The Big Idea: Alma Alexander

An idea can seem silly, wacky or frivilous — which can be great — but there’s always a chance it can bloom into something else… bigger. In Wolf, this was Alma Alexander’s experience. She’s here to tell you how.

ALMA ALEXANDER:

When the original call came for an anthology featuring “unusual” stories about Were-kind, one that specifically specified that writers should try and be a smidge more original than wolves howling at the full moon, I had a brainwave which I think might be the closest thing to an actual Original Idea™ that I’ve encountered in a long time – the concept of a Random Were, a creature which doesn’t have a “fixed” form as such but can Turn into the last warm-blooded creature observed before the metamorphosis begins. ANY warm-blooded creature. The potential for merry mayhem was obvious and hilarious, and that was the way the story originally went – it was funny. (One of the characters – via an unfortunate farmyard accident – was thus transformed into a Were-chicken…)

The deeper I got into what was supposed to be a short story, the more I realized that I was trying to stuff a triple-layer chocolate cake into a cupcake baking mold. Not only did this thing not want to be a “short” anything, it wanted to be far bigger than I realized. It wanted to be a novel. And then it decided it wanted to be three novels. (Not a trilogy, mind you. A sort of triptych, where a central story arc was seen through three different points of view (with ramifications specific to the POV character). An ambitious and intense structure on which to hang what had very quickly outgrown the original amusing little concept.)  This story was bigger and darker than I could have imagined from its humble beginnings. And its gifts, in the end, were many – not least the three POV characters, one better than the other, some of the best people to grace any of my stories ever.

But the Random Were – big as that idea was –proved to be just the beginning. The bigger idea by far was the creation of the world in which all this happened. A world very much like ours but with the addition of an under-class of Were creatures who live amongst us constrained by  rules and laws imposed on them by a fearful majority which does not Turn. The Were live and work and go to school among us… but they are obliged by law to be locked away during their three days of Turn, and if they cannot oblige adequately by themselves then they are forced to report to places known as Turning Houses where they can be kept sequestered and away from the public eye (out of sight out of mind) for the duration. The Turning Houses are terrible places. And underneath even that evil lurks something deeper and greater still.

Most importantly… the Were aren’t just beleaguered by the mundanes of their world. They are slaves to their own biology and physiology… and there are those within the Were kindred itself who have agendas of their own and are pursuing them in secret and ruthless ways. And to get here, I had to do something that I had not done before now.

I had to go back to my educational roots.

I hold a MSc in Molecular Biology, but that has long been left behind, receding in the rear view mirror as I move forward in life. I worked in a research lab, briefly, but I bailed before I pursued a PhD and then went sideways into first scientific and then general editorial work, and then into writing my own books. My chosen genre had never really approached that original layer of science education… until now, until the novel called “Wolf”, until I was suddenly faced with the surprisingly enthralling opportunity to do something that I don’t think I’ve ever really seen done before: figure out the genetic basis of the Were (including the curve I had just thrown myself, the concept of the Random Were, which changed all sorts of fundamental ideas). On a molecular DNA level, I was going to work out exactly what kind of creature they were, and why, and how they were different to the rest of us.

And I loved it. And I loved the idea that I had wrapped empirical science (the basic building blocks of an entire species)  into social science (creating a society where all of this functioned, warts and all) into a layer of fantasy that makes it all so much larger than life and easy to sink into.

With this kind of depth, with a complex and tightly woven structure of a kind I have never attempted before, with the kind of characters who stepped up to carry the story… the Were Chronicles (“Random”, “Wolf”, and the forthcoming “Shifter”) may be the best thing I’ve ever written. And on so many levels, quite possibly the most important. The Big Idea here surprised even me; I often tell people that I am an instinctive writer who plants a story seed into fertile ground and then waits to see what kind of thing pops up, a daffodil or an oak tree. With these particular books, what grew was a redwood. And I am left – grateful, and not a little astonished – sitting in its shadow.

—-

Wolf: Amazon|Barnes & Noble

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.

View From a Hotel Window, 5/26/15 + Thoughts on the Deal Money

Here I am, back in New York City, where I will be interviewing Cixin Liu tomorrow night and working BEA on Thursday (details here). I kinda love this town, although the view from my hotel window is not exactly classic this time, except in a Rear Window sort of way, I suppose. But who cares! New York! The city that never sleeps! Etc! And then off to North Carolina, where I will be at ConCarolinas. Busy week.

On a separate matter entirely, I’ve naturally been watching with interest the various reactions to the book deal. The vast majority of responses have been along the lines of “Dude! Congratulations!” which is, of course, immensely appreciated. Thank you. It’s been a surreal few days. Good, but surreal.

Beyond that, there is of course a lot of chatter about the financial particulars of the deal, because when you throw words like “millions” about, people are naturally going to pick things apart. And interestingly enough, there’s been some criticism of the deal, which comes substantially in two flavors:

1. When you divide the $3.4 million across ten years and thirteen books, it apparently doesn’t seem like a lot to some folks — “just” $340,000 a year or $261,000 per book, and that’s before agent fees and taxes and tithes to the SJW cabal, etc.;

2. A major author should be making more, which means (depending on your feelings toward me, I suppose) either I should be making more, or I’m not a major author. Also, that I could make more if I would just [insert the thing you think I should do], instead of what I am doing.

So, some thoughts.

