Monthly Archives: January 2013

The Big Idea: Sharon Short

Sharon Short made a name for herself as an author of mystery novels — but sometimes an idea comes to you from outside the usual places. In the case of her mainstream novel My One Square Inch of Alaska, that idea came from the northern wilderness… and the 1950s… and a cereal box. Here she is to explain how all three came together.

SHARON SHORT:

At a book club gathering, one of the women asked if anyone remembered the deeds to one square inch of Alaska that used to come in cereal boxes in the 1950s. (The question wasn’t related to the book we were discussing.) The 1950s were before I was born, but I was immediately taken with this compelling concept… the desire for a deed to one tiny bit of land in a vast frontier, and what that could symbolize. Almost immediately, the shadowy image of a young woman and her little brother (Donna and Will), standing together and holding hands, appeared in my imagination. I couldn’t ‘see’ them yet in sharp detail, but I could ‘feel’ them saying, “tell our story.”  I had no idea what their story would or should be, but by the time I returned home, I’d written in my head one of the closing scenes, which narrated itself in what would become Donna’s first person voice.

Frankly, it took a while for me to firmly grasp “the big idea” that’s the driving force in my first mainstream novel, My One Square Inch of Alaska.

First, I had my doubts about an entire novel kicked off with the concept of a kid longing to get a square inch deed in a cereal promotion. (In real life, the promotion was for a deed to one square inch of the Yukon Territory, but interestingly, everyone remembers the promotion as being to Alaska, which I think says something about what Alaska represents in the collective imagination, so I went with the way the promotion was remembered. Besides, “My One Square Inch of Yukon Territory” doesn’t quite flow off the tongue.)

Yet, the story wouldn’t let go of my imagination. So I kept plowing along, writing draft after draft, trying to figure out just who Donna and Will were. And why their story was important. And why I had to tell it.

For a while, I thought the novel might be suitable for a Young Adult audience, since Donna is 17/18 in most of the novel. I’d written a draft of the opening chapters that was good enough to win a local literary arts grant, and I invested that money in going to a conference that focused on writing for children and young adult readers. That conference happened to be in New York City… and coincided with the big snow storm of January 2011.

My flight was cancelled. So, I tossed my luggage in my trunk and started driving east. On the drive out (10 hours of boredom followed by 30 minutes of sheer terror), I thought, hey, look at me! I’m off to get advice on this YA novel I’m writing.

But at the conference, an editor (not mine!) told me that YA fiction set in early to mid-20th century America never, ever sells. (That afternoon, it was announced that a wonderful novel set in the late 1930s Midwest America won the Newbery Award.) On the other hand, that same editor told me that she thought my novel’s concept and theme were better suited to an adult audience, with crossover appeal to older teens—if I’d think more carefully about my protagonist’s story goal.

On my drive home–30 minutes of sheer terror followed by 10 hours of… well, not boredom, because I realized that on this point she was right. Somewhere in Pennsylvania, I pulled off the highway to a rest stop and re-thought my novel, then went home and revised (again), feeling much more on track when I finally realized I was writing an adult mainstream historical novel.

But… I still hadn’t quite tuned into The Big Idea of my novel. Then I started writing what I thought was the opening to Chapter 18, with Donna (a wanna-be fashion designer) describing how she’d discovered her mama’s suitcases full of costumes and beautiful clothes. And suddenly, I realized I’d actually just written the opening lines to my novel. (Fortunately, I didn’t have to toss out Chapters 1-17… just revise… yet again.)

I’d also discovered my novel’s Big Idea. Not about suitcases and clothes and mamas… but about dreams. About the power of embracing, believing in and following one’s dreams…. even if the odds are long or everyone else is saying ‘you can’t do this!’ And about the danger of ignoring those dreams.

