The Scamperbeasts Rule

The Scamperbeasts Twitter account passed the 5,000 followers milestone today, which is a nice round number considering it’s only been around for a little over three weeks. People love kittens.

In commemoration of this achievement, and also for the betterment of the Twitter experience in general, I made the following announcement:

Because, you know what? If you’re going to be the sort of jackass whose idea of a fun time is to troll and/or insult me on Twitter, I think it’s entirely fair for me to introduce a filtering process, dictating whether or not you rate any of my attention at all, involving kittens.

Why the somewhat arbitrary choice of using my kittens’ Twitter follower number as the filtering criterion?

1. Why not? It’s not like Twitter trolls/assholes deserve more consideration than that;

2. Because it amuses me to say to myself, as I mute these twits forever, “Come back when you’re not thoroughly trounced by kittens.”

(Not that I will unmute them if they do get more followers than my kittens, mind you. It’s totally meant as a dismissive statement.)

Formally codifying this into The Scamperbeasts Rule: 

If a Twitter troll/jerk has fewer followers than the @scamperbeasts Twitter account, do not engage; ignore and mute/block. 

My adopting this new Scamperbeasts Rule means that roughly 99+% of all possible Twitter trolls/jerks fall into the automatic “ignore and mute” category, as the Scamperbeats have more followers now than more than 99% of all Twitter users. Which is useful because honestly I’m tempted to snark at these jerks before I mute them forever. As enjoyable for me as that can be, it ends up taking brain cycles more profitably used in other endeavors. The Scamperbeasts Rule is a time management tool for me, basically.

(And what will I do with the would-be trolls who do have more followers than my kittens? My plan is to condescend to them once and then mute them, and bask in the knowledge that they are henceforth wasting their time only, trolling into a blank wall.)

Now, The Scamperbeasts Rule will not necessarily work for everyone, but if you do think it could work for you, I heartily encourage you to employ it. Just the pleasure or looking at someone spewing bullshit at you and thinking sorry, you’ve been bested by cats before you consign them into oblivion is reason enough to use it. I’m looking forward to it being my own standard practice.

Impostor Syndrome, or Not

At ConFusion last week, I had a great many conversations with a great many folks on a large number of topics, but there was one topic that seemed to pop up more than usual: Impostor Syndrome.

Impostor Syndrome, briefly put, is the feeling that one’s achievements and status are a fluke, and that sooner or later one will be revealed as a fraud. Anecdotally speaking, it seems, Imposter Syndrome affects a lot of writers, editors and other folks in the publishing life. I think this is in part because the writing life is a precarious one, financially and otherwise, and also in part because people in publishing seem to be a generally neurotic lot anyway. Imposter Syndrome is just another log on that particular fire.

Imposter Syndrome is a real thing and it’s not something I’d want to make light of because I think it has harmful effects. I think it can make people cautious in the exercise of their art and their career when they could be (and want to be) taking chances, and I think it can make people vulnerable to being taken advantage of by people/organizations who intentionally or otherwise leverage those feelings for their own advantage.

It’s pernicious, basically, and it frustrates me that so many talented people who have earned their places in the field with their work battle with it. I think it’s good that people are talking about it, however. It means that they are aware that it’s a thing and that it’s a lie. Naming it and describing it and knowing of it goes a long way in fighting it.

The discussions over the weekend also made me reflect on the issue of Impostor Syndrome and me, and the fact that as far as I know I have never had it, particularly in regard to being a writer. This isn’t an accomplishment, mind you, or something to brag on. It’s just an observation; at no point in my writing career did I ever feel like I didn’t deserve to be where I was, doing what I was doing. I’ve always been, yup, this is who I am and what I do.

Which is nice for me, you know, but also prompted me to think about why it was that I felt that way. I mean, it could be the Dunning-Kruger effect, in which incompetent people don’t believe they’re incompetent. Certainly I have enough detractors who would be happy to suggest that this is exactly the case, when it comes to me. Which, okay, sure. Maybe. Why not.

But if it’s not that, and I’m pretty sure it’s not, then what explains my lack of Impostor Syndrome?

Here’s what I think.

One, I knew fairly early that I wanted to be a writer and worked toward it directly. I knew at age fourteen that I wanted to be a writer. Having decided that, I was done seriously considering any other career choice. I didn’t have a back-up or fallback plan.

It helped, I suspect, that the type of writing I wanted to do back then was journalism, which was at the time both a practical and achievable goal — there were newspapers in the 80s! And they hired people to write in them! — rather than to be a novelist or fiction writer, which was (and is) a more amorphous thing.

But basically, having decided in my early teens that I was going to be a writer, I did not doubt I would ever become a writer. So when I became a professional writer I didn’t question how I got there. I got there because I had planned it all along. That said,

Two, no one ever questioned my intent or ability to be a writer. Which is to say that, particularly in high school, no one ever pulled me aside and said to me either “hey, you know, writing is a tough gig, maybe you should plan to do something else with your life,” or “you idiot, what makes you think you can be a writer?” Not my mom, or any of my teachers, or any of my schoolmates.

Indeed, quite the opposite: At every step in the early years of my ambition I was encouraged. My mom encouraged me because among other things that’s what parents should do at that point. My teachers were more grounded about it but did the same — they gave me tips on how to write, and pushed back at me when I got lazy (which was often), and otherwise were very much like, this is what you want to do? Okay, let us help. And as far as my schoolmates were concerned, they very quickly accepted my persona as That Dude Who Wants to Be a Writer (plus I wrote stories where many of them were characters, and they were all very clever in the stories, and who doesn’t like that).

So: I knew I wanted to be a writer early on, and early on everyone I knew — really, everyone — accepted that I was going to be a writer. That early determination and reinforcement went a long way.

Three, I progressed without impediment early on. This means that I never found a problem in leveling up to doing the things that reinforced that writing was a thing I could do, was good at, and that people expected from me. When I showed up to the University of Chicago, pretty much the first thing I did after dropping my stuff in my dorm room was head to the offices of the Chicago Maroon, the student newspaper, and announce that I was going to write a column for them. And what did they do with this cheeky twerp who said this? Well, they let me write a column. And then another, and then after that I was a weekly columnist and reviewer of music, books and films.

Later I became an editor and then editor-in-chief, these things in turn opening doors to become an intern at a daily newspaper. That in turn helped me become a freelance writer for newspapers and magazines in Chicago, which (in addition to my degree from Chicago) helped me land my first full-time professional gig as a film critic for the Fresno Bee newspaper.

All of this socially reinforced the idea that I was a writer. At Chicago, most people who knew of me knew me first through my column in the newspaper. So, literally, what people knew about me, before they knew anything else, was that I was a writer. That column also gave me cachet and status (to a minor extent, let’s not overegg the pudding) because the students read it, or at least knew it existed. They might have thought it was terrible and that I was a jackass, jackassedly spouting jackassed opinions, but they knew who I was nevertheless. Later as the film critic and a columnist at the Bee, it was the same dynamic, on a larger scale.

Again: The way most people knew of me, if they knew of me at all, was as a writer.

