Monthly Archives: February 2006

Boskonery

I had a fine time at Boskone, although in retrospect I think I may have overscheduled myself just a bit: Five panels, one reading, one autographing session and one kaffeklatsch (the attendees of which — Christopher Davis and Lanna Lee Maheux-Quinn — you can see above, minus Charlie Stross, who swung by the table to park his dogs and was immediately sucked into the klatschery). By the end of the convention I was pretty damn tired — although since I am currently nursing a sore throat and a general feel of blah, it’s entirely possible I was simply in the early stages of feeling crappy anyway. I certainly don’t blame Boskone or my gracious hosts for this, since in my opinion the folks running Boskone seemed to go out of their way to let me know they were happy to have me there. I’m sure they do this to all their authors and guests, but it was a nice feeling anyway.

I was going to do a namedrop paragraph of all the people I saw at Boskone, but that’s sort of lame, so instead here’s a quick overview of some personal highlights of the weekend, with the relevant folks, more or less in chronological order:

* A Friday afternoon traffic-blocking chat in the dealers room with Cory Doctorow, Elizabeth Bear, Allen Steele, Sarah Monette, Celia Marsh, Hannah Wolf Bowen, Jennifer Jackson and a few other people who I know through LiveJournal but whose names escape me now (feel free to say “hey, I was there, too!” in the comment thread);

* An excellent panel on bandwidth management with John McDaid, Naomi Novik, Sheila M. Perry and Shara Zoll

* Finally meeting Ken MacLeod at the Tor party, and then being able to sit in with him on a couple of panels (also with us on those panels: John M. Ford, Patrick Nielsen Hayden, Karl Schroeder, Daniel Hatch and Mark Olson);

* A very good panel on online communities with Toby Buckell, Teresa Nielsen Hayden, James Macdonald and Lenny Bailes;

* Meeting my friend Judy Hartling in person for the first time after knowing her for a decade online (she was as awesome as anticipated);

* Hanging in the Sheraton Boston bar and accreting a fun group of conversationalists who included Cory, Shara, Charlie Stross, Chad Orzel, Liz Gorinsky, Allen Steele, Toby, Karl Schroeder, James Cambias, Chad Orzel and Kate Nepveu and several others equally amusing but whose names are out of my brain at the moment (again, please feel free to self identify if you were there);

* Sunday breakfast with Liz and Chad;

* An autograph session sitting next to George RR Martin, who was fun to chat with during down times (of which, you may assume, I had more than he).

I was also pleased that The Ghost Brigades was available in the huckster’s room through the good graces of Larry Smith, bookseller, who appeared to go out of his way to pitch the book to passersby, particularly when my publisher was standing there. Handselling like that is a wonderful thing indeed. I also met Neil Clarke of Clarkesworld Books and signed his stock of Old Man’s War trade paperbacks, so if you’re looking for a way to get a signed copy of that from me, now you know where to go.

The only significant issue with the weekend had nothing to do with Boskone, which was the whole incident with the airline I was flying home on refusing to believe that I was actually a passenger. It did get resolved an hour and a half and nearly $200 later, but the silver lining on that was that the new itinerary I had got me home a half-hour earlier and that Toby Buckell was on my flight, so we sat next to each other and talked shop.

In all: a really excellent con — I felt like they were happy to have me there, and I was myself quite happy to be there. I intend to return. For the moment, however, it’s good to be home.

Speaking of which, Krissy just walked through the door. You’ll excuse me.

Back From Boston, Briefly; Also, New Interview

I’m back from Boskone, and I had a truly excellent time, except for the last part, in which my airline did not have my reservation anywhere in its system and I had to run around Boston Logan trying to fix it. Lots of exercise and I did get home, but on the other hand I would have avoided all that if I could. I’ll write about it more later, but at the moment I have to play catchup on various things, so it’ll have to wait until later in the day.

In the meantime, please to enjoy this interview of me at Science Fiction Weekly, talking about books, blogs and writing in a general sense. You’ll laugh! You’ll cry! You’ll think. Or perhaps none of the above. I’m not you, you know. You do what you want.

Anyway: Good to be home.

Quick Review Linkage Plus Web Designer Recommendations Needed

I wrote up a longer piece but then the power went out briefly and now I simply don’t have the patience to redo the whole damn thing. So, instead, some quick review links:

* A very nice review of Old Man’s War in the San Diego Union: “John Scalzi writes well, and very well, and very well again.” Shucks.

* A similarly very nice review of The Ghost Brigades at Book Fetish: “I called the first book in this series unapologetic and hardcore. If only I had known.” Well, see. Everybody loves surprises.

* I’ve been informed by uber-publicist Dot Lin that the Ghost Brigades review I noted the other day  from Library Journal was actually a starred review. And that’s good — Hopefully now every library in America will buy the book (except my local library, to whom I gave a copy, as is my custom). In any event, this makes me happy; the “Old Man” series is now 2-for-2 in the starred review category, which is a nice distinction for a series to have. I suppose this puts some pressure on The Last Colony to not totally suck. But I’ll worry about that later.

Okay, seriously now, I have a request for you all: I have a friend of mine who is planning to do a rather extensive re-org of his Web site, which will incorporate a new design for the main site and possibly a more attractive front end for the store he’s got the site as well. What he needs and I’m asking for here are recommendations for a good Web designer — someone who can handle both esthetics and the need for a commercial back-end.