And I realized that’s what Will’s quest for one tiny square inch in all the vast Alaskan Territory represents: the life-affirming importance of embracing one’s dreams, even surrounded by the vastness of the challenges life can offer. Will himself represents the wonderfully innocent belief of the very young in chasing dreams simply for the joy of the chase. Donna represents the journey from not believing in one’s dreams to embracing them. Other teen characters find themselves under pressure to ignore exploring their own dreams in order to follow others’ expectations, while many of the adult characters have denied their dreams or followed a dream that’s really an illusion. Two of my favorite adult characters, though, are the exceptions to this; they understand and embrace their dreams, and encourage Donna and Will in theirs.

I’ve always believed in following one’s dreams and working hard to achieve them, balancing that belief with realism. (For example, it’s a good thing that being a world class diver wasn’t my dream; I’m terrified of heights and deep water.) But I think this novel was important for me to write to reaffirm my own writing dreams, as well as to find the courage to tell a story that, in a way, is very personal—Donna’s emotional coming-of-age journey tracks very closely with my own, although the details of her background are different than mine. Additionally, my children were transitioning from being teenagers to being young adults, so this also influenced my attraction to exploring the Big Idea of the impact of affirming (or denying) personal dreams.

I hope readers, whatever their dreams are, enjoy going along with Donna and Will on their journey in My One Square Inch of Alaska.

—-

My One Square Inch of Alaska: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Read the author’s “Literary Life” columns in the Dayton Daily News. Follow her on Twitter.

Troll Report: Active With Increasing Chance Of Stupid

At about 3:30 this morning, Zeus the cat (pictured above) came up on the bed and batted my nose to be let out; his punishment for waking me up at 3:30 in the morning is to be thrown out of the house, so I guess everybody won with that. Nevertheless, having now been woken up, my brain was going to be up for a couple of hours at least. So I thought, hey, as long as I’m up, I should check to see if one of the gibbering follow monkeys of that Racist Sexist Homophobic Dipshit who has an adorable mancrush on me has smeared a turd all over one of my comment threads. And sure enough, one had. So that was par for the course. But at least a couple of you had responded to said gibbering follow monkey, which is something I would like to avoid in the future. So, for immediate future reference:

Folks, as you may know, out there on the Internets there is a Racist Sexist Homophobic Dipshit who at the moment has an adorable mancrush on me. This means that he can hardly go a day or two without saying something about me on his Web site, usually something which reflects his own deep and abiding personal insecurities. And of course, this is his prerogative; if it makes him feel better about himself and pumps up his social status with his clutch of equally insecure racist sexist homophobic dipshit admirers, then by all means he can spout as much garbage about me as he likes. It does no harm to me (as noted before, no one outside his little huddle of bigots gives much mind to anything he has to say about anything, much less anything  he has to say about me) and I suppose it keeps him from playing in traffic. So, fine.

That said, it does appear to frustrate the Racist Sexist Homophobic Dipshit and his gibbering follow monkeys that unless they show up at my doorstep and start flinging their poo, I don’t give them much thought; I mean, this isn’t the first time socially-anxious dudes have tried to raise their own profile by trying to pick a fight with me on the Internet, you know? So recently, about once a day, one of those gibbering follow monkeys comes over to the site, poo in hand, and starts flinging it about. The pathology of it is pretty standard elementary-school taunting dynamic, which is to call me a name they think is clever (top of the hit parade at the moment is “McRapey,” because the main Racist Sexist Homophobic Dipshit apparently believed this was real, and once it was explained to him what satire was, had to rather embarrassingly suggest he was doing satire too so there, which, again: adorable), followed by generally unimaginative insults regarding my work/position/status, followed by rah-rah plumping for their beloved leader. Wash, rinse, repeat, at least until the Racist Sexist Homophobic Dipshit in question finds someone else that he believes will give him even more status in the eyes of his gibbering monkey followers by comparing himself to.

Until that glorious day, these gibbering follow monkeys will show up to fling their poo, and I will Mallet their comments. What I would like for you to do, if you see a comment that is obviously the flung spoor of such a creature, is to not respond to it; as with any troll, what these dudes are looking for is for you to react to them. Ignore them, please, which will frustrate them. I will be along presently to take out the trash. Please note that this is in general a good practice for any troll, whether he is a gibbering monkey follower of the Racist Sexist Homophobic Dipshit or not.

