Monthly Archives: December 2011

Whatever Stats 2011

It’s not precisely the very end of the year (we’ve still got several hours to go), but, inasmuch as holidays and weekends are slow around here anyway, and today is both, it’s close enough for me to wonk off about Whatever’s stats for the year. Here’s what I can report, with the usual caveats about the WordPress statistics package:

1. The WordPress stats package recorded almost exactly 5.4 million visits to Whatever this year, which is a new record, and up about 5% from last year’s 5.13 million. Considering people kept writing about how this was the year that blogging died, and considering how many people access Whatever via RSS and other means (which are not recorded in the daily stats) I’m pleased to continue to see actual growth in visitorship to the blog.

2. The biggest month for visitorship was November, which was in fact the month with the highest visitorship ever (replacing February 2010) and had the second highest single day visitorship (November 10, with 70,931 visits) in the blog’s history. For context, that was the day I posted “Omelas State University,” which was far and away the single most popular Whatever entry of the year. The lowest month for visitorship in 2011 was May, which makes sense because three weeks out of that month I was off on a book tour.

3. The most visited Whatever entries of 2011, in order: “Omelas,” “Being Poor,” “10 Things Teenage Writers Should Know About Writing,” “I See No Possible Way This Incredible Cover Letter Could Ever Fail,” “Strawberry Shortcake and Penny Arcade,” “The Sort of Crap I Don’t Get,” “How to Make a Schadenfreude Pie,” “And Now For No Particular Reason a Rant About Facebook” and “This is Useful to Remember.”

The list above is a mix of new entries and perennials, which to my mind shows both the value of having a massive amount of archives and also belies what I think is the general assumption that only new stuff is ever read online — that it’s the meme of the day and nothing else. Evidently not. That said, I’m happy it’s not all just “greatest hits” here either; I don’t think Whatever will remain successful if people aren’t reading the new stuff, too.

4. Leaving out search engines, people who clicked in from somewhere else came in most from (in order): Facebook, Twitter, StumbleUpon, Penny Arcade, Instapundit, Balloon Juice, Making Light, Boing Boing, Reddit and Google+. Hey, that social media thing? It works! But apparently so do old school blogs, even though they’re supposed to be dead. Go figure.

5. Despite still not quite being able to figure out its actual methodology (I know it relates to linking, but apparently in an abstruse sort of way), I do still check Technorati to see how it ranks Whatever. Right now, according to Technorati, Whatever is the 401st most popular blog in world (tied with Roger Ebert’s and five others in a seven way tie). This is as low as I’ve seen it recently — I’ve seen it as high as about 130 or so — but as linking comes and goes I don’t doubt there’s a lot of rank jumping going about once you get out of the solid top 40 or so (mostly tech and politics blogs). I’m also generally in the top ranks of Technorati’s “Books” category — currently number five and usually in a range between 1 and 25 — and often in the lower bounds of its top 100 in “Entertainment” (currently number 82). I was recently ranked in their Top 100 “comics” category, but I’m chalking that up as a fluke.

What does this all mean, other than that I’m nerding out on a Saturday morning? Mostly that Whatever just keeps chugging along. Thanks for being along for the ride.

2011 in Review; Looking Ahead to 2012

Objectively speaking about the world at large, 2011 was about as crappy a year as I can remember existing in my entire adult life; a genuine clusterbang of monumental proportions. But on a personal and professional level, it was really good: Fuzzy Nation popped onto the New York Times best seller list and received some of the best reviews I’ve gotten, I was able to announce my Old Man’s War movie deal, I did book tours on two separate continents, SFWA members not only did not burn me in effigy but actually elected me to a second term as president, I wrote and sold Redshirts, raised $10,000 for my local library and learned how to play the ukulele. Plus met some very cool new people, who I have added to my list of folks I am happy to call my friends. So, yeah. Dear world: I’m sorry 2011 was not as good for you in aggregate as it was for me personally.

2012 has a full plate for me as well. Here are the things I know I am doing:

1. Releasing two books: 24 Frames Into the Future: Scalzi on Science Fiction Film in February, and Redshirts in June.

2. Being a Guest of Honor at Boskone in February, Penguicon in April and Capclave in October.

3. Being the Toastmaster for Chicon 7, the 2012 Worldcon, in August.

4. Working on a new and very cool project about which I can give you no details now but which I think you will be pleased about when I can.

5. Wrapping up my tenure as SFWA president and handing over the reins to whomever will be the new president in July.

6. Voting for the US president (among others) in November.

7. Continuing to write my science fiction film column for FilmCritic.com

Plus a couple of other things I can’t announce yet, because they are secret and/or preliminary, but are cool nevertheless.

Last year I noted that while I was writing books I would stick to a schedule of writing fiction in the morning (when my brain is not yet cluttered with the real world) and then dealing with everything else, including e-mail and Whatever, after I’d reached my writing quota. Expect this to be in effect in 2012, particularly in the first half of the year, when most of the work of that Very Cool Project I hinted at will need to be done. On a practical basis I don’t know that you’ll notice this too much — in 2011 the “write in the morning” scheme didn’t seem to have a huge effect on how things worked around here, and even if it did I have to pay my mortgage, so, you know, it wouldn’t change things — but I figured I’d let you know. I don’t think any of you mind the idea I’m writing cool stuff when I’m not here.

