Daily Archives: May 6, 2008

Triple-Decker Catblogging

You’ve seen Ghlaghghee. You’ve seen Lopsided Cat. You’ve even seen Zeus. But until now, you’ve never seen all three of them together in the same picture:

And there you have it. Your life is now totally fulfilled. You’re welcome.

Actually, the interesting thing about the picture for me is that three years after we moved it to another location, you can still see in the grass the circular impression of the inflatable pool we once set up there.

Kickass Cover Art

I just found the cover art for the spanish version of The Ghost Brigades (Las Brigadas Fantasmas) and it rocks. If you want to see it, click on the “continue reading” link (I’m doing this way so as to not yet knock the “Big Idea” piece below the fold).

Continue reading

The Big Idea: Maureen Johnson

We’ve been talking about YA quite a lot here in Whateverland, and as coincidence has it, today’s Big Idea piece is from Maureen Johnson, who writes — can you guess? — young adult books. Her latest, Suite Scarlett, takes place in a fantastical land with strange creatures, but in this case the fantastical land is Manhattan, and the strange creatures are the Martin family and the guests who stay at their small, family-run hotel. Hey, YA: it’s not all unicorns and spaceships, pal. Sorry if I’ve been giving you that impression.

In this installment, Maureen Johnson talks about getting a Big Idea out of a Bad Idea, in a story that involves Kurt Vonnegut. Yes, indeed: Kurt Vonnegut. Let’s let our author go into the details. She tells it better.

MAUREEN JOHNSON:

My latest novel, Suite Scarlett, exists because I once allowed an eight-year-old to conduct a band in a musical production of Kurt Vonnegut’s apocalyptic masterpiece Cat’s Cradle, with the author himself in the audience. Most sensible people would have stopped the moment they heard “musical” in connection with Cat’s Cradle and would therefore never have gotten as deep into the mess as I did. But if there is one principle I’ve come to embrace and even make Big Ideas out of, it’s this . . . occasionally, you must embrace the Bad Idea, if only to see how things pan out. Sensible Ideas will only get you so far in life. If you really want to get somewhere, Bad Ideas are the way. Every once in a while you just have to take a match to something and say, “I wonder what this does when it burns!”

But as to how I got into the Cat’s Cradle situation . . .

I went to graduate school to study theatrical dramaturgy and writing at Columbia University. I did it cheerfully, signing all my loans on the dotted line with a grim, manic determination, one after another, each one bigger than the last, in a manner in which I like to imagine would befit poor Giles Corey—the man pressed to death under stones during the Salem Witch Trials—who, when asked for a statement, would only say, “More weight.”

Most of the people I knew had no idea what theatrical dramaturgy was. I had only the faintest idea myself. Technically, I had been one for a Philadelphia theater company, and I had spent the majority of my time their breaking up fights, putting out (literal and figurative) fires, and finding lost cast members. Cat’s Cradle was my last show with the company, and was also (not surprisingly) the last production the company ever did.

It did not go well.

At the time, I was enthusiastic and gung-ho to do absolutely any show, anywhere, anytime. I was perfectly amenable to an all-singing, all-dancing apocalypse. Nevermind that the company was going bankrupt, that the playwright was a known liar and pervert, the cast was near mutiny, the script changed every other day, and the band regularly snuck off to get high on breaks. When the set designer failed to measure the stage—and the cat-cradle-like platforms he constructed himself—and the massive airplane wing he brought in for the dance number toppled over and fell into the orchestra pit . . . I happily joined the group who lifted it out and quietly snuck it down an alley, to leave it along with (what I image was) a very surprised Philadelphian’s garbage.

On the night that Kurt Vonnegut himself came to see the show, I found the stage manager rocking on the front steps of the theater, chain-smoking and mumbling “If just one more thing goes wrong . . .”

It was ten minutes later that I found the eight-year-old with the baton in his hand. He was the son of the bandleader. His father was stuck in traffic a hundred miles away, having incorrectly assumed that he could go to New York City and make it back to Philadelphia in one three-hour span that included rush hour. I was faced with a choice: tell the stage manager what was going on (and possibly witness an aneurism), or say that everyone was in place and let the show go on. I weighed the options, and decided to let the kid do it. Because when you get to a certain point, you simply have to deal with the hand life has dealt you and roll with it. The curtain must go up, and something must happen. You cannot wait around forever for perfect circumstances. You improvise. You deal.

