Athena is ever-so-slightly taller than her mother now. It’s a pretty big (or at least tall) moment here at the Scalzi Compound.
Athena is ever-so-slightly taller than her mother now. It’s a pretty big (or at least tall) moment here at the Scalzi Compound.
I was supposed to be writing in the novel this morning, but in the aftermath of Doug Lathrop passing away I found myself wandering through some of the archives of the alt.society.generation-x newsgroup and getting a little depressed and nostalgiac in a way that I don’t frequently get. I’m not a notably nostalgic person, in part because I don’t feel the best part of my life is in the past, but it definitely hit me this morning, and I had to spend a little bit of time figuring out why.
The closest I can come to it is that asg-x is the one thing in my past that is really in the past. My high school and college, for example, are still there and still have people running through them — they are living entities, and even though my time in them gets increasingly further away in the rearview mirror, I know each new group of people who have the experience of going there has some consanguinity of experience with me. Not exactly my experience, but we’re still connected by the same common thread.
asg-x, on the other hand, is tied into a very specific time — from 1993, when it was created, to about 1999 — during which the USENET was still a common place for people exploring the Internet to find and read and use. USENET’s moment is over; there are people who still use it, but they’re the people who’ve been using it. It’s hard to find now and it’s not bringing in new people. And asg-x, the newsgroup, is definitively dead — there’s nothing new there now but spam posts, either containing dance music lists or political rants.
There’s a finite group of people who experienced what asg-x was, when asg-x was something at all. There’s a finite group of people for whom asg-x was a community, and for whom it was their community, with all the little tics and quirks, positive and negative, that a community has. We’re all that there will ever be, basically. Doug’s passing is a reminder that this small and finite community is in the process of shrinking, inexorably, through the simple passage of time. There’s going to be a point, hopefully several decades from now, when the last person who ever attended a “tingle” will pass from the planet, and then that will be it. The end of the asg-x community.
To be clear, it’s a small thing, and a community that was significant mainly for the people who were in it. But even so, within that community, friendships were made, people fell in love (and some of them even got married and had children), laughs were had, arguments were posited, gatherings planned, memories created and milestones celebrated. It was real and it happened, and now its moment is gone and to a very real extent nothing will ever be quite like it again. There’s no way of getting back there. There’s no there there anymore.
And that’s fine. Some things are finite — well, in the long-term sense of things everything is finite, it’s just some things are finite faster — and asg-x is one of those things. I’m not going to wish it were suddenly 1996 all over again and everyone was back on USENET, with a flood of new newsgroups of their own (although I can just imagine what alt.society.THANKS.OBAMA would look like). I’m all right with asg-x having its time, and that time being over.
But now I understand why people are nostalgic. It’s your brain trying to express a moment, and recognizing that the only people who would ever truly get what you’re trying to express were the ones who were there, and they already know.
Back in the wild and wolly days of the World Wide Web, I hung around on a newsgroup called alt.society.generation-x, where I made a number of online friends, some of whom became real world friends, with whom I kept in contact, sporadically, over the years. One of those was Douglas Lathrop, a fellow writer who very recently sold a novel, not his first written (very few “first” novels are first novels), but the first to be picked up by a publisher.
Not too long ago Doug fell and ended up in the hospital, and in part because of other long-term factors relating to his health, he didn’t recover. He passed away today.
And I’m kicking myself because a couple of weeks ago I was in San Diego, during Comic-Con, and as I was crossing the street, he was crossing the street, too, going the other way. And we were in the middle of a cross walk and there were probably a couple hundred other people and we moved past each other too quickly, and I thought to myself, huh, I’ll have to tell Doug I saw him in the cross walk, and then I walked off to whatever it was I was doing next, which I can’t remember now.
I wish I would have taken that moment in the cross walk to say hello. It was the last time I’ll see my friend in this world. I should have said hello. I didn’t. I’m going to regret that forever now.
Take the time, people. Let your friends know you see them and are glad to see them, even if you’re just passing by in a cross walk. It’s important.
For her novel Dust and Light, author Carol Berg takes a look at some of the more mundane aspects of magic — that’s “mundane” as in “practical,” not as in “boring” — and shows how a story can build from the rules and traditions a writer places on its use.
