing conventions, or would I rather remain unknown?
  • Validation – is it important that I be taken seriously as an artist, and if so, by whom?
  • Motivation – is writing this amazing thing I do that I love and draw great energy from, or is it more of a job?

Likewise, here are some skills which most modern authors need. Do an honest assessment of yourself for each, either at your current level or what you honestly think you could develop into:

  • Writing new and original stuff versus formula fiction, academic works or business writing;
  • Working with an editor and potentially seeing your book changed significantly;
  • Talking to strangers;
  • Being involved in social media;
  • Being able to actively sell yourself and your book;
  • Marketing savvy.

All of these skills are required by both the traditional and the self-published author – the only difference is degree.

In this series, A No-BS Tour of Modern Publishing, I’m going to explore the ins and outs of the publishing world, but I’m always going to bring it back to what it means for the author. As we move forward, I encourage you to really take some time and ask yourself the questions above. I’ll do everything I can to break down some publishing myths and provide some solid info, but in the end different authors (and their books) can be genuinely better-suited to traditional or self-publishing. The most honest you can be with yourself, the better chance you’ll make the best choice for your own career.

Originally published at Life as a Human.

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<![CDATA[A review of the motion picture Warcraft]]> Author: Bennett R. Coles
Date: June 23, 2016

Once in a generation, a motion picture masterpiece comes along which changes the way we think about the world. Warcraft is a visually stunning, epic drama which confronts the challenging issues that face us today as a society. Racism, environmentalism, the corruption brought by power and even parenthood are vividly explored in this thought-provoking work. If ever there was – a… single –

BAAAA-HAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!

I’m sorry, I can’t type any more with a straight face.

This movie is based on a video game, people! A mighty fine game in its day, to be sure, but a game built on the premise that there are good guys (humans) and bad guys (orcs) who just kill each other on sight. Not a lot of social commentary going on there. But really, what did you expect?

My biggest disappointment with Warcraft was that none of the characters actually spoke like the cartoon figures in the game. I really, really wanted a peasant to look up and “Yes, milord… Awright,” before shuffling off to gather resources. And I wanted every knight to say “For the king,” in a deep, booming voice whenever he was clicked.

Despite these variations from the game’s canon, however, the folks who made this movie did manage to create a pretty entertaining couple of hours for the audience. Now, let me be clear. I went into the theatre with my expectations set even lower than they were for Jurassic World, and consequently I was totally in the right headspace for what Blizzard Entertainment served up for me.

Genuinely stunning visuals, more action than you can shake a severed arm at, and a thunderous musical score that just kept the blood pounding – that is what Warcraft delivered. And I think it’s fair to say that’s exactly what it promised.

So… Maybe Warcraft loses a few marks for artistic genius, and I doubt it will ever be studied in film schools. But it was entertaining as anything, and on a scale of 1 to 10 for taking a 90’s video game and turning it into a feature film, this baby is dialled up to 11.

 

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<![CDATA[Justin Trudeau - a pleasant surprise]]> Author: Bennett R. Coles
Date: March 11, 2016

There's been a lot of media hype on both sides of the border this week due to the official visit of Canada's new prime minister, Justin Trudeau, to Washington DC. It's been fun to watch, but I'm actually a lot more impressed by an announcement that was made last week - Canada has reached its goal of receiving 25,000 Syrian refugees. So yes, I'm happy that the Canadian and American leaders are getting along again - it's been a while - but ultimately leadership is about substance, not glamour, and I'm happy to say that Prime Minister Trudeau is scoring high.

First, an important clarification. I didn't vote for Mr. Trudeau's Liberal party in the last election. I was as surprised as anyone when he won a majority government. But when he did, I accepted the news graciously and said to myself, "Okay, the people have spoken. I'm willing to give this kid a chance, but he better live up to all the hype."

So he's been in office for a little over five months - has he accomplished anything? Well, actually, yes. Quite a lot. He restored the long-form census, reversing a ridiculous decision by the previous PM to try and blind the federal goverment to national trends. He made the environment a major priority again, conducting perhaps the fastest, biggest reversal of national policy on a major issue I've ever seen. And good thing, too, because the environment matters. He pulled Canada's jet fighters out of the bombing campaign on ISIS - maybe I didn't agree with that one so much, but at least he kept his campaign promise. He created a government cabinet of unprecedented diversity and relevant experience - you know, like a Minister of National Defence who was actually a soldier, and a Minister of Health who was actually a doctor - and stood strong in front of scathing criticisms by the right over the fact that he hadn't created a cabinet of the usual gaggle of old, white, male lawyers.

Oh yeah, and in the midst of an epic humanitarian crisis he pledged to take in 25,000 Syrian refugees - and then actually made it happen! Quickly. Efficiently. Effectively. That's 25,000 lives saved - men, women and children - without even a wrinkle to our national well-being. 

Times are tough for a lot of people in Canada and the US. The economy is still sputtering, jobs can be scarce, debts are high, and there is a lot of uncertainty and fear. But in just five months Mr. Trudeau has shown that it is still possible, in these tough times, to remain positive, intelligent and compassionate. The troubles that we face here in North America are NOTHING compared to the troubles faced by the millions of people who've had to flee their homes in Syria. We have so much - they have nothing. For us to share just a little bit of our wealth and safety with them isn't a noble act: it's a basic act of human decency. I lived in Syria in 2003-04 and I saw first-hand the wretchedness which life there could be, even before the civil war. Trust me, our problems here in Canada really aren't that bad.

A lot of American politicians don't seem to see this - they'd rather focus on the relatively minor local challenges here at home and blame foreigners for it. They use refugees as a bogeyman to get their own people angry and scared.

And, I'm sad to say, there is a strong right-wing sector of Canadian society who are doing the same thing. And I'm not sure how much of this radical sentiment is genuine anti-immigration (ironic, in a country made up 99% of immigrants) and how much of it is just a knee-jerk, childish backlash against anything Mr. Trudeau does. His predecessor, Steven Harper, was a master at creating fear and scorn against anyone who disagreed with him, and it seems his ten years in office succeeded in creating an entire section of Canadian culture who want to keep that negativity going. Facts don't matter, it seems, and there's no place for compassion when fear and hatred are socially acceptable. If Justin did it, it's the worst thing ever, apparently.

So I didn't vote for Mr. Trudeau, but man, am I happy that he became Prime Minister. In five months he's done more good for Canada and for the world than Mr. Harper did in ten years, and most of all Mr. Trudeau has remained consistent to his campaign attitude of leadership through positive, intelligent collaboration. In the US, President Obama has struggled for eight years to remain positive against a tidal wave of Republican obstructionism, and the insanity of the GOP primaries is the result of that long acceptance by the right of extremist, knee-jerk attitudes.

So to the 25,000 newly-arrived residents in Canada - including those here in my neighbourhood - I say welcome. I'm proud of Canada for standing up and doing the right thing for the people of the world, and I'm proud of our prime minister for making it happen so quickly.

Mr. Trudeau, I had a lot of doubts, but you, sir, have impressed. Keep it up.

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<![CDATA[Getting Reviews and Surviving]]> Author: Bennett R. Coles
Date: September 23, 2015

Getting reviews online is one of the biggest things an author has to look forward to. It's also one of the biggest things an author can dread. With my own recent release of Virtues of War with Titan Books, I've been amazed at some of the reviews that have been posted by folks around the world.

Depending on who you ask, the book is "crisp", "solid", "thrilling" and "timeless" - or "sexist", "bloodthirsty", "confusing" and "just plain bad". Some folks can't wait for the sequel, while others apparently burned their copy. According to some I am a "new master of the genre" and according to others I am things better left untyped.

Wow. Talk about an emotional roller coaster ride for an author. Now, I can certainly take solace in the fact that Virtues of War is averaging 4.6 out of 5 stars on Amazon.com (44 reviews) and 4.05 out of 5 on Goodreads (115 ratings). So the vast majority of people like the book, and many folks have said really nice things. So maybe I should just read the good reviews and ignore the bad ones?

Many authors I know say flat-out that they never any read reviews of their own works. I can see the wisdom in that. Reading the bad reviews of Virtues of War, it's interesting to note that many of them say things like "too much sci-fi" or "too much military". This suggests that perhaps the reader just isn't into the genre which I write, and for that I can certainly feel comfortable in making no apologies. If you don't like military or sci-fi in general, then you may not like my book. Because it's military sci-fi. And I'm pretty sure that's clear by the cover.

The comment "I didn't like the characters" - and there are a few, with varying degrees of venom - is a more interesting comment. My characters are complex, and most of them do bad things at some point or another in the story. But that doesn't mean I as an author condone their bad actions - I'm writing a story which involved conflict. My central character, in fact, does some very bad things in Chapter 1 - and there is even one Amazon review which suggests the reader was so offended by this that they threw down the book and didn't keep reading. This is is real shame, because that reader has now missed out on discovering how the main character hates what she did, and how her bad actions have real, terrible implications for both herself and for all of humanity. The entire story hinges on those bad things she did, in fact. That's the drama, but it takes a bit of time to play out.

Another review, this one from Goodreads, slams the book for being sexist. That shocked me. Sexist? Seriously? Both my main protagonist and main antagonist are strong, complex women who are anything but the stereotypes this reader tags them as. Two of the most powerful (and admirable) supporting characters are senior military officers who are also both women. Reading the review I got the sense that this particular reader - who is a man - went into the book with some sort of sexist chip on his shoulder and was just looking for reasons to criticize. I don't know. Maybe he just didn't "get" what I was writing. Maybe he just sucks. Or maybe I'm just being oversensitive.

And that's the point. As an author, bad reviews really do affect me. The overwhelming majority of reviews and ratings for Virtues of War are positive - but it's the negative ones which I remember most. I understand that not everyone is going to like my writing, and I'm professional enough to let those opinions stand alone without any sort of direct response from me. But that doesn't mean I'm not affected by them.

So, if you're an aspiring author, brace yourself for the fact that sooner or later there will be a reader who hates what you've written. And the internet being what it is, that reader will hold nothing back in condemning your work in full, gory detail. Be ready for this, because it's going to hurt no matter how many awesome, glowing reviews you get alongside the bad one. And then move on - just keep doing what you do.

Are those bad reviews going to change how I write? Not one damn bit. I'm sorry that those particular readers didn't enjoy or appreciate my novel, but it's what I wanted to write and it's what I'll continue to write. There is an audience for my particular style of writing and the particular philosophies I explore therein, and it is for those excellent folks - and for myself - that I write. 

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<![CDATA[So what's it like, being published traditionally?]]> Author: Bennett R. Coles
Date: August 7, 2015

Virtues of War, my military SF novel, was re-released just over a month ago by the traditional publisher Titan Books. Having self-published Virtues myself way back in 2010, I was quite curious to see how the two processes differed. Well, now I've had my first glimpse.

First and foremost, traditional publishing takes a LOT longer than self-publishing. This isn't due to any laziness or inefficiency. It's due to the fact that there's a whole industry involved now, not just the author, and every player in the industry needs their own time. Bookstores need to be pitched the book four months prior to launch; reviewers needs to receive the book six months prior to launch; sales teams need to be briefed on the coming book ten months before launch, so that they can in turn pre-pitch the bookstores and get them excited about the real pitch coming next season... This is all for real, and it's all good stuff. But my goodness it takes a long time.

Around launch date itself, I as the author felt pretty good, because my publisher worked hard to get me some interviews with noted SF sites, and had me write a few articles on SF topics for publication. A bunch of major reviewers came out with their reviews of Virtues of War around that time - all good, I'm happy to say - and for about six weeks prior to launch I felt like centre of my publisher's universe.

Then launch date itself arrived. There was no gala event, no big announcement. It was more just the day when all the efforts for the past ten months sarted to pay off. As the author I was excited, but also a little frustrated because I couldn't really tell how well the book was selling. Other than checking the Amazon sales ranking each day (which is itself a pretty blunt instrument) I've been completely in the dark about whether the book is selling well or not.

And all that support from my publisher I was enjoying? Gone. Silence. Once launch day was upon us, the publisher's work was done. And I can't really blame them, because Titan puts out new books every month, so everyone's focus had now shifted to the books coming out in August. Virtues of War isn't forgotten, but it's no longer their priority. And it probably won't ever be again.

So to all those authors out there who wonder what it's like to be traditionally published, or who are wondering how it compares to self-publishing, here's my little snapshot of the short period around launch date itself. I received excellent support from my publisher, but now that the book is out I'm pretty much on my own. At least, until Book II is getting ready for launch.

Roll on March 2016...

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<![CDATA[T-Minus Very Little and Counting...]]> Author: Bennett R. Coles
Date: June 23, 2015

It's nearly launch time! After eighteen months of self-imposed exile from the public, Virtues of War is being relaunched through Titan Books, bigger and better.

I'd be lying if I said I wasn't excited. And nervous. I've done two book launches as an author before, but never at the scale of this one. In a sense it's very much like a rocket launch - everyone in the team has done their job well, and every preparation has been taken, but all we can do now is watch and wait. If everything works it will be spectacular: if everything goes wrong it will be over with swift brutality. The book is on final countdown for launch in the UK on June 27th, and in North America on June 30th. My dear friends in the Antipodes will have to wait until August.

