Monthly Archives: January 2006

Instructive

A little something for everyone who thinks there’s some manifest difference between the struggle gays and lesbians are having for their rights, and the struggle blacks and other minorities have had:

Justice Albie Sachs of the South African Constitutional Court tackled the issue of same-sex marriage Wednesday afternoon in Swift Hall during a lecture sponsored by the Human Rights Program.

Sachs said that as he looked down from the bench of the Constitutional Court of South Africa at the crowds waiting to hear its decision in the Fourie gay marriage case, decided last month, Sachs reflected back on a Gay Pride parade he had attended in Cape Town in 1991.

“We were at a park I’d grown up near. Back then, there were signs up saying ‘Whites Only,’” Sachs said. “Now, there were invisible signs saying ‘Straights Only.’ The same signs that would prevent a black and a white from sitting in that park holding hands would prevent a gay couple from doing the same.”

Sachs cited his nation’s past experience with intolerance as a major influence in his landmark opinion in the case, which ordered the South African Parliament to equalize marriage rights for same-sex couples.

Sachs, interestingly enough, had been detained and forced into exile by South Africa’s apartheid government, which also, in 1988, put a bomb in his car that caused him to lose an arm and an eye. He’s walked the walk for equality, which I strongly suspect allows him to talk the talk. If he says there are parallels between the struggle for racial equality and the struggle for the rights of gays and lesbians, it’s hard to gainsay him on the matter.

Of course, the US is not South Africa. Thing is, when it came to the rights of its citizens — all of them — this was something we used to have the right to be proud about.

There is Always Another Way

I have a little bit of a mania for noting significant anniversaries, and right about now marks one of them: Ten years ago I got my job offer from America Online, and officially left print journalism for the online world — and along the way learned an important thing about how the world works.

Bear in mind that leaving The Fresno Bee, where I worked before I went to AOL, wasn’t something I had planned on. At the time I was very happy working for the newspaper — but then, why wouldn’t I be? I was the movie critic — the youngest pro film critic in the US — which meant that my job consisted of watching movies and then saying clever things about them, and then also occasionally going down to LA and interviewing people prettier and richer than me as they talked about their latest projects. And to boot, I had a newspaper column where I could pretty much write about anything I wanted. Life was good, and I recall mentioning to a friend that I was happy enough at my job that I could see doing it for many years.

And of course, just like in the movies, as soon as you mention that life is good, that means something needs to come by and sqaut one out on your life. In my case, it was one of those periodic newspaper revamps, in which people get moved about and reassigned for no particularly good apparent reason other than because sometimes editors like to redecorate, and the way they redecorate is with staff. Call it editorial feng shui. I was called into my editor’s office and the two editors of the department told me that as part of their reorganization, my column was cancelled, they were going to cut back substantially on the number of movie reviews I would do, and that I would be required to do more straight-out reporting. In short, they were taking away from me the job that I loved doing, and asking me to do a job for which I didn’t feel I was suited .

Was it malicious? Almost certainly not. The editors in question were good people, and I feel reasonably sure they felt that aside from any raw talents I might have had as a writer, I could use some polish in other forms of newspaper writing. This is was also one of those times where the paper was trying to do more with the staff it had on hand, and the fact of the matter was that what I did was expendable — it’s not as if they couldn’t find movie reviews on the wire — and then they could use me as a resource for doing other things. Having now been an editor (and having now spent more time in the corporate world), I can see perfectly well the logic of their decision, and also how the editors could have sincerely believed it would be to my benefit as a writer.

Be that as it may, at the time, it felt like a sucker punch to the gut, and what compounded the issue was that, whatever the logic behind the move, I was pretty sure my editors knew (or thought they knew, in any event) that there wasn’t much I could do about it. Ten years ago as now, the number of jobs available at newspapers were smaller than the number of people competing for them, and the number of really cool jobs, such as mine, was much smaller. Unless I was willing to quit outright — which they rightly suspected I wasn’t — then there really wasn’t much I could do about it. Even if I went looking for another newspaper job, it could take months or even years to get.

What my editors didn’t know — and to be fair, what most newspaper editors didn’t know at the time — was that the print world was no longer the only way people could make money writing. By early ’96, I had already been online for a couple of years (my very first Web page, in fact, went up in 1994, when one still had to hand edit html and learn unix commands to upload pages), and that was enough time for me to start getting freelance writing jobs online. One of the jobs was writing a weekly finance and humor column for America Online’s Personal Finance channel (I got it largely because the person in charge of that area read something I wrote online and found it amusing). Over the several months I had written it, I had gotten to know the AOL folks pretty well, and knew they thought I was a clever enough person.

So as I was driving home that night, I decided to do something completely insane. First I signed on to AOL,  and sent an e-mail to one of the AOL Vice-Presidents (the one in charge of their Web programming), and asked her if she thought AOL might be interested in buying a straight-out humor column from me. The Bee has cut the column, you see (I explained), and I was now free to pursue other options for it. Then I sent e-mail and waited for the VP to IM me to get the whole story, which she did about five minutes later (yes, back in the day, you could get an IM from an AOL VP — in five minutes, no less).

A few minutes after this Krissy came home from her job and walked into our bedroom to find me staring at my computer with scary, scary intensity.

“What are you doing?” she asked me.

“I’m waiting for something,” I said, without taking my eyes off the computer.

“What are you waiting for?” she asked, and right then, as if on cue, the VP of AOL unofficially offered me a job.

That,” I said, and then turned to Krissy. “What would you think about moving to Washington, DC?”

