Monthly Archives: September 2009

The Things You Learn About Yourself Playing Star Wars Video Games

There was a special on Star Wars-related FPS games on Steam over the weekend, so I bought a bunch of old games for $20 and then spent a large portion of the weekend playing Star Wars Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy. And while it’s all sorts of fun cutting up storm troopers and Sith acolytes with dual light-sabers, I’ve found that the greatest joy possible as a Jedi is using the Force Grip to lift people off the ground and then hurling them into chasms — of which there are an abundance in the game. It got to the point that I would lure my enemies to bridges and ledges just to hurl them off, snickering as their woeful cries end in a thump and a clatter of weapons on the ground.

Now maybe this isn’t what Jedi are supposed to do; maybe it’s not what Yoda would do. But, you know. The hell with Yoda, that lousy grammar-slaughtering salamander. If George Lucas didn’t want me hurling stormtroopers into chasms, he wouldn’t have let them put it into the game. You just know he’s doing it too, his sniggers roiling that damned neck of his as they fall. You’re welcome for that mental image, by the way.

My Life Is Good But I’m Worried Yours is Better

Cartoonist Tim Kreider writes over at the New York Times about something he calls “the Referendum,” in which people in their early middle age (think 40 to 45) look at the lives of all their friends and try to figure out how their own lives match up to theirs. This is basically indistinguishable to what everybody does all the time — 20somethings look at their lives relative to their other friends too, I assure you, or at least did when I was that age — but Kreider’s thesis (or at least what I got out of it) was that at about 40 years of age, this comparison is more pertinent and poignant, because by that time you’ve already made all sorts of life choices that will define the rest of your life, and in some ways it’s just too late to go back and start over.

Essentially, at 40 or so, you’ve become who you are going to be for the rest of your life. Which means that, when you look at your friends’ choices, you do so with some measure of romanticism and envy, because those choices will no longer ever be yours. The only positive note about any of this (or so says Kreider) is that your friends likely look at your life through rose-colored glasses as well. Basicially, at 40, everyone’s over-romanticizing the life of their contemporaries.

It’s an interesting thesis, and in some ways dovetails into something I’ve thought for a while, which is that one’s 20th high school and college reunions are really the only ones that one needs to attend, because they’re the ones that let you see who all your classmates became when they grew up. At the reunions before the 20th, people are still figuring out what they’re doing with their lives; the ones afterward you show up just to find out who’s still breathing. But basically while one always has to leave room for epiphanies, freak-outs and karma, I do think when you see someone at 40, they are who they who they have become and will likely be for the remainder of their time on the planet. I could be wrong on this; ask me again when I’m 50. But it seems that way to me now.

I don’t know how much I agree about the rest of “The Referendum,” however. Or more accurately I think that I agree that “The Referendum” functions, but only to the extent one is unhappy with one’s own choices in life, or sees the choices one’s made in terms of what one’s lost in other opportunities. I suspect people who are satisfied with the choices they’ve made with their lives (rather than being resigned to them) look at things differently — they look at the lives their friends have and see the value of them and the cool things those lives offer, but wouldn’t trade because their own lives have enough value for them.

For example, this graph, in which Kreider, single and without children, discussing his friends with children (and, also, homes):

But I can only imagine the paralytic terror that must seize my friends with families as they lie awake calculating mortgage payments and college funds and realize that they are locked into their present lives for farther into the future than the mind’s eye can see. Judging from the unanimity with which parents preface any gripe about children with the disclaimer, “Although I would never wish I hadn’t had them and I can’t imagine life without them,” I can’t help but wonder whether they don’t have to repress precisely these thoughts on a daily basis.

This is a fairly depressing way of looking at life with children and mortgages, and so quite naturally if this is how you’re doing it, you’ll be romanticizing the lives of your friends without either. But it’s not impossible to look at college funds and mortgage payments as part of a long-term process that results in a) responsible, productive adults you’ve had a hand in creating and b) a place you own and stake a claim to, both of which are in their way laudable and worth the time and commitment. Now, maybe neither of these things are monumental, in terms of asking “what have I done with my life,” but it doesn’t mean that either is not desirable or worth doing. Not every desirable or good thing in one’s life is or should be monumental.