Four, when I went upward, my reaction was not “now they’re going to find me out for sure,” it was “look what I just pulled off!” When I got that column gig at the Maroon, I was proud of the fact that I was a first-year student writing a weekly column. When I got the gig at the Fresno Bee, I was inordinately proud of the fact that, at 22, I was the youngest full-time syndicated film critic in the United States. A couple of years later, when I got a weekly opinion column, not only was I the youngest nationally-syndicated opinion columnist out there, I had achieved my actual life goal — Hey! I’m newspaper columnist! Like Mike Royko or Molly Ivins! — before the age of 25.

The fact that I was objectively not a very good newspaper columnist at age 24 was immaterial to this feeling (I was just good enough, barely, and had a lot of slack cut for me, although unsurprisingly it wasn’t until later that I realized that fact). The point was my ego was and always had been turned to “this is good for me!” as opposed to “this is where they find out I’m unqualified.”

This can be a dangerous thing — remember that Dunning-Kruger thing? Well, my attitude is pretty much exactly how that happens — but I was also fortunate at every step of the way to be surrounded by people (editors, other writers, friends, etc) who helped to rein me in and also pointed out when I was being a jerk, or oblivious to the point of being an ass.

I even listened to them, from time to time. I remember at one point blathering on to my non-fiction agent about something and mentioning my age at the time as a qualifying feature, and he said, offhandedly, “You know, 28 is kind of old to be a prodigy at anything.” Which I’m sure he meant as a throwaway point, but which I took very seriously. It meant that I had stop being proud of stepping stone achievements, and start investing more in the quality of the work at hand.

Like I said, offhand comment, but it mattered, and I’m glad that at the time my ego was not so enormous that I couldn’t listen.

Speaking of which:

Five, when things hit a wall, I re-invested in being a writer. My ego in my 20s, particularly with regard to being seen as a writer, was huge, in part because it had never been challenged. Turns out it’s easy to cruise along in a wafty cloud of clueless self-regard when everything’s pretty much gone your way. What’s interesting is what happens when it doesn’t — as happened to me, in 1998, when I was laid off from America Online, where I was then working as a writer and editor.

I’ve written about this before, but the short version was that being laid off hit me like the proverbial ton of bricks. All my self-regard and ego did not save me from having my job cut out from under me for reasons that didn’t have much to do with me (the group I was in was dissolving; I as the in-house writer/editor was a company-wide resource; no one wants to put a company-wide resource on their departmental budget). I was not so special that I was not expendable. Yeah, that hurt.

More importantly, it made me question a lot of things that I had previously just assumed, including centering my image of who I was on my job, and the fact I was a writer. When it was all over, I reordered my self image a bit. I was a writer, yes. It was what I wanted to do with my work life and I was going to find a way to make that happen. But I was also not just my job anymore — or more accurately, the amount of my ego that was invested in “John Scalzi, writer” became less; it got refocused into being a person and husband and (soon-to-be) father. I was comfortable enough about what I did as my job that I didn’t have to let it define me to the extent I let it before. I could have the confidence to let it go a bit.

The conscious re-investment in being a writer, and re-evaluation of what being a writer meant to me, mattered. I can’t speak to anyone else, but for me, as drivelingly cliche as this is to say now, this crisis did become an opportunity, and (this must be noted) with the help of my wife particularly, and with the help of friends, I was able to take that advantage of that opportunity.

Much of what my life is now is because of that. This is why I often say now that being laid off turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened to me.

As a result of this:

Six, my view of myself of a writer is now not focused on whether other people consider me so. It’s not a coincidence that I started writing a blog soon after I was laid off from AOL; it’s not a coincidence that the first novel I wrote I decided to post here, rather than try to sell to someone else. To be clear, I like selling work and I like being financially successful as a writer — doing both gives me freedom to make more (and usually better) choices in terms of my career. Nor am I disingenuous enough to suggest that at this point in my career, the awards and contracts and so on aren’t useful signifiers.

But ultimately, I’ve done enough and I know myself well enough that if I never sold another piece of work to anyone, it wouldn’t matter in terms of my self-image as a writer. That is what I do. I have millions of words to speak to that point, but more importantly, I have self-awareness of who I am and of what writing has meant to me.

Now, it may be that some other people might then want to deny that I’m a writer, for whatever reason that they would need to do that. But you know what? That’s their karma and I wish them joy with that. I’m not obliged to care what they think. I don’t need anyone else’s approval or approbation to know what I know about myself. I’m a writer.

So there’s that.

(And having said aaaaall of that, let’s note a couple other things. Like: Hey, did you know I’m a straight white male who benefited from a really elite education? That helped — for example, when I forgot to apply for newspaper internships and a friend of mine called his dad, who called his pal the publisher of the San Diego Tribune, and a couple of steps later, whoa, look, an internship! Also, I happened to be in my 20s at the same time the first Internet Bubble was puffing up, which was great for finding gigs and building a resume. Also also, with respect to novels and fiction, I had been a professional writer for fifteen years before my first novel was published, so I had a decade and a half (not to mention several non-fiction books published prior to Old Man’s War) to get used to the idea that writing was a thing I could do. Also also also, I appear to be generally less neurotic than most writers, or at least, neurotic in somewhat different directions. And so on. It all helped, and helps.)

I think it’s important to note something at this point: These are reasons why I believe I’ve never had Imposter Syndrome. But at the end of the day, the main reason I would say to writers that they shouldn’t ever have to feel like they are impostors is that if you write, you are a writer, and it really is that simple. Whether you sell a book to a publisher is immaterial to this fact; likewise whether you become a bestseller, or award winner or if you write a book that people are still talking about two hundred years from now.

Here’s the question: Do you write? If the answer is yes, you’re a writer. Believe it.

And if anyone gives you shit about it, including yourself, come back over here and read this following graph:

Hey, that person? They’re wrong. If you write, you’re a writer. Done.

Now get back out there and write some more.

New Books and ARCs, 1/29/16

And now, to carry us off into the weekend, here’s a dozen new books and ARCs that have come to the Scalzi Compound in the last couple of weeks. See anything here that floats your proverbial boat? Tell me what it is in the comments!

2016 Hugo Nominations Open

For those of you of a science fictional and/or fantastic bent, the nomination period for the Hugo Awards has now begun and will run until March 31. You can nominate if you were a member of last year’s convention (Sasquan), if you are a member of this year’s convention (MidAmeriCon II), or are a member of next year’s convention (Worldcon 75). If you are not a member of any of these but will still like to nominate, you have until January 31 (that’s two days from the writing of this post) to become a Worldcon member (here’s the information on that).

(If you are currently a member described above, emails including the PIN you’ll need to access the nomination ballot are going out and should arrive in the next week.)

Voting for the Hugos is pretty simple: You look at the categories, find works you like that fit in the category, and then nominate them. You can nominate up to five works per category, although you can nominate fewer, too. And if you nominate online, you’ll be able to update your ballot right up until the deadline, so if a week from now you find something you love, you can put it in, and also a week later, and a week after that, too.

If you’re looking for things to read to see if you’d want to nominate them, or to suggest things that other people might consider for nomination, two ideas for you: First, the Hugo Nominees Wiki, and second, this Hugo Awards Google Spreadsheet. Both are packed with works to consider, and in both cases you can add your own suggestions.