Long story short, within an hour of being told that the Bee was changing my job, I had lined up another job. The next day I came in to work, and my immediate editor pulled me aside and asked, with real concern, if I was okay with my new assignments. I told him, honestly enough, that I had dealt with my issues and was ready to move forward.

Three weeks later I got my formal job offer (which I accepted via IM, to keep with the whole then-cutting-edgedness of it all), and called my editors into a meeting in which I told them I was leaving. They asked if there was anything they could do to keep me; I told them that it seemed unlikely. They asked if they could ask what I was going to be making; I told them. They both blinked; it was more than either of them made. It was their first real encounter with the online world, I suspect, and the first realization that major changes were on their way.

The move from the print world to the online world, and from California to Virginia, was immensely important to me in several ways: New work challenges and frustrations, a new crop of friends, many of whom remain quite dear to me, and of course my first full immersion into the online medium, where I still spend much of my time (heck, I’m still even working for AOL, though part-time rather than full-time). I miss working on a newspaper full-time, and I miss some of the people with whom I worked with back in Fresno — remember I wasn’t originally looking to leave the paper. I was happy there. But if I had to do it all over again, I’d do it again the same way. I like where I am now, and that required leaving the “nest” of my first real job.

The most important thing the move taught me was simply this: There is always another way. What is required is the will to confront change from without and roll with it so it becomes change from within. My job came crashing down on me, and I had a choice of accepting it or finding another way. I found another way and and took it. My editors forced change on me; I turned it around and worked to make it a change on my terms. In this particular case I was fortunate that work I had been doing had prepared the way, so I could move quickly — but even had I started from zero, with work another way would have presented itself in time.

This was an immensely important thing for me to learn. It’s been knowledge that I’ve had to remember more than once over the last ten years, most notably when AOL laid me off in 1998, and Krissy and I had to decide how to deal with it. We advanced rather than retreated and found a way to make it work. It made all the difference in the world then, and it still does today.

There is always another way. Remember that when your own challenges and changes show up and try to knock you back on your ass. Maybe they will knock you on your ass, but it’s up to you how long you stay sprawled out. That’s what I learned, a decade ago. I’m happy to share it with you now.

SF Website Pimpin’ — Plus an Open Pimp Thread!

Two sf book sites to pimp to you today, neither of which has anything to do with me. First, Tobias Buckell has begun serializing the first third of his upcoming book Crystal Rain on the special Crystal Rain section of his Web site. The first three excerpts (and the following subsequent ones) are here; the book itself comes out on February 7. This is Toby’s debut, and it’s been getting good buzz from the folks who have snuck into the trap-filled vault in which the manuscript resides to get an advance glimpse (well, those who made it past the lasers and mines and zombie ferrets, that is). So here’s a chance for a sneak peak without endangering yourself.

Second, writer David Louis Edelman is trying to get ahead of the curve for his debut novel Infoquake, which is described as a “science fiction business thriller”; his book isn’t out until July, but the Infoquake book site is pretty well built-out, and includes the first three chapters as well as an author introduction and reference materials. It seems very much to be like a DVD extras disc for the book, which is not a bad way to do things.

Also, while I’m in a pimptastic mood, let me congratulate my pal Lauren McLaughlin, whose story “Shelia” has been selected for inclusion in the upcoming Hartwell/Cramer-edited “Year’s Best SF” anthology. She rocks.

Finally, I now hearby declare this to be an open pimping thread, which means not only do I offer up the comment thread for this post for you to note your current and upcoming projects (or friends’ projects), I actually demand it. Get your pimp on, my friends! Or get the hell out. Really, it’s just that simple.

Click

Ahhhh. That’s helpful. Yesterday, while driving to pick up Athena from school, the last three lines of The Last Colony dropped into my brain. This is excellent news because now that I know how the story begins and how it ends, and know a couple of the big scenes that have to happen in the middle, I can start writing. This is how I tend to write fiction: Know the beginning, know the ending, know a few scenes in the middle, and everything else a huge yawning gap of “how do I connect the dots?” This allows me some chance of free-form exploration and the opportunity to capitalize on interesting stuff I’m making up as I go along, while at the same time keeping me on track (i.e., if I can’t see how I’m getting from where I am in my writing to the next big scene I know I have to hit, I’m on the wrong path).

I don’t necessarily recommend this approach for every writer. It plays to my organizational and writing strengths (or lack thereof) which include an ability to improvise plot on the fly and indeed a need to do so to keep myself from getting bored during the writing process (which would likely mean you would get bored in the reading process). Other writers, on the other hand, need an outline to feel organized and relaxed in the writing process, which will mean a better book for you in the end. I think on of them trying my approach might be as unproductive for them as me trying their approach would be for me (this is for fiction, incidentally; I can and do quite happily work from outlines in non-fiction writing). The point here being that no one way works for every writer, save the final reductive step that your process has to end with you in front of some sort of writing medium, banging out words. What’s important is that you find a process that works for you and then once you find it, you use it. This is my process. Your mileage may vary.

What’s happy about having that last scene drop into my head now is that I’m not planning to start writing The Last Colony for at least a couple more weeks — January is given over to finishing the editing of the Subterranean Magazine material (largely done, just a few tweaks) and working on Hate Mail and Utterly Useless — so it allows me some more time just to think about what’s going to happen in TLC and how I need to make it happen. I call this part “gestating”: Not writing or even thinking about writing, just thinking about story and letting casual connections happen in my brain and seeing where they lead. It’s difficult to explain to people sometimes that staring off into space and rarely blinking is indeed actually part of the work process, but isn’t that like being a writer for you. The reward is when, as with the TLC ending, something drops in with a big, obvious click, and then suddenly the inevitable task of writing suddenly becomes a lot easier.

