Daily Archives: March 21, 2014

Reader Request Week 2014 #9: Short Writery Bits

Questions on writing/publishing/etc that I didn’t want to give a full entry to, but were interesting:

Skyfisher: “How much do you think the cover of a book influences how people (especially you) judge it?”

It depends on the person. Having read and made gifts of science fiction and fantasy books all my life, there have been times when I would tell someone to whom I gave a book “ignore the cover, the book is good anyway.” To my eye, these days SF/F covers are less questionable than they were when I was younger, so that’s nice. But even outside of SF/F, you notice cover tropes repeating, and eventually to me an oft-repeated cover trope suggests the material inside may be a retread as well. Whether that’s a positive or negative depends on what you want out of the book, I suppose.

Erf: “How do you approach researching a topic (be it for a non-fiction work, novel, blog post, personal interest, whatever)? “

I usually start with Google/Wikipedia and proceed from there. I also take time to evaluate the source of the material; if I find something on some random site, I doublecheck it against a source I recognize as authoritative before I use it. But for quick grazing and idea generation, Google and Wikipedia are fine places to begin one’s research.

Adam: “What influences, entertainers, medium or style do you credit for developing your sense of humor?”

In no particular order: Dorothy Parker, James Thurber, William Goldman, Elaine May, Nora Ephron, Michael Maltese, Larry Gelbart, Douglas Adams, Dave Barry, P.J. O’Rourke. Those are the ones off the top of my head; there are definitely others.

Guess: “How come SFWA writers can’t get along? Liberals and conservatives get along all the time. Have you considered that it might just be that many of you have personality issues and not just the people you don’t like?”

Well, you know. SFWA has 1,800 members. It seems unlikely that any groups that large will have everyone get along all the time. With that said, I think you may be overestimating the number of members who don’t get along with the others — even the biggest arguments involving SFWA tend to involve a couple dozen principal actors, and usually less than that. The large majority, in my experience, do just fine with each other. Also, just because people disagree on a some topic doesn’t mean they don’t get along with each other otherwise — a fact oft-overlooked in online spitting contests.

FBSA: “I’d love a discussion of your epic literary feud with Brandon Sanderson. Complete with epic poems, Klingon operas, the Great Pen Scalzibane, and Twitter wars.”

Heh. You know, this “feud” of mine and Brandon’s has worked out pretty well for the both of us. I think we should continue it, obviously.

Chris Davis: “For a lot of writers, their alien characters come across as humans in rubbery costumes. Can you talk on creating believable alien characters, especially their psyche, philosophy, and emotions. Where do they differ from humans, where would they be similar.”

I think if you’re having your aliens be point of view characters in some way, that there usually has to be something that readers can relate to, otherwise it’s harder for them to find purchase in the narrative. If you’re using aliens as set dressing, or not doing a whole lot of getting into their heads (or whatever), then you have a chance to make them more “alien,” as it were. For me at least, a lot of it will come down to whether I am spending a lot of time with the aliens, having them speak, and so on. Note that “having something readers can relate to” doesn’t just mean “humans in rubber costumes” — it does mean some motivations these aliens have should be recognizable to humans. Writers can ignore this observation of mine to great effect — see Ted Chiang on this — but if you do, you should have the skill to make it work — see Ted Chiang on this, too.

TheMadLibrarian: “Have you ever considered mentoring someone, or felt that at some point in your early career a mentor would have been beneficial?”

I participated in an online mentoring program a few years ago and I think it was useful to the mentorees, but for me a great problem with me being an official mentor is the fact my time management skills are shaky enough as it is. I prefer just being friends with people and talking shop — which is largely what I did with my journalist colleagues early in my career. Same result, different dynamic.

Rob G: “Why do publishers release a hardback edition first and then wait so long to release the same work as a paperback?”

Because they make money that way, i.e., why almost anything is done, in the commercial space.

Mtpettyp: “How can someone like myself who exclusively buys ebooks support their local independent bookstore? These stores can be a great source for suggestions on relatively unknown authors and books, but at the end of the day I have no desire (or room) to buy the dead-tree versions from them.”

Print books make great gifts. And everyone likes gifts!

Quorn: “What non-anglo SF most interests or influences you?”

I don’t think it’s entirely surprising that it would be Japanese SF, in the form of manga and anime — it’s the non-anglo SF most readily available (and exhibited) here in the US. I’d be happy to see more and different SF, but I also admit to laziness in seeking it out, so I don’t see much of it. Vicious circle, that.

Not That Frank: “How has Twitter affected your writing experience, particularly here on the blog. Although I’d be interested if it affects your fiction writing as well.”

It doesn’t affect my fiction as far as I can tell; when I’m writing fiction I tend to pull the DSL line out of the computer so I can get work done, so it doesn’t affect the process. In terms of mechanics of writing, Twitter is pretty far removed from novel writing. In terms of this blog, I’ve noted before that a lot of short, silly stuff goes on Twitter now instead of here. But then again, some really nifty Twitter conversations have found their way back here, because of my desire to have them part of my “permanent record,” as it were. So maybe it’s a wash.

MWC: “As a writer, what is your opinion of used bookstores? Is there an acceptable tradeoff between making money on your work through new purchases vs recirculating dead trees in book form?”

I don’t have any problem with used bookstores and tend to think they’re a good way for people to sample the work of unfamiliar writers at relatively low cost. I don’t see them cutting into my income in any significant way, and I tend to think that the benefit to the community in having a store of books for sale outweighs any lost income to me. That said, as always, if you really want to support an author whose work you love, buy their books new. We don’t make any money off used books.

Neil Hepworth: “What do you do when you’re asked to review a book, you agree to review a book, and then you really don’t like the book? “

At this point I don’t usually review books professionally — not enough time and also if I don’t like a book I’d prefer not to note it at all. It’s one of the reasons I created the Big Idea: It gives me a chance to spotlight writers and let them speak to my readers directly, without me getting in the way. That said, when I do read a book for my own enjoyment and like it, I’m happy to tell people about it.

Megan: “[T]o what extent do you believe that I, as a writer, am responsible to portray three-dimensional non-cisgendered straight white people? Am a propagating so much of what is wrong with our culture if my characters are straight? Or if they’re white?”

I think you should have fully-realized characters regardless of anything else, and if you intend to reflect reality (or achieve reasonable verisimilitude in the fantasy/science fiction work), you should have more than just straight white people in your work, because in the real world, there are more than just straight white people. And anyway, it’s not that difficult to add people who are not just straight and white to your writing. Here’s one way to do it: When introducing a character, ask yourself: “Is it absolutely critical for the story for this character to be straight and white?” If the answer is no, then consider not making them that. Because why not? If you create a world where diversity is just there, then it stops being a thing — it just becomes how the world is. And then you get some experience writing different kinds of people, and that’s a useful skill to have in your writer toolbox.