First, a lot of the conversation I see about the deal is predicated on the idea that $3.4M/$340K per year/$261k per book is the total sum of money regarding the earning potential of the books. It’s more accurate to say that it’s the floor — in other words, the guaranteed minimum sum I will get. Some of what else is possible:

a) Royalties, if/when the books earn out their advance;
b) Audio rights, which will be a separate deal;
c) Foreign language rights, also separate deals;
d) Film/TV rights, again separate deals (also, fairly rare, so don’t count on these);
e) Other various subrights.

As an example, take Old Man’s War, which I sold to Tor for an advance of $6,500. By the thinking above, $6,500 would have been the sum total I would have been paid for it. In fact, the sum total I’ve made from the novel — so far — is literally orders of magnitude higher. That comes from royalties, the movie/TV deals, and the foreign sales (OMW is now in something like two dozen languages).

To be clear, one cannot assume that any of these additional revenue streams will happen (the ancillary rights are more likely to happen if you have a good agent, which I do. But even then it’s still not always a sure thing). But if and when they do happen, they are added to the base sum. So in the case of this deal (and indeed, most book deals you might hear about), the numbers announced are the starting point, not the end point.

Bear in mind also that this deal is added to everything else that I have going on, revenue-wise, which includes a decade’s worth of previous novels (all still in print and generating sales and royalties) and other writing. So, again, when you’re looking at the deal, think of it as a starting point. A lot goes on from there.

Second, note that the goal of the deal was not only money. Don’t get me wrong, daddy wants to be paid. But to be blunt, if all I wanted out of the deal was fat stacks of cash, I could have probably gotten more up front on a per book basis (although probably not across thirteen books). At this point I have the sales and presence that would make that possible.

But my goal wasn’t just a lot of money; my goal was a partnership to sell books, lots of them, over time, and to support several ancillary income streams, some of which are noted above. I know my career pretty well, and I know the dynamics of how my books sell, and to whom — and I know pretty well what I’ll need to do to expand the career from here. It’s a long-term project, and I need a partner committed to working that long-term project with me. Money is good, money is nice, money pays the mortgage. But, per above, my money isn’t made all up front; in fact, most of my money isn’t made up front. This deal is about two partners knowing how to structure a plan that builds for the both of them, leveraging established strengths in each camp, over time.

To be clear, the money involved ain’t exactly chump change. It’s enough to motivate me to be creative and crafty and make books that should sell like the proverbial hotcakes, and it’s enough that if Tor can’t manage to build on my sales base, it’s gonna take a hit. We’re both amply motivated. But we also have the luxury — a kind of unheard of luxury, honestly — to take a long view and to do things that we might not otherwise be able to do without the timeframe we’re working in. That’s the deal I wanted, and that Tor wanted too. That’s the deal we made.

(This is why, incidentally, the comments of “Scalzi should do/should have done [x]” mostly fill me with amusement. You do [x], my friend, and I wish all the success in the world to you as you do it. But if I’m not doing [x], there’s probably a good reason for it, in terms of what I want for my own career. You do you; I’m gonna do me.)

Third, gotta be honest: I think what I’m going to get paid up front for each book is enough, you know? If it turns out we underestimated sales, the good news is that royalties kick in and I’ll get paid, so that’s good. And if we overestimated? Then I’ll still have done just fine. I’m not supporting a $30k-a-month cocaine jones over here. I’m not going to trade in the Scalzi Compound for an estate in Malibu. And I look at super-sweet sports cars and go, meh, I like my Mini. I mean, I appreciate people thinking I should get more. Thanks, guys. But seriously, ten years ago I was getting $6,500 advances for novels, and now I’m going to average 40 times that. For ten years. Guaranteed. I think it’s okay to be happy with that.

So, that a little more nuts-and-bolts about the finances of the deal. Hope it clarifies some things.

The Big Idea: Greg Keyes

How many worlds must a people travel before they are at peace with themselves? Greg Keyes asked himself this question while writing Footsteps in the Sky, and the answer takes us back to our world, and his studies in graduate school.

GREG KEYES:

Once, at a book fair in Belgium, I was asked what purpose science fiction and fantasy should serve. Put on the spot, I somewhat glibly replied that science fiction helps us imagine the future, and fantasy helps us decide what is relevant to bring with us from the past. By that (flawed) definition, Footsteps in the Sky is fantasy, because the central questions are how, why, and in what form belief is transmitted through and affected by time, technology, and social change.

When I wrote Footsteps, I was a graduate student in Anthropology, and I was writing a thesis detailing the change in belief and mythology of the native peoples of the Southeastern U.S.—the peoples now known and Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, Cherokee—over a nearly 500-year span. The first century of that period saw an enormous demographic and social collapse due to the introduction of European diseases, followed by centuries of natives being victims of and participants in slaving, warfare, and a trade system that left them dependent on European powers for weapons and other commodities. Eventually, most were removed from their homelands entirely. A few tribes—such as the Apalachee—were exterminated.

Not surprisingly, their belief systems underwent a significant amount of restructuring over the centuries. For instance, they stopped telling stories about hereditary elites being descended from the gods, because hereditary elites were long gone. Yet certain elements of belief remained consistent for a very long time, even in the face of considerable social stress. The stories of their ancestors weren’t so much abandoned as adapted to changing circumstances.

That’s part one of what was happening in my life when I wrote Footsteps. Part two is that I was also involved in a Choctaw game called kapucha toli, a relative of lacrosse. I played on a Choctaw team, but I also started a club at the University of Georgia, which in turn brought me into the world of the Pow Wow festivals where we were often asked to play exhibition games. In that subculture, there existed a good bit of tension between people who were unquestionably Native Americans—genetically and culturally—and those who were seen as “playing Indian” or Wannabees. The latter of which, my team, the Flying Rats, was often seen as belonging to. To curb this perception, we added “Naholo” to our team name, which is the Choctaw word for a white person. We wanted to be clear that we just wanted to play the sport.

