Monthly Archives: November 2009

Monday Updatery

Hey, I’m back. Catching up on things:

* First, for everyone who complained this hiatus went on too long, your compensatory cat photo:

That’s two cats for the price of one. What a bargain.

* Second, Thanksgiving and the several largely work-free days around it were just lovely. Ate lots of food, watched a lot of movies, slacked off lackadaisically, and generally did a whole bunch of nothing. I recommend it highly.

* My absence last Thursday did, however, mean I didn’t do an in-entry link to last week’s AMC column, which answered some reader mail. So if you missed it, here it is. Go over and make my AMC overlords happy, please.

* Last week I recommended a Scotch Whisky to you all, which resulted in me getting inquiries on where to find that particular type. The answer is: here, on the Master of Malt Web site, which also features many other fine whiskys and spirits. I’ll also note that the Sales Director of Master of Malt popped up in the comment thread about the whisky and is offering Whatever whisky enthusiasts a special deal when they make an order on the Web site. Click here for the details. I will say my own personal experience with the Master of Malt site was quite positive; they packed up my purchase and shipped it quickly, and it arrived pretty much when they promised it would. In the parlance of EBay, Super A++++, would buy again from this dealer.

* Hey, ever wanted your name in a story by famous and/or award-winning SF/F authors? Here’s your chance: a whole bunch are selling “tuckerizations” (the placement of real people’s names in fictional works) in auctions to support the Trans Atlantic Fan Fund, which sends deserving American fans overseas to meet fen of other countries. they’re like exchange students, only slightly geekier. The authors offering tuckerizations are Cory Doctorow, Charlie Stross, Nalo Hopkinson, David Brin, Elizabeth Bear, Julie Czerneda and Mary Robinette Kowal, which is a nice selection of authors for you. Just follow those links to go to the auctions.

* This opinion piece by Ed Rollins on the two people who gate-crashed the White House state dinner for the Prime Minister of India is not too far off from my own opinion on the matter. I would love to see them prosecuted for being pathetic, fame-grubbing jackasses, but as that’s not actually a crime, then charging them with trespassing and other such things would work just as well. Beyond that, I didn’t actually keep up with the news much over the last several days, which was nice, frankly. I’ll catch up later today. Don’t spoil any surprises for me.

How was your Thanksgiving and/or last several days?

Thus Commences the Thanksgiving Hiatus

Unless something of such world-shaking importance occurs that I can’t not blog about it, lest I am required to turn in my blogger card, I’m out of here until sometime Monday. I may pop up in the comments, or update via Twitter/Facebook, but by and large I plan to be scarce until the 30th.

In my absence, consider this an open thread, and feel free to chat amongst yourselves.

Happy Thanksgiving for you US folks, Merry Thursday to everyone else, and see you Monday.

A Recommendation You Probably Wouldn’t Expect From Me

I think most folks here know that I don’t drink alcohol and never have. However, I have friends who do, and one of them, my pal Deven Desai, is out here visiting my family for Thanksgiving. He’s partial to a good Scotch whisky, so when he arrived, I presented him with one that I had heard some very good things about: the Master of Malt Single Cask 19 Year Old Tomatin (Cask Strength). Words like “astonishing,” “magnificent” and “astounding” were in the various recommendations I’d seen, which seemed encouraging, so I was willing to take a chance on it and give it to Deven to try out.

I’m happy to say he was extremely pleased with the whisky, and his recommendation of it is couched in terms that science fiction fans will especially appreciate: “This approximates what Romulan ale ought to be,” he said. And, well. There you have it.

This observation was followed by the following, slightly fictionalized conversation:

Deven: Mind you, it’s not blue, like Romulan Ale is supposed to be.

Me: We could fix that if you’d like.

Deven: No. We couldn’t.

Me: Sure we could. We’ve got blue food coloring.

Deven: Don’t make me stab you.

So: Master of Malt Single Cask 19 Year Old Tomatin (Cask Strength). Not blue. But very very good.

Small supplementary anecdote: Athena was watching Deven and Krissy enjoy the whisky and wanted to know if I was interested in trying even just a little of it. I told her that even if I did, it wouldn’t have anywhere near the same reaction. When you don’t drink alcohol at all, you can’t taste the difference between the good stuff and the bad stuff. It all pretty much comes across as iodine to me. It would literally be a waste of excellent Scotch whisky to give any of it to me.

The Big Idea: Jeff Carlson

Where do you go in a book series when you’ve wiped out five billion people in the first book? Jeff Carlson knows, because Plague Zone is the third book in his acclaimed “Plague Year” series — and yet, as Carlson explains in this week’s Big Idea, all the thought-out plans of the author can (and perhaps should) take a backseat when inspiration comes, even from a most unexpected source.