If you know of Web designers who are capable of this (or alternately, you are a Web designer capable of this), please let me know, either in the comment thread or through e-mail. Right now this is an exploratory thing, so we won’t get into costs, etc. I’m just looking for good names. If you can provide examples of the designer’s work as well, that would be super-groovy. I thank you in advance.

Conversations With My Daughter, Thursday Edition.

From this morning, as I was driving her to school.

Me: So you know I’ll be gone this weekend, right?

Athena: Yes. Where will you be going?

Me: Boston.

Athena: Where’s that?

Me: It’s in Massachusetts.

Athena: Masschusetts! Are you going to divorce mommy and marry a boy?

Me: What? No.

Athena: Why not?

Me: Well, for one, I don’t want to divorce your mother. For two, I don’t really want to marry a boy. I don’t like boys that way.

Athena: You don’t?

Me: Really, no.

Athena: But then you would have something special.

Me: I already have something special with your mother.

Athena: Well, okay.

Bear in mind I’m pretty sure that Athena wasn’t really expecting me to divorce Krissy and marry a boy. But I do find it interesting that same-sex marriage was the thing that popped into her mind when I said “Massachusetts.” Yes, I did tell her about it once (once! I think more than a year ago, in the larger context of talking about marriage in general), but I’m sure I’ve told her other things about the Massachusetts as well. It’s funny what sticks in kids’ heads.

Your Hugo/Campbell Recommendations

I’ve got a magazine story to finish today so I can’t hang around here, but in my absence I thought I’d give you all something to do, particularly those of you who are (or wish to be) science fiction geeks. My request:

Give your recommendations for the Hugo and Campbell Awards for 2005.

For those of you catching up: Hugos are awarded at every Worldcon for the best science fiction and fantasy novels, short works, dramatic presentations and SF-related books (here are the categories). The Campbell is an award for best new writers. The Hugos are voted on by the attendees of the Worldcon, which this year takes place in LA (well, Anaheim, really).

Why do I ask for your recommendations? Well, first, I’m curious as to what you folks think was the best SF/F in 2005. Second, it’s nice to have another “Hugo rec” resource for people who are nominating this year. Third, the Whatever gets visited by lots of people who don’t read a lot of SF/F, so getting recommendations from those of you who do might give them a place to start reading. Fourth, I want to know if I’m missing something this year before I mail in my own nominations, and asking all y’all seems a good way to check.

One caveat: Exclude the host (that’s me) in your recommendations here. Yes, I’m eligible for awards this year, but it seems unlikely Whatever readers are not already aware of my work since I blather on about it interminably. Let’s put the spotlight elsewhere for the moment. Now, if you are eligible this year (and you really think your work is worth a nomination), I heartily encourage you to make note of your own work. Don’t be shy — ego is not a problem here. But I hope you’ll give due recognition to the other writers you think deserve on of those rocketship awards.

So: What and who do you recommend for the Hugos and the Campbell this year?

Ohio Board of Education Picks Up Clue, Sprints

Now I have one less reason to believe the State of Ohio is planning to make my child intentionally ignorant:

COLUMBUS, Ohio – The Ohio school board voted Tuesday to eliminate a passage in the state’s science standards that critics said opened the door to the teaching of intelligent design.

The Ohio Board of Education decided 11-4 to delete material encouraging students to seek evidence for and against evolution.

It’s nice to see that even this particularly weak-kneed swipe against evolution is no longer considered viable in the state where I live. But the Law of the Conservation of Stupidity, in which stupidity is never eliminated, it merely changes form and location, is at work here: now South Carolina’s school board is fiddling with their high school biology standards to try to make evolution look bad.

However, right now that’s South Carolina’s problem, and as I’ve said before, if other states want to intentionally make their children more ignorant, that just thins the herd for Athena when it comes time for her college applications. So you go on right ahead, South Carolina, and make your kids as pan-hit dim as possible. Ohio is presently out of the “enculturating ignorance” business, and for the moment, that’s good enough for me.

I Can See For Miles and Miles

athenatele2.jpg

They say you never forget your first telescope. Here’s Athena’s, a tiny Meade I got on clearance from Radio Shack as a Valentine’s Day present. And yes, she’s very excited about it. We’re going to go out and look at the moon tonight. A full moon is in fact not the best way to see the features of the moon (it’s a little bright), but it’ll be workable. And besides, we’ll have fun anyway.

Hope your Valentine’s Day is going well.

Oh –

Before I forget, I did one of those Johari Windows thingies. I set it up for the folks over at AOL Journals, but there’s no reason you can’t tell me what you think about me, too.

Yes, I realize that some of you read By The Way as well as Whatever, so you’d already know this. But I find (anecdotally, at least) that the crossover between the two sites is actually rather low. So, just out of curiosity, how many of you do actually read By the Way on a regular basis? Bear in mind there is no wrong answer here; it’s just something I wonder about.

Reviews Aggregator

I’m trying to jam through stuff so I can get out of here to have Valentine’s Day lunch with my wife, so rather than stretching out a bunch of new reviews across several ego-gratifying entries, I’m just going to pile them into one entry.

First, a nice review of The Ghost Brigades in Library Journal, which gives the book a “highly Recommended” rating: “The sequel to Old Man’s War combines taut military action with keen insights into the moral issues revolving around developing technologies. Scalzi has a finely tuned sense of balance between personal drama and the ‘big picture’…” You can see the whole review on the BN.com page for TGB.