Anyway, off to gestate some more. And to edit. And to, uh, spend time in the real world, too. Have a good rest of your weekend. I’ll see you on Monday.

A Spin-Off

So, here’s some news: I’m no longer putting together a collection of Whatever entries. I’m putting together two. I’m spinning off the writing entries into their own book.

The details: I was compiling the chapter on writing for Hate Mail, adding various pieces just like I did with the rest of the chapters. After a little while, I thought to myself that the chapter looked a little long; I’m aiming for each chapter to be about 8,000 words, and this one seemed a bit longer than that. So I did a word count, and I was right: I had about 25,000 words. Which — I’m sure you’ll agree — is nowhere close to 8,000. And this was without actually adding my “Utterly Useless Writing Advice” entry, because it in itself was 8k words. There was no way I was going to be able to get all the writing pieces into the book that I would want or that you folks told me you wanted to see in the collection (The 120,000 word first draft estimate of Hate Mail I noted here is actually the book without the writing chapter in it).

So I thought, screw it, let’s see if I have enough good entries about writing to make an actual book. By the time I was through collecting I was up above 60,000 words, which is more than enough. So I sounded out Subterranean’s Bill Schafer about spinning off the writing entries into their own book. He liked the idea, so that’s what we’re going to do. I’m thinking of calling it Utterly Useless: Scalzi on Writing, but we’ll have to see what Bill thinks about that. It may be a little too arch for its own good. Naturally, I am open to suggestions from the peanut gallery as well.

The current plan is to release Hate Mail and Utterly Useless simultaneously over the summer, a la Use Your Illusion I & II (or, for those of you who know Axl Rose only as a creepy washed-up has-been who used to be in a band with the guys from Velvet Revolver, a la Conor Oberst/Bright Eyes’ I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning and Digital Ash in a Digital Urn). However, while the books are being released at the same time, the two will have different release philosophies. Hate Mail is a wide-release trade paperback aimed at a general book audience, with a limited-edition hardcover for collectors. Utterly Useless, on the other hand, will exist primarily as limited edition hardcover release for a select audience (Whatever readers and/or folks interested in the writing life seem like a good core audience here) but will also be released freely as an e-book for people to check out and share online. Basically, if you’re interested in one or both books, you can mix and match the formats to get a combination that fits your needs. Because I’m all about choice.

I’m very happy that we’re spinning off the writing material into its own book. Writing about writing is a little “inside pool” for a general audience, so the Whatever writing entries weren’t necessarily a good fit for Hate Mail. On the other hand, I think folks who are interested in the writing life don’t necessarily want to have to wade through entries on politics or parenting or whatever to get to what interests them. So now there’s a general collection for a general audience, and a specific collection for a specific audience. For me, it’s not substantially more work because the compiling has already been done, and now I have a book on writing to my credit, which is something I wanted to have before I died. So it’s the best of both worlds, both for me as an author, and, I suspect, for readers as well.

As always, I’ll provide more details when I have more details to share. But those of you who were hoping there would be a lot of writing entries in the book: You’re about to get your wish.

Blog-to-Books Award

Someone alterted me to this new award: The Lulu Blooker Prize, in which print-on-demand publisher Lulu.com will award 1,000 bucks in three categories for books based on blogs or Web sites. The suggestion was that either Old Man’s War or Agent to the Stars would probably be eligible for award consideration. I certainly agree that they would, but since Cory Doctorow is one of the judges for the award this year, I would feel hinky about submitting. After all, a blurb from Cory is prominently displayed on the hardcover dust jacket of OMW, and he’s also a personal friend of mine. This would not suggest either book would be a shoo-in, merely that if one of my books did win, unneccesary questions about favoritism could be raised. Better not to submit this year, then.

However, you should submit, if you have a book that started out in blog or Web site form. Go to the link to learn more. They’re accepting submissions through the 30th of this month, so you still have time to get something in.

Thinking Aloud on “Hate Mail”

The first pass of Hate Mail is completed, and clocks in at about 120,000 words. Given that I suspect I’m going to write between 5K and 10K of introductory and commentary material for the book, this means I’m going to have to trim off about a quarter of what I’ve selected for this first round. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it’s “kill your babies” time. Actually, some of the word reduction will come from editing the existing posts themselves. Some of the posts repeat information from earlier posts, which can be excised because those earlier posts will be there in the same chapter; other posts need to have information rearranged because to date hyperlinks don’t work in paper form. Even so, some culling will need to be done, which is fine. Chop chop chop.

As I noted before I’m arranging Hate Mail by themed chapters. Here’s an early chapter line-up — I say “early” because I may merge some chapters later, depending on culling, and will almost certainly give each chapter a more interesting title than the one word descriptors you see below. In any event, the prelim chapters, arranged alphabetically (i.e., not in the sequence they will be in the book), are:

Birth
Bush
Clinton
Confederacy
Disclaimers and Declarations
Election 2000
Election 2004
Et Cetera
Fictional
Gay
Iraq
Jesus
Money or Lack Thereof
Parents
Reader Requests
Writing

Off the top of my head, I’d probably say the political chapters are very likely to be merged in some way; I’ll probably lump Willie and Dubya together into one “Presidents” chapter, and probably the elections into a single chapter as well. The writing chapter, on the other hand, may need to be parted out in some way; I need to think about that one some more.

