Recent Books, 9/16

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As I’ve been jabbering about these things, a quick look at four books I’ve recently acquired:

* Storyteller: Writing Lessons and More from 27 Years of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop, by Kate Wilhelm (Small Beer Press): I actually bought this one, since I was interested in it anyway and because I wanted to support Small Beer Press, co-run by the excellent Kelly Link (Small Beer also published last year’s Nebula finalist Perfect Circle, by Sean Stewart, which I enjoyed). Wilhelm, if you can’t guess from the title of the book, was intimately involved in the creation of Clarion, the premier writers’ workshop in science fiction, and taught there for years.

I bought it because frankly I find the whole writers’ workshop thing fascinating. Many excellent SF writers have gone through Clarion’s guts over the years (here’s an incomplete Alumni list, upon which, if you are an avid SF reader, you will see several familiar names), and there is no doubt that the workshop setting is extremely beneficial to many of them. However, I could never wrap my brain around the workshop concept, at least from the point of view of being a participant, either before I was published or especially now. Earlier in the year I was at convention and chatting with another science fiction writer when he mentioned that he participated in a workshop and casually (and in a very friendly manner) offered me a place at that table. I think he was surprised when I declined rather strongly, and I expect I could have declined the offer in a more politic fashion. The fact is, the problem is with me, not the workshop concept in general. Generally speaking the person I want telling my how to improve my writing is the editor who bought it. Yes, yes, raging egotist who will be one day put in his place, I know, I know. What can I tell you. Welcome to me.

For all that I think one day I would be interested in teaching in a workshop setting. At Penguicon this last year I rather unexpectedly got thrown in to a workshop teaching session (Literally, it happened like this: “So, John, thanks for agreeing to help teach our workshop this year!” “Uhhhhh… I didn’t agree to that, actually. This is the first I’ve heard of it.” “D’oh!”), and I found it to be an interesting and positive experience, and I think the people who I critiqued got something out of it as well. Although you’d have to ask them about that. Left unargued here is whether someone who does not see the value of a workshop for himself as a writer has any business trying to teach writing in a workshop setting. One day either I’ll find out or I won’t.

In the meantime I found Wilhelm’s experiences very interesting, both as a personal history of the Clarion Workshop over the years, and also, by way of that personal history, lessons in writing well. People who are interested in workshops, either as writers or as readers, would probably benefit from checking this book out — consider it an extended brochure on whether Clarion (and its various offspring, and other writing workshops) are going to be a good idea for you.

*Remains, by Mark W. Tiedemann (BenBella Books): Fun fact: on the Amazon page for this book right now, the top listing on the “People Who Bought This Book Also Bought” list is… Old Man’s War. Make of that what you will.

This was sent to me a couple of weeks ago and I still haven’t had time to do much with it, because of writing The Ghost Brigades, but I was exceited to see it nevertheless because it’s the first book I’ve seen from BenBella, who is a relatively new publisher, going back only a couple of years. The company seems to be carving out a niche with their “Smart Pop” books, in which folks contribute essays that blather on in an educated fashion about various pop culture things, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to NYPD Blue, but they also have a sf/f line, which include originals and reprints. I’ve been interested in seeing how they did in terms of the production of their books, because I’m just a geek that way.

As it happens, as a matter of design, Remains seems slightly off to me. It’s a little wider than most of the trade paperbacks I have, and the paper is different quality, and that combined with some of the interior design (including too-wide text columns) makes the book feel vaguely like vanity press. Bear in mind that this has nothing to do with the quality of the story itself, which appears to have been well reviewed, in Booklist at least (its review is on the Amazon page), so if the book sounds interesting to you, don’t let that stop you from checking it out. But like I said, visually it was a little off to me. I contrast this with Chris Roberson’s Here, There & Everywhere, which was put out by Pyr, another fairly new SF publisher. His book (which I did read, and enjoyed) had a somewhat friendlier design, which made it easy to read, and gave the book a professional feel; you wouldn’t question that it came from an established publisher. Maybe these little design things shouldn’t matter, but they do.

Nevertheless, I’m looking forward to reading Remains; if Tiedemann and I share an audience, I suspect that means something.

* The Road to Dune, by Frank Herbert, Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson (Tor): Think of this book as the DVD extras disc for the original Dune series of books: It includes cast off chapters from Frank Herbert’s original set of books plus some of Herbert’s notes and letters. For people like me, who dig this sort of thing (I’m one of those people whose favorite Tolkien work is The Simarillion), this stuff is catnip.

