Monthly Archives: February 2011

10 Years in Ohio

We here at the Scalzi Compound passed a milestone this last week; ten years ago last week, we moved into our house here in Bradford, thereby beginning our sojourn here in Ohio.

In the not too recent past I wrote about what it’s like to live where I do — both in Ohio, a state of which I am not a native, and in rural America, which I did not grow up in — so there’s probably not a reason to go over that again. What I do find interesting, though, is the fact I’ve lived somewhere for ten years straight. Prior to the move to Ohio, I changed addresses every couple of years on average, and as a child, often rather more frequently than that. If I added them all up I think there may have close to 20 moves in my first 31 years of life. To be rooted in one place for what is now a quarter of my life counts as some sort of achievement. And of course, it’s been a pretty good ten years.

As one does, I sometimes wonder how my life would be different if we hadn’t moved to this house — would I have written Old Man’s War, for example, which I wrote that first summer I lived here? Would I write fiction at all? Would I eventually come to know many of the same people I know now? And so on. It’s interesting to speculate on because in point of fact I am happy with my life at is, and the life I and my family have made, here in this one house, all this time. It’s been good to us, and I’m glad I’m here.

I really thought I’d have more to say about this, but I don’t. Just: Dude. Ten years in Ohio. Whoa.

I Am Running For SFWA President (Again)

Yes, as noted in passing earlier this month, I am running for a second one-year term as the president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Those of you who are members of SFWA can read my full presidential candidacy letter and platform in the SFWA forums. For everyone else the short version is that my plan is to complete the things we have already in process (incorporation of the organization as a 501(c)(3) in California, other very not sexy but necessary internal stuff) plus try to do more to make SFWA inviting to new members and even more useful to existing members. I will also finish construction of the SFWA VOLCANO-POWERED LASER which we will use to VAPORIZE ERRANT PUBLISHERS WHO DARE TO DEFY US. But that one’s really more of a side quest, if you know what I mean.

More seriously, in this term as SFWA president I think we’ve done some good work, and I as president (and SFWA as an organization) have been blessed with a board of directors who are smart, engaged and able to work together for the benefit of the organization and its members, and fantastic volunteers who have stepped up to make everything happen. Being president has been a lot of work, but thanks to the board and our volunteers, it’s also been an extraordinarily good experience. I’m ready to take on another year, if the SFWA membership will have me.

Update: And, hey, look! Mary Robinette Kowal is running for SFWA Vice-President once more, as well.

Update 2: And now Cat Valente is running for the position of Eastern Regional Director.

Wisconsin and Labor

Picture snurched from Talking Points Memo (click photo for link)

They’re having an exciting time up there in Wisconsin at the moment, where the current rumor is that every single Democratic state senator has left the state in order to deny the state senate Republicans the quorum they need to pass a bill that essentially guts the right of collective bargaining for state workers. Meanwhile thousands of state works and sympathizers are have been protesting for days over the bill, which the Republicans, including the governor, say is essential in order to bring the state budget back in line.

Well, no. The bill may or may not bring the state budget back in line, but let’s not pretend that breaking the backs of the unions is not also what this bill is about. And it’s a fine test case for it, because if you can crack the unions in Wisconsin, which has a strong labor and union history, then chances are pretty good you can crack them elsewhere. It’s also a fine test case for the proposition of advancing a social and philosophical agenda under the cover of budget constraints — i.e., “we just can’t afford to support [insert thing Republicans don't like] anymore, we have to tighten our belts.” The economy is the stalking horse for ideological ball-cutting, and what we’re seeing here is whether Republicans can get anyone to believe that this is not in fact what they hope to do here.

Should the Wisconsin Republicans be doing this? Well, why shouldn’t they — or, to put it somewhat more accurately, why wouldn’t they? They did get elected, have majorities in the Wisconsin Assembly and Senate, and as far as I can tell neither Governor Walker or anyone else on his side was particularly ambiguous about their political goals to roll back state employee benefits. I’m sure as far as they’re concerned, union-busting is just part of fulfilling their mandate to the people; nor, given the low levels of support unions have these days, are they entirely politically foolish to think so.