Others, however, were trying to do much more. I met and associated with certain people who were desperately trying to “rediscover” their lost heritage or “recreate” a pre-European religion and way of life.

Here, my academic studies and my personal experiences collided, and from that pileup emerged my Big Idea. I thought there was a story there, about a group of people who manage to isolate themselves on a remote planet so they can return to a past way of life. I imagined that at least some of the grandchildren of those people would be pretty pissed off at being stuck on a barely habitable rock because of their ancestors’ good intentions.

I tried using the Choctaw first, since it was that culture and those beliefs I was most intimate with.  It was probably for that reason that I couldn’t make it work. I was too close to it, and I just couldn’t see my way in. Another problem was that returning to pre-Columbian way of life for the natives of the Southeast would mean reverting to powerful chiefdoms ruled by divine elites. This sort of culture would probably not be the best fit for a story about terraforming.

And then I remembered the Hopi.

When I was a child, my father took a job in the Navajo Nation, so at an early age I became fascinated with southwestern cultures. The Hopi, in particular, with their baroque pantheon of gods and spirits, captivated me. It dawned on me that the Hopi were perfect for what I had in mind because they believe that they have already lived on four different worlds.

In the First World, they weren’t human, but rather insect-like creatures who quarreled a lot. The creator realized he had botched the job in making them, so he sent Spider Woman to lead them to the Second World. On the journey, they transformed into creatures with fur, webbed fingers, and tails. Things went well for a while, but they began to fight again, and the creator saw they still didn’t have an understanding of how to live properly.

So he made a third world, and on the journey there, the creatures became human. They built villages, farmed corn, and at first had good lives. But some of these people became sorcerers and two-hearts, and eventually corruption and evil became overwhelming. Once again, the people began to look for a place to start over. They found refuge in the Fourth World, ruled by Masaw, the god of death. It was a cold, hard place that they would have to work at to make livable, but they set themselves to the task because they wanted to live proper lives.

So here was a story that had transformation built into it already, which, in essence, harmonized with the narrative of persistence, change, invention, and adaptation I wanted to tell. Better yet, according to some Hopi authorities, they are destined to one day move to a Fifth World when this one becomes too corrupt. I imagined a future in which only shreds of pueblo culture remained; one in which some group of people who consider themselves to be the rightful inheritors of that culture take the opportunity to put it back together and begin again.

But just as in the first four worlds, things don’t go smoothly or according to plan.

—-

Footsteps in the Sky: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

About That Deal

I know a lot of you have questions about the book deal I just agreed to, so let me just do that “fake interview” thing I do to answer some of the big ones. Let’s begin, shall we?

Wait, what happened? Sorry, I was really high last night.

Fair enough. Here’s the story in the New York Times, and for those of you who don’t want to click through, here’s the headline:

Holy shit!

Yes, that was my reaction, too.

Dude, that’s like… a lot of money.

It is. Mind you, it’s spread out over a decade and thirteen books. And I only get the money if I actually, you know, write the books. But, yeah.

Is the deal some sort of record?

Don’t know, don’t care. Certainly people in genre (and out of it, obviously) make more per book. And it’s entirely possible that people have deals encompassing more books. In aggregate, yes, it’s unusually big. That said, the deal here isn’t about counting coup on other writers; I don’t care how much anyone else makes and if they make more than me, then good for them. It’s about something else.

What is that something else?

Stability, basically. Tor and I have decided to be long-term significant partners with each other. One of the very good things having a long-term relationship affords is the ability to plan, strategize and build on previous works and strengths. Or to put it another way, we know we’re stuck with each other until 2026 at least. Better find a way to make it work for both of us.

Also, I’m not going to lie: For the next decade I know where my money’s coming from. For a writer, that’s some nifty job security. Especially with a daughter coming up on college. Not having to search for a new book deal every book or two means I can spend more time writing, which I think is the thing we would all like me doing.

Thirteen books is a lot.

It is, but again, it’s over a decade. Between 2005 and 2015, I published seventeen books: eleven novels, five non-fiction books, and an anthology, which I edited and co-wrote (if you include The God Engines and Unlocked, novellas published as standalone books, the number goes up to nineteen). So based on previous history, this is a doable thing.

So, do you have thirteen books in your head?

As it happens, when I went in to talk to Tor about this, I presented the folks there with a proposed release schedule for the next decade, with synopses of every book. So, yes, I do. Will every single book I’ve proposed hit the shelves? Probably not; there’s flexibility for us to read the market and take advantage of what’s going on as it happens. But it’s always nice to have a plan.

What’s the plan, then?

The highlights:

* A sequel to Lock In, the title of which I shall now reveal exclusively here — Yes! I am giving myself an exclusive! — as: Head On;

* A new epic space opera series (two books planned at the moment, let’s see where it goes from there) in an entirely new universe;

* Another book in the Old Man’s War series (this one might be a few years, though, so be patient);

* Several standalones (or least, intended as standalones, but then OMW was intended as a standalone, too);

* Three Young Adult books.

Wait, YA?

Yes! YA! Because I love YA, many of my favorite writers are in that field, and I have ideas that are best suited there. I’m really excited about this part of the deal.