Second, Old Man’s War is getting a second wave of reviews thanks to its trade paperback release, and these have also generally been positive. This review at Book Fetish gives it fives stars (“hardcore, unapologetic Heinlein-esque military Sci-Fi”), and this review at Literal Barrage is also nice (“I’m pleased to report that I enjoyed this book greatly”). And over at Byzantium’s Shores, Jaquandor meditates on the difference between “neat Mil-SF” and “war-porn,” and among other things concludes OMW is not war-porn, which I appreciate. I also think some of his specific questions will be addressed in The Ghost Brigades, and probably also in The Last Colony, whenever it is I start writing that, which should be soon. He’s also ticked I got a free cell phone and is threatening to hit the library for my future release. Well, you know. I can live with that.

Now I’m off to shower and get ready for lunch with my lady. See y’all later, and happy Valentine’s Day.

Scalzi Sells Out to Sprint and the Chinese, and Other Tales

newphone.jpg

Behold my new toy, which is a cell phone that I received for free, along with six months service with all the bells and whistles, for no better reason than apparently someone at Sprint wandered by the Whatever and decided I was cool enough to give a free phone to. Now, the actual reason is that this site gets tons of visits per day and the Sprint folks are hoping that my excited babbling about their Sprint Power Vision service will convince the mass of you to stampede to the store to pick up your very own MM-A920 by Samsung, with built-in 1.3 megapixel camera and mp3 player and blue-green high-energy laser. So you can melt the heads of your enemies, take a photo of the carnage and then play Queen’s “We Are the Champions,” or some such thing. So there you have it. Submit to your viral marketers! And eat Butterfingers!

In reality, of course, I expect you not to do any of the above (particularly that laser bit), but it’s an interesting marketing concept, and I don’t mind getting a free phone to play with for six months (after which the service is switched off and I turn back into a pumpkin). As most of you know I don’t (or didn’t) own a cell phone because for the life of me I couldn’t see why I needed one. But, hey, if it’s free, I’ll give it a try, and I’ll be happy to fiddle with the camera/mp3 player/laser/whatever and see how it all works for me. If I genuinely am blown away by it, I’ll let you know.

Also, if you’re in a technology company and you have a new gizmo you want to send me, for free, you’re certainly welcome to do so. Baby loves toys, and I have no shame.

Other news: Sold the Chinese rights to Old Man’s War (mainland, not Taiwan). Between this and the Russian rights, I’m now represented on a good two-thirds of the continent of Asia. I can’t wait to see what the book looks like in Chinese, although, just like the Cyrillic, I haven’t a chance in Hell of actually understanding it. They could send me the Bejing phone book with some SF artwork slapped on the cover, tell me it was my book, and I’d just grin stupidly and be happy. Sometimes being monolingual blows.

Also, I have my first e-mail report of a Ghost Brigades landing, at Diane’s Books in Greenwich, Connecticut. We’re just a week away from the official release anyway so it should start appearing on shelves most places. If any of you want to send along a picture when you see it, you’d make me a happy boy.

Writing Tips for Non-Writers Who Don’t Want to Work at Writing

A writing question:

What writing tips would you whisper to those who aren’t aspiring professionals, but would like to write better? If I asked you about losing weight and you said “Diet and Exercise” you’d be a) correct and b) ignored. So no ideas that take work. We want the quick fix! Tips like “Edit your work” aren’t useful. “Gerunds are your friend” are.

So, the task here: Tell y’all how to write better without you actually having to make an effort. Fine. Here’s how I would do it.

(NB: These work pretty well for people who do want to be pro writers, too.)

0. Speak what you write: This is rule zero because all other rules follow on this. Basically: If what you’re writing is hard to speak, what makes you think it’s going to be easy to read? It won’t be. So speak out loud what you write. If you can’t speak it naturally, rewrite it. Simple.

1. Punctuate, damn you: For God’s sake, is it really so hard to know where to put a comma? When people read, even in their brains, there’s usually some part of them that is sounding out the words. Without appropriate punctuation, especially commas, that word-speaking part will eventually choke on the sentence. Having said that, there’s a tendency to over-punctuate as well, particularly with exclamation points. Too little punctuation makes it seem you want to collapse someone’s lung, too much makes it look like you’re a 14-year-old girl writing an IM. You want to avoid both.

Here’s a quick and dirty guide when to use punctuation:

Periods: When you’re writing down a thought and you’re at the end of that thought, put a period.
Commas: When you’re writing down a thought and you want to take a breath, whether mental or physical, put in a comma.
Semi-colon: Put these in your writing in the place where, in conversation, you’d arch your eyebrow or make some other sort of physical gesture signalling that you want to emphasize a point.
Colon: Use when you want to make an example of something: For example, just like this.
Question Mark: Quite obviously, when you have a question.
Exclamation point: When you’re really excited about something. You almost never need to use more than one in a paragraph. Use more than one in a sentence and you damn well better be using it for humorous and/or ironic effect.
Dashes: You can use these when you’ve already used a colon or a semi-colon in a sentence, but be aware that if you have more than one colon or semi-colon in a sentence, you’re probably doing something wrong.

