Monthly Archives: November 2009

Statements Which Are Accurate As Long As You Ignore the Rest of The Planet

The Blu-Ray version of Up which I purchased earlier this week trumpets that the film is the “#1 Animated Film of the Year!” with the exclamation point being their emphasis, not mine. While I certainly enjoyed Up very much, and fully expect it to win the Best Animated Film Oscar this year, and possibly even be nominated for Best Picture (thanks to the Best Picture nomination slate being expanded to ten films), this claim is only somewhat true. It’s true Up is the number one animated film of the year for the Domestic Box Office (which means the US and Canada), but in the global market (US, Canada and everywhere else), the actual #1 animated film of the year is Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs.

Indeed, it’s not even close: Up’s pulled in just over $500 million globally, which is really not bad, you know, but Ice Age: DotD has racked up a genuinely incredible $878 million, which is enough not only to give it the #1 animated film of 2009 crown, but also to place it at #15 on the list of all time global movie hits (unadjusted for inflation), and make it the #1 film of 2009 outside the domestic box office sphere, beating out the latest Harry Potter for that spot. Seriously, look it up. Or to put it another way, Ice Age’s non-domestic box office is $682 million, which means that it made about $175 million more outside the US and Canada than Up has made around the entire planet. As I said, add up all the money, it’s no contest.

I don’t have a problem with Disney bragging on the performance of Up, but I think strictly as a matter of truth in advertising that “#1 Animated Film of the Year!” notation needs an asterisk, which the packaging does not provide. Independently, I think the rest of the world gets a big, fat “WTF?” regarding Ice Age: DotD, which while amusing enough if you’re eight is not a film I would think the rest of the world should explode with squee over. But then, the #1 movie of 2009 in the Domestic Box Office arena is that damned Transformers sequel, so I don’t think the US and Canada can criticize overmuch, now, can we.

Sugar & Gold Video, From My Pal Sam Young

My pal Sam Young, who I’ve known from Fresno days, says:

i’d like to share with you and your readers a video i made: it’s a music vid for an sf bay area band Sugar & Gold, who are wrapping up a US tour. it’s loaded with visual stimulation — 70′s style shooting stars, animated 3d photo collage, and blink-and-you’ll-miss-it glimpses of san francisco. and the song is quite catchy, too, as is the rest of their electro-disco-funk album “creme”.

Well, let’s take a look, shall we?

It’s got an 80′s world beat vibe to it, it does.

Slash, Or Something Like It, Comes to the Scalziverse

There’s apparently a group of fanficcers out there who does a “Secret Santa” thing, where they request a fanfic story written about a novel/show/manga/whatever, and in return they write a fanfic story featuring a novel/show/manga/whatever that’s been requested by someone else. One of them has requested (and one of them has apparently accepted to write) a story based on The Android’s Dream, specifically involving Harry Creek and Brian Javna, and more or less requesting some slashtastic elements if at all possible (which, if you know the book at all, will be interesting to try to fulfill). This is, to my knowledge, the first time anyone’s asked for — and is likely going to receive — slashfic in one of my universes. As for how I found it, well, you know. My ego matrix of search engines sees all.

How do I feel about it? Groovy. Per my personal fanfic policy, I don’t want to see it when it’s done, but the idea that someone likes the work enough to let their imagination wander around in the world is a compliment. And as for giving two nominally straight characters homoerotic leanings/yearnings/doings while they’re letting their minds wander, hey, it’s their brains. Couldn’t stop ‘em even if I wanted to, and I don’t really want to. As far as I’m concerned, unless specified otherwise, all my characters are comfortable enough with their own sexuality that they don’t mind people imagining them doing all sorts of things. And the ones that do mind probably need to get over themselves.

So to the person asking for, and the person writing, Android’s Dream quite-possibly-slashfic: Have fun, you crazy kids. Just remember to put the furniture back in its original places when you’re done. Thanks.

Interfiction Auctions

Hey, my pal K. Tempest Bradford wants me to let you know that if you like strange-yet-awesome art and funky jewelry (and of course you do) that lots of very cool stuff just like that is up for grabs at the Interfictions auctions that are going on right now. The auctions go to benefit the Interstitial Arts Foundation, which is a groovy group focused on speculative fiction. Here is the entire schedule for the auction, along with details on every piece to be put up for bid, so you’ll know when to bid. How much you bid, of course, is entirely up to you.