Note well that I have no illusions that I am just going to waltz into the YA field and be successful — it’s a different writing field with different conventions, and one great way to screw up is to think “eh, it’s for kids, how hard can it be?” (Hint: really hard.) But I’m looking forward to the challenge.

So now we know what you make as a writer.

Well, you know what I’ll make from this particular deal, before royalties. There are other revenue streams: Audio isn’t covered in this deal, for example. Neither are foreign language sales, or film/TV. Plus there are royalties from my previous books. And so on. I do all right.

Is it awkward to have people know about your finances?

Not exactly but it has interesting social echoes. I used to talk about how much I made as a writer because I think it’s important that writers do talk about money — silence about money only works to the advantage of those who are paying writers (or not paying them, or paying them insultingly little, as the case may be). But after a certain point I stopped talking about my earnings publicly because Krissy wasn’t comfortable with it, and because after a certain point it stops being useful to other writers and starts looking like bragging. I don’t want to be that asshole.

At this point, there’s no reason to be overly coy about it, so I’ll note that I’ve been making mid-six figures a year for a while now, much (indeed most) from book sales. The deal is a reflection of that track record; please don’t be under the impression I would have gotten the deal if Tor didn’t think it could make that money back and then some. It also means I’m an outlier when it comes to book sales/income and I know it.

I’m comfortable with people having some idea what I make, but outside very specific circumstances (like, uh, this one), you probably won’t see me talk about it other than very generally.

Can I borrow some money?

No.

But dude, $3.4 million!

Yes, but, I don’t get it all up front; that would be irresponsible of Tor. I get some of it up front, but probably not as much as you might think. Most of it I get like any other writer does — when I turn in the novel, and then when the novel gets published. This is a decade-long deal. The money comes in over all that time. I’m not going to be doing a Scrooge McDuck-like dive into a pool of coins, sorry. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a ton of money. Just broken up into manageable chunks over ten years.

So yeah, sorry, random Internet dudes. If you want my money, you’ll have to do it the old-fashioned way: Kickstart something I want to back.

Why are you sticking with traditional publishing! Think of how much money you could have made self-publishing!

Yeah, thanks, no. One, for various reasons, I find it doubtful that I would be making more self-publishing. I’m not going to go into those reasons at the moment because it’s a long slog, but, you know. Trust me on this for now. Assume I know my business pretty well after all this time.

Two, look, I like to write, and I don’t mind marketing myself. But there is a whole lot more that goes into producing a book than just showing up with a manuscript and then telling people about it. I don’t want to do any of the rest of that stuff. That’s why publishers exist. That’s what publishers do. As it happens, when it comes to science fiction, Tor is as good as it gets, in every department. They are better at these things I don’t want to do than I am. I am delighted to partner with them and let them handle all that. I am clearly making enough money.

Three, if I want to self-publish something, I can, and have in the past. So, false dichotomy in any event.

You should probably thank people now.

You’re right! I should! At Tor, obviously, Patrick Nielsen Hayden and Tom Doherty, for being willing to work long-term with me on these books. My agent, Ethan Ellenberg, did some amazing work and earned his percentage and then some. At home Krissy and Athena have had to deal with me freaking out rather a bit over the last couple of weeks, and did so without hitting over the head with a shovel.

And also, clearly, I need to thank anyone who has ever bought a book of mine. They added up! You rock.

I have now run out of questions to ask. 

That’s fine. The comment thread is open for other people to ask questions they might have.

Way to Go, Ireland

They’re still doing the counting but everyone knows how it’s going to go: Ireland is going to have marriage equality, and be the first country to have it via popular vote. And to be clear, it looks like the vote isn’t going to be close; it’ll be on the order of 2:1 saying “yes.” That’s a lovely thing, it is.

Some of my forebears are Irish, so I feel it is all right for me to feel some pride in Ireland and its people making this call for equality. If I drank, I would raise a pint of Guinness to them. I may do that anyway, and then give the pint over to Krissy, who will take it from there.

In any event. Well done, Ireland. Well done indeed.

A Brief Note About Me Reviewing the Hugo Nominees

I’ve been asked a few times if I plan to write any reviews of the Hugo nominees this year after I’ve read them. The answer: No, I don’t. One, if you look at my general modus operandi around Hugos, I don’t ever really comment on what I think of the merits of the individual nominees* until after the voting window has closed. Two, this year, this policy seems even more advisable as there are excitable people who would point out any reviews on my part as scale-tipping, regardless of what the review said. Three, as a general rule, in public, I try not to say negative things about the work of other writers. I will make exceptions from time to time. But generally, I avoid it.

Note well that I have not been shy about expressing my opinion regarding certain Puppies and their actions in creating the slates and pushing them onto the ballots. My opinions of them regarding these actions should be considered independent of what I might think of their nominations, to the extent that any of them are on the ballot. Even assholes are capable of noteworthy work, generally speaking.

If you are looking for reviews, there are many online, so you will not lack for them. And as ever, what I encourage you to do is read the work yourself and make your own mind. Here I will offer up one pro tip: It’s perfectly allowed to stop reading the work before the end, if you already realize there’s no way you’re going to give it the award. I never feel obliged to finish a story or novel once I realize it’s not working for me. Note I was like that long before I ever got nominated for awards, or started reading works to give them awards. I’ve always been a mercenary reader.

But, yeah. If you were expecting me to snark anything on the ballot here on Whatever, you’re going to be disappointed. Sorry.

* I’ll note that there are some things on the Hugo ballot this year that I was on record praising before they made the ballot, most notably The Goblin Emperor. Obviously I stand by previous praise, and would equally note that if you are voting for the Hugos this year you should read it yourself, along with the other nominees in the category, and then go with your own decision as to which of the nominees deserves the award.