The book also includes a new short novel based off Frank Herbert’s notes, from Brain Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson, who have recently been writing all those Dune prequels. I’m not a fan of the new Dune novels at all, largely because Herbert fils and Anderson have a combined writing style that is just all too underwhelming for the Dune universe; Frank Herbert’s writing had a sort of stentorian majesty to it, and that style richly permeated the Dune universe just as much as the melange spice. Herbert/Anderson’s prose is like a stick of Big Red by comparison, and continues to be so here. This makes me sad, as I’ve enjoyed Anderson’s writing in other settings, but I wish they’d found a writer whose writing style would have been more appropriate for what had come before (A China Mieville Dune novel — now that would be fun).

But if you do like the Dune prequel novels (and given their healthy sales, apparently many do), you’ll have no reason to complain. For me, the Frank Herbert bits are what make this well worth looking at.

Trivia note: The Road to Dune is a “SciFi Essential” book, which is a distinction that OMW and The Ghost Brigades will have in January 2006.

Starwater Strains, by Gene Wolfe (Tor Books): Another book I’ve not been able to get to yet, alas, although the day Gene Wolfe puts out an underwhelming collection of short stories is the day either the fourth or fifth seal is cracked, so I don’t worry about this not being worth my while (it got a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly, for what it’s worth). In the meantime, I’m enjoying it just for its very whimsical cover:

Yes, I know you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover and all that, but come on. How could a book with a dog wearing a virtual reality helmet not be worth your time? Impossible, I say!

Guidelines for Publicists

As threatened, I’ve written up guidelines for people who want to send things for me to mention here in the Whatever. If that’s you — or if you’re just interested in what I have to say on the matter — the guidelines are here. I’ve also put in a permanent link on the sidebar.

Left hanging in the air here is why anyone would want to send things my way. You know, I wonder that myself, sometimes. On the other hand, I have been a professional critic for a decade and a half, so they could do worse.

Also, and specificially relating to science fiction, the daily readership of the Whatever paces or exceeds the monthly circulation of some of the most significant science fiction-related magazines (including Locus and Fantasy & Science Fiction), so for the SF genre, getting exposure here might actually be significant. And yes, incidentally, I find that the Whatever having comparable reader numbers to these magazines is disturbing (note, however, that circulation is not the same as readership, since more than one person may read from a single F&SF or Locus subscription; even so). But that doesn’t mean I’m not happy to exploit it if it means free books. I mean: Free books! It’s every geek’s dream come true.

Shelby’s New Album

Hey! One of my favorite indie bands, Shelby, has finally released their latest album, The Luxury of Time, and it’s choc-a-block full of snarly guitar goodness. The band is previewing three of the tracks here: I’m particularly fond of “The Golden Boy” but every track at the preview is worth the listen. And if you’re in or near Philly tonight, apparently they’re playing at the North Star Bar. Solid.

Seven Years

Completely (and appropriately) lost in my wild textual stampede to complete The Ghost Brigades was the fact that Tuesday marked the seventh anniversary of the Whatever. As I’ve noted before this makes it the single writing thing I’ve done the longest at one stretch (I’ve been reviewing movies longer, but that comes in chunks, first as the film critic, and then as the DVD critic (both five years each)).

In the year, I haven’t done anything different in terms of how I write the Whatever — indeed, the whole “write whatever the hell I feel like writing about” concept has been remarkably robust since 1998 — but I will share a few observations about the whole writing online thing here that have come to my mind in the last year.

* First, I’ve reconciled to the idea that the Whatever is a blog. The Whatever, mind you, predates the common use of the word “blog,” so I’ve never been entirely comfortable with the word — when I started doing this thing, the most common description of this sort of thing was “online journal,” which I also didn’t like, for various fairly stupid reasons. I could go into all the reasons why the Whatever is different and special from all the other things people write online and how it is so singular it deserves its own category, but aside from the fact that it really isn’t notably unique in form or content and I’m getting tired of finding new and exciting ways of maintaining the fiction that this isn’t a blog and everyone gets what you say when you say “I have a blog” so do you don’t have to say anything else about it, the fact is, there are worse things than writing a blog. So: Fine. The Whatever is a blog and I’m a blogger, and however silly a word “blog” is — it’s exactly onomatopoetic for the sound of a toad dropping a turd — it’s the word everyone has for things like this. Let us now move on.

* I’ve also given up the illusion that I am doing the Whatever in a manner that is either completely carefree or unrelated to the rest of my writing life. The latter, frankly, is obvious: The fact that something I wrote here appeared in one of the largest newspapers in the country yesterday demonstrates the permeability of the wall between this amateur writing and my professional writing (not to mention those two novels I sold off the site). The Whatever has been useful enough in this regard that recently, when discussing a book project with a publisher, he actually suggested serializing the writing here before he published the book in order to increase the value and visibility of the book. These are interesting times, writing-wise.