The Last of the Fall Color

The Bradford Pear trees in the front yard are always the last to change color in the fall, which means occasionally I get pictures like this, when all the other trees are bare, there’s frost on the ground and the Pears are saying “hey, fall’s not over yet.” No, it’s not. It’s nice to be reminded, and I’m enjoying it while I can.

Quick TGE News

Yes, I know, I haven’t been around today. Some days are busier than others.

That said, good news for those of you who pre-ordered The God Engines: It’s at the printer now, which means it will very likely be shipping in the near future (i.e., more than enough time for the holidays).

Also, another review of TGE, from the Fantasy Literature site. Again, some spoilers in the review, but here’s a relevant pull quote:

The God Engines is every bit as good, if not better, as advertised… It is a hauntingly powerful and provocative tale that will have John Scalzi fans, fantasy lovers, and newcomers alike talking.

Well, then. The full review is here (scroll down a bit), and remember that the review does let spill some things I’d keep for you to find out on your own as you read. It’s not the reviewer’s fault; the spoilery bits are hard not to talk about.

New Toy Update, 9/10

The DVD player hooked up to the downstairs TV has begun to fail, which was not wholly unexpected, as we bought it for, like, $40 three years ago, so I decided today was a good day to trade up and get myself a Blu-Ray player. I wanted one that in addition to playing Blu-Rays would also stream stuff off a media server and also the Internets (we have a Netflix account which allows for streaming videos), and when you add up all those wants it turns out that the PlayStation 3 is actually not a bad choice as a Blu-Ray player, so I went ahead and got one.

What I don’t actually plan to do is spend a whole lot of time playing games with the thing. My preferred type of video game is the first person shooter, and playing one of those on a console controller is like driving while a gremlin sits on your head and scratches off your corneas. Yes, I know a lot of you play them that way. You are all WRONG. That said, it’s nice that the PS3 also has game options, and I won’t say I’ll never use the machine in that capacity. It’s just not why I bought it. I got it for movies, pretty much end of story. I don’t think Sony minds.

New METAtropolis Edition Coming From Tor, Mid-2010

For those of you who hankered after a printed edition of METAtropolis but didn’t get to the limited edition put out by Subterranean Press before it sold out, good news: I’ve just signed the contracts for a new, non-limited edition of the anthology, which will come out through the good graces of Tor Books. Right now the scheduled (but tentative) street date is mid-2010, which is not nearly as far away as you might think.

Naturally I am hugely thrilled about this; between this, the Hugo nomination (only the second one for an anthology, ever) and its successful audio and limited runs, this has been the Little Anthology That Could, for which all credit goes to my fabulous collaborators and co-conspirators Elizabeth Bear, Tobias Buckell, Jay Lake and Karl Schroeder. I was lucky enough to sort of nudge myself next to them and bask in their awesome.

I’ll post more details when I get them, including a more specific date of release. And until then, remember that the audio version is still out there for the listening. And for those who play their audio books old school, there’s now a CD version of it as well, in both conventional audio and MP3 CD flavors.

The Big Idea: Scott Westerfeld

You can’t accuse Scott Westerfeld of not thinking big. When he put together his latest trilogy, of which his terrific new novel Leviathan is the first installment, he not only reordered history by providing an alternate version of World War I, but also also fiddled with biology, technology and indeed the whole general run of scientific advancement from the 19th century forward into the 20th, by positing the existence of both vast, clanking machines of war and amazing new genetically-designed creatures, also used for (you got it!) war.

And to top it all off — and this is something Westerfeld’s particularly proud of — he decided to reimagine the way people read novels here in the 21st century. You know, just for kicks.

How did he did this? Well, in this Big Idea, not only will Westerfeld tell you, he will show you.

SCOTT WESTERFELD:

A picture is worth a thousand words, so let’s start with this:

Okay. It’s night, and moonlight streams through the camouflage netting, suggesting hiding and sneaking. (And, cheating a bit, the caption says “Stealing Away.”) The spiked helmets tell us that it’s World War I. A pair of Iron Crosses suggest Germany, but then we spot a tiny Hapsburg crest, so it’s Austria-Hungary. A young boy is pulling on his glove, preparing to drive the HOLY CRAP IT’S A WALKING TANK.