Going in search of the big idea that drove my new book, Dust and Light, into being got me running in circles. Every novel results from layers of ideas, and this one did so in spades. Here’s how it went:
For years I was convinced that the only way I could develop a novel was to begin with an impression of a character in a difficult situation and grow the story and its events and themes from there. As happens with many certainties, that conviction was eventually splintered. It happened on the day I heard a National Public Radio feature story called The Last Lighthouse. It wasn’t the meat of the essay that got my juices flowing, but the title.
A lighthouse is usually a warning. But it could also be seen as a guide to safe harbor. Or perhaps a house of enlightenment. Whichever kind my lighthouse was, why might it be the last? (You see? Already it was my lighthouse.) That title also led me to recall a Rosemary Sutcliffe novel about a young Roman soldier in Britain, and the vivid scene where he is standing in the lighthouse at Dover watching the last Roman ship leave without him. And I wondered if anyone at that time in history had possessed the breadth of vision to foresee what Rome’s contraction would mean for Western Europe. And as all fantasy writers do at some point, I asked myself, “Well, what if someone did?”
As if it were a gift, here lay the foundation of the deliciously complex world of my Lighthouse Duet: Flesh and Spirit and Breath and Bone, and its central conceit. As Flesh and Spirit begins, the once prosperous kingdom of Navronne is facing a dark age caused by a disastrous decline in the weather and a raging civil war of succession. Roving bands of fanatics burn and murder, believing that leveling civilization will placate their particular gods. Amid this chaos emerges a group called the Lighthouse Cabal.
That concept simmered for a while, mingling with another that had been nagging at me. As I observed politics and popular culture through the years, I’d noticed how often the children of talented parents followed in one of their parent’s chosen profession/art/sport/industry. Think the Barrymores or the Bridges, the Mozarts or the Strausses, the Carters or the Kennedys, the Unsers or the Pettys, the Johnny Cashes, or Ravi Shankar and Nora Jones. And writer brain whispered, “What if that profession were a person’s only option?”
From this little question arose Navronne’s magical history. Magic is confined to a group of wealthy families, descendants of long-ago invaders. Those born into these families inherit either their father’s bloodline magic or their mother’s. They spend their lives in study and practice until their Head of Family deems them of age and ready for their first contract, for sorcerers have become a commodity made available via contract to the highest bidder – whether that be a city, a noble, a clergyman, a market fair, or even, in a stroke of strange circumstance, a city coroner.
So what are the implications of contractual magic? Marketing hasn’t changed over centuries. First, keep your product valuable; even better, build a mystique about it. Second, maximize customers, ie. keep it independent, available to all varieties of the political spectrum. And lastly, make sure you have a monopoly.
These pureblood families have created a mannered, disciplined subculture. They keep themselves detached from ordinary society and politics, wearing half masks and expensive dress to reinforce their unique position in society. Mystique! They have forged a partnership with the crown that preserves their autonomy. And the contracts that bind them and their grown sons and daughters to clients are very strict – and very lucrative. In exchange for their wealth and comfortable life, their personal choices are strictly limited. From what to wear to whom to marry. From how they address each other to how and when they may express emotions. And most definitely the particular variant of their bloodline magic they practice and for whom.
All well and good. I had lots of ideas and lots of potential. But I wanted to start writing. Where was the story?
I love epic stories that deal with politics and religion, with events that challenge the boundaries of magic, science, and the divine, and mysteries of all kinds. But I also like to view these big stories through a very personal lens that can draw me – and my readers, I hope – right into the story. That’s why the start-with-the-character method had worked well for me. This time I had to search for a protagonist to go adventuring in this crumbling world – to unravel the meaning of the lighthouse and live with the ramifications of this kind of magic.
Fortunately, I found one I loved for the Lighthouse books, a cheerful, pleasure-loving renegade pureblood sorcerer, who despised the rigid life laid out for him so ferociously that he ran away from it. And rebellion is a high crime when magic is a commodity that enriches one’s little corner of the world so profoundly. Valen was so determined to escape what he called “slavery with golden chains” that he chose to abjure all use of magic (except one nasty little addictive enchantment). He was willing to take whatever low-life job he could get, eat whatever he could scrape together, and avoid entanglements that might reveal his past and get him sent back home. Freedom was enough. Choosing his own path was enough, even if that path was, by necessity, dangerous, rocky, and lonely.