JEFF CARLSON:

As a writer, you face two big challenges with a series. First, each book needs to work as a stand-alone for anyone who’s new to your work. At the same time, it’s important to jump ahead with each installment, always racheting up the stakes.

I try not to mess around. The first book in the trilogy, Plague Year, opens with five billion dead as the remnants of humankind cling to mountaintops around the world because the runaway nanotech self-destructs at low air densities. So. That’s all good scary fun — but what do you do for an encore? It was tough enough to outdo myself with the second book, Plague War. How about a little romance? Politics. Bug swarms as big as small cities! Bwah HA ha ha ha!!!

But now what? In the course of the first two books, people on all sides of the war develop weaponized nanotech based on the original machine plague. This played naturally from the story. The surviving nations are desperate for food and land. They’re driven to use any advantage they can find, so it seemed obvious to continue in that direction.

Nanotech is impressive stuff. By the time the curtain opens in third book, it wouldn’t have been too incredible for my warring nations to be using next generation technologies to create supersoldiers with bulletproof skin and Wolverine bones. Heck, maybe they could turn invisible by bending the light with a zillion microscopic mirrors embedded in their uniforms. Levitation! The ability to go without food or water!

No, no, no, no, no.

One of my Big Ideas, ironically, was to keep Plague Zone “smaller” as far as the technology goes. I didn’t want to get that far ahead of myself. The first two books are plausible — if outlandish — and more disturbing because of it. Zone needed to fit well with the others and yet push the envelope, too, so I had to find a different way to up my game.

I came up with my best bad guy yet. I love smart bad guys. More to the point, this let me expand the scope of the story by another order of magnitude. Year is a fairly personal story. Most of its focus is on two survivors of the machine plague and their quest to defeat it. In War, the camera pulls back a little more. The global conflict that was in the background of Year explodes onto the stage in War as the U.S. is invaded by two foreign armies.

With Zone, I was finally able to personalize the enemy. The lion’s share of the narrative continues to be with Cam and Ruth and other favorites, but we also spend a good deal of time with a Chinese Elite Forces colonel with secrets and surprises of his own. Awesome!!! No matter where you live, you could probably hear me cackling like a demented witch stirring up a lovely pot of evil.

The second Big Idea came from a fan. This was the surprise ingredient. It fell into my lap more than two years ago at one of my very first book signings. I can only take credit for keeping my eyes and ears open, which, after all, is one of the main functions of being a writer.

My mother-in-law had given Plague Year to a friend of hers. Neither of these sensible family women, both German emigrants in their late sixties, are anyone you’d peg as readers of sci fi end-of-the-world novels, but mom-in-law was very proud of me and her friend thought it was interesting to know an author, so they both took a chance.

It turns out the friend is in a book club. Her name is Ingrid Wood. Ingrid’s spent a lifetime debating the intrinsic values of character in Michener and Irving and Auel, so I was pleased when she got my address from mom-in-law and wrote to say she’d really enjoyed her first-ever science fiction novel.

Ingrid came to my book signing armed with discussion points, which was hilarious. I was very nervous. This was a hometown event. Everyone brought friends. Picture me standing in front of a crowd of forty people just trying to keep my nerves down to a low rattle. I’d already worked up a spiel about real-life nanotechnology and breaking into publishing… and Ingrid kept interrupting with  questions about the motivations of Character A or what Character B really meant in Chapter 7 when he recalled some long-lost tidbit from his childhood.

Man, I’m not writing The Joy Luck Club. I like to think my books are full of honest human drama and well-written, evocative moods and imagery — but they’re also big, fun, rock-and-roll thrillers loaded with gunfights and exploding helicopters. Yet she made my head explode with one perfect question.

At the time I was writing the sequel, War, and I thought I knew where I was headed with the third book to cap the trilogy. None of those plans went out the window. It was more like Ingrid crashed my party like a gang of bikers, bringing a whole new level of mayhem to my intentions.

It wouldn’t be right for me to give away too much about Plague Zone, so I have to play coy and give you a fake name.

What she said was: “What does Moe do after this book?”

Moe? Who’s Moe, you’re asking. Man? Woman? Is that a Zoe joke? I can’t tell you. Ingrid was right that I’d left a small thread hanging loose in Plague Year, but there are several characters who are left behind or lost or run away in one action sequence or another. Catastrophes are rarely neat. In my mind, that had been the end of Moe.