Updates and Reminders and Cryptic Pronouncements, 5/22/15

A few things I wish to put onto your radar, or put back on, as the case may be:

1. A reminder that next week at this time I will be the author guest of honor at ConCarolinas, in beautiful Charlotte, North Carolina, along with other very cool people. Come down and say hello to us all! We promise not to bite. You have to pay extra for that. But even without the biting, it will be a ton of fun. Hope to see you there.

2. On the video game front, Midnight Star, the game I worked on, has had a massive update that comes complete with a pretty awesome-looking new icon for the game:

If you’re already playing the game, you knew about this update; if you’re not playing it yet (on iOS; the Android version is still in the works), then this is a very fine time to pick it up. Have fun!

3. Monday will be an interesting day. You’ll know why when it happens. That’s all I’m saying right now.

The Big Idea: Brian Catling

In describing how The Vorrh came out of him, author Brian Catling pretty accurately makes a point about creation that I think many creative people can agree with — before it comes out, there’s so much that has to go on inside.

BRIAN CATLING:

I have answered more identical questions about The Vorrh than anything else in my life. The core ones being about its origins and the process of its construction. When I explain that it was probably brewing for thirty years and that once it escaped it wrote me, then the problems begin, especially as I have not stopped writing since it was finished. Words like channelled and cathartic appear in other people’s mouths. So I did what I know best, I consulted perversity and made something else.  Made it out of lead, glass, Perspex and electrical motors, transparent piping, feather quills, wiring and pumps. An extension of my hand, tiny eccentric engines giving the tip of each finger a life of its own, eerie and totally against anatomical grace and favour. Instead of blood the quills and their nibs are pumped with warm water and compressed black ink. When it ‘goes off’ it surges and gushes, staining the room and its operator’s disability with saturated steaming shadows. I did not know it was literal until it was finished and switched on.

There is another tale of loose hands that I wrote in a grim poetic series many years before. Hands running through the back alleys and murder yards of Whitechapel, scratching sparks and gouges from the wet walls with hooked nails, fleeing, forcing themselves into flesh and infamy. I think they also wrote a true channel for The Vorrh to play, like a needle on black shining disk.

I always had the title, the opening scene and the conclusion and once the work finally began to turn, I had to invent everything else in-between. A wonderful savage awakening that had nothing to do with mapped out plot, or carefully observed character. I became each personality and principle in the book. Living equally the events of each man, demon, woman, monster and ghost. Each writing themselves visually. Without a pennyweight of the critical skills, or a daub of the doubt. A necessary blindness to let the mystery and the presence of The Vorrh overwhelm me. In all modesty, I thought I was writing a slender obscure surrealistic work that would hopefully exist in the sacred margins of esoteric imagination. What arrived was quite different. An enormous birth without a shadow of pain.

The Vorrh is the vast African forest that Raymond Roussell invited in his masterpiece of surrealism, Impressions of Africa. He never much cared for its detail and used it only as a painted backdrop. I have put aside my reverence and dragged him screaming into the depth of this new Vorrh, along with several other ‘actuals’, such as Edweard Muybridge. The Vorrh is the first book in a trilogy, with the unwanted forth already remotely clawing at the inside of my skull, like another disembodied hand.

—-

The Vorrh: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt on the publisher’s book page. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

The Star Wars Battle Between Good and Evil: The Final Confrontation!

A couple of weeks ago I posted my very first Sundance TV film column, in which put Star Wars characters into brackets (light side of the force vs. dark side) to see who among all the characters would confront each other in the final battle of Star Wars good vs. evil.

Well, the brackets are all tallied up and we are down to our champions — and one of them, at least, is likely to be a complete surprise. Find out who they are and put in your vote for the ultimate victor in the Star Wars universe. Will the dark side prevail? Shall good triumph? It’s up to you! Go vote!

School’s Out for Summer, 2015 Edition

Today was the last day of 10th grade for Athena, and per tradition here, she stood for portraiture marking this auspicious occasion. Those of you with excellent memories will note she is wearing the same ensemble as she did for the first day. This is not a coincidence.

The Big Idea: Tim Lees

The good news: In his novel Devil in the Wires, author Tim Lees has solved our energy crisis! The bad news… well, let’s just say that you’re the sort to blaspheme, your electricity might flicker a bit in protest. Here’s Lees to explain it further.

TIM LEES:

You don’t have to be religious to feel a sense of awe when you stand in some big temple or cathedral, especially if it’s old, or built on the site of a still older shrine, as many are. Places of worship can date back millennia, and through more than one faith. Sacred sites are sacred for a reason. Whatever they may now be, once upon a time, they were home to strange, inhuman forces – beings which, for want of a better term, we might call “gods.”

From the ancient, to the modern. We all know about the energy crisis. Fossil fuels are running out, alternative energy supplies – we’re told – will never match the shortfall.

It’s a grim scenario. But what if there was something else, a source of power till now almost untapped? What if you could mine the psychic energy stored in churches, shrines and other sacred places? Energy built up through years of worship, prayer and entreaty – what if you could take that and convert it into usable electric power?

Sound good?

Well, that’s the first Big Idea. Those gods are still there. They’re what gets turned into electric power. They’re what lights our cities, cooks our meals, powers our Playstations and TVs. Ancient gods: the latest source of fuel.