I’m not saying that I personally think it’s just fine for the Wisconsin GOP to ball-cut the unions; I don’t. I am saying I can certainly see why they’re making the attempt now; there will likely not be a better time. We can could get into a long discussion about how we got to this point — indeed I expect people will be getting into that discussion in the comments — but for right now I’ll just say this is where we are at the moment. If the Wisconsin Republicans are successful in stripping away a substantial amount of collective bargaining rights from the unions, and they may very well do it, then you’ll see similar attempts elsewhere. Count on it.

The Big Idea: Howard Andrew Jones

Writing as a travel opportunity: It’s something that authors take advantage of, as they build strange new places — and travel in time to strange old places — to show you what goes on there. Howard Andrew Jones has come back from such travels with a new book — The Desert of Souls – and a tale to tell about what he’s seen in his journey, and why the journey is important to him.

HOWARD ANDREW JONES:

Every writer knows the adage “Write what you know”, but I think it’s more important to write what you love. That’s why I leave middle America behind to follow medieval Muslim heroes into exotic lands.

I’ve always loved stories that take me to strange new places. When I was five I was glued to the TV by reruns of the original Star Trek. I later traveled into space with Leigh Brackett, prowled the gritty streets of Leiber’s Lankhmar, fell into the mind-bending universe of Zelazny’s Amber, and sailed with the daring Horatio Hornblower. But the the historical fiction of Harold Lamb and Robert E. Howard cast the greatest spell upon me. Their tales were moody, brooding, and vivid, and populated by realistic folk from cultures I’d never known.

Neil Gaiman and P. Craig Russel’s brilliant portrayal of 8th century Baghdad (in issue 50 of The Sandman) brought that particular locale into sharp focus for me. Arts, mathematics, poetry, and science blossomed during the golden age of the Abbasid caliphate, while Europe wallowed in the the poverty, illiteracy, and disease of a Dark Age. Yet there were still plenty of blank spaces on middle-eastern maps, filled in by glorious storytelling. Men and women lived ordinary civilized lives, but they knew that the supernatural might lurk in the neighboring kingdom, or around any street corner.

It was not just fantastic places that fascinated me, but the heroes who traveled there as well. I don’t mean flawless, square-jawed men in white hats fighting cardboard villains in black; the heroes I liked squabbled and bickered and made mistakes. They had blind spots and flaws, and sometimes they made the wrong choices. Whatever their disagreements, though, when the chips were down they stood together. At heart they were brothers.

I re-read and rewatched — lathered, rinsed, and repeated — never guessing I was researching while entertaining myself, until one day a narrator stalked out of my subconscious and wouldn’t shut up. He was the stalwart Captain Asim, loyal bodyguard and indispensable confidant to the brilliant scholar Dabir ibn Khalil. A number of reviewers have compared Dabir and Asim to Holmes and Watson, but Asim is far more integral to the story than the typical movie and TV Watsons, more central even than Doyle’s capable narrator. He and Dabir reach greater heights together than Dabir could ever reach alone.

Once I knew my heroes, I wanted worthy supporting characters as well. I was drafting an adventure story, not melodrama, so even amongst all the fantastical elements I wanted an antagonist with honest motivations. I discovered not only what my villain was after, but the bleak injustice that had sent him down his dark path. Additionally there could be no place for an “obligatory love interest A,” but any fears I had about a generic heroine vanished for me the moment Sabirah walked into her first scene. Young, intellectually gifted, supremely confident, and haunted by the specter of a coming political marriage… she brought fire and life to every scene and demanded a stronger arc. I happily obliged.

The Desert of Souls came into being as an origin story, not just about how the characters met, but how Dabir and Asim came to depend upon one another. Two men are caught up in events bigger than themselves and in their journey they learn to work together so they have the strength to face a terrible evil. It takes place against the technicolor backdrop of the Arabian Nights, complete with lost cities and sweeping deserts, scheming sorcerers, implacable djinn, and secrets men were not meant to know. There’s romance and heartbreak, swashbuckling action, and hard won victories.