And yes, it’s sad that presumably grown humans are acting like they’re twelve and in the throes of their first pubescent wash of testosterone. But some people apparently never get over being twelve, or being horribly concerned what other people think about them, or thinking that the best way to increase their own status is to try to shit all over other people. Be glad you’re not one of those people. Pity those who are. Pity those who appear to be happy to gather that sort of person to them.

I Don’t Even Know Why This Exists, But It Does And It’s In My House And I Have a Spoon

Seriously, I don’t know what evil genius said “I know, we’ll take a cookie and make a paste out of it and then put it in a jar,” but whoever you are, sir or madam, you are diabolical and I salute you. Because, holy crap, this stuff is amazing. If you gave me a jar of this and a multivitamin, I would be set for the day. Yes, yes, I am twelve. So what.

Also, I like how they specify this stuff is the creamy version, thus implying there might be a crunchy version, a fact which will now keep me up nights. Full of longing.

Finally, I suspect that if I made a sandwich out of this stuff and Nutella, I might very well translate bodily into heaven. Yes, I am saying a Biscoff and Nutella sandwich might just be the Rapture in spreadable form. Prove me wrong, people. Prove me wrong.

Today’s New Thing

Although I’m cutting back on public travel this year, I’m still going a few places here and there and wanted to be able to take a guitar with me, but I’m hesitant to take the tenor guitar because it doesn’t have a travel case (they are strangely hard to find for tenor guitars) and it’s too large to be a carry-on for a plane. Enter the Washburn Rover (to the right, next to the concert uke, which is there for scale), which is small enough for to be a carry-on and also shipped with a study case. It would have been nice to find one natively designed as a tenor, but that really would be a specialty item. So for now I just took off the two low-end strings and tuned the remaining strings so I could play the guitar with uke chords, just as I did with my tenor.

Seems to work so far, although it will take a little getting used to. It’s not as full a sound as I get out of the tenor, but then with a tiny body like it has it would be unrealistic to expect it to. It’s definitely funky looking, however. I like it.

RIP, Richard Stern

There’s an obit in the New York Times for author Richard Stern, who passed away last week from cancer at the nicely advanced age of 84. Fans of literature will remember him (as the obit notes) as a somewhat obscure part of a coterie of writers which included Saul Bellow and Phillip Roth, the author of books like Golk, Stitch and Noble Rot, and the recipient of both the O. Henry award for short fiction and the Medal of Merit for the Novel. He also somewhat infamously panned the novel Catch 22 in the New York Times, a review which probably became as well known as his novels.

I remember Stern because when I was a first-year student at the University of Chicago, I somewhat arrogantly marched into his upper-level creative writing class and demanded to be let in; Stern, who I think among other things was amused at my impertinence and ego, allowed me to be in it, warning that he intended to cut me no slack. He lived up to his word on that, since of the several piece I turned in for the class, he liked only one, and that just mildly: A brief character piece about a grandfather who was disappointed in a grandson but was trying to hide it from the younger man, perhaps not successfully.

Remembering the pieces I turned in, Stern was unsurprisingly correct: The pieces were clever but not good, the work of someone who had some facility for dialogue but not much of an idea for how people talked. Inasmuch as this continues to be the direction in which my writing tends to fail, he was on to something. It’s a bit of a shame it took me nearly a decade after I left his class to clue in on this.

I had problems with Stern’s class. My first problem was that on the first day of class, Stern said to us that he wouldn’t be reading any science fiction stories, as he felt, basically, that they were childish and inauthentic. As a longtime reader of science fiction at that point, I bristled at that approximation (and, well, obviously, still do). I also suspect I know what he was trying to get at: he wanted the writers in the class to deal with people and character interactions, and a lot of student-level science fiction is focused on (supposedly) nifty futuristic ideas first, and people second. Fair enough, although I think (and continue to think) he was using science fiction as a stalking horse for the general idea of putting characters first.

