John Boehner’s Stepping Down

And honestly, can you blame him? He’s had to ride herd on an increasingly dysfunctional GOP Caucus in the House for four years now, a group that sees actually shutting down the government to get its way as just another political tactic. That’s got to have taken its toll on the man, who I believe at his heart does see government needing to be useful, even if he and I have rather different ideas about what “useful” means in this case. It can’t be fun being Speaker of the House these days. There’s less chaos in a kindergarten, and at least when you’re in charge of a kindergarten, when everyone’s cranky, you can make them take a nap.

So now he’s done, or will be soon — he’s resigning at the end of October as I understand it. I’ve seen people wondering if the Pope, who spoke to Congress yesterday and whose presence in Congress Boehner has apparently worked toward for years (ironic he got his wish with this particular pope, but even so), might have been an influence on what seems like a sudden decision to resign. I don’t suspect directly, no. I don’t think the Bishop of Rome pulled him aside and said, “dude, what are you doing? Get out while you can,” but I think Boehner may  have felt that this particular event was a highlight of his tenure and maybe it was time to go out on a high note, and while he was still young enough (he’s 65) to do something else with his life. I think maybe it crystallized his thinking, as in, why not leave now? It’s a valid question.

I don’t think Boehner’s departure from the Speaker position is going to do the House GOP or the GOP in general any good. I suspect whoever replaces him will be to Boehner’s right and more willing to use the House as a bludgeoning tool to get their way, which will be an interesting dynamic coming into an election year, and I use “interesting” in all its connotations. Right now the House GOP is on the verge of shutting down the government over Planned Parenthood; even if they dodge this particular bullet it will likely be by a stop gap measure that means there will likely be another possible government shutdown a few months down the line. The optics of shutting down the government are never good, and it’s better-than-even odds that the next House speaker won’t have the wit to recognize this. We’ll see.

I live in Boehner’s district and I’ll be very interested to see who replaces him, both short- and long-term. Boehner’s been the representative here since 1991 and he’s never gotten less than 61% of the vote (his first election), and there hasn’t been a Democrat in the OH-8 seat since the Depression. This seat is so safe the Democrats didn’t even run someone against him in 2012. Everyone including me assumed that he’d be in that seat until he was rolled out on a gurney. That being the case, I don’t think anyone’s been lurking in the wings. I mean, I’m sure someone is, in some way; I just don’t have the slightest idea who it might be. In one sense it doesn’t matter, since the GOP could run a dead raccoon in this district and it would still get 60% of the vote. But in another sense, well. Boehner was actually a good fit for OH-8, politically: rock-ribbed Republican rather than unhinged reactionary. I’m mildly worried whoever comes in will be more of the latter than the former.

People have jokingly suggested that now would be a fine time for me to enter public service; my response is thanks, no. I have no ambition to be a US Representative, for many reasons, among them that I would have less time for writing and also because while franking privileges are a compelling perk, overall the pay/perks package is not as good as what I get now. Also, the idea that what I would actually be doing with most of my time is begging for money from people who want me to vote their way, i.e., institutionalized bribe-seeking, depresses the shit out of me. I’m not a fan of the job as it functions today, basically; it seems very far away from what it’s supposed to be, which would be me acting as an actual representative of the people who live in the district.

But even if I were interested in the job, I’m unelectable in OH-8. I’m not a Democrat, so I don’t have that strike against me (I’m registered independent), but I am generally what passes for liberal in the United States. OH-8 is religious and conservative; an agnostic pro-choice dude who believes the rich aren’t being taxed enough is gonna be a hard sell. I’m not going to bother to make it. I have other things to do, and I like those other things I have to do. So, sorry, folks: Not running. Try to contain your disappointment.

As for Boehner, I hope that he does something other than become just another lobbyist. He and I don’t have a lot in common politically, but he generally seems to be a decent human being who means well and tried to do what he saw as best for his district, his nation and Congress. He’s still young enough to do something more with that impulse. I’d like to see him to do that.

The Big Idea: Tade Thompson

For today’s Big Idea, Tade Thompson takes the immigrant experience, plus the problems that crop up when you tell a little lie at the wrong time, and puts them together for his novel Making Wolf. What do we find out? It’s here, below.


Here’s the thing: if you’ve ever moved from one country to another, going back is always a fraught experience. Migration must be worth it, so when returning to the home country you must show off success either in terms of money or status, preferably both.

So what happens if you’re a lowly store detective, but you have to go home for a funeral? You lie. It’s harmless, right? Usually. But in my story the protagonist Weston pretends to be a homicide detective without attending to his audience. He’s kidnapped by a rebel faction and asked to solve a cold-case, a politically radioactive murder that nobody really wants solved unless the finger points at someone else.

What follows is a weird, violent and frightening journey through a country that has become unfamiliar and alien. The amateur sleuth is a time-honoured tradition in crime fiction, but it is usually voluntary. Weston has to solve a murder to keep himself alive. Then there’s Church, his guide in this journey, a personification of the chaos, who might just be responsible for executing Weston should he fail.

I had to create an alternative time line and an imaginary country because Making Wolf is based on aspects of my own childhood in Nigeria and I don’t want to offend individuals who may be identified. The way memory works tells us that what we think we remember is mostly fiction, so the Nigeria I think I’m remembering may no longer exist, or never have existed in the first place.

If I could not write about these matters, I’d have to make everything up, transforming people and places beyond recognition. My speculative fiction background kicked in and I threw worldbuilding at the problem. I created an alternative time line in which the Nigerian civil war had a different outcome, and I created a new country between Nigeria and Cameroun. I was good to go.

What I do remember accurately is the experience of danger, the pervasive paranoia and the constant negotiation of relationships with powerful people. Conspiracy theories were everywhere. The threat of sexual violence was omnipresent, and if you threw a stone, you’d find a victim.

The ingredients were there for a noir narrative: a disconnected detective, a baffling milieu, an ambiguous relationship with the police force, a femme fatale, a murder, and a conspiracy. Raymond Chandler and Mickey Spillane were staples of my childhood literary diet, and it was fitting that Making Wolf emerged as first-person and gritty. Weston is not Philip Marlowe or Mike Hammer, but they do share similar experiences and some DNA strands.

Speaking of DNA, the usual CSI techniques are not available in my narrative. It’s a brute-force investigation depending on leg work, brain power and dumb luck.

At its heart, crime fiction is about the social contract. We agree to live in peace with one another, and if someone comes along who won’t play nice, we sanction them. We use crime fiction to tell ourselves that no matter what happens, if someone breaks the contact, we will find the person and break them. This doesn’t happen all the time in real life, but we would like to believe it does, and so we tell ourselves stories about it.

Making Wolf is one of those stories.


Making Wolf: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

Look What Facebook Has Done To Us, Starring Me and Sara Benincasa

So Facebook went down briefly earlier today, and naturally I had to make a joke about it.

A few minutes later Sara Benincasa posted a suspiciously similar tweet:

And, then, as they say, it was on:

Let’s hope GMail stays up. For all our sakes. But especially Mr. Fluffkins’.

(PS: Sara has a new novel coming out in November. I hear it’s pretty good. Maybe you should pre-order it or something.)

The Big Idea: Douglas Sun

And now, just to shake things up, here’s a Big Idea about a video game — which is based on a book, so don’t panic, we’re not going too far afield. Today, Douglas Sun talks about some of the challenges of a adapting a literary work into a video game: Veiled Alliances.


