Monthly Archives: November 2011

Quentin Rowan Speaks

I was pointed in e-mail to this article by Quentin Rowan, the fellow who released a debut thriller novel that was widely praised for its skill in storytelling — possibly because much of it had been plagiarized from other authors. The resulting mess of that discovery was impressive. Likewise, Mr. Rowan is a bit of a hot mess himself, as the article he writes details, and in which he tries to explain why he decided to rip off so many other writers. The article is on a site tailored to people in recovery for addictive substances, so it’s heavy on recovery speak, twelve-stepping and AA gushing (Rowan is a member); it also fronts the idea that Rowan’s choice to plagiarize might have been something akin to an addiction of its own. He writes, “Perhaps one day plagiarism will be seen, if not as a disease, at least as something pathological.”

Yeeeeeeeeah. I understand the appeal of pathologizing plagiarism, since then it holds out some sliver of hope that one is not in one’s self entirely at fault for one’s bad impulses in that area. But I’m deeply skeptical of that particular line of suggestion. I’m willing to believe Rowan’s messed up and that the plagiarism was in part a manifestation of his particular goodie bag of neuroses, which apparently include low self-esteem coupled with a desire for recognition. But I am loath to put the manifestation cart before the neurosis horse. I suspect a simpler explanation is more fruitful: Rowan, wanting to be a published writer, nicked and tucked because he thought it was easier than coming up with the stuff in his own head. Ultimately I suspect it would have just been easier to learn how to write.

In any event, check out the article see if it holds any water for you. In the end I think Rowan’s still trying to rationalize doing an appallingly stupid thing, in a friendly venue, using language that is intended to make him look sympathetic (or failing that, just pathetic). The writing is ironically not entirely without skill, but to me not convincing. Maybe you’ll feel differently.

 

Regarding Snobbery

Apropos of nothing in particular, a few thoughts on the subject of snobbery.

1. One is perfectly within one’s own prerogatives to feel snobby about things, if one feels invested in them in one way or another.

2. However, being a snob often makes one look like an asshole.

3. It especially makes one look like an asshole if the basis for one’s snobbery lacks an adequate foundation. For example, if despite rhetorical flourishes and handwaving, one’s critical thesis devolves to “This stuff is awesome because I like it; this stuff sucks because I don’t; those who like the things I do not are stupid,” then one will look like an asshole.

4. If one’s critical thesis exhibits this level of foundational poverty, no amount of rhetorical flourish or handwaving will hide it. One’s pleasure at the presumed rhetorical cleverness will likely be noted, however, and added to the tally of things that make one look like an asshole.

5. Likewise, gathering friends of like-minded snobbery and exegetic facility will not make your common critical thesis better. It merely means that as a group you enjoy the smell of your own farts. This is nice for you, and likely obvious to anyone outside your circle.

6. If one’s feeling of snobbery leads one to believe that one is in fact some way superior to those who do not hold the same snobbery, then one is at severe risk of crossing over from merely looking like an asshole to actually being an asshole.

7. A reason for this is that one is exhibiting a childishly binary way of looking at the world, and while that is fine for a child, who may not know better, one is an adult and should have the ability to exhibit complexity whilst thinking. Because it is polite to assume that an adult is, in fact, not stupid or incapable of complex thought, the maintenance of such a binary classification system relating to people suggests one might be an asshole. There may be other reasons for this choice besides being an asshole, but if Occam’s Razor teaches us anything, it is that the simplest explanation is often the correct one.

8. If one uses such simple, non-complex binary sorting to classify others as inferior in some manner, it does not make one any more of an asshole, but it may mean that one’s sense of irony is not as finely tuned as one would hope.

9. If one declares oneself publicly to be a snob, then one actively invites scrutiny of the sort detailed above, often by those with the means to determine whether the snobbery proclaimed is warranted by anything other than one’s own estimation of self-worth. There are more of such people than you may expect.

10. It is worth considering what benefits one ultimately receives in declaring one’s snobbery. There may be fewer than one thinks.

Thank you for your attention.

Quick Note For Posterity

As of about an hour ago, November 2011 is Whatever’s most-visited month ever, beating out February 2010 (which had the Great Amazon/Macmillan Fracas in it). w00t! Nice to know in these crazy, Twitter and Facebook-laden days, that people are still visiting good, old-fashioned blogs. Even when they don’t regularly feature wanton, egregious nudity! So, thanks, folks.