My second problem was not about Stern, but about my classmates, whose stories drove me batty. This was late 1987, and Bret Easton Ellis’ Less Than Zero and Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City were all the rage, so the class was full of students sharing stories of dissolution, drug use and dorm room bisexuality. It wasn’t that I was opposed to any of those things, per se, just that they got awfully tiring to read about over and over (there was one girl who wrote something else; I liked it so much I begged for a copy of the story. I still have it). I remember snapping one class session and chewing out the rest of my classmates about their tiresome written exercises in ennui; they looked at me like I had sprouted a second head. I think I remember Stern grinning as I lost it, however.

(There is some irony in that as far as I know I am the only published author from that particular class. I remember sending Stern a copy of Old Man’s War, since I imagined it might annoy him that it was a science fiction novel. If I had to do it again, I’d send him Redshirts instead. Stern’s first novel, Golk, was about television’s more surreal aspects; I think he might find several points in common between our novels.)

In the end I didn’t get much out of the class, other than a strong belief that creative writing classes and I were destined not to agree with each other. For a fairly long period of time I suspected that Stern had not been a particularly good teacher; these days I suspect more that I was not a particularly good student. As a young writer I was very arrogant — even more so than now, without the attendant track record to back me up. If I could go back now I imagine I’d tell the younger me to relax and stop trying to suggest he was the most awesome writer in the room; I’m equally sure the younger me wouldn’t bother to listen. I was that guy. I know how I was.

Nevertheless, looking back I wish I had been a better student and had listened to what Stern had to say rather than focused on being an arrogant twit. I don’t know that it would have made me a better or worse writer in the grand scheme of things, but it seems a shame I mostly missed out on an opportunity to learn more from a writer held in such esteem by other writers. I hope I’m smarter, or at least less arrogant,  now.

The Big Idea: Myke Cole

Shadow Ops: Fortress Frontier, the second book in Myke Cole’s Shadow Ops series, is out today. And on this auspicious occasion, Cole wishes to think on subjects like competence, training, preparation and readiness — and what happens when life takes all of those things and just chucks them out the window.

MYKE COLE:

Life’s got a way of throwing us curve balls.

You get 20 years or so to build a career, become a veritable expert in your field, undisputed master of your domain. You’ve got this shit down. Nobody, but nobody has more contacts, a better instinct or more natural talent than you do at . . . assessing properties. Making donuts. Putting out fires. Whatever. You’ve reached the pinnacle of whatever it is.

Which is precisely when your boss runs into your office. You’re desperately needed to handle a critical project. Everyone else has been suddenly carried off by flying saucers mysteriously targeting only your department. You’re the only one left. It’s up to you. And this critical project? It’s in another department, one you’ve never had anything to do with. Suddenly, you’re a novice, in way over your head, with everyone counting on you to get it right.

Dramatic, huh? It happens all the time. It happened to Lieutenant John Chard, an engineering officer sent to fix a bridge near a mission station on the Buffalo River in what was then known as Natal. He was great at his job: you know, bridge fixing. Sure, the British army did other things, like fight wars, but that wasn’t his real job.

It became his job, when he found himself the ranking officer in charge of the garrison at that mission station, some 150 soldiers, most of them convalescing. Surrounding them were 4,000 Zulus, not at all pleased with British colonial ambitions in their lands.

Chard didn’t want the job, wasn’t ready for the job. He’d done everything right, studied hard, been an upstanding citizen and loyal servant of the crown. He didn’t deserve this. It wasn’t fair.

We have a saying in the Coast Guard: “The sea doesn’t care about you.” In Chard’s case, neither did the garrison, who looked to him to lead them. Neither did the Zulu, who were determined to use him as an example of what would happen to those who sought to colonize them. Neither did the wind or the air or the waving grass. Chard could have cursed and spit and cried. He could have beat his breast and shouted to the heavens, called God to account. But none of that would have helped, so he didn’t.

