Dagmar

by wjw on December 15, 2017

tfw_wjw_ebook_mLet’s go behind the fourth wall, via some thoughts about the Dagmar books, timely now that the series has been re-released as ebooks.

Back in 2005, my friends Sean Stewart and Maureen McHugh, along with Elan Lee and Jordan Weisman,  invited me and Jim Cambias to join them in creating an online game called Last Call Poker.  The same team had created the Alternate Reality Games The Beast and ilovebees, and I’d been hanging with Maureen at Rio Hondo when part of that was going on, and what she told me seemed both exciting and fascinating.

Alternate Reality Games represent the first original art form to rise from the Internet.  By breaking up the story into packets, and by delivering those packets through a variety of media, a game can fully exploit the possibility of the online world.  The story could be delivered via text, radio play, podcast, video, comics, photography, advertising, drawings, and, well, pretty much anything else, including old media such as telephones, books, cards, and (in one case) clothing.  And by drawing in the audience via the promise of a game, and hiding the story elements behind puzzles, and making the puzzles so insidiously complex that no one person could possibly solve all of them, the audience is compelled to form ad hoc online communities in order to make the game accessible to themselves and others.

I have written elsewhere about my experience with Last Call Poker.  I won’t repeat any of that, except to reiterate that I found this months-long experience the most satisfying extended creative high of my life.  In the absence of another ARG to work on, I wanted to translate the experience into something I understood rather better, which is to say fiction.

The translation from live electrons to dead trees was probably not the most intuitive way for me to go, but it was the most exploitable option available to me.

There were two features of ARGs that I wanted to feature in the novel.  First, the Group Mind— the players who band together in ad hoc groups to solve the game’s puzzles.  Throughout Last Call Poker, I was consistently amazed by how quickly the players solved what seemed to me to be knotty little posers.

One message, for example, was (first) written in German, then (second) coded in a turn-of-the-previous-century cipher called Playfair, and (finally) transmitted in Morse.

The players had a working translation in about three hours.  It lacked the elegance and nuance of the original, but it got them to the next bit of information.

Another feature of the games was that the creators were, essentially, invisible.  The games are presented deadpan, with no overt clue that they’re games.  You might mistake them for reality.  You don’t create a character in order to play: you play as yourself.  There’s no rulebook, and the game board could be as big as the planet, and as all-embracing as the Internet.  The game doesn’t end when you logoff; it pursues you into real life, with phone calls, mysterious packages in the mail, and live meet-ups.

Players aren’t recruited, they’re enticed.  They go out on missions into the real world, to exchange information, find clues, or deliver messages.

You can make a guess as to who’s behind the curtain— the house styles of some creators were distinctive— but you don’t know.  And when you are enticed into going on missions into the real world, how do you know that the missions are part of a game, or if the masterminds behind the game are gaming you?

I plotted a novel based on these ideas, but I couldn’t sell it.  ARGs were state-of-the-art hip, and in 2005 publishing was basically a 19th Century industry where editors were still lugging heavy manuscripts from home to office and back again.  I kept getting the impression that I was pitching the internal combustion engine to, say, Julius Caesar— a really smart guy, but not hip to the intricacies of the four-stroke cycle.

So I wrote Implied Spaces for a small-to-medium press, which ended up being a mistake, and in the meantime I hoped for a hip editor to make an appearance.

Well, England sent a hip editor to New York, seemingly just for me, and Tim Holman of Orbit decided he wanted This Is Not a Game.  And not only did he want it, he wanted me to go for the gold.

See, I’d pulled my punches in the proposal.  I figured that ARGs were such a radical idea that I should build them into a plot that was more conventional, so that the reader wouldn’t be completely bewildered.  I don’t even remember that plot now, except that it was a mystery set in Hollywood, but Tim urged me to junk it and do something bigger.  In this he was absolutely right, and (with a little brainstorming from some friends), I came up with the idea of Charlie’s little friends posing a menace to the world financial system.