To show my appreciation, as is the custom of teh Intarweebs, here’s a picture of a cat.

You’re welcome.

Book Title Announcement

Some of you may recall that in August I announced that I would have a book collection of my film columns out, in conjunction with the Boskone 49 science fiction convention in February, published by NESFA Press. That book now has a title:

24 Frames Into the Future: Scalzi on Science Fiction Film

Nice, right? The book is chugging along nicely, incidentally, and is soon to be sent to the printers. I’ll have more information on how to get it when information comes to me, but I feel reasonably certain in suggesting that if you attend Boskone this year, you stand an excellent chance of getting your hands on a copy, and as I will be there as Guest of Honor, an equally excellent chance of having it signed by me.

So that’s 24 Frames in February and Redshirts in June. I’ll have to see what I can come up with for later in the year. I have some ideas.

(steeples fingers, Monty Burns-style)

Nebula Nomination Period Open

A quick reminder to SFWA members and other authors, editors, publishers and etc: The nomination period for the Nebula Awards (and also the Bradbury and Norton Awards) is now open, and will continue through February 15, 2012. For all the details, including rules and eligibility criteria, please go here.

We had an excellent Nebula Awards slate last year, and 2011 has been a genuinely excellent year for science fiction and fantasy, so I’m looking forward to the eventual nominations for this year as well.

Magick 4 Terri

Writer, artist and editor Terri Windling has hit a bad patch recently, thanks to some health and legal issues, and her community of peers and fans are coming together to help her out with Magick 4 Terri, an online fundraising effort. If you’re a fan of fantasy and science fiction, you’ll find a lot of cool stuff for auction, from signed books and ARCs to personally dedicated poem and stories to being able to name a character in an upcoming story or novel. Artists and writers pitching in include Elizabeth Bear, Charles Vess, Brian Froud, Cherie Priest, Cory Doctorow and Tamora Pierce. This would probably be an excellent way to get (or give) a one-of-a-kind holiday gift.

If you are a writer/artist/creator and want to pitch in, this page will tell you how to put something up for auction.

Reminder: Chicon 7 Cyber Monday Sale

Hey, remember when I told you last week I would remind you today that Chicon 7, the 2012 Worldcon (of which I am the Toastmaster, don’t you know) was having a membership sale today? This is that reminder. Save up to $30 on your memberships! Spend that money on books! Or, you know. Whatever else you like.

Here are all the details on the sale, and other information on Chicon 7 memberships. See you in Chicago!

Whoa

Experiencing a truly unique catastrophic system crash on my desktop computer, and I say that with the equanimity that only someone who is securely backed up (and has several other computers in the house) can have. Nevertheless, this will probably keep me busy for some time. Be back in a bit.

Update, 12:20pm: Major problem fixed and a new round of backups instigated. This is the second major sign of computer instability I’ve had over the last few days, which suggests to me that the desktop, after two and a half years of service, is about to off itself. Have to seriously consider, data aside, whether it will be worth it to replace.

Also, and unrelated, dog came in from the outside smelling of a manure pile. So while this was all going on, I had to instigate an emergency dog bath protocol as well. My day has been just packed, it has.

Lopsided Cat, Considerate in His Way

“What’s that? You want to use the desk? Yes, well. Of course you may, at some point, for whatever incomprehensible talking monkey thing it is you do here when you are not scritching me. What? Writing? How adorable. However, at the moment I’m afraid I simply must use this desk. I am doing a very important study on the restfulness of its flat parts. This should only take six to twelve hours. This time. I’ll have to test it several times. This is science. Verification of results is key. Now shoo, talking monkey thing. You’re impeding my acquisition of data.”

You have to admire his commitment. To science!

My Twitter Retweeting Policy

This is another one of my “write to refer people to later” posts.

Because I have a fair number of Twitter followers, I am often asked to retweet posts, many relating to charities, fundraising events, petitions, etc. So here is my general policy on that sort of retweeting, and other things you have to know. This is specifically aimed at Twitter, but also works with Facebook/Google+/other social media.