He dug in and fought. He closed his eyes, grit his teeth and put one foot in front of the other.

And when he’d opened them again, he’d won.

Granted, that’s an extremely dramatized/simplified version of events, but drama is what us storytellers are after. The Battle at Rorke’s Drift fascinates me. Not because of the tactics, or the gear, or the fraught questions of European murderous disdain for human life in their frantic grab for Africa. What fascinates me most is the story of a man, in over his head, who digs deep and finds the courage to fight.

In Fortress Frontier, I ask that question. What is the secret ingredient that makes some people shrug their shoulders in a crisis? What allows some of us to simply say, “I’ll figure it out,” when others go to pieces? It’s a question we love to ask, if genre stories are any indicator. Luke Skywalker joins a rag-tag rebel alliance in what seems a hopeless resistance against an all-powerful empire. Frodo lugs the soul-poisoning ring of power into the dark lord’s backyard, with the largest army ever seen standing between him and his goal. Alone. And did I mention he’s like three feet tall? Taran doesn’t even make it to full pig-keeper (he’s still an assistant) before he’s called to battle the greatest evil the land has ever known.

They have their failures, the moments they take a knee, try to set their burden aside. But they always get up again. They always take up the one ring, or their father’s light saber, or the burden of command. They close their eyes like Chard did, putting one foot in front of another. They don’t know how they’ll make it work, recognize the strong chance that they won’t.

But they go forward anyway.

Because. Sometimes, you win.

—-

Shadow Ops: Fortress Frontier: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s blog. Follow him on Twitter.

The Human Division, Episode Three: We Only Need the Heads is Now Live!

Hey! Weren’t you just saying that you were wishing it were Tuesday, so you could get the next episode of The Human Division? Well, now it’s Tuesday, and now “We Only Need the Heads” is available for your perusal — nay, fervent enjoyment. This one’s about 9.9k words (i.e., close to the average size of an episode). What’s this one all about? I’ll quote from the Episode description:

CDF Lieutenant Harry Wilson has been loaned out to a CDF platoon tasked with secretly removing an unauthorized colony of humans on an alien world. Colonial Ambassador Abumwe has been ordered to participate in final negotiations with an alien race the Union hopes to make allies. Wilson and Abumwe’s missions are fated to cross—and in doing so, place both missions at risk of failure.

Exciting. Also, those of you who were curious about how “Walk the Plank,” last week’s episode, might tie into the story with Wilson, Schmidt and Abumwe, you’ll find some answers here. Some. Heh heh heh heh.

Here’s a fun bit of trivia for you: A portion of this episode (Wilson’s shuttle ride) was the very first bit I wrote in all of The Human Division. Not because it was originally meant to be the start of the book but because I needed to get back into Harry Wilson’s head, and that scene was a nice way of doing it. Once I got that, I was back into the Old Man’s War universe, and then we were off to the races, as it were.

As always, there’s a discussion of the episode over at Tor.com, so after you’ve read the episode, go on over and learn some more “behind the scenes” details.

Remember also to tune in next week for “A Voice in the Wilderness,” in which we’ll visit a mysterious planet called… Earth. I know! Who even goes there anymore, right?

We Only Need the Heads: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|iBookstore|Google Play|Kobo| Audible (audio) (all US links)

A Note to Some Folks in Countries Where They Are Being Charged a Lot For the Episodes of The Human Division; Plus a General Note About Episode Lengths

Just got a (justifiably) cranky e-mail from a guy who paid something like $3.50 for “Walk the Plank,” the second episode of The Human Division, and was annoyed that he got 32 pages for his money. Here’s my thought on this:

1. We (i.e., Tor and I) are charging 99 cents an episode, or an amount roughly similar depending on your country and currency. If you are paying substantially more for an episode where you are, I suspect it has something to do with the retailer and/or taxes and/or I don’t know, maybe dragons.