That is, in a nutshell, what I’ve come to love about illustration: in one glance you can mix storytelling with world-building, the familiar with the outlandish, and the fastidiously accurate with the Just Plain Historically Wrong. Unlike linear text, images dump all their information all at once, letting the viewer “read” the result in whatever order their brain sees fit.

My new book, Leviathan, has about fifty of these visual info-dumps, all masterfully executed by Keith Thompson. Mind you, I didn’t start writing the trilogy with illustrations in mind, but about sixty pages in, I had a Big Idea.

In ye olden days—let’s say 1914, when Leviathan is set—most novels were published with pictures. Whether you were reading Charles Dickens, Jane Austin, or H.G. Wells, you expected to find a half-dozen plates among the pages. And these images had great power in shaping an author’s work. For example, Sherlock Holmes’ deerstalker cap does not appear in Arthur Conan Doyle’s text, only in Sidney Paget’s drawings, and yet it’s part of our iconic image of the character.

Why these pictures disappeared is open to debate. It may have been the explosion of cheap paperbacks, or the collapse of the illustration industry after newspapers, advertising, and mail-order catalogs started using photographs. It may have been changes in literacy rates, or the advent of film or comics as mass media. But for whatever reason, novels for adults gradually became illustration-free over the middle of the last century. Novels for teenagers followed suit soon thereafter.

(Dear pickers of nits: I am aware that graphic novels exist. But I’m talking about prose novels with illustrations, which are a different form altogether.)

The Leviathan trilogy is set in an alternate history with alternate technologies, so I thought to myself, what if novels hadn’t lost their images? What if, instead of shrinking to zero, the number of illustrations in the average book had increased to, say, fifty?

In the world of Leviathan, technology has split into two tribes: the Germanic Clankers, who are machine lovers, and the British-led Darwinists, who weave the life-threads of natural creatures into fabricated beasts. (To put it simply, in this world, Origins of Species was an instruction manual.) So I needed someone who could draw both fantastical machines and strange creatures. Keith Thompson fit that bill perfectly. He’s been a conceptual artist for films and video games (like Iron Grip and Borderlands), so creating new worlds has been his job for a long time. But what sort of new world?

Leviathan is often described as a steampunk series, and fair enough (walking tanks!). But it hews closer to alternate history than most steampunk, with the son of the Archduke Ferdinand a character, and the timeline for the early war matching our own history closely. But in a way, the most “alternate” thing about it for me was simply writing an illustrated novel.

For one thing, I had to become an art director. (To maintain creative control, I agreed to pay Keith with my own money rather than the publisher’s. This is not the usual way with an illustrated book.) This new role meant knowing all sorts of details that a prose novelist could ignore. Sure, before writing this series, I would often claim to have imagined every scene down to the last detail. But that was all lies! Turns out, I didn’t really know what kind of wallpaper was in this room, or what sort of boots that character had on at that moment.

And it’s not just the details; there are also big-picture issues to contend with. In Leviathan, the Great War is not simply between two treaty-groups of countries, or two ideologies; it’s between two technologies. So to represent them, Keith had to create two opposing aesthetics. As you can see from the Stormwalker above, Clanker design has that clunky futurist, WWI-tank look. The Darwinists are more organic and art nouveau. Take a peek at Captain’s Hobbes’ cabin, where a nautilus motif appears in the mirror frame, the fabricated-wood desk, and his cufflinks and hat. (All of that Keith’s idea.)

Every image has to help build the world, or it’s a wasted thousand words.

On top of all this art direction, illustrated books require a different pace of storytelling. The series I’m best known for, Uglies, has more hoverboard chases than slow conversational scenes. But with an image gracing every chapter, stuff really has to happen in Leviathan. And not only is action important, but my characters have to arrive at new and wondrous settings to keep the backgrounds fresh. (It’s just lucky they have an airship.)