Within the chapters I think material will be presented primarily but not exclusively in a chronological order, which is to say that if there’s a particular piece I think is a strong lead-off for a chapter, I’ll bring it to the front regardless of where it is in the timeline of pieces in the chapter. For example, in the “Parents” chapter, the lead-off piece is likely to be “The Child on the Train,” the piece I wrote about Krissy’s miscarriage, even though there are several pieces that I wrote before those. But damn it, I’m not time’s slave, and I think it’s important to start each chapter strongly.

I should note now that even at 100k words there is a lot of popular material that’s not going to make the cut. A number of pieces that rely on visuals (like the “Cracking the Flag-Burning Amendment“) didn’t make the cut because I’m pretty sure the book is not going to have in-line photography (and even if it’s possible I don’t know if I want to bother with the hassle). Also fairly scarce, and probably ironically so: pieces on ID and evolution. I don’t know, they just didn’t seem to work for the overall framework. Pieces on Athena are also likewise kept to a minimum in favor of parental articles of a more general nature (although, of course, she pops up in the context of those more general articles).

And — this kills me — I don’t have any of the “That Was the Millennium That Was” pieces I wrote in the book yet, although I’m giving some serious consideration to trimming down the political pieces further to make room for a few of those. I’ll have to give that some serious thought; I don’t want to underweight the politicial pieces but on the other hand four chapters out of 16 does seem to be a lot.

Compiling these Whatevers does make me aware that online writing is indeed different from other sorts of writing. As I’m sure most of you are aware, I originally started writing the Whatever to stay sharp in the column-writing format for a newspaper, because I’d written a newspaper column before and hoped to again. And even when Bill and I were first discussing this book, the “book of newspaper columns” metaphor was the one we used to wrap our brains around it. Be that as it may, it’s pretty clear that whatever intent I had in starting the Whatever, it outgrew that intent pretty quickly. The Whatever couldn’t be a newspaper column, and especially not a newspaper column today. Newspaper columns are 800 words on a specific topic. The Whatever is 800 words, or 2000, or 350, or 60, on any topic. Newspaper columns are not particularly personal; The Whatever is (within certain limits) and I strongly suspect has to be. Newspaper columns are mediated; the Whatever isn’t. Newspaper columns can’t allow immediate reader response; the Whatever can.

Now, in all these cases, the differences are neither inherently good or bad; being able to write at any length at any topic doesn’t matter if you’re boring, for example. Likewise, and speaking from experience on both sides of the editing equation, good editing is a boon for nearly every writer, and the lack of it can be a detriment. Although I’ve obviously benefitted from writing online, I’m not pollyanna about its nature; indeed, on a sheer volume basis, I’d suspect that more bad writing has been made publicly accesible through the Internet (and specifically through blogs and their antecedents) than through any other media, ever. When you consider the first things we’d recognize as “blogs” crawled out of the primordial HTML swamp a mere decade ago, that’s a fairly astounding rapid accumulation of crap writing. So yes: Online writing can be great. But let’s keep a grip — in itself it’s not better or worse than other media.

What the differences between online writing and other forms present for the Hate Mail book is a challenge. We don’t want to just market the book to people who already read online; we also want to get the book out to the (still) majority of people who don’t read blogs or journals and say to these folks, this is an example of how people who are writing online are doing it. We want to give these unfamiliar readers a metaphor for the book’s contents that will be useful familiar, but doesn’t lead them to expect something the book is not. If you were to come to Hate Mail expecting a collection of newspaper-like columns, I don’t know if you’re going to be entirely happy with the book. But it’s also not just a collection of observations about my cat and what I had for dinner last night, which I suspect some non-blog-reading folks still suspect all online writing is about (I had cabbage rolls for dinner last night, incidentally. And my cat’s breath smells like cat food).

Anyway, these are the things I think about while I’m putting together this book: How to make it accessible and interesting to as many humans as possible while still keeping it a managable book. Hopefully we’ll get the balance right.

Backdoor ID?

I’m on record as saying I’m not opposed to kids learning about “Intelligent Design” in public school as long as it’s not presented as actual science. But here’s an interesting case: apparently a school in California positioned a class on ID as a philosophy course but then basically reeled off ID as science (with the help of videos that, the plaintiffs allege, “advocate religious perspectives and present religious theories as scientific ones”), without presenting much in the way of opposing views.

I’d like to know more about this, naturally, but given the information in the article this doesn’t sound at all kosher. If you’re basically offering a non-critical presentation of the ID material with noting else added, you’re probably violating church-state separation regardless of which class you teach it in. There’s a difference between describing and discussing ID as a social phenomenon, and just sitting the kids down and running a video. I mean, come on, ID people. At least try to pretend you’re attempting something other than indoctrination.

A good question here: How would you design a class, philosophy or otherwise, that discusses ID intelligently (heh) and without violating church-state separation? Personally, I think I would design a class called “Concepts of Creation,” which looks at the various ways humans have tried to describe the beginnings and progressions of things, including myths, history, and science. ID would fit in there as a modern creation story, but it would be in a context where it’s not presented as science, nor presented in isolation. It could be an interesting class, in any event.

My Daughter The Poet

homework0111.jpg

The muse visited my daughter last night, as the social injustice of a particular pedogogical institution moved her to free verse. Without further ado, I present Athena’s first poem (edited for clarity; see the original in the photo above).

Homework

I hate Homework
Yes I do all kids
Do especially me
Kids have homework
Every [day] so give us a
Break let teachers do
Homework every day
And let them feel the pain.
And that is my poem called
Homework. Thank you.