When it comes to adaptations of novels, it’s a given among readers that the movie won’t be as good as the book. The movie is going to leave out a lot of cool stuff, because it just won’t fit. Movies don’t have the same narrative flexibility and depth as novels. Games are great in and of themselves, but for most readers, it’s rare that you’ll find a one that’s as satisfying as the great (or even good) book on which it was based.

Kimberly Unger and I are working on a Big Idea dished out in small pieces, and our goal is to create adaptations that are just as cool as the book. We aren’t making movies as such. Instead, we’re going to use video game technology to combine the visceral power of moving images with the psychological and intellectual depth of literature. We call it our “subtext engine” — just as video games use a software engine to drive 3D animation, we’re using a software engine to create movies that will have the richness of books.

Our first step in testing this idea is the pilot episode of a 12-part adaptation of Kevin J. Anderson’s novella, Veiled Alliances. This 6-minute “appisode” is embedded in an app for tablets and smartphones that will house and play the remaining appisodes in the series. I’ll admit up front that it’s a test run, and it won’t have the full set of features that we eventually want to include. We’re still looking for the resources that we need to fully flesh out our vision.

But we know that using a video game engine to drive the animation will open up new features that don’t exist in conventional cinematic narrative. The action plays out in a fully three-dimensional environment and you’ll be able to interact with it. You’ll have the freedom to move the camera around, so that you can view the main action from any angle you want, or even just explore the background. Additional features will use sound effects, audio tracks (think mini-soliloquies that overlay the action, instead of stopping the action) and dynamic visual symbology. In its final form, the subtext engine will produce machinima, but richer and with more contextual depth than a typical machinima (or animation, for that matter).

You’ll be able to customize your experience, so that you can turn off or ignore features that don’t interest you. You can just watch the video straight through, with nothing fancy going on, if that’s what you want. But we think this cognitive multitasking will create a richer experience that you’re used to getting with visual narratives — one that captures the feel of literature more than any other graphic or cinematic form.

Veiled Alliances turned out to be a fortuitous vehicle for testing the subtext engine. Kevin J. Anderson allowed us access to this prequel to his Saga of Seven Suns series because our experiment in multilayered narrative interested him, and it’s a good fit. There’s a lot going on underneath the surface of the story — as a prequel, there’s a lot of foreshadowing that hangs over the characters’ hopes and dreams, and there’s a lot of intrigue, where characters conceal as much as they say to each other. This is particularly true of Chapter 14, which we chose to adapt for the pilot. In it, a prince of the Ildiran Empire and a colonial governor with responsibility for a group off human refugees, returns to his homeworld to discuss what is to be done about them, only to find that the Emperor (his father) and the heir-designate (his brother) have cold-blooded plans for this newly-discovered alien race. It’s one of those scenes where what the characters say only touches the surface of what they bring to the discussion.

In writing the script, I had to make the usual decisions that come with adapting prose fiction to a visual medium. Not every little action or line of dialogue made it in. But the subtext engine will allow us to take much (if not most) of what gets edited and work it in through the interactive features, so that everything that the characters and their world bring to the present narrative moment can co-exist as they do in novelistic storytelling.

The modern novel (and its sibling, the short story) is an extraordinarily supple artistic form. It combines showing and telling to capture how the human mind multitasks, regarding itself at the same time as it reaches outward in space and time to give context to the here-and-now with unique grace. Kimberly and I are familiar with video game engines because we’re both hardened game geeks and industry pros, but our backgrounds are also literary — we’re both English majors (I followed that path all the way to the tenure track at Cal State Los Angeles before leaving the academy), we both harbor dreams of writing the Great Futuristic American Novel, and so for both of us, literature is that first love you never forget. Working on the subtext engine and creating the Veiled Alliances app completes the circle for us, combining literature with machinima to bring out the strengths of both.

We’re pleased with what we’ve accomplished so far, and excited about what we expect to accomplish in the future, given sufficient resources. Our adaptation of Veiled Alliances will be available in the iOS store and Google Play, and will work just fine on either tablets or smartphones. We’ll also put a playblast trailer on our YouTube channel. Check it out; let us know if you think we’re onto something.


Veiled Alliances: Visit the game’s site.

eBook Sales and Author Incomes and All That Jazz

People are pointing me to this article in the New York Times about eBooks sales slipping and print sales stabilizing, and are wondering what I think of it. Well:

To begin, I think it’s lovely that print sales and book stores are doing well; it was touch and go there for a while. I’m also not entirely surprised to find that many younger readers — the “digital natives” — like and often prefer physical books. That’s certainly been the case with my daughter (who now, as it happens, works at the local bookstore). She’s sucked into her phone as much as any person her age, or indeed, as much as most people alive, it seems. And yet, when she reads books, and she reads a lot of them, print is her preferred medium, and was even before the bookstore.

With that said, it’s worth noting this bit in the article:

It is also possible that a growing number of people are still buying and reading e-books, just not from traditional publishers. The declining e-book sales reported by publishers do not account for the millions of readers who have migrated to cheap and plentiful self-published e-books, which often cost less than a dollar.

Indeed, a couple of days before this particular article, my Twitter feed was alive with retweets of data showing that publishers’ share of Amazon ebooks sales had decreased while indie sales had increased; since the data had come from a source that is unabashedly pro-indie (and less-than-subtly in my opinion anti-publishing), it also came with rhetoric implying that publishers were doomed, doomed, and so on.

So a couple of things here. First, if we are talking overall book sales, I do think we’re missing a lot if we’re not bringing indie sales into the discussion. There’s a hell of a lot going on there and it’s one of the most exciting places in publishing right now, “exciting” being used in many senses of the term. But no matter how you slice it, if you’re lightly sliding over its existence, you’re not accurately describing the current publishing market.

But, second, I don’t think declining eBook sales from publishers means they’re doomed, doomed, either. This is in part because (and this seems to be a point of some confusion) there’s more to publishing than maximizing eBook sales numbers in the short term. Publishers, for example, might decide that it’s in their long-term interest to stabilize and even grow the print market, and price both their eBooks and print books in a manner that advantages the latter over the former in the short term.

Why would they do that? For a number of reasons, including the fact that Amazon is still 65% of the eBook market in the US, and publishers, as business entities, are appropriately wary of a retailer which a) clearly has monopsonist ambitions and tendencies, b) has been happy to play hardball with publishers to get its way. Investing time in strengthening alternate retail paths makes sense in that case, especially if, as the article suggests, consumers are happy to receive the book in different formats for an advantageous price. If people fundamentally don’t care if they read something in print or electronic format, as long as they get a price they like, that leaves publishers a lot of room to maneuver.

Which is not to say I think publishers are blind to the potential advantages of the digital space. Note well that publishers have not been idle addressing the digital-only market; numerous publishers now have digital-only (or “digital-first” with publish-on-demand print option) imprints, and several, including Tor, my primary fiction publisher, have started imprints devoted specifically to novellas, a format that is now emerging from a long commercial slumber thanks to digital formats. I think it’s entirely possible that publishers have as their long-term strategy imprints and initiatives that primarily address particular media, with some imprints, books and authors primarily digital-facing and some primarily print-facing, depending on where their data tells them money is to be made with each book/author/imprint/whatever.