 

The Big Idea: Adam Christopher

Adam Christopher’s debut novel Empire State isn’t just a novel — it’s the start of an interesting initiative by his publisher Angry Robot to let readers into the parallel New York Christopher has created. Christopher’s own journey to the Empire State was a long and twisting one itself, spanning continents and book genres in equal measure. He’s here now to talk about his travels: where he’s been, and where his creation will go next.

ADAM CHRISTOPHER:

As much as I hate to admit it, I’m a late developer. I didn’t read my first comic book until I was 25. I didn’t read my first piece of classic detective fiction until I was 30.

There, I’ve said it.

Well… that’s not strictly true – when I was about seven I had three comics: an issue of Batman, an issue of Iron Man, and one of those big Marvel A-Z compendium things. I was utterly fascinated by that, and read it from cover to cover and back again while telling my mum I was going to write a comic one day. But me and comics grew apart, and weren’t to meet again for about sixteen years when in 2003, I decided to pick up an issue of the British weekly SF anthology comic 2000AD. I remembered a friend at high school reading them under his desk at the back of class a decade before, and I remembered him showing me a one-shot story about Marconi inventing the radio to talk to his dead brother. That startling story had stuck in my mind, and when I stumbled across the latest issue on the shelf, I knew I had to take a look.

I was hooked. Instantly, shazam! I swear that a bolt of magical lightning struck right there in the bookstore as soon as I turned the first page, but unfortunately I still can’t juggle Buicks so that might just have been in my head. But it was a life changing moment. From 2000AD I discovered American superhero comics, and I knew there is where I belonged, that’d I’d come home. Although a latecomer, comics are now a passion for me as strong as genre fiction.

Empire State is my debut novel. It’s a science fiction detective story, a noir with superheroes set in Prohibition-era New York and another place, a foggy, wet and thoroughly miserable alternate version of Manhattan called the Empire State. It’s a book about identities, loyalties, justice, and trust. Its hero is a down-and-out detective in the Empire State, who gets called to investigate a missing person but ends up detecting a parallel universe – ours. There are rocket-powered crime-fighters, there are giant airships made of iron, and there is a conspiracy that crosses dimensions.

The first seed of Empire State was sown on a flight from Manchester, England, to San Francisco sometime in 2009. Y’know how it is on long-haul flights – it’s boring, uncomfortable; you get dehydrated and sleep-deprived. It was on that trip that I read my first Raymond Chandler novel, The Big Sleep

Shazam, again. Magic lightning at 36,000 feet. The Big Sleep blew me away – sure, Chandler was a pulp writer, sure contemporaries called him a hack, pointing to his embarrassing past writing for mystery magazine Black Mask. But boy, could he write. So as we cruised onwards to California and I drifted off after perhaps one too many free champagnes, I remember lamenting the fact that while Chandler was a heck of a guy, it was a shame he never wrote science fiction. Raymond Chandler with robots, I thought. Wouldn’t that have been swell?

Somewhere over the Atlantic, the Empire State was born.

At that point, I’d written two novels already – a horror steampunk thing that is (perhaps wisely) still in the trunk and an all-out widescreen superhero epic called Seven Wonders, which Angry Robot is, oddly enough, publishing later in 2012 after Empire State. I was ready to start the next project and try something a little broader, a little weirder. Something which included a little of everything I liked – comic book superheroes, a bit of steampunk, a lot of weird science fiction. And, thanks to the adventures of Philip Marlowe, I knew I wanted to write a pulp detective.

It wouldn’t work, I thought, couldn’t work. I was ready to shelve it and move on, but a chance encounter with a mistyped Amazon search query gave me my hero: Rad Bradbury, later to become the slightly less distracting Rad Bradley.

With that slip of the keyboard, Rad appeared fully formed in my mind – here was a pulp detective, an ex-boxer who is older now and a little gone to seed, and he knows it but that doesn’t stop him doing his darndest to make things right. Rad likes his drink and hates Prohibition, but he believes there is something good in his dark and dull home city, the Empire State. A hardboiled fighter of injustice not afraid to use his fists when needed. A straight-talker who doesn’t like being messed around.

The perfect star for my science fiction detective novel.

And then it all made sense. From Rad came a whole bunch of new connections I’d never seen –  how pulp detectives truly belonged to the 1930s, exactly the same era in which the superheroes of the Golden Age of comics first took flight. Throw in Manhattan trapped in the weirdness of Prohibition, with bootleggers and gangsters, fast cars and Tommy guns, and then take the whole shebang and exaggerate, extend, twist, until I got a decayed, corrupted parallel universe reflection of New York City. The Empire State.

I had my Big Idea. “Raymond Chandler meets the Rocketeer in Gotham City” might be a bit of a mouthful for an elevator pitch, but it sure did fit. I began to write…

A year later and I sold the finished book to Angry Robot, who turned out to have their own Big Idea. Empire State would be the first novel to be used for Worldbuilder, a creative commons-licensed “expanded universe” project managed by the mighty Mur Lafferty. With Worldbuilder, readers can contribute their own creations based around and set in the world of Empire State – fiction, art, photography, comics, music, radio drama, you name it – the best of which will be selected for inclusion in a series of quarterly anthologies. We’ve also got some professional friends involved: Hugo-award winning writer and puppeteer Mary Robinette Kowal is doing a toy theatre/puppet show; acclaimed writer James Patrick Kelly is doing a short story; there’s a tabletop RPG being constructed, while a photographer has unearthed stills from the long-lost 1946 film noir adaption of the book. And that’s just the beginning.

It’s going to be wild. From an accidental birth, Rad Bradley is going to have adventures beyond the reach of my keyboard.