After I read the poem, I asked Athena, “So, do you really hate homework?”

“Daddy, it’s just a poem,” she said.

We’ll be publishing her chapbook real soon now.

Learn by Doing

ouch0109.jpg

And what did Athena learn today? That merrily sliding down carpeted stairs feet first and on your belly is fun only until the rug burn catches up with you.

For the record, I didn’t let her do this; she was doing it when I came out of my office (ironically, to check up on her because I hadn’t heard her do anything for a few minutes).

“You really want to stop doing that,” I said.

“Why?” she said. “I’m having fun.”

“Wait about five minutes,” I said. And what do you know, I was right. Let’s just say I had a similar incident three decades ago.

The nice thing about this is that there’s a pretty good chance Athena’s a fast learner. Not that she won’t do this again, of course. She’s a kid. She will. It’s just that next time, she’ll wear overalls.

Alito

I think it would be just fine if Alito didn’t get confirmed, because I don’t trust him. Not about abortion, as I never expected to trust him on that one. He and I have differing opinions on that topic, but there’s nothing exactly surprising there, and I would be confused if there were. I think it’s a given that anyone Bush nominates will merrily work toward jamming the government’s invisible hand as far up a woman’s uterus as possible. Yes, today Alito is saying he’d deal with abortion cases with “an open mind,” and I’m sure he will, for the values of “an open mind” that are immediately followed by the phrase “on how to erode Roe v. Wade to a useless nub.”

(Oh, no, Roe v. Wade will never be overturned; the cover and fundraising opportunities it provides to conservatives is too useful. It’s just that from now on South Dakota will be the template for “reasonable” access to an abortion. Women with unwanted pregnancies, be sure to say “thanks” to those Nader voters! Yes, it’s still all their fault. As for the rest of you, well, just be sure to promote the advantages of abstinence and/or teenage lesbianism to your daughters.)

However, what I really don’t like about Alito is the whole philosophical set up he has of the administrative branch of the US government being more equal than the others. One would hope that someone at the topmost perch of the judicial branch would choose not to promulgate the theory that the highest and best thing he could in service to the country and its Constitution is to bend over for the president. It’s possible but unlikely that the Senate might agree to my innovative concept of co-equal government branches as well. We’ll see.

Of course, in the unlikely event that Alito is not confirmed, does anyone actually think the Bush administration will offer up a new candidate whose judicial philosophy isn’t mold-injected from the same factory as Alito’s? If we know anything about the Bush administration, it is that it is remarkably resistant to learning. It has its bag of tricks and vengeful petulance for those on whom its tools do not work, but that’s all its got. The administration got as close to moderation as it’s going to get with Roberts. And it’s pretty clear it’ll keep doing what it’s doing until 11:59 am, January 20, 2009. In that sense, not confirming Alito won’t solve anything.

Which is not a reason to confirm him — indeed not — just a recognition that the next nominee isn’t going to be any different.

Personal Literary Events

A few minor things about what I’ve done with myself over the last couple of days:

* First off, despite overloading myself by skimming through some 425,000 words worth of previous Whatevers, I’ve got some good and solid work done on Hate Mail over this weekend. I’d been wrestling over how to organize the book, and what I’ve decided to do is to make chapters that focus on specific events or themes, since there are several that I come around to over and over. The five chapters I’ve collected up so far are: Birth (a collection of entries about Krissy’s pregnancy and Athena’s birth), Clinton, Election 2000, 9/11 and Fictional Characters.

These chapters lean heavily on Whatevers that were written before 2002, which are no longer on the site and which (consequently) many people who read the Whatever have not seen, since most of the expansion of the Whatever’s audience has happened since March 2003 (which is when I switched over to Moveable Type. Comments and RSS feeds matter, people). I think it’ll be very interesting for people who’ve only seen me bash on Bush to read my take on Clinton and the impeachment process; I call Clinton a pig at one point, which made me laugh out loud when I read it. It was one of those “it’s funny because it’s true” moments.

These chapters currently clock in between 5k and 10k words, which means some will have to be trimmed down because I’m currently planning 12 to 15 chapters, and I have 100,000 words to work with. I’m going to wait until I have all the chapters ready before that happens. But regardless, it’s a good start, not in the least because now that I have the chapter structure locked down, filling in the rest of the gaps should be quick.

* After a year of apparently refusing to stock Old Man’s War on moral and ethical grounds, my local bookstore finally gave in and shelved a couple copies of the trade paperback. Naturally I was quite pleased — they’ve stocked all my other books so far and their not having OMW just always puzzled me. I didn’t want to suggest to them that they should, because I didn’t want to be the local author who whined to the bookstore about not carrying his book (especially when they were carrying the others). However, I did tell them that since they have it now, I’d be happy to sign the copies they had. Which I did. Go me!

* Speaking of OMW, a nice review of it on Bookgasm: “I’d recommend it even to people who normally shy away from the genre … like me,” wrote the reviewer. Welcome to the gateway, my friend. Now that you’re through the door we have many other authors for you to try.

* And speaking of other authors, as I was wandering around the local bookstore (because I actually went there to buy books, not to check up on whether they had OMW or not, honest). I noticed that the most recent trade paperbacks by Cherie Priest and Nick Sagan were shelved in the regular fiction area as opposed to the science fiction/fantasy area. Why might that be? My personal suspicion is: Cover art. Both Nick and Cherie’s cover art lacks many of the visual tropes of their genres; Cherie’s could work equally well with a mystery or general southern literary fiction book, while Nick’s could be a contemporary tech thriller. I suspect the person shelving the books didn’t see either swords or spaceships and assumed they should be placed in general fiction.

