Daily Archives: March 30, 2009

Hats Off to Brandon Sanderson

Brandon Sanderson explains how the last book of the Wheel of Time series became a 800,000(or so)-word trilogy. And all I can think is: Man, I have a hard enough time getting to 100,000 words. That man is just plain nuts. But I expect Wheel of Time fans will appreciate the extra effort in the end. Here’s the actual Tor press release about it, by the way.

Also, before anyone kvetches here about the last book being split up just for the money, do yourself a favor (and keep yourself from looking like an ass) by reading what Brandon has to say about it. Seriously.

Reader Request Week 2009 #2: OMW and Zoe’s Tale (and Angst and Pain)

Pwstrain asks:

Compare and contrast the pain, angst, and horror of writing, agenting, selling OMW vs. Zoe. Differences in process / time / fear of failure?

Just in case anyone doesn’t know (which given the crowd seems highly unlikley), “OMW” here is Old Man’s War, my first published novel, and “Zoe” is Zoe’s Tale, my most recently published novel. I think this question, aside from asking about the specific books, is asking about how things have changed for me from the beginning of my pro career to where I am now, with an emphasis on the existentially dreadable aspects of it all.

To be blunt, however, there wasn’t much pain/angst/horror in any of it. Talking specifically about the books in question, writing OMW was a breeze, frankly, and I had a lot of fun doing it; when it came to selling it, I didn’t bother, opting instead to put it up on my Web site, where it was found by Patrick Nielsen Hayden, who then made an offer on it. Total angst there: Close to none. I got a fiction agent after I sold OMW, and that was relatively painless as well, because agents are easier to get when you already have a contract in hand (that said, the first agent I went to passed on me, which I found puzzling, but not angst-inducing, since I still had my book contract. And I found another agent soon enough).

As for Zoe, well. It’s not really that difficult to sell a fourth installment of a highly-selling, well-regarded series, and it fact it went pretty much like this:

Me: “Want me to write a fourth OMW book?”
PNH: “Are you kidding?”

Agenting it was likewise a breeze and in fact what we did was have it take the place of a book in a two-book series I had planned but abandoned for the reason that stinkin’ Max Brooks stole my idea (the oral history part, not the zombies part, and he didn’t actually steal it, he just came out with it first). So it was quickly and easily done. The writing of Zoe was more difficult than writing OMW for the reason that I needed to get down the voice of a teenage girl, and that gave me considerable trouble at first. But once I got that figured out, the writing was fairly simple. As these things go, it was not a horribly difficult process, or that much different from when I first started; ultimately it was a matter of ass in chair.

In neither case was there really a fear of failure, because it’s hard to say what constitutes failure at this point. It wouldn’t have been a failure not to have sold OMW, since I hadn’t planned to sell it at all; likewise the failure of Zoe would have been not getting the voice down, and if that had happened you’d’ve never known about it, especially since we didn’t publicize the book in any way until it was mostly completed. If I had failed, I simply would have written a different book. The closest I’ve come to failure in any of my books so far is pushing The High Castle off the schedule, because it wasn’t working as I had envisioned it. However, I don’t see that as a genuine failure; the failure would have been grinding it out despite my issues with it and releasing a substandard book. Pulling it back into the workshop and retooling it is a good thing, since it means when I release it I’ll be happy with it, which means (hopefully) you’ll be happy with it too. And in the meantime, I’m getting to do other cool stuff.

In a general sense of my career to date, it’s difficult for me to generate a whole lot of angst/pain/horror at my writing life or process, because in fact I am indisputably one of the luckiest sons of bitches in the history of science fiction literature. I am stupid lucky, people. Yes, yes, I’m also good at what I do. But you know what: I’m not that good, particularly relative to the success I’ve had to date. Very few people are. Understanding that I have been lucky does a number of things for me. One, it gives me a sense of perspective on everything, so I don’t labor under the illusion I am actually the second coming of Heinlein, or whatever. Two, it keeps the angst/pain/horror at bay because it’s insane to feel any of these things when confronted with the good fortune I have had. Three, it motivates me to pay my good fortune forward, because my luck has given me the ability to be useful. The last of these is the hardest, mind you, because I’m also naturally lazy. But I do work at it.

Getting back to angst/pain/horror of writing, one of the ways that I avoid this, at least in fiction, is that I know at the end of the day I have other writing skills that I can use to pay the bills, including doing various corporate consulting work. I did that when I was writing OMW and could easily do it again if I had to, or do other freelance work. This means that I don’t have to do something, fictionwise, that makes me unhappy; I have the luxury of being able to do stuff I like, or to put something on the back burner to cook a little while longer, or whatever it is I need to do. I know a fair number of fiction writers consider day jobs or non-fiction writing as an option of last resort and possibly an admission that they can’t hack it as fiction writers or whatever. I see it as an insurance policy that makes sure I never (intentionally) write crap. And that makes me happy.

So, in sum: Very little angst/pain/horror, either at the beginning of my fiction career or now. I don’t mind saying I hope it continues that way for a while.

(You can still get in requests for Reader Request Week! Put them in the comment thread at this link. Please note: I have all the writing questions I want to deal with already. Ask me something else!)