1. I don’t do a lot of retweeting of any sort, so that’s a baseline fact you work within.

2. I am rather more likely to grant a retweet request, particularly one involving a charity or otherwise involving money, if it’s from someone I already know. If you are a person I don’t know, and from my point of view you’ve randomly popped up asking for a retweet, your chances are not hugely good. Please note that following me on Twitter does not mean I know you, even if I’ve responded to you at one point or another.

3. Part of the reason for this is that I don’t just retweet blindly. When I’m retweeting something, particularly relating to charity/fundraising, the message now comes from me as well as from you (that’s why you sent it to me, after all — to take advantage of my notability with my Twitter followers). That means I need to check out the thing and decide whether you’re legitimate or some sort of scam. This takes at least a little bit of time. Sometimes I don’t have time. And by “sometimes” I mean “often.”

4. My “replies” queue moves quickly, partly because people often respond to things I write, and partly because people talk about me (and put the “@” sign in front of my name) on Twitter. I am not always watching my Twitter feed; I turn it off when I’m doing work or when I otherwise don’t want to be distracted by it. I don’t always scroll down to see what I’ve missed. There is an excellent chance I will not see your retweet request.

5. Point four, incidentally, is not an invitation to pester me on a repeated basis for a retweet, until I give you one. Repeated pesterings for retweets is far more likely to encourage me to block your account, particularly if from my point of view you’re someone I don’t know asking me to help you do something I have little knowledge of.

6. In a general sense, with me and probably with anyone else that you want retweets from, you should probably assume that the same factors that encouraged you to ask for a retweet are also what recommend us to others hoping for retweets, and thus we get a lot of retweet requests, and can’t fulfill all of the requests without taking a non-trivial chunk of time out of our day, or annoying our Twitter followers with incessant retweets asking for money (or whatever). Please remember that we and our Twitter presences don’t exist for the sole purpose of being a conduit for retweets.

7. Likewise, if I or anyone else does not retweet your request, before you file us over into the “dick” column, keep all the above in mind. Also keep in mind that when you asked for a retweet, you’ve asked for a favor. A favor is not a thing for which you should have an expectation. If you do have an expectation, and are thereby offended when that expectation is not met, then you probably need to reassess. I will not feel bound by your expectation, and if you feel I should be, I can pretty much guarantee I will disappoint you.

Thanks.

Thanksgiving Advent Calendar Wrapup

Well, that worked, I think. Twenty four entries and about 20,000 words written, on things I was thankful for, both serious and not-so-serious. The point of writing it, as I noted in the beginning, was to focus on the holiday of Thanksgiving itself, rather than see it as the opening bell to a five week holiday season. Thanksgiving deserves to be more than the opening band for Christmas, which is essentially what it’s been relegated to at this point.

It also reinforced a point that I already knew but which was worth considering daily on a conscious basis, which is that there is a lot in my life I have to be thankful for. The list of twenty four things in the Thanksgiving Advent Calendar is not exhaustive — there are many other people and things I could have put in there, including other family members, specific friends and associates, pets and so on. It wasn’t meant to be a definitive accounting. The act of taking a moment each day to be thankful, and to communicate that thankfulness.

Writing it was a challenge in a couple of ways. The first was that generally speaking I didn’t plan in advance what I was going to write each day: I sat down with a blank screen and thought of something at the time. This is why many of the calendar entries were related to what I was doing each day — travel and fans being prime examples. I thought about writing things down but then I figured that if I couldn’t on a daily basis decide on something I was thankful for, then that said something in itself. Fortunately coming up with something on a daily basis was not difficult.

In another thread on the site, I was reminded that originally the Thanksgiving holiday in the United States had a religious basis, so for an agnostic like me, what or who was it to whom I was giving my thanks? The answer is that in most cases I’m giving thanks to those most direct to my thanks — so when I was thankful for friends, those to whom I was thankful were my friends themselves; when I was thankful for hand sanitizer, the thanks went to those who invent it and make it, and so on. In the more existential cases I suppose you could say my thanks went to the universe at large, which arranged itself very nicely for me, even if there was no intent on its part to do that. In cases like that, being thankful is as much about being mindful of one’s good fortune as anything else.