The short version of all of the above is: I’m sure publishers are happy about print doing well, and I would be mildly surprised if publishers are too deeply concerned with the short-term dip in digital sales, especially if they are investing in positioning themselves for the long-term. Again I remind everyone that many if not most of these publishers have been around decades and have seen changes in the market as significant as the one we’re going through today. They’re tenacious bastards, publishing companies are.

While we’re on the subject of publishing and writers, people have asked me what I thought about the Author’s Guild survey that shows author incomes down substantially from what was reported in a 2009 survey, with full-time authors seeing a 30% decrease from $25k to $17.5K, and part-time authors reporting an even steeper drop. Added to that, this NPR piece noting the relatively meager sales of some of the books nominated for this year’s Man Booker prize. Between the both of them, it’s enough to make writers a little gloomy.

My first thought about the latter is to note there is not nor ever has there been a strong correlation between “literary excellence” and strong sales, nor when it comes to awards should there necessarily be. The Man Booker is a juried award, if I remember correctly, so awareness through sales isn’t much of a factor in terms of what gets onto its long and short lists. So, no, it’s not really surprising some of the finalists haven’t sold that much prior to the announcement. They’ll probably sell better now, however.

It’s also not a huge surprise that most books don’t sell that well. That, at least, is a consistent fact through time. Kameron Hurley notes the lifetime sales of the average published and self-published book here, if you want to look. The rise of self/indie publishing is kind of a wash on this, I suspect; it allows you to price a book very cheaply, but it also means the market is swamped and it’s harder to stand out. It doesn’t matter how low you price your book if no one ever sees it out there, etc.

But with respect to writer incomes dropping via the Author’s Guild survey, this is one place where I wish we had better (which is to say more comprehensive and in some way independently verifiable) reporting from indie authors, because I suspect there’s a lot of money not being reported out there, not only in terms of direct indie/self-publishing unit sales, but through other avenues like Kickstarters and Patreons, which I anecdotally see adding a non-trivial amount of income to writers’ bottom lines. I suspect these are avenues that a lot of writers who are used to particular income paths are either not aware of, or exploiting — or perhaps can’t exploit because their established audiences are used to paying in them in particular ways. I’d love to see the figures on who crowdfunds, in terms of age; my suspicion is that it skews younger.

Would this money I suspect is going missing substantially move the needle in terms of overall author incomes? I don’t know. I suspect it might, but it’s possible not as much as some people cheerleading indie/self-publishing would like to admit.

I’ve noted before that I think in general there are three kinds of authors: Dinosaurs, mammals and cockroaches, where the dinosaurs are authors tied to an existing publishing model and are threatened when it is diminished or goes away, mammals are the authors who rise to success with a new publishing model (but who then risk becoming dinosaurs at a later date), and cockroaches are the authors who survive regardless of era, because they adapt to how the market is, rather than how they want it to be. Right now, I think publishing might be top-heavy with dinosaurs, and we’re seeing that reflected in that Author’s Guild survey.

What we’re missing — or at least what I haven’t seen — is reliable data showing that the mammals — indie/self-publishing folks, in this case — are doing any better on average. If these writers are doing significantly better on average, then that would be huge. It’s worth knowing.

Update, 2:52pm: This excellent point on eBook sales from Tor editor Beth Meacham:

The Big Idea: Christopher Barzak

For today’s Big Idea, Christopher Barzak takes you to the family farm and explains how a little bit of his own personal history informs his latest novel, Wonders of the Invisible World.


Wonders of the Invisible World was an attempt to save my family.

Which is a little ironic, because the protagonist of the novel—Aidan Lockwood—is also charged with the duty of saving his family. Specifically, he’s charged with the duty of saving them from an ancestral curse that has been brought upon them by a decidedly nasty act of hubris that his great-grandfather commits nearly a hundred years prior.

My attempt to save my family wasn’t so much to rescue us from an ancestral curse, so much as to rescue us, somehow, from the passage of time, from the way anyone’s family fades over time, as the shadow of mortality grows ever closer, until it eclipses not only individual lives, but the life of a family unit.

I was thirty years old when I began writing this novel. I’m forty now. In between the span of those ten years, I published two other novels and a collection of short stories. I moved to Japan to teach English. I earned an MFA while teaching full time at a university after I returned. For a while, I wasn’t sure if I’d ever clear away enough time and space for a continuous span of concentration I need to complete a novel. But I continued to work on multiple drafts of this book, because it was a story in which I was preserving details from the landscape of my childhood: my grandparents’ farm, where I grew up among a large, extended family that all made their homes either on the farm or nearby it.

No, Wonders of the Invisible World isn’t necessarily about my family. The Barzaks aren’t cursed like the Lockwood family is. But when I was thirty and began trying to write a novel that might capture some of the essence of my family life, it was because, at that point, every time I’d visit my family, I’d see another piece of our shared past fading away. I watched my grandfather unstring the barbed wire fences that outlined his various pastures and orchard. I saw the last tree standing in the orchard cut down. I watched as his remaining stock of cattle were sold off, and I watched as my grandparents’ farmhouse itself, well over a hundred years old now, begin to crumble around them before they themselves passed away in recent years.

The big idea for me was to capture the essence of a way of life, rural and agrarian, before it passed away completely. So the setting of Wonders of the Invisible World is largely based on my family home. The orchard, the creek that flows through it, the pastures and the cornfields. Even the farmhouse in which the Lockwood family lives. I’ve often used the places where I’ve lived for a long period of time as settings for my books, but this time it was more personal, acting as a totem of sorts as I wrote the book.

The big idea, though, that I wanted to capture for the reader, who has no interest in my personal connection to the story necessarily, was to capture the essence of the passage of time, of a young man—seventeen year old Aidan Lockwood—who discovers an ancestral family secret, and in the process of reclaiming memories of his own childhood that have been magically obscured by someone trying to protect him, discovers parts of himself that he’d never known before.

In a lot of ways, discovering one’s family history is a way of discovering yourself. So many things about the formation of our personalities and processes for thinking are determined, to some extent, by the families that create and shape us. Wonders of the Invisible World is a young adult novel, and in this way I felt like the plot I invented reflected, literally, the way a young adult begins to see the members of their family more clearly as they come of age. To see Mom and Dad as more than the role they play as parents. To see grandparents as people who have shaped their own parents. History, at least for me, only came alive as I became a late teenager; and in discovering more about my own family, I felt like I was discovering myself, my place within the story my family inhabits.

Ten years is a long time to work on a novel in stop and go fashion. It wasn’t ideal. It made me question the story every time I came back to it, when some small amount of time for that kind of work became available. I wrote three drafts, threw them all out. Started from scratch on a fourth, and finally found the shape of the story I needed to hold everything I wanted to address inside it. What was the key turning point? Realizing that in order to contain all of the bits and pieces I wanted in the story, I would have to make my protagonist suffer from a spell (a literal one) of forgetfulness, in order for the act of remembering to become a magical event in and of itself.

There are so many more bits of magic in this novel than those I’ve mentioned. There’s a white stag, the specter of a man in a black suit, harbingers of Death, a voice that comes from a dead apple tree, visions and dreams that come to Aidan Lockwood unbidden. It’s a personal story that pushes outward into the epic, encapsulating a hundred years of his family life. I’m not sure if I really did, in the end, manage to save my family by writing this book, much as I tried (perhaps pure memoir would be better for such an act), but I do know that Aidan Lockwood manages to save his. And after ten years of struggling with him throughout his journey, seeing this story contained in the bound pages of a book feels at least a little bit like redemption.