I can’t wait.

—-

Empire State: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|IndieBound|Powell’s

Read a sample chapter here. Follow the author on Twitter.

Another Reason Why the Gradual De-White-Breadination of the US is Perfectly Okay With Me

Because it means I get churro-derived breakfast cereal. Athena and I both spotted this box in the store, said “Dude! Churro cereal!” almost simultaneously, and lunged for the box. I got it first because I still have the slightly longer reach. But I will share it with her, I promise. Regardless, it is truly an age of miracles and wonders.

And for those of you asking whether it’s actually possible to get the sheer, unalloyed awesomeness of a churro into a breakfast cereal form, the answer is, of course not. Churros are perhaps nature’s most perfect hot fried pastry; Post Mini Cinnamon Churros™ can’t hope to replicate their native awesomeness. And as a breakfast cereal, the individual churro nuggets seem little unwieldy to me (I’m eating it as a snack, picking up each piece with my fingers, rather than trying to navigate the things unto a spoon through a bowl of milk). But this breakfast cereal version seems more like a churro than, say, a breakfast cereal version of a doughnut is like an actual donut, or a breakfast cereal version of a cookie is like one of them. The breakfast cereal churro is at least in the same actual family as the real thing, rather than being merely a sugared corn product extruded in the shape of something you’d rather be eating. So it gets a pass from me.

I could go on about how a churroesque breakfast cereal is a testimony to the growing cultural and financial power of the burgeoning Hispanic market in the US. But then I would need graphs and charts and an easel. What I can tell you is that churros are fantastic and that having them even in denatured breakfast cereal form makes me happy. So thank you, Hispanic America, for being enough of a purchasing force in the US that I got to eat these this morning. You rock.

The Big Idea: Sherwood Smith and Dave Trowbridge

Here’s a Big Idea piece full of the magic of living in the electronic age: authors Sherwood Smith and Dave Trowbridge saw an opportunity with the advent of DIY eBook publishing to resurrect their Exordium space opera series (of which Ruler of  Naught is the second book) — but more than that, they saw an opportunity to revisit the work and make it current, in more ways than one. Now, the details about making an old story ready for a new age.

SHERWOOD SMITH and DAVE TROWBRIDGE:

Ruler of Naught is Book Two of our space opera Exordium, which began life as a mini-series screenplay over twenty years ago, morphed into a mass-market paperback, and is returning again as an e-book series.

E-books are not only giving new writers an alternative to traditional book publishing, but letting oldsters like us resurrect yellowing paperbacks from used-book crypts. That’s a fun process (mostly), but from Exordium’s beginning we’ve struggled with the skiamorphs (shadow shapes—like wood grain on plastic) that are left not only when you move between media, but when your twenty-year-old vision of a technology’s cultural impact collides with present-day reality.

This is appropriate, because our Big Idea is all about skiamorphs: a future world replete with echoes of a distant, earthly past that let us take all the things we loved in books, art, film, and TV and use them to create the kind of science fiction movie we would want to watch.

Had just watched. We were a couple of twenty-somethings in 1977 when Star Wars came out. Younger readers probably can’t imagine the impact of that film on a generation accustomed to SF movies that were either glorified monster fights or preachy future-shock stories filled with plastic furniture and tight jumpsuits that would take an hour to get out of if you had to pee.

On our way out of the 2:30 a.m. showing, we looked at each other and said, “We can do that, but  . . . tech that makes sense!”

“More than one active woman!”

“Ruritania in space!”

“More than one active woman!”

Together: “Pie fights! Fart jokes!”

Thus was born Exordium. At the time Sherwood worked as a flunky in Hollywood, so the first version was a six hour miniseries. On the strength of it we got a good Hollywood agent, and there was a bid war shaping up between NBC and the then-new HBO when . . . boom! The mega-strike of 1980. When that was over, the studios were so depleted that min-series projects were put on hold—for the most part a euphemism for “killed.”

So we decided to turn it into books—and that meant breaking the chains of “can’t do that on TV,” developing the sketchy cultures, and completely rethinking the necessarily limited space battles, which had been confined to bridge scenes with rudimentary 1980s style FX. Dave dived into military history to figure out more about how the ships and tech he’d come up with would fight. Sherwood delved into cultural history to develop the manners, politesse, and political maneuvering we wanted.

Dave also got into high-tech PR and started thinking harder about how the technologies of the future would change humanity. Our world acquired an interstellar ship-switched data network. Our characters acquired “boswells.” Today we call them smartphones, which don’t yet have neural induction for subvocalized privacy. Boswells were (and are) great plot devices, with an intricate etiquette of usage.

But we totally missed social media. That wasn’t a problem, of course, when we sold the series to Tor in 1990, where, despite an awesome editor and great covers, it mostly vanished into the black hole of the mass market crash. But now we’re bringing them back as e-books. Twenty years into the future we didn’t see, which features a publishing industry that didn’t see it either.

The usual way to convert a genre novel from the days of yore into an e-book is to scan it, do a fast triage for OCR weirdness (there will be lots), whop together a new cover using Photoshop and images culled from various sources, stick it up on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, etc., and then publicize the hell out of it on Facebook or Twitter or, umm, Scalzi’s Big Idea.

The DIY route is getting cheaper and faster all the time, and plenty of authors are following it, some quite successfully. But even so, what do you do with science fiction that purports to take place in the future, but contains elements that look, well, quaint? You either grit your teeth and reissue the book as a period piece, or you rewrite it. And if you choose the latter, what’s inside the can may be more Elder God than annelid.