I liked where Valen’s story took me – into mystery, adventure, and the mythology of Navronne. But to my chagrin, focusing on a renegade meant there were many aspects of the pureblood culture I never got to explore. Valen’s opinions were colored by the fact that he came from a particularly despicable family, yet I knew there were many worthy aspects of pureblood culture. The purebloods’ neutrality meant that anyone could have access to magic if they had the means to acquire a pureblood contract. If magical families were wealthy, then necessity could not force them into serving masters they deemed criminal or cruel. They had time for study and practice of their extraordinary gifts and discovery of new aspects of talent. Strict marriage laws ensured that magical bloodlines did not die out.
So, I decided that I wanted to go back to Navronne and do some more poking around, but not as a sequel to Valen’s story or a prequel. I wanted to create a parallel story, sort of like viewing the American Revolution from the British side after viewing it from the American side. Thus, for the second time, I started looking for a protagonist, maybe one who believed in the purebloods’ way and saw the benefits of their rules. Someone who valued the magic. I wanted to see the world of purebloods and ordinaries through the eyes of a person who was not a rebel. Rebels shake things up in a flawed world, but ultimately, someone has to have the discipline to know how to put matters right. And there, standing in a crowded street waiting for me, was Lucian de Remeni-Masson, an artist whose magic can imbue portraits with truth.
Lucian has grown up in a large loving family, believing in his bones that his gift for magic comes from the gods, and that it is his duty to learn of it and use it in service to the world. Magic is a glory that fills his life, and he believes that restricted choices are the rightful price for a future that is unique and marvelous. Though he slipped up once as a youth, he has become a model of self-discipline.
Yet, there is an inevitability built into human experience, especially for those brought up in safe, secure, environments where beliefs are so certain. Fate, the gods, perverse nature, or maybe just an ornery fantasy writer throws nasty things at us, forcing us out of the womb of childhood and into a harsher world where rules are not simple, certainties can be shaken, and choices are not clear. A matter of import can be simple justice for a murdered child or the fate of a kingdom. And what happens next comes down to a particular person and how his beliefs, experience, and personality shape his choices of how to deal with those nasty things. What remains of him when the foundations of belief are ground into dust? Yep, the choices will tell. The story still grows from the character after all. And Lucian’s story became Dust and Light.
I’ve gotten a number of questions from folks about the upcoming Lock In book tour, which starts in less than two weeks holy cow, so I’ve decided to post up this quick document to refer people to. Here are the questions I’ve been getting, in no particular order. All the responses are useful except possibly the last three.
1. Where is your tour going? Here’s the full tour itinerary.
2. Why are you not coming to [name of town I am not coming to]? Because the tour is already four weeks long and I will turn into pudding if I am out much longer than that. I will almost certainly be doing other tours in the future. Perhaps I will come then.
3. What about [name of country that is not the US]? If my local publisher there, and/or a local festival invites me to tour/appear, then I may do that. Ask them!
4. How much does seeing you cost? I am almost certain that every event on this tour is free — just show up at the bookstore at the correct time. That said, note that at least one stop on my tour is giving priority in the signing line to people who purchase Lock In at the store. So check with your local stop to see how they’re doing things.
5. Do we need to buy a copy of Lock In to attend your tour? No. BUT — you should buy a copy of Lock In from the store I’ll be doing my event at, to support that bookstore. You don’t have to wait until I show up at the store — you can pre-order the book from the store or buy it there when the book comes out. But please support the store that’s supporting me (Also note that every pre-order/first week purchase of the book — particularly the hardcover, but any purchase — helps in terms of placement on best seller lists, and that’s in fact pretty useful to me in terms of coverage, etc. So yeah, please, get the book early).
6. But I already pre-ordered/bought Lock In elsewhere! Then I would request that when you go to the bookstore to see me on tour, you buy another book at the store to show your support. It doesn’t even have to be a book of mine — any book will do. But give that bookstore some love, and by “love,” I mean “money.”