Three points I want to make at this juncture:

1. Your Hugo nominations are meant to be your Hugo nominations, reflecting your own personal taste in science fiction and fantasy work. In the last couple of years, some folks have been presenting slates of potential nominees and encouraging people to vote for the slates for reasons. This didn’t work out well for anyone. Take suggestions, read widely, and then make your own nominations, reflecting your own taste, not anyone else’s.

2. If you are eligible to nominate for the Hugos, I think you should nominate for the Hugos. One reason the slating shenanigans happened was because only a minority of Worldcon members nominate for the Hugos, making the nomination process susceptible to gaming. This year there are at least 11,000 people eligible to nominate for the Hugos; last year over 6,000 people voted for the Hugo awards themselves. If everyone who voted for the Hugos last year nominated this year, any attempts at slating by group would probably be mitigated — and also, the nominations would reflect a more diverse group of science fiction and fantasy fans. The more people who nominate, the better.

3. Folks who are nominating should not neglect the “non-marquee” categories, including fan categories and categories like Related Work and Semi-prozine. Because these categories are often less nominated in, they can be more susceptible to gaming in general. The good news is there are lots of excellent works and people who can be nominated. The wiki and spreadsheet linked above can help with your explorations of the categories.

In short: Nominate, nominate for everything you can, and nominate out of your own brain, not anyone else’s.

(Also, a reminder: This year I’m asking people not to nominate work of mine produced in 2015 and will decline any Hugo nominations I might receive. Nominate others, please!)

Facebook and Your Friends

Over on Facebook I see a fair number of people linking to the story that although the average Facebook user has 155 “friends” on Facebook, there are also on average only four of those “friends” that a Facebook user would call in a genuine crisis, suggesting that just because you are “friends” with someone on Facebook, it doesn’t mean you are actual friends with them in the real world.

My thoughts on this:

One, hey, having four people you can reach out to in an actual crisis is a pretty good number;

Two, I’m not sure why this is at all surprising to anyone at all. Just because Facebook calls its connection mechanism “friending” doesn’t mean that everyone you connect with there are actual friends; they’re merely people who, for one reason or another, you’ve decided to connect with on a social media network. It’s not in the least relevatory to me that the number of “friends” one has on social media doesn’t make much difference to the number of people you consider actual friends, or the number of people who would help you bury the proverbial body.

Here’s a thing about social media, in my experience of it. The people (or entities) one follows on it tends to be part of three groups which overlap but are not exactly the same: The people one cares about, the people one knows of, and the people who one is entertained by. Only one group of these is properly friends; the other groups may or may not be acquaintances, and their presence in one’s feed comes down to the fact that most of us like to have a varied mix of things to look at when we sign on and scroll down. Someone does not need to be your friend to entertain you, either by telling you tidbits of their own life or by putting up links to material they’ve found online that they find interesting.

Can people you otherwise do not know become your friend through online interaction? Sure, although (also in my experience) eventually it helps to make an offline connection as well, to confirm that the comfort level you have with them isn’t just an artifact of online presentation and the fact that it’s mediated in a way that face-to-face encounters aren’t. I have a number of friends I’ve met online. I’m not going to rely on any of them to bury a body with me until we have that click in the offline world.

But then again, how many people do you need to be willing to help you in a crisis? Four really does seem sufficient in most cases. Likewise, if you have two or three dozen people you would call your true friends, well. That seems a lucky amount to me. That’s a person a day for a month you’d be delighted to hang out and spend time with and involve in your various shenanigans. That’s a full life right there, folks.

My personal Facebook feed has (currently) 641 people in it, most of them people who I’ve known personally (meaning, actual physical face-to-face time) at some point in my life, starting from elementary school and moving through my life now as a writer and author. Are they all my friends? Well, some were friends back in the day, and might be friends again if I got to spend face time with them in the physical world. Some are people I’ve more recently met who I would like think could become friends with me if circumstances allowed.

Not everyone of my Facebook Friends is a current friend, but the way I curate that list, the potential for friendship is there, at least. One of the reasons to connect on Facebook is to keep that potential humming along, through the exhibition of pictures and news about our lives. This qualifies as mutual entertainment as well; I like knowing about them and I hope they like knowing about me.

But I don’t expect the vast majority of my Facebook cohort to feel obliged to help me in a crisis. It seems a little much for me to pick up the phone and expect the guy I knew best when we were in elementary school to drop everything and tend to me. And maybe he would! But it seems a lot to ask. I save that for the few people that I already know are there for me in that capacity (and for whom I’m willing to serve in that capacity as well). It’s more than four, I’m happy to say, but not so much more than four that it invalidates the general concept.

The article I linked to above says “The results suggest that people with hundreds of Facebook friends are kidding themselves if they think they can maintain a network so large.” Well, no. They’re not kidding themselves if, one,and again, they realize that just because Facebook calls their connection “friending” it does not oblige them to actually be friends, and two, if they recognize that some people they’ve “friended” are there to be entertainment (and for whom they are likewise entertainment).

And there’s not a thing wrong with that! Thank you, Facebook friends, for entertaining me with your lives and links. I hope I do likewise. And don’t worry that I’ll send a message asking for money, or a kidney, or for you to show up somewhere in the middle of a rainstorm with a shovel and several gallons of lye. Most of you will never get that call. I think you’re happy about that, or should be, anyway.

The Battle of the Scamperbeasts: An Epic Poem, Translated From the Cat Tongue

Once upon a time
There was a kitten on a stairwell
Basking in the light of the sun
As kittens are known to do.
And all was peaceful in the land of kittens.
Or so it seemed.

But then another kitten
Jealous of her sister’s place in the light
Decided that the light should be hers alone
And attacked! And thus
The Battle of the Scamperbeasts was joined!

At first
Sugar’s defense of the light was devastating
And Spice learned that her assumptions
That her sister would easily surrender her position
Were in fact foolish.

But then Sugar
Perhaps overconfident
Fell prey to Spice’s vicious counterattack!
Clearly this was a battle
Of two equally matched foes.

“How could this happen?”
Mused Sugar
During a hard-won break in the battle.
“Should it be a mere sunbeam
Could rend the true bonds of sisterhood?
Are we not better than this?”

But the existential quandaries of life
Would have to wait.
The Battle of the Scamperbeasts was rejoined!

But then
Sugar raised to her paw
To halt the next onslaught!
“Sister!” she cried.
“Wait! We do not need to fight!
There is enough sunbeam
For the both of us!
Join me in the light!
Together we can enjoy its luminous benefits!”

This proposal
Was not well-received.

With a heavy heart
Sugar knew there would be no peace
Until Spice was vanquished.
She attacked!

“Alas!” cried Spice.
“In my foolish pride
I thought I could keep the sunlight to myself
And deprive my sister of its boon!
Only now in defeat do I see
That the true darkness was in my own heart!”

And with that
Spice leapt from the banister
Plunging into the inky depths
Of the front hallway.
The Battle of the Scamperbeasts was ended.