Several of you reading took the time, in comments and e-mails, to thank me for writing the Thanksgiving Advent Calendar; my answer is, of course, that you are most welcome. I’m glad you got something out of it. I don’t think it’s something I’ll do every year — it was a fair amount of writing, and one of the reasons I could do it is that I’m waiting on a contract before I start writing my next major project — but doing it this year was fun and useful to me in its own right. I hope it inspired each of you to think of the things you are thankful for as well. If it did, then it did what it was supposed to.

The Big Idea: Delia Sherman

When it comes to their projects, authors, like anyone, can bite off a little more than they can chew. The question is: What do they do then? This was the quandary that Delia Sherman found herself confronted with while writing The Freedom Maze, set as it was in antebellum Louisiana. As the book received both a starred review from Kirkus Reviews and a place on its list of the Best Children’s Books of 2011, Sherman may have found a way to a solution. Here she is to discuss the issue and how she resolved it.

DELIA SHERMAN:

Eighteen years ago, I was stuck.  I was living in a house in rural Maine, where my then-partner was teaching college, trying to write a historical novel that just kept getting longer and more complicated.  My nearest neighbors were a mile away, and there was a goose whose chief ambition in life seemed to be to keep me from picking up my mail.

So when I heard that there was a children’s book writing group starting at the college, I dropped the long, complicated historical like a hot brick and started a children’s book.

The maze came first.  One night, I dreamed I was sitting in the window seat of my house back home in Boston, reading a wonderful story.  Out the window was a formal garden with rosebushes and a boxwood maze beyond it, much more romantic than my own suburban lawn, and the story I was reading was all about that maze.  It was fascinating and exciting and I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough to find out what happened next.

Needless to say, I couldn’t remember a word of the story when I woke up.

That garden and maze haunted me, though. I wanted to know where they were and who might inhabit them.

The who was easy.  I’d been wanting to write something about a girl who wasn’t perky, who wasn’t resourceful, who wasn’t particularly outgoing, who was shy and reserved and not very worldly.  I’d been a girl like that, and I couldn’t be the only one in the world.  Surely the others would like to read a book where they got to have adventures, too.

The where was easy, too. My dream maze and garden had a Louisiana feel.  My parents both came from the South. I’d spent time in Louisiana, as a child and as an adult, visiting Mama’s relatives.

As for the plot, I’d always liked books where the child got sent away to the country and had magical adventures.  So that’s what I set out to do.

The first few chapters flew out of me like butterflies.  I loved writing about Sophie and her mother, with my fellow writing groupers egging me on with questions about their relationship and how Sophie felt about her father and how her mother got along with Grandmama.  I still didn’t have, you know, an actual plot, but I was enjoying myself.

And then the Creature showed up.

The Creature was pure inspiration.  I was writing along, and there it was, piebald, toothless, plump, and sassy, a Southern descendent of E. Nesbit’s Psammead and Edward Eager’s Natterjack.  I described it, I wrote some dialogue, I had it convey Sophie into the past.  And then I embarked happily on the research, trusting in history (as I often do) to give me a plot.

History did not disappoint.  In antebellum Louisiana, I learned, the child of an enslaved mother was a slave, no matter who its father was and no matter what color its skin or hair or eyes. I came across this tidbit of historical information at about the same time the whole “descendents of Thomas Jefferson and his enslaved mistress, Sally Hemminge” controversy was coming to light, and I couldn’t help but wonder just how pale some of those slave children had been.

Armed with a potentially dramatic situation, I plunged in (as I often do), trusting to my characters to give me the rest of the story.  About six chapters in, I got stuck again.  The plot went nowhere, Sophie’s character would not arc, the information available on antebellum Louisiana was too much Big House and not enough slave quarters. I went back to the long, complicated historical, (The Porcelain Dove) finished it, and saw it through publication.  I returned to The Freedom Maze, eked out a first draft, re-wrote it twice–to little avail—and concluded that I hadn’t done enough research on setting and society.

I went down to Louisiana and dug around in the collections of Loyola University and the Rural Life Museum at LSU, where I found advertisements for escaped slaves in The Planter that included the words “Could pass as white.”  With my new partner, the intrepid Ellen Kushner, I examined the kitchens and parlors and boudoirs of Creole and American plantations.  I read books on the history of men and women and children, free and enslaved, as well as on architecture, horticulture, fashion, and the history of sugar manufacture.