7. May I bring my spouse/significant other/friends/relatives/co-workers to your tour event? Please bring every single person you know or have ever met to my event. I promise you will all have a good time. I give good book tour.
8. What do you do at your tour stops? For the Lock In tour, I will be reading some new, exclusive material that you will only be able to hear if you come the tour, I will read a couple other funny short pieces, I will do a question and answer session which is usually entertaining, and then I will sign books. If someone brings a ukulele, I might serenade you. If someone brings hand puppets, I might do a puppet show. On a couple of stops, there might be special guests. And so on. And then I’ll be signing books.
9. Will you only be signing Lock In? I’ll sign (and if desired, personalize) any book of mine you set in front of me, and indeed probably anything you want me to sign. That said, depending on the size of the signing line, I may sign only three things at one time, so if you have more than that, you might have to go back and get in the line again for a second go round.
10. I am not able to see you on tour but I want a signed book! What do I do? If you live in a town I’ll be touring in, order the book (preferably Lock In, but any book) from the store I’m visiting and request that I sign/personalize the book. I’ll be happy to do so. If you don’t live in a town I’m visiting, just pick a store I’m visiting and ask for a signing/personalization, and I’ll do that when I’m in town, and then they’ll ship the book to you. I’ll also be signing book stock at each stop, so each store should have signed books from me after I go.
11. Hey, wanna hang out before/after your event? First, you’re awesome for asking and thank you. Second, at nearly every stop my time is spoken for either by business-related stuff or by friends in town who I already have plans to see. And then I have to get to sleep because most of my flights to the next town are early in the morning. So generally speaking I won’t be available for hanging out. It’s not you. You are lovely. It’s me.
12. I have a gift I want to give you! Is that allowed? Sure! Be aware that when I travel I pack very tightly (usually with just carry-on luggage) so depending on the size of your gift or the state of my luggage, I may ask the bookstore to ship the gift to my house. So if you see me hand it over to someone else, that’s likely what’s happening. With food gifts, let me request that you lean towards things that won’t spoil in a hotel room (cookies, etc).
13. Do people really give you gifts and food and stuff like that? Yup, and usually the stuff I get is pretty cool.
14. I WISH TO BE YOUR GROUPIE AND WILL FOLLOW YOU BACK TO YOUR HOTEL AND SLATHER YOU WITH UNGUENTS AND SCENTED OILS ALL THE NIGHT LONG. Please don’t do that.
15. BUT DIDN’T YOU SEE THAT I HAVE UNGUENTS? I did. Not interested. Thanks anyway.
16. ALSO I WILL BRING YOU A COKE ZERO. Well, why didn’t you say so. See you in my room.
History isn’t history to the people who are living it — it’s their present, their world and their lives. This is a thought E. Catherine Tobler kept in mind when writing her novel, Rings of Anubis. Here she is to explain what it means for you, the reader.
E. CATHERINE TOBLER:
My interest in all things historical started in elementary school when I discovered a National Geographic book called Secrets From the Past. The book explored tombs of the world, lost cities, and discussed how we could determine what people of the past were like by exploring the things that remained. It wasn’t until high school I heard about the marble Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin, removed from the Parthenon in Greece. Many viewed Elgin as no better than a vandal and a thief–even Lord Byron took a position on the matter, the debate concerning the marbles long and fierce. The British Parliament purchased the marbles in 1816 and to this day, they remain in the British Museum.
I wondered, how could people do that? Had archaeologists carried such historical things away, knowingly or not? Surely they had. I knew I couldn’t write about Egypt of 1889 without keeping such events in mind. Within the time frame of Rings of Anubis, Egypt was occupied by the British and many treasures were accidentally and carelessly lost in the haste to discover what lay beneath the dirt. I wanted my heroine, Eleanor Folley, constantly mindful she was exploring a world inhabited by people who had been as real as she was. To make it as personal as possible for her, I placed her in both worlds: an Egyptian-Irish archaeologist, trained by her parents, both archaeologists before her.
Eleanor Folley wasn’t in the business of archaeology for the wealth or fame that came with it; while those who didn’t know her might consider her no better than a vandal and a tomb raider, she never profited from her discoveries. Eleanor Folley was always in search of something else–something more personal than gold or fame.