And finally, there’s the technical side of illustration: the aspect ratio of the trim size effects every composition; there are contrast issues (can’t write too many scenes at night); and even the type of paper becomes important! Luckily, I had a very indulgent publisher who gave me seventy-pound paper (only thirty pounds short of cookbook weight) and an amazing design team. They budgeted for color end-papers, which allowed Keith an amazing allegorical map of Europe. The result is a beautiful book, and one heavy enough to stun a lupine tigeresque.

So let yourself imagine if technology really had taken a different turn, and no one had invented photography, or if cheap paperbacks, or comics, or whatever it was that killed illustrated novels had never appeared. All of us writers would be facing a different set of challenges every day, and making novels would be far more research-intensive and collaborative than it is today. Imagine how a cultural imperative of fifty pictures per book might have changed the works of Charlie Stross, Octavia Butler, Salman Rushdie, or Angela Carter.

Now that would be an alternate world worth visiting.

—-

Leviathan: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell’s

Visit the Leviathan page, which includes links to an excerpt, the audio version of the first chapter, read by Alan Cumming, and other goodies. Follow Scott Westerfeld on Twitter. See a gallery of Leviathan illustrator Keith Thompson’s work.

Writers and Financial Woes: What’s Going On

An e-mail:

You talk about money and writing a lot, so let me ask you: What is it with writers and money? Lots of them seem to be in financial hot water these days.

Hmmmm. Well, let’s start by pointing out two rather salient points (note this discussion is primarily US-centric, but may have application elsewhere):

1. Things are tough all over. “These days” includes a profound recession, for which employment is a lagging factor, so let’s make sure we factor that not-trivial datum into our mindview. On top of this general employment malaise, writers of all sorts are taking an extra set of lumps: Journalism is losing thousands of full-time writers out of newspapers and magazines, writers in corporate settings are no safer than any other white-collar worker and publishing companies are actively trimming their author rosters and slicing advances. I’d hesitate to suggest that writers are having it worst of all recently, but you know what, they’re not just skating through this recession, either. They’ve got it middlin’ bad.

On top of this:

2. It’s not just writers who make lousy financial choices. There aren’t enough writers in the United States to cover all the bad mortgages out there right now, to make one obvious point. It’s not just writers who push the average consumer debt above $7,000 per card holder. It’s not just writers who save almost none of their income, leaving them vulnerable to sudden, unexpected changes in personal fortune. Writers are often bad with money, but then so are secretaries, and doctors, and teachers, and plumbers, and members of the military and any other group of people you might care to imagine, excepting possibly accountants, and honestly I wouldn’t even put it past them. So when we’re singling out writers for discussion, let’s remember they are not alone out there on the far end of the “wow, we really suck at finances” spectrum.

Having noted the above, here are some additional reasons why writers seem to so often fall face first, financially. Note that not all of these apply equally to every writer; we’re talking in vast generalities, here.

First, some practical issues:

3. Writer pay is generally low and generally inconsistent. And if one writes fiction for some/all of one’s writing output, especially so. I’ve written in detail about writing rates and payment before so it’s not necessary to go into detail again right at the moment. But what it means is that if one is a writer, one does a fair amount of work for not a whole lot of money, and then has to wait for that payment to arrive more or less at the pleasure of the person sending the check. Unfortunately, writers like pretty much everyone else have fixed expenses (mortgage/rent, bills etc), and those people generally do not wait to be paid at the pleasure of the writer; you pay your electric bill regularly or you don’t get electricity. This means writers are often in a situation where despite working prodigiously, they don’t have money in hand to pay regular, fixed monthly expenses.

4. Writers often lack what meager social net actually exists in corporate America. Writers are often self-employed, which means they bear the full brunt of the cost of health insurance or go without, and when they do pay for health insurance, they pay a lot because their individual plans don’t spread out risk like corporate plans do. Since per point three writers don’t get paid a lot (or regularly), very often they go without — as often do their spouses and children, if the spouse does not work for someone who provides health insurance. Which means they are quite susceptible to even incidental medical costs wreaking holy hell with their finances, and my own anecdotal experience with writers is that they are not exactly a hale and hearty group to start.

Self-employed writers don’t get 401(k)s and often don’t get around to funding IRAs, so their ability to save for retirement is made that much more challenging. They are on the hook for their full amount of Social Security taxes and also have to file taxes quarterly, and the IRS keeps a close eye on them (and all self-employed folks) for fraud and so on. Add it all up, and not being formally on the corporate teat makes it easier for writers to find themselves in a compromised financial situation.