Somewhat related: Use capitals when you should (beginning of sentences, proper nouns), don’t use them when you shouldn’t (pretty much every other time). Lots of people think not using capitals makes them look arty and cool, but generally it just makes the rest of us wonder if you’ve not yet figured out the magical invention known as the shift key. Alternately, the random appearance of capitals in inappropriate places makes us wonder if you don’t secretly wish the Germans won World War II (and even the Germans are cracking down on wanton capitalization these days, so there you are).

2. With sentences, shorter is better than longer: If a sentence you’re writing is longer than it would be comfortable to speak, it’s probably too long. Cut it up. This is one I’m guilty of ignoring; I tend to use semi-colons when I should be using periods. In fact, I’d say the largest single editing task I have after writing a piece is to go in and turn semi-coloned sentences into two sentences (or more, God forgive me).

Shorter is also better with paragraphs, but there’s such a thing as too short: Take a look at a not-particularly-well-edited newspaper and you’ll see a lot of single-sentence paragraphs, generally preceded or followed by other single-sentence paragraphs that should have been compressed into one paragraph. Good rule: One extended idea or discrete event per paragraph.

3. Learn to friggin’ spell: I’m not talking typos here, because everyone makes them, and I make more than most. I mean genuine “gosh I really don’t know how this is spelled” mistakes. This is particularly the case with basic spelling errors like using “your” when you’re supposed to be using “you’re” or “its” for “it’s” (or in both cases, vice-versa). Here’s a good rule of thumb: For every spelling error you make, your apparent IQ drops by 5 points. For every “there, they’re, their” type of mistake you make, your apparent IQ drops by 10 points. Sorry about that, but there it is.

What’s truly appalling is that even people with advanced degrees (I’m looking at you, scientists) screw these particular pooches. I look at some of the writing I see from people with MAs and PhDs after their names and I think no wonder China’s poised to kick our ass.

Look, spelling isn’t hard. Nearly every single computerized writing tool has a built-in spellcheck that will catch 90% of your spelling errors, and as for the rest of them, well, it isn’t too much to ask adults to know the difference between “their” and “there.” It’s really not.

Also, here’s a handy tip for those of you with Internet access (which, by definition, would be all of you reading this on my site). If you have a word, the spelling of which you’re not sure, and you don’t have a dictionary handy (either bound or online), copy the word, paste it into Google’s search engine, and hit “search.” If you’ve spelled it incorrectly, chances are really excellent that when your search results come up, up at the top Google will ask “Did you mean:” and present whatever word it is that you’re failing to spell. There’s no shame in doing this.

Bottom line: Typos aside, there’s no reason not to spell things correctly (and you really should get on those typos, too, although I note that I’m the last person in the world to ride folks on that one).

Related to this:

4. Don’t use words you don’t really know: It’s nice to use impressive words from time to time, but if you use an impressive word incorrectly, everyone who does know what the word means will think of you as a pathetic, insecure dork. I’m just saying. Bear in mind that this is not limited only to “impressive” Latinate words, but also (indeed especially) to slang. Use slang incorrectly — or even use last year’s word — and you’ll look like teh 1am3r. Unless you’re using the slang ironically, in which case you might be able to get away with it.

But generally: stick to words you know you know, or make real good friends with that there dictionary thingie.

5. Grammar matters, but not as much as anal grammar Nazis think it does: The problem with grammar is that here in the US at least, schools do such a horrible job of teaching the subject that most people are entirely out to sea regarding correct usage. It’s the calculus of liberal arts subjects. But grammar need not be stupendously complicated; in the final reduction the point of grammar is to make the language as clear to as many people as possible. Frankly, I think if most non-writers can manage to get agreement between their verb and their subject, I’m willing to spot them the whole “who/whom” conundrum.

Now, obviously, you should know as much grammar as you can; the more grammar you know, the better you can write. But the bottom line is just this: Be as clear as possible. If you’re not confident about the grammar of a sentence, re-write it and strive for clarity. Yes, it’s possible that in doing so the resulting sentence will lack style or something. But it’s better to be plain and understood than to have people admire your style and have not the slightest idea what you’re trying to say.

6. Front-load your point: If you make people wade through seven paragraphs of unrelated anecdotes before you get to what you’re really trying to say, you’ve lost. Yes, Mark Twain and Garrison Keillor pull that stunt all the time. But: Surprise! You’re not them. Also, there were lots of times when Twain just needed to get to the goddamn point, already.

Now, sometimes people write to find out what their point is; I think that’s fine because I do that myself. But most of the time after I’ve figured out my point, I’ll go back and re-write. Because that’s the magic of writing: You can do that. It’s not actually a live medium. No, not even in IM, since you can still re-write before you hit “send.”

This point is more flexible than some of the others; sometimes you want to go the long way around to make your point because doing so makes the point stronger. I took the long way around in my “Being Poor” essay, for example. However, most of the time it’s better to let people know what you’re doing than not, if only because then you have a better chance of them sticking around until the end.

7. Try to write well every single time you write: I have friends who I know can write well who send me the most awful e-mail and IMs because they figure it doesn’t matter how many rules of grammar and spelling they stomp on because it’s just e-mail and IM. But if you actually want to be a better writer, you have to be a better writer every time you write. It won’t kill you to write a complete sentence in IM or e-mail, you know. The more you do it, the better you’ll get at it until it will actually be more difficult to write poorly in e-mail and IM than not (mobile text messaging I understand has more limitations. But I tend to look at text messaging as the 21st Century equivalent of semaphore, which is to say, specialized communication for specialized goals).