What would be like to face each tomb with the possibility of something personal beneath the stones? What it would be like to excavate a site and hold your breath as dirt parted to reveal bones that might belong to someone you loved? I wondered how a person might continue such a search in the face of never finding what they sought, how they might struggle if even their own family asked them to stop searching. How do you stop looking for part of yourself and what might you do if you encountered someone else on a similar quest?
The history buried beneath our modern lives isn’t only history. Living, breathing people called the fragmented walls we unearth home before we called them relics. The bones we carefully brush clean are someone who had a name, an occupation; someone who was loved or despised. Mummies aren’t just linen-wrapped bones–they were people who created and dreamed and dared just as we do. What we take from the dirt isn’t simply random debris to be swept away in the quest for wealth and recognition. I wanted to explore the idea that someone buried within the Egyptian desert could be greatly loved by someone still living, someone who, in the end, had no idea what she was about to unearth.
In just under two weeks now I will begin my tour for Lock In, which will take me all over the United States for four weeks, with only a couple of short breaks back home to do laundry and sleep. My schedule for this one is unusually packed at times — there’s one stop where I have three events scheduled for one day — and besides that I will be hopefully seeing friends and otherwise while I am out and about. Naturally this will have some impact on what I post here and the amount of time I have to commit to dealing with it.
In the past I’ve solved this problem by having guest bloggers and/or having a substitute moderator (the ever-fabulous Kate Baker) sit in on the site and wield the Mallet in my absence. This time I think I’ll try something a little different. Primarily:
From August 26 through September 20, I’ll be turning off comments on most posts here.
What posts will have comments off?
1. Posts created before August 26, 2014;
2. Nearly all of my posts from 8/26 – 9/20.
Which posts will have comments on?
1. Big Idea posts (to let the authors discuss stuff with readers/fans);
2. Possible occasional posts I create when I have a few hours free and feel like chatting with all y’all. These will be contingent on schedule and internet availability, and will likely be on only for those times I have the ability to actively sit on the thread, after which I will turn them off.
Why turn comments off at all?
1. So that while I travel I don’t have to daily wade through spam that somehow manages to avoid the automatic filters, which is, alas, considerable;
2. Because I’ve decided that I might want to write about things here while I’m out and about that usually requires thread moderation, which is the thing I know I won’t have time for;
3. Because I’ve never turned off comments here for a considerable amount of time and I’m curious what if any effect it will have on readership, etc;
4. Because Twitter/Facebook/Google +/etc give people the ability to more readily comment on what I write here than they would have had a few years ago, both to me and to each other (assuming they are using social media, which I suspect most people are at this point), and yes, I will probably be on Twitter a lot during the tour;
5. Because point 2 notwithstanding, based on personal experience, if I leave comments on I will be tempted to jump in and participate/moderate, which will distract me from what I really need to do: focus on the tour and the humans who have come to see me on it.
So that’s the plan.
For those of you wondering if this means I might be considering having comments off generally now: No. The site’s had comments for over a decade now, and it’s better for them. Come September 21, the comments will be back on across the whole site.
As for what sort of posts to expect here while I’m traveling, I think a few years of touring has gotten you used to what to expect — posts of events, reminders of where I am going next, scheduled Big Idea posts, and occasional other stuff as time/interest/sleep allows. You know. The usual.
In any event, I’m letting you know all of this now so it won’t comes as a surprise on the day of the tour. You have two weeks to prepare! Should be enough.
Thoughts? Put them — of course! — in the comments.
Following Robin Williams’ death and my brief comments about depression in my entry about it, I’ve had some people ask me for some more detailed thoughts on the subject, and whether I myself have ever experienced depression. I wrote about the subject in 2010, as part of a Reader Request Week, so if you’re interested, here’s the link to that. The short version is that while I have had events in my life where I was almost certainly depressed (as most of us have, I suspect), I’m not someone who suffers from depression as a disease.