All this from the point of view of Dagmar, a woman as furiously driven as, well, all my other heroines.  (I seem not to write about mellow people much.)  But I decided she’d be different from Sarah or Sula, who are genuinely heroic, and good at being heroic.  Dagmar isn’t good at violence or even confrontation, and her reaction to being caught in a riot is to run into the bathroom and lock the door.  Dagmar’s talent is creative, and though she’s not an action hero,  she’s not only likely to be the smartest person in the room, but she’s an absolutely sublime puppet master.  She gets whole populations to do what she wants, and she does it for a living.

I sent the book in to Tim Holman, and he decided he wanted two more books in the series.

(Series? I thought.  I had planned only one book.  Now I had to come up with ideas for a couple more books!

(Still, we should all have such problems.)

In the meantime I played with the idea of creating an ARG to promote the book.  I went so far as to get together with my friends and plot it, and I figured that with volunteer help— and I actually had volunteers— I could put the thing out there with a budget of maybe $20,000.  I figured I could connect some of the puzzles to the book and sell some copies that way.

And then I thought, What, are you crazy?  Because I wouldn’t sell a bunch of copies, I’d sell one.  ARG players are super-connected.  One player would buy a book, find the answers in it, and everyone else would just go full steam ahead with the game.

Besides, Orbit seemed to be on their toes when it came to promotion.  There was a dedicated web page, complete with a Not Game— it was basically a broken version of Pong, where you could only lose.  (I think this concept probably went over the heads of most of the people who viewed the page.)

Barnes & Noble’s rep shot down the book cover that I liked, and the hardback ended up with some other damn cover that really didn’t say or mean anything.  And then the paperback had another cover, that also didn’t say much, but at least had some staring eyes on it.  (Staring eyes sell books, apparently.  People want to make eye contact with literature.)

So here’s a question for you: What were you thinking about in March, 2008?  Which is when This Is Not a Game appeared.

I’ll tell you what you were thinking about.  March 2008 was the height of the financial crisis.  The Dow was below 5000.  Banks were closing.  Millions were losing their jobs.

You were thinking: Holy fuck, how the hell do I survive this?

What you weren’t thinking was,  I think I need a nice $30 hardback to help me through this time of trouble.

Nobody was buying expensive hardbacks.  This Is Not a Game tanked.  (Got an awful lot of nice reviews, though.)

Because the first in the series tanked, the other books got no promotion that I could find, at least beyond appearing in the catalog and some review copies that were sent out.  (My new editors— Tim Holman had returned to England— insisted that they were doing promotion, but when I asked to see it, they couldn’t produce it.  Pardon my cynicism.)

But I still had to write those books, even though I knew they would be stillborn.  They would be “published dead,” as the saying is.  No one would see them, no one would read them, they were going to kill my career, and I still had to write them.  Not least because they were my chief source of income in a deadly recession.

Writing the next two books was the most heartbreaking thing I’d done since I wrote Conventions of War knowing that its publisher had written it off before I’d even started Page 1.

(I’ve had nine books published in the last twenty years.  Five of them were published dead.  Did wonders for my morale, as you can imagine.)

Still, I gave it my best shot.  If the book failed, it wasn’t going to be my fault.

Deep State was based on a logical extension of the ideas in TINAG.  In the first novel, an ARG had been used to manipulate players, the Group Mind, into committing, among other things, criminal acts.  This same Group Mind had also been focused to rescue a refugee caught in a civil war, catch an assassin, and battle a threat to the world financial order.

These acts had been the unanticipated consequences of the way that ARGs work, and spontaneous attempts to cope with emergencies.  But what if all that was planned ahead of time?  What if it was all deliberate?

So in Deep State, Dagmar sets out to, in her words, “astroturf an entire country,” and make them think it was their own idea.  Because I’d visited Turkey a few years before, and because I knew that Turkey had an interesting political history, I set the novel there.  I even revisited Turkey in order to check out locations for the action.

I knew that something like the Arab Spring was going to happen, though for all I knew it would be the Chinese Spring or the Uzbek Spring or the Russian Spring.  That I set the book in the Middle East was almost accidental.

My timeline, however, was off.  I figured the Spring, wherever it happened, would occur maybe eight years out, and instead Tahrir Square was occupied the same week the book appeared.