In brief, it’s an adventure with the kind of elements I’ve always loved, and I hope that readers find the same enjoyment in the story that I felt while drafting it.

—-

The Desert of Souls: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt here. Visit his blog here.

Borders, Bankruptcy and Writers

E-mails coming in today from people wondering how the Borders bankruptcy will affect writers in general and me in particular, with some others wondering if royalties for the books they buy at Borders will get to the authors who wrote them, and whether they should continue shopping at Borders at all.

Well. First, CE Petit has some initial thoughts on what the bankruptcy means for Borders customers, and also authors, here.

For everyone who doesn’t want to bother with that analysis, here’s my thumbnail version:

For customers, provided your local Borders doesn’t close (and apparently a couple hundred will), you shouldn’t see too much different in an immediate sense, with the exception that some books may not be available because some publishers have cut off service to the company.

For writers, there may be a lot of back-end headaches, related to the fact that Borders owes lots of publishers lots of money — about $270 million as of today — and while Borders suggests (if I am reading this page correctly) that they will be able to pay publishers on invoices filed after today, everything billed before that date is now tied up in bankruptcy court proceedings, and who knows when or if or how much of those payments will be made.

What does all this mean for you, the concerned consumer? As far as I understand it (and I could be wrong, I am not a lawyer, etc):

1. Theoretically, for books that come into Borders after today, and are then sold, the publisher will be paid.

2. But that book you bought as a holiday gift in December? Yeah, Borders might still owe the publisher for that, and now it’s a court matter.

3. If the publisher hasn’t been paid for the book by Borders, whether the publisher will then pay the author for that sale, completely or partially (and sooner rather than later), depends on a lot of variables, including the specific wording of contract points.

So basically, if you’re worried that the Borders bankruptcy is going to screw writers, you’re using the incorrect tense. That screwing has already happened, and now we just have to wait for the effects to catch up to us. We may be additionally screwed from here, of course. We’ll have to see what happens.

Will this affect me personally? I’m sure it will, although in the short term I am well-insulated financially; other writers will not be so lucky. In the medium term I expect this will oblige me and my agent to pay close attention to contract points. In the longer term, well, if the second-largest brick-and-mortar book retailer in the US goes swirling, this is will obviously have an impact on how I make my living. It’s always something. Then again, “it’s always something” describes everyone’s economic life these days.

Some folks have asked me whether they should continue to buy books (and books of mine) from Borders. Well, speaking only for myself and not for my publisher or any other writer, if Borders is what you have as your local bookstore, and my books are in stock, and you want to buy them, go ahead. My publishers and Borders will sort it out at some point.

Borders has been good to me in the past — it ordered copies of The God Engines, and a hardcover novella isn’t an easy thing to place in a chain store — and their science fiction buyers have been enthusiastic about my stuff. So I’m willing to extend them some personal credit, and hope they’ll get their act together sometime in the near future. Whether other authors (and more importantly, their publishers) feel as sanguine about Borders at the moment is another matter entirely.

Daisy’s Day Gets Better

Because one of the neighbor dogs wandered over to play with her. They ran around the yard for a good half hour, being goofballs. And yes, as you can see, the yard is now visible; it’s 54 degrees outside and the snow is in retreat. Good riddance.

While I was taking photos the dogs were moving fast enough that the “rolling shutter” phenomenon of digital cameras came into play. You can see a little of it in the picture above by looking at the neighbor dog’s front left paw, but here’s a photo in which it’s really pronounced:

I think that’s kind of a cool look, personally.

In any event, Daisy’s bounced back from her morning. It’s a reminder of something we sometimes forget: When you’re having a bad day, friends help.

This Morning’s Exciting Adventure!

Hey, Daisy! How did your encounter with that skunk go this morning?

That well, huh.