Now I stood there staring at Ingrid. What I was thinking was: “Holy jumbolee! What does Moe do after this book?”

Ingrid was disruptive and outspoken and nearly derailed my little event, but she had a killer instinct for storytelling. Those few words were exactly the fresh wrinkle I needed to make the story pop…

…so Moe is back, people. That’s the Big Twist Inside The Big Idea.

I hope you like it as much as I did.

—-

Plague Zone: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell’s

Read a sample chapter from the novel. See samples from the other books in the series, plus short stories. Read his blog.

Quick Note on Self-Publishing

This is actually very simple, people. Leaving aside the actual discussion of the wisdom of self-publishing, generally speaking, if you are going to self-publish, for the love of all that is good and decent in this world, don’t pay to do it. In this day and age, there is no reason to do so.

If you don’t need physical copies of what you’re writing, then there’s especially no reason to pay anyone to publish, since a simple word processing file will suffice, and if you’re truly inspired to put your document into pdf or one of the various e-book formats, there’s software that will let you do that for free.

If you do need a physical copy, then someplace like Lulu.com will let you design and set up that physical copy for free, and the only time you (or anyone else) pays for the thing is when you order a copy, in which case Lulu charges you for the paper, binding, shipping and (I’m sure) a small cut for their profits. This is vastly less expensive than any other way you could do it.

(Bear in mind that the above assumes you are minimally competent to copyedit your own work and are competent to do a basic design for your book, either on your own or using the default settings available on Lulu or other similar services. If not, you can hire people to do these specific tasks, which is still very likely to be cheaper than a suite of services you would buy from a vanity publisher.)

Speaking personally, when it comes to self-publishing, as long as people know what they’re getting into and have their expectations grounded in the real world, I have no problem with people self-publishing, since I’ve done it myself at least a couple of times, and may choose to do it again in the future. I also have no problem with services like Lulu; I have a Lulu account and I use it whenever I finish a manuscript because I run off personal, bound copies for myself and my wife prior to official publication, and occasionally to auction a copy for charity (Lulu also offers “service packages,” which I don’t recommend, but the basic package — which is what I use when I use them — is free). Self-publishing can be useful in certain specific circumstances, even if it is almost never profitable in any significant way.

But again, if there’s one thing I can drill into your head about self-publishing, it is: Don’t pay for it. There are lots of ways to do it that don’t involve you shelling out a dime to anyone else before you have a product available to sell.

Compare and Contrast

Store vs. National Brand:

“Great Value,” for those who don’t know, is a Wal-Mart “generic” brand.

Observations:

1. It does seem to me that the “crunchy fruit-based toroid” segment of the breakfast cereal industry has a problem with names. In the case of the national brand, the use of “Froot” rather than “fruit” telegraphs that what you’re eating possibly has more to do with long chains of polymers than something which actually once grew on a tree; in the case of the store brand, the name sounds like a rare but absolutely vicious tropical disease. I’m not sure I want to eat something that sounds either aggressively chemical or that resides in the feculent gut of a mosquito.

2. On the cartoon spokescreature front, the national brand is the clear winner. Toucan Sam, long proof of the cereal industry’s commitment to sexual diversity in its mascots, is at least tangentially related to his subject, by way of having a rainbow beak call to mind the rainbow of dyes dumped into the cereal, and the fact that toucans are a primarily frugivorous species. He’s clearly happy to be instructing the children on the joys of grain cereals. Contrast this to Great Value’s monochrome frog-like creatures, which aside from being deformed in the horrible way that amphibians seem to be these days thanks to all the chemicals we dump into the water supply, really have nothing to do with fruit at all.

Moreover, the main frog here appears surprised and ambivalent about the fact that he’s seated in a cereal loop, riding a sketchy flume into your breakfast bowl. This is not a mascot pleased to tell you about a product; this is a creature who is thinking five minutes ago I was sucking down flies with my tongue in a swamp, now I’m sliding into a vat of milk and oats, seriously, WTF. Which is another point: I’m okay with my cereal mascot eating the product; I’m less okay with my cereal mascot wallowing in my product. Nothing says don’t eat me like a conflicted amphibian descending into your bowl.

3. Ironically, I suppose, I give credit to the store brand for not overtly trumpeting some trivial and dubious nutritional benefit. Really now, Froot Loops: “Now provides fiber”? Because, cheese binges aside, your target demographic of hyperactive four to twelve-year-old has recently had to come to grips with the scourge of bowel irregularity? Do the cereal-purchasing mothers of the same say to themselves, as the cruise the cereal aisle, I want something both sugar-laden and poo-inducing? The juxtaposition of kid-pleasing cartoon character and AARP-level benefit banner is jarring, to say the least. With the Fruit Spins, there’s no ambiguity: You’re getting sugar, you’re getting colored dye, and yes, fine, 25% of your iron for the day, if you want it. I like that.