Wonders of the Invisible World: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powells

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

Last Sunset of the Summer, 2015

And with it begins Yom Kippur. Tomorrow is the autumnal equinox here in the northern hemisphere (at 4:21am my local time). Busy day.

It’s been a good summer for me. Hope it was for you, too.

Nobody Likes An Asshole (Except Maybe Other Assholes)

Adam-Troy Castro has a post up called “Writers: The Long-Term Benefits of Not Being An Ass,” which I encourage you to read, with the awareness that the advice has works equally as well when you substitute any other profession for “Writer” (or indeed, you can also substitute “human” and it works just as well).

Also, let me just second nearly all of what Adam-Troy is saying there. Folks, the fact is that people’s tolerance for working with complete assholes is pretty low. In the field of writing, in my experience, being an asshole is generally neither here nor there in terms of how an audience sees you (they’re focused on your output, not your personality), but it has a lot to do with how much slack those who have to work with you will cut you. And when no one wants to work with you, it makes it harder for your audience to find you.

And yes, if you sell millions of books, then you probably get to be as big of an asshole as you want to be and people still have to put up with you. But not many people sell that much. The list probably doesn’t include you (sorry. It doesn’t include me, either). It’s been interesting recently to watch writers who sell relatively little who have nevertheless decided being a complete asshole to other people in the industry was a winning move. They are either extraordinarily confident they will never be dropped by their current publisher (which is not a smart thing to assume when you sell relatively little), or they hope self-publishing will save them (also not smart).

(Or they’re simply convinced that it’s not them who’s an asshole, it’s everyone else. In the latter case, well, you can believe that, but if everyone else outside your tightly-sealed little group disagrees with you, then you still have a problem.)

Or, and this has been suggested to me before, there’s the theory that being a complete asshole is a marketing strategy to build an audience. My thought on this is, well, okay, but the sort of person who gets off on watching you be an asshole is probably an asshole themselves. And while I suppose that an asshole’s money spends just as well as anyone else’s, I’d still be uncomfortable actively cultivating that particular market. Again, generally your audience doesn’t care about your personality, but if you make being an asshole a selling point, to the particular market of assholes, then that’s the market you’ll be stuck with, you know? Then you’ll always have to be an asshole. And, you know. I can be an asshole just like anyone else. But I try to limit the total time I am one. It’s tiring. I can’t imagine having to do it all the time.

So, yes. Listen to Adam-Troy. Try to be a decent person, to the people you work with and even the people you don’t; Remember how you treat people on the way up is how they treat you on the way down; Maybe you can be an asshole if you sell millions, but you probably don’t and even if you do, you should still try not to be one. People remember. And people talk. And people choose who they want to do business with, and who they want to help.

Duran Duran, Neil Gaiman, and Beginnings

I’m both a friend and fan of Neil Gaiman, and a former music critic. So for years I’ve known about, but had never seen, Neil’s very first published book, the 1984 quickie biography of Duran Duran, arguably the biggest band to emerge from the first era of MTV (“You know! Back when they actually played music!” the 80s kids grouse, shaking their canes in unison). It’s a difficult find because a) it was a quickie bio of a pop band, not exactly meant to survive through the ages, b) apparently the company that published it went under shortly after it was published, so there were never that many copies to begin with. The fact that Neil’s become NEIL GAIMAN also adds to the rarity as collectors snap them up. Decent copies of the book fetch hundreds of dollars; at this moment on eBay there’s a copy whose description all but implies the tattered book is smudged with a then-14-year-old girl’s kisses which is being offered for $130. And while I like Neil, I’m not sure I’m willing to part with that much in order to see the thing.

Fortunately, there’s now a “Neil Gaiman Rarities” eBook Humble Bundle (which, at the time of this writing, is on its last day — pick it up here if you see this within 24 hours of this post’s publication), and Neil stuck in the bio as part of the bundle. As soon as I saw that it was in there, I slapped down my money (more than the $15 required to unlock the tier that included the bio, I’ll note) and made a beeline to download the pdf version.

How is it?

Oh, my friends. It is glorious.

It is glorious primarily because it is a triple-treat bit of nostalgia. One, it’s a nostalgia piece for the 80s, and of a certain stripe of 80s British music journalism, a tone and feel I personally most associate with Smash Hits, the magazine me and all my we-want-to-be-too-cool friends in high school would read to find out what Morrissey and Pete Burns were up to (apparently they were friends! Pete would come round for tea! or so I recall). Two, obviously, it’s a nostalgia piece for Duran Duran, who when the book came out were at their most Duran-iest, which is to say, with the original line-up, before Andy and Roger left, with those first three studio albums and all those Russell Mulcahy videos.

Three, it’s a nostalgia piece for Neil, although I suspect as much or more so for him as the rest of us, because here Neil is 24 years old and a journalist and almost no one has the slightest idea who he is. He hasn’t become NEIL GAIMAN and won’t start being that guy for a few more years yet, when Sandman kicks in. Nevertheless this is a reminder that everyone who is someone comes from somewhere and starts with something; this is where Neil begins as an author of books. For anyone who is a published author, a book like this is going to be evocative of their own first book, however many years back in the timestream that is.

Yes, yes, you say. Fine, nostalgia, whatever. Is the book itself any good? It’s Neil Gaiman writing but can we see the NEIL GAIMAN he became in it?

Maybe a little? I think maybe there’s some expectation management that needs to be put in place. To wit: it’s a quickie bio of a pop band. The thing is 132 pages long, and most of that is pictures. It ain’t exactly Mystery Train, nor would it be fair to suggest it was supposed to be. I don’t know the specifics of its compilation, but I would be a bit surprised if Neil had more than a couple of months to cobble the thing together with bits and anecdotes from newspaper and magazine articles. There’s nothing in the text to suggest that Neil spent any time with the band itself, back when the thing was put together (he does go to a concert, however, where he’s frustrated by the inarticulateness of the band’s fans, which leads, somewhat amusingly, to him being upbraided for his snobbishness by a fan on a train, after the concert).

The nature of bio — short, full of facty tidbits rather than personal connection, probably written fast — mitigates against actual, shall we say, art. Neil gets in a clever line here and there, and his penchant for sardonicism via phrasing and pacing is in embryonic form in the text. If you know Neil Gaiman’s mature writing, you can see some of what he does in that, here. If you were reading it cold, I don’t know, maybe you’d see it? It’s hard to say.

As noted above, the tone of the text owes as much to a certain style of journalism as it does to Neil’s native writing gifts and discipline. I doubt that anyone who read this in 1984 slammed it down on completion and said “My God, this is the voice of a man who will become one of the most beloved fantasy authors of our time!” On the other hand, I doubt that if you got into a time machine and told that same 1984 reader that Neil did go on to become one of the most beloved fantasy authors of our time, they would look at you in horror and wonder what sort of dystopian hellscape allowed such a thing to occur. I suspect they would go “Really? Huh,” and then ask you why, if you indeed had the privilege of a time machine, you would waste it on such a trivial errand.