And in fact we’ve had a very exciting skunk-based morning here at the Scalzi Compound, including a vinegar-and-baking-soda bath for the dog (and me, since I was the one applying it), the opening of windows to near-freezing air in order to get skunk smell out of the house, and a liberal application of Febreeze on every possible surface of the house, including the dog. And for all that it will be at least a couple of days before the skunk odor is completely out of the house, because that’s just the way skunk odor is. The joy is never-ending, it is.

A Reminder To SFWA Members

You have until midnight Pacific time to get in your Nebula nominations for this year.

Here’s a list from authors of stuff you can nominate.

Here’s a list from readers of stuff you can nominate.

Here’s a photo of the panda I will have come to your house if you do not make those nominations.

That’s right, I have a panda on standby. Of course I have a panda on standby. I am the President of SFWA. We’re all about panda preparation.

Don’t make me break out the panda. Please nominate before midnight, Pacific time.

That is all.

 

The Big Idea: Greg Taylor

Every book featured in The Big Idea has a big idea behind it — heck, it’s implicit right there in the title. But how does one discover that big idea — and when one discovers it, how does one nurture it along so it becomes an actual book? Novelist and screenwriter Greg Taylor is here to let you backstage to that process, at least as it involves him and his latest book, The Girl Who Became a Beatle.

GREG TAYLOR:

During the course of my career as a screenwriter, and now as an author, I’ve had maybe a handful of what I would call Big Ideas.  I’ve been writing for over twenty-five years, so that averages out to about one every half decade.  Not many, in other words.  One of my rare stop-me-dead-in-my-tracks ideas came to me when I was raking leaves in the backyard.  Another on a day when I gave myself an assignment to sit at my desk and not get up until I had written down five new ideas.  As for The Girl Who Became a Beatle… I don’t remember exactly when that idea dropped into my head.  But I was certainly excited when it did.

What I’m referring to when I say Big Ideas actually started out as what’s known in the film business as a high-concept idea.  The high-concept, in turn, is defined as one that can be summed up in a single sentence.  I realize these kinds of stories are not held in high regard in some quarters, often for good reason.  If all a story has is a high concept that is not supported by compelling characters and an interesting and involving plot… well, that’s a formula for a pretty superficial literary or cinematic experience.

But done right, I believe the high-concept story can be as thrilling and involving and emotional as any other kind of idea.  I’d better believe that, considering those are the kinds of stories I tend to write.  I’ve tackled some character based stories over the years, but I always seem to gravitate back to the high-concept.  For one thing, I appreciate the anchor a high-concept provides as I develope my story and characters.  For another, I simply love these kinds of stories.

For a high-concept to work, however, at least as far as one of mine is concerned, I need to heed a simple rule.  If I don’t, the concept will die on the vine, won’t evolve into that all-important Big Idea.  I don’t claim my rule is profound or original.  I’m just saying it works for me.  Let’s take The Girl Who Became A Beatle as an example.  I mentioned earlier that a high concept story is one that could be summed up in a single sentence.  Here’s the sentence for TGWBAB:

A girl wishes she were as famous as the Beatles, then wakes up the following morning to discover that her band has replaced the Beatles in history and that all of their classic songs are attributed to her.

It wasn’t the idea of a girl – whose name is Regina – wishing she were as famous as the Beatles that made me stop and scrutinize this particular idea, but the notion that all of the Beatles songs are attributed to her.  That was the A-HA moment for me, the thing that made this particular idea not only “high-concept”, but worth pursuing.  Immediately I began thinking about what Regina would do with her newfound – and very bogus – success.

Just as immediately, the high concept started to become personal.  During the endless hours I spent developing and rewriting and polishing TGWBAB, the more personal the story became to me.  I grew up in Pittsburgh, PA, so it was an easy decision to have Regina live in the Northeastern United States.  For the past thirty years I’ve lived in Los Angeles, so bringing Regina to Los Angeles to attend the Grammys in her wish-come-true world felt like a natural progression in the story.  Not just because I live in LA and would know what I was writing about, but because I was able to express some of the ambivalence I still have about LA after all these years, the love/hate relationship I’ve developed with the city.