2. Holy cow, don’t pay $3.50 per episode. That’s just nuts.

3. As a reminder, all the episodes will be compiled into a single book in May. If you’re confronted with paying substantially more than 99 cents an episode, just hang back and get it all in one go; I suspect the single volume will be substantially cheaper than each individual episode at that price (at 99 cents, the individual episodes will add up to more or less the same price as the single compiled eBook version, for those trying to figure that one out in their heads).

While I’m on the subject of “Walk the Plank,” if you look at the Amazon reviews here, there are a lot of one star reviews complaining primarily about the length of the the episode, i.e., that it’s too short for the money. I figure this is a fine time to remind people that I’ve always taken pains to let people know the length of the episodes range from 22,000 words to 6,000 words, and that the average episode length is about 10,000 words (actually slightly over that, but we’re rounding).

I don’t personally feel that the lower end of that range is too short for 99 cents; I’ve had several shorts available electronically that sell for the same price which are that length or shorter, and they’ve been selling perfectly well without complaint. My own personal rule of thumb for a while is that you charge a buck for up to ten thousand words and add on another buck for every 6,000 or so words from there, a pricing guideline that’s more or less reflected in my shorter works in general.

That said, Tor and I agreed that pricing every Human Division episode at 99 cents made sense because we didn’t want people to see the price jump around depending on the length of episode. A side effect of that (and probably of having the first episode be a double-length episode), is people perhaps assuming that each episode would be of equivalent length to “The B-Team,” rather than “The B-Team” being the double-length pilot. Something for us to file away for our post-mortem.

In the meantime, if you’re one of those folks who thinks 99 cents is too much for below [x] number of pages, the solution in this case is to check the page lengths on the sale pages and calibrate accordingly, and/or perhaps consider waiting until the whole run is done and the compiled version is available for sale in May. As noted before, the cost of buying all the individual episodes and of buying the single compiled edition will be roughly the same, so there’s no real economic penalty whichever way you choose (unless you’re one of the special cases noted at the beginning of the entry). It’s really a matter of personal taste.

As a final note, a small request: If you read “Walk the Plank” and enjoyed it (or didn’t enjoy it for reasons other than length), if you’d consider dropping by Amazon and leaving a review that would be swell. The complaints about length are fine and something for Tor and me to think about, but it would be nice to have people mentioning the story as well as the meta-discussion of what the appropriate price/length ratio is for one’s dollar.

Various and Sundry, 1/27/13

Mostly links.

* First, did you know that there is a picture of me, Mary Robinette Kowal, Charles Stross, Patrick Rothfuss and Jim C. Hines, signed by each of us (and by Al Bodgan, the photographer) up for auction, to benefit the Aicardi Syndrome Foundation? And that this particular picture, in this particular format, is super rare (just one of two)? And that this picture will never happen again, ever? So if you wanted to own a unique piece of science fiction and fantasy history and benefit a worth cause, then you should go and bid on it before the auction closes tomorrow. Seriously, it’s kind of amazing.

* Speaking of Jim C. Hines, on his blog he outlines one consequence of being a creepy dude at a convention, if you are an author. I don’t suspect Jim is alone in this; I imagine there are a fair number of people, authors, reviewers, fans and otherwise, who see the actions of creepy folk and just think to themselves, well, that’s that, and quietly make the choice not to have anything to do with them from there on. Whether it has an effect outside that one person is neither here nor there, although if you get a lot of people who have come to the same decision independently, it can add up.

* Over at Scientific American, a long post on comments and commenting, which among other things references The Kitten Setting here. I don’t think it’s any particular secret that I’m of the opinion that if you’re going to have comment threads you have to moderate them, and you have to be pretty ruthless about it when you do. Otherwise you’re implicitly agreeing to have your site be a repository of feculence and wingnuttery, and I don’t know what anyone would voluntarily agree to that. So, yeah: Moderate comments or turn them off.

 

Guitar Days

A question from the gallery:

Aside from fake Dylan songs, how are you doing with your guitar?