I think the real thing that bothers me about Kreider’s “Referendum” is that it seems to deny both agency and optimism, the latter not in the “hey! It’s a sunshiny day!” sense but in the “work as if these were the early days of a better nation” sense. Our lives are a combination of the choices we make, for better or for worse, and events that are largely out of our control, which we then have to deal with. It’s also a continuing process, to which we have to commit every morning when we wake up. I think Kreider’s “Referendum” is a tapping into the desire to escape one’s life rather than to commit to it. And, I don’t know. I think that’s not a way to go through life, if you can avoid it.

Now, you may say, it’s easy for me to have this perspective because in many ways I have an enviable life. Which is true, and I don’t want to pretend otherwise. But, you know, Tim Kreider and most of his pals undoubtedly have enviable lives, too; as one interviewer put it to Kreider, “You draw at home and you hang out with friends and drink and stuff, and then, at the end of the week, you produce a cartoon?  And that’s your job… Please allow me to congratulate you on having the best life of all time.” To be very clear about it, anondyne musing about one’s position in life relative to one’s chums is the sport of the privileged, like polo or key parties. The issue in this case isn’t privilege, it’s perspective. It’s one of those enviable problems to have.

Or to put it another way, if you’re really spending time fantasizing about your friends’ lives, and they are equally spending time fantasizing about yours, there’s a good chance both of your lives are, you know, pretty good, and maybe you should focus on that instead. It’s just a thought.

Big Damn Ads

My friend Doselle Young sent along this picture of a big-ass Stargate: Universe ad on the side of an LA hotel, and over the last couple of days I’ve seen double-sided ads for SG:U in both Rolling Stone and Wired. And I’m thinking, damn, I wish every project I worked on was this well advertised. On the other hand, not every project I do employs hundreds and costs millions of dollars to put together, or is going to be seen by millions of people on a weekly basis, so that may be a contributing factor here.

Nevertheless, it’s kind of exciting to look at this big promotional push and think, hey, that’s my show. Not just my show, of course (and not even primarily my show, since the producers, writers and stars all get bows long ahead of me, and rightly so). But still. Neat.

My First Interview as a Science Fiction Author

It was at Torcon 3, in 2003, which was after Tor bought Old Man’s War but was a year and a half before the novel actually came out, and which was my very first science fiction convention, ever. The interview was with CBC radio dude Joe Mahoney, who met me at the Tor Books Worldcon party, was putting together a piece on the convention for CBC, and decided to get the perspective of the “new guy.” He recorded nine and a half minutes of an interview, of which roughly thirty seconds made it into the finished piece (which I linked to almost exactly six years ago in this entry). I was pretty pleased to get a moment in there with the likes of Cory Doctorow and Robert Sawyer.

As for the rest of the interview, well, it was lost to the mists of time, until right this very day, when Joe decided to post it up on his Web site. It’s a very interesting interview from an archeological standpoint, because among other things it has me reflecting on attending my first science fiction convention and trying to make sense of fans and fandom, which was definitely a new concept for me at the time. I hope the fen listening now won’t judge me too harshly.

2003 is six years ago, so I can’t really say that I’m discussing events across a great bridge of time, but I will say that the Tor party that year was particularly interesting for me. Aside from being the occasion of my first interview as a science fiction author, it was the place where I first made the acquaintance of a number of writers and sf/f notables. I was introduced to Rob Sawyer there, who was having a very good con (he won the Best Novel Hugo); we were introduced just briefly and he had quite the crowd about him so I don’t imagine I made much of an impression on his memory track at the time. I also got to make the acquaintance of Robert Silverberg, who was both droll and gracious with his conversational time. And it was also the place where I first met Alan Beatts, owner of San Francisco’s Borderlands Books, which has since become one of my all-time favorite bookstores, and where I’ve had quite a lot of fun. In all, a good party for me.

In any event, enjoy listening to the amusingly-clueless-about-science-fiction version of me, circa 2003. How far I’ve come since then.

The Big Idea: David Anthony Durham

David Anthony Durham is one of my favorite new fantasy writers, and I’m not alone in having this opinion; Durham this year found himself in possession of the Campbell Award for Best New Writer, taking the tiara from an exceptionally competitive field. Durham nabbed that award on the strength of his acclaimed debut fantasy novel Acacia: The War With the Mein, and this week expands on that world with the long-anticipated sequel, The Other Lands.

As Durham expands this world for his readers, he’s also doing something else — building his confidence in building that world. What does this mean, exactly? Durham explains below.