There really is no excuse for writing poorly in one’s blog. At least with IMs and e-mail your terrifying disembowelment of the language is limited to one observer. But in your blog, you’ll look stupid for the whole world to see, and it will be archived for as long as humanity remembers how to produce electricity. Maybe you don’t think anyone who reads your blog will care. But I read your blog — yes indeed I do — and I care. Madly. Truly. Deeply.

8. Read people who write well: Don’t just read for entertainment, but also look to see how they do their writing — how they craft sentences, use punctuation, break their prose into paragraphs, and so on. Doing so takes no more time than reading what they write anyway, and that’s something you’re doing already. If you can see what they’re doing, you can try to do it too. You probably won’t be able to re-create their style, since that’s something about that particular person. But what you can do is recreate their mechanics. Don’t worry that your own “voice” will get lost. Be readable first and your own style will come later, when you’re comfortable with the nuts and bolts of writing.

9. When in doubt, simplify: Worried you’re not using the right words? Use simpler words. Worried that your sentence isn’t clear? Make a simpler sentence. Worried that people won’t see your point? Make your point simpler. Nearly every writing problem you have can be solved by making things simpler.

This should be obvious, but people don’t like hearing it because there’s the assumption that simple = stupid. But it’s not true; indeed, I find from personal experience that the stupidest writers are the ones whose writing is positively baroque in form. All that compensating, you know. Besides, I’m not telling you to boil everything down to “see spot run” simplicity. I am telling you to make it so people can get what you’re trying to say.

Ultimately, people write to be understood (excepting Gertrude Stein and Tristan Tzara, who were intentionally being difficult). Most people are, in fact, capable of understanding. Therefore, if you can’t make people understand what you write, most of the time it’s not just because the world is filled with morons, it’s also because you are not being clear. Downshift. People will be happy to know what you’re saying.

10. Speak what you write:
Yes, I’ve covered this before. But now after all the other tips you can see why this makes sense. If you can’t make your writing understandable to you, you can’t make it understandable to others.

And now I’m off to speak this to myself. If I can do it with my writing, you can do it with yours.

Clean Office, Clean Mind

Krissy did one of her occasional clean-ups of my office environment and then demanded I take a photo as verification that, indeed, the room was spotless. So here you are: My spotless office. One part of me feels ashamed that my entropic tendencies drive my wife into a cleaning frenzy, but another part of me is always grateful when she does, because the simple truth of the matter is that I find it so much easier to focus when I am not surrounded by ceiling-high piles of books and paper which threaten to collapse onto me, pinning me and leaving me helpless while the cats feed off my bones (because you know they would).

Essayed here is the desk; what you don’t see is the bookshelf to the left, which was also reorganized, in particular to give me an ego shelf, like so:

These are all the books I’ve written or contributed to. The goal before the time I die in a horrible dolphin incident is to write enough books that the shelf can only hold single copies of each book. By which time, of course, bound copies of books will be laughably quaint collector’s items. But that’s not the point. And anyway, obviously, I plan on collecting.

So there it is. Allow me to take a moment of public recognition of my wife for making my working space far less likely to erupt into spontaneous paper fire. She rocks.

Autographed Copies

Ever since I left that e-mail address on Amazon I’ve been getting an increasing number of questions on how to get autographed copies of books from me, so here’s yet another entry I’m writing so I’ll have something to point people to. Here goes.

First, yes, I am happy to sign books. What, are you kidding? Back when I was a teenager I purposely made myself develop a distinctive signature so that if the time ever came when I got to sign books, I’d be ready. It’d be a shame to have those decades of preparation go to waste. Also, since some people have actually offered to pay me to sign their books, no, I don’t charge for signing books. I’m not a former baseball player or hobbit, you know. Even if I could charge, I wouldn’t. Thanks for offering, though.

All I ask is that you at least try to pretend that you’re not just going to turn around and sell the book on eBay. Which is to say, don’t come at me with 14 copies of the same book (unless you are a legitimate bookseller. Then we can talk).

The best way to get me to sign a book is to catch me at an appearance or convention, because I am at those in an official capacity, anyway. I generally don’t mind being approached in most circumstances, although if I am in the middle of something (a meeting with an editor, a deeply personal conversation, fighting crime, etc) I may ask if you can catch me a little later. But mostly I’ll be happy to sign then and there. There’s no harm in asking.

Alternately, you can mail me books to sign at the address you’ll find at the bottom of this entry, but only under the condition that you include both self-addressed packaging and sufficient postage to get the book back to you. The reason for this is a) I’m not made of money, and mailing books adds up over time; b) if I don’t have packaging and post right there in front of me, you may never get your book back because, by God, I am just that lazy. I wish I could say I’m joking but I am totally serious — if you don’t send postage and packaging, you may never get your book back. The problem is me, not you. On the other hand if you do send self-addressed packaging and postage, it’ll go into the mail the very next day. Easy.

The third way is to buy stuff I’ve already signed, like this and this. These things are limited editions, so when I’m hit by the inevitable bus, they may be worth something. Hey, you never know.

If you have questions, please feel free to leave them in the comment thread.

The John Scalzi Agent FAQ

I’m getting a lot of questions about agents recently, so to avoid having to repeat myself multiple times I’m going to create this entry so I can point people to it when they ask me agentorial questions. Hopefully this will cover most of the basic questions, but if there are questions I don’t cover that you have, go ahead and drop them into the comment thread.