In Exordium, we had to wrestle again with the original screenplay, much of which still shadowed the story, especially in the first book. The language that would pass Programs & Practices in 1980 required made-up cusswords; the default for soldiers and action characters was male; by the nineties Dave had developed the idea of the boswells but in Exordium, everyone seemed to be running to computer stations for communication.

We kept the cuss words. Many readers don’t like neologisms, especially for profanity, but the Exordium idiolect had become too much a part of the world. Everything else needed a serious revamp, including the complex battle scenes, which had to be purged of the last traces of non-relativistic widescreen physics. (It helped that some very competent military gamers had developed an Exordium tactical board game based on the paperbacks.)

Rewriting wasn’t all work. One of the joys of revisiting a world in this way is discovering the zings, connections, and hidden history you missed the first time around. Rewriting becomes like looking into a Mandelbrot kaleidoscope.

There was one other skiamorph we faced, DIY itself, which is a pre-Internet, pre-open-source shadow of traditional publishing’s vertical integration. Authors don’t have to do it all themselves, and all sorts of different publishing models are emerging.

We went with Book View Café, which began in 2009 when a bunch of pro authors with substantial backlists got together to resurrect them. They started by offering free reads. Now BVC is an invitational cooperative of established authors that provides all publishing services in-house with volunteer labor. For instance, the first Exordium was proofread by Judith Tarr and formatted by Vonda McIntyre, to mention but two steps in the process.

Think of it as a kind of “Occupy Publishing” and you’re not too far off. Its consensus model of governance works because all its members agree on the fundamental principle that has come to be known as Yog’s Law: “Money always flows to the author.”

Knowing that we didn’t have to bear the whole burden of e-publishing Exordium, we were able to throw ourselves whole-heartedly into the rewrite of a retro space opera that Yog himself said reads “as if Doc Smith had come of age during the Summer of Love.” A playboy prince with unexpected depths, a gang of space pirates and their beautiful but deadly captain, ancient weapons from a war lost by the long-vanished masters of the galaxy, coruscating beams of lambent light, intricate space battles where light speed delay is both trap and tool, twisted aristocratic politics more deadly than a battlefield, a bizarre race of sophonts that venerates the Three Stooges, a male chastity device mistaken for the key to ultimate power…

And yes, a high tech pie fight.

(You can get started on Exordium with Book One, The Phoenix in Flight, for $0.99 for the next month—using flexible pricing for e-book promotion is another advantage of the medium…but that’s another essay.)

—-

Ruler of Naught: Book View Cafe|Amazon

Read an excerpt from the novel. Visit Sherwood Smith’s LiveJournal. Visit Dave Trowbridge’s Twitter.

Wrapping Up 2011

It’s my last FilmCritic.com column of the year this week, and so perhaps predictably I’ve put together some final thoughts on 2011 and film, the state of the film industry, and some of the lesser-seen indie science fiction films which are worth the time for viewing. Read my thoughts, and comment on them if you like, by clicking this link. Enjoy! THAT’S AN ORDER.

Dear Readers: Publishers Think of You as Customers I SWEAR

A few days ago, Robin L., one of the bloggers of the Dear Author site, took exception, via Twitter, to my announcement that I would be deleting kvetching about eBook pricing on my Big Idea posts, that I consider such persistent ebook price kvetching as a symptom of a particular sort of entitlement, and that doing it at the author, who generally speaking has no control of the pricing and who is probably neurotic enough, is pretty mean. Robin L. believes differently, which is of course her right, just not here on my site, in a Big Idea comment thread. She does have further thoughts on the matter at Dear Author, here.

However — and here we leave this issue of reader entitlement behind entirely — during our Twitter conversation on the matter, Robin L. made an assertion (also present in the entry linked above) which I found frankly a bit silly, namely that publishers don’t consider readers to be customers. I consider this a bit silly because, having worked with a number of publishers in a professional capacity for a dozen years now, in both non-fiction and fiction, at no time was it suggested to me, either by words or by how my books were sold, that my publishers don’t consider readers to be their customers. To be certain, they are not the only customers; publishers work directly with retailers, who are often but not always the middlemen in the relationship with publishers and readers, and they also work with libraries and schools. But only a foolish publisher is not aware of and solicitous toward its relationship with the reader, who is, after all the ultimate consumer of the product. Indeed, many publishers, including ones I work with, like Subterranean Press, primarily sell via a direct relationship with readers, with mailing lists and other sales tools.

When I pointed this out, there was some backtracking, with the assertion that the publishers we’re really talking about here were “the Big Six” — i.e., the major publishers in New York. Well, okay, but the assertion that these publishers don’t have a direct relationship with readers isn’t true either, since at least some of these publishers do have direct sales — here, for example, is the direct sales link on the Penguin web site for The Dispatcher, today’s featured Big Idea book. For that matter, here’s a direct sales link on the Macmillan site for Fuzzy Nation, my latest (need to contact Macmillan, as a reader, about an issue? Here’s how to do that. Or if you want to contact Tor/Forge directly, here’s the page for that).