DAVID ANTHONY DURHAM:

Where to begin? At the beginning, I think. So…

The big idea in Acacia: The War With The Mein was that I wanted to explore the intersection of personal responsibility and inherited national history. What do you do (young prince or princess that you are) when you discover that the benevolent empire you’ve been raised to take pride in isn’t… ah… benevolent? When you discover that in many ways, and for many people, YOU are the bad guy, the evildoer, the Evil Empire? How do you face the fact that dad never told you some really important stuff about the family history before he kicked the bucket – like that for hundreds of years the family “business” has centered around a global trade in enslaved children and drugs?

The Other Lands is built on the same history, but it takes things a step further. So now you know about the family business, and about how hard it is to get out of it without bringing the entire empire crashing down around you. Fine. You tried. Let’s call it a mixed success. But there are some things you don’t yet know. For instance, you don’t know what happens to those enslaved children when they reach that distant land. A third party has handled all the details of the exchange, a commercial interest that profits from it while conveniently keeping the unpleasant specifics to themselves.

So what (young prince or princess) happens when you finally voyage to that other continent, meet your previously unknown trading partners and come face to face with the adults those child slaves have become? How do you explain yourself to them? How do they challenge your loyalty to your people or your vision of yourself? Do you accept responsibility for the crimes that led to your prosperity, or do you throw up your hands and claim it wasn’t your fault? Or… do you grasp the opportunity to make the best of a horrible situation?

These are some of the thematic questions facing my main characters this time around. The way I tell the story has a lot to do with sea journeys and quests, political treachery and sorcery and mutated monstrosities… Oh, that puts me in mind of a secondary “Big Idea” area – a writing process one.

For me as a writer this series is a chronicle of my transitioning from a “realistic” to a “fantastic” author. I didn’t arrive in Acacia: The War With The Mein fully formed, and I’m not done morphing yet. Folks that read the first book will have found, I hope, an imagined secondary world that’s relatively low on magic, beasts and some of those other obvious components of classic fantasy. That’s because I entered publishing as a writer of literary and historical fiction. I’d been itching to try fantasy for a while, but even as I began to develop Acacia many of my real world impulses were still in place. So one of my early ideas was that the series would become more and more fantastically set as it progressed.

In the first book I worked in the new (to me) genre elements gradually, building the details of the world with an eye toward historical credibility, introducing individuals that blundered through the challenges thrown at them as imperfect people, and developing a logic to the magic system that only slowly brought it to the center of the story.

That’s still true in many ways with The Other Lands, but I also took great joy in loosening up and creating monsters and horrific beasts this time around. I turned to my characters to help me through the tough spots, the scenes or ideas I didn’t know quite how to get to by myself. Thank the gods for characters! With them, I got to set my eyes on sea wolves, kwedeirs, freketes and various Foulthings. Doing it with them – and doing it safely in the pages of a book – is rather a nice way to go about it.

I’m hoping that they’ll be my guides in to the third book in the series also. If things go as I have them planned, by the end of the series my nearly-realistic secondary world will be rife with the weird and wild and magical. In a way, the series isn’t just about writing in a fantastical world; it’s about watching its creation.

—-

The Other Lands: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell’s

Read an excerpt of The Other Lands (pdf link). Visit Durham’s blog.

Favors Followup

A couple of thoughts in follow-up to the “Asking Favors of Established Writers” piece:

* Some people are concluding based on the piece that I think a) one should never ask favors of writers and b) writers should never say yes to favors when asked for them. In fact, neither is true. Writers get asked for favors all the time, and from time to time we do say yes — if we have the time, interest and inclination. The problem isn’t really asking of favors, it’s people being offended when, after asking for a favor, they are told “no.”

That said, I do think it’s useful for people to think about the appropriateness of the favor they are asking for, particularly if the person being asked is a stranger to them. I mean, think how you would respond if a stranger came up to you, claimed some random commonality between you and then asked for a significant imposition on your time or professional standing, an imposition designed to benefit them greatly and you not at all, save for a bit of karma. Chances are good you’d pass. Same thing with writers.

* As for me in particular, sure, I occasionally have done favors for writers, both newer and established, and probably will do in the future. But it’s my call which favors to consider, and I have categories of things that I don’t do, or do only under specific conditions. One of the reasons I write about them in detail here is so when people ask, I can point them to the document, which shows that I have a policy of long standing regarding what they’re asking, and it’s not personal when I turn them down.