I love mash-ups. Genre-wise, ramming together two totally disparate elements (and making them work) is just about my favorite activity. Back when I still had musical ambitions, I was once asked for a keyboard solo on a reggae track. I looked at the range of sounds available and thought, Ah-ha! Church organ! Why not? Nothing, of course, could have been less appropriate, which was exactly why I chose it. To me, it sounded great. To everybody else… well. Let’s just say there was no subsequent boom in church organ reggae, and I am now a writer, not a musician.

So, with Devil in the Wires, I’ve taken an element from genre fantasy – the kind of gods that Conan or Elric were always running into – and kicked it into the present day. Needless to say, the gods have undergone some changes in the process. They are still genii loci – spirits of place – and repositories of immense power, but for the most part (and with one exception) they’re a lot less humanized, a lot more alien. To stand before them can be a bit like suffering a seriously bad acid trip. Simply to perceive them can be dangerous. As for actually collecting them, that’s the sort of job which requires a specialist. Not just for specialized equipment, but also for a special frame of mind.

Enter Big Idea number two: Chris Copeland, professional god hunter, already worried he’s been in the job too long, and his luck (much like those fossil fuels) might soon be running out.

Have you ever wondered how the guys in fantasy stories make their cash? How they pay the rent? Batman, supposedly, runs a multi-billion dollar business empire, and still stays out all night crime-fighting. (Really?) Indiana Jones works at a university which requires neither the grading of papers nor writing of research publications, nor, presumably, returning from the wilds in time for class. Great fun, but I wanted something I could actually believe, and a counterpoint to the massive, numinous forces at work throughout so much of the book.

I mentioned mash-ups. There’s the concept of burning gods for energy – pure fantasy. So to ground it all, I thought I’d put it in a context so familiar everyone can recognize it: the daily grind of company drudge work.

Chris works for the Registry. It’s a business. It’s secretive, but it’s not the secret service. It’s not some underground cabal. It’s the kind of place where you or I might work, though hopefully in a different capacity. And Chris is an employee. He has paperwork to file. He has bosses he doesn’t trust. Like most people on the ground floor of a business, he often has a better idea what’s going on than his managers do. And that’s the source of much of the humor in the book. Because humor is the way we survive, it’s the thing that gets us through our day-jobs, especially if our day-jobs might just threaten our health, our sanity, and our lives.

One final matter. I’m a Brit, now resident in the US. Devil in the Wires starts in Iraq, makes a couple of stops in Paris and London, then races on to Chicago, where I’ve lived the last few years. Here’s a thing about us SF/fantasy types: we never feel at home in a place until we’ve smashed it, shattered it, invaded it with aliens, sent monsters roaring through its streets and exposed its seedy, supernatural underbelly to the world. Now, at last, I give Chicago what it needs: an ancient god, a crazy scheme for powering a city, three or four assorted killers, and a hero who’s torn between earning a crust and doing the right thing (no prizes for guessing which side he comes down on).

Believe me: it’s an act of love.

—-

Devil in the Wires: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Google Play|Kobo

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

How You Should Vote for the Hugos This Year

(Warning: Hugo neepery follows. Ignore if bored with the topic.)

Now that the Hugo voter packet is out, I’m getting asked rather a lot, mostly with an air of confidentiality, how I plan to vote in this year, what with the actual democratic nature of the Hugo nomination balloting representing hundreds of individual viewpoints subverted by a couple of jerks who created interlocking slates (one prominently featuring work created by one of these jerks’ own publishing company) and encouraged people, either bluntly or with a wink and a nod, to vote a straight ticket rather than come up with their own independent choices. People are wondering whether I plan to put all the nominees pushed by the slates under the “No Award” option, or simply leave them off my final ballot altogether, after placing “No Award” below the works/people I feel are legitimate choices.

My short answer is no, I don’t plan to do that. I will detail my longer answer in a second. But before I do, some thoughts to the Hugo voters this year:

To the people planning to put everything/everyone on Puppy slates below “No Award” or leave them off your ballot altogether: This is a solid and totally legitimate choice to make, and don’t let anyone tell you any different. My understanding is that at least one of the head Puppies has been notably petulant on the subject recently, which is a matter of some irony. If you believe that slates are inimical to Hugo balloting, or wish to register your disapproval of the selections this year, or think that the Puppies are assholes who deserve to be smacked on the nose with a rolled-up newspaper, or any other reason you choose to No Award them, it is your right, and some would argue, your responsibility, to vote them below “No Award” or leave them off the ballot entirely (after having placed “No Award” below your last actual choice). If this is your path, then rock on with yourself.

To the people planning to vote on the nominees as if it were a completely normal year: This is also a solid and totally legitimate choice to make, and you should also not let anyone tell you any different. Because you might not think slates matter much one way or another, or you might think the individual nominees, no matter how they arrived on the final ballot, deserve to be treated with courtesy and respect, or you might simply think “cool, stuff to read” and just get to it, or any other reason you might have to read and rate. Again: This is your path? Cool. Rock on.

To the people somewhere in the middle, for whatever reason: Hey, you know what? That’s fine too. It’s okay to be conflicted. After all, not everyone on a slate asked to be there, or there might be some people on a slate who you think should have been nominated regardless, or in your reading you might find something on a slate that blows you away and deserves a shot, or (again) whatever — it’s your ballot and your choice for voting. Rock on with your choices.

The short version of all of the above: If you vote your own conscience, there is no wrong way to vote for the Hugos. There is, simply, your vote. It’s your own choice. Think about it, take your vote seriously — and then vote. No one can or should ask you to do anything otherwise.