My correspondent is asking about my tenor guitar, which I’ve had for about nine months now. As a partial answer, listen if you dare to the following musical clip, which features me both singing and playing guitar.

As the other part of the answer, I would say that I’m progressing along but I’m not there yet, “there” being the ability to play popular songs without messing them up too badly either by not knowing the basic chord forms or (in particular) screwing up the strumming pattern. The latter is a particular challenge for me and the thing I work on the most; it’s especially hard when you’re singing along as well, since your brain has to do two things at once. It helps that I strung my guitar the same as a ukulele, so I had a head start on the chords, but tenor guitar is less forgiving than the uke when you screw up, and I screw up frequently. So: A work in progress.

That’s okay with me. I really enjoy playing with my guitar and I’m happy about slowly but surely getting better; it’s fun to see and hear myself improve as I go along. I’m not pursuing the guitar with fervor, in the sense that I have to play every single day, or relentlessly pushing myself to get better and kicking myself if I don’t. I play a little most days and a lot on the days when I feel like it, and some days when I’m busy it sits in the corner. Naturally that means my improvement is going at a slower pace than it could be. But, eh. I’m playing to enjoy myself, not to become a professional musician.

And in fact that’s one of the things I like about it: It’s a creative thing that I do for the enjoyment of it and not anything else. I’m not planning to cut an album or start busking for change, and I have a pretty good idea that my level of talent on the guitar will stop somewhere short of “genuinely excellent.” My actual goal for the instrument is to play for myself songs that I enjoy. Once I get to that level, anything else will be a bonus. And getting to that goal is enjoyable in itself.

So: Coming along, not there yet but getting there, and enjoying myself as I go. Which is enough at the moment.

(P.S.: Yes, I still play my uke. It’s fun too, and easier to take around.)

All Right, Fine, Here’s What I Think About JJ Abrams Directing Star Wars Episode VII

It’ll be fine. Really. 

One, JJ Abrams is a perfectly decent director, who does a decent job with human beings, which is more than you can say about the last dude who directed a Star Wars film.

Two, as Super 8 made explicitly clear, Abrams thinks of himself as being in the Spielberg school of filmmaking, i.e., make it entertaining or go home. He’s not artistically conflicted, as Lucas so clearly was, about being a producer of mass entertainment.

Three, as again Super 8 made clear, Abrams understands at least on a productive surface level the visual and schematic ethos of 70s-era filmmakers, of which Lucas was one, so he has a better than fair chance in capturing the specific flavor of the first trilogy — well, the first two films of the trilogy, anyway — that the (older) fans love so well.

Four, his track record as director and producer shows he doesn’t condescend to genre entertainments. He may let his screenwriters (including himself) screw up the science, but only nerds like me give a crap about that; everyone else is there to shovel popcorn into their maws, and Abrams is steeped in the cinematic traditions of science fiction adventure and appears to geek out about them himself. Fair enough.

Five, he’s been here before, as in, he took a moribund franchise (Star Trek, which plowed into irrelevance with the appallingly forgettable Nemesis) and did exactly what was needed to get butts into seats, delighting both geeks (Yay! More Star Trek! Forever!) and Paramount’s executives (Yay! More Star Trek franchise income! Forever!). Does anyone think Disney, the most relentlessly commercial of all the movie studios, would settle for less? Come on, people.

Six, sure, there are other directors who could possibly do a better and/or more interesting job of it. I would be happy to see Star Wars films from Guillermo Del Toro, Alex Proyas, Alfonso Cuaron, Kathryn Bigelow or Paul Verhoeven (oh, God, Paul Verhoeven). But here’s the thing. At the end of it all, I suspect that most Star Wars fans don’t want interesting, i.e., novel new interpretations of Star Wars. They want their Star Wars to be Star Wars, which is to say, the thing with the light sabers and droids and screen wipes and Campbellian heroes and the Force and Manichaeism on the easiest possible setting. They want to sit down, get blasted by the John Williams fanfare and tear up with joy at the first text scroll followed by the downward pan to a spaceship over a planet followed by Star Wars Star Wars Star Wars Star Wars. 