4. After all of this, we bought the Cheerios.

Writers’ Organizations to Harlequin: If You’re Not Going to Act Like a Real Publisher, We’re Not Going to Treat You Like One

Someone at Harlequin, the big publisher of romance novels, figured out there was money to be made from all the people who so desperately want to say that they’re being published by Harlequin that they’d be willing to pay for it. Thus has the company started its own vanity publishing arm: It’s called Harlequin Horizons, where, if one is to judge from the Web site, lots of stock art women will be thrilled at the idea of paying between $600 and $3,500 to see their name in print. To further sucker entice yearnful unpublished romance writers, the site also notes “Harlequin will monitor sales of books published through Harlequin Horizons for possible pick-up by its traditional imprints.”

Or in other words: Hey, prospective writers! Harlequin cordially invites you to take nearly as much money as the company gives its first-time romance writers as an advance and give it to them instead, in the foolish and ill-advised hope that by doing all the work the publisher is supposed to do for you, you might get the attention of the company who is already putatively publishing your work. At which point the publisher will reach down from its lofty perch in the clouds, wave its magic wand at your wooden toy of a novel and make it a real boy, and then say to you, “yes, you actually are a writer, not just some foolish chump who has just spent hundreds or thousands of dollars to slap the word ‘Harlequin’ on your self-published work.”

This is basically a skeezy, cynical and horribly demeaning thing Harlequin is doing, padding its bottom line by suckering a bunch of folks who don’t know better into thinking that paying for publication is a legitimate path into the publishing world. In a stroke, they’ve become the sort of scumbag publisher that writer’s organizations warn their members (and their aspiring members) about. But apparently the folks at Harlequin thought that the response would be different with them, because, after all, they’re Harlequin, and they’re too big to fail.

I’m happy to say Harlequin thought wrong. The Romance Writers of America, the Mystery Writers of America and (I’m delighted to note) the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America have all announced sanctions against Harlequin. SFWA and MWA have either chosen or threatened to remove Harlequin from the list of publishers which qualify writers for membership, and whose books are eligible for its awards, while RWA has removed Harlequin from the list of publishers that are eligible for free space and resources at its annual conference. Of the three, it’s obviously the latter which is the big deal. MWA and SFWA are tangential to Harlequin’s market space, but when the largest association of romance writers on the planet says Harlequin is in effect not a real publisher anymore, that’s a pretty important statement.

And it’s worked, of a fashion: Harlequin has announced that it’ll be changing the name of Harlequin Horizons in response to the backlash. However, it fully intends to keep its new vanity arm in order to gull the desperate, and in a press release, Harlequin’s Publisher and CEO Donna Hayes is frankly miffed at RWA for being upset that Harlequin has decided to become the PublishAmerica of the romance genre. After mentioning all the ways Harlequin has helped the RWA conference in the past (read: “you are nothing without us!!!!”), Hayes writes:

It is disappointing that the RWA has not recognized that publishing models have and will continue to change. As a leading publisher of women’s fiction in a rapidly changing environment, Harlequin’s intention is to provide authors access to all publishing opportunities, traditional or otherwise.

Let me translate that last paragraph for you:

It is disappointing that the RWA has not recognized that in a recession, our company’s commitment to its bottom line trumps any ethical or moral consideration when it comes to the treatment of writers who haven’t figured out that we’re supposed to be paying them, not the other way around. Harlequin’s intention is to suck money off these rubes in every way possible, so there.

Which is to say that it’s funny how publishers like to trumpet the inevitability of “changing models” when those “changing models” mean the publishers don’t actually have to pay the writer.

Hey, Ms. Hayes: Putting lipstick on a con job doesn’t make it any less of a con job. Changing the name of Harlequin Horizons doesn’t change the fact that you’ve just made Harlequin into the largest vanity press on the planet, and if you’re still planning to insinuate on your vanity press Web site that authors might get picked up by Harlequin if they sell well enough through your vanity arm, you’re still using your company’s brand identity to pry cash off the gullible and insensibly hopeful. Which is a predatory, scumbaggish thing to do.