But even if it were true, it only points out a flawed assumption, which is that a direct sales relationship is the only “customer relationship” that counts, which is on its face a really interesting assertion. A similar argument could be made about any company whose products are primarily sold through a retail middle man, from soda to jeans, and in each case it would be equally untrue. I wouldn’t argue that Coca-Cola doesn’t see retailers as important customers, in a manner very much like publishers see bookstores as important customers (and in much the same way, as both Coca-Cola and publishers use their own versions of “co-op” for product placement and the like), but anyone who suggests Coca-Cola isn’t intensely aware of their ultimate consumers is being a bit foolish. In the same manner, publishers have their own marketing and publicity branches, whose entire purpose for existence is to address their customers: Retail, for one; libraries and schools, for another; and readers, for a third. In point of fact, publishers — even the big New York kinds (indeed, especially the big New York kinds) — spend a lot of time cultivating their relationships with readers to generate interest and enthusiasm for their products.

I said so; Robin L. responded with links to articles she felt bolstered her point (here’s one), to which I pointed out that I wasn’t entirely sure why she seemed to believe that article cites would be persuasive to me over my own personal experience. But, fair enough: Perhaps publishing seventeen books in a dozen years with six different US publishers ranging from Macmillan to NESFA Press and working intimately with each on matters of marketing and publicity — and, for that matter, dealing directly with editors, publishers and publicists for other authors on a nearly daily basis for four years now regarding the Big Idea feature — isn’t, in fact, as persuasive as something you read somewhere on the Internet that you feel confirms every bad thing you think about publishers.

So I decided to ask someone who I figure is in a position to know better than I; namely, Patrick Nielsen Hayden, who in addition to being my editor at Tor, is also that publisher’s Manager of Science Fiction, which means he spends a lot of time talking to other people in Macmillan about various publishing issues, including reader relations. The question I asked him specifically was: “Based on your own personal experience as an editor and in your involvement with major league publishing over the years, do major publishers see readers as customers? Or is major publishing customer focus solely on retailers?”

His response:

I think the observation that New York City trade publishers need to cultivate more and better relationships with their readers, as opposed to merely their retailers, has a lot of truth to it. So much truth, in fact, that for the past ten years or so pretty much everyone in New York City trade publishing has been repeating it, elaborating on it, and being inspired by it to engage in all kinds of initiatives. Whether it’s major editors and publishers getting out into the net on blogs or Twitter or whatever, or Macmillan pouring immense amounts of staff time and money into stuff like Tor.com and Heroes & Heartbreakers, or similar projects like Del Rey’s Suvudu, a lot of the reason is that everybody knows perfectly well that the world is changing, and nobody has any intention of just sitting around and becoming superannuated.

Of course, there are thousands of people in New York trade publishing, and while some of them are brilliant, others are timeservers, and some of the brilliant people are brilliant-but-wrong, so lots of effort is wasted and we frequently manage to tie our own shoelaces together. This is how human enterprises work — lots of error. But you know something, the so-called Big Six didn’t get to be the Big Six because they’re run by nincompoops who pay no attention to the world.

Meanwhile, lots of self-publishers, small publishers, e-publishers, and so forth also repeat the observation to one another. For some (far from all!) of them, it seems to be something they tell each other to reinforce their shared belief that big publishers are Doomed Baby Doomed, that the dinosaurs will inevitably become extinct and leave the field to the small mammals, and therefore EVERYBODY WILL FINALLY WANT TO READ MY SELF-PUBLISHED BOOK.  Good luck with that.

Another truism you hear all the time in trade publishing is that the genre publishers and imprints are way ahead of the pack when it comes to engaging directly with their readers; that’s because so many of them have been going to SF cons and romance gatherings and Comic Con and so forth for years, decades. Some of us even came into trade publishing from SF fandom or the other-genre equivalents of SF fandom. We’ve been hanging out online, talking with and listening to our readers, since there was an “online,” and we have the old Compuserve and Fidonet addresses to prove it. The predecessor of the original Tor Books web page was the Tor Books gopher server. So this is another of those truisms that’s a truism because it’s, hey, true.

Basically, from where I sit, it looks like trade publishing contains a heck of a lot of smart, savvy people working very hard to roll with a changing world, while in a few corners of the online world there’s an odd subfandom of people devoted to the idea that we’re all complete morons who will be dying out shortly and good riddance because we have NO CLUE ABOUT THE INTERWEBS FWOAR LOL. Okay then.  Maybe it’s true. We’ll see.

(My prediction? Trade publishers will make some stoopid errors. Trade publishers will have some fabulous successes. A few small scrappy e-publishers and self-publishers will be wildly successful. Lots will sink without a trace. People will be loudly wrong at one another on the internet. Readers will lay out money for stuff that gets their attention and seems likely to be worth their time.)

Now, bear in mind I don’t expect either my points or Patrick’s observations to be at all persuasive to Robin L., roughly for the same reasons that someone who believes in astrology is going to be unconvinced by a planetary astronomer; i.e., what one believes one knows is often more persuasive than what those with direct knowledge  and experience might say — because, of course, why wouldn’t we say that. Our experience is a primary argument against believing what we say. If this is her worldview, then she’s welcome to it, although I would recommend against others signing onto it without a little more digging. There’s enough nonsense going around online about publishing these days.

Note well that this isn’t to excuse publishers from falling down on customer relations or to avoid listening to readers with an open mind. That’s something I highly encourage them to do, since it’s readers who buy the books, read them and (hopefully) love them. Please, publishers, give the readers your ear and make it easy for them to find that ear, since among other things, it’ll keep authors from having to deal with kvetches they can do nothing about.

But my own personal experience with publishers is that they are in fact rather very interested in what readers think, and think of them as their customers. I could be wrong. My experience says I’m not.

Update, 5:16pm: Teresa Nielsen Hayden has additional thoughts on the topic in the comments.