(Note that this document assumes you know what an agent is, and that you know the basics between a good one and a bad one. If you’re hazy about that stuff, go here and then come back.)

1. So, Scalzi, do you have an agent?
I have two, actually. For non-fiction, I am represented by Robert Shepard of the Robert Shepard Agency, located in Berkeley, California. For fiction, I am represented by Ethan Ellenberg, of New York’s Ethan Ellenberg Literary Agency.

2. Why do you have two agents?
Primarily because I’ve been with Robert longer, and he represents non-fiction only, and I wasn’t going to throw him aside because I wrote fiction as well. When I was in the market for a fiction agent, I did speak to a couple of agents who said to me that they’d be happy to represent me, but they had to represent my non-fiction work as well. These people did not become my agent. Both my agents know the other exists and knows it’s my intention to continue writing both fiction and non-fiction, and are happy to let the other handle the stuff they don’t.

If one does write both fiction and non-fiction, I don’t think it’s necessary to have two agents, but personally I find it helpful. Robert’s focus on non-fiction means he’s got that side of the book industry wired and he knows its quirks and its terrain; Ethan handles both fiction and non-fiction but as far as I can tell the majority of his work goes into the fiction market, and he is similarly wired into its tics and idiosyncrasies. They can both find the best homes for my work, fiction and non-fiction, because their depth of knowledge of their particular field.

3. What do you think of your agents?
I like them both very much, both as business associates and as human beings. Both have been very proactive in strategizing my career and in not only fielding ideas I bring to them but for keeping an ear out for projects publishers are interested in for which I might be a good fit. For example, I wrote my very first book, The Rough Guide to Money Online, because Robert was speaking to the Rough Guides people and they mentioned they were looking for someone to write an Internet finance book for them. Robert knew I worked for AOL and remembered that some of the very first things I wrote for AOL were personal finance columns, so he suggested me and we all moved forward. On Ethan’s side, he’s been very helpful in terms of advice about projects that have been offered to me in fiction and the advantages and disadvantages each bring, not only in terms of money but in terms of my fiction career over the long term.

In the case of both my agents, I feel comfortable that they and I are on the same wavelength, which is: Writing is my career, and the intent is to make the career last and grow. At times this means sacrificing a short-term opportunity (and the financial gains thereof) for long-term growth. In all, I’m happy to say that both my agents have been a good fit for me.

4. How did you get your agents?
Both in unusual ways. Robert solicited me back in 1994 — he had read a column I had written and followed up on it to see if I was represented by anyone. Now, generally speaking it’s not a good sign when agents solicit you — most reputable agents are so flooded by submissions they simply don’t need to look for clients. However, Robert was just starting out his agency, and I, while young, was not stupid; I did due diligence on him and came to the conclusion that he was indeed not a scam artist. I signed up with him and immediately started banging out book proposals. It was five years, however, before we sold a book together. Moral to that story: Selling books takes time. All that time, however, Robert was banging down the doors and presenting the work, and keeping me in the loop with what was going on; if we weren’t selling it’s not because he wasn’t trying to sell the product.

With Ethan, I had the advantage of having already sold the properties I wanted to have represented: Tor had already bought Old Man’s War from me as well as a second book (which would become The Android’s Dream). It’s much easier to get an agent when you’ve already done the work of getting bought, because then the agent knows that not only can you write salable prose, there’s also a publisher who is likely to be interested in your next work as well.

(But even then it’s not a lock — before I went to Ethan, I hit up another agency that is well-known in science fiction circles and they turned me down, despite sales in hand, because the work they saw, including OMW, just wasn’t clicking with them. I hope that in retrospect they’re kicking themselves now, just because I’m that way. But to be clear this agency did me a favor; it makes an agent’s job harder if the work they’re trying to sell is work they don’t actually enjoy. Not impossible — agents are pros, and pros don’t let their personal taste get in the way of doing the best for their clients — just harder. And anyway, now I’m with an agent my work clicks with, so that’s even better.)

In the case of both Ethan and Robert, I am the first to say that how I got them was not the way most people will get their agents — most novice writers aren’t solicited by reputable agents, and most novice writers won’t have sales in hand when they go looking for an agent. In short, in both cases, I was ridiculously lucky, and I know it. Most writers have a rather more difficult time of it.

5. How much to you pay your agents?
Both Robert and Ethan get 15% of sales and royalties. 15% is the industry standard now — it bumped up from 10% just as I was getting started, and from what I understand there are some agents who are now trying to get their cut bumped up to 20%. I wouldn’t allow myself to be represented by such types, personally.

However, I don’t find 15% to be unreasonable. In exchange for 15% my agents handle a lot of backend crap I just don’t have time for, including hounding publishers for payment and managing things like foreign and movie sales. The 85% I get with both of my agents is indisputably more than the 100% I would get without them; therefore they are worth their cut.