5. Writers, like many people (even presumably educated folks), often have rudimentary financial skills. Which means even when they do have money and a desire to save it intelligently, they often don’t know how or have already gotten themselves into a compromised financial situation which makes smart and sane financial practices more difficult. Now, for writers, to some extent we can blame them and their arty-farty educations for this lack. I’m not sure how many MFA or undergrad writing programs out there require a “real world basic finance” class for a degree, but I’m guessing I can count them on one hand and have up to five fingers left over. Likewise, my anecdotal experience with writers suggests that not a whole lot of them have a vibrant love affair with mathematics, even the relatively basic sort that underpins day-to-day financial planning. So there are two strikes against them right there.

But to be fair to writers, once again, it’s not just them. I have a philosophy degree; it didn’t require a real world financial management class either. I don’t believe I actually ever took a class in basic financial planning and management, ever, and I’m guessing I’m not the only one there. This leaves basically everyone to get their financial educations from rah-rah financial bestsellers, fatuous talking heads on CNBC and folks like the sort who recently suckered millions of Americans into buying far more home than they could rationally afford on the basis that hey, the real estate market will never ever go down. This is, basically, an appalling state of affairs, and not just for writers.

Having enumerated some practical issues, here are some (for lack of a better term) “lifestyle” reasons why writers often have money problems:

6. Writers are often flaky. Which can mean (pick one or more) that they have short attentions spans, which penalize them for things like finances; they get bored quickly and therefore make bad economic decisions because they want to stop thinking about them and get on to interesting stuff; because they are clever with words they think that means that they are smart outside of their specific field (and particularly with money), which is common mistake people good in one intellectual area make; they trust people they should not with their money and/or their life situations; they go with their guts rather than with their brains; they prioritize immediate wants over long-term needs; and so on.

We could have a nice fun argument about whether flaky people become writers or whether being a writer makes one flaky, but it’s a discussion that’s not relevant at the moment; the point here is that many authors by their personal nature are not well-composed for the sober, staid and completely boring task of dealing with money.

(Note I’m not simply running down other writers here; ask my wife why it was when we met I had all my utilities on third notice, despite the fact I could afford to pay the bills. It will confirm my own “flaky like a pie crust” nature.)

Related to this:

7. Writers are often irrational risk-takers. Because how can you write about life without experiencing it, etc, which is a convenient rationale for doing stupid things and getting caught in bad situations, up to and including terrible relationships, addictions, impulsive life-changing decisions and so on, all of which end up having a (not in the least) surprising impact on one’s financial life. Hell, even a bog-standard nicotine addiction will set you back $9 per pack in NYC and $5 everywhere else (not counting the cost of one’s lung cancer treatments later). Whether these sorts of irrational risks actually do make one a better writer is of course deeply open to debate, but again, it’s a rationale as opposed to a reason.

Note that in the cases of 6 and 7 above, there’s another potential correlating issue, which is that writers like many creative types appear to have higher incidence of mental illness than your random sample of, say, grocery store managers or bus drivers. Mental illness — particularly illness that goes untreated/undertreated due to financial constraints — will have corresponding effects on one’s financial situation.

8. Writers are often attracted to other creative folks, including other writers. Nothing wrong with this in a general sense, mind you. We all love who we love, and what’s not to love about another witty, smart and talented person? The problem financially speaking, however, is that other writers very often have the same basic financial issues: low, irregular pay, no benefits, poor finance skills, tendencies toward flakiness and risk-taking, and such. Two incomes are theoretically better than one, but two sporadic incomes accompanied by everything else that comes attached to the writing life isn’t necessarily as much better than one would expect. And don’t forget: Kids may happen. They often do.

9. Writing can be expensive. The actual act of writing is not expensive, mind you — if one had to one could do it for free off a library computer, although few do — but everything around it adds up. Typewriters, paper, ribbons and correcting fluid have been replaced by computers, printers, printer ink and internet access, so the sunk cost there is roughly the same as it ever was, as are the costs of sending manuscripts and correspondence, at least to the markets which still require paper submissions. Writers who write in coffee shops and cafes pay “rent” in coffee and pastries; it sounds silly, but those things ain’t cheap when you check the tab. Writers are gregarious and go to things like workshops and conventions and writers’ nights at the local bar; these aren’t required costs but they are desirable activities and they cost money to attend (even if it’s just to get an overpriced beer).