Sugar once more
Resumed her place in the light.
Would Spice return?
Would she again demand
Sole possession of the sunlight?
Or could they
In sisterly accord
Bask in its warming glow?

These questions would have to wait.
For now, it was time to nap.

TO BE CONTINUED(?????!?????)

The Big Idea: Jennifer Brozek

A question that authors often ask themselves: Who am I writing this book for? For Never Let Me, a compilation volume of novels by Jennifer Brozek, the author discovered who she was writing her series for — which included, among others, a very specific set of people.

JENNIFER BROZEK:

My Big Idea hid from me until I finished writing the last book of the Melissa Allen series. The compilation, Never Let Me, encompasses Never Let Me Sleep, Never Let Me Leave, and Never Let Me Die. It also includes the new short story, “Never Let Me Feel.”

There were two motivating factors behind me writing the young adult novels starring Melissa Allen. The first was: Write what you want to read. In my not-so-humble mind, I liken Never Let Me to “What if Stephen King specifically wrote for teenagers back in the day?” I read a lot of King’s work growing up and loved it. Part of me always wondered what if he had written a story specifically for me as a teen? I pondered what I thought that would look like. Then I wrote it because that’s what I wanted to read.

The second factor was the need to write a flawed, mentally ill character whose mental illness didn’t make them a superhero or a villain. It just was. The illness was one more invisible, personal thing to deal with—like migraines or gastric reflux. Too many times, mentally ill characters are taken to unrealistic extremes—savant, dangerously wicked, innocent to the point of child-like—when, in reality, they are just normal people trying to get through the day. They are medicated, dealing with side effects, and know that even when the chemical cocktail is working today, it might not work tomorrow.

In specific, I watched daughter of one of my friends—her name is Cait—grow up fighting with her illness, dealing with the side effects, and sighing over the issues with her psychiatrist. I helped her as much as I could. I never thought it was enough, but I didn’t know what else I could do.

Cait stuck with me all these years, even after I moved away from her. I knew that she never had a mentally ill protagonist in any young adult book she’d read that she could look up to. I wanted to write this series for her, and for the other teens like her who struggle with mental illness on a daily basis. I wanted her to see the heroine in herself.

I never thought of myself as a heroine. Growing up, I had a lisp and a stutter. I went to three years of speech therapy to bring my speech into something much more acceptable. I’m dyslexic. Also, I am high-functioning autistic. I never saw a protagonist like me in any of the stories I read. For a long time, it didn’t occur to me that someone like me (or Cait) could be a hero. People like us weren’t heroes.

I wanted to change that. At first, it was just for Cait. She was the one I’d written the novels for. She was my ideal reader. Then, as I expanded the stories and the protagonists, I added a character for my mom. This character has a congenital defect in her hand like my mom. My mom didn’t have a hero like her to read about growing up. I thought she deserved one, too. In the end, when I sat back and looked at what I’d written, I realized my Big Idea.

I was the one I had written these novels for… because they were about people like me and about the everyday people around me. I wanted to see fictional heroes that mirrored the real life heroes I looked up to every single day of my life. Including the person I looked at in the mirror. She may have a stutter when she gets excited. She may rock when she’s tired. She may not always understand the expressions she sees on people’s faces. She may have bouts of anxiety… but she is still a hero.

Sometimes, we write the heroes we need to see in ourselves.

Never Let Me: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Powell’s|IndieBound  

Read excerpts from Never Let Me Sleep, Never Let Me Leave, or Never Let Me Die. Visit the author’s page or blog. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Tom Louis, 1946 – 2016

A brief note here to note the passing of Tom Louis, Kristine’s uncle (shown here with Richard Alvarez, my brother-in-law, at family gathering), whose memorial service I’m about to head out the door for. Tom was pretty much the definition of “salt of the earth” and cared deeply about the family, and was always kind and decent in the way he treated everyone I ever saw him with. It was good to know him and good to have him as part of the family I was fortunate enough to marry into. I’m going to miss him and his good humor.

This where I remind you to let those you care about know what they mean to you in your life. It’s never not a good idea. And if they already know, remind them again. That’s always a good idea, too.

The Rental Muscle Car

For various reasons that are not relevant at the moment, we needed a rental car for the next several days, so Krissy ordered one. I think she ordered up something along the lines of a Honda Accord; the rental place, however, spontaneously and without additional cost upgraded her to the brand new Ford Mustang convertible that you see here. Such is the inherent power of my wife. Fear her.

(Well, either that or it’s the fact no one rents convertible sports cars in Ohio in winter, which means it was on the lot when all the Accords were out. But still.)

I’ve never been much of a car person but I’ve always had a thing for Mustangs; in high school my friend Rob Lawrence drove around a ’65  and we had many adventures in that thing, and the residual good will I’ve had for the brand has continued on. I had a crush on the Bullitt Edition, and at one point I came very near to agreeing to write a book in exchange for a Mustang, the kibosh of which was put on by my wife, who pointed out that a) we already had two cars in a two car garage, b) I was the stay at home parent, so I would end up driving the minivan anyway while she drove the ‘stang, so maybe wait until the kid was a little older. So sensible, Krissy is.

More recently, in the wake of my contract with Tor, I considered buying Krissy a Mustang convertible, much like the one above, as a celebration gift and to acknowledge that the contract, and the excellence of my life in general, wouldn’t have happened without her. When I surreptitiously sounded her out about it, however, she indicated that she wasn’t in love with Mustangs like I was and that she could wait until Athena was in college for a car upgrade. Sooooooo, no convertible. Yet.

(As I never mentioned this to her before, when she reads this, this will be the first she knows of my plan — or more accurately, as she usually knows what I’m up to regardless, the first time I’ve acknowledged the plan. But! What Krissy has now is a convertible coupon, redeemable at the time of her choosing for the convertible car of her choice. Because she’s wonderful and the reason my life is also wonderful and also she would look sooooooo hot in a convertible. Love you, baby!)

Anyway, I’ve been driving Mustang about, marking really my first time in one of these vehicular creatures, and my verdict is… it’s nice, but I’m not entirely sure it’s me. By which I mean I get in the thing and while I still appreciate it looks cool and has a nice low rumble and the sixteen-year-old me is giggling, but the 46-year-old me can’t help notice there’s very little trunk space, no one under the age of six will want to be in that back seat — which you have to climb into, incidentally — and it gets something like 20 miles to the gallon. It’s the back seat especially that gets me. I’ve got a Mini Countryman, which is shorter than the ‘stang by a not inconsiderable margin, and yet it has four doors and legroom for actual humans in the back seats. And 27 miles to the gallon or such.

And also, let’s be real, I’m unlikely to get on the road and open the throttle and hoot madly as I do 130mph, trailing Ohio State Troopers behind me like angry flashing bees. That’s not who I am. The who that I am is really looking forward to electric cars that drive themselves because fundamentally I don’t much care about driving, I care about getting to where I want to go, and I would be delighted to have an automated automobile get me to where I’m going at a safe, unflashy, practical speed while I sat in it and read a book. That sounds pretty awesome to me, actually.