For me, these next few days are going to be like the week before Christmas, as I try to think about anything besides the launch but quietly countdown the sleeps. I wish I could write something witty and profound to express my feelings, but all I can come up with is:

"Blaaaaahhhhh! I wish it was next Tuesday already!!!!"

So there you are, words from the deepest depths of an author's heart.

We are GO for launch. Commencing countdown.

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<![CDATA[Phoenix Comicon 2015]]> Author: Bennett R. Coles
Date: June 8, 2015

Last week I attended my first Comicon. It was everything I imagined it would be, and more.

Four days of crowds, costumes, cat-calls, conference rooms, celebrity sightings and, apparently, comics. All in the desert heat of Phoenix.

I was privileged to attend as an author, and my publisher Titan Books made my new novel, Virtues of War, available at the Comicon bookstore a full one month prior to the official launch on June 30th. The salesman in me couldn't help but tell everyone that this was a "world premier exclusive" for Phoenix Comicon, even if my life really isn't that grandiose...

I was on five author panels, and meeting my fellow SF authors was no doubt one of the best experiences of the whole trip. It was great fun to compare techniques and experiences, and my summer reading list is suddenly a whole lot longer. But most of all, it was good to connect with other folk who do what I do. Writing is a solitary profession, and most of us aren't that sociable to begin with, so getting thrown together en masse and told to be nice to each other was a breath of fresh air from the daily, solitary seeking of my muse.

The cosplay throughout the Con was amazing, of course, and it demonstrated to me just how much schtuff is out there in the speculative fiction world. I certainly recognized many Star Wars characters, as well as various iterations of Doctor Who, and I'm pretty sure I know what Sailor Moon looks like now. But then there was all the other costumes - who on Earth were they? Sitting at an author signing, I discussed with delightful fellow author M.L. Brennan the need for an app where you can take a photo of a cosplayer and then your phone will tell you, based on, say, colours and silhouette of the costume, exactly who it is this cosplayer is dressed as. Somebody needs to make the app, please.

Wandering around the vast exhibition hall helped me to understand exactly what kind of geek I am. Everything for everyone was on offer, but I consistently found myself drawn to booths offering two kinds of things: Star Wars (of course) and little models of ships. My kids and their toys have been providing my Star Wars fix, but clearly I need more little starships in my life. Who knew?

All in all, an exhausting but very fun event. Highly recommend. Five stars. I'll be going next year.

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<![CDATA[Rumours of my demise have been greatly exaggerated...]]> Author: Bennett R. Coles
Date: May 19, 2015

It's been a long time since my last article - nearly two years, according to my own blog's reckoning. Well, a lot of neat stuff has happened to this little author in those two years. That is, if signing a three-book deal with a major publisher, quitting my day job to become a professional author and joining the battle for the future of publishing can be considered "a lot".

First off, the book deal. Shortly after I saw my second novel published by Promontory Press, it so happened that one of the biggest names in fantasy, Steven Erikson, wandered into a high-end bookstore looking for a good SF read. He saw my first novel, noted it was an award winner, and picked it up. He loved it, promptly bought Book II, loved it, and then Facebooked me out of the blue. As we happened to live in the same city, he wondered if I had time for a coffee.

Um, yeah... I have time for Steven Erikson.

So we meet, hit it off, get chatting about books, writing, life, the universe and everything, and he winds up introducing me to his agent. This leads to a lovely little bidding war in New York for the rights to my books, and I eventually signed a three-book deal with the awesome Titan Books of London.

My first book, Virtues of War, is being re-published by Titan (and distributed in North America by Random House) on 30 June 2015. Book II, with the great new name Ghosts of War, is following in March 2016. Book III, March of War, is coming in January of 2017. It's all very fun and exciting stuff.

I was able to quit my day job - the dream of every author - but I did so not only to focus more on the writing. I was also able to turn my attention to growing what had been up until then more or less a hobby into a full-fledged business: my own publishing company Promontory Press. Still thinking very much as an author, I've built Promontory with authors in mind, even though we still publish, distribute and sell through the established, traditional channels. The publishing world is ripe for change, as the Establishment is threatened on all sides by ebooks, Amazon, self-publishing, POD and a general, growing awareness by authors that they have options. Not that I think the Wild West of self-publishing is the answer - not unless some serious quality controls can be universally enforced - but without doubt the times they are a-changing. And I believe in being right there at the leading edge.

I promise to not go another two years before blogging again. And something tells me there is going to be an awful lot to talk about moving forward. 

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<![CDATA[Star Wars: The Next Generation]]> Author: Bennett R. Coles
Date: June 8, 2013

No, that isn’t a typo. I’m aware of all the hype flying around about that other vintage sci fi series and its hot-shot new movie, but right now I couldn’t care less. Why? Because I just enjoyed one of the wonderful little moments that we fathers born in the early seventies can cherish: I just sat down and watched the original Star Wars (Episode IV) with my young son for the first time.

Imperial March

To read more, please visit Life as a Human.

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<![CDATA[Fiscal Fiasco Round 2: First the F-35, now the Fleet]]> Author: Bennett R. Coles
Date: May 8, 2013

Just when we thought the F-35 Fiasco had gone away…

Welcome to Fiasco Round Two – and this time it’s really important, because we’re talking about ships. Earlier this spring the Canadian government announced that it was paying Irving Shipyards $288 million just to design the new Arctic Offshore Patrol Ships (AOPS) for the Royal Canadian Navy. Not build, just design. 

To read more, please visit Life as a Human.

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<![CDATA[Common sense in politics is a rare, rare thing]]> Author: Bennett R. Coles
Date: February 23, 2013

There has been a glimpse of common sense in the debate over Canada’s next-generation fighter aircraft, but it’s hard to see over all the name-calling, mud-slinging and partisan entrenchment. That glimpse of common sense was when our government decided, just before Christmas, to re-think the sole-source, non-competed contract to buy the F-35 as our next fighter. My worry is that common sense will now be banished from the discussion once again.

 

To read more, please visit Life as a Human.

 

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<![CDATA[New Year's Resolution #4 - The end of January shouldn't be The End]]> Author: Bennett R. Coles
Date: January 26, 2013

It’s the end of January. Most New Year’s Resolutions are forgotten, abandoned or causing a great deal of angst. But they can succeed, and you will feel so awesome with the sense of accomplishment that comes. In this final article I’d like to share a few nuggets of wisdom I gained in 2012.

To read more, please visit Life as a Human.

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<![CDATA[New Year's Resolution #3 - Healthy mind and spirit]]> Author: Bennett R. Coles
Date: January 19, 2013

New Year’s Resolutions are most often made to improve one’s physical health. But our bodies aren’t all that needs to be healthy; especially in this busy, bustling, modern world we need to take care of the rest of ourselves. One section of my 2012 New Year’s Resolutions was to do with another kind of health from the physical. Some might call it emotional health, or mental health, or spiritual health – it’s all of these things, and I just referred to it casually as my Morale. In this article I’d like to offer some advice to anyone who wants to improve their quality of life in 2013.

To read more, please visit Life as a Human.

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<![CDATA[New Year's Resolution #2: Losing Weight and Getting Healthy]]> Author: Bennett R. Coles
Date: January 7, 2013

My New Year’s Resolution in 2013 is to lose weight.

 
Great – now what?
 
In my previous article I talked about the importance of setting a goal for your resolution which is both clear and realistic. In my case I said that I wanted to lose 25 pounds (just over 11 kilos) in 2012. In addition I described how successful it was when I set monthly milestones to keep track of my progress on a regular basis.

 

To read more, please visit Life as a Human.

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<![CDATA[How to make a New Year's Resolution and keep it!]]> Author: Bennett R. Coles
Date: December 31, 2012

 New Year’s Resolutions. How many have we made and how many have we broken? If you’re anything like me, it’s a sad, sorry tale over the years. But last year I set out to actually keep my New Year’s Resolutions, and 365 days later I’m happy to report success. What was different this past year? Just a few simple things that I’d like to share just in case anyone else out there is gearing up for the idea that 2013 is going be different...

To read more, please visit Life as a Human.

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<![CDATA[I've finished my new novel! Or have I...?]]> Author: Bennett R. Coles
Date: November 25, 2012

 

 

The End.

Ahh… how satisfying; how fulfilling; how triumphant! I’ve just finished my book. This isn’t a theoretical scenario – my name is Bennett R. Coles and I just recently finished writing my latest novel Casualties of War. Or, to be more specific, I just finished getting the whole story down on the page. And this is what I want to talk about today. It’s a very common error that first-time authors make: thinking you’ve finished your book when in fact what you’ve done is finish the first draft.

 

To read more, please visit Life as a Human.

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<![CDATA[Remembering what's important on Remembrance Day]]> Author: Bennett R. Coles
Date: November 11, 2012

Today is November 11th, which is Remembrance Day in Canada, the day we take time to remember the men and women who served in the Canadian military in the past and those who serve today. The focus is generally on remembering the sacrifices they made, as it should be.

As a veteran of 15 years myself, at the parade and service today I actually spent some time remembering something else. I stood there in the cold and the light rain, trying to still my fidgety 3-year-old who was more interested in picking at the wreaths lined up next to us than listen to the prayers and poems. He certainly took my focus away from where it "should" have been, but I really didn't mind. Because by spending that extra time with my son I was able to remember something just as important on Remembrance Day: what we have today.

I have a wife and two children whom I love. I have a house that keeps me warm and dry, a job that puts food on the table, a car to get me around in bad weather, and friends who support me. When I was overseas in uniform I sometimes had none of these things, although the cold and the rain were always eager to show up. I remember Christmas Eve in the Golan Heights, standing watch as a UN Peacekeeper, hoping that on that frigid night, of all nights, the Israelis and Syrians would not take shots at each other and thus my Norwegian OP mate and I could stay safely in our hut.

The men and women who made such sacrifices for us did so in order that we could have the safe and comfortable lives we enjoy. The petty concerns we wrestle with are, for the most part, insignificant compared to what many veterans endured and - just as important - what many civilians in troubles countries even today endure. We have it good, and that is something I took time to remember today.

We remember. Lest we forget.

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<![CDATA[Earthquake "Gang of Seven" Get Six Years]]> Author: Bennett R. Coles
Date: October 24, 2012

I am stunned. I learned of some news yesterday and it’s taken this long to even be able to put my thoughts down in coherent sentences. Here’s the news: a group of Italian scientists were put on trial for not correctly predicting a 2009 earthquake that killed 309 people. Yesterday they were found guilty. And what were they convicted of? Manslaughter.

To read more please visit Life as a Human.

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<![CDATA[Morality in War]]> Author: Bennett R. Coles
Date: October 4, 2012

What moral obligation do soldiers have in war? This is a tricky question, and one which I considered more than once during my fifteen years in uniform. There are many perspectives, and some can be equally valid even when they diametrically oppose one another. But is there a single, undeniable answer that applies to all? Is there a fundamental truth behind the morality of war?

To read more, please visit Life as a Human.

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<![CDATA[Remembering Neil Armstrong - an old-fashioned kind of hero]]> Author: Bennett R. Coles
Date: August 29, 2012

When I heard that Neil Armstrong had died, I was struck with a small sadness. Not because of any dependency my life (or quality of life) might have had on him, nor because of any active role he currently played on the world stage. I was sad in a small way simply because I now will never get the chance, no matter how remote it might ever have been, to meet him and shake his hand...

Neil Armstrong in 1969

To read more, please visit Life as a Human.

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<![CDATA[Mayhem, Mistakes and Mastering the Motorway]]> Author: Bennett R. Coles
Date: August 5, 2012

 So, this whole driving on the wrong side of the road thing: where was I? Oh yes, the Devon country roads so narrow and twisting they could have been a Tea Party policy seminar, with ten-foot high hedgerows crowding in on either side. The likelihood of instant death seemed as high to me as if I was a motorized courier in the Somme trenches, where artillery shells (or, in this case, an oncoming car) could randomly drop in on my position and thoroughly ruin my day.

To read more, please visit Life as a Human.

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<![CDATA[Danger, Daring and Driving in Devon]]> Author: Bennett R. Coles
Date: July 20, 2012

 One of the reasons we travel to other countries is to enjoy experiences that are different from our regular day-to-day. This statement might conjure images of mysterious mountain temples shrouded in mists, sparkling azure surf rolling onto white sand beaches, or ancient tribal dances conducted under savannah stars. But today I’d like to tell you about a recent experience that might sound mundane, but which brings with it thrills, chills and a profound respect for another culture: driving on the wrong side of the road.

To read more, please visit Life as a Human.

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<![CDATA[Teacher gets suspended for giving zeroes - WTF?]]> Author: Bennett R. Coles
Date: June 15, 2012

We stood in grim silence, twenty naval officers in two ranks of ten. Plastic, yellow rain pants and tattered headbands were all we wore, except for marks of camouflage paint smeared over our cheeks. Warm wind teased our bare skin under the starry sky, and below us we could hear the gentle rush of the ocean breaking against the bow of our warship. From the shadows came a steady barrage of catcalls and insults, broken only by the occasional water balloon.

Our latitude was approximate zero degrees and ten minutes north, and the venerable maritime tradition of Crossing the Line – when Tadpoles become Shellbacks – was at hand. In a world of lawsuits, scandals and political correctness, the fact that the ceremony of crossing the equator was even permitted is startling. Even more startling might be that – as I stood half-naked, soaked and singled out with my nineteen companions – I was ecstatic to be there.