Of course, even then it sometimes backfires. I have a policy of not accepting blurb requests directly from authors, because it’s awkward to say to a fellow writer “dude, I don’t like your book enough to have my name on your cover.” Occasionally a writer will still ask, and I forward them the link above. Most understand; a couple have been madly offended. My response to that is also uniform: Oh, well.

Be that as it may, again, the point is not in the asking; the point is how people respond to being told “no.” Most people do not have a problem with “no,” but some really do. Those people need to get over themselves.

* To the people who have responded that I could have just said “no,” rather than writing 2,000 words on why I say “no,” well, no. First: duh, I’m a writer, writing to length is what I do. Second: it’s worth taking a bit of time to help people understand that the “no” they get is rooted in something other than writerly arrogance, and that the people angry at being told “no” are usually a bit jackassed. Context is important.

* Bear in mind that the sort of person who will get angry at being told “no” is often unreachable; the entry is addressed to them but I’m not under the impression they will understand it, even if they read it. But other novice writers who are not dicks but are wondering about the etiquette of asking for a favor from an established author might read it and learn there are often reasons behind the “no,” so that if they ask, they will understand if the favor is turned down.

* People from other fields have noted that they could swap out the word “writer” with the name of their profession and have the screed work for them as well. I say: of course. Any profession or trade has the same basic dynamic going on. And in every situation, the real issue once again isn’t whether the favor is asked; it’s how people respond to not having that favor granted.

* Some people still think I’m a dick, regardless. See the point two asterisks up. Beyond that, you know what, I’ll live.

Beyond Awards

By now the whole Kayne West/Taylor Swift moment at the MTV Video Music Awards has reached its equilibrium, so there’s nothing really much to say about that hasn’t been said by everyone else, up to and including the president. But I would like to point out something that’s been overlooked in this whole silly thing, which is that Beyoncé Knowles, in the gracious act of ceding her spotlight to Swift after winning the Video of the Year award, also brought home a point regarding the value and purpose of awards in general (and certainly, of the VMAs in particular).

Bluntly put, Beyoncé, with seven Grammys, nine VMAs and (currently) seventy other awards of various stripes (not counting the ones she was given as part of Destiny’s Child), is largely beyond most awards at this point; that VMA is just another piece of hardware to stack somewhere. It’s not to say she probably doesn’t enjoy winning, because it’s always nice to win something. But I bet you that had the award gone elsewhere, she’d have spent about a tenth of a second lamenting the fact, if that. Swift, on the other hand, is near the beginning of her career and outside of genre of country music hasn’t gotten many awards; this was her first VMA. It’s important, at this point, in the mainstreaming of her professional career, and in personal terms, it was probably pretty cool to a nineteen-year-old girl.

Beyoncé’s ceding of her award time to Swift wasn’t only a nice thing to do, it was also a recognition that the award means more, and is more important, to someone like Swift than someone like her. So not only did Beyoncé do the right thing — allow Swift the moment she had been deprived by a jackass — she also rather accurately established her place in the food chain (i.e., way up at the top) and did it in the savviest, least diva-like way possible.

Not in a calculated way, to be sure; I think she felt bad for Swift and genuinely wanted to give her the moment that was taken from her. But it’s also true Beyoncé’s actions at the moment were far more memorable than either the award she won or any acceptance speech she could have made. For Beyoncé, being seen as gracious and giving is in fact the actual prize for her. She’s smart to recognize the fact.

I Am A Bastard Who Never Helps Others, Or, A Very Special Pimping Thread

In the aftermath of yesterday’s entry, it has been ascertained that in point of fact I am a heartless bastard of a writer, who once he achieved super-ultra-mega-LASER-stardom not only pulled the ladder up from behind him, but then dismantled the ladder and threw the now useless chunks of the ladder at the heads of all those left below, laughing as he did so.

Well, you know. I can’t deny this. I am just that selfish and rotten. I will never help any of you! Ever! Or offer you space on my blog to promote your current works or the works of others, whom you admire and wish to bring attention to! Say, in a comment thread! Like the one beneath this entry! That will never happen! Never, I say! The 40,000 daily readers of the site will not hear of such things! So ha!

And to prove how callous and nasty I am, when I am not offering you that space to promote your works or the works of others in the comment thread below, I want you to complain about how awful I am. So I can snicker evilly about it! Say, something along this line:

John Scalzi, you unspeakably heartless bastard! I simply cannot believe that you will not give me space on your blog to point out that Steven Boyett’s classic fantasy novel Ariel is back in print after more than a decade, and everybody should go out and buy it, because it is just THAT good! Why won’t you let me do that? On your blog? Like this? Right now? I hate you! I hate you forever!