Which is to say: The bio’s not bad. It’s competent — possibly more competent than its editing, which occasionally allows for paragraphs to appear more than once. It’s light and it’s a quick, mildly informative read. Neil jams in the Duran Duran trivia (you can tell it’s the eighties because we learn all the band members’ astrological signs) and even attempts a bit of criticism with the albums and the videos, although none of the criticism is really that critical; there are a couple places where Neil is all “well, that one was a bit dodgy, wasn’t it?” but that’s about it. This is not an actual complaint on my part, because again: quick bio of a pop band, aimed at its fans. If Neil had gone off on a rant about how none of the lyrics of Seven and the Ragged Tiger actually mean a single goddamn thing Jesus what the hell is going on in Simon Le Bon’s head besides cocaine and Cristal I suspect his editors would have pulled him aside to let him know to trim it up otherwise he’d be murdered by a roving pack of Duran Duran fans. And thus would the history of comic books and fantasy literature have been irrevocably changed.

(Although, seriously: Seven and the Ragged Tiger. Nothing there makes even the slightest lick of sense. “The Union of the Snake” is just friggin word salad, man. We can say it now, here in 2015.)

But, you know. I didn’t read it expecting it to be brilliant stuff, and I don’t find it glorious because of its prose. I find it glorious (aside from the nostalgia value) because it’s 2015 and I know who that 24-year-old writer is going to become one day, even if he doesn’t. I know that 31 years down the line, the kid writing about these other vastly more famous kids — Neil is the same age as the Duran Duran members — is going to be in his way just as famous as any of them, individually or possibly even together, and he has absolutely no idea. It’s probably not even on his radar, because how would it be? All he knows is that someone said (more or less): “Hey kid, write a book on Duran Duran,” and he said “Yeah, okay, I can do that,” and inside he was probably thinking this is it. I’m on my way. Because when you get your first book, that’s what you think: Here we go.

I wish I could get back in that time machine to 1984 and tell 24-year-old Neil about this. “Neil!” I would say. “In 2015 you will have 16 times as many Twitter followers as Simon Le Bon!” And he would say “Those words all make sense individually but not as a sentence,” as politely as possible and then he would back away quickly from the very odd American blathering nonsensical terms like “blog” and “Internet,” who is telling him something about people named “Amanda” and “Anthony” (two people named Anthony, actually) and suggesting that black really is going to be a good look for him, just wait and see. Poor 24-year-old Neil, accosted by creepy balding Americans from the future. Perhaps best to let him be.

I also find it glorious because 24-year-old me was not at all unlike 24-year-old Neil: A journalist, writing about famous people and not really knowing how vastly different his future was going to be from his then-present. In fact, one of the famous people the 24-year-old me wrote about and interviewed was a guy named Neil Gaiman; I wrote a whole newspaper story about the hip new medium of graphic novels just so I could have an excuse to call him up and talk to him (I didn’t know how to pronounce his last name so when his daughter picked up the phone and I asked to speak to him, I could hear her say “Hey dad, someone wants to talk to Neil GUY-man!”). My own first published book wasn’t a quickie bio, but a book on online finance, now also out of print and utterly unrelated to the sort of work I would become known for (it’s also competent and a quick, informative read).

I don’t want to press the comparison too heavily, mind you; Neil’s, uh, a little bit further along than I am (and Simon Le Bon has twice the Twitter followers I do). But I am saying when I read the Duran Duran bio, I smiled, because I remember being someplace very similar to where that kid was, back then.

As I said, the Duran Duran book is an exercise in nostalgia. But a nostalgia that does not suggest that the past was a better time than now; just a different time, gone but not entirely forgotten. Here in the present, within days of each other, Duran Duran, 35 years into a career, put out a new album, and Neil has put out a new edition of his own (in collaboration with Amanda, his beloved wife). Times have changed, and times are good. The bio chronicles the start of a band and of a writer, and both are still going strong. I like that I’ve seen the beginning, and the latest, from each. The world has not heard the last of either.

(Reminder: If you’re seeing this within 24 hours of its publication, you still have time to pick up the Duran Duran bio, and other rarities from Neil, through the Humble Bundle. Totally worth it, plus you help the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund and literacy charity The Moth. Go get the bundle while you still can!)

The Big Idea: Kent Davis

For his Big Idea piece today, Kent Davis explains how a mental image, and some experience writing role-playing games, ended up being the foundation for his novel A Riddle in Ruby.


I had this picture in my head. It clanked around, bumping into the furniture and leaving oil stains on all the brain-curtains. Certainly it wasn’t the most heroic of images, but it hung on, badgering and rattling and poking for days that turned into weeks.

A girl, shoulder-deep in a large whiskey barrel. The girl wears a battered tricorne hat, and the barrel stands atop articulated metal ostrich legs.

Yeah. Random. But somehow charming. And oddly compelling, too. Why a tricorne? Why a barrel? Who is this girl? And what’s the flippin’ deal with the metal ostrich legs? The picture clamored to be explained. It wanted to be lit up. So I tore it apart.

The battered tricorne beckoned first. I’ve always had a thing for the North American colonies, but in the time before the War of Independence. Like, half a century before. Holding for dear life onto the edge of the East coast, rife with both pluck and gumption, pocked with colonialist warts, watching the Age of Reason unfold from the continental kiddie table? That’s my jam. Frontier cultures have a special attraction for me—I live in Montana—and I love the idea that in earlier times the borders of the known world (at least for the Europeans) lay mere miles from isolated little settlements like Philadelphia or New Amsterdam.

Then came the barrel with legs—articulated, gawky, powered by means unknown! The whole contraption gave off more than a whiff of steampunk, but I didn’t want to give up the colonial feel, or the pluck, or the gumption. Besides, the story needed magic, and I was searching for something a bit more exotic than steam. I came to understand, however, that the necessary magic was not the pointy-hatted, wand-ridden, unicorns and elves kind. It required arcane mysteries suited to the beginning of the Enlightenment, practiced not by Gandalf or Glenda, but by the Bacons and Germains and Newtons of that historical moment. What if a kind of science that produced its own miracles could be the magic engine of the story? Like chemistry, for example?

I’m the co-creator of a tabletop RPG that sports a magic system for alchemy, where arcane scientists essentially nudge the laws of chemistry in spectacular and sometimes even miraculous ways. Stone walls change into glass. Frozen lakes puff into clouds of superheated steam. That sort of thing. What if this magic/science manifested in the setting? It would make for a very short walk to the land of antimony ostrich legs.

But this magic wouldn’t exist in a vacuum. It couldn’t help but change the course of history. The ripples spread, and more questions got answered. Applied chemystry—now sporting a sexy “y” instead of its conventional “i”—would quickly allow artisans to leap forward in their manipulation of materials to create great works of chemystral craft, pushing technology and manufacturing forward to levels only seen in our 1800s. Of course, that kind of change would topple all manner of political and economic dominoes, not to mention give rise to an array delectable bonuses: alchemycal automatons, clocklock pistols, cobalt gearbeasts. This nascent world suddenly began to offer up its own ideas! That’s when the dancing around the room began.

However, the final and arguably most important component of this Big Idea remained: the girl.

What kind of hero lives in this chem-driven and slightly batty world? I thought perhaps one built to fit a society on the brink of social revolutions: imperfect, a little bit odd, bold to the point of endangerment, gifted but a touch lost. A scrapper. Her name is Ruby Teach, and she is an apprentice thief, a smuggler’s daughter, and a repository of secrets. She’s thirteen, and she is not the Chosen One of high fantasy. No prophecies have been written about her. A noble lineage is hers neither in public nor in secret. She’s common. She bears a secret, true, but even it does not belong to her. This riddle makes her a sort of carrier. In her words, she’s the baggage.