Let’s compare this scenario to what’s currently playing out in Edmonton, Alberta. In a certain school, apparently the principal has decreed a “no-zero” policy for marks, meaning that teachers can’t give zeros for any assignment, quiz or test, even the student submits nothing, skips the quiz, of hands in a blank test sheet. The argument is that to receive a zero would hurt the dignity of the poor student, thus crushing their self-esteem and drawing them into a spiraling abyss of underperformance.

To read more, please visit Life as a Human.

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<![CDATA[Tastes, Treats and Moments of Terror in Thailand]]> Author: Bennett R. Coles
Date: May 16, 2012

 It’s always an adventure to eat in foreign countries. Strange smells, curious colours, tantalizing tastes. (And, occasionally, uncomfortable gastronomic conditions which go by many colourful names but my favourite is from Syria, where I got to experience a bathroom-related temporary condition which the locals called “yallah yallah” meaning, literally, “quickly quickly”.) But lately I’ve spent a lot of time in Thailand. There are many pleasant surprises for the foodie in this tropical kingdom.

 

For starters, I’m very happy to report that the food we get in North American Thai restaurants is indeed authentic and would be familiar at any high street establishment back home. Compare this to the typical “Chinese” food we get at home which, while tasty in a deep-fried kind of way, bears no resemblance whatsoever to actual cuisine found in the world’s most populous nation. Japanese food in North America is more authentic, but our beloved and ubiquitous sushi is a rare delicacy in Japan – usually reserved for wedding feasts – and actually quite difficult to find in a typical Osaka eatery. Not so in Thailand. Phad thais, green curries, kao phads – all were in abundance from Bangkok to Bunyasiriphant’s Roadside Cart.

This concept of humble authenticity really hit me after I’d given a presentation at a government office and our hosts had arranged for lunch with a row of steam trays in the corridor. I joined the line, slopped some rice onto my plate and took a polite sample of the offering in each stainless-steel tray. Typical, institutional food, and it was obvious by their casual behaviour that my hosts didn’t think the meal anything special. But it was! It tasted like the food served at Sabhai Thai, my wife’s favourite restaurant in our local village. So there I was, eating run-of-the-mill, cafeteria food, and feeling like I was dining gourmet. Seriously, folks, they eat like this all the time.

(Full disclosure, I skipped the dessert of what looked like jellied eyeballs.)

But the biggest surprise actually came at one of the hotels I stayed at in Bangkok – Le Meridien, if you’re curious. I ordered breakfast in my room so I could get on the phone to Vancouver while folks in the office were still at work, and a typical selection of scrambled eggs, bacon and pastries arrived. But then, nestled in a pretty, wee basket, were some tater tots. I can take tater tots or leave them, but these were – without question – the finest, most delicious tater tots I have ever had. I seriously wondered if they filtered the oil in which these were fried through virgin, $100-bills. I never would have placed tater tots in the realm of fine dining, but these little golden beauties were like nuggets of sunshine, captured and deep-fried in a land that knows how to make good food.

And I think that’s it. If food is important to a culture, they take every meal seriously. It reminds me of a time I was in Antibes, France, and I ordered the cheese platter because I was hungry and I figured that would be quick. The waiter obviously didn’t hear me properly, and assumed with a sniff that this ill-cultured North American had ordered the cheeseburger, not cheese platter. Can you hear how they sound the same? I’m being charitable too. Anyway, the cheeseburger eventually arrived, and I was so hungry by this time that I wasn’t sending it back and waiting even longer. I am North American, after all, and who amongst us can say no to a cheeseburger when it’s sitting right in front of you? And, mon dieu, was that not – without question – the finest, most delicious cheeseburger I have ever had. It’s like the chef was ordered to put cheeseburgers on the menu because of the international clientele, and with an exasperated sigh he decided that if he was going to be forced to offer the symbol of the nouvelle bourgeouisie americaine, it was going to be the best damn burger this world had ever seen.

But I digress.

Another, shall we say, exciting element of eating in foreign lands is that you are not always sure exactly which animals are considered eligible for the menu. At one beachside café we were enjoying a wide variety of local dishes ordered in Thai by our host, the lovely Akanit. Everything was delicious, but one dish consisted of breaded and lightly-fried packets – perhaps thrice the size of those tasty tater tots – that my colleague Ken and I agreed were fantastic. I was in the middle of chewing my third sampling when Akanit turned to us and said (we both swear we heard the same thing):

“These are made from cat meat.”

I fought down the gag reflex. Hard. “What?”

Ken and I exchanged wide-eyed glances. He nodded in horror.

Ashes - the Coles family cat. She would be safe from the pot in Thailand.

She repeated herself, speaking very clearly. Thankfully my ear was well tuned to the Thai accent and I understood her properly this time: “These are made from crab meat.”

Phew. Lunch staying down. When we explained the misunderstanding, Akanit laughed out loud and assured us that dogs and cats are considered pets in Thailand, not delicacies. While I’m still not sure about the jellied eyeballs, I feel pretty safe in Thailand eating what’s put in front of me. Even the “hundred-year-old eggs” were quite good.

So amongst all the many reasons I’d recommend a trip to Thailand – beautiful beaches, gorgeous weather, ancient temples, friendly people, and good value for money – the food has to top the list. It’s seriously like eating at your favourite Thai restaurant every day, and even the non-Thai food can be spectacular when made in the kitchens of this kingdom. Best of all, because the food is generally very healthy and spicy, you can eat as much as you feel like and maybe even lose weight on your trip. Sounds like a tasty slice of heaven to me.

 

Originally published at Life as a Human

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<![CDATA[Artistic Freedom Under Fire]]> Author: Bennett R. Coles
Date: April 22, 2012

 There is definitely something wrong with the publishing industry when a book that is unanimously regarded as excellent, including by those in the industry, has absolutely no chance of being considered for publication. Sound odd? I thought so too.

I was having coffee with a fellow-author friend of mine not long ago, and we were discussing the various trials and tribulations of dealing with agents, doing our own marketing, and in general the challenges most authors face in the publishing world today. We found a lot in common, but I was shocked (and, at the same time, sadly not surprised) when she told me of the reaction by agents to her book.

The book in question is called “The How Did You Die Show” and it’s a stunning collection of mixed-media works from the exhibit of the same name that graced several major art shows in Toronto. The title is provocative, the art within compelling. The artist, Lisa-Scarlett Cruji, enjoyed so much success with the shows that she decided to publish the exhibit in book form.

How Did You Die, Ava? One of the best-selling works from the showDespite her success in the art world, Lisa-Scarlett struggled to get the attention of an agent. But she was lucky enough to meet with a literary agent who worked for the TV industry – someone who could give her an honest, professional assessment of the book’s potential with no obligation. The agent devoured the artwork, and when she finished reviewing the entire collection, this was her conclusion:

“It’s fabulous. I love it. No agent will ever touch it.”

Her explanation was that the book didn’t fit into any established category. It would be hard for an agent to create a snappy “elevator pitch” and harder still for a traditional editor to know how to work with it. It might be brilliant, but because it was so different it would be too much work (read, too much money) for the traditional publishing industry to embrace.

In three simple sentences, the agent captured one of the big problems with today’s publishing industry: it is totally about the money. Whereas in the old days publishing houses had the liberty to take chances on unique, niche books like “The How Did You Die Show” for their artistic merit, today the various squeezes on publishers force them to put their resources into those books for which there is an immediate, obvious and lucrative audience. The latest Jody Picoult novel will be gobbled up by her fans. An autobiography of, say, Justin Bieber will send the tweens flocking to the ebook sites. But an artistically fascinating collection of mixed-media artwork on a sometimes-uncomfortable topic by an artist unknown outside Toronto? Sorry, not gonna happen.

Now don’t get me wrong. Jody Picoult is a brilliant author who deserves her legion of fans, and the Biebz is just so darn cute how could I not want to know his hard-earned insights over eighteen years of life? But books, like all art, are supposed to be able to challenge us and open our minds to new ideas and fresh perspectives. Perhaps like no other media, books have the ability to explore deep into the human condition, to reveal truths gradually and often with powerful counterpoints built in. No visual art can compete with literature for the gradual, thoughtful revelation of the profound, and while music is beautiful and essential, it can’t explore intellectual ideas with the precision of writing. All art has always been about pushing boundaries, and some of the greatest artists in any medium have been those who have thrown aside the conventions of the day and created something revolutionary.

So why is the publishing industry turning away from the innovative and strange, and instead fillingThe Cover of  the bookstore shelves with yet another glossy picture book on jet fighters, yet another retired politician’s memoirs, and yet another summary of why the Kardashian sisters are so completely amazing?

Because those books sell. Period.

I’ve come to know quite a few people in the publishing industry, and by and large they’re excellent, sincere, hardworking folk. But when I ask about their company’s attitude toward manuscript quality versus marketability, they sigh and shrug, and just resign themselves to the fact that that’s the way it is. A publisher’s got to make money, otherwise it goes out of business. Likewise an agent’s got to represent financial winners, otherwise no commission cheques come. I get this. I understand that publishing is an industry like any other, and that companies have to be profitable to survive. But publishing has a responsibility to the art form that it represents, and one of the biggest aspects of that responsibility is to ensure that new, avant-garde forms of this art have the chance to meet the public.

Will everyone like “The How Did You Die Show”? Probably not. But many will. That’s the thing about art – it’s personal and subjective. The more important question is: does the book deserve the chance to be judged by the wider public? Absolutely. It’ll be only one of approximately 85,000 books published in North America this year, so it’ll be up against some stiff competition, but it’s a quality piece and it deserves the chance.

The modern publishing industry fails its audience when it retreats completely into the economic safety of mass market best-sellers and rejects the unusual or the bold. With the various e-technologies now becoming more and more accessible to all, the modern publishing industry is at real risk of losing the best and brightest authors to new media. The revolution is already beginning – stay tuned.

Originally published at Life as a Human

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<![CDATA[Does Canada Really Need the F-35?]]> Author: Bennett R. Coles
Date: March 9, 2012

 Does Canada need the F-35? This is a question that’s been asked by many over past year and a half, ever since the government announced a single-source contract to purchase 65 of the still-under-development “fifth generation” advanced fighter aircraft. In the fall of 2010 I wrote in favour of this decision; although aghast at the nine billion dollar price tag for so few planes, I concluded that our air force needed the very best technology to make up for our ever-dwindling numbers. Having been watching this debate with great interest for the past 18 months, I’m afraid I have to reconsider my opinion. 

The F-35 Lightning II is Canada's pick for its next-generation fighterProgress on the F-35 Lightning II has been plagued with problems and delays, with nation after nation cutting back on their planned orders as the price tag threatens to climb ever higher. The F-35B short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) variant has been particularly troublesome, and has called into question the fidelity of the entire aircraft design. Did the designers make too many compromises to try and fit too many roles into a single airframe? Is the STOVL variant a white elephant that has unnecessarily sent the program costs soaring higher than any interceptor? Why did the plane’s manufacturer, Lockheed Martin, continue to pump money into a back-up engine design even when the United States Congress cancelled funding for it? To many observers, the F-35 program has come to represent all that has gone wrong with the American defence industry, with giant corporations bloated from decades of government largesse unable to work efficiently or quickly, yet still nimble enough to lobby effectively in Washington, DC, whenever defence programs look threatened by budget cuts.

 

In truth, except for the price tag, none of the political-industrial controversy around this projectF-35 in hover should affect Canada’s decision to buy, if the F-35 is the right aircraft for our military needs. It does indeed incorporate the most advanced technologies available, including sophisticated sensors, stealth technology, and labour-saving control systems vital to today’s over-taxed pilot. But is it the only choice? The Eurofighter Typhoon has entered service with other NATO countries, and the Swedish Gripen has a proven track record of success, for a fraction of the cost of the F-35. And while the deployment of these fighters may be limited, it’s still far more than the unproven F-35.

But any one of these options brings with it a high cost that goes far beyond the sticker price. One of the difficulties of adopting any new piece of hardware is the significant delay as operators train and get comfortable with it. Canada’s fighter jocks have been flying the F-18 Hornet for 25 years: even if we received our next-generation fighters today it would be several years before the training organization was in place and our pilots were competent enough in their new aircraft to risk their lives in actual military operations.

Happily, there is another option. 20 years ago McDonnell-Douglas recognized some of the deficiencies of its F-18 design, and it began producing for the American military an enhanced F-18 concept known as the Super Hornet. This aircraft would be very familiar to our pilots, but it incorporates fundamental improvements to effectiveness and survivability in combat. It may not be a seductive “fifth-generation” fighter like the F-35, or the F-22 Raptor currently in service with the USAF, but it is more than a match for any foreign forces the Canadian Air Force can expect to do battle against in the next 20 years, including the current generation of fighters being exported by the Russians and, in time, the Chinese.

The Super Hornet is what you might call a “fourth-and-a-half-generation” fighter. While it may not be F/A-18 Super Hornetquite as capable as the F-35, it has the tremendous advantage of being battle-proven, immediately available for delivery, capable of immediate deployment by Canada’s current fighter pilots and training establishment, with all this coming at a fraction of the cost of its unproven, incomplete, unfamiliar and risk-laden competitor. Does Canada need the F-35? No, we need the best all-round option to equip our air force, defend our country and serve our military needs around the world. That option already exists, and is staring us in the face. Canada needs the F-18 Super Hornet.