With that as preamble:

I think the slates are bullshit, and I think the people who created them (and at least some of the people on them) are acting like petulant, whiny crybabies and/or obnoxious, self-aggrandizing opportunists. I’m also aware some slate choices were not made aware they had been put on slates, or were placed on them under false pretenses. Some of those so slated chose to leave the ballot, which I think is impressive and well done them, but I can’t really fault those who chose to stay, not in the least because for some of them it would be politically or personally awkward to withdraw, for various reasons. And, on the principle that a stopped clock can be correct twice a day, it’s entirely possible something or someone that is a slate choice is genuinely deserving of consideration for the Hugo, and I am loath to discount that, particularly if the person to whom the award would be given was also an unwilling (or misinformed) draftee onto a slate.

So here is my plan:

1. I am going to look back on my own Hugo nomination ballot, and identify in each category the work/person I nominated that I judged to be my “last place” choice in the category.

2. When confronted with a nominee on the final ballot who was placed there by a slate, I will ask myself: “Is this work/person better than my own ‘last place’ nominee?”

3. If the answer is ‘yes,” then I will rank that work/person above “No Award” on my final ballot, and otherwise rank them accordingly to my own preference.

4. If the answer is “no,” then I won’t put that work/person on my ballot at all, and I will put “No Award” below my choices in the category so it’s clear that I would prefer no award given than to offer the Hugo to anything/anyone I’ve left off the ballot.

This, for me, strikes the appropriate balance between fairness to the nominees on the slates, and registering disapproval for the concept of slating. This way, if the work is genuinely good in my own estimation, it gets a fair hearing. But if it’s not, out it goes — and not just out, but also suffering the existential ignominy of “No Award” being preferred over it or them.

As I think this is a decent plan, I naturally encourage people to adopt it for their own, or adapt it for their own purpose. For those Hugo voters who didn’t nominate this year, I would suggest either creating a mock nomination ballot to use as a guideline, or using another award final ballot as a substitute. Here’s this year’s Nebula ballot, and here’s this year’s Locus finalist list. Choose your least favorite work in each category and use that as the benchmark.

But remember: It’s your vote and your choice. With the Hugos, it’s a very good year to take both seriously. Don’t let anyone keep you from voting your own conscience.

The End of All Things: Starred Review at Kirkus

The first review of The End of All Things is in at Kirkus Reviews, and I’m very pleased to say that it’s received a star (i.e., notation for being especially good).

The full review has some spoilery content, so be warned; here’s the link to it. For those who just want the gist, here’s a relevant excerpt:

It’s classic crowd-pleasing Scalzi, offering thrilling adventure scenes (space battles, daring military actions, parachute jumps through a planet’s atmosphere), high-stakes politics, snarky commentary, and food for thought. Delightful, compulsively readable, and even somewhat nutritious brain candy.

Mmmmm…. brain candy.

Also, and because this is how my brain works, I’m relieved that no matter what else happens, review-wise, we have quote for the cover for the paperback release. One neurotic worry down! Many, many more to go.

Anyway, this is my good news for the day. Hope you’re having a good day, too.

The Big Idea: Wendy Suzuki

Science says: You have a hypothesis? Test it! And see if the results you get match your hypothesis? Neuroscientist Wendy Suzuki has a hypothesis about the brain, and how certain activities and thoughts can influence them, which she expands upon in her book (written with Billie Fitzpatrick) Healthy Brain, Happy Life. How did this hypothesis come about? From an interesting personal experience.

WENDY SUZUKI:

Can I use my thoughts, intentions and beliefs to change my brain and make myself smarter and happier? That’s the question I have been asking ever since I inadvertently did an experiment on myself and noticed how much aerobic exercise combined with positive intentions transformed not only my body, but my brain and ultimately, my life.

After years of neglecting my body and focusing too much of my energy on my work as a brain scientist, I finally decided to begin a regular exercise routine. I started with a personal trainer and focused on increasing my overall muscular and cardiovascular strength. As I got stronger, I felt great and much more energized.

And then I found a class at the gym that shifted my workout routine into high gear. The class combined physical movements from kickboxing, dance yoga and martial arts with positive spoken affirmations like “I am strong!” or “I believe I will succeed!”. It’s called intenSati. And it’s hard. You have to master the moves and the affirmations that go with them and change moves every four to eight counts or so. Shouting out the affirmations increases the cardio load of the workout and makes it much more challenging than just doing the moves on their own.

I was already in pretty good shape when I discovered this class at my gym. I always felt more energized after any workout. But intenSati was different. After each class, I was full of energy, in a great mood, and felt like I could take on the world. Not only that, when I left the gym after class, I was already looking forward to the next time I could do the workout.

Over time I noticed something even better. As I upped my workouts with intenSati, it became easier to write my scientific grants. I seemed to be able to focus my attention better while writing and make more and better associations or links between the journal articles that I read in support of my points. I realized I had just done an experiment on myself and the results were these striking brain changes.

In fact, the shift was so noticeable that I decided to find out what we knew about the effects of exercise on brain function. I found a vibrant scientific literature focused largely in rodents showing profound effects of exercise on the anatomy, physiology and function of brain areas important for attention, memory and mood. In humans, there was good evidence that exercise improved mood and attention, and promising indirect evidence that exercise improved memory function as well. In my book Healthy Brain, Happy Life, I write about my transformative experiences with exercise, and also about the what neuroscience understands about the dramatic impact of exercise on specific brain areas.