On the back of that experience, I signed my life away and moved to New York to get myself some more. In short, it was all a fairly bad idea, made from the parts of lesser bad ideas. But I rolled many of those experiences and observations into a book. Or a series of books, actually, of which Suite Scarlett is the first.

Suite Scarlett is the story of the Martin family—the owners and operators of a much-distressed Art Deco hotel in New York City called the Hopewell that has lost money steadily since the 1970s. Everything is falling apart at the Hopewell Hotel—lives, futures, furniture. The family itself though, six in all, is quite strong. The story centers around fifteen year-old Scarlett who finds herself in a situation not unlike the ones I was often in, although much less willingly.

Scarlett’s older brother (and close friend) is Spencer, an out-of-work actor facing down a family deadline to get some kind of paid work or go to culinary school and give up all hopes of performing. Enter Mrs. Amberson, a former Broadway diva of the disco era and a woman of some means, who has come back to New York to make something. What, she has no idea. At first, she thinks it is a book, but she soon decides that it is a theater company, specifically the one that Spencer has just joined. It, too, is out of money and in need of a miracle. Mrs. Amberson shanghais Scarlett into becoming her assistant, dragging her into the theater world and taking over almost every aspect of her life.

This is not the Manhattan of Gossip Girl. Suite Scarlett isn’t about buying things or vying for position. I wanted to write about the New York I understood—the one where you make things, and the creative underclasses and the rich mingle, sometimes uneasily, sometimes very fruitfully. Scarlett soon learns the skill of making things up—solutions that have little to do with money, and everything to do with creativity and embracing the implausible and slightly insane. I think this is an especially important principle to introduce to today’s teens, some of whom may be laboring under the misapprehension that things in life are supposed to work in a certain way, that a series of standardized tests will lead to a life of perfect order—a life in which mistakes and risks are things to be feared and avoided.

I mean, take the case of the eight-year-old conductor. Letting him conduct the band was a terrible idea. As it turned out, no one could tell the difference between the band on that night and the band on any other night. Maybe it’s because they knew what they were doing. Or maybe it was because they were always playing while they were a little high and it all sounded the same. In the end, it really didn’t matter. The show on the stage was always a lot less interesting than the one I was living every day.

Before I go, I would also like to point out that the book features a performance of Hamlet on unicycles, which might possibly be of interest to some of you. You seem like the type. I mean, you guys like bacon on cats. And that, if nothing else, is an example of a Bad Idea becoming a Big Idea.

Visit Maureen John’s blog here. Also, because I find it extremely amusing, view this YouTube video from Maureen Johnson about five things you didn’t know about her, in which she simply doesn’t blink. Around minute three my eyes started watering for her.

Who Lost Scott Westerfeld?

The estimable Paul Di Filippo shows up in the comment thread for “Why YA,” explaining why he holds the contrary view that a robust YA sf/f market is not necessarily a good thing for adult sf/f. I’ll leave to others to argue most of his several points of contention, if they so choose, but there’s one I’d like to tackle myself. Di Filippo’s main complaint is thus:

In a nutshell: every book of YA SF written means one less book of “adult” SF written by that author.

In all likelihood, we will never see another EVOLUTION’S DARLING by Scott Westerfeld, given the success of his YA stuff.

So the genre is deprived on that level.

The genre is certainly deprived, I agree. But not for the reason Di Filippo suggests. The reason we might not see another Evolution’s Darling from Scott has almost nothing to do with the fact he’s successfully writing YA, and quite a lot to with the fact that adult SF/F didn’t make it worth his time to continue in the field.

(Note: I’ve not talked to Scott about what I’m about to write, so don’t blame any of my speculation here on him.)

The first issue, predictably enough, is money. I don’t know what Scott got for his five adult SF novels, but I guarantee you it wasn’t very much. I don’t know what he would have gotten for adult novel #6, but whatever that amount would have been, I also pretty much guarantee you it wouldn’t have been what he got paid to write Young Adult. If the adult sf/f genre is deprived of additional Scott Westerfeld work (or the work of any SF/F author), one reason is because the genre is endemically cheap, not because the author is merely frittering away his talent writing for teens.