The Big Idea: Ryan David Jahn

This is another one for the “where do you get your ideas?” file: Ryan David Jahn was on the trail of a day job and found a novel instead. How did that happen? And what tweaks did he need to make to have his real life job hunt take the shape of The Dispatcher, the crime thriller the novel turned out to be? Jahn’s here now to share the details.

RYAN DAVID JAHN:

Ian Hunt is less than an hour from the end of his shift when he gets the call from his dead daughter.

In that first line is the idea that propels The Dispatcher from beginning to end.

It was May 2009 and I hadn’t worked (except for the occasional day-labor gig) for the better part of a year. Cash was tight and my unemployment insurance was about to run out.

I’d sold my first novel in January, but there was no money in it.

I needed a job.

I was filling out applications, but they were coming to nothing, and after months of this I was running out of places to send them.

Then I found out the LAPD needed police dispatchers. I thought it would be perfect. I could get a job with the city, benefits and all, and material for my writing as well. There were bound to be stories in some of those emergency calls.

I sent in an application. About two weeks later I received a postcard telling me I had to take an aptitude test. The testing would take place at a high school on Washington Boulevard the following Saturday at eight o’clock in the morning, but I was advised to arrive at seven thirty.

I got there at seven fifteen instead, and found myself at the wrong end of a line that wrapped around the block.

Over five hundred people showed up. There were six positions available.

The testing took three hours. It involved remembering combinations of numbers and letters (4G5T HY5), strings of details (six foot tall white male with blond hair in a white t-shirt and blue jeans carrying a green backpack last seen heading west on De Longpre), and listening to multiple voices simultaneously while pulling salient details. I actually enjoyed it, and walked away feeling that I’d done well.

I also starting thinking about the day-to-day job of being a police dispatcher. I’d be on the phone with people during what might well be the worst moment of their lives. I imagined myself working the graveyard shift in Los Angeles’s downtown dispatch office, taking one call after another while throwing down mugs of coffee.

Then, for no reason, this scene played out in my mind:

I’m sitting at my desk with my headset on. The CAD system is up and running. I take a sip from a steaming cup. A call comes in.

“Nine-one-one. What is your emergency?”

The call is from my wife. Our apartment is being burglarized, there’s a man with a gun in our living room going through our things, and I’m not there to help. I’m sitting at a desk fifteen miles away, only able to listen to what’s happening.

I was terrified by the thought, so I knew there was a story there.

In The Dispatcher, the call doesn’t come from anybody’s wife. It comes from the protagonist’s daughter, who, after having gone missing seven years ago, has recently been declared dead in absentia, whose headstone is now planted in the local cemetery.

But it was that first idle fantasy that got my imagination going.

I spent the next several months trying to set the story in Los Angeles. I must have written four or five different openings, each one fifty to a hundred pages long. None of them worked. LA is a big, sprawling city with two dispatch offices (one downtown, one in the San Fernando Valley) and several dispatchers working in each at any given moment. I didn’t believe the phone call, it seemed too coincidental that this girl’s father should be the one to pick up, and if I couldn’t make myself believe the call, I wouldn’t believe what followed from it.

I finally realized Los Angeles was simply too big. The story, for that reason and others, needed to begin in a more contained environment. It needed to open on the narrative equivalent of a desert island before expanding to the larger world. I threw away the pages I’d written and again started over, this time in a small Texas town of my own creation (though based, in part, on a place I lived while growing up).

And this time I believed it. This time it worked.

After that, the story came together quickly, in a matter of weeks. Because once I understood the world of the story, I also understood the people who inhabited that world. Only these folks could live in such a place; only these folks could do what they do.

I had the right beginning, finally, and everything else followed logically from there.

A month after the first test, I learned that I’d done well enough to move on to the next step in the application process. Out of over five hundred original applicants, there were two hundred and fifty of us left. They tested our typing speed, and I moved forward again, along with a hundred and ninety-nine other people. I was interviewed by a three-person panel that consisted of two city-council members and a senior dispatcher, after which I was one of a hundred and twenty-five people eligible for and on the list to be placed in one of the six positions available.

They’d be hiring alphabetically.

So I didn’t end up with a job as a police dispatcher. I did, however, end up with a book about one — the better deal if you ask me.

—-

The Dispatcher: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|IndieBound|Powell’s

Visit the author’s blog. Follow him on Twitter.

 

8 Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know About Your Favorite Holiday Music

Each year we hear them, we sing them, we love them: The holiday songs of our lives. But how much do we really know about the great music of the holidays? Probably not as much as we think. And thus, to celebrate the holiday season, I am delighted to present to you 8 Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know About Your Favorite Holiday Music. I assure you each of these nuggets of knowledge is just as true as the one before it.

“Let it Snow”

While it is well known that the song was written in 1945 by Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn in July, in southern California, on one of the hottest days of that year, what is not commonly known is that Styne and Cahn both penned the song while sitting in a large tub filled to the brim with ice cubes. “We just couldn’t get it right and we realized that on that day, in that place, we were just too far from inspiration,” lyricist Cahn would write in his 1975 autobiography, I Should Care. “A couple hundred pounds of ice fixed that right up.”

While the inspiration worked, yielding a number one tune and an enduring holiday classic, composer Styne unfortunately suffered a severe case of frostbite and narrowly missed having to amputate three toes on his left foot. He vowed never to work that way again. Cahn, however, used this “immersive songwriting” technique for several other songs, most memorably writing “Three Coins in the Fountain” in an inflatable pool while an assistant trained a garden hose at his head.