 

Originally published at Life as a Human

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<![CDATA[The Philosophy of Physics - Revisited]]> Author: Bennett R. Coles
Date: February 12, 2012

 

So I’ve had a crisis of faith, recently. And ironically, the person who unwittingly challenged my faith would probably be horrified to know that I have any kind of faith at all, even if it was in him and what he stood for. I refer to my recent article The Danger Facing Modern Physics, where I expressed my disappointment at Dr. Stephen Hawking’s assertion that philosophy is dead. The good thing is, his certainly is not the final word on the subject.

Realizing that was twenty bucks I was never going to get back, I finished his book, The Grand Design, with a heavy heart and a seriously shaken faith in the objectivity and open-mindedness of those in cutting edge physics. It was small comfort to see that another leading physicist whom I admire had also just published a new book. This was Dr. Lisa Randall, whose revolutionary 5-dimensional warped geometry theory serves as the scientific backdrop for my novel Virtues of War. Curious to learn if her recent work might further inspire my science fiction writing, I picked up a copy of her book Knocking on Heaven’s Door.

Funny enough, Dr. Randall also has an opinion on the differences between science and other human endeavours and she devotes a fair bit of time to discussing the different aspects of the quest for knowledge:

On pages 40-41, she writes that “humanity employs different methods and strives toward contrasting goals in the attempt to unravel the mysteries of life and the world. Art, science and religion – though they might involve common creative impulses – offer distinct means and methods of approach toward bridging the gaps in our understanding.”

Her dissertation continues mainly as a bold defence of the merits of science, mostly against the crazier assertions of various fundamentalist religious groups in the United States and at times she definitely seems to have an axe to grind (who can blame her – there are some wackos out there). But she also tries to explore non-scientific methods of study, and on page 66 begins her conclusion with the following statement: “This doesn’t mean that science necessarily will answer all questions. People who think science will solve all human problems are probably on the wrong track as well.”

The book moves on to discuss, amongst other things, how different scientific theories work best at different scales, and how physicists often develop models to better study aspects of a particular theory. Some models prove more effective than others, and with new evidence and insights models change or are replaced. Dr. Randall’s point is that models are just there to help describe what is happening, they help us make sense of what we’re discovering in nature. And she recognizes that the human factor is always at play; our own interpretations of the data may grow around the data themselves. She argues that “philosophical advances (concerning quantum mechanics) could affect the conceptual framework we use to describe predictions – but not the predictions themselves.” (Pg 194)

What was that? Philosophical advances? In physics? How about that…

I’d like to refer back to Dr. Stephen Hawking’s statement that philosophy is dead. No it isn’t. Philosophy is an integral part of our quest for knowledge. I might even be so bold as to say that philosophy IS our quest for knowledge, in whatever form or discipline that happens to be. But bringing it back to physics, once all the equations are written, the experiments are done, the data compiled, there is still the very real question: What Does This Mean? And I’m not talking about God, Nirvana or the Number 42 – I’m still talking physics. All the data are meaningless unless they’re put into a philosophical framework that we humans – or at least, the super-clever quantum physicists – can describe in a meaningful way.

So thank you, Dr. Lisa Randall. Not only did your extra-dimensional theory a few years back inspire this author to write some fairly nifty science fiction, your recent delve into the philosophy of physics restored my faith in your admirable profession.

 

Originally published at Life as a Human.

 

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<![CDATA[Science Fiction and Why It's Great: The Finale - Imagination is an amazing gift]]> Author: Bennett R. Coles
Date: December 14, 2011

Let’s face it. Science fiction is great. Oh sure, there are those who think it’s a fringe phenomenon that is best ignored until it goes away, but it’s already been going strong for a hundred and twenty-five years and shows no sign of fading. It covers a vast canvas of human thought, inspires some of our brightest minds to invent new technologies, and has the unique ability to laugh at itself. But who are the artists that shape this genre? Who are the folks that create these fantastic visions of other worlds for us? There are dozens of brilliant sci-fi authors and movie-makers – far too many to list here – but in this final instalment, and figuring some of you are looking for Christmas gift ideas, I wanted to introduce you to just a few of Canada’s science fiction best:

Margaret Atwood is a pillar of Canadian literature. She’s among the most-honoured authors of fiction in recent history, and while she might not be the first author who comes to mind when you’re thinking science fiction, and she herself has certainly distanced herself from the “talking squids in outer space” sort of sci-fi, some of her books, led by the brilliant but chilling Handmaid’s Tale, represent some of the finest works in the genre.
Robert J. Sawyer is a highly accomplished sci-fi author who has been heavily involved with supporting and developing Canadian science fiction. In addition to his 20 novels and a wide range of short fiction which have earned him more than 40 awards, he has contributed tremendously to Canada’s literary future through his work as a professor and writer-in-residence. I personally am a huge fan of his Quintaglio Ascension trilogy, which depicts a highly-evolved dinosaur culture.
William Shatner is perhaps THE icon of science fiction, portraying Star Trek’s Captain James T. Kirk for nearly forty years. In addition to his success as an author and his many film and TV roles, the Shat has created an entire industry around making fun of himself and the larger-than-life caricature we’ve all come to love and/or hate. I struggle to recommend one single item of his repertoire as the best, but I think my personal favourite would have to be the movie Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.
James Cameron is one of the most successful movie-makers in history, and his recent film Avatar shattered box-office records and wowed audiences worldwide with his fantastic vision of another world. Although most of his movies would rate high on my recommendation list, since we’re talking sci-fi here, Avatar is the clear must-see. It’s a stunning portrayal of humans on another world, with some clear messages about life on Earth today.
Kenneth Tam is a home-grown Canadian success story and a prolific writer with no less than 20 novels published, including his Equation series and the Defence Command series. He is actively involved with small publishing and the science fiction convention scene. I recommend his series His Majesty’s New World for a fun escape.
This is just a short list of science fiction notables, and just from my home country of Canada. No matter what your taste, no matter what your interests, I bet there is a sci-fi book, movie or TV show out there that you will love. So if you’ve never been interested in science fiction before, I challenge you to give it a try. Ask your friends, browse the bookstore or movie guide, and take a chance. I’ll wager you won’t be disappointed. Science fiction is great, and it’s waiting there for you to discover. Enjoy the ride.
BRC
First published at Life as a Human

 

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<![CDATA[Peacekeeping And The Search For Hope]]> Author: Bennett R. Coles
Date: November 11, 2011

One of the greatest inventions of the 20th Century was the peacekeeper: a soldier whose entire purpose was to STOP wars from happening. Canada has a proud tradition of this and I had the honour of doing two tours as a UN military observer in the Middle East. Some might call it the dubious honour of standing between the Arabs and Israelis saying “Stop! Don’t shoot or I’ll tell!”

Armed with nothing but our blue berets, we had the chance to witness simmering conflict that occasionally erupted into violence. Usually the belligerents would target each other, but in South Lebanon in particular they had the nasty habit of using UN bases as cover from which to launch their attacks. I can’t say the UN was doing a bang-up job of keeping the peace in South Lebanon, but at least I wasn’t bored.

By comparison, my tour in the Golan Heights, where the UN maintains a “neutral zone” several kilometers across, peace more or less reigned. Many of my colleagues were bored by our quiet days in the observation posts, but I took heart in this simple realization: people weren’t dying, because we were there.

I think what affected me most during my 13 months in the Middle East was my interaction with the local people. Part of our UN mandate was to stay engaged with the people, and on our daily patrols we’d often stop to chat with villagers. Many of the families worked as subsistence farmers and lived in single-room, concrete-box houses. They were generous and hospitable to us, but I could tell that their hard lives aged them quickly. With patchy electricity, poor roads and very few opportunities, these folks worked their land, raised their kids, and hoped that neither a foreign army nor their own government would harass them too much. The arrival of the Arab Spring in Syria this year has so far done little to improve the lives of the locals.

What the Arab Spring may have brought, though, is hope. During my time in Syria it pained me to see the smiling, happy children running through the dusty village streets, because I knew what they mercifully hadn’t yet realized: there was no hope for a better life for them. Before long their childhood would end, they would take up their plows and they would toil to support their own children in a land where the government had taken all their rights and destroyed any hope for opportunity and building a better future. The Arab Spring has brought violence and fear to Syria, but just possibly, as they look to their neighbours in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, the Syrians might realize that there is another way and they might, just possibly, rediscover hope.

As an author I support War Child Canada, a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting children in war zones. This is a noble and worthwhile cause, for while those who take up arms choose their fate, war is no place for a child. A portion of every sale of my novel Virtues of War is donated to War Child in support of their efforts. I had the opportunity to don a blue beret and stand between the guns with my best “I’m watching you” stare to try and save lives. Not everyone has the chance to do that, but I encourage you all to find a charity or organization that is providing hope for humanity, like War Child, and give them your support.

BRC

First published at Life as a Human

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<![CDATA[Science Fiction and Why It's Great: Part 4 - How Genius and Absurdity Make Something Truly Great]]> Author: Bennett R. Coles
Date: November 2, 2011

So far we’ve talked about some big reasons why science fiction is great, and in every article I’ve made a point of asking readers to look past the absurdities of the science fiction fringe and focus on the strength of the core. But now I want to invite all that ridiculousness to the party – let’s talk about the Klingon university courses, the sleeping outside movie theatres for days, the pointy ears, the little green men, the freakish ability to quote movie lines and the whole range of absurdities that are a huge part of sci-fi. Although purists may shudder and closet-geeks may cringe, all that wacky weirdness is one of the things that makes science fiction great. So let’s get it out there.

Science fiction was always a bit quirky, even in what many consider to be its heyday in the 50’s and 60’s. There were no big conventions back then and no fictional languages being taught in community colleges, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t the guys on the high school football team who were picking up the latest copy of Analog or Amazing Stories. Right from the beginning, science fiction found its home away from the popular limelight, and as the size of the sci-fi subculture grew so diminished its likelihood of ever being cool.

In the late 60’s a revolutionary TV show started to change that. Star Trek, undermined by its own network and unceremoniously dumped after three seasons, did something remarkable. It actually grew in popularity even after it was cancelled. People loved it so much they started to meet in groups to talk about it. Authors started writing new stories to keep the adventure alive. And then, in 1972, there was an event called a “Star Trek convention” where cast and crew from the show actually turned up to meet with fans and talk about this fictional universe that was supposed to be dead but was very much alive. Although hardly the first science fiction convention (the very first can be dated back all the way to the 30’s), the sheer passion that fueled the Star Trek movement took the convention concept to a whole new level.

And then in 1977 another work of science fiction changed our culture forever. Star Wars exploded across our collective consciousness and, for a brief, glorious moment, made science fiction not only mainstream, but incredibly cool. I was 4 years old, and Star Wars was the first feature-length movie I ever saw. My parents say that my brother and I didn’t blink for two hours, and I can state with conviction that my entire childhood was dominated by that galaxy far, far away.

From these two cultural colossi comes pretty much all the weirdness that sci-fi is so well-known for. By the 80’s the idea of the sci-fi convention had grabbed hold, giving rise to vast venues where fans of everything from Voyage to the Centre of the Earth to V could meet, discuss, debate and buy collectibles, in total safety from muscle-bound bullies and beautiful women. (Okay, okay, perhaps an exaggeration: some very muscular guys are sci-fi fans too.) This sub-culture, for so long underground and in hiding, had been primed by Star Trek and liberated by Star Wars, and now it was free to go absolutely crazy. Costumes, action figures, comic-book adaptations, posters, china sets… A multi-billion dollar industry in collectibles was spawned, and sci-fi fanatics felt comfortable going loud and proud.

But …

But alongside all this fun and absurdity, despite science fiction moving in popular perception from being a mildly-nerdy but otherwise inoffensive genre to being a lunatic fringe of crazies who wanted to form a new society based on the United Federation of Planets, the core of what made science fiction great never changed. Science fiction continued to produce fascinating, intelligent and challenging works of literature that stand shoulder to shoulder with the best of human creativity. Science fiction is more diverse than any other genre. It is still grounded firmly in the real science that has created our modern world. It produces thought-provoking, allegorical commentary on fundamental issues of the human condition. Some of the finest novels, movies and TV shows of the past thirty years are within the realm of science fiction and no amount of silliness at the fringe has changed that. I challenge you to name me another genre of fiction that can simultaneously be so intelligent and so incredibly silly and pull off both with such conviction and panache.

And best of all, science fiction can even laugh at itself. One of the most-watched shows on TV today is The Big Bang Theory, which follows the hilarious misadventures of four uber-nerdy physicists. A half-dozen or more (often quite obscure) references to sci-fi culture are made in each episode and the main thrust of the show’s humour is making fun of sci-fi geeks. But I don’t know a single sci-fi fan who is offended – indeed most of us are huge fans of the show.

Science fiction is a diverse, established genre with a long pedigree of excellence coupled with a lighter side that allows for fun and even self-mockery. In other words, science fiction is well-travelled, mature, intelligent and has a great sense of humour – sounds to me like the very definition of cool. And that, my fellow X-wing pilots, students of Kolinahr, browncoats, dinosaur hunters and conspiracy theorists, is why science fiction is great.