You’d think that would boost sales, wouldn’t you?  But my agent called every news organization in New York to see if they were interested in my story, and they weren’t.  They had their own highly-paid experts, and they weren’t interested in someone off their radar, even if he happened to be prophetic.

But still, the ideas in Deep State were a part of the future that I could see coming, and they came true in unexpected ways.  The Western intelligence communities recognized the power of the Group Mind, and established entities like SIPRnet, where diplomats and military were allowed to share information and brainstorm ideas for, among other things, countering terrorism.

Unfortunately this good idea was carried too far, and 4.2 million people were given access to this classified network.  Which meant that anyone interested in SIPRnet and its contents only needed to corrupt one of those 4.2 million to get access to all of it, and this doubtlessly happened well before Chelsea Manning downloaded the entire archive and handed it to Wikileaks.

And of course astroturfing whole countries is happening, too.  In 2016 Russia astroturfed the entire U.S.A..

So. That.

Contemporary politics aside, I’d worked out the political arc of Deep State, and the action arc, but what stymied me for a long time, even after I’d started writing, was Dagmar’s personal arc.  Who was she, exactly, when we start, and who is she at the end?  And then I realized that the things happening in Deep State were extensions of what had happened in This Is Not a Game, and that a lot of those events were traumatic, and that Dagmar hadn’t had any down time to process the trauma.  And now she was in a situation where she could be sending people out to die.

Well that’s going to make a mess of your psyche, isn’t it?

Anyway, the sales on Deep State were catastrophic, though again I got some really nice reviews.  The generic thriller cover didn’t help.

By the third book, I felt I’d pretty much taken Dagmar’s arc as far as I could.  I didn’t want to have another finale with Dagmar in jeopardy, so I had her step back a bit and let another character, Sean Makin, narrate the action.

Sean was a character I’d been wanting to write about for some time, a genuine Hollywood Frankenstein’s monster, and like the original monster caught and warped by a world he hadn’t made.

I’d known people who worked in the picture business, and I’d heard a lot of stories.  (In private.)  These were stories that would never be told in public, because hope springs eternal in the breast of the Hollywood beast, and they were all afraid that if they told these stories in public, they’d piss off someone important and lose work.

Remember, nobody talked about Harvey Weinstein for twenty years, because they were afraid of his power.

(And no, I never heard any stories about Harvey Weinstein, though I did hear some harrowing tales of sexual harassment.)

But as for me, hardly anyone in Hollywood knows my name, and those who do have no power over me one way or another.  I can tell any story I like.

Dagmar, unleashing a host of new technologies on an unsuspecting entertainment world,  remains the supreme puppet master in The Fourth Wall, with Sean as a (mostly cooperative) puppet.  Sean, a former child star, is desperate for work, but it seems to be a fact of history that those who work with Dagmar seem to end up dead.  And lo! someone is trying to kill Sean.  Does this have to do with Dagmar, or with a terrible secret that Sean is trying to keep?

And more importantly, as far as Sean is concerned, will he have a career again?

I have to admit that Sean’s blindly self-centered delusional personality was fun to write.  He is, after all, the guy who thinks that cottage-cheese wrestling will trigger his comeback.  I think The Fourth Wall is probably the best of the series, for all that it got another generic thriller cover and nobody ever saw, bought, or read the book.  (I got really nice reviews, though.)

Sean was so much fun that I brought him back for Diamonds for Tequila, a novella written for the Gardner Dozois/George RR Martin-edited anthology Rogues.  The novella is now available for a very reasonable price at an ebook wholesaler near you.

But writing Sean was the only fun I got out of the series, which tanked in such a horrific way that I was unable to sell another novel for five years.  (Though admittedly some of that had to do with the death of my brilliant agent.)

Five years.  That’s at least five books that I’ll never write, and you’ll never read.  And I’m also five years closer to death, which I’m not happy about, either.

Me?  Bitter?  How’d you guess?

Be that as it may, the Dagmar books are now back with me, under my control.  I can hardly do a worse job of selling them than the original publisher, so maybe— like Sean Makin’s career— they’re due for a revival.