But again, I know a lot of people who do. I suspect that some of this is because I know a lot of creative people and the correlation between depression and creativity is well known and well documented. But I also suspect this is also because I know people, and I suspect that depression, as a chronic and persistent ailment, happens to a lot of people regardless of their creativity. One of the silver lining positive things about knowing many people with depression is that it’s gone a very long way to hammer against that bias against mental illnesses that I have as part of the background radiation of life — the bias that tells you that someone with a mental illness isn’t merely sick but is wrong in some ineffable way. I know that’s incorrect and actively unhelpful now; I hope it makes me a better human and a better friend for my friends who have depression.
On the tangentially-related topic of humor and depression, the world seems to be largely divided into two camps — the camp who is apparently oblivious to the idea that funny people, especially professionally funny people, might have a darker side to their life (“He was funny and seemed so happy! Who knew that other side was there?”) and the ones who are all too familiar with that aspect of the life of a “funny” person — they’re the ones who, after hearing of Williams’ passing, tweeted something along the lines of the quote I’m using as the headline (context, for those of you who don’t know).
With the former camp, it’s easy to be exasperated, especially if you write humor yourself. Where do these folks think the capacity for humor comes out of? If you don’t have an understanding of the whole wide range of the human condition, your attempts at humor are going to come across as insipid at best and cruel at worst; there’s a reason I note that the failure state of “clever” is “asshole.” People who are really funny — the sort of funny more complex than a banana peel on a slippery floor — are funny because they know people. They’re smart. They’re observant. And, very often, their own life experience, with all its ups and downs, is the reason why know which keys turn the lock on the funny.
It’s easy to become exasperated with people who don’t seem to know this, but it’s also at least slightly unfair, because it’s process — it’s backstage matter. Most people don’t live with a professional comedian or humorist, they’re merely entertained by them, and they’re entertained by the output, not by the process. We laugh at the joke, not that the work that goes into it. Likewise, humor feels easy and light; we laugh at it, and laughing seems like the simplest thing in the world to do. If people don’t know about the darker parts of the minds that create humor, it’s at least in part because it often ruins the humor to dwell on it.
On the flip side of this I personally get exasperated by the “but doctor, I am Pagliacci” response as well, because I think in many ways it trivializes depression. Humor needs knowledge of humans and empathy; it doesn’t need depression. From everything that I know about it from friends who have it, depression doesn’t heighten your access to the human condition, it deadens it — takes you out of the place where you can create and where you can say anything about life, funny or otherwise.
I get that tossing about the Pagliacci quote can be an attempt to be understanding — or at least be an attempt to explain — but I think it just ends up being the equivalent of a mental shrug. Of course that funny person was doomed. That’s just what happens to funny people. That’s no more correct or helpful than being surprised a funny person wasn’t happy all the time.
I’m not saying a comedian or humorist can’t take their depression and make it funny. Of course they can — it’s in the heart of humor to make you understand something by making you laugh about it. But the depression isn’t why they’re funny. Depression isn’t helping them be funny. Depression is a thing they have to route around. Sometimes they can’t. That fact deserves an acknowledgment more than a shrug and a quote about a sad clown.
I don’t have any answers about depression, in no small part because my own direct experience of it in my own head is (thankfully) limited. What I do know is that for my own part I want to be done with people being hesitant or ashamed about a disease that happens to them, despite the fact it takes place in the part of the body where who they are lives. Treating it differently than other ailments of the body doesn’t do anyone any good and does active harm if it keeps people from getting help.
I also want to be done with thinking that depression is anyone’s fault. This piece in Slate, addressing the people who wondered why Robin Williams didn’t know that people loved him, speaks to that. This piece, by Erica Moen, speaks to that. Countless pieces out there by people who deal with depression speak to it. They know what they’re talking about, because they live it.
For my part, I’m listening. I think we should all be doing that.
Big ideas sit at the heart of many novels (there’s a reason why I call this feature “the big idea,” after all). But not every good idea — or big idea — makes it through the culling process on the way to the writing of the actual novel. Jon McGoran talks a little about this process in relation to his newst thriller, Deadout.
I love big ideas. Almost everything I write starts out with one. Many writers will say that character is the most important thing, and for the finished product, I think that’s probably true. But nothing gets me excited about a new project like a Big Idea. And one of the things I like best about Big Ideas is the way they lead to other ideas.