I read about how plantations were run and how slaves lived and the lengths men and women who believed themselves to be good Christians and honorable people went to, trying to justify owning other men and women. I talked to practitioners of Voudon from New Orleans, New Jersey, Washington State, Boston, and New York.

I worked what I’d learned into my book, filled some plot holes, but still the book wasn’t working.  It seemed like everywhere I fixed it, something else would break.  The book was getting worse, not better.

Eventually, I realized that I was in over my head.  Like Sophie, I had followed the Creature into difficult territory, uncomfortable territory, maybe even dangerous territory.  I was writing about race and class and history.

I don’t like controversy or confrontation.  In my writing, as in my life, I try to be as honest and as moral as I know how, and I don’t want to hurt or offend anybody.  I am a WASP, raised primarily in New York City.  By any measure of identity, background, or temperament, I am absolutely the last person on earth to tell the story of a white girl on a Louisiana plantation passing—however unwillingly—for black.

Yet that’s the story I was telling.

Telling it was clearly important to me.  I spent eighteen years doing it, on and off. So I asked a bunch of smart black writers with better things to do to vet my manuscript for Well-Meaning Cluelessness, Unconscious Privilege, and Magical Negroes.  With the help of their generous responses, I confronted the toxic residue of being the child of basically well-meaning Southerners, who believed that Others (by which they meant Jews and Catholics as well as people of color) should have full and equal rights under the law, but preferred those rights to be exercised somewhere out of sight.  And I thought hard about class and privilege and that aspect of human nature that sometimes causes those with very little power to abuse what they do have.

And then I had to put everything I’d learned in the back of my mind and go back and tell the story of a particular, unique individual and her interactions with the other particular, unique individuals in a world in which the details of daily life are almost unimaginable in this age of electronic appliances and instant communication.  That was a story I could tell.

How well I succeeded is for others to judge.

I’m really glad I did it, though.

—-

The Freedom Maze: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt (pdf link). Read the author’s blog. Follow her on Twitter.

Two Black Friday Notes (and One Cyber Monday Preview)

They are:

1. Remember that you may order my books from Jay and Mary’s Book Center, my local independent bookstore, and I will sign them and send them to you for the holidays. All the details are here.

2. Canadians, remember that Bakka Phoenix books has signed books of mine for sale. But hurry because apparently they are blowing through their stock very quickly.

3. The folks at Chicon 7, next year’s Worldcon, wish me to inform you that next Monday (which is Cyber Monday, the day all the e-stores do their big deals), they will be offering a $15 discount to attending memberships and $30 discount to family memberships bought through the website. So that’s something to look forward to. I’ll remind you again on Monday.

Also, if you’re out there in the Black Friday shopping scrum today, please be careful, there are a lot of idiots out there. Try to avoid them, and please please please don’t be one. Thank you.

The Thanksgiving Advent Calendar, Day Twenty Four: Right Here, Right Now

There’s no way to note this without appearing just the tiniest bit morbid, so I’ll come right out and say it: One day, I will be dead. Indeed, if you are reading this in the future (and one day, you may just be!) I may already be dead. In which case: Uh, hello, future. I hope you’re enjoying your personal rocket packs, which I never got, you lucky bastards. But that’s okay, because so far, when I lived and where I lived was not bad for me in the slightest. In fact, for someone like me, it was (and to get back to the current time, is) a pretty good time to be alive.

It has its problems. Right now the US is in a severe money crunch and something that we’re being told isn’t an actual depression but is about as close to one as anyone under the age of eighty has ever experienced. Class divisions are as stark as they have been in the history of our country. We’re in an extraordinarily partisan political environment that’s paralyzing our governments, federal and state, and we’re about to gear up for an election year that promises to rival the presidential elections of the early 1800s in terms of sheer nastiness. And then there’s the rest of the world. Oy.

It’s a mess. But it’s never not a mess. This is not to discount the problems we have now — please, let’s not — but it is a reminder that every time and every generation has its crises and its troubles. In my own lifetime of 42 years to date, troubles in the United States these have included the Vietnam War, Watergate, oil embargos, stagflation, recessions, the cold war, the rise of the national debt, climate change, 9/11, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and banking crisis. That’s nothing compared to the 40 years before I was born, mind you. But it’s enough to make the point that whenever you live, one’s world and one’s nation will be beset by challenges. We’re humans. This is what we do.