If you’re a writer or a reader, be sure to take some time to give respect to RWA for moving quickly to stomp on Harlequin’s stupidity, and to MWA and SFWA for, in effect, backing its play. What would be nice is if Harlequin simply dropped this stupid, deceptive, money-grubbing ploy and rejoined the ranks of actual publishers. But if it won’t, I don’t see why anyone, and particularly writers’ organizations, should pretend it’s anything but what it is: the planet’s latest and greatest vanity publisher.

Bad Science Education In, Bad Science in Science Fiction Movies Out?

In this week’s AMC column, I explain why better basic science education, while laudable and probably necessary in a larger sense, will almost certainly not improve the bad science one finds in most science fiction movies, like the most recent Star Trek flick (or indeed much of that series). I point out Star Trek primarily because it just came out on home video, but the problem isn’t confined to that series, to be sure. Check out my thinking on the topic, and then be sure to tell me what you think in the comments. Because a day without your comment is like a day without sunshine.

That Palin Book

I’ve been asked if I have any particular thoughts about Sarah Palin’s new book, and the short answer is no, not really; I haven’t read it, and I’m not going to be going out of my way to read it, either. It’ll get enough buyers, some of whom will even get through the thing. She’ll get along fine without me adding to her tally.

Aside from this, there’s nothing about the dynamic around the release which I find terribly surprising. The reviews from mainstream outlets are generally negative and/or dismissive, and that’s good for Palin, as she can use that to solidify her bona fides with the outraged folk who constitute her primary demographic, and so on and so forth. It’s a dance, basically, in which everyone knows their moves and when to bow to their partner, and so far everyone’s hitting their marks.

As to whether this augurs a 2012 presidential run, honestly, who knows. I think Palin’s enjoying herself doing what she’s doing and at the moment not thinking too much about what comes after it. At this point 2012 will take care of itself.

Early Thoughts on Left 4 Dead 2

Because, aside from a quick trip from the vet, this is what I’ve been doing with my morning:

1. It’s even more fun than the original, mostly because the up-close-and-personal melee weapons are just a (literally) bloody delight. I worked my way through one of the single player campaigns with a friggin’ samurai sword, and let me tell you, if there is a greater video game joy than turning a zombie into thin-sliced deli meat with a katana, I don’t want to know what it is.

2. It’s also harder than the original. I’m playing the “normal” difficulty and I have to tell you that I’m hitting the safe houses in dire need of health and ammo. The culprits for this: More zombies, nastier special infecteds (that’s the zombies that can spit on you or ride you or pummel you into squish or otherwise make you unhappy), longer levels and little mini-missions you have to complete while the game continually disgorges zombies your way. It keeps you busy and frantic, which is the point of the game.

3. More variety of weapons, which is nice, although learning which ones are really useful will take a bit of time, and the weapons of choice in the first L4D game may not avail you here. My preferred set-up in the first game was dual pistols and the hunting rifle for sniping; in this game the pistols don’t seem to stop the zombies as well, and I’m not getting a lot of nice camping spots for sniper headshots. So I’m still trying to figure out what really works for me. I will say I had fun with a katana/grenade launcher set-up, although I’m not sure that’s the most practical way to get through the game.

4. The graphics are better and gorier, with lots of glistening disembowelments, amputations with bones sticking out, and blood spatters on the screen; indeed, if you’re plowing through lots of zombies with a melee weapon, at certain points there will be so much blood on the screen it’s hard to see. Needless to say, this is awesome.

So, as an early rating: Really good. I have some more zombie killing to get through today, so if anything happens for me to change my mind I’ll let you all know. But in general, it seems that Valve’s done it again. They haven’t made a bad game yet, and think about how many video game studios you can say that about.

Your Official “Hey It’s Now the Second Half of November” Pimp Thread

Look! It’s Sebastian, the non-alliteratively-named turkey! And he’s here to host this here November pimp thread. What’s a pimp thread, you ask, because apparently you’ve never been to the site before? Well, it’s a thread I open up so you — yes, you! — can tell the roughly 40,000 folks who visit here every day some of the things you’re currently finding very cool, and/or promote a project you’re working on.

So: Got something you want to promote? Have a friend who is doing something cool? Just read a book/listened to a band/seen an art installation/[past tense sensory verb] a you want to tell everyone about? This is the place to do it. Tell us about it and leave a link to it when applicable

And now, the standard technical note: If you put more than a couple of links in a comment, it’s possible it might trigger the blog’s automatic moderation and drop it into a special queue for my approval. If this happens, don’t panic; I’ll be going through the queue on a regular basis through the day and will release it presently. But the best way to avoid this is one recommendation/promotion with link per comment. Just make more than one comment if you have more than one thing to tell people about. Easy.

Now share! Share with Sebastian! And others!