We’ll see.

{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

bkd69 December 15, 2017 at 7:32 am

Shut up and take my money.

chris heinz December 15, 2017 at 10:23 am

This really surprises me. I thought the Dagmar novels were great novels and very timely. I bought all 3 in hardback I think.

pixlaw December 15, 2017 at 10:27 am

I loved the Dagmar books. Unfortunately, I do almost all of my reading via the library (OK, libraries…4 of them). So I read each when it came out and waited hopefully for more. When Diamonds/Tequila came out, I actually bought it. And I’ve bought a couple of the others now that you’ve re-pubbed them yourself. As is the case with several of your other books.

You have graduated to the level where I’ll buy your new stuff in ebook format when it comes out. I only buy a few hardbacks in any year. Sorry about that. But, hey, you’re better off than most SF/F writers, whose stuff I NEVER buy. Now that Iain Banks is dead (non-God rest his soul), that means that you’re one of about 8 to 10 writers whose work I buy.

Don’t know if that makes you feel better or not.

IronOre December 15, 2017 at 12:31 pm

I greatly enjoyed the Dagmar books, also. Even bought them at Borders before it closed up. Switching to Sean as the point of view was probably my favorite part of the series. Made me take a different look at child actors.

Privateiron December 15, 2017 at 1:43 pm

Have to add my voice to the fans of this series. It was great and Fourth Wall was my favorite of the three.

Geoff December 15, 2017 at 2:44 pm

Another happy consumer of these books on their release dates (I had to get up and look on my bookshelf: yup, hardcover of This is Not a Game).

I enjoyed This is Not a Game the most, but they were all excellent. Maybe time for a re-read!

B. Smith December 15, 2017 at 6:07 pm

I had no clue that they didn’t sell very well because I loved them all and wondered why the series ended. When Arab Spring happened my wife and I both blurted out something about this being like Deep State and read it again.

My original copy of TINAG was loaned out and never returned. Luckily I found a replacement and now I have the Kindle version as well. As soon as my backlog is down to a manageable amount I’ll read Diamonds from Tequila as well.

Clyde December 16, 2017 at 1:41 am

Cool. I have only read TINAG so I suppose now is a good time to get the rest of the series.
Which ebook site gives you the best return? (I am thinking it is probably Smashwords.)

Just finished Quilifer BTW. Quite enjoyed it.
My review on Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/2177540290?book_show_action=false&from_review_page=1

Steinar Bang December 16, 2017 at 2:51 am

FWIW I bought all three books on paper when they came out, and bought the new ebook that you recently announced.

And I will buy any new ones that show up.

Lawrence M. Schoen December 16, 2017 at 5:50 am

Somehow I missed that novella. Thanks for alerting me to DIAMONDS FOR TEQUILA. I’m adding it to my holiday reading.

Chris December 16, 2017 at 3:18 pm

I too have hard bound editions of the Dagmar books and continue to enjoy them after 3+ reads.

Struggle is a universal creative state of being. Have you considered running a Kickstarter campaign with character naming/bio rights on offer to those fans who pledge the most, and signed editions as runner-up rewards?

Susan B. December 18, 2017 at 9:07 pm

I borrowed the hardbacks of the first two in the series from my local library and absolutely loved them. Somewhere along the way I bought all three of the novels in ebook format after I bought my first ereader, so I won’t be able to take advantage of the sale. Like Lawrence, I wasn’t aware of the novella, so I’ll track that down instead.

It’s awful that books of yours I’ve read and enjoyed got no support from your publisher.

Susan B. December 18, 2017 at 9:11 pm

And I tweeted a link to Amazon too. Probably should have used Smashwords where I usually buy your books when I can.

Al B December 21, 2017 at 8:08 pm

Thanks for all of the Dagmar books. I’ve enjoyed them. Its a shame you didn’t make more from them, especially since I bought copies as soon as I saw them on the shelves here.

I’ve lately gotten them as audio books and while listening/rereading was hoping that there would be a new story in this series sometime.