Yes, yes. Comments like that would do just fine, for my nefarious snickering purposes.

So! Start railing against me about all the things I will not let you promote, right here, right now, in the comment thread to this entry! And REMEMBER — if in pointing out the things I won’t let you promote on this site, you link to more than a couple in the same entry, there’s a possibility that the comment might get sent to the moderation queue! In which case I will chortle most grievously at it before releasing it at some reasonably near point in the future! Because I am just that mean.

What? You still haven’t posted? Do I have to taunt you a second time? Go!

On The Asking of Favors From Established Writers

It looks like it’s time to do a little more head-knocking regarding the life of a writer, so let’s just start knocking heads, shall we.

Dear currently unpublished/newbie writers who spend their time bitching about how published/established writers are mean because they won’t read your work/introduce you to their agent/give your manuscript to their editor/get you a job on their television show/whatever other thing it is you want them to do for you:

A few things you should know.

1. The job of a writer is to write. So, I’m looking at one of my book contracts. It says that I need to write a certain type of book (science fiction) of a certain length (100,000 words) by a certain time (er… Hmmm). In return, I get paid a certain amount of money. So that’s the gig.

Here’s what’s not in the contract:

1. That I critique the novels of other people;
2. That I offer any advice to people on how to get published;
3. That I arrange introductions to my agent, editor or publisher;
4. That I do any damn thing, in fact, other than write the book I’ve agreed to write.

The job of a writer is to write.

To which you may say, “Yes, but –” To which I say, you’ve gone one word too far in that sentence. There is no ‘but’ involved. Once again: The job of a writer is to write. Anything else a writer does is entirely on his or her free time and subject to his or her own whim.

Commensurate to this:

2. A writer’s obligations are not to you. Here is the list of the people and things to which I am obliged, in roughly descending order:

1. My wife and child.
2. My work.
3. My friends and the rest of my family.
4. My editors and producers.

Now, you might notice that you are probably not in that list. You know why? Because you and I don’t share a life bond/genetic consanguinity/mutually beneficial business relationship.

Now, as it happens, I also feel an obligation to my various “communities” — the spread-out groups of people who share common interests with me — and one community I think about quite a bit is the community of writers. However, two things here. First, my sense of obligation to the community of writers is both voluntary and rather significantly less compelling to me than the obligations I feel to those enumerated above, and also does not mean I feel obliged to any particular member of that community (i.e., you). Second, there are lots of other writers who may not feel a similar communal obligation.

You may or may not feel this is proper on their part or mine, but so what? It’s not up to you. Which brings us to:

3. The person who determines what a writer should do for others is the writer, not you. Why? Well, quite obviously, because it’s not your life, and you don’t get a say. And if you’re somehow under the impression that well, yeah, actually you do have a say in that writer’s life, take the following quiz:

Think of your favorite writer. Now, are you:
1. That writer?
2. That writer’s spouse (or spousal equivalent)?
3. Rather below that, a member of that writer’s immediate family?
4. Rather below that, the writer’s editor or boss?

If the answer is “no” to the above, then guess what? You don’t get a vote. And if you still assume you do, that writer is perfectly justified in being dreadfully rude to you. I certainly would be. I certainly have been, when someone has made such assertions or assumptions. And if necessary, I will be happy to be so again.

Beyond this, you don’t know the circumstances of the writer’s life, so you don’t know what his capacity is for doing extra-curricular good deeds for random strangers, or his interest, or his ability. The writer may simply not have the time. He may not have the connections. He may not feel competent to evaluate your work. Or he may just not want to, because after everything else he does, he’s tired and just wants to kill zombies on his computer.

Again, you may object to this, or feel your favorite writer should make a special exception for you and your work. But again: So what? It’s not your life.

4. Writers are not dicks for not helping you. Let’s say you ask me to read your work and I tell you “no.” What happens then?

a) You perish in a burning house.
b) You starve to death.
c) You die due to sepsis of the blood because both your kidneys have failed.
d) You are smothered by adorable kittens and fluffy bunnies.
e) Nothing.