All of which is to say that while I’m enjoying the Mustang on a temporary basis — who wouldn’t? — I’m also of the opinion that on a more permanent basis, it’s probably not the car for me. I mean, I could be wrong. Someone buy me one with all the bells and whistles and we’ll see if I change my mind! But for the next car I buy for myself, it’s not on my radar. Which makes 16-year-old me a little sad. But then, 16-year-old me wanted a lot of things 46-year-old me would happily pass on. This is another one. If 16-year-old me gets too loud about it, we can always rent a Mustang again for a few days. That should do the trick.

Big Idea Status Post for February and March

Here’s the status:

February: All February slots are filled. I’m doing three a week for the first three weeks because during the fourth week I’ll be on a big ass boat in the Caribbean. If I have not already contacted you about February, assume I’ve passed on your Big Idea query.

March: Partially filled; I still have slots available the week of the 14th and 28th. If you have a new book coming out then, send a query but hurry as those slots are likely to go quickly.

April: Don’t query me yet. Wait until February, please.

And now we’re all caught up!

The Big Idea: Charlie Jane Anders

How many times have you heard a new book, or movie or TV show, described as “X meets Y” where the two variables are something super-popular, jammed into one? As Charlie Jane Anders discovered in thinking about her new and already widely-lauded debut novel All the Birds in the Sky, there are limits to all that jamming, especially when you want to make your own mark.

CHARLIE JANE ANDERS:

Genre mashups are everywhere in pop culture these days. Star Wars is a samurai Western in space, with wizards. Adventure Time is a post-apocalyptic fairy tale. And superheroes, of course, are every genre ever, all smushed together.

But I’m here to tell you, as someone who often gets accused of writing genre mashups, that you should avoid them at all costs. Don’t take two genres and smush them together. Instead, it’s way better to take whatever you need from different genres, and create your own brand new story.

At least, that’s what I decided while writing All the Birds in the Sky, my new book about a witch named Patricia and a mad scientist named Laurence. At first, I was thinking of this book as very much a mashup: fantasy meets science fiction. But the deeper I got into the story and the characters, the less helpful it was to think of it in terms of genres.

Instead, I started thinking of it as a story about people from two different worlds, each of which I tried to make as real and grounded as I could.

I had already gotten a rep for smushing together different genres, before I finished All the Birds in the Sky. I wrote “As Good As New,” which was a post-apocalyptic story where a woman named Marisol finds a genie in a bottle. (Because of course a genie in a bottle would survive the apocalypse, and its hiding place would be reduced to rubble. It’s just logic, people.) And my story “Palm Strike’s Last Case” takes a dark, gritty urban superhero and sends him to another planet, where he deals with issues of food scarcity and sustainable farming.

So when I started to write a novel that had a fantasy hero and a science fiction hero, I got excited about including as many tropes from each of those two genres as I could think of. The witch can have runes, spellbooks, wands, dragons, elves, ancient curses, evil wizards, etc. The mad scientist gets aliens, robots, spaceships, rayguns, dinosaurs and so on.

But when you just smush a bunch of genre tropes together, you end up with something kind of spoofy. It starts to feel like you’re just making fun of the genres, instead of exploring what makes them powerful. And instead of bright vivid contrasts, you can easily end up with an indistinct mish-mosh. (Like, an elf is sort of an alien. A dragon is sort of a dinosaur. Unless you really work at developing the aspects that make them different.)

If you’re not careful, a genre mashup can very quickly become just kind of an exercise in meta, commenting on the genres instead of using them to their full potential. When you think of a mashup, what immediately comes to mind is the stereotypical Hollywood executive saying, “It’s Alien meets The Smurfs!” Or “It’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Terminator!”

But what’s really interesting about bringing together characters who belong in different worlds—or different types of stories—is the different ways that they look at life.

And with both my witch and my mad scientist, what turned out to be interesting is what they can’t do. Instead of getting lost in all of the cool stuff that could be on their horizons—the starships and spellbooks—the most powerful stories came from their limitations. What can Patricia, the witch, do that Laurence, the mad scientist, can’t? And vice versa? And what’s the thing that’s beyond both of their capabilities? The more I thought of these characters in terms of their limits, the deeper I could get into the emotional core of the story.

And that’s the biggest thing that took me away from thinking of All the Birds in the Sky as some kind of genre chimera. I needed to feel something, to connect to these two main characters and their struggles in my gut as well as my heart. The bells and whistles risked pulling me away from the characters, instead of helping me connect to them.

And in the end, having an emotional core didn’t just mean focusing in on my two main characters and their emotional reality. It also meant recognizing that no matter how many genres I was drawing on, I still had only one story, with one single axis, and everything needed to be part of that.

And once I recognized that, I could focus on what those different genre elements meant to me, and what they represented in my story. I peeled back all of the extra clutter, until I was left with the things that I absolutely needed to make the story work—and then I had to figure out what those elements needed, in terms of worldbuilding, to make them feel real. Like, Patricia, the witch, needed a magic school to go to, that couldn’t just be a Hogwarts clone, and a world of magicians that felt lived-in. Stuff like that.

Once I stripped away all the excess clutter that I had put in when I thought this was a “mashup,” there were big holes in my novel. And those holes turned out to be the places where I was shortchanging my main characters and not giving them enough room to breathe and develop their relationship. When I let go of the idea that this was a book about genres, I was able to start thinking of it more as a book about people.

—-

All The Birds in the Sky: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.

The Scamperbeasts Get Mail

And it’s from Time Warner Cable, offering them business class Internet. Damn it, Time Warner! You never offered me business class Internet!

It’s a lie anyway, as TWC doesn’t string out cable to where we are, otherwise I would have it and be rid of my appallingly slow 5mbps DSL from CenturyLink, which is indeed linked to a century, that century being the 20th.

Don’t get me started about rural Internet. We will be here all day. Literally, as it would take that long for the rant to load.

AND ANOTHER THI–

[connection lost]

Sweet Dreams Are Made of This

It’s been a long day.

In other news, Krissy and I are back from ConFusion, the science fiction convention in the Detroit area that we attend annually. We had a fabulous time, as we usually do, hanging out with friends and fans. We’re probably going to crash early, because we’ve been up late all weekend. And then, back to the work week. Wheee!

How was your weekend?

View From a Hotel Window, 1/21/16: Novi, MI

Look! Air conditioning units and a parking lot! This view has all the classics.

I’m here for the ConFusion convention, my “home” convention, which promises to be a blast as always. If you’re in the area and have the weekend free, then, hey, come on down. We’re fun.

Clinton and Sanders and Me

Question in email:

A couple months back you posted about the GOP presidential candidates but you haven’t said anything about the Democratic candidates. Any thoughts? 

My thoughts are thus:

I suspect that despite people getting hopped up about Bernie Sanders that the nomination is still going to go to Clinton in the end, and I’m fine with that. But if it goes to Sanders instead, I’m fine with that too. And if both Sanders and Clinton are suddenly trampled to death in a freak spontaneous elk stampede and Martin O’Malley is the only Democratic candidate left standing, I’m fine with that, as well.