I note this to acknowledge the fact this time and place are not perfect. I do what I can to help it become what I see as more perfect, while knowing it’ll never get there in my lifetime or (judging from the history of the world) in the lifetimes of probably the next hundred generations to come. Perfection is probably not the point for humans anyway; the working toward it is. It’s like the speed of light: something you’ll never reach no matter how much energy you put into it, but still worth getting as close to as possible because of the things you’ll learn by doing so.

So: not a perfect time. But is it the right time for me? I think so. Part of this is entirely practical: this is the time of three “A”s: Air conditioning, antibiotics and anesthesia, all of which make life longer and more pleasant. It’s also the time when I walk around with a computer that fits into the palm of my hand that lets me access information from the entire span of human history, more books, music and moving entertainment that I could read, listen and see if I had seven more lifetimes, and which allows me to communicate, instantly and cheaply, with friends on the other side of the planet almost as easily as if they were in the room with me. I live in a time where I can make a living, sitting in a room in my house, typing.

Part of this is transitional: I live in a time where human rights, while being contested as they always are, are more widely spread than at any other point in history. Technology is making these rights all but unavoidable, even as it equally offers up new challenges to issues like privacy and government intrusion. I am living in a time where I get to see people who were denied their right to care for each other like any others gain those rights, and in that struggle help the rest of us become better people ourselves. I live in a time where we’re finally becoming serious about weaning ourselves from oil and all the attendant political and social baggage that dependency has required from us. I mean, holy crap, General Motors offers an electric car — for real this time. It’s not to say that transitions solve problems — every change brings up new issues and challenges. But I like that these changes are happening now, and am happy to accept the idea that change does not equal “and now we never have to think about any of this ever again.”

Part of it is personal: I like the people I know now. Living in any other time and any other place would mean different people in my life. I don’t doubt that I would be able to find good people with whom to live my life — but it wouldn’t be these people, and my life would be different, and to a non-trivial extent, I would therefore be different as well. I’m grateful that living now has led me to my wife, and has resulted in my child, both of whom I cannot imagine my life being improved without, no matter who else could theoretically replace their roles. I can’t imagine wanting to be without the other people that I love, who live here and now. These are the right people for me. They exist now and only now, here and only here.

Living now means I won’t live later, which is more than a little annoying for a science fiction writer, who spends so much of his time imagining people, places and times in the future. It’s also a little depressing for someone who likes being alive, and conscious, and engaged in a world with so many interesting things about it. I like everyone once held out the hope that before I shuffled off that they’d find a way to make people live forever. They have not, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. I probably wouldn’t turn down the opportunity to live longer (and healthier, and better, and with more hair and less saggy chin, please), I don’t really expect to live forever, nor do I ultimately see the wisdom of cursing this planet with the same static seven billion people. There’s also the pertinent point my friend Mykal Burns brought up several years ago when I asked him if he wanted to live forever: “Why would I want to live forever? I get bored now.”

I won’t live forever. I will die one day, and there will be many things many people will experience — both good and bad — which I never will. That’s the deal. It is biologically speaking the reason you have kids, so that part of you goes on even if you don’t. Socially speaking, it’s why you make an effort to raise your children to be intelligent and active people, engaged in the world, so that their world, for the time they are in it, is one they are happy to be in. It’s why we as humans continue to try to make the world better, so that humans, whether specifically our children or not, will continue on. By the activity in our own lives, we implicitly accept that we will not last.

I will not last. But right now I am here, and I am thankful that I get to be here, now. To you people of the future, who might read this after I’m gone, I envy you the things that you get to see and do that I will not, the people you will know and the places that you will go, both here and — who knows? I am a science fiction writer — elsewhere. But know this: By not being here where I am, when I am, you missed out on a lot, too. These were and are exciting times to live through, with some of the best people you could hope to meet.

I wish you could have known them, the times and the people, as I do. I am sorry that you will not. But I hope that in your time, in your place and with the people you know and hopefully love, that you are as thankful for them I am with mine. If you are, then that is something we can share, no matter what else separates us. I hope you feel it.

Happy Thanksgiving, now and then.