Is this good for Nick and Cherie? Got me: I guess people who only go to look at SF/F would miss them, but those for whom the SF/F section of the store has the weird cooties vibe will get a crack at them they might not otherwise have gotten. I suppose it’s a toss-up. Both books certainly benefit from striking cover art and design, however; they both cry out to be picked up and looked at.

* Books I bought: The Battle 100: The Stories Behind History’s Most Influential Battles; The Complete Peanuts 1957-1958; The Substance of Style. The first of these is for research for The Last Colony (which will be a tip-off for you that there will be at least one big battle scene there), the second because I am collecting the entire set as the books come out (it will be a twelve year process, as they are releasing two books a year, and each book features two years worth of strips), and the third because I kept meaning to buy it when it came out, and now I have (its author, Virginia Postrel, keeps a pretty interesting blog).

* Toward the last of these, I had an interesting thought I will share with you now, which is that as I picked up the book and resolved to purchase it, part of my brain was saying maybe you should buy it on Amazon, so her ranking will go up and she’ll know someone bought the book. Because an Amazon ranking is really the only feedback authors have in terms of having any idea how well their book is selling. Being an author myself, it seems almost cruel not to give the author that feedback.

I fought back the desire because as much as I like feeding other authors’ egos, I like supporting my local independently owned and operated bookstore more, even if it did take them a year to stock my science fiction book, harumph, harumph. But the fact I had that thought at all has to mean something.

January is National Literary Fraud Month!

It looks like it’s a shaping up to be a fine month for literary fraud, as two somewhat prominent authors are accused, in different ways, of not being who they say they are. The first is James Frey, whose millions-selling addiction memoir A Million Little Pieces may not be nearly as non-fictional as he’s suggested, according to The Smoking Gun, which in a long investigative piece concludes that Frey either amped up or made up several of the events in his Oprah’s Book Club-selected tome. The second is “JT Leroy,” a young author whose tales of child prostitution and drug use were all fictional, which is good because it now appears the author may be entirely fictional as well, the creation of the couple who claim to have found him as a strung out-teen and helped whip him into literary shape. When Leroy makes public appearances, it’s actually the sister of the male half of the couple. The author (if he exists) has issued a statement noting he uses stand-ins because of personal issues, but there are other things in the article to suggest he’s vaporware.

I could not personally care less about whether JT Leroy turns out to be fictional or not. I find fictional people writing fiction no more or less objectionable than real people writing fiction, because it’s fiction, after all. This looks to be a slightly more convoluted sort of ghostwriting thing that the people making the TV show Lost will be doing in the spring when they publish a novel “written” by “Gary Troupe,” a passenger on that show’s ill-fated plane (I believe he was the one that got sucked into the engine). Fake people writing fiction just adds another level of meta to the proceedings, if you ask me.

I understand some people who feel personally invested in the author will feel a bit betrayed to learn he doesn’t exist. But you know, the nice thing is, the books still work, because they’re fiction. I tend to be very results-oriented rather then process-oriented when it comes to fiction, which is to say what I care about is whether the book is interesting, not whether the author had to struggle up from drug addiction, or led a life of gilded ease, or was raised by ferrets or what have you. Maybe when I go back for my MFA (ha!) I’ll care about the circumstances of the author and production of a book. In the meantime, really, as long as the book is good, I’m good.

I’m only barely more engaged with the James Frey fracas, possibly because I have a real antipathy toward the addiction memoir genre, which I find tiresome and self-pitying. Yes, it’s nice former junkies have gotten both catharsis and a book deal. Doesn’t mean I have to read the resulting book. Indeed, I have not read Frey’s book; I feel pretty strongly that if you’ve read one “I’m a jackass junkie who abuses people, vomits on myself, gets hauled into rehab and comes out thankful I’m still respiring” tome, you get excused from the rest for all time, and I’ve read one, thank you very much.

(This should not be read as me saying I have no sympathy for people who were formerly addicted who have turned their lives around. I have friends and family who were and who have, and I’m immensely proud of them for having done so. I just hope they don’t write a book about it. It’s been done.)

Given my lack of interest in the book and antipathy for the genre, it’s difficult to rouse myself into caring that the man defrauded millions of addiction voyeurs; indeed my first reaction reading the story was “well, he’s sold three million. He’s set anyway. Good for him.” It’s sort of the same lack of sympathy I’d feel for people watching “amateur” porn who might feel violated that the people making squishy noises there on their TV actually get paid to do it. Perhaps this makes me a bad person. I’m not sure, nor sure if I should care. I do know I’d rather watch amateur porn than read an addiction memoir, for what that’s worth.

However, let’s also keep focus on the fact that if The Smoking Gun’s article is indeed factually correct (and the site’s been pretty good at being factually correct so far as I know), then Mr. Frey is a lying liar who lies, and his “memoir,” whatever its literary qualities, is thereby a piece of crap. One of the things I find absolutely henious in the various discussions of this incident I’ve seen online is invariably there’s someone who shows up and says something idiotic like the “literary” truth of the memoir is more important than the “literal” truth — i.e., it’s okay to lie about events in a non-fiction book if it makes for a better story (see an example of just such a dumbass statement here).

In a word: Bullshit. If one purports to write a non-fiction account of an event, one is, by definition, enjoined from writing fiction. If you write fiction and claim it is non-fiction, you are lying liar who lies. Writing something that “feels” true does not make it true, and the fact that people will come forward to defend “truthiness” over truthfulness in non-fiction makes me want to go on a rampage with a shovel. The tolerance for what one wants to be the truth at the expense of genuine truth is why we currently have a government which is of the opinion that truth looks exactly like a urinal.