And this is not the case merely because Scott is now successful and naturally commands better advances, although he is and he does. Off the top of my head, and without naming any names, I can think of two sf/f authors who have sold rather fewer books to readers than I have, who recently got advances that were about twice the top amount I’ve been offered so far, because those advances were for books in YA. And those books only have to be half to two-thirds as long as mine have to be, which is a real knife twister, if you ask me.

This is not necessarily a complaint about what I’m paid; I’m being paid just fine, now that the back end’s kicked in. Thanks to my writing income in other fields, I didn’t have to Ramen up while waiting for my royalties. I wouldn’t mind larger advances, but the semi-annual bundles of cash I get from Tor are nice too. But note well that I am one of the relative few writers who receives a significant amount of income from my book royalties; the pay most writers get is what they get from their advances. This being the case, it’s really no wonder why so many writers of adult science fiction and fantasy have been crossing over into Young Adult, or at least have been trying very hard to do so. If you’re trying to make a living writing, why wouldn’t you write for the people who pay you more money for fewer words — and who are, if the numbers tell us anything, generally doing a better job of selling the work they do have?

Which is the second point: part of the reason YA sf/f pays more than adult sf/f is that it sells more — for whatever reasons, it gets more books into buyers’ hands. To get back to Scott for a moment, let’s face it: There has to be some reason that Scott was a bit of a flop (sorry, Scott) in adult science fiction, while being a huge success in YA. It’s not that his skill somehow advanced moving from one genre to the next, since Scott’s adult SF was critically praised; for example, Evolution’s Darling was a New York Times Notable Book and a special citation winner at the Philip K Dick Awards. And speaking from personal taste, his Succession books — The Risen Empire and The Killing of Worlds — are so good that I gleefully stole whole chunks of his action plotting when I wrote my own action scenes in The Ghost Brigades. Scott’s YA is excellent, but it is not so excellent, relative to his adult work, that it should sell exponentially better.

Nor can this be chalked up entirely to “well, kids just stop reading when they’re adults,” since adult fiction in general sells substantially more than juvenile fiction, and the top adult fiction titles sell more than the top YA titles, when the author of the YA is not JK Rowling. Adults read fiction just fine, thanks. And they even read science fiction and fantasy just fine, too, and in impressive numbers, as long as it’s handled outside of genre. Stephenie Meyer — primarily a YA author, note — is about to top the adult bestseller charts with The Host, which is flat-out science fiction, albeit handled by Little, Brown rather than Orbit, Hachette’s SF arm. Likewise, Cormac McCarthy and Michael Chabon have sold hundred of thousands of copies of their science fiction works, cleverly disguised as mainstream fiction. And then there’s J.D. Robb, aka Nora Roberts, who sells unspeakably huge numbers of science fiction police procedurals, just not shelved in the SF/F section. This may suggest that YA readers do graduate to reading adult science fiction and fantasy, they just don’t want to be seen in the SF/F section of the bookstore when they do it.

The fact of the matter is that adult science fiction (and to a lesser extent adult fantasy) has a harder time marketing itself to readers. There are lots of reasons for this, some relating to structural issues in the book business and some just cultural issues, but it’s a real problem. I think it’s being addressed — I know I’ve had a lot of discussions with the Tor folks about it (and for the record I think Tor’s done a pretty good job getting more than the usual suspects to read my own work). But it’s a long way from where we are to where the genre needs to be, and I don’t think that comes as a surprise to anyone.

Structurally there is no bar to writing in both YA and adult fields: Stephenie Meyer’s doing it, James Patterson is doing it, Robert Heinlein did it, and it’s probably true that Scott Westerfeld could easily do it as well, if he so chose. Some significant portion of Scott’s YA audience would likely follow him into adult territory, as some significant portion of Meyer’s crowd is following her; this would pretty much automatically make a new adult Westerfeld book one of the biggest-selling SF titles of its year. He could write another Evolution’s Darling if he wanted. But the real question is whether anyone in adult science fiction would actually make it worth his time to do so, with money and marketing.

I’m skeptical. I suspect if the adult sf/f genre had made it worth his time in the first place, he’d still be writing in it. Which is to say the loss of Scott Westerfeld to the adult sf/f genre is a self-inflicted wound.