I recognize that there are material differences in the personalities and policies of each of the Democratic candidates, and that these differences are not insignificant. But at the end of the day, what matters is that each of them, any of them, is so drastically preferable to any member of the howling sampler box of Dunning-Kruger that is the current GOP field that, to me, and for the purposes of my presidential vote in November, the policy and personality differences between Clinton and Sanders and O’Malley are immaterial. Whoever the Democratic candidate is, they will get my vote.

Note well that this does not mean that in any election year, any Democratic nominee would get my vote; if the Democratic field in another year were as pathetically mashed-potato-brained as the current GOP field, it’s entirely possible I’d kiss off the lot of them, too. As a matter of political honesty I admit it would take more for that to happen, as there are consequences to a GOP president that I wouldn’t like (see: Supreme Court as the obvious example), and that’s not insignificant. But it’s possible. However, this year I judge all three Democratic nominees competent enough that this isn’t a problem.

As I don’t really have a problem with any of the Democratic candidates from a competence perspective, I’ve been largely unengaged regarding the current tsuris brewing between Clinton and Sanders (O’Malley has no chance and is in this for a cabinet position or maybe a Vice President slot). Again, in the end I think Clinton’s going to pull it out and I suspect in the long run that’s better for the Democrats because she and her machine are likely to be better engaged in the downmarket congressional races, but if she doesn’t? Well, fine, Sanders it is, and he’ll have fun with his veto stamp.

I recognize there are a lot of people who feel very passionate about Bernie or Hillary, in what to me feels like a “Kirk or Picard” sort of way. That’s nice for them, but I find the spitty sort of rage they appear to feel about their less-favored Democratic candidate kind of stupid. I do hope people realize that after the primaries are done there is still the general election, and the GOP standard bearer will be delighted if a large portion of the potential Democratic electorate has ragequit in a fit of pique because they didn’t get exactly the presidential candidate they want. This is how you end up with a President Trump, or President Cruz, people. So suck it up, be an adult and vote for either Clinton or Sanders, even if you wanted the other one instead.

(But — third party candidate! Oh, my sweet summer child. You’re adorable. I mean, if you were always going to vote Libertarian or Green or whatever, or were otherwise honestly up in the air, then don’t let me stop you. Groovy by me. But if you were going to vote Democratic but then didn’t get your way in the primaries, so screw it, then yeah. Maybe think beyond your own fit of foot-stomping pique. I suppose this also holds true for you potential GOP voters who might ragequit if Trump/Cruz/whomever doesn’t get the nomination, but my point of view, since that field is filled with people I wouldn’t vote for even if you promised me all the ice cream I ever wanted for the rest of my life, delivered by a unicorn that farts gold coins and diamonds, I’m less concerned if you do it.)

From my own point of view this year I think it’s important to recognize that this GOP field is easily the worst in any election cycle I can remember, and in particular its top candidates — Trump and Cruz — are just appalling. I was not going to vote for McCain or for Romney in the last two elections, but in both cases I could see the valid argument for them (and for keeping them alive so their respective vice-presidential picks never took up residence at the White House). I didn’t think they might actually offer lasting damage to the office. I don’t feel the same way this year. Barring the sudden ascendancy of Kasich, or the now-increasingly-unlikely chance of Rubio finally finding his ass with a flashlight, the GOP standard bearer this year will either be a populist racist or a preening, deservedly-disliked tub of self-regard, neither of whom I want anywhere near the levers of executive power.

Neither Clinton or Sanders is perfect — Clinton in particular comes with a healthy load of baggage — but the qualitative difference between the two of them as presidential candidates, and Trump and Cruz, is the starkest contrast between the two major parties in my political lifetime. This isn’t even a contest. Or shouldn’t be. I’m embarrassed for the country that it actually is.

So, yeah: Democrats, pick Clinton, pick Sanders, hell, pick O’Malley. From my point of view, given the competition, they’re all equally likely to get my presidential vote. I mean, I’d like to have the luxury of actually caring about the policy differences between the Democratic candidates. But this election year, it just doesn’t matter. Democratic positions are generally closer to my own, but this year, I’m mostly voting against the GOP valorizing the horrible people it’s made as its choices for front runners, and, likely, for whichever of those horrible people it will choose as its candidate.

David Hartwell

Me, Robert Charles Wilson and David Hartwell with our respective awards at LACon IV, 2006. Photo: Kathryn Cramer

Very bad news about David Hartwell, one of most important editors of science fiction and fantasy: According to Kathryn Cramer, David has had a massive bleed in his brain and is not expected to recover. Patrick Nielsen Hayden, who has known and worked with David for decades, has further thoughts and information.

I’ve also known David for a number of years; his knowledge of and passion for science fiction and fantasy literature is beyond contestation. My thoughts are now to Kathryn, their children and family, and all who know David, personally and professionally. This is a significant loss for the field.

Edit, 8pm: Kathryn Cramer reports via a Facebook comment to Neil Gaiman that David has indeed passed away. May his memory be a blessing to all who knew him.

In Which the 18-Year Old John Scalzi Tackles “The Great Questions”

My high school alumni office sent me an interesting email — the last essay assignment I wrote for one of my classes in my senior year of high school, in which I was asked, essentially, to write about what it meant to be human. It was for my AP Modern European History class, and the teacher was Roy Bergeson. His plan at the time was to collect the essays from his students and then send them to us when we graduated from college. What actually happened was that the essays were packed away for years and Mr. Bergeson only found them this year, and sent them to the school to forward on. So technically, he did send them to us when we graduated, just 25 years later than expected.

I read the essay when it arrived, and found it an interesting glimpse at the past me. I only vaguely remember writing this essay, but there is no doubt in my mind it is me who wrote it — it has all the hallmarks of who I was at that stage of my life. I’m posting both it and the original assignment (forwarded by Mr. Bergeson) here both for your edification — as a glimpse into the mind of teenage John Scalzi — and for my own archival purposes.

I’ll note I have edited the piece to make it more readable (I chopped up run-on sentences and added paragraphs), but have otherwise not edited for content. What you’re reading is pure teenage Scalzi, for better or worse. I’ll add my own thoughts about it as the first post in the comment thread.

With that said, first, the actual assignment, from Mr. Bergeson:

The Last Hurrah

We have spent a good deal of time in this course reading and discussing different responses to three fundamental questions. While those questions have not all been framed in the same way, the questions have essentially been:

What is the nature of a human being?
What is the nature of the world?
How should a human being interact with that world?

The medieval scholastics were quite confident in their answers. A person’s place in the City of Man and the City of God were clearly defined. The only real issue was obedience to authority. Humanism, new methods of attaining knowledge, scientific discovery, world-wide exploration, doubt, and cataclysmic events have changed that secure, holistic view of St Thomas Aquinas.

You are about to graduate from high school (hopefully!). This time marks one of the most significant “passages“ in your life. On such an occasion it is good to stop, think, recollect, and write down where you are. Therefore, in accordance with a longstanding APMEH tradition, I would like you to consider and then answer those three fundamental questions posed above. I will send you copies of what you write in four years when you graduate from college. I hope that this will be a significant exercise for you, and that this marking of the end of high school will be interesting to you in the many years ahead.