The correct answer is “e”. Because you know what, my refusal to read your work has not damaged you or your work in any way. This is not a life or death situation, and all the normal ways of intake into the world of professional writing — the various query and submission processes, the workshops and writers circles — remain as open to you as they ever were.

Let’s review. When you ask me (or any writer) to read your work, you are asking for a favor. A favor is generally understood to be something that someone is not obliged to do and is indeed an imposition, to a greater or lesser degree, on the person being asked by the person asking. People are not dicks for refusing to grant a favor, and someone who believes them so either doesn’t understand the nature of a favor, or is a bit of a dick themselves for thinking that favors must or even should be granted.

Along this line:

5. People asking for favors from writers often don’t understand the consequences of that favor. You know, right after I announced that I was hired as the Creative Consultant for Stargate: Universe, people I didn’t know came out of the woodwork asking me if I could hook them up with gigs or send along their scripts or if I give them the e-mail of the producers so they could talk to them about this great idea they had. You know what would have happened if I had done any of that? If you say “oh, you’d probably have gotten fired,” you’d be absolutely correct. It would have been frankly insane for me to jeopardize my gig that way. I ended up putting up a note telling people to stop asking, but I still to this day get people who think that it’s somehow logical to ask a complete stranger who knows nothing about them (and who they know nothing about) to carry water for them.

When you ask a favor of a writer, you’re asking her to take time from her own work and/or her own life. You are asking her to assume you’re not crazy or won’t turn spiteful or angry when she can’t give you 100% of what you want. You are asking her to assume that 10 years from now you won’t sue her because something she’s written is somewhat tangentially related to something you asked her to read. You’re asking her to assume that continually pestering her own contacts on behalf of people she doesn’t know at all won’t jeopardize her own relationships with those contacts. And so on.

6. People asking favors from writers are often crazy in some undiagnosed way. Yes, I know. You’re not crazy, and you won’t become an asshole to the author, and you won’t sue them even though that story is exactly like yours was, sorta. But there are two things here.

First, the people who ask a writer to do things for them underestimate the number of times authors get asked for these sorts of favors. People: you’re not special when you ask us for our time/effort/connections. Personally, I started getting asked for hook-ups by strangers when I was still in college (I was freelancing for the Sun-Times then), so that’s two decades of being solicited, and no, not even posting a “why I won’t read your unpublished work” post here stops it, because lots of people believe, oh, that doesn’t apply to them.

Second, ask a writer and they will tell you a horror story of trying to help out someone by critiquing their novel or some other nice thing they tried to do in their capacity as a writer, only to have that person go completely nuts on them, for whatever reason. The specifics will vary, because crazy is a multi-headed hydra of abject terror, but just about every writer I know has a story. Some, who still believed in the fundamental sanity of people after such an experience, have two. Almost none have three.

The point is, you may be a nice, sane, rational person who will be grateful for any help you get from a writer. The problem is, other people out there are flat-out bugshit nutbags, and they are asking for the same things you are. It only takes one of them to ruin it for the rest of you, and the problem is that from the outside, you all look pretty much the same. Sorry.

7. Writers are not mystical door openers. At least not in a professional sense. If I read your novel and critiqued it, the critique will tell you how to make to novel more like something I want to read. But you know what? I’m not an acquiring editor at a publisher, and what I consider readable and what that editor were to consider saleable are likely not in parallel. Likewise, I could introduce you to my agent or editor, but I guarantee you that neither of them are going to suspend their judgment to rely on mine; they will happily reject your work if it doesn’t suit their needs, even if I love it insensibly.

The most I or almost any other writer can get you, professionally speaking, is a small jump ahead in a line. But if your writing doesn’t work, you’re still going to get rejected. And if I spend all my time touting people who my agent and editor end up rejecting, in a very short period of time I’m going to become someone you definitely don’t want on your side.

What it comes down to is that the belief that selling work really comes down to who you know is magical thinking, or at the very least it’s wildly overrated in terms of what actually sells work. Yes, there are authors for whom their assurance of a blurb on your cover might convince a publisher to buy your novel, sight (and quality) unseen. Currently, they are called “Stephenie Meyer” and “Dan Brown.”

As for every other writer in the land, well, it’s nice you imagine us with such mighty powers. But you really are better off simply submitting your work the regular way.