But she has a mind and a will of her own, and when her world is turned upside down she takes action in courageous, reckless, and sometimes even ridiculous fashion. She acts. She does not wait to be told, and she often spurns the advice of those who think they know better. She wants to discover the truth for herself, even if it hurts. I tried to write a girl that my wife would have loved as a kid, and I tried to write a girl that I would have loved as a kid, one lost in the clanking tinker towns and forbidding frontier forests of the Chemystral Age. I hope your kids might love her, too.

Or you. I mean, you might like her. Sure. Why should the kids get to have all the fun?

So. The tricorne, the ostrich legs, and the girl. That image went the way of many big ideas: dissected, chopped up, and blended into an alchemycal stew far more exciting to me than the original.

By the way, the barrel shows up, too, but the when of it is a surprise. Ruby shouldn’t be the only one who gets to have secrets.

A Riddle in Ruby: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

Sunset Clouds

The day got away from me, which is actually happening fairly frequently these days (today’s was for a good reason which I can’t tell you about yet but which will be squee-worthy if it comes to fruition, I assure you), so in lieu of actual words about things today, allow me to present you with yesterday’s clouds at sunset, which were more interesting than the actual sunset, since where the sun was setting was free of clouds or interesting atmospheric effects. I only present you the good parts! That’s because I care, you know.

Pictures From Homecoming, 2015

Athena’s school’s homecoming dance was last night, and of course she and her boyfriend Hunter got all dressed up for it. There was a bit of drama when the dress shop that Athena purchased her dress from hemmed it both poorly and ridiculously short, but through the kindness of friends, a last-minute substitute dress was found and in fact looked even better than the original dress.

Naturally I took photos. Here are a few.

And one of Athena, being very serious.

If you’d like to see the full homecoming picture set, it’s here.

And that’s what I have for this Sunday.

Last Night’s Twitter Rant Involving 20somethings and Finance

As a side note, when I was posting this, I was getting some stick from presumably 20something people who were all, “Yeah, you don’t know what it’s like these days for 20somethings! It’s terrible!” And I get that, but I don’t know that it matters; debt and savings are concepts separate from that. If you have debt in your 20s (school loans and credit cards, for example) pay it down first if the interest rate on that is likely to be more than you’ll get from investing. Then invest and save. You’ll still be able to hang with friends and have a good time even if you’re putting a little bit into savings/investment with every paycheck. Honest!

Anyway, yes. The article linked to above is seriously one of the stupidest things I’ve read in a while. Don’t listen to it. It’s wrong wrong wrongy wrong wrong.

New Books and ARCs, 9/17/15

As we head off into the weekend, here’s this week’s new books and ARCs that have arrived at the Scalzi Compound. Which speaking to you? Tantalizingly? Tell me in the comments.

Why Is This Woman Smiling

Possibly because she’s holding the last mortgage check she’ll ever write.

And no, I’m not taking over the mortgage-check-writing responsibilities. It’s the last mortgage check. Wheee!

When people ask me what inspires me to write, I frequently say “my mortgage.” I’ll have to think of some new smart-ass response.

In any event, if you’ve ever bought one of my books, you are in an infinitesimally small way to thank for getting us to this point. So: Thank you. I promise to keep writing more books, even without a mortgage dangling over my head. After all, I still have Athena’s college to pay for.

Where I Will Be in October

October is a busy month for me! Here are the places you can see me then.

Oct 2-3: Iowa City Book Festival, Iowa City. I arrive on Friday and will be loitering about, but my events will be on Saturday. I’m doing a reading and (I think!) a signing. More details soon. Nevertheless — I’ll be there!

October 8: New York Comic Con, NYC. One day only, and on Thursday at that. I’ll be doing two signings and emceeing a panel introducing a pretty talented quartet of Tor writers and leading them through a game of “Would You Rather.” It’s going to be a ridiculous amount of fun.

October 9-10: Nerdcon:Stories, Minneapolis. I’m all over this one with panels, signings and a couple of other goofy events. I will be bringing a ukulele. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

October 24: Tacoma Public Library, Tacoma. I’ll be doing two events here. From 9:30 to 12:00, I’ll be doing a writing workshop (which will likely be a couple of sessions with me talking about a writing career from a creative standpoint and from a business standpoint), and then from 1 to 3:30 I’ll be doing a reading, Q&A and signing.

So, yup, pretty busy in the month of October. And what do I have planned for November and December? Not a damn thing. Well, maybe I’ll write a book, but other than that, nothing. Don’t worry, my 2016 is packed.

The Big Idea: Seth Dickinson

In this Big Idea for The Traitor Baru Cormorant, author Seth Dickinson wants you to give up a cheer for the villain. Will you? I’ll let him try to convince you.


My master plan would’ve changed the course of history! I put my life into this — I leveraged politicians, I conjured up shell corporations, I put puppets on every throne and agents in every council. I built something! I had a vision!

And they call you a hero. What did you do? You stumbled in at the last moment and broke everything.

If heroism means standing up for the status quo, then I’ll have no part of it. The world’s full of suffering. Someone must act.


The Traitor Baru Cormorant is the story of a young woman trying to tear down a colonial empire, avenge her fathers, and liberate her home. The Masquerade wants to rule the world, so that they can fix it. Baru can’t beat them from the outside, killing them one by one with a sword the way Luke Skywalker or Aragorn might — unlike most evil empires, they’re smart people who take sensible precautions. Baru wouldn’t stand a chance against a single Masquerade marine.

Being surpassingly clever and excitingly ruthless, Baru decides to destroy the Masquerade from the inside. She’ll join their civil service, prove herself as a really awesome operative, and secure enough power to get what she wants. (She thinks Luke should do the same thing.)

Baru will, in short, become an evil overlord: a brilliant superspy plotting triple-cross operations right under the noses of her masters, conspiring to topple nations with banking schemes, daring heists, ornamental men, secret alliances, private armies, napalm, pirates, and the occasional sword duel, when absolutely necessary. An evil overlord working for good!

And man, was I excited to write an epic fantasy book about an overlord.

Do you have the same frustration with heroes that I do? They’re happy to sit around whuffling like a big fat seal until they get hit with an Inciting Event, and then the story has to convince them to go uncover the villain’s plan and stop him (usually him, alas) right in the nick of time.

But not the villain!

The villain’s the one who wants to change the world. The villain’s the one who constructs mountain lairs and secret cabals and schemes with threatening names and legions of snappily dressed goons. The villain gets to do stuff while the hero’s still scrambling around in confusion. Secret bank accounts! Strike teams! Blackmail! Disguise! Research into the forbidden arts! Dominating every conversation with radiant authority!

I don’t want to watch some lunk stumble his way to survival with swinging fists. I want to see — heck, I want to write about the character driving the action. The character who actually wants to be in this story. You can tell because she’s the one who woke up one day and said “I’m going to work really hard to change the world.”

If you want to protect how things are, get a hero. But if you want to change the world — if you want to shake the titanic, interlocked systems of civilization until they bend into a new and better shape — get an overlord.

And I do want to write about changing the world. The world’s not a good place yet. We should work hard to fix it, and that means working for change.

I wrote this book because I kept hearing an argument repeated: ‘a woman/a queer person/a person of color could never be the hero of a fantasy story. They’d be too oppressed to do anything. That’s just how things were.’