The flip side of this, however, is that first point: The Whatever is important enough to me now as marketing that it’s also something that’s worth maintaining, even when I feel like taking a break. One of the reasons for the fabulous, fabulous guest bloggers in July was the simple fact that I didn’t want to leave this place fallow for a month; I didn’t want readers to break the habit of checking in on a daily basis. In the blogsophere, regularity matters. It’s better to write something banal, say, “my cat’s breath smells like cat food,” than to write nothing at all (especially if you also then post a picture of said cat).

It pays off: This site is now clocking in at between 10k and 20k unique visitors a day — it fluctuates wildly between those poles on any given day — which makes it one of the better-read personal sites out there, especially when you consider that the Whatever is not a mono-topic site (i.e., all about the politics or geekery), or a link farm, nor is it written by a pretty woman (this makes Wonkette the perfect storm, Internet-wise). But on the other hand, I don’t just want to write one line about my cat and pride myself on very basic audience maintenance; I do prefer the delusion that people who read the site would like me to write about something. And now you see why it’s not entirely carefree. These are constraints and obligations I place on myself, mind you, but it doesn’t mean they are any less there.

The one thing that has remained constant during all this obsessing is that I still do write about whatever the hell it is I want to write about; I don’t bother to ask myself “hmmmm, is this something that’s going to alienate my audience” because then I’ll get sulky and petulant (stupid audience! They won’t let me write what I want), and that’s just silly. Also, honestly, I figure anyone who comes here on a regular basis knows I’ll write what I feel like; to some extent, that’s why they drop by. This is an unabashedly egotistical site. And God knows, when I want to write about my cat, I do.

For the record, her breath does smell like cat food.

* I am also increasingly aware that it’s not just me who regards the Whatever as a quasi-professional space; having a deserved-or-otherwise reputation for being a “prominent blogger” means I now get press releases sent my way (eh), and also books (yay!). One of the more interesting recent anecdotes of this type is when the publicist for Annie Jacobsen’s book Terror in the Skies contacted me about the book, wanting to know whether I’d be interested in looking at the book for possible inclusion in the Whatever. Ms. Jacobsen, you may remember, is the writer who lost her composure on an airplane last year after she noticed a large group of swarthy fellows sitting together; I wasn’t particularly impressed. The reason I was contacted, I think, was simply because I did write about Jacobsen at one point, even if not in a particularly complimentary fashion. I told the publicist to go ahead and send the book, although I made no promises regarding reading it or mentioning it, which is the appropriate thing to say at a time like that.

Although, look, I did just mention it. And here’s the link again! And somewhere, another publicist earns his wings (no, I haven’t read the book yet. I was busy writing one of my own, remember).

I am now getting enough books and swag and publicity releases that I will very shortly create some guidelines for publicists as to what’s appropriate to send along to me. If you were to ask me if I ever thought I’d get to a point where I’d ever write publicist guidelines for the Whatever, you would hear me engage in a nice, hearty laugh. And yet, here we are. Not that I mind. Hey: Free books! Whoo-hoo!

* One minor interesting thing I’ve noticed is that in the last year, thanks I suspect to the combination of Old Man’s War, the AOL Journals gig and the growth of the Whatever, I’ll occasionally get the “internet celebrity” thing, where I’ll drop a comment on someone’s blog and their reaction is “OMG!!! It’s Scalzi!!” I find this deeply, deeply silly. Being a minor Internet celebrity is like being the second most popular steel drummer in the Netherlands. Yes, it’s nice, and people who share your enthusiasms know you, but really, that’s about all it’s good for. Anyway, even though I’ve been doing this for seven years and I blog professionally and I’ve sold not one but two books to publishers from this Web site, I never get invited to speak at Ivy League blog conferences or panels. So clearly, I’m not a real Internet celebrity anyway. It stings, it does.

* One thing I’ve definitely noticed in the last year — and has been noted by others — has been the “community” activity around here, by which I mean a strong and vibrant set of both regular and infrequent commentors. I remember a few years ago, before I had implemented comments (and before I knew the following), I read Teresa Nielsen Hayden’s comment on her site that said something along the lines of “if you’re not reading the comments, you’re missing out on half the fun.” I was, shall we say, rather skeptical of the observation. But as it turns out, she was absolutely correct: the community of commentors at Making Light matters, in no small part because they are smart, engaged and passionate, and because TNH also serves as an able moderator — any person who can think up and/or popularize “disemvoweling” as a punishment for comment stupidity deserves a medal for Service to the Blogosphere.

I do not judge myself as facile a comment moderator as TNH, but I do think the Whatever community of commentors is one of the best out there, tending toward thoughtful and diverse enough in opinon to make the comments less like an echo chamber and more like a round table of people talking. And, they tend to be grownups to boot: Usually the least-mannered person in a comment thread is me.

So to the folks who hang around the Whatever: Thanks. I appreciate it.