Finally, there’s this:

8. Writers remember: If you ask for a favor and I say no and your response is to throw a fit about how elitist writing assholes such as myself are pulling up the ladder after us and we all suck, I will remember that. If you ask for a favor and I say yes and you don’t end up getting what you want and you throw a fit about it, I will remember that too. If you ask for a favor and I say no and your response is gracious, I will also remember that. And if you ask for a favor and I say yes, and you do end up getting what you want, I will remember how you respond to that as well. As will any writer in my position.

What will it mean that we remember these things about you? On one hand, it might not matter much. On the other hand, writers, like all professionals, talk shop. We talk shop with other writers, with editors, with publishers and with everyone else in our little industry. Occasionally we are in a position to help people. Occasionally we’re in a position to influence the selection of a writer for an assignment. Occasionally there’ll be work we’ve been offered and can’t take, but will be in a position to suggest someone who can. Occasionally we’ll switch hats and become editors or producers and be in a position to buy work. And then, of course, remembering will, in fact, matter.

It doesn’t mean I or anyone else will take the opportunity to be a dick, mind you. We will simply remember who we think is worth helping or considering, and who is not.

And that’s something for you to remember.

And now we’re done.

The Big Idea: Megan Crewe

Ghosts: Let’s face it, most people who see them (in novels and such), aren’t generally happy about the fact. I’ve always thought: Why? Dude, you’re seeing into a secret world of the dead. That’s kind of cool. But no, they’re usually angsty about it. Seems a bit of a waste to me.

And, critically, to Megan Crewe as well. Crewe’s debut young adult novel Give Up the Ghost turns the ordinary conventions of “I see dead people!” upside down, and puts it in a context where someone with the ability might start seeing all sorts of advantages to seeing ghosts… at least at first.

MEGAN CREWE:

If you go back to the very beginning, Give Up the Ghost started not with an idea but with an image that popped into my head.  There was a teenaged girl sitting in her bedroom, chatting with her older sister about everyday things: clothes, school, parties.  In fact, everything about it was everyday except for the fact that the sister was a ghost.

Right away, I was intrigued.  Characters who could talk to the dead in other stories almost always seemed to hate their talent.  They were scared of the ghosts, or they felt that dealing with them was a hassle.  But this girl embraced her ability.  I knew she actually preferred hanging out with ghosts instead of the living.  And it was in answering why that the story came to life.

Why would a teenager turn her back on the living in favor of the dead?  Think about your own high school experiences–is it so hard to imagine?  I’m sure even those of us who had a relatively pleasant time saw others who didn’t.  The kids who got shunned, or gossiped about, or taunted, or all three.  That’s what the living do.  But ghosts–ghosts no one can see or hear except for Cass–you couldn’t ask for more loyal friends.  They adore her simply for paying attention to them.  They can’t turn on her or talk behind her back.  They’re safe.

Safe for Cass; not so safe for everyone else.  The dead don’t just offer Cass loyalty and company, they also give her a chance to get back at the kids who’ve mistreated her.  Invisible to everyone but her, her ghostly friends make the perfect spies.  And using the dirt they dig up, Cass can carry out her mission to expose the truth about her classmates’ secret crimes and make them face up to their wrong-doings.  After all, it’s better being feared than being victimized.

But that was only the beginning of the story.  I needed something–or someone–to challenge Cass and her assumptions.  It occurred to me that all of Cass’ ghostly friends were dead when she met them.  What if someone she knew was putting his life in danger or considering suicide?  Would a dead friend still seem so much better than a living one?

It felt right that this “someone” would be a boy.  So my first instinct was to have a romance develop between him and Cass.  But as I developed both characters, I realized that neither of them was ready for a romantic relationship.  I also realized that the story I wanted to tell wasn’t a love story.

So much of young adult and paranormal fiction focuses on romance, on the wonderful things that come of falling in love, and on the strength of those bonds.  And yes, love is grand!  But what about other types of bonds?  A good friend can be just as meaningful and important to a person’s life as a lover–often more so.  I wanted to tell that story: the story of basic human connection, of two people connecting with and supporting each other without being in love.  Which is why this is a book in which a girl and a boy meet and start to care about one another and in some ways end up saving each other, and don’t kiss even once.

So I guess what I ended up with isn’t one big idea, but three: a talent embraced, a mission of ghostly justice, and a friendship as powerful as love.  Put them together, and you get Give Up the Ghost.

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Give Up the Ghost: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell’s

Read an excerpt. View the book trailer. Visit Megan Crewe’s blog.