Most important though – as far as developing the story and characters were concerned – was the connection I gradually formed with Regina, the narrator of the story.  Even though she’s 16 years old, and I’m much older than that, she and I share many of the same characteristics, the same loves (the Beatles, of course, being one of them), the same dislikes and insecurities.  In general, the same way of looking at the world.  Perhaps the key moment in the story for me comes after Regina reads the lyrics for an original song that Julian (her secret crush) has written.  Here’s an excerpt:

“They’re very good lyrics, Julian.”  I wasn’t just saying that, either.  They were personal and dealt with being an artist and how vulnerable that makes you feel but how you can’t help choosing the creative life.  It chooses you.

“You really think so?” Julian asked tentatively.  It was like he didn’t believe me.  Julian’s response made me wonder if creative people ever get over their insecurity.

And there it is, that last line.  Do creative people ever get over their insecurity?  I know I haven’t, even after all these years.  That might have something to do with that fact that writing is such a solitary profession, and one that opens a person up to criticism in a way that many other professions do not.  But one of the compensations writers receive in return for the solitary life is the often mysterious way that characters can become real to them.  That was certainly the case with Regina.  She became very real, and as such a conduit for my feelings about, among other things, the importance of music in one’s life and how difficult it can be being a teenager and the often charged relationships between teens and parents.

Don’t get me wrong.  First and foremost, I wanted The Girl Who Became A Beatle to be a fun ride, one that hopefully people will find to be an original twist on the classic wish-come-true tale.  But without the connection I developed with Regina, without making the story as personal as possible, it would have been a hollow writing experience for me, and I believe for the reader.

And that’s my simple rule for turning a high concept idea into a Big Idea.  Make it personal.  When I’ve done that, things have tended to fall into place for me.  When I haven’t, the high-concept didn’t take off, didn’t develop into anything I ultimately wanted to hold up and say, “Read this!”

Now that The Girl Who Became A Beatle is being held up to the reading public, it’s time for me to get back to work, back to panning for that kernel of an idea that just might evolve into another Big Idea.  If past experience is any indication – one every five years – I might be at it for a while.

So where to start?  I read that Agatha Christie came up with some of her best ideas while washing dishes.  Raking leaves worked for me once.  Why not washing dishes?  That new idea just might present itself in the suds.  Even if it doesn’t – and it probably won’t, because ideas tend to come when you least expect them – I know my wife will appreciate the end result.

—-

The Girl Who Became a Beatle: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt (pdf link). Visit the book page for the novel.

Dear People Who Just Anonymously Sent Me A Large Package Which Included a Typewritten Note Asking Only If I Want To Know More

The answer: No, not really.

More specifically: Look, not to be a dick about these things, and I know you mean well, but I get sent several packages a day from people who want me to promote things for them or otherwise engage my attention (today’s total: five, so far), and that doesn’t include the e-mail solicitations (today’s total: nine, so far). Most of these come with a clear, written explanation of who they are, what they are doing and what they would like from me. This sort of direct, no-nonsense information is helpful because I have a lot of things I need to be doing with my day, so I appreciate people who lay things out for me and don’t waste my time.

Sending me a package with less information about who you are, what you are doing and what you would like from me than these other folks does not intrigue me, other than to make me wonder why you spent so much money sending me something you’re not immediately explaining. Attempting to send me to a Web site for further information when you have not identified yourself or your goals, as you have done with your cute, typewritten note, is not a good idea. Why? Well, hey: did you know that browser-executable viruses exist? They totally do. People have tried to give them to me before, even. I try to avoid them, and one way I do that is not to visit sites I don’t know anything about.

I understand you are trying to be creative and mysterious, but what you’re actually doing is annoying me and calling to mind the failure mode of clever. For future reference, both yours and others who wish to engage my attention, when you send me something, an actual cover sheet, PR release or other informational tidbit is greatly appreciated, and when I say “greatly appreciated” I mean “required, unless you want to irritate me and thereby throw your shipping money down a hole.”

This makes me a no-fun stick in the mud, I know. But I can live with that. You will have to as well, if you want to send me something you’d like me to promote or engage with.