 BRC

First published at Life as a Human

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<![CDATA[Science Fiction and Why It's Great: Part 3 - Art, Science and the Dreams They Make]]> Author: Bennett R. Coles
Date: October 8, 2011

The ever-quickening pace of our society has resulted in many things, but one of the most lamentable is the superficial nature of what we mostly read. Supermarket tabloids have always been lambasted for their absurd headlines designed to catch the curious shopper’s eye, but now we can all surf dozens of online headlines at a glance, and they usually range from apocalyptic, to titillating to just plain dumb. It seems this is a growing trend in the way we read today, which increases the importance of the third reason why science fiction is great: it encourages – indeed demands us, to use our brains.

The early years of science fiction set the bar high, as authors with solid scientific understanding set out to tell tales that made science the centerpiece. Jules Verne and H.G. Wells may have created some “science” that is laughable in the light of today’s knowledge, but at the time nobody knew what the surface of the Moon was like, or what lay at the centre of the Earth. These authors not only asked the questions, but gave their readers imaginary answers that forced us to think beyond our everyday experience. Could people really live underwater in private yachts like the Nautilus in Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea? Could an enemy of overwhelming power really be defeated by the common cold like the Martians in Wells’ War of the Worlds?

As scientific discovery progressed, so did the focus of science fiction authors, but they never stopped challenging their readers to think beyond what was already known. As we learned more about the our solar system, for example, stories about space exploration like Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey made popular the idea of orbiting space stations and humankind visiting our neighbouring planets. As the fundamental nature of the Universe itself was uncovered, readers were invited to stretch their minds wide by Poul Anderson’s Tau Zero taking a spaceship and her crew to the very end of time and beyond. Isaac Asimov created the term “robot” to describe an artificial life form created by humans, and in so doing popularized the notion that life was not necessarily confined to biology.

The laws of physics certainly aren’t always adhered to in science fiction, but even when Einstein is flouted he is often done so in a very intelligent way. Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek had no time for such limitations as slower-than-light travel or the integrity of the strong nuclear force, but even so this space opera has managed for decades to explore thoughtful and sometimes controversial questions about our human existence. And Star Trek even sometimes tries to offer explanations as to why the laws of physics have changed, grabbing hold of modern theories when they suggest a hint of how warp drive or transporters might actually exist.

In my novel, Virtues of War, I wanted to stay as close to the current laws of physics as I could, and I found a great ally in the theory of Dr. Lisa Randall from Harvard, who has proposed a fourth spatial dimension beyond the three-dimensional “brane” in which we exist as a solution to why gravity is so different and so much weaker than the other three fundamental forces of nature. I don’t think that the concept of a fourth spatial dimension is going to be discussed on its own merits at coffee shops and soccer games too often, but with luck, having introduced “stealth ships” that can travel in this fourth dimension known as the Bulk and be battled by heroic young space pilots like Jack Mallory, I might have brought this esoteric concept of astro-physics slightly closer to the popular consciousness.

One of the most intriguing results of this thought-provoking genre called science fiction is that so many ideas that were imagined by authors have become reality. A modern nuclear-powered submarine really could travel around the world submerged for 20,000 leagues. Robots have become ubiquitous servants in our industrial society. Space stations orbit the Earth and probes have visited every planet in our solar system (sorry folks, Pluto doesn’t count anymore…). True, we haven’t invented transporters yet, but flip-phones sure look a lot like Captain Kirk’s old communicator. And while we haven’t travelled faster than light yet either, just a couple of weeks ago scientists think they discovered particles travelling faster than Einstein’s 100-year-old intergalactic speed limit. So who knows…?

Science fiction isn’t just about exploring the far reaches of our knowledge – it pushes past that and inspires us not only to think hard, but to think new. Science fiction writers are artists, inspired by scientific reality but driven by their imaginations, and it’s their dreaming that in turn inspires scientists to ask questions, to take risks, and to create wondrous new things. And even for those of us who aren’t scientists, science fiction forces us to keep our brains engaged, to stay curious and to think about things beyond the latest celebrity scandal or playoff game. Science fiction keeps us smart, and that’s why it’s great.

BRC

First published at Life as a Human

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<![CDATA[Science Fiction and Why It's Great: Part 2 - The Deeper Meaning]]> Author: Bennett R. Coles
Date: September 30, 2011

Sometimes writing is dangerous. Throughout history writers have sometimes had to hide their meaning behind symbolism and metaphor, for to say openly what they really meant could easily mean persecution or death. Thankfully this isn’t the case too often in modern Western culture, but even in our relatively open and tolerant society, writers sometimes choose, for a variety of good reasons, to mask their thoughts in allegory. Science fiction is tailor-made for this sort of hidden meaning, and this is the second reason why it’s great.

There are some well-known examples of sci-fi stories taking on social or political issues, and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is perhaps the most famous of all. His portrayal of a ruthlessly oppressive society resonated deeply with the anti-Communist hysteria of the Cold War, but even today the reader is chilled by the manipulation and control imposed upon virtually helpless members of society. A modern reader might even see in it a reflection of our media-dominated, superficial popular culture just as easily as a paranoid Red-hunter would have spotted Uncle Joe in the 50’s.

Science fiction, by its very nature, takes place in a world that is somehow different from ours. It could be set far in the future, or on a distant world, or in downtown Seattle where magic is real. This ability of the genre to exist as close to, or as far away from, our real world as the author wants gives it a unique ability to comment on the human condition. If an author wants to comment on the dangers of genetic engineering, he might have a modern-day lab bring prehistoric creatures to life, like Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park. If instead the author wants to explore human mortality he might do so with robots like Isaac Asimov in his I, Robot collection. Or an author could provide unique insight into the wisdom of the elderly by giving his aged characters powerful new bodies as John Scalzi did in Old Man’s War. In every case, the science fiction author has the freedom, if she so chooses, to explore complex and insightful aspects of our humanity without necessarily getting bogged down in real-world politics or potentially divisive issues.

In my novel, Virtues of War, one of the themes I wanted to explore was this: what is it really like to be a soldier? What happens psychologically to regular men and women when they see combat for the first time? And what are the very real consequences of the split-second decisions they make under extreme stress? As a military veteran it’s an idea dear to my heart, but the last thing I wanted to do was set the story in a modern day conflict like Afghanistan or Iraq. I have no interest in wading into the reasons behind why those real wars started, nor do I have any interest in taking sides. My story isn’t about the reasons for war, nor is it about either American or Arab grievances. My story is about the people: it’s about the soldiers. I certainly drew on my real-life experiences in Syria and Lebanon, but by setting Virtues of War nearly 500 years in the future and on another world, I freed myself from any real-life cultural baggage that could easily have accompanied my desired theme.

Being allegorical, a science fiction story can endure far beyond what the author originally intended. Just as Nineteen Eighty-Four has outlived the political movement that inspired it, perhaps James Cameron’s Avatar will still resonate long after the dangers of reckless environmental exploitation have faded to a happy irrelevance. Not only does this give science fiction a potential for longevity not necessarily enjoyed by other genres, it only adds to the broad appeal it already commands.

So that’s the second reason why science fiction is great: it provides the perfect vehicle for the pure exploration of real and relevant aspects of the human condition without causing offense. Or to put it in a less pompous way: science fiction is not only cool, it makes you think.

BRC

First published at Life as a Human

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<![CDATA[Science Fiction and Why It's Great: Part 1 - Rediscover the Wonder]]> Author: Bennett R. Coles
Date: September 21, 2011

Low Earth OrbitIn our popular culture, there are some things that never seem to go out of fashion, and some things that never seem to come into fashion. No matter the excesses or bad behaviour of professional athletes, for example, pro sport is always going to be hot. Same for designer clothing. And so, apparently, reality TV. Science fiction, on the other hand, is marginalized and mocked, and in this series of blogs I’d like to set the record straight. I’m going to talk about science fiction, and why it’s great.

For starters, I humbly ask that you forget the stereotypes and occasional absurdities that are associated with the genre. Like most things, SF has its fringe of, shall we say, over-enthusiasts (kind of like what pro wrestling is to pro sport). What I’d like to do is explore the core of SF – what makes it what it is.

Paradoxically, one of the most important qualities of SF is going to make it a little hard to define: it’s all-inclusive. SF is a very big canvas, with a huge scope of subject matter, philosophy, themes and styles. There really doesn’t seem to be much in common between a gritty, hard science, present-day biology thriller like Greg Bear’s novel Darwin’s Radio, and a glossy, action-packed special effects-loaded space adventure like Paul Verhoeven’s film Starship Troopers. (Or, for that matter, between Starship Troopers the film, and the 1959 Robert Heinlein novel of the same name.) But though they may seem unrelated, they easily fall within the classification of science fiction. Why?

Perhaps the most fundamental quality which any SF creation must have is a sense of wonder – a sense that there is something else out to discover, even if we ultimately can’t understand it. This can be an overt theme, as in Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, or it can be an underlying menace, as in Ridley Scott’s Alien. This quest for knowledge and understanding has been a driving force in humans throughout history: its appeal, captured so well by SF, is nearly universal. And because this quality is so widespread, there is really no limit to what can be included within the SF genre.
Orion Nebula by Hubble telescope
The common sub-genres cover a huge range of topics: hard SF, where no laws of physics are broken and the story is often about the science itself; alien contact SF, where either the aliens come to us or we go to them; world disaster SF, where science must save humanity from impending doom; military SF, where some sort of advanced weaponry is involved and the story is usually about the soldiers; time travel; alternate worlds; mutants/clones/artificial life… The list goes on and on.

And finally there is space opera SF, which simply takes real life and puts it amongst the stars. Space opera is one of the most derided forms of SF, but there are brilliant examples of it, such as Joss Whedon’s Firefly, where real world, modern themes are explored in a fantastic setting. In many ways space opera captures the fundamental essence of SF the best, because it adds that essential sense of wonder by creating an imaginary place in which real, human drama can take place.

So that’s the first reason why science fiction is great: it has something for everyone. If you don’t like spaceships, try an alternate history novel like Harry Turtledove’s How Few Remain, where the Confederate States of America won the US Civil War. If you’re interested in exploring the long-term effects of disaster on individuals and society, pick up the TV series Battlestar Galactica (the 21st Century one, not the 1970s cheese-fest). If you want to be scared silly, watch the movie Event Horizon. And if you just want to switch your brain off for an evening, cosy up with Judge Dread.

I don’t know if being inclusive can make science fiction into a hot commodity, but it sure makes it something worthwhile.

BRC

First published at Life as a Human

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<![CDATA[Ten Years Later - I can still remember what it felt like]]> Author: Bennett R. Coles
Date: September 11, 2011

Today is the 11th of September, 2011. We all know what happened 10 years ago. Seeing the images all over the news today, I was surprised at how vividly I remember the shock I felt that day. Followed by the anger. Followed by the sadness.

My life was affected directly by these events, as I was shipped out weeks later to be part of the Canadian military team tasked with setting up our mission to Afghanistan. The whole thing was surreal, and there was none of the bravado many ignorant people think is the only emotions soldiers feel as they prepare for battle. We knew that Canada was in for a tough mission: we knew that many of our colleagues wouldn't be coming home. We hoped that we would make it safely through our tour no matter where it might take us. I was lucky, staying well behind the lines, but that "lack of action" didn't make me feel disappointed or cheated in any way. Like most soldiers, I never sought combat. But in the post 9/11 world I was happy to be able to make a difference in a mission that mattered.

For the record, I have always opposed the US mission to Iraq that came a few years later. But I have always supported what eventually became the NATO mission to Afghanistan, where a brutal dictatorship was ousted and a terrorist haven was destroyed. Afghanistan certainly isn't perfect today, and I never had any illusions that we'd make it so, but it is a better place than how we found it.

And seeing those ten year old images again today, I remember why we went in the first place. It was an evil act committed that day, directed in the most cowardly fashion against innocent civilians, and it by itself did nothing to improve any lives anywhere in the world. We live in a different world because of it - better or worse is hard to say. I just hope and pray we'll never have to go through a decade like that again.

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<![CDATA[War Child Canada needs You]]> Author: Bennett R. Coles
Date: August 20, 2011

I had the opportunity, during my fifteen years in uniform, to see a lot of the world. Certainly the most moving experiences were when I was a UN Military Observer in Syria, and then in Lebanon. Our job was to stand between the Israelis and their Arab neighbours and say "Don't shoot... Or I'll tell!" We had mixed success.

I think what impacted me the most, however, was driving through the Golan Heights villages in Syria, seeing all the smiling children as they ran alongside our cars. These kids were truly happy, in that innocent way of the child. But as I looked past them and saw the adults in the villages who struggled to grow food, who burned their precious kerosene either to cook or to provide light (not both - there wasn't enough fuel), my heart ached because I could see the dismal future that was in store for these smiling kids. They didn't realize it yet, but their future was already set, and it was grim.

Being raised in poverty is bad enough. But to have no hope of every escaping that poverty is horrific. Places like Syria, which are under the thumb of a brutal dictatorship and bordered by enemies, are not kind places to children. Those kids I saw years ago, running with care-free abandon, are old enough now that they're working hard to support their families: childhood is over for them, stunted and short because of the terrible world they had the bad luck of being born into.

I support War Child Canada, www.warchild.ca, because their whole mission is to help the children in parts of the world like Syria. War Child has made it a cause to help the forgotten and the helpless in war. While others talk, the folks at War Child get out and do.