“The God Engines” Review in Publishers Weekly

The first review of my dark fantasy novella The God Engines is in from Publishers Weekly, and it is an excellent review. I won’t post the whole thing here, because it’s a bit spoilery of things I want unspoiled, but here’s the pull quote:

If J.G. Ballard and H.P. Lovecraft had ever collaborated… the results might have been like this: ferociously inventive, painfully vivid, dispassionately bleak and dreadfully memorable.

Yes, those are a couple of name checks I can live with.

The review also notes the novella is substantially different in tone than my science fiction, which is of course correct; this is me getting dark on y’all. I can’t wait for you folks to see my dark side.

On a related note, a quick update about artwork: there are going to be two covers. The cover you see here by Tomislav Tikulin, which really magnificently captures the classic 70s fantasy art vibe, will be used for the signed limited edition. For the unsigned trade edition, the cover will be by Vincent Chong, who has done the art for the Old Man’s War series limiteds from Subterranean Press; he will also be doing the interior art for all editions. I’ll post the Chong cover art when I get it.

Personally, I’m quite pleased; I like the idea of the two versions being just a little bit different. It’s also why I like working with Subterranean Press with this stuff. They go the extra mile on presentation.

They Should Have Called It “Darwin: The Revengination”

A producer of Creation, the film about Charles Darwin and his wife Emma, starring Paul Bettany and his real-life wife Jennifer Connelly, is griping that the film has no distributor in the US, apparently because so many Americans are evolution-hating mouth-breathers that no one wants the touch the thing; it’s just too darn controversial.

Well, it may be that. Alternately, and leaving aside any discussion of the actual quality of the film, it may be that a quiet story about the difficult relationship between an increasingly agnostic 19th Century British scientist and his increasingly devout wife, thrown into sharp relief by the death of their beloved 10-year-old daughter, performed by mid-list stars, is not exactly the sort of film that’s going to draw in a huge winter holiday crowd, regardless of whether that scientist happens to be Darwin or not, and that these facts are rather more pertinent, from a potential distributor’s point of view.

The major US studios are no longer really tuned to distribute films like this in any event. Maybe if Charles Darwin were played by Will Smith, was a gun-toting robot sent back from the future to learn how to love, and to kill the crap out of the alien baby eaters cleverly disguised as Galapagos tortoises, and then some way were contrived for Jennifer Connelly to expose her breasts to RoboDarwin two-thirds of the way through the film, and there were explosions and lasers and stunt men flying 150 feet into the air, then we might be talking wide-release from a modern major studio. Otherwise, you know, not so much. The “oh, it’s too controversial for Americans” comment is, I suspect, a bit of face-saving rationalization from a producer flummoxed that such an obvious bit of Oscar-trollery such as this film has been to date widely ignored by the people he assumed would fall over themselves to have such a thing.

Or, if the producer is actually smart rather than whiny, it could also be a clever spot of positioning. A bit of controversy would actually be lovely for this film; it’ll get it talked about, which means lots of press and so on, and more awareness of the film in the movie industry. The film was the opening film of the Toronto Film Festival, which is not an insignificant thing to be. It almost certainly will find a distributor in the US, probably one that focuses on smaller films, who won’t actually give a crap about whether creationist mouth breathers will go see the film since it’ll focus on an Oscar-qualifying release in LA and New York in December, with a platformed limited release on the Pacific coast and Northeast in the early part of 2010, i.e., nowhere near the throngs of the Darwin-hating anyway.

Some savvy tweaking of Oscar marketing materials (“see the controversial film about Darwin that almost didn’t show in the US, aren’t we brave in bringing it to you!”) will appeal to the reflexively progressive elements of the Academy, and perhaps the screener DVD of Creation for Academy members will go out in a handsome facsimile first edition of On the Origin of Species. In the end, and in a year where there will be ten Best Picture nomination slots instead of five, Creation could easily grab one of those slots — and because this is a less-than-spectacular year for women in Hollywood, Jennifer Connelly could easily nab a Best Actress slot too. And maybe it gets Best Costume Design as well, because, hell, everyone loves their 19th Century British garb, don’t they. So: Three Academy Award nominations for Creation, including Best Picture. Thank you, evolution-hating straw men!

So, yes: Creationists will undoubtedly hate this film, just on principle. But I rather highly doubt they’re actually the reason the film hasn’t found a distributor yet. They may become the reason it gets on the Oscar ballot, however. We’ll see. It’s a funny world.