And here is what I wrote:

The human being is perhaps the most unfortunate animal on the earth. Possessed of a brain that has too many connections, the human being is not merely self-aware – that is, concerned only with what is near to him and happens to be occupying his time – but he is also aware in a wider sense: aware of more than what is in front of his face. The human being is aware of his past, aware of his future, aware of hopes, dreams, fears, fantasies, and not just aware of them in a sense of a momentary awareness, such as an animal has when it hopes for a piece of meat from its master or when it is afraid of the thunder.

For a human, the hopes are always there, embedded into the bedrock of the consciousness, buried under other, more pressing considerations, but always there, to be taken out and cherished in the time a person has to himself. This awareness has its foundations in the ability of the human mind to grasp long-range occurrences, and its ability for complex, intuitive thought. These two factors have a synergistic affect upon each other, creating within the human mind a vast arena for information and data, internal and external, to combine and melt and become thought with far more facility and ease than can be found anywhere else in the animal kingdom.

The end result of this is that the human being tends to think too much. And not merely think too much: we talk too much, know too much, fight too much, dream too much, hate too much, and love too much. The human being has always enjoyed living on the extremes; we do not tell our children bedtime stories about certified public accountants. And humans crave the intense experiences: having a good laugh, falling deeply in love, shaking in a religious ecstasy all mean more to us for the instant they exist than do all the long hours of just living.

These two forces, thinking too much and craving the intense experience, have combined several times in the course of our human history, and when they collide, the great philosophical questions have arisen: who are we? What is our place? Is there a higher power, and if so, why did He create us? Where are we going, and how do we get there? Who am I? What comes afterwards?

These are the Great Questions, those questions by which we define ourselves and our existence.

Confronting the Great Questions separates the human race into two broad categories: Those who choose to deal with the questions, and those who choose to avoid them. The number of people in the latter group far exceeds the number in the former and while this is unfortunate, it is not too surprising; to confront these sorts of question and to deal with them fairly calls upon a great amount of (if you will) spiritual strength, of which most people, it seems from observation, either don’t have to begin with, or if they do have it, it isn’t used often enough to strengthen it to what it needs to be to deal with these questions.

These people either fall back on someone else’s answers to the questions, thus depriving themselves of the real knowledge of experience, or dismiss these Great Questions as unimportant to their life. Both of these methods leave these people mentally impotent and spiritually vacant, and these people will pass through this world largely unnoticed and after they have gone, will soon be forgotten.

This does not mean this group of people are all bad; there are many fine and good people, who are respectable and deserve to be respected and loved. But they are incomplete; a person who does not grapple with the Great Questions seriously cannot know himself intimately, and while he may feel great rushes of emotion or some sense of spiritual longing, these will flow through the person undefined, for lack of anything to define against, and these surges of true nobility, of humanity, will leave the person too soon, for lack of anything to anchor onto.

This essential, what makes a person a human being, is denied to those who deny the Great Questions, leaving only base and unsatisfying imitations of emotion and spirit, and these will leave the person possessing them, in the end, alone, scared, their lives wasted, their thoughts misunderstood, and their dreams shattered. The cruelest thing of denying these Questions is that in the end, they leave you a stranger to yourself, and because of that, to all others. A man who does not know himself cannot know others, cannot love others… and cannot leave in this world anything of note; a man, in denying these questions, he has already condemned his life to failure.

It is from that group of human beings who struggle with the Great Questions that all of what is humanity is comes from. This group encompasses the high and lows of history and human experience; Hitler belongs in this group just as surely as does Jesus, Stalin as much as Gandhi. These members of the human race did not back away from the Questions: they fought with them and tried to answer them to their own personal satisfaction; in doing so they unlocked the door to themselves became what they were down their soul; in struggling with these questions, they became all that was human in them. They quite literally ate from the tree of knowledge and were confronted with themselves, in all its dizzying heights and terrifying lows.

The members of this group are truly human; they have taken the time to know themselves. They did not all answer the Questions, to be sure; and of those who did answer the questions, some of the answers were twisted and garbled. But the fact remains that they possessed the strength to attempt an answer; and if one does not try, one cannot succeed.

I have tried, in my life, not to shy away from these Great Questions. I cannot say that I have succeed in answering all the questions; I don’t even know if I know what all the questions are. But I do know that I would rather face these questions and attempt to know myself than to go through my life with blinders on. It is not a question of what one should do and what one should not do; if one does not want to know themselves, that is their business. I find the whole idea of people having a purpose for being born distasteful; one should decide for oneself what one’s duties are.

But I find over the course of time that those people I admire and respect (and love) above all others have taken some time to know themselves; I find that those who are remembered in our histories are those who take time to know themselves; I find that all the great achievements of the human race were accomplished by those who knew themselves; therefore I conclude that to be fully human, and to achieve some sort of satisfaction in my life, I must attempt the Great Questions for myself and learn who I am.

I want to be able to love. I want to be remembered after I am dead as a man who contributed something to the world I lived in. I want to be worth remembering. And it seems the way to do this is to know myself first and foremost. I don’t believe in purposes; but if I did, I would believe that God gave man the brain he did in order to allow man to, if he wished, know himself, and through that, come closer to God. The purpose of man would be to know himself.

I want to know myself, the good as well as the bad in me. I know no real purpose in this; materialistically speaking, there is not outright reward. But there is a reward that comes from the awareness knowing oneself gives; I can feel it now, however dimly, and it both scares me and makes me feel joyful. I believe it makes me feel human. I believe it makes me alive.

Into the World of Travel Once More Plus a Question to Keep You Occupied

Athena and I have had a delightful time at Arisia, but now it’s time to hop on a plane and head back to Ohio. We’ll be in transit all day. In the meantime a question for you to ponder:

What’s your favorite obscure soda flavor? “Obscure” in this case can mean a) not always available at your local store, b) usually (but not always!) not distributed by Coca-Cola/PepsiCo, c) one you liked but no longer exists, by any maker. International sodas unavailable in the US are groovy. If you think Dr Pepper is an obscure soda, you might be doing this one wrong.

My obscure soda: Aspen soda, which was an apple-flavored soda available for a couple of years in the late 70s-early80s. I really enjoyed it when I was a kid and am a little sad that apple generally is not a widely available soda flavor.

You?

Glenn Frey

Damn, it’s January 18th, and it’s already been a hell of a year for musician deaths. If you’re a musician who was even marginally popular in the 70s, please keep an eye on yourself, okay? In the meantime, as we’re thinking of Glenn Frey passing along to the great gig in the sky, enjoy this most Glenn Freyish of Eagles songs.

Early Oscar Predictions, 2016

As most of you know, my first gig out of college was as a film critic, and since then I keep up with the field. So every year when the Oscar nominations come out I go ahead and make an early guess as to what’s the frontrunner for the statuette that year. It’s 2016, the Oscar nominations are out, let’s stop the filly-faddle and get to it.