I support War Child. I humbly request that you do too.

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<![CDATA[It's Business... But it's still personal]]> Author: Bennett R. Coles
Date: August 5, 2011

The other day a friend of mine went into a local independent bookstore to pick up a copy of Virtues of War, to no avail. Thinking this meant they'd sold out, I popped by a few days later to deliver more (I often deal directly with the independents to preserve profitability) and was politely informed that the book was unavailable because they'd pulled it from the shelves: apparently it hadn't sold enough.

Fair enough. I've always understood that books are a business and if this particular store wasn't making enough money selling Virtues they would only naturally replace it with something that moves more copies.

But it still hurt, dammit. How could they say that my book wasn't worth keeping in stock? How could new readers out there not instantly perceive its genius and buy it up by the wagonload? How dare they pull my book!

I tried to maintain my smile, but it was hard to enter the store thinking I was dropping off more copies of a successful seller and then leave having been told that the book was a flop. I protested that the book was already on its fourth re-order with a store across town, and the owner commented on how different genres sell well in different locations. Very true. Very professional.

I understand that it's a business. But this is something I created, and while every success makes me smile, every setback still hurts. Yes, it's a business... but it's always personal.

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<![CDATA[The Philosophy of Physics... apparently.]]> Author: Bennett R. Coles
Date: July 22, 2011

I recently finished Dr. Stephen Hawking's latest book. This is the one where he stated, on Page 1, that "philosophy is dead" and he extolled the superiority of science.

I looked forward to reading the rest of the book, if only to see how Dr. Hawking, certainly one of the cleverest people alive, was going to defend this bold hypothesis. I was very disappointed. For chapter after chapter I would read some strong opening paragraph which was followed by pages of vapid, unsupported opinion that I was apparently supposed to accept without evidence as fact simply because it came from the mind of a scientist.

The true irony of this book is that it is, in fact, a work of philosophy that just happens to have been penned by a scientist. Unlike his previous popular books, which explore the tenets of physics and lucidly explain the fundamental concepts to the non-physicist reader, this book is little more than a desperate rant on why science is so important and any other way of thinking is just plain wrong. I wonder if Dr. Hawking and his fellow theoretical physicists are getting a little nervous that after twenty years, hundreds of careers and billions of dollars in research grants, their holy grail known as string theory is proving to be little more than junk.

I've already forgotten the name of this book, but it should have been called "Why Science Rules: The Hawking Philosophy".

Philosophy is far from dead. The subjects debated by philosophers may have changed over the millenia, but the pursuit of knowledge and truth is still very much in this realm. Theoretical physics, if it wants to stay relevant, would do well to pay attention.

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<![CDATA[Ode to Chilliwack]]> Author: Bennett R. Coles
Date: July 5, 2011

The moving van came today and packed up all out stuff. We're going home to Victoria, but I just wanted to take a moment to praise the little town we've lived in for the past two and half years.

Chilliwack, BC, is a farming town of about 80,000 people nestled amongst the mountains at the head of the Fraser River Valley on Canada's West Coast. It's far enough away from Vancouver to have its own culture and feel, but close enough that you can still catch Cirque du Soleil downtown and make it home in time to give the chickens their evening feed.

Perched in a beautiful setting surrounded by snowy peaks, Chilliwack is a small town very comfortable in its own skin. It's a close-knit community that is filled with friendly people who are proud to be from here. That's nice to see in this cosmopolitan, cynical world of today.

So today we bid adieu to Chilliwack, and say thank you for more than two years in a place we'd never dreamed we'd end up, but now leave more enriched that when we came.

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<![CDATA[The danger facing modern physics]]> Author: Bennett R. Coles
Date: June 16, 2011

I recently picked up a copy of Dr. Stephen Hawking's latest book, The Grand Design, and I was looking forward to learning about the latest developments in theoretical physics. I hadn't even finished the first page before I was tempted to throw the whole thing in the garbage. On the very first page, Dr. Hawking has, unintentionally, revealed in stark clarity the serious danger facing the scientific community: intellectual irrelevance.

The first paragraph muses, mildly poetically, on how humans have always wondered about the nature of the Universe. And here is how the second paragraph starts:

"Traditionally these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics. Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge."

I was stunned that so intelligent and accomplished a thinker could draw such a small-minded and ignorant conclusion. Really? Philosophy is dead? Science is all that there is? If that is truly your belief, Dr. Hawking, then I pity you.

Now before anyone labels me a Creationist or assumes I'm a member of the Hollow Earth Society, relax. I'm a huge proponent of science and embrace the advances in human knowledge it brings. For the record, my father, whom I respect greatly, has a PhD in physics and if it was possible to get one without having to do math I'd have one myself. Fascinating stuff. But for all its success in recent centuries, science is hardly the be-all and end-all of human discovery.

Here's the critical thing that unfortunately some scientists just don't get: not only does science not have all the answers, science can't even form all the questions. Science is a tool at our disposal, very well suited to exploring certain aspects of our existence. It is completely incapable of exploring other, equally important aspects of our existence. Unfortunately, it seems that some people who have devoted their lives to science, such as Dr. Hawking and that particularly sad and laughable figure Richard Dawkins, have decided that anything which science cannot address simply doesn't exist.

This is the very real danger facing modern science, and physics in particular. Believe too much in the superiority of your own specialty and you will lose connection with the rest of reality. This ultimately leads to intellectual irrelevance, as the rest of the world carries on addressing the full spectrum of knowledge that exists. It's ironic, and sad, that some of the brightest minds around today are becoming the very thing that they criticize so vocally.

Philosophy is not dead, Dr. Hawking. But if too many of your colleagues adopt the extremes that you appear to have, theoretical physics will be. It will be replaced by a relevant school of thought that encompasses rather than excludes.

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<![CDATA[So what do I think are the virtues of war?]]> Author: Bennett R. Coles
Date: June 9, 2011

As I've had the chance to meet the reading public, it's been very interesting to see the reaction some people have to the title of the novel. Some have visibly cringed away as soon as they see the word "war" and I even had one observer shout:

"There are no virtues of war!"

So I thought I'd address the issue that seems to cause some concern: Is the novel pro-war?

The answer is no. But I'd like to clarify that it isn't anti-war either. In my humble opinion, war is a very complex human endeavor that rarely happens for simple reasons and is rarely black and white. I think that war can bring out both the very best and the very worst in individual human beings, and it's at this personal level that I focused the story. The astro-political situation that our heroes finds themselves operating in is left vague on purpose. Neither Katja, Thomas, Breeze nor (particularly) Jack know all the reasons why they've been ordered to do what they do. All they can do is deal with their personal situations as best they can, for good or ill.

This book is about the warriors, not the war. If you're interested in finding the virtues, look there first.

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<![CDATA[Part 4 - Brick and Mortar Stores]]> Author: Bennett R. Coles
Date: May 29, 2011

There's a lot of focus on the online book sales market these days, and with good reason. But for a new author looking to build credibility, there's still nothing like seeing hard-copy books sitting the shelves of local "brick and mortar" bookstores.

First, hard-copy books provide tangible proof of your literary accomplishment. The biggest challenge new authors face is convincing the world that their book is not only real but better than the rest. A professionally-produced, hard-copy book is the best way to show that you are committed to the book and didn't just upload a text file to a free web service. This isn't to say that the content of a printed book can't be rubbish, but the initial impression it gives is of quality and dedication - an e-book simply cannot do this in the same way. And a printed book sitting on a real brick and mortar store shelf suggests even more that at least someone beyond the author feels that the book is quality.

Second, for purely economic reasons, brick and mortar sales channels provide another means of selling the book. It costs more to produce and takes more effort to get them placed, but hard-copy books still reign supreme in the eyes of most readers today. Even though e-readers are growing in popularity and e-books are now accepted as mainstream, millions of readers still buy hard-copy only, and if you don't have a product available to them you will sell precisely zero to that sector of the market.

Third, perhaps most valuable to the new author, brick and mortar stores can provide valuable new ways of promoting the book. The most common way is through author signings: maximize these occasions by inviting everyone you can to attend, informing the local media, and promoting yourself confidently at the signing itself. Another excellent means of exposure is if the bookstore is willing to do a review of the book - not only might this appear in the local media, it gives you an invaluable boost to your credibility as an unknown author.

So while it is a lot of work and takes much more time and money than e-books, printing hard copy books and getting them into brick and mortar stores is an essential pillar to the marketing strategy of a new author. While it doesn't have the reach of online sales, it gives credibility in several ways that e-publishing simply cannot.

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<![CDATA[The Micro-story]]> Author: Bennett R. Coles
Date: April 27, 2011

For years, fiction has been trending toward ever more efficient writing. It might be hard to notice a difference between this year's new releases and a book from, say, the 80's - but it's pretty easy to see if you wade into a 19th Century classic like Portrait of a Lady, or anything by Charles Dickens. And for any authors out there, you will no doubt groan at all the critiques you've received telling you to "tighten up" your prose or drop entire sections that don't actively move the story forward.

I can't say I'm opposed to this trend, and I certainly consider myself a better writer for all those exercises in efficiency I did over the years. But I wonder if perhaps the literary community isn't reaching toward an absurdity. Ten years ago I cut my teeth on 1000-word short stories. Two years ago I heard lots of buzz about the 100-word "short short" stories - apparently it was considered the height of talent to be able to fit a compelling tale into so fine a delivery.

Now, we have Twitter Stories. In other words, tell a complete story in 140 characters. Have we gone too far? Can anything that can truly be called a "story" be reduced to 140 characters? Oh sure, pithy statements and witty, even profound, remarks can fit. But a story? With a character, a plot and a meaning? I'm afraid I have to question whether a segment of the literary community isn't taking the idea of efficiency too far.

However, so as not to be cast out as a Philistine, I present to you a micro-story dictated by my two-year-old son just the other day while pouring water from a boat in his bath:

"Drop of rain. The end."

Brilliant, powerful and oozing with meaning, wouldn't you say? Oh, how high school students will one day pour over the meaning of that particular Coles the Younger classic.

Of course, there won't actually be any class discussion or essays written because those forms of communication will be considered far too inefficient. Probably just a "Like" of the Facebook page set up to gather feedback.

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<![CDATA[Part 3 - Online Marketing]]> Author: Bennett R. Coles
Date: April 22, 2011

It's pretty much a sure thing that as an author who has to worry about your own marketing you don't have pots of money at your disposal. The good news in the 21st Century is that the Internet has provided all of us with a medium to reach potentially millions of people at little or no cost. The bad news is that there is SO much other stuff out there online that making yourself stand out can be tricky.

In a previous post I talked about the importance of having a website as the key to your online marketing campaign. It acts as the focus, and all your online marketing efforts should direct people to it. Keeping in mind that your website can be rich in content (indeed, it should be) the other parts of your online marketing don't have to be - all they have to do is get people to go to your website. The Internet is an excellent medium for short, provocative messages. As you put together the specifics of your online marketing plan, consider that you have about two seconds to grab the attention of a casual surfer.

The other extremely important fact about online marketing is that it has to engage its audience. Simple flashing a banner ad in front of people won't be very effective (most surfers will ignore all standard advertising on a page) - you have to find a way to grab the viewer's attention and invite them to participate in what you have to say. The blog on your website is the best vehicle for true engagement, but it suffers from being "hidden" in only one location. You need to consider sites that your target audience already frequents and engage them there to come back to your website for a more in-depth chat.

Twitter, Reddit and quick social media like them are a good place to start. You can present yourself and your message to the entire world in one shot, and people who find you interesting will follow and connect with you. Facebook and LinkedIn can help you tap into your existing network and branch outward to the networks of all your contacts. If you have the right media to present, YouTube can also be a good snare. Online forums populated with people who might enjoy you book are a potential gold mine. The important thing to remember with all of these sites is that you must be offering to engage your viewers with something interesting: just blaring a one-way message across the Web won't be effective and may even get you blocked by some people.

The specifics of how you engage your audience are up to you, and depend very much on the subject matter of your book. Your online social media campaign doesn't have to be exactly on the topic of your writing, but it should definitely appeal to people who would enjoy reading your book. Make sure that your online campaign is as creative and dynamic as the book it supports, and you should be well on your way.

The final thing to consider for online marketing is the time commitment. In order to engage, converse and stay fresh, you will need to devote a lot of time - and the more media you use, the more time you'll need to devote. If, like most authors, you have a real job in addition to writing, consider carefully how to most efficiently devote your time to this critical pillar of your overall marketing campaign.

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<![CDATA[Why America dropping bombs on Libya proves a point]]> Author: Bennett R. Coles
Date: April 1, 2011

The fact that American aircraft are pounding Colonel Qaddafi's forces on their home soil could be submitted as Exhibit A in the debate on why it's important for Western nations to maintain strong, flexible military forces.

Because America has always maintained a powerful military presence around the world, the time delay between deciding to intervene in the Libyan conflict and actually doing so was equal to a secure call to the Mediterranean commander and sailing a ship a few hundred miles south. No other nation on Earth has the ability to respond so quickly and decisively to events far from home.