If you’re going to write fiction, call it fiction, for Christ’s sake. People love romans a clef just as much as actual memoirs; indeed, they feel naughtier because you know the sex scenes are going to be better written. Writing non-fiction novels only works when you are Truman Capote, or intermittently if you’re Tom Wolfe. I may be going out on a limb here, not having read him and all, but I’m guessing Mr. Frey is in fact neither of them.

Update, 12:32: Mr. Frey comments on his site, and his comment is essentially “no comment.” (No permanent link, so if you come to this entry after 1/9/06), the link may not go to the relevant entry.)

Overload

Okay, you know what? I’m as egotistical a bastard as they come, but apparently even my self-love has its limits. After skimming through four years of Whatevers today for the Hate Mail book, I appear to have reached that limit, since by the end of it I was rolling my eyes at my own writing and thinking, boy, you’re just one smug son of a bitch, aren’t you? Yes, that’s a pretty good sign to take a break for the rest of the evening. Hopefully I’ll look better to myself tomorrow. Or maybe Monday.

The Return of the 30 Second Socratic Dialogue!

One of the things about putting together the Hate Mail book is that I’m going through old versions of the Web site and finding lots of forgotten stuff there. For example, this cartoon, which was part of a philosophy book proposal I put together back in the days when I didn’t have any books published, so no one would buy a book from me. The philosophy book proposal, incidentally, is not entirely ridiculous for me, being that I have a philosophy degree. Ironically, however, the illustrator of this piece, Richard Polt, is actually a professor of philosophy and has written a book on Heidegger.

But enough about that. Here, once again for your viewing pleasure, is the 30-Second Socratic Dialogue!

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Rex in Repose

The lovely object you see here is an urn, done in canopic style, and made to hold the ashes of my cat Rex, who died in the past year. It was made for me by T. Dane Haggard, a frequent reader of the Whatever (you’ve seen him in comments as “Dane”), who I must say not only made a gorgeous piece of pottery, but rather exactly estimated the correct size of the urn needed to hold Rex’s ashes: The ashes fit perfectly inside. Dane also provided the handsome satin-lined wood box you see behind the urn, in order to store and display the urn. In all, a beautiful and extremely thoughtful piece of work from Dane; there is no better place, I think, to keep the remains of my cat.

Here you can see the current resting place of Rex the Cat: On the top of my bookshelf. Appropriately for a canopic urn, just as the Ancient Egyptians had servants in the afterlife, so you can see the stuffed effigies of Socrates and Charles Darwin, tasked to serve Rex in the afterlife, to feed him tender bits, pet him at his request, and to pick up the vomit he so loved to hork in surprising places around the house, and is now no doubt continuing to do so in his new kitty heaven environs. Certainly a job worthy of great philosophers and naturalists!

Thank you, Dane, for such a fine piece of work. I am honored to have gotten it, to rest my cat in it, and to have it in my home.

Preliminary Nebula Ballot

For those of you in the SF tribe, here is the preliminary Nebula Ballot, the long list of nominees for SFWA’s Nebula Award. In all these categories, the nominees will be whittled down to five for the final ballot, but for now all of them can bask in their shinyness. Shine on, shiny writers!

I’m pleased to see that several friends and acquaintances have made the first cut, among them Kelly Link, Cory Doctorow, James Cambias, Jim Kelly and Benjamin Rosenbaum. I was also happy to see that Robert Metzger’s book CUSP made the first cut for novel — he had been kind enough to send along an inscribed copy of the book when it came out, and not only did I enjoy reading it, but then we had fun speculating about the physics of a moon made from cheese in the comment thread of the entry in which I talked about the book. I should have had him write a story on it for the Subterranean cliche issue. Still kicking myself about that.

Old Man’s War is not on the prelim ballot; its eligibility window expired on New Year’s Day, and it had two recommendations, which is eight short of the number needed to get on the prelim ballot. There’s a small chance the book could still land on the ballot if the Nebula novel jury hauls it up and recommends it, but this is not at all likely, not in the least because the Nebula juries go out of their way to recommend works that are obscure for whatever reason but worth award consideration. Say what you will about OMW, but it’s not exactly been unflogged. In the unfathomable situation where a Nebula jury were deciding whether to pick OMW or some excellent but unheralded novel, even I would tell them to pick the latter. So no Nebula for me. I’ll manage to make it through the pain.

Overall I think the prelim selections are pretty good, although I have to catch up on my reading, particularly in the short fiction category. The only place where the prelim ballot is clearly falling down is in the first cut nominations for the new Andre Norton Award for Young Adult, of which there is only one: Holly Black’s Valiant. This is not to suggest Ms. Black’s book is not worthy of the consideration, but there are at least a few other books that also deserve to make the first cut: I would particularly recommend Scott Westerfeld’s Mightnighters series and Peeps, and Justine Larbalestier’s Magic or Madness. But then again, my criticism cannot be too sharp, since I am a SFWA member, and I’ve not exactly been industrious in my recommendations. I aim to fix that, probably later today. In the meantime, the Norton Jury can add up to three books to the slate; now they know what I think they should pick.

In any event, congratulations to those folks who made the first cut! That’s pretty cool. And good luck for the final selection.