“Baby, It’s Cold Outside”

Frank Loesser penned this classic in 1944 and performed it as a duet with his wife at a party, signifying to guests that it was getting close to the time they should depart. However Loesser, whose successes with Guys and Dolls and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying were still years in the future, repurposed the song for an aborted 1946 musical called That Damned Winter, in which the fictional town of Penobscroggin, Maine was confronted with the worst blizzard in 150 years, leading the formerly placid citizens of the picturesque New England hamlet to engage in violence, murder and ritual cannibalism.

In the play, the song was performed in a plaintive, minor key, with the lead begging his love not to leave, lest she freeze to death in the howling wind outside or alternately be absconded with by the nefarious Tucker family next door, the only Penobscroggin family not to appear to suffer from the icy famine, although several of their neighbors had gone missing. She leaves anyway and disappears, with only a shoe to mark her passing, but in the emotional finale returns alive in the spring, having been sheltered during the winter by adorable woodland animals, which then viciously and hungrily attack the corpulent, slow-moving Tuckers.

Despite an impressive book by playwright Thorton Wilder, That Damned Winter lasted only one performance in an out-of-town tryout in Sacramento, at which several descendants of the Donner Party began a riot during intermission. After the debacle, Loesser, disheartened, burned the score to the play, saving only “Baby,” the rights to which he sold to film studio MGM.

“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”

The story of Rudolph is most famously known as a song, memorably performed by Gene Autry in 1949. However, the song is an adaptation of a 1939 poem by Robert L. May, initially written at the behest of the Montgomery Ward department store, which originally published the poem in a coloring book, distributing 2.4 million copies during the holidays. Despite the light tone of the poem, “Rudolph” is known to be a vicious satire of one Rudy Padgett, a contemporary of May’s with whom the writer shared a bitter, lifelong rivalry. The reindeer’s famous red nose is actually a metaphor for Padgett’s alcoholism, with the other “reindeer” (Padgett and May’s companions) laughing, calling him names and refusing to play with him not because of bigotry but because they were mocking his lack of control around booze.

The original ending of “Rudolph” had a soft-hearted Santa letting Rudolph take part in the sleigh team over the objections of the other reindeer, leading to the sleigh being wrapped around a tree, six of the eight traditional reindeer killed and Christmas cancelled, much to the dismay of children everywhere. The executives at Montgomery Ward, however, said that this version was “too dark for a coloring book” and ordered a rewrite, which May grudgingly provided. Ironically and coincidentally, after the publication of “Rudolph,” Rudy Padgett sobered up and became a beloved member of his community, which only seemed to enrage May all the more. “My father would often ask Uncle Bob what the deal was between him and Rudy,” economist Steven Levitt, May’s grand-nephew, once wrote in Slate. “Uncle Bob would only mutter one word, darkly: ‘Pencils.’ We never learned what it meant. It’s become our family’s ‘Rosebud.’”

“White Christmas”

This immortal Irving Berlin tune first became a hit for singer Bing Crosby in 1942 and then in many subsequent years afterward — which became a problem for Crosby, who had initially doubted the potential popularity of the song and said so to songwriter Irving Berlin. Berlin responded by making Crosby solemnly promise at the end of each year to take a shot of whiskey, one after another, for each week the song was on the charts. This required Crosby to down 11 sequential shots of whiskey in early 1943, with subsequent and dangerous whiskey sessions after the ’45 and ’46 holiday seasons, during which time the song returned to #1 on the charts. The song would go on to sell more than 50 million copies.

Realizing the dimensions of the true, cirrhotic danger in which he had placed both Crosby and his liver, Berlin released the crooner from his vow, allowing him to substitute whiskey shots with tokes from a marijuana cigarette instead. This pleased Crosby, who  in the 60s and 70s would advocate for marijuana legalization.

“Little Drummer Boy”

This 1941 tune by Katherine Kennicott Davis has charmed generations with its tale of a young drummer playing his instrument to the delight of the newborn messiah. But this simple tune had a difficult birth, as Davis changed the profession of the little protagonist a number of times before settling on the role of drummer. Davis’ archives at Wellesley College feature early drafts entitled “Little Trumpet Boy,” “Little Ocarina Boy,” “Little Didgeridoo Boy,” “Little Mime Boy,” “Little Short Order Cook Boy,” “Little Public Relations Intern Boy,” “Little Gastroenterologist Boy” and “Little Kid Who Just Wandered By and Was Confusingly Pushed Into a Barn Boy.”

Most of these drafts were only fragments, although Davis completed “Little Didgeridoo Boy” and had it performed for Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies during a 1964 trip to the United States. Menzies was reported to ask Davis how a didgeridoo happened to be anywhere near Bethlehem in biblical times. Davis would later write disparagingly of Menzies’ “Philistine musical nature” and shoved that version of the song into a box. In 2001, musical artist Madonna was reported to have considered recording the didgeridoo version with herself playing the instrument, but the idea was shelved to avoid offending Australian aboriginal sensibilities. Madonna went on to make the film Swept Away instead.

“Feliz Navidad”

During the 1990 invasion of Panama by the United States, US military forces surrounded the Vatican embassy, where dictator Manuel Noriega had fled, and engaged in psychological warfare with the fugitive leader by blasting rock music, which he loathed. But it wasn’t until US played “Feliz Navidad” on a repeating loop that Noriega finally surrendered on January 3, 1991. In 2004, journalist Guillermo Hernandez, who was part of the US forces who captured Noriega, wrote in Rolling Stone, “His first words as he left the embassy were ‘That f**king song. That f**king song. Why couldn’t you just keep playing Led Zeppelin?’”