Now I'm not saying that US military intervention is always a good thing - quite often it isn't. But that's a question of policy, not of readiness. In the case of Libya, I challenge anyone to argue against my opinion that supporting the common will of the majority of citizens in their attempt to remove a long standing and brutal dictator is a worthy cause. Dictators have tumbled in North Africa these past few months, with serious challenges to tyranny currently underway in Syria, Bahrain and Yemen. This is a GOOD THING, and we are morally obliged to help if we can. If Qaddafi suppresses this revolt, don't think for one moment that he will show any mercy to his people. And if he holds power, he will embolden other dictators to fight against their own people with equal brutality.

There are plenty of NATO countries involved in this campaign - and I'm proud to count Canada among them - but the first response was by the American standing forces, and NATO was able to respond so quickly only because this conflict is in its own backyard.

No matter where there is trouble in the world, the American military has the ability to react. That is a good thing, so long as the political decision-making behind it is sound. I tip my hat to the warriors and the architects of this world-wide force. I pray that their political masters learn to use them wisely.

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<![CDATA[So how do you build a better navy?]]> Author: Bennett R. Coles
Date: March 10, 2011

I read yesterday that Canada has declined to participate in a joint project with Great Britain to build together the next generation of warships for both navies.

http://www.naval-technology.com/news/news112228.html?WT.mc_id=DN_News

The main reason cited is that a joint deal wouldn't be in the best interests of Canadian industry - namely our shipyards. More business kept in Canada, more jobs for Canadians. This is a strong argument, but the strong counter-argument can also be made that collaboration with Britain would likely result in cost-savings through economies of scale and a better design due to more expertise being applied from both sides of the Atlantic.

So, you're the Prime Minister. You have to make this high-profile, multi-billion dollar decision that will have massive implications for Canadian industry, defence and foreign policy for decades. Do you try to please the voters in Halifax, Quebec and Vancouver who will benefit from the big boost to their local economies when these massive ship-building contracts are offered? Or do you try to please the disparate but vocal fiscal hawks who want you to get the best product for the lowest price?

To chase the highly-visible local ship-building contracts is the populist angle that gives you good photo ops and reaches three far-flung regions in our country.

To chase the international collaboration is the intellectual angle that helps build the case that Canada under your government is fiscally responsible and still a significant world player.

I'm not going to say which decision I'd make, but I'm curious to know yours.

And I'm glad I'm not a politician.

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<![CDATA[Part 2 - The Book Website]]> Author: Bennett R. Coles
Date: March 2, 2011

No matter which route to pubilcation a new author chooses - traditional publishing house, self-publishing, POD, e-publishing - the biggest challenge remains the same: how do you get the word out that your book is the most awesome piece of written literature since Homer?

The internet has opened up a whole new world of marketing, the customs of which are still being established. In fact, the methods themselves are still evolving. There are several key elements to any author's online marketing campaign, but the most important by far is the book's website.

The book website is critical, because it is to your website that you want to drive all the traffic you generate through other means. Your website is where you can relax and present all the info on your book (and yourself, as relevant). This is where you can offer a free preview of the book (because few online shoppers buy anything in the blind); your website can offer additional info about the book, such as background and story setting details; you can post relevant links which tie into your books theme, and even create a blog or forum to engage like-minded readers. But most of all, this is where you sell your book online. This is where you make back your investment.

The website needs to look professional, so unless you are a web designer/ programmer already, get a pro to design and create it for you. The attention span of the average online surfer is about one second if the website doesn't immediately grab them, so you only have one chance to get their interest.

And don't neglect optimization. After a while, through your other online marketing efforts, readers will start to seek out the website specifically, but many potential readers will ideally find your site by accident while doing an online search for something similar. If your website is fully optimized and keeps showing up near the top of similar searches, your traffic will grow with no extra effort on your part.

But of course online marketing doesn't start and finish with just the website. There are lots of other ways you can drive traffic to your site, and I'll talk about them in another post.

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<![CDATA[Part 1 - Entry Into The Market]]> Author: Bennett R. Coles
Date: February 19, 2011

The business of writing has changed dramatically in the past few years. The internet, advanced printing technologies and the recent recession have certainly changed the traditional publishing model. It has generally been bad news for the big publishing houses, but is it bad news for writers?

Not necessarily. On the plus side, e-books via the internet allow first-time authors to overcome the single biggest hurdle that used to stop them from reaching their audience: distribution channels. Print-on-demand (POD) technology has given authors a less expensive method of producing hard copies of their books without having to store boxes and boxes of unsold copies in their garage. So in this way, several key barriers to entry have been removed, giving authors a greater chance than ever before of seeing their work published.

However, with these barriers to entry being lowered, by default another critical barrier has disappeared: quality. Since many e-books and POD-books undergo no quality control before publication, the buyer has no implicit assurance that their new purchase is going to meet an acceptable literary standard like most traditionally-published books. And the most obvious downside to POD or self-published books is financial: these methods require the author to pay thousands of dollars up front.

And even for traditional publishing there are negative aspects to the recent shifts in the industry. Fueling a significant and sustained decrease in the sales of hard-copy books, the internet and the recession have combined to put traditional publishing houses in a financial bind. Faced with plunging revenues they have been generally forced to focus on their proven money-makers (ie: their existing authors) and have fewer resources to devote to new authors. And even when they do take a chance on an unknown, the marketing resources available to promote this new book are virtually non-existent. So for the new author wanting to take the traditional route to publishing, the long shot of even being considered by a publisher has become an almost-insurmountable barrier.

So the business landscape of writing has definitely changed, and a new author is well-advised to think hard about the traditional model of finding an agent, pitching a publisher and getting an advance. This is still a viable route, but it has become a lot more difficult than it was even five years ago. E-publishing, self-publishing and POD-publishing have all become more realistic options, although the stigma attached to them (through the perception of poor quality) is still a challenge to overcome.

The aspiring author thus has several viable avenues to publication in today's market, each with significant pros and cons. I think this is a good thing as it gives some power back to the author and breaks the stranglehold of the publishing houses. But in order to make the right decision, the author needs to consider what his or her goal in publishing really is.

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<![CDATA[Egypt is free. Here's hoping...]]> Author: Bennett R. Coles
Date: February 11, 2011

The most extraordinary thing has happened over the past two weeks in Egypt. After thirty years of tyrannic rule, President Hosni Mubarak has been removed from power. What is even more extraordinary is that there was no armed rebellion, no civil war, and no foreign troops. Even in Western democracies presidents don't get removed that quickly - to say nothing of Middle Eastern dictators-for-life.

Having lived in Egypt's neighbour, Syria, I've seen first-hand what life can be like under an all-powerful family dynasty with its own secret police. I've also visited Egypt and, in 2004 at least, Syria seemed like a modern, freedom-loving paradise compared to its larger neighbour. To see such a spontaneous, far-reaching and sustained outpouring of resistance against Mubarak (who might as well have been called Pharaoh up until two weeks ago) almost defies belief.

Credit must also be given to the Egyptian Army, which has so far been very restrained and seems to be one of the key players in resolving this crisis without widespread violence. Handing temporary political power to the military has a sad history around the world of becoming permanent, but most observers remain optimistic that Egypt's generals are sincerely working to promote a democratic revolution.

Stranger things have happened, but not many. Let's pray this crisis ends well for the courageous people of Egypt.

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<![CDATA[Genetically modified crops - what's the big deal?]]> Author: Bennett R. Coles
Date: February 7, 2011

This topic might sound sound a little out in left field, but it has relevance to VIRTUES OF WAR in that it's one of the issues humankind has to deal with as we strain Earth's resources with an ever-growing population and one day start to consider colonizing other planets.

So, genetically-modified (GM) crops. Why do people in the Eastern hemisphere (and people on Saltspring Island) hate them so much? And I mean hate. In Europe there's a strong movement to force any GM foods to be prominently labelled as such - kind of like cigarette packs. Some African leaders have said they'll refuse food aid if it's been "tainted" by GM. There seems to be this very strong and very pervasive opinion that GM crops are both dangerous and immoral. Why? This is an honest question from a puzzled North American.

Humans have been genetically modifying their food for thousands of years - it's called selective breeding. And the reason for GM is inevitably to make better food - corn that need less water; wheat that needs less pesticide; strawberries that can grow in colder climates. These sound like good ideas to me. If we can grow food by using less water and pollutants, and do so in areas that were previously marginal to farming, why would we not want to?

Is it because modern GM is done in a lab instead of the field? Is it because we can control the process more specifically than we used to and this raises fears of playing God? That kind of fear doesn't seem to raise much issue in other scientific endeavors these days - why is this one so different?

So I'm sincerely asking for feedback here. I do not understand why millions of people are opposed to a science-based, peer-regulated industry that is dedicated to improving the production and availability of humankind's most valuable resource: food.

Please, enlighten me.

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<![CDATA[Micromanagement is the enemy of Leadership]]> Author: Bennett R. Coles
Date: January 21, 2011

One of the most powerful abilities that all our modern information technology gives us is the ability to know. At the click of a mouse or the tap of a screen, we can summon information on more subjects than we could ever appreciate. This is generally perceived as a good thing - and in general I agree - but it is actually becoming a very bad thing in organizations.

When I started my working career - and I'm in my 30's, just to quell the inevitable, wheezy "back in my day" comments - there were only a few ways the boss would keep an eye on things. To get a general sense, the best was to walk around and talk to staff. For a specific question there was the phone (which was only useful if the recipient was actually at their desk). And for broad-reaching yet specific information gathering there were physical meetings and written reports. These were the options, and they worked just fine. Jobs got done, targets were met, objectives accomplished.

Since the rise of email, cell phones and the internet, however, the trend over the past 15 years is for bosses to want more and more specific information more and more often. "Just cc me on the email you send out" is a seemingly-innocent phrase fraught with peril. This phrase, and the entire philosophy that goes behind it, has led to two very real and very dangerous trends:

1) bosses think they need to know every detail, at every level
2) bosses get nervous if any decision is made without their direct input

What does this all too often lead to? Bosses who are stressed because they are overworked and overwhelmed, and employees who are either frustrated because they aren't allowed to make decisions on their own, or resigned to the intellectual sandbox because they never have to think independently or make the hard choices.

This is micromanagement. And our tech-heavy society is creating bosses who are so used to having every detail at their fingertips that many don't know how to delegate and let go. To hear a CEO brag about how he likes to catch out his managers on some detail doesn't impress me - it makes me think what a bad leader that CEO is. If he doesn't trust his managers he shouldn't have hired them, and if he loves the details he probably shouldn't have taken a job as CEO.

Micromanagement is about as far from real leadership as you can get. Real leadership is based on a few key principles, the biggest of which is trust. A leader MUST trust his or her subordinates, because the leader has far more important things to worry about that the little details. The first step toward trust is not looking over your subordinate's shoulder every time they do something. The second step is giving your subordinates a certain degree of autonomy to make decisions on their own without checking with you first. Trust is easy to talk about in a management seminar, but it can be hard to implement in real life. It can be hard to let someone else make a decision that might not be exactly what you'd do. It can be hard to let go and just hope that the best result will emerge. But it is possible, and it is the first step toward true leadership. The other benefits of happy employees, better productivity and a genuinely innovative environment will come naturally from that. All micromanagement brings is stress, distrust, redundancy and high turnover.

So switch off your Blackberry on the weekend. Delegate routine decisions. And above all, don't ask to be cc'd on that email.

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<![CDATA[The unhealthy speed of life]]> Author: Bennett R. Coles
Date: January 12, 2011

I'd like to say that sitting in a traffic jam for an hour this morning helped me to appreciate the value of slowing down and smelling the roses. Unfortunately, the only thing to smell was diesel exhaust and my left leg began to cramp as I rode the clutch and gave first and second gear an unusually good workout.

But the point isn't lost on me. In my relatively short time in Western society I've seen the rise of cell phones, the internet and a culture of instant gratification. And in the work world, an obsession with using technology to increase efficiency has taken Adam Smith's economic vision to extremes that are now endangering our health.

Remember when we had to wait days - days! - for mail to arrive? And we could only call people when they were physically in their office? And if we wanted three people to get the same message we had to write it out three times? Now we can access pretty much everyone, all the time, all at once. All of the technological advances in communication and data movement were designed to make our lives easier, but all they did was make our lives busier. What we used to accept took a week to accomplish we now demand in hours. Every time we introduce a new time-saving device we don't take that extra time to enjoy life or work: we just try to cram more stuff in.

And this comes with a cost: stress. And all the maladies that come from it. Heart disease, ulcers, depression... In our efforts to make our lives better we are making them worse. But we're too busy to notice.

A reader will notice that the characters in Virtues of War accomplish their tasks at about the same pace as us in the early 21st century, despite their society's obvious technological advances beyond ours. This is deliberate on my part: I believe that we are already pushing our biological limits with the demands of busyness we continue to impose on ourselves. To imagine that humans will continue to process information at an ever-increasing rate is leaving science fiction and entering fantasy.

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<![CDATA[Virtues of Haiku]]> Author: Bennett R. Coles
Date: December 15, 2010

I recently received a very nice letter from a fan. He began by apologizing for not having paid for his copy of VIRTUES, as he'd been given it by a fellow airline passenger while they were stuck in Montreal overnight (thank you, once again, Air Canada). He enjoyed the book and wanted to make it up to me for having received the book for free by penning some haiku poetry in VIRTUES' honour:

Guns checked to ready:
The drop-ship ramp is lowered.
Katja breathes in deep.

Silence curdles thought
In the cold space of the Bulk.
Viking-Two, hunting.