As a writer, I love (and sometimes hate) to write. But my favorite phase of any project is that initial Big Idea stage, the honeymoon, when the ideas are coming in a rush, anything is possible, when the early research is leading me off in all sorts of directions. As I start to outline and give the story structure and focus, it gets a little more like work. There is an element of sadness, too, as some of my littler ideas get left by the wayside (with every intention — rarely realized — that I will come back for them some day).
That’s a sadness I deal with often. I’m one of those writers who is constantly having ideas that I think are big. Usually they are story premises that hijack my energy and enthusiasm. (Sometimes, oddly, they are novelty gag items. Go figure.) I write them down or leave a memo on my phone (thank you, iPhone voice recognition!). Then they go in a folder on my computer.
The odds are not good for them. I mostly write novels, and chances are slim that any one of my daily Big Ideas will make the cut and become the focus of a six-, nine- or twelve-month project. It pains me to see them go to waste. So, if I can work in more than one idea — without detracting from the story — so much the better.
The Big Ideas for my novels Drift and its sequel, Deadout, came from my day jobs. For many years, I’ve been involved in writing about and advocating for issues of food and sustainability. Over time, I noticed that the food stories I was writing during the day were becoming more frightening and bizarre than the mysteries and science fiction I was writing at night. It started with things like irradiation, dangerous chemicals, and factory farms. But when genetically modified organisms (GMOs) started taking over our food stream, I realized food politics could be a great theme for a thriller.
Partly this was because GMOs represent such a paradigm shift in how food is grown, because they seem so inadequately tested, and because they’ve quietly taken over so much of the American foodscape. But a lot of it is because GMOs are alive, and once they’re out, they’re out. As a human who eats food, I found it alarming. As a writer who likes Big Ideas, it made me wring my hands and cackle with glee.
The GMO story already reads like a thriller — big corporations using their political and economic power to quietly spread bio-engineered new life forms across the globe and onto unsuspecting consumers’ dinner plates. That’s a great (or terrible) starting point. The more I thought about it, and the more I researched it, the more story ideas I saw.
At the same time, I realized a lot of people didn’t know much about GMOs, how pervasive they are or even that they exist. It was like a perfect storm: a rich premise with lots of potential, and an important issue that begged to be explored.
In addition to GMOs, Deadout focuses on colony collapse disorder, the mysterious syndrome that is causing much of the world’s honeybee population to disappear. It also expands on many of the other themes in Drift, including corporate misbehavior by biotech behemoths and efforts to push GMOs through foreign aid and trade agreements, issues I explore even further in the third book in the series, coming out next year.
These are topics I’ve written about journalistically, and even satirically, but fiction —especially novels — allows a writer to reach different people and explore issues more deeply. Still, while I might love my Big Ideas, I try hard not to let them get in the way of the narrative. Because no one will ever see them if they don’t keep reading. And besides, for me, ultimately, the biggest Big Idea is a good story.
Waiting for me when I came home today from signing a ton of pre-ordered books: Two Detcon 1 mugs inscribed with my name and “Special Prize.” I won a prize for my DJing the 80s party at Detcon, you see. So now I can legitimately call myself an award-winning DJ. It’s useful to have that to fall back on if this writing thing ever goes belly up.
But this is nice. And it was a nice day, actually — a lot of driving, since I went up to the Subterranean Press offices in Michigan to sign all those books you saw in the previous entry (and more besides, because there were still some in boxes), but it was nice to see my friends at Subpress, and let’s be honest, signing books is not generally an onerous task. Still it’s nice to be home, and I suspect I might get to sleep slightly earlier than usual. I earned an early bedtime, I think.
I’m signing all these books. Because they were pre-ordered by nice folks. Thank you, nice people. But yeah, this is gonna take me all day.
As with many people, I was a fan. First encountered him as Mork, was puzzled by him as Popeye, nearly peed myself listening to his comedy albums and concerts. His manic side made him famous but his melancholy was never too far from him. You couldn’t watch Moscow on the Hudson or Good Will Hunting or The Fisher King — a film that spoke to me particularly — without knowing that aspect of his personality was there. I read the stories of his early years, playing with army men up in the attic, lonely. I don’t know. Maybe some part of him never left that attic.
I know a lot of creative people and perhaps by correlation I know a lot of people who struggle with depression. They have told me (and they’ve told the world) how depression sits there, implacable, and drains the color out of the world until no success or joy matters. I believe them, and it becomes increasingly evident that no matter who you are or what you’ve achieved, depression is a good liar and it can make you believe none of it is worth the while.
I know and love too many people with depression to believe that it’s something that’s shameful to talk about or to acknowledge. I want them alive and I want them here with us. If you have depression I want you alive and here with us. Don’t let the moment take you. Don’t be afraid to get help. The people who love you want you here. Believe it.
That’s all I want to say about this at the moment.
Here they are!
Which is to say I am at neither. I was thinking of dropping in at GenCon on Friday but it doesn’t look like my schedule is going to allow that. I’m at home writing instead. Because, occasionally, as a writer, I have to do that. And I want to get some work done before the Great Big Tour for Lock In, which will be four weeks long. Also, you know: Family. Nice to spend time with them. And so on.
I hope everyone in London and Indianapolis has a good time without me, however.
They’re very dramatic.
A larger version, if you’re so inclined, here.
Because Athena’s school starts a week from today. As someone who always had school start in September, this seems more than a little unfair to me. Be that as it may.
How’s your Monday?
Because it will be useful to do this, to refer people to later: Various complaints/comments/questions about the Amazon/Hachette negotiations and my commentary on it, that I’ve seen online, or have been sent to me via e-mail/social media are below, paraphrased, with my responses. Ready? Here we go.
Why do you hate Amazon?
I don’t hate Amazon. I’m in business with Amazon. They publish many of my audiobooks via their Audible subsidiary, and they sell a lot of my electronic and printed books. I’ve also been an Amazon Prime user since the program started and buy tons of stuff from them.
Then you’re a hypocrite for saying terrible things about Amazon!
If by “a hypocrite” you mean “someone publicly noting the company’s increasingly odd public tactics in its negotiations with Hachette,” then yes. Otherwise, no. I’ve been very clear what my position on Amazon is, to wit: It’s a self-interested corporation, doing what self-interested corporations do. This is in itself neither good nor evil. Its particular public actions are open for comment and criticism.
Why do you love Hachette?
I don’t love Hachette. I’m in business with Hachette through its UK imprint Gollancz; it’s published two of my books in the UK. Gollancz has done well enough for me. I don’t feel anything that could be construed as “loyalty” to Hachette therein, any more than I feel “loyalty” to Amazon for publishing my audiobooks.
But you’re not criticizing Hachette like you’re criticizing Amazon.
Hachette appears (wisely) not to be offering up as many public opportunities for criticism, as regards this particular negotiation with Amazon. If that changes I might comment on their actions, too.
I still think you’re a hypocrite.
I also think you’re just a tool of big publishing!
As someone who self-published his first two novels online in an era where if people wanted to send you money they had to physically mail it to you, and then later was the president of a writers organization that frequently went toe-to-toe with publishers to defend the rights of writers and to make sure they were fairly compensated for their work, and who has worked with several small and indie publishers over the years, I find your assertion amusing.
Prove me wrong! Say something negative about big publishing!
I’ll say two things: One, its general continued reliance on digital rights management is stupid and insulting to people who buy electronic books; I’m happy Tor and Subterranean Press, who publish the bulk of my North American fiction, don’t use it, and note its lack has done nothing negative regarding my sales. Two, the standard 25% net eBook royalties are too low, everyone knows it, and I suspect in the very near future if large publishers don’t move off of that as a hard line, they’re going to start losing authors — as they should.
I still think you’re a tool of big publishing.
Why can’t you see that big publishing is doomed?
Probably because I work directly with big publishing on a daily basis and the part of it I work with is full of smart people who are actively figuring out how to make all this stuff work for them. The fact that one my books — The Human Division, which we initially serialized electronically — was formally a research project, from which data was obtained, crunched and studied intensively, suggests to me that the outside-looking-in image of these publishers as cartoon dinosaurs, flailing chaotically, is, in my corner of this world at least, somewhat uninformed.
But [insert Author name here] worked with a big publisher and says they are