So Baru lives in a world where she’s targeted by awful oppression — racism towards people from her home island, sexism that denies her control over her own body, and homophobia that will see her maimed or killed if she makes a move on the wrong woman. Baru is the protagonist, and she refuses to be denied power and agency. Locked away in a Masquerade school? She’ll perform so well on the merit exams that they have to notice her. Exiled to a distant province as a mere accountant? She’ll take over the whole economy and dictate terms to royalty. Frozen out of government? She’ll build her own shadow government.

That’s the big idea in The Traitor Baru Cormorant: a protagonist who uses a villain’s tools for heroic endsBaru is a shark, an incorrigible bastard, a menace and a delight. She loves power. She’s going to get as much of it as she can.

She’s going to use that power to fix her world. And nothing — not even her own hopes and qualms — will stand in the way.


The Traitor Baru Cormorant: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

When I Became a Fan

Over in the comments section of this entry at File770, there is a minor discussion of when it was I considered myself a “fan,” and whether it was before I made my formal entry into the world of science fiction fandom (at Torcon 3, the 2003 Worldcon in Toronto) or not. Well, I know the answer to this, so let me answer it here.

The answer, no, not really. Certainly I was a fan of science fiction as a literary genre before Torcon, but it was to the same extent I was a fan of lots of other things, which is to say that I had a comfortable bias toward the genre as something I enjoyed. It was one of my favorite genres to read, but I liked other genres as much if not more — I would as happily read a Fletch novel or a collection of Molly Ivins columns as I would a book by Heinlein. I’ve noted before that when it came time to write my first novel, I basically flipped a coin to determine whether it would be a SF novel or a mystery/crime novel; I could have gone either way (they both would have been set in Hollywood).

Also, I knew I that “fandom” — the group of people who attended and participated in science fiction and fantasy conventions — existed prior to attending Torcon, but I had no connection to that world at all. The closest I came to it was covering a one-day Creation Star Trek convention in Fresno when I worked at the newspaper there (Michael Dorn was the headliner). I don’t count that because I was on the job; I was assigned to go there, I didn’t attend of my free will. Interestingly, before Torcon, Krissy had been to more conventions than I had; she attended an X-Files convention (also done by Creation) as a fan of the series before she met me.

Nor, to be blunt, was I particularly interested in being in “fandom” once I started writing science fiction with an eye toward publication. The group that I wanted to be part of (and did become part of, basically as soon as my contracts got signed) was SFWA, the professional organization of science fiction writers. I assumed (incorrectly) that there was a sharp division between fans and pros in the SF/F world, so obviously I would want to be sorted into the correct group. Note that when I did go to my first science fiction convention, it was with the intent of me, as a pro, meeting the people who would soon (hopefully) be my audience. This is not precisely the attitude of someone who is diving headfirst into fandom.

Did Torcon turn me into a fan? Not really, no. Torcon was mostly about me trying to figure what fandom was and what being a professional science fiction writer was about. I had a great time and I learned a lot and I met some people there who I have been friends with since, but I don’t know that I would say I considered myself a fan after the convention. Nor do I think it took with the next convention I went to, which was the 2004 Worldcon in Boston, although by that time I felt I understood better what fandom was and how I connected to it, in part because I was by that time participating with other writers and fans online.

I would say the first time I felt that I was part of fandom was when I attended my first “local” convention, which would have been the 2005 edition of ConFusion, which takes place in suburban Detroit. It was smaller and less overwhelming than a Worldcon, which was useful, but the other thing that happened is that I started making friends, not just with the pros at the convention, but with the other folks too — and I realized that I liked them as people, and I hoped that they liked me, and I enjoyed the convention for itself and not just as a thing I should go to for professional reasons. I had also by that time learned that there really was no dividing line between “fan” and “pro” in the context of fandom — people were often both, enthusiastically, at the same time. So I stopped worrying about where I was in the context of fandom and simply started being a part of it.

So, yeah, 2005. That’s the year I felt I was part of fandom.

To this day I like to joke that I’m a naturalized citizen of fandom, in that I became part of it in my mid-thirties, having not really had a point of connection to it previously. I know people who are third- and fourth-generation fans and that fact kind of blows my mind. Naturalized or not, fandom has taken me in, with all the positives and negatives that entails — I won the Fan Writer Hugo in 2008, for example, for the writing I do here, which was to me a concrete sign I had been accepted into the tribe. I cherish it for that and for being my first Hugo… but I’ll note there are people who still grumble about the fact I won it, which is of course a very fannish thing to do, too.

And that’s fine. Being part of fandom means accepting it has many aspects and opinions and controversies and drama. It’s part of the package. I’ll take it.

How Many Books You Should Write In a Year

Folks have pointed me toward this Huffington Post piece, begging self-published authors not to write four books a year, because the author (Lorraine Devon Wilke) maintains that no mere human can write four books a year and have them be any good. This has apparently earned her the wrath of a number of people, including writer Larry Correia, who snarks apart the piece here and whose position is that a) the premise of the article is crap, and b) authors should get paid, and if four books a year gets you paid, then rock on with your bad self. I suspect people may be wanting to have me comment on the piece so I can take punches at either or both Wilke or Correia, and are waiting, popcorn at ready.

If so, you may be disappointed. With regard to Correia’s piece, Larry and I disagree on a number of issues unrelated to writing craft, but we align fairly well here, and to the extent that I’m accurately condensing his points here, we don’t really disagree. One, there are a lot of writers who write fast and well, for whom four books a year of readable, enjoyable prose is not a stretch. And, you know. If you can do that, and you want to do that, and you see an economic benefit to it, then why not do it?

Two, there really isn’t a huge correlation between time writing and quality of the finished work. Yes, as Wilke notes, The Goldfinch took Donna Tartt eleven years to write, and she got a Pulitzer for it, but so what? A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess, was famously written in three weeks and is generally considered to be one of the great novels of the 20th Century. We can have an argument to which novel of the two is better, but that’s not the point, and anyway no matter what the two are within hailing distance of each other. The point is, again, there’s not a huge correlation between time writing and quality of finished work, particularly when one is cherry-picking one’s examples.

How much time does it take to write a novel? As long as it takes. I wrote Redshirts in five weeks; it took me most of a year to write The End of All Things. Which is better? It’s a subjective call. On average it takes me three to four months of daily work to write a novel. Would my novels be better if I took two years each on them? Maybe, but I kind of doubt it. I write the speed I write because that’s the speed I write. If I inherently wrote faster, then they would take less time. If I inherently wrote slower, then they would take more. I suspect the inherent quality of the work would remain about equal, because I am the writer I am.

Also, you know. What a “novel” or “book” is, is a very fungible thing. The term “novel” encompasses a book like The Goldfinch, which is almost 300,000 words, and Redshirts, which was 55,000 words, not counting the codas. The more-or-less official lower length of a novel is 40,000 words; at the other extreme, Alan Moore’s novel Jerusalem, slated for publication next year, is a million words long. I don’t recommend trying to write four Jerusalems in a year. But on the other hand, four 40,000 word stories? That’s entirely doable for a very large number of writers.

Moreover, with specific reference to self-pubbed folks, they have a considerable amount of flexibility toward the length of their books. All of my novels are contracted to be around 100,000 words, because that makes for a nice-sized book on the bookstore shelf (this is one reason, among others, why I added the codas to Redshirts). I have some flexibility there, but add up the total word count for all my published novels to date, and you get very close to 100k as an average word count number. Self-pubbed books can be considerably shorter, and many are. So again, four books of competent, readable prose is not a stretch in that case.