Prior to Noriega’s 1992 trial, the former dictators’ lawyers attempted to derail the trial by filing a motion suggesting that repeated playing of “Feliz Navidad” constituted a violation of the Geneva Conventions. The judge, while stating his sympathy for the argument, denied the petition.

“Wonderful Christmastime”

In a 1994 interview with Q magazine on the occasion of the 15th anniversary of the release of the Wings album Back to the Egg, producer Chris Thomas recalled that, after consuming a particularly large vegetarian burrito, Paul McCartney had bet Thomas one thousand pounds that he could write a hit song in the same amount of time it took him to unload his bowels. “I said, ‘you’re on,’ and he went to the loo,” said Thomas. “Five minutes later he came out, went over to the Prophet-5 I had in the studio, and there was ‘Wonderful Christmastime.’ When it hit number six on the British charts, he sent me a note that said ‘Right then, a thousand quid.’ I sent him an invoice for damages to the studio loo caused by his vegetarian burrito, which came to a thousand quid.” Thomas would later recant the interview, under mysterious circumstances.

In 1999, In an NME poll entitled “Explain ‘Wonderful Christmastime,’” 46% of that magazine’s respondents chose the poll option that said that the existence of the song proved there was no God, but that there might be a devil. Another 39% chose the response that said that yes, the song sucked, but at least it didn’t have Yoko on it, a clear reference to fellow Beatle John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (the War is Over).”

Rumors that George Michael wrote the hit holiday tune “Last Christmas” under similar circumstances are to date unsubstantiated.

“Silent Night”

In the late 1800s, this classic carol, first composed in 1816 by German priest Joseph Mohr, almost fell out of the Christmas canon when an anti-Austrian remnant of the Huguenot church suggested that the lyrics of the carol were not about adoring the Virgin Mary and the infant Jesus, but consuming them hungrily — thus the descriptions of both mother and child as “round” (i.e., deliciously plump) and infant Jesus himself as “tender and mild,” like a good veal. This culminated in 1871 with the scholarly debate at the University of Heidelberg in which it was suggested that any hint of messiah consumption could be explained away as an allegorical reference to transubstantiation. This led to outraged Catholic students burning down the lecture hall.

Eventually the controversy waned, but to this day kinderwurst, a tender, mild veal sausage served en flambe, is a popular seasonal dish in southern Germany.

Merry Christmas!

Whatever Best of 2011

Well, if you were going to sleep through a year, 2011 was a really good one to do it in. And if you did, here are the twenty Whatever entries that I think best encapsulated the year around here. Presented in alphabetical rather than chronological order, they are:

There, now you’re all set for 2011. No need to read anything else anywhere else, ever. And look! Here comes 2012. Try not to flinch.

Chicon 7 Membership Discounts + Hugo Base Competition Extended

Two notes for you regarding Chicon 7, the 2012 Worldcon, at which, most of you know, I will be the Toastmaster. The first is related to me by Chicon 7 head Dave McCarty:

Chicon is having a “7 days of Chicon” sale, it is running now and ends on 12/26.

Adult memberships are reduced $15 (normally $195, now $180) and Young Adult memberships (aged 17-21 at the convention) are reduced $10 (normally $100, now $90).

This is the cheapest that YA memberships have ever been!

I added the exclamation mark, there. Chicon’s online membership form is here — go and save for the holidays.

The second relates to the Hugo Base Design Competition — every year the Worldcon has a contest to create a distinctive base for the year (the rocket stays the same). The competition for 2012 has been extended — you now have until January 15 to get your base design in for consideration. Here are the details on that.

Athenamas, 13th Edition

It’s a family tradition here at the Scalzi household to awaken our daughter on her birthday with a flaming pastry, usually a birthday cake. This year, however, she turns thirteen, and to celebrate the initial transformation into a teen, we changed things up a bit and presented her with a pie. And yes, because I am a nerd, I did in fact say “the cake is a pie” to her. But never mind that now.

I could go on at this point about the fact that my daughter is now a teenager, and all the implications of that fact and how much I am proud of her for being such a remarkable person even at this young age, but at the moment I am content just to be happy with the fact my daughter exists in this world. I am going to leave it at that for right now.

But I would like to share something with you on my daughter’s thirteenth birthday: The song that was playing in the delivery room the moment she was born. I think it’s beautiful, as she is.

To my daughter: Happy birthday. I love you.

To everyone else: Happy Athenamas! Say “Happy Athenamas!” to everyone you meet today! Because why not.

One From the Vaults: What It’s Like to Be a Movie Critic (Circa 1997)

Someone was asking me what it was like to have been a full-time movie critic back in the day, and I was going to go off and do a long blather about it, but then I remembered: I had already done a long blather about it! In 1997 or so! So I tracked down that piece I wrote and am posting it here, behind the cut, because it is long (sorry, RSS readers).

Some context: In 1997, I was working for AOL as its in-house writer and editor, so this piece was written before a) getting the gig as a DVD reviewer at the Official US Playstation Magazine or my current gig with FilmCritic.com, b) before I started writing science fiction. So some of the information here about me is now dated, by, oh, almost 15 years. Yikes. Nevertheless, an interesting overview of a really fun time in my life. Enjoy.

Continue reading One From the Vaults: What It’s Like to Be a Movie Critic (Circa 1997)