6. What’s this about foreign and movie sales?
Well, in addition to schlepping my work to domestic book publishers, my agents also (depending on the property) try to make sales to publishers in other countries and to TV and movie makers. In both cases, the cut they take is slightly higher — 20% — but that’s because generally they subcontract work to agents in those other countries or in Hollywood (they usually split the percentage 50/50). Now, to be clear, these “sub-agents” aren’t my agents, they’re my agent’s agents — right now, for example, my novels are being shopped around to movie studios by a fellow named Joel Gotler, but that’s because Gotler has an arrangement with Ethan, not with me. This is fine by me for two reasons: first, less work for me, and second, Mr. Gotler seems to sell a lot of stuff, which speaks both well of him, and of Ethan for working with quality associates. Aside from foreign and movie sales, both Robert and Ethan represent me for other types of sales as well. Because their job is selling my properties.

7. What happens if you ever become disenchanted with your agents?
I suppose I would get new agents — writers do that from time to time. This is a business, and ultimately agents are business partners, and sometimes people change business partners. How quickly one may disentangle one’s self depends on what contractual obligations one has with one’s agent. In the case of both Ethan and Robert, it would be relatively easy for me to break with them and shop new books with new agents — but my old books would stay with them, because I’ve agreed to that contractually. As long as the contracts stay in force, Ethan will always be the agent for The Ghost Brigades; Robert will always be the agent for The Rough Guide to the Universe, unless they die and/or commit unspeakable agentorial malfeasance, in which case I’m pretty sure the books come back to me (I’d have to check contracts). However, in both cases I’m confident I am being represented fairly and I sure hope these guys don’t die, because I like them. So I’m in no rush to swap representation.

8. So, can I ask your agents to represent me?
I don’t see why not. As far as I know they are both seeking new authors. But if you do, please do the following:
a) Visit their Web sites. That way you’ll get a good idea of what (and who) the two of them represent and, also, what they have no interest in representing. The latter is incredibly important. If you send Robert a novel, you’re guaranteed to annoy him and to waste your own time; the same if you send Ethan some poetry.
b) Read their submission guidelines and follow them to the letter. This is no joke. The two of them get a huge number of submissions, and they don’t need a whole lot of reason to dump a “thanks but no thanks” form letter on your ass; not following submission guidelines is a fine way to significantly decrease your chances of being represented.
c) Re-read points a) and b) until you finally believe that, yes, they actually do apply to you. People like to live under the delusion that they are special and they don’t have to follow guidelines thereby. Guess what? You’re not, and you do. Believe it.

9. When I hit up your agents, can I say that you sent me?
You’d better ask me directly for that, actually. It will help significantly if I actually know you (in the “real world” sense, not in the free-floating “Intarrweeb buddies” sense) and if I’ve actually had some acquaintance with your written work aside from Web sites, blogs and the like. No offense, but if you’re not actually a person I know whose writing I like, I’m hard-pressed to put my personal credibility on the line with my agents. For one thing, too much of that and a recommendation from me would be entirely useless.

If you’re not one of these people (and — again, no offense — chances are very good that you’re not), what you can still do is let Ethan/Robert know that you learned of their existence via the site, and that I said I thought of him highly, so you thought you’d give him a shot at your work. That’s entirely legit and useful, I think.

10. Yeah, okay, but seriously, Scalzi, do people really need an agent? After all, you did sell your novels without one.
And as it happens I’ve also sold a couple of non-fiction books without one either (although to be very clear those books were sold under exceptional circumstances).

But, look, whether an agent is useful is not just about selling books. It’s also about negotiating contracts once you’ve agreed to sell the books, and it’s about extending the profitable life of a book for as long as possible once they are sold. Now, let’s look at each of these in turn.

a) Selling: Yes, I’ve sold books without an agent. However, I’ve also sold books with an agent, and you know what? Generally speaking, I’ve gotten more for those books, because selling is my agent’s job (whereas my job is writing).

Let me re-emphasize that in the cases where I have sold books without my agents, there have generally been some extraordinary circumstances involved — for example, in the case of Old Man’s War, I got an offer for the book without actually submitting it to the publisher first — which generally speaking are not going to apply to most book sales. It is possible to make traditional book sales without agents, but it’s generally far more difficult, since your work will have to sit in the slush pile, probably for months, while you wait to hear of its fate. A good agent can get your work read faster and either sold or (sorry, more likely) rejected faster so you can get it out to the next publisher. An agent also opens more doors because some publishers won’t bother with an unagented manuscript. For selling, you’re better off with an agent than not.

b) Negotiating: All right, all you would-be first-time authors: How many of you have negotiated a book contract before? Let’s see a show of hands. Hmmm… not many hands there, I’d say. Whereas your average agent has done dozens if not hundreds of them over the course of a career. Even the new ones tend to have some contract experience, either by doing an internship at another agency or (in the case of Robert, my non-fiction agent) having worked contracts from the other side of the table by working in publishing proper.

Two things you must engrave on your brain: First, contracts are legal documents. Once you sign one, you’re pretty much stuck with it until and unless the revolution comes. Second, the publisher is not going to do you any favors. Even if your publisher is a good and decent publisher which doesn’t egregiously screw the author at every opportunity, it will still nevertheless attempt to retain as many useful permissions to itself as possible. Your publisher is in business to make money. It is not going to leave money on the table. Unless you know your way around a book contract, not only won’t know you whether your contract is a good one, you probably won’t even be able to tell whether your publisher is a decent one, or one that will egregiously screw with you.