The economic argument for writing that much in a year is pretty simple: If you do, you give yourself more sales opportunities; there are more targets with which to draw in new readers and to keep continuing readers happy. Wilke might argue that these all aren’t Pulitzer-quality works, but even if they aren’t: So what? Not everything readable has to be in serious contention for the Pulitzer. It’s okay to eat a cheeseburger; it’s okay to read the literary equivalent of a cheeseburger. Believe it or not, some people will read both The Goldfinch and a literary cheeseburger! Because people are like that.

With all that said, I suspect that at least part of what Wilke was aiming at was that one shouldn’t feel compelled to write four books a year, just because a self-pubbed author (or any other type of author, for that matter) read something somewhere that said four books a year was what every self-pubbed author should or must do to make money. And you know what? If that’s actually part of Wilke’s argument, then she’s correct.

She’s correct for a couple of reasons. One, and most simply: Not everyone can write four books worth reading in a year, regardless of length. Because here’s a thing: There’s more to a book than word count. There’s also what you do with the words, not to mention general plotting and organization and, moving away from the purely “creative” aspect, production and distribution, the latter aspects of which self-pubbed authors have to attend to directly (other authors get the benefit of a publisher to deal with a lot of that). Some people have a lot of bandwidth for this sort of stuff; other people don’t.

If you’re one of the people who don’t, then aiming for four books in a year, every year, isn’t going to be beneficial for you. You’ll end up drained and fatigued, and writing/producing inferior work, and it will be obvious. You’ll be punished for it, in the sense that people will stop paying you for your work. If you’re writing four books worth of crap, well. People will eat cheeseburgers, but very few people will eat crap. Don’t serve up crap.

What is actually important for writers to do, all of them, regardless of publishing method, is to find their pace for how they write, and what they write. One writer can happily crank out four books a year, in which case, good for them. Another writer will take years to write a book they’re happy with. In which case, good for them, too. These two writers should not try to write at each others’ pace; they’ll both be unhappy.

Nor is it 100% certain that the “four books a year” writer will make more money than the “one book every few years” writer. Andy Weir, as far as I know, has only one book, but that one book is The Martian, so it’s a reasonable guess he’s making more than almost every “four books a year” author. The four books a year author has more shots on goal, but if your one shot hits the bullseye, then it doesn’t matter. Yes, I did just mix metaphors there. Deal with it. Point is: money is possible at every speed.

Which bring me to my next point: be aware that there’s more than one recipe to making money as a writer. I write a novel in three to four months on average, and I have a backlog of story ideas, so it’s a pretty safe bet that I could write three or even four novels a year. I don’t. Why? Well, because I do other things with my time that make money, and also, make me happy. One novel a year, more or less, plus my other activities, has done very well for me. Other writers publish more and are happy; others publish less and are also perfectly happy. There’s not a right path for everyone. There is, however, likely a best path for you.

(Nor is it a given that every writer should have as their hard goal for writing “making money.” It’s a fine goal — I’m all for it! — and if indeed you want to write as your primary means of income then clearly you have to factor that into your workflow. But not every writer wants to, or should. You can be a writer, and be a professional writer, and do other things too. It’s allowed. And indeed, in many circumstances it can offer you more flexibility for your writing than being a full-time writer allows. Just to put that out there.)

So how many books should you write in a year? As many as you like, and as many as you can do, within your ability, for the sort of writing you want to do. What you need to do is to discover what your own capabilities are, and then work within them. Write the books you would want to read, and buy. If you can do four of those a year, great. If you do one of those every eleven years, that’s good too. Most writers, I suspect, will fall in between those two data points. That’ll work.

The Big Idea: Pamela Sargent

It’s no surprise that writers live in their own worlds, and occasionally let you see those worlds in our books. But as Pamela Sargent explains, with regard to her novel Season of the Cats, sometimes before we can let you visit our worlds, we have to… tidy up a bit.


By the time I conjured up the central idea for Season of the Cats, I had wrestled with a number of “big ideas” as a novelist, among them human immortality, the life and conquests of Genghis Khan, and the terraforming of Venus. Those undoubtedly qualify as big ideas, but the central situation in Season of the Cats concerns a somewhat dysfunctional early twenty-first century couple who have dreamed up an imaginary utopia of cats. Is that a big idea? Perhaps it is if that imagined world, appropriately dubbed Catalonia and consisting of a quite civilized feline society, leaks into the so-called “real” one and threatens the couple’s marriage, their sanity, and possibly their lives.

But when I first started playing with this novel, more than two decades of being a published writer, along with personal and professional setbacks, had led me into a deadly morass of self-doubt, burn-out, depression, and writer’s block. (The euphemistic terms for this state are “being on hiatus” and “lying fallow.”) The cure that I found for myself, partly by accident and partly through economic necessity, was writing on a smaller scale, concentrating mostly on short fiction and also honing my craft by collaborating on a few Star Trek novels with my partner in life, George Zebrowski. The rest of the cure, which came a little later, was writing the first part of what became Season of the Cats, with no idea of where the story was going or what, if anything, would come of it. I needed an escape during some dark times and a way of entertaining myself while trying to rediscover the joy and satisfaction the act of writing and shaping a story had once brought to me.

I began with the two central characters, Gena and Don, who lived in a place that resembled our former neighborhood, and their cat Vladimir, who was modeled on our beloved Spencer, a small long-haired tuxedo cat who lived a long and largely happy life of seventeen years before finally succumbing to kidney failure. I indulged myself in this cheery fable, making light of Gena and Don’s troubles in order to escape my own while having no idea of where the story was going or any thought of publication. Any writer knows that if a story doesn’t interest you, then it’s unlikely to interest any reader, but here I was so intent on entertaining myself that I had completely forgotten about any other reader. By the time it occurred to me that maybe, with a manuscript in hand, it might make sense to try to get the novel published, a couple of more objective readers had to give me the bad news, namely that the story I’d found so diverting was a self-indulgent and unappealing mess.

You can write and publish for a lifetime and still make mistakes, still have to relearn what you thought you already knew. I set this novel aside to write other work and returned to it later, always a good idea if a piece of writing isn’t working; the passage of time has a way of illuminating your earlier errors. And when I did my rewriting, I followed a method the late science fiction writer Frederik Pohl had recommended, which may sound drastic to anyone young enough to have never used a typewriter: Fred’s advice was to print out the text, destroy any electronic files, and begin rewriting with only your printed text as a guide. Otherwise, he told me, you get lazy and just do touch-ups instead of a complete overhaul.

He was right. My own overhaul, which involved several of these drastic rewrites, included reworking the plot, digging into the darker aspects of the story that I’d avoided before, among them an entity that threatens several of the main characters, and adding details, drawing on my own experience as a foot soldier in a local political campaign and at a disagreeable temporary day job, that yielded more interesting plot twists and more desperate situations for my characters. I was still entertaining myself but also keeping the reader in mind. As Fred also put it, “Your reader is some guy in Cleveland at three in the morning,” and that seems as useful an image of a reader as any. Figuratively speaking, we’ve all occasionally been that guy in Cleveland at three in the morning.

Like Gena and Don, I had lost control of my own imagined world and had to face my own struggle, which is obliquely reflected in the pages of Season of the Cats. Whether my characters win or lose their battle is for readers to discover.


Season of the Cats: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Wildside Press

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site.