The guy who is going to give them that? JJ Abrams.

So, yeah. It’ll be fine, folks.

A Moment of Financial Clarification

Every once in a while someone in the comments here says, usually as an aside to something else, that no one becomes a writer to get rich. So as a point of clarification, and to give everyone else who is slightly exasperated by this sort of comment something to point at:

Hey, I became a writer to get rich. I’ve always been in the writing business not just to write, and not just to make money, but also to make a lot of money — basically, to get rich at it. Why? Because speaking from experience, being poor sucks, and in the world we live in, things are a whole lot easier if you have a lot of money. The thing I do best in the world in a professional sense is writing, so if I were to become rich, getting rich through writing seemed like the most likely way for me to do it.

Making money — and making a lot of it — has always been part of my professional writing game plan. It’s one reason why I have been both shameless and unapologetic about the commercial aspects of my writing, whether it’s me working as a writing/editing consultant for business or writing accessible novels. The money I make from writing means less time now I have to devote to sources of income other than writing, and less time later having to find other sources of income when (inevitably) my career slows down from its current happy level. The money I make from writing allows me to do nothing other than writing. So it helps to make a lot of it if at all possible.

Do I write only to make money? No; I write for lots of other reasons as well. Do I only consider money when it comes to choosing writing projects? No; I’ve written things for the pure enjoyment of writing them as well as for other factors, although once I was done with them I often looked to see how best to profit from them. Does writing with money as a consideration and being rich as a goal mean that waving money at me is the magic key to unlock my participation in something? Not always, because not all money is created equal, and the money I’m looking at is not only what’s being waved in front of me now, but what taking the project will make available in the future. I can afford to look long term because making lots of money was always part of my thinking, and because it has been (along with many other factors including staggering good luck) I have the ability to turn down work that doesn’t meet the long-term financial goals, and work that just doesn’t appeal to me, for whatever reason.

(Nor do I think that everyone has to write with the goal of getting rich or making money. People like to quote/paraphrase Samuel Johnson, who once said “No one but a blockhead ever wrote except for money,” but Johnson is as full of shit as any writer on the subject. You can write for all sorts of reasons, money being only one. If you want to be a professional writer, writing for money helps. Otherwise? Optional.

Also, sadly, acknowledging you write for money (or to get rich) will not guarantee success in that endeavor. Yes, that sucks. But there it is.)

At the end of the day, however: This is what I do for money. I don’t want to have to do anything else, now and (as far as I can imagine) in the future. As luck would have it, much of what I like to write, and the style I prefer to write it in, appears to lend itself to the acquisition of money. So, yes, I write to become rich. It’s always been part of my plan. I suspect that there are at least a few other writers probably write for the same reason. I imagine, like me, it’s not their only reason. But it’s still a reason.

As a final thought on the point, one of the reasons that “no one writes to get rich” and “no one writes to make money” bug the crap out of me is that this is the sort of thinking, intentional or otherwise, that gives bad people cover to screw writers with regard to money, and gives uncertain writers a reason to shrug off being screwed. If you as a writer buy into the idea you can’t/won’t make money and that you can’t/won’t get rich, then you are more than halfway to ensuring that you won’t, in fact, make money (much less get rich).

So don’t accept it. When someone says it, feel free to contradict them. Some of us do write to make money, and maybe even to get rich. It doesn’t lessen what one does as a writer to acknowledge that making money, and maybe even hopefully making a lot of it, is one of the reasons to do it — if in fact it’s one of the reasons one does it. It is for me.

My Sugary Flying Adventure In the Air

The background for this series of tweets: My flight out of LA yesterday was delayed, and I ended up in DFW with lots of time to kill. A service representative from American Airlines gave me a couple of food vouchers.

This was all true and really happened. I SWEAR.

Also, the thematically appropriate video.