Do all these things mean writers are more susceptible than other trades/professions to encounter serious financial issues? Not necessarily; folks in other creative fields (acting, music, art, dance) have the same set of practical and lifestyle challenges, and while the challenges of other lines of work will vary, they’re still there – hell, even doctors and lawyers find themselves saddled first with huge amounts of debt and then with some impressive overhead to keep their practices going. Pick a profession — there’s lots of ways to get yourself in financial hot water doing it.

However, there is one thing that can make it appear that writers as a class are in more financial trouble than other folks, regardless of whether or not it’s true:

10. Writers write about their situations. Because they’re writers, you see. Writing is what they do. And lots of writers feel the need to share their financial situations with an audience, to a greater or lesser degree. Why? Because (again, pick one or more) writing helps writers think through their situation; writing is therapy; writers feel an obligation to share; writers are hoping for sympathy, encouragement and possibly solutions or even help. Whatever their reasons, it shouldn’t be very surprising that you’ll more than occasionally read an author lay out his or her financial woes, and (yes) do it in an interesting and engaging style that sticks in your head more than, say, a similar blog post by a janitor might. It’s an interesting curse, you might say.

So those are some reasons writers might be having a hard time of it right now — and why it might seem they’re having a harder time than some others.

Me on Humor and Science Fiction

Whilst at Worldcon in Montreal this year, I was interviewed for a Canadian TV series called The Electric Playground on the subject of humor and science fiction. They’ve uploaded the interview to their Web site and it is here. Some irony for you: I make a crack about jocks in the interview, whilst wearing a football jersey (this one, in fact). But it does have my name on it, so that’s all right.

On the Sending of Books to Athena

I’ve gotten e-mails from a number of YA authors asking whether it would be okay (and if it’s appropriate) to send copies of their books to Athena for her potential reading pleasure. So as to address this once and thereafter have something to point these folks to, here’s the ruling on that:

1. I certainly have no objection to people sending books to Athena. She’s an avid book reader, and likes all sorts of books. Send away.

2. However, if you (or your publisher/publicist/editor/whomever) are already sending me the book for consideration for The Big Idea or a mention on Whatever, you are also sending it to Athena, since I share books with her and she delights in coming into the office and looking to see what’s new.

3. So the best thing is probably to send it to me directly, via the process outlined in my Publicity Guidelines. Trust me, Athena will see it, too.

I should also note that if you were wanting to send your work to Athena in the hopes of getting a review from her that goes up here, don’t get your hopes up, as her time is at a premium (school, friends, video games, reading) and she doesn’t spend a huge amount of it online. Moreover, I generally disapprove of people wanting to use my daughter as part of their publicity apparatus, however innocent these folks are in their intent. If Athena wants to saying something publicly about a book she enjoys, that’s one thing, but I’m not going to suggest it to her as something she should do. That said, if she likes what she reads, you might get a fan letter from her. I do encourage her to let authors know she liked a book.

Child’s Play Up for 2009

One of my favorite charities is back once again: Child’s Play, which helps distribute toys and video games to children’s hospitals all over the US and the world, is now open to receive your charitable donations. Go to the site, click on the map for a children’s hospital near you, and you’ll be taken to an Amazon wish list for that particular hospital, where you can buy toys and games that the hospital has chosen (For example, here’s the Amazon Wish List for the Children’s Medical Center in Dayton, which is the one I donated to). You can also or alternately donate cash to Child’s Play directly, via PayPal or through the mail.

Child’s Play is run by the folks at Penny Arcade, who originally did it to make the point that video gamers aren’t disengaged shut-ins zapping things on phosphor screens, and to point out that video games themselves could make a difficult situation — being a kid in a hospital — slightly more bearable. In both cases the charity has overachieved, with Child’s Play bringing in literally millions in contributions since it began a few years ago. And they’ve made it amazingly easy to be involved. It’s a model of how charitable giving can and should work online. Check it out and if you are of a mind to, give.