In myself, I noticed improved mood, attention and memory functions with increased levels of aerobic activity. But I realized that with intenSati, I wasn’t doing just exercise alone – I was combining it with positive affirmations. And I wondered if the exercise alone that was causing the brain effects I was experiencing? Or could it be the combination of exercise together with the positive affirmations that was doing the trick? As a scientist, I knew I could not answer this question simply by introspection. Instead I went to the scientific literature to see if there were any studies on the brain effects of combining of exercise and affirmations, something I started to call “intentional exercise”.

No study had ever examined the effects of exercise combined with affirmations, but I did find studies examining the effects of affirmations alone, which indicated that reciting positive affirmations improved mood. This is not so surprising. Perhaps the affirmations were just adding additional mood boosting power to the workout.

Somehow that didn’t seem quite right. Then, I stumbled upon the psychological studies of something called mindset, defined as the established set of attitudes held by somebody. This is a hot area of research because of exciting findings showing that shifting a person’s mindset by simply providing information can have significant changes on people’s sensory experiences and physiological responses.

What does this mean? My two favorite examples from this area of study were done by Professor Alia Crum of Stanford’s Psychology department. In one study, she showed that people who thought they were drinking an indulgent high calorie milkshake showed faster declines in a hunger-inducing hormone than when they thought the same exact milkshake was healthy and low calorie. In another study, she showed that when hotel room attendants were told that, according to the surgeon general, their workload of cleaning rooms and changing sheets was considered a good amount of exercise, the workers lost significant weight and had lower blood pressure compared to the control group of hotel room attendants who were not given that information.

These studies are examples of how adopted beliefs can significantly change physiological responses including hormone secretion and metabolism/weight loss. Maybe that’s what the affirmations were doing to me. Maybe the affirmations shifted my mindset to a positive one that included belief in myself and my success. Maybe the affirmations are adding the key ingredient of motivation to my workout. And maybe we could actually modulate the effects of the affirmations to focus on attention or memory or happiness depending on what we actually said.

We don’t know the answer to these questions right now. But my “big idea” is that we can test these hypotheses systematically and scientifically in the lab. It could be that adding positive intention to exercise (any kind of exercise), could be the secret sauce needed to boost the effects of exercise on both our bodies and our brains to their maximum levels. That’s exactly the question I’m starting to answer with the experiments I’m doing in my lab.

—-

Healthy Brain, Happy Life: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.

A Useful Moment From a Mentor

(Warning for those who need it: discussion of rape scenes in storytelling)

So, many years ago, when I was still a very young writer, I made the acquaintance of Pamela Wallace, and she and I became friends. At the time I was a film critic, and she was a screenwriter — and not just a screenwriter, but one who had won an Oscar, for her work on Witness. She also wrote novels, which were at the time something I was thinking about doing at some point. So she and I talked a lot about movies and stories and the writing life. She was a very cool mentor for a young writer to have.

One day I was over at her house and I was talking to her about a story idea I had; I can’t specifically remember what the story idea was, but I vaguely recall it being some sort Silence of the Lambs-esque thriller, in which an investigator and a serial killer matched wits, you know, as they do. And at some point, I dragged the investigator’s wife into the story, because, as I was, like, 24 years old and didn’t know a whole hell of a lot, I thought it would be an interesting character note for the investigator, and a good plot development for the book, for the serial killer to basically rape and torture the wife —

— at which point Pamela immediately went from interested to disgusted, threw up her hands, and had them make motions that I immediately interpreted as oh God Oh God this horrible idea of yours get it off me right now.

Aaaaand that was really the last time I ever considered rape as an interesting character note or plot device. Because, I don’t know. If you’re a 24-year-old wannabe fiction writer and an Oscar-winning storyteller is physically repelled by your casual insertion of rape and violence against women in your story, mightn’t that be a sign of something? That maybe you should pay attention to? Perhaps?

Now, as I got older and became a more accomplished storyteller (and human), there turned out to be many other reasons for me to decide not to put those sorts of scenes willy-nilly into my books aside from “dude, you just disgusted your successful writer friend with your plot twist.” But I’m not going to lie and pretend that this very significant clue, dropped by my friend, did not in fact make a long-lasting impression.

Which continues to this day. I’ve written eleven novels now, most with lots of action, adventure, peril and danger to characters of several genders, and lots of tough scenes that show loss and violence (see: most of The Ghost Brigades). No rape scenes. They weren’t necessary for the narrative — and more concretely, as narratives to stories don’t just magically happen but are the result of the author’s intention, I chose not to make circumstances in my novels where they would be necessary.

Sadly, not every young male novice storyteller has a woman friend who is also an Oscar winner to set him straight on the errors of his shallow narrative ways. Would that they did! So for everyone else I would just say (and here I tip my hat to Robert Jackson Bennett, who wrote in more detail about this today) that while you can put these sorts of scenes into your work, maybe before you do, you should ask yourself why. Ask yourself what actual value they will bring to your work. Ask yourself if you are entirely sure about that value.

And while you’re asking yourself that, keep my friend Pamela’s reaction to my proposed rape scene in your head. She’s not alone in that reaction these scenes, nor was she wrong to have it. Neither are other people.

My Funny Internet Life, Part 9,744

What’s the moral to this story? Two morals: One, the Internet is awesome because, sometimes, if you ask, you will get pictures of squirrels playing polo on the backs of Pomeranians. And two:

But mostly: Squirrels on Pomeranians, playing polo.

Update: 1:48pm: The opposing team has now taken the field:

What a glorious day for Squirrel Polo.

Update, 5pm:

And now we have a league!