BEST PICTURE

The Big Short
Bridge of Spies
Brooklyn
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Martian
The Revenant
Room
Spotlight

As a general rule (Argo being a recent and notable exception), you can toss out the Best Picture nominees that don’t have an accompanying Best Director nomination, and this year I would definitely say that means so long to Brooklyn and Bridge of Spies. I’m hesitant to just chuck out The Martian, however. To be clear I think it’s a dark horse, but I’d be interested to see there’s any sort of groundswell of feeling for Ridley Scott. His movies are often nominated for (and even win) Best Picture, but he gets nominated for Best Director rather less so. If there’s a sense this year he needs to be recognized, it’s possible this movie has a chance, as he’s a nominated producer this year. See, again, Argo, and Ben Affleck. But again: Probably a dark horse.

(Note to the Academy: Give Scott an honorary Oscar, already. You can’t say he hasn’t earned it at this point.)

Of the remainder I think The Big Short is probably out first as the comedy (comedies tend not to do well in Oscar races), probably Mad Max next, although it’s my favorite, and then at this point it’s three-way between Spotlight, Room and The Revenant, with the twist being last year’s Best Picture and Best Director win were for Birdman and Alejandro G. Iñárritu, and it would be very unusual for the Academy to award a Best Picture to the same director back-to-back. Not impossible but unusual.

Put a gun to my head and at this moment I would nudge toward Spotlight, because it’s weighty, historical and has a great ensemble cast. But this is one of those times where I think you have to wait to see how things shake out.

My Bet: Spotlight
My Choice: Mad Max: Fury Road

 

BEST DIRECTOR

The Big Short, Adam McKay  
Mad Max: Fury Road, George Miller
The Revenant, Alejandro G. Iñárritu  
Room, Lenny Abrahamson  
Spotlight, Tom McCarthy

See above. Generally — but not always, and less in recent years — the Director nod is paired with the Picture nod, so depending on how things sort out, Iñárritu, Abrahamson and McCarthy are all in the running. Plus there’s a wrinkle, as I see it: As noted, the Academy is less fussy in recent years about pairing Director and Picture, and I think there’s some high regard for George Miller out there. He’s had a film nominated before as a producer (Babe, if you can believe it), won for an animated film (Happy Feet(!)) and otherwise had a career that’s best described as delightfully eclectic. Even though I think Mad Max is not a likely winner, it’s possible Miller sneaks in, and reasonably so, because Max is a hell of an impressive directorial effort.

Otherwise, you got me. The only one I’m certain is in the “just happy to be here” boat is Adam McKay; otherwise it’s up in the air for now. Right now, my very super mega tenuous nod is to McCarthy, but I’m not putting any money on it. We’ll have to see.

My Bet: McCarthy
My Choice: Miller

 

BEST ACTRESS

Cate Blanchett, Carol  
Brie Larson, Room  
Jennifer Lawrence, Joy  
Charlotte Rampling, 45 Years  
Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn

Saorise Ronan’s well-regarded and I see more opportunities in the future for her, but I’m not entirely sure Brooklyn is the right vehicle for Oscar gold. Charlotte Rampling must have been delighted to hear the news and it’s not entirely outside the realm of possibility that she’s a winner, but she’s been out of Hollywood in any significant way for a while now. Cate Blanchett is becoming the new Meryl Streep and won very recently. Jennifer Lawrence will take up the Meryl Streep role should Blanchett falter.

Meanwhile there’s been a whole lot of love (not to mention a Golden Globe win) for Larson in Room, and the thought is that the Oscars is hers to lose this year. I’m inclined to agree; there’s also the wrinkle that it’s possible this will be Room’s Oscar, i.e., the one given to the film so the Academy voters feel fine about skipping over it in other categories. Which is good for Spotlight and The Revenant.

My Bet: Larson
My Choice: Larson

 

BEST ACTOR

Bryan Cranston, Trumbo  
Matt Damon, The Martian
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant
Michael Fassbender, Steve Jobs
Eddie Redmayne, The Danish Girl

Redmayne won last year and Tom Hanks aside, I suspect the Academy is not keen on back-to-back awards in this category. Fassbender’s problem is his film was a flop. Damon I suspect will have to be happy with a Golden Globe. For my money it’s down to Cranston and DiCaprio, and who will win will depend on whether voters want to rub out the stain of the Blacklist from its history by celebrating by proxy its most famous victim (and, to be sure, Cranston’s fine performance), or give DiCaprio the Al Pacino Memorial Academy Award for Being Nominated a Lot So Fine, Here You Go Already. My money is on DiCaprio — hell, I want him to win myself! — but don’t count Cranston out.

My Bet: DiCaprio
My Choice: DiCaprio

 

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hateful Eight
Rooney Mara, Carol  
Rachel McAdams, Spotlight  
Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl
Kate Winslet, Steve Jobs

Alicia Vikander is have a very nice year between The Danish Girl and Ex Machina (let’s quickly slide by The Man From U.N.C.L.E.), and I think the nomination itself is the topping on this particular cake. Likewise a very nice career bump for McAdams, who is moving to more Oscar-friendly roles in her career. Winslet has the same problem to a win that Fassbender has. For my money the race is between Leigh and Mara and which film the Academy decides it wants to honor more. I’d vote for Leigh, personally; I suspect the Academy might go the other way. Which is fine!

Also note: This is the category I historically have the worst luck in guessing, so maybe you should ignore me here.

My Bet: Mara
My Choice: Leigh

 

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

Christian Bale, The Big Short
Tom Hardy, The Revenant
Mark Ruffalo, Spotlight  
Mark Rylance, Bridge Of Spies
Sylvester Stallone, Creed

Look, I’m just going to toss everyone else off the side and say that I will be stunned as fuck if this doesn’t go to Stallone. At this point, it’s the “I Survived Everything And Am Still Around And You Just Have To Honor That” award, and why not. Also, you know. Rocky Balboa. And Creed was otherwise generally stiffed, so this will be a fine tip of the hat to that film.

And yes, we can have the discussion of why only Stallone is nominated in Creed, particularly in a year where there are very few people of color in major award categories (and none in the acting categories) — and should, because damn, Oscar, you really kind of showed your cranky whiteness this year. In this particular case, however, it’s worth nothing that there is literally no path to Creed without Rocky Balboa, and Stallone. While not disagreeing with the general side-eye being given to the Oscars this year at all, I think the Stallone nomination stands on its own merits. He should win this, period.

My Bet: Stallone
My Choice: Stallone

Thoughts in other categories: There’s no way Inside Out doesn’t win Best Animated, and delighted to see it get an Original Screenplay nod as well. On the topic of screenplays, if Spotlight wins the Original Screenplay award, that may be director Tom McCarthy’s Compensatory Oscar, given to directors who don’t get the Director award (see: Tarantino, Welles, Jane Campion, etc). Don’t feel too bad for him; an Oscar’s an Oscar. Suspect The Hateful Eight might win cinematography, not only for its own merits but also for Robert Richardson working with lenses they literally had to dust off to use. Finally, I don’t think I’ll be wrong in thinking that the Academy will find the combination of Diane Warren and Lady Gaga too tempting to resist for Best Original Song (“Til it Happens to You”).

Those are my first-pass guesses. As always, I’ll check in closer to the actual ceremony date with updates. In the meantime, head to the comments to tell me how wrong I am.