One Other Thing –

While I’m talking about other people’s stories that I’ve bought, allow me to note an upcoming experiment I’ll be doing here on the Whatever. While I was going through the submissions to Subterranean for the cliche issue, I came across the story “Who Put the Bomp?” by Nick Mamatas and Eliani Torres. It made it past the first couple of cuts for the magazine but when it came time to make final cuts, I cut it because it didn’t quite mesh with the other pieces I was planning to buy. The problem was that I really liked the piece — I kept coming back to it, and to be entirely honest, it was just so unclassifiably weird that it grew on me each time I read it.

So I bought it. Not for Subterranean Magazine, but for myself — paid the going rate I was offering the writers for Subterranean but paid for it out of my own pocket. And in return I get the right to post it here on the Whatever, which I plan to do in a couple of weeks: January 20, in fact.

I’m doing this because aside from liking the story enough to pay for it myself, I’m curious to see how something like this is received, and how effective the Whatever is in getting exposure for fiction (which is to say, someone else’s fiction — I’m pretty confident it’s been good for my own). This site’s daily readership is larger than the circulation of every science fiction magazine out there, save the big three of Asimov’s, Analog and F&SF, so potentially there’s a good chance of Nick and Eliani’s piece getting seen widely inside the usual SF circles — and being seen outside them to, since not everyone who visits the site is a hardcore SF reader.

Running someone else’s professional-grade fiction on a personal site isn’t the usual thing, but who’s to say it can’t be an effective way to show off the work, particularly when the site has a healthy and diverse readership? It’s an interesting enough question that it was worth me investing some of my own cash to check it out and see what happens, and I’m grateful that Nick and Eliani gave me permission to personally buy the piece and use it for this experiment.

As for all of you, I hope you’ll swing by on the 20th and check out the piece — I’ll post it in the morning and then keep it as the top post over the weekend (that’s the weekend I’ll be at the Synthetic Confusion convention) so there will be lots of time to read the piece and let me (and the authors) know what you think.

And thus we come to the end of a day of writing announcements and schedules. Thank you all for your indulgence.

Subterranean Magazine Cliche Issue Lineup

So, have you been staying up nights wondering what the story line-up for the Subterranean Magazine Cliche Issue will be? I don’t blame you. But wonder no more. Now that I have everything in a minimally edited format (except one piece, but that’ll be in this weekend, or my “boys” will pay someone a call), here are the stories, non-fiction pieces and authors you’ll be seeing when the magazine hits the stands this spring. The list is alphabetical by title, although some titles may change:

“Cliche Haiku” by Scott Westerfeld
“A Finite Number of Typewriters” by Stuart MacBride
“Hesperia and Glory” by Ann Leckie
“Horrible Historians” by Gillian Polack
“The Inevitable Heat Death of the Universe” by Elizabeth Bear
“It Came From the Slush Pile” by John Joseph Adams
“Labyrinth’s Heart” by Bruce Arthurs
“Last” by Chris Roberson
“The Last Science Fiction Writer” by Allen M. Steele
“Movie Cliches and the Sci-Fi Films That Love Them” by Ron Hogan
“The NOMAD Gambit” by Dean Cochrane
“Refuge” by David Klecha
“Remarks on Some Cliches I Have (by Definition) Known Too Well” by Teresa Nielsen Hayden
“Scene From a Dystopia” by Rachel Swirsky
“Shoah Sry” by Tobias S. Buckell and Ilsa J. Bick
“Tees and Sympathy” by Nick Sagan
“The Third Brain” by Charles Coleman Finlay and James Allison
“What a Piece of Work” by Jo Walton

All this plus book reviews, Bill Schafer’s regular column (he’s the publisher and usual editor, don’t you know) and probably something non-fictiony by me as well. All told, you’re getting a hell of a lot of excellent writing in one compact package. Indeed, I daresay that if we tried to cram in any more material, the entire package would reach critical mass, implode dramatically and crack the the earth’s very mantle. See, this is my job as the editor: To save the planet through perfectly-calibrated science fiction entertainment.

I am, as you may imagine, almost unspeakably happy with these selections, not only for their writing, but also for their overall range. When you pick up this collection, you’ll see stories featuring dramatically different tones and techniques, and you’ll see them handle their cliches in all sorts of ways, from unapologetic stylistic homages to wildly orthogonal textual approaches. What’s going to be fun for me is to sequence these stories and articles so that each one sets the stage for the next, so you can just sit back and enjoy the ride. I’m looking at this like it’s a playlist and I’m the DJ.

I’m also very happy with the breadth of contributors, who range from major award winners to writers who are being professionally published for the first time. A quarter of the fiction here — four pieces — is from first-timers, and I’m looking forward to being able to tell people, “Sure, they’re bigshots now, but I gave them their big break.” Followed, I presume, by me asking these same people if they want fries with that. But let’s not talk about my inevitable decline and fall right now. Let me instead bask in the thrill of being able to introduce these writers to you.

I will undoubtedly talk about this issue of Subterranean Magazine more as we get closer to publication, and it becomes available for sale, so don’t fear you won’t hear about it again and it will slip by you. Trust me, I’ll let you know when and where and how to get it. Although if you want to avoid the rush and make sure you get a copy, you can subscribe to the magazine right now and get four full issues of unstoppable entertainment (a year’s subscription for this quarterly-released magazine) for just $22. Issue 3, which is the one just before this one comes out, features new fiction from David J. Schow, Lewis Shiner, Poppy Z. Brite and David Prill, and I think my pal Cherie Priest may be in there too. I suspect that will keep you occupied while you wait for this issue.

In any event, there will be more information as we go along. So stay tuned.