A good agent will help you get a contract that is fair to you as well as good for your publisher. They will do this because that’s their job — to know what is fair, and to work through contracts. This leaves you largely free to do your job, which is to write things your agent can sell.

c) Extending: Another show of hands — how many of you know how to sell to foreign publishers (and what a good sale price is in, say, Russia or France)? Do you know how to get in the door of movie and TV production companies? Do you have the first clue as to how to talk to a video game company about adapting your book into a shoot-’em-up format? Again, there’s a really excellent chance I’m not going to see a whole lot of hands here. Well, an agent does — or should — or knows people who do. Selling a book to a publisher doesn’t have to be the only sale your book has. There are lots of other ways to make money, and a good agent knows how to find them… and to keep finding them.

Those are the reasons to get an agent. Not just for the first sale, but for everything after.

Okay, now the floor is open to questions that I haven’t answered so far. Drop them into the comment thread.

When Stupid People Won’t Shut Up

Poor NASA whipping boy George Deutsch. He’s the only one at that agency who would stand up for truth!

In the interview, Mr. Deutsch said that Dr. Hansen had partisan ties “all the way up to the top of the Democratic Party,” and that he was “using those ties and using his media connections to push an agenda, a worst-case-scenario agenda of global warming.” He said that anyone who disagrees with Dr. Hansen “is labeled a censor and is demonized and vilified in the media — and the media of course is a willing accomplice here.”

Good lord. The boy couldn’t be more from Bush White House Central Casting if he tried. Here’s another quote I love:

“When at NASA, I was asked to let my managers speak on behalf of the issues,” he said. “Now that I am no longer bound by that, I would really like to clear the air and defend my integrity and my good name.”

This would be the same integrity that led him to pad his resume with a degree he didn’t have, one assumes.

You know, look. George Deutsch’s problem isn’t that he’s a conservative, since despite the impression the current White House gives there are lots of conservatives who are good with science, and a liberal jackass pulling the same type of stunts Deutsch has been pulling would be no better than he. George Deutsch’s problem is that he’s a big friggin’ tool, the sort of ideological twit who can’t help but put a political spin on everything, up to and including taking a dump. Seriously, give his type four beers and then ask them if there’s a difference between how liberals and conservatives pinch a loaf. You’ll hear theories.

The worst part about this is that Deutsch clearly hasn’t learned a damned thing — it’s clear that somehow he’s the wronged party in this. Self-righteousness and a complete lack of introspection: no wonder this administration saw fit to appoint him to something. No doubt he’ll be running for the state legislature down there in Texas sooner than later. Y’all have fun with him. Try to keep him there, if you please.

The Power of Petey Compels You!

powerofpetey.jpg

Aaaaiiee! It’s Petey, the wrathful seven-foot cockatoo! Bow down before his mighty beak!

(This picture makes a lot more sense if you read the comment thread here.)

Naturally, the music to go along with this picture would have to be from Hatebeak, the only death metal group in history fronted by a parrot. Enjoy the dulcet tones of “God of the Empty Nest” while you cower before Petey!

Naturally, I encourage you to testify about your own encounters with Petey, Unholy Cockatoo of Retribution! Because don’t we all have a Petey story? Sure we do. For example, I met Petey on under the piers of San Pedro! His horrible unblinking gaze cured me of smack and male prostitution! Well, mostly. Anyway, I’m sure I’m not the only one here who can speak of an encounter with Petey the Great and Terrible.

(Thanks to Gabe for the original “artwork”)

Achieving Bookosity

What’s that smell? Why, it’s the toasty, buttery scent of author copies, fresh from the FedEx truck! They’re booktastic! More to the point, the fact I have my copies means that although it’s debatable that The Ghost Brigades is going to show up soon at bookstore near me, given that my local bookseller didn’t bother to stock the Old Man’s War until it was out in paperback, it is entirely possible the book is now wending its way to stores near you, ahead of its official February 21 release date. I trust you’ll let me know if you see it.

Also, for those of you who are going to Boskone, I have received word that TGB definitely will be stocked in the dealer’s room at the convention. So if you can’t find it anywhere before you get to Boskone, you’ll be able to find it there. Personally I’m considering Boskone to be the location of the book’s official debut, and I couldn’t be happier about that.

TGB Review at SFSignal

It’s a thumbs-up:

The Ghost Brigades proves that his awesome 2005 debut, Old Man’s War, was no fluke… It’s hard to not like a story when it’s obvious in the writing that the author is having so much fun with it.

It’s true that I had fun writing this one; I like making things up and sitting there and wondering what the hell I’m going to have my characters next. I would note, though, that any one particular day during the writing, I might not appear to be having a whole lot of fun, usually conciding with days when I really am wondering what the hell I’m going to have my characters do next. I honestly do make these books up as I go along (I’m not much for outlining), so sometimes I’m just as surprised as anyone about what happens next.

In The Ghost Brigades, for example, there is a character who I had intended to be in only one scene, but as I was writing the scene I saw that I could use him later in the book to resolve a later issue. And in writing that scene I realized he would be useful in other places, too. The character went from a truly minor player to one who I would say is the moral heart of the book, and is (in my opinion) one of the better characters I’ve written. So this writing style has its benefits, as long as you can handle the moments of blind panic that occur when it’s clear you have no clue what you’re doing.

As an aside, the review asks if I had a particular Firefly/Serenity character in mind while I was writing one of the minor characters in the book. The answer is no; when I first started writing the character I hadn’t seen either. I think both characters are offshoots of a certain archetypal character. i.e., the obnoxious man of action who is useful to have around in a pinch. Hey, archetypes work.