Reader Request Week 2009 #1: SF YA These Days

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Reader Request Week 2009, in which you suggest the topics, and I write about them. Yes, I am your dancing monkey for the entire week! Please do not throw peanuts at me, however. They hurt my little head. As with last year, this I’m going to try to answer more requests, in a shorter form. Since last year I didn’t manage the “shorter” part very well, don’t be surprised if I blather. Hey, that’s why you’re here.

Our first reader request this year comes from Keith, who says:

I have to preface my question with a story. Recently, I met and spent some time talking to a middle school librarian from Des Moines, IA. Naturally, conversation turned to what books we read when we were that age, as opposed to what ‘tweens are reading now.

I mentioned that I cut my teeth on the juveniles (now called Young Adult!) of Robert Heinlein, and asked if many kids still ask for those. I got a blank look in response. She didn’t know who I was talking about, and was sure that her library contained no books by said author. Asimov, Clarke, Pohl- same thing. She thought she might have heard of Asimov… I thought I might cry.

So, John, my question for you is, WTF?

Do middle school kids not read science fiction any more? Does (this) science fiction have an expiration date? Is it because they’re in a middle school in Des Moines (no offense intended to Midwesterners in general…)? Am I hopelessly out of touch with the youth of today, and should just start yelling at them to get off my lawn?

The answer: Yes, Keith, you are in fact hopelessly out of touch with the youth of today. Here’s your cane; remember to shake it vigorously (or at least as vigorously as you can manage) as those Youth of Today™ scramble off your Kentucky Bluegrass. And be thankful, because think about it: Do you really want to have the same tastes as a bunch of 13 and 14 year olds? Wouldn’t that be weird? Wouldn’t that be, well, creepy? Like, restraining order creepy? You know it would be. So be proud of your old man crankiness.

But more to the point, one has to ask why one should be so surprised that the Youth of Today™ have not necessarily read the juveniles of Heinlein, or Asimov (the “Lucky Starr” series, writing as Paul French) or whomever. Dude, those books are all more than 50 years old. You might as well be shocked, shocked that the YoT™ aren’t listening to the Flamingos or the Drifters or the Isley Brothers, each of whom had one of the top ten songs of 1959, or are torrenting videos of Darby O’Gill and the Little People or The Hound of the Baskervilles, to name but two of the top ten movies of that same year.

But, you say, The Star Beast is excellent in ways that Darby O’Gill is not. And maybe you’re correct about that, but it doesn’t really matter, for reasons both social and practical. On the social front, if you spend any amount of time with kids (it helps to have one in the house, as I do, if you don’t want that wacky restraining order action going on), you know that they have a strange allergic reaction to anything that’s not explicitly created for them, and specifically a reaction to anything you, as an adult/parent, might like. This reaction starts as soon as they’re able to be judged by other kids on their aesthetic choices and continues until they realize (usually around 30) that a whole other generation of kids think they are now completely out of touch, so they can relax and just enjoy what they like. When my then ten-year-old niece commented a few years ago that No Doubt sounded like something her mother might like, I realized that no amount of pushing and prodding would ever get her to listen to Gwen Stefani and pals thrash about, even if sonically it was right in line with what she was listening to otherwise. I have no doubt (no pun intended) that it works the same way if an adult drops Star Beast on a kid these days.

On the practical front, the future of 50 years ago is not the future of today, both for social and technological reasons, and kids today know it. Hell, when I read The Star Beast as a kid in the early 80s, it already felt a bit quaint, and that was more than a quarter century ago. Writers are writing for their day and age, and their day and age passes. That Heinlein’s juvies kept selling for so many years is a testament to his readability (and to the relative dearth of passible new SF for younger readers for a number of years as well), but sooner or later readability alone isn’t going to compensate for a world that doesn’t feel right anymore to contemporary readers, and science fiction doesn’t have the ability that some other books have in being a snapshot of their current time. It’s supposed to be the future. The only way you get to the future of Star Beast or Red Planet or Citizen of the Galaxy is by going backwards first.

But just because kids aren’t reading what we read when we were kids doesn’t mean they’re not reading science fiction. My daughter is currently sucking down Margaret Peterson Haddix’s “Shadow Children” sequence of books like there’s no tomorrow, the latest of which was written only three years back. One might roll one’s eyes at James Patterson’s “Maximum Ride” series of YA SF novels, but they are seriously popular; each of them hit #1 on the NYT Young Adult bestseller list. Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games has been making quite a stir recently, and of course let’s not forget Scott Westerfeld, whose Uglies series is legitimately a watermark in modern YA science fiction. Finally, let’s not forget that on the Hugo ballot this year there’s also Little Brother, which has done very well both in sales and in critical acclaim. These are the YA SF books I can reel off of the top of my head; there are quite a few more I can’t.

Which is to say: Don’t panic. The kids are reading science fiction just fine, even if they’re not reading what you did, back in the day. And here’s the good news: If they get hooked on science fiction, eventually they probably will read the Heinlein juvies. Probably in college, as part of a survey course, to be sure. But, hey. That’s something. This is your cue, incidentally, to start shaking your cane again.

(You can still get in requests for Reader Request Week! Put them in the comment thread at this link. Please note: I have all the writing questions I want to deal with already. Ask me something else!)