In any case thank you for these and the several other books of yours I’ve read.

Winsome December 24, 2017 at 7:27 pm

My daughter was visiting from Europe where she is project manager for a major sports accessories chain and she mentioned she was at a loss for the theme of next year’s inspiration and/or educational events. I suggested she read TINAG and revolve her events around an interactive game that rewards employees that most contribute to the goal. She said I should write it, but I’m thinking you should. How about a Dagmar book that dabbles in the outlaw taggers in Europe and a rogue sports mogul who is using their art for more than fashion?
Thanks for the series Jon, not since Cayce of Pattern Recognition have I found a female protagonist so appealing.

wjw December 27, 2017 at 2:35 am

Winsome, that’s a cool idea. I could only write it if there was money involved, and alas money won’t be coming from publishers for more Dagmar.

Thanks to all of you for following the series. You are fine and discriminating readers.

But don’t tell =me= how much you like them, tell everyone else! I already know they’re good, and I already have copies!

robert spencer December 28, 2017 at 7:45 pm

Just a heads up, smash words doesn’t have the mobi format for the dagmar books

wjw December 30, 2017 at 1:09 am

Apparently the only way you can get a mobi file onto Smashwords is to start with a .doc file. I didn’t have a .doc file for the Dagmar books, I only had mobi or epub. They let me upload an epub, but apparently they don’t convert it, and they won’t let me upload a mobi.

I think they need to fix this, don’t you?

robert spencer December 31, 2017 at 12:35 pm

Yes they should, one would think that they would want to make it easy to upload what are probably the 2 most popular formats. Guess it is time for me to learn how to use calibre 😉

Etaoin Shrdlu January 9, 2018 at 1:08 pm

An .epub is just a zipped archive of a bunch of HTML files (plus some images and a few more things to keep it all organized). Unzip it, and you can load the HTML files into Microsloth Weird and save it as a .DOC . Then copy-and-paste the files together. Shouldn’t take more than a couple of hours.

If you don’t have “unzip” on your Windows machine, just change the .epub extension to .zip, use Windows Explorer to look at the directory the .zip file is in, right-click on it and open it INSIDE Windows Explorer, and it will let you drag-and-drop all the files from inside it to another director. Then do the remainder of the previous paragraph from after the “unzip it” step.

Weird does word things, so I can’t guarantee that SmashWords won’t barf on the result, but it’s worth a shot if you want .mobi format.

Etaoin Shrdlu January 9, 2018 at 1:11 pm

BTW, I just kinda guessed that the CIA got an advance copy of “Deep State” and used it as a playbook in Tunisia. . . . But if you think it was that obvious of a thing, well, ok, who am I to argue?!! :-)

Jules Mazarin June 8, 2018 at 5:28 pm

“And of course astroturfing whole countries is happening, too. In 2016 Russia astroturfed the entire U.S.A.”

Could you please explain that, Mr. Williams? Just what do you think happened? Yes, I’m aware of the constant drumbeat of “Russia Russia Russia” coming from news media who seem to be out of ideas, but there’s no substance to any of it that I can see. I’d really like to know what you think.

I’m a big fan of yours, by the way, and I am appalled that all your books have not made you the millions that you deserve. In fact, I’m astounded that they haven’t been recognized as the fabulous successes that I assumed they were.

wjw June 8, 2018 at 5:46 pm

Thanks for the kind words!

The astroturfing on social media was quite obvious to me, with strangers all posting the same invented stories on the same day, all cheered on by more strangers. If you contradicted the stories with, say, facts, then the stories vanished and reappeared as posted by someone new.

The question was who was behind it.

Here’s a summary of what’s known so far. Of course you are welcome to disbelieve the FBI and the ODNI on their conclusions, since they may have an agenda of their own, but it seems credible to me.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russian_interference_in_the_2016_United_States_elections

Timothy Gesner June 11, 2018 at 3:31 pm

Just finished TINAG and loved it. WJW is my one author I read that I don’t even have to think about – I love all your stuff. Keep up the good work! Kickstarter – think about it seriously. Look at what Myst just did.

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