Centauri ships fire;
Space debris cold, yet teeming.
And Breeze; still scheming

The book apparently inspires poets - I can't think of much higher praise than that. I'm honoured.

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<![CDATA[Can art and business co-exist?]]> Author: Bennett R. Coles
Date: December 3, 2010

Is it possible to make great art and great profits at the same time? There seems no end of stories of brilliant artists, musicians and writers who languish in obscurity, unable to get The Man to appreciate their genius and promote it. Likewise, just turn on your TV to see just how much vapid crap is pumped out to an (apparently) eager audience.

As an artist who certainly tries to create intelligent, thought-provoking and yet entertaining writing, it saddens me to think that humanity's creativity appears to have been reduced to just an input to an accountant's spreadsheet. As a businessman I understand that companies have to turn a profit - otherwise they cease to exist. But nowadays company profits are most often reviewed on a quarterly basis, which means you have three months to make a project work: if it's not showing promise by the end of the quarter, you better ditch it and go with a sure-thing fast-earner. As a businessman, I think that our obsession with quarterly results is misguided anyway - there are plenty of valuable business projects that take longer than that to mature - but this is particularly true with the arts.

A truly brilliant work of art may not be fully appreciated at a glance. Indeed, one quality that can make art brilliant is the fact that you discover something new every time you see it. Multiple layers and hidden meanings are part of what can make art great, as well as cultural and historical context that requires greater understanding and thought to be appreciated. I do think that great art should be able to be appreciated at first glance (thus drawing a more thorough examination) but instant likeability or comprehension isn't required.

What does this mean for a business? It means that great art may not fly off the shelves immediately or drive your ratings through the roof after one episode. Great art needs time to be appreciated, time for the audience to grasp that they're seeing something new and that it's good. But give it time, and great art will provide a great following, which will (eventually) provide great profits.

So yes, it can be done. But it requires much greater patience than the majority of publishers, studios and networks are willing to invest these days. The way to solve this problem doesn't require a discussion about art - it requires a discussion about business. More on that in another post.

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<![CDATA[Apparently, I was actually awesome]]> Author: Bennett R. Coles
Date: November 15, 2010

I had the opportunity to speak to a local high school at their assembly before Remembrance Day. Squeezing into my Navy tunic and UN blue beret, and flashing around the bling earned from 15 years of service, I spoke about the Canadian military and its history since World War I, as well as a few minutes on my own small role within. I wasn't sure how the talk was going, as the assembled student body didn't seem to be reacting at all, but I was assured that silence from teenagers is a very good thing - it means I'd captured their interest enough to actually stop them from texting, poking, giggling, etc.

A few days ago I received a thank you card from the school, and in it were individual comments submitted by the Grade 11 class. Here is just a sampling:

"Thanks for coming. I learned a lot more about war and some issues in the world." 
- Eric

"I am... deeply in love with... your hat."
- Anonymous

"Thanks for showing us that the Canadian Forces are really evident in the world today! Your speech was so cool!"
- Brandon

"You are the man!!! Thanx for speaking. I really enjoyed it and it was actually AWESOME!
- Paul

So there you have it. No only did I not suck, but I was actually AWESOME!

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<![CDATA[We Remember]]> Author: Bennett R. Coles
Date: November 10, 2010

Tomorrow, all across Canada and in many countries around the world, we will pause in our hectic lives to remember those brave men and women who sacrificed so much for us. It pains me that this sacrifice is often taken for granted, and that so many of us don't realize what our lives might be like had these men and women not stood up to evil empires like the Nazis, Imperial Japan or Communism. And leave your revisionist history nonsense in the dustbin - the rulers of these empires were our enemies, even if their poor, innocent people were dragged along as victims. It is the leaders of these empires who made the decisions - another truth that is often forgotten in our free, democratic society - and they would have shown us no mercy. If our men and women in uniform hadn't taken a stand against these enemies, we might today be victims as well.

And while the world today doesn't have evil empires in the same way, and no-one is seriously threatening Canadian freedom, there are still evil people out there doing evil things to victims all around the world. Today our soldiers defend the rights of innocents in other lands - something else we take for granted here at home. Overseas, people are stunned and amazed that we would care enough to go half-way around the world and sacrifice ourselves for people we've never met and who hold no strategic interests for us. Trust me, while some in Canada deride our missions, the common folks in Kandahar, Darfur, Haiti, Syria and other places are very appreciative of our efforts to keep them safe and to let them lead semi-normal lives.

To all my colleagues, the men and women of the CF past and present, thank-you. We remember.

BRC

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<![CDATA[Warrior does not mean War-Monger]]> Author: Bennett R. Coles
Date: October 27, 2010

I find it interesting that some folks are surprised when members of the military speak out against war. Similarly, I find it annoying when folks assume that just because I wear/wore a uniform I automatically support every war around the world. So on behalf of all of us warriors, let me be so bold as to say: no, we don't think war is the first or best choice in this world.

First, military members are as educated, informed and free-willed as every other member of society. One difference between them and more pacifist citizens is that soldiers understand that war, however undesireable, is sometimes necessary for the greater good. It doesn't mean they look forward to it or encourage it - they simply recognize it as a reality. If there's another way to solve the issue where no-one gets hurt, soldiers are as supportive as anyone in pursuing that option.

Second, if we do ever go to war, who do you think winds up getting killed? Not the politicians, not the arms manufacturers, certainly not the right-wing armchair generals who blather on about national interests on their blogs and TV shows: it's the soldier who gets killed. Soldiers are very aware of this, so trust me, they don't seek out war for its own sake.

Soldiers are human beings like everyone else. Like most professions they've been glamourized and simplified by Hollywood and the national media, but as individuals they're as complex and diverse as any other group of citizens. I personally thought the American invasion of Iraq was a terrible idea - always did, always will. But that doesn't make me hate the soldiers who went - I just feel sorry for them.

I do think the NATO intervention in the former Yugoslavia was a good idea, and thousands of lives were saved by NATO wedging itself between the combatants and saying: "Stop shooting at each other, or we'll pound the crap out of you, and we're bigger." Sound war-mongerish? Maybe. But it was the only language those belligerents would listen to at the time, and it worked. Messy? Yes. Pretty? No. But it worked. Lives were saved and peace eventually brought to a divided land.

When it comes down to it, soldiers have a very nasty job to do. They don't look forward to it, but they believe that their role is necessary and they do it because it's right. Doing a nasty job is not the same as wishing for it. Warrior does not mean war-monger.

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<![CDATA[Does Canada need the F-35?]]> Author: Bennett R. Coles
Date: October 13, 2010

Nine billion dollars for sixty-five planes? I think the entire Navy cost that much. I'm familiar with the high price of cutting-edge defence contracts, but I was stunned when I heard we were only getting sixty-five F-35 fighters for that price tag. That's half the number of F-18's we currently have. Is there another option?

Of course there is. There always is. The French make some nifty fighters, as do the Swedes. And if we're looking for mass compatibility with our allies the Eurofighter is always out there. But what are we trying to accomplish for Canada's Air Force? National sovereignty is the first priority. And while many of us may think that our vast country is indefensible, those swift fighters flying out of Cold Lake and Bagotville can make it to any of our borders in a matter of minutes if need be. They're our first line of defence, and we need the very best equipment we can. Nobody can argue that the F-35 is absolutely top of the line.

Next, there's the nasty business of supporting our troops overseas. Our F-18's fought in the Gulf War and over former Yugoslavia, with spectular - if little known - success. This is an extremely dangerous occupation, and we would be remiss if we sent our pilots into battle with anything less than the best. Also, since the F-35 is American-made, it's already designed to integrate seamlessly into an American air defence network, which is the most likely scenario for future Canadian air operations.

But still, only sixty-five for nine billion dollars? Youch. The good thing is, we've been operating our fighter command with a similar number of aircraft for years after half the F-18 fleet was mothballed in order to extend the overall lifetime of the force. Sixty-five F-35's, specifically designed to be low-maintenance and with higher readiness capabilities, may actually increase our ability to patrol our skies.

So it's a big, big price tag, but there's no question the F-35 is the best fighter available, and our pilots deserve nothing less.

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<![CDATA[Why generalists are better]]> Author: Bennett R. Coles
Date: September 28, 2010

Within the Astral Force, cross-training for officers is encouraged. If an officer hopes to one day rise to the rank of Fleet Marshall, he or she must have served at least one tour as a junior officer in both the Fleet and the Corps. It is considered essential for a senior leader to have a personal understanding of multiple aspects of the Force, not just their own specialization, and the broader an officer's career experience the better.

This is the philosophy of the generalist, and it creates the best leaders. The opposite is the specialist: a person who over time has gained intimate and in-depth knowledge of a particular area. Given enough time, the specialist might even be the expert on a subject, the person to whom all come for advice on that topic. Specialists are invaluable and their dedication to their craft can bring great benefits to their organization.

But when we're talking about leaders, a subject matter expert with a narrow focus is very often the worst person to put in charge. Why? Three reasons. First, they don't know anything about all the other areas of the organization over which they now have responsibility. Second, having spent a lot of time being the expert on their subject, they're probably not used to being questioned - or being wrong, for that matter. And third, a specialist won't have the breadth of experience if the environment changes, and their experience suddenly becomes irrelevant. Putting a specialist in overall charge is a recipe for inefficiency, mistrust and failure.

A generalist, in contrast, brings a wide perspective to leadership, and with it an ability to easily embrace strange new ideas and consider them on their merits, or lack thereof. A generalist is also used to not being an expert, and thus is very comfortable asking for input from other team members. A generalist has the ability to see the big picture, because he or she has personally experienced many aspects of it. A generalist has the ability to keep things in perspective, because he or she has probably seen something similar in the past.

As leaders, specialists flounder in the face of the unknown. Generalists thrive, empower and inspire.

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<![CDATA[The power of the military - what if it was used for good?]]> Author: Bennett R. Coles
Date: September 15, 2010

Having lived and worked in both civilian and military settings, I have really begun to understand what sets the military apart from the rest of society. The sense of purpose, the communal identity, the unquestioned assumption that everyone is working for everyone else's best interests - it's almost incomprehensible to those who have never been a part of it. And the result is an ability to accomplish seemingly-impossible tasks again and again. Unfortunately, the most impossible and incredible successes of any military usually involve destruction and death. And usually on a massive scale. There's the rub.

Veterans talk about how when in combat they've never been more scared, but at the same time they've never felt more alive. The rush, the sheer excitement, the knowledge that your very life is at stake, has the ability to push human beings far beyond what they would ever be capable of in normal life - couple this with the discipline, purpose and honour instilled in most modern militaries, and you have a recipe for greatness. So why can't we use our militaries to solve poverty, or save the environment, or any number of other great causes?

Unfortunately, in my humble opinion, as great as all those causes are, none of them have the ability to ignite the inner fire the way war does. I'm not saying this is a good thing - it's more a sad irony that the very best traits in humanity - courage, self-sacrifice, determination - are most often brought out when we're trying to kill each other. Maybe colonizing another planet would come close to creating that success-or-death kind of drive, but for now we're just working on safe, old Earth.

If anyone has an idea of how we could make the development of economically-viable alternative energy methods as high-stakes as combat, I'm all ears.

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<![CDATA[Most worthwhile things aren't easy]]> Author: Bennett R. Coles
Date: September 8, 2010

It's taken a lot of time (and blood, sweat and tears) to get this book published and out in the market. And we're not done yet. Not that I mind the hard work and long hours at all - because this is something that I think is very worthwhile and very valuable. My point is simply this: there are very few things in life worth having that are easy. Be it a successful career, a successful marriage, winning the big game, or creating something beautiful, none of them are "just-throw-it-together-last-second-on-pure-skill-and-luck" type of things. Real experts can make it look easy, but don't be fooled for a second. Those experts became experts through time, practice and a whole lot of hard work. Oh sure, innate skill helps tremendously, but it'll only get you so far if you don't work to develop it. And as for luck? Yes, it can play a factor - but only if you can take advantage of it. I've heard a wonderful quote that says: "Luck is when preparation meets opportunity."

I worry that in our comfortable, instant-gratification society, some folks have forgotten the reality that success doesn't come easy. If you really want something, you have to work hard at it. If you're not willing to work hard, ask whether you really want it that bad. Could I have earned an Engineering degree instead of an Arts degree? Maybe, if I'd really wanted it. But the idea of doing uber-math for four years didn't really appeal, and thus neither did an Engineering degree. I just didn't want it bad enough to take on that challenge. My 57% in first-year physics was also a strong indicator...

And I think it's okay to try something and then figure out that you don't want it bad enough to put in the effort. At least you tried (which is more than a lot of people did) and you've enriched yourself with some more knowledge and experience. And now you know how to get started, so when something comes along that you really want, it'll be that much easier to get off the couch and go after it.

As a society, we achieve great things through daring, through brilliance, but most of all through sheer hard work. If we as a society forget about the necessity of the hard work part - or just don't want to do it - we stand to lose a great deal, both as a society and as individuals. So let's get out there and do it! Yee-hah!

BRC

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<![CDATA[Virtues of War supports www.warchild.ca]]> Author: Bennett R. Coles
Date: September 1, 2010

A portion from the sale of every copy of Virtues of War will be donated to War Child Canada to support their ongoing mission.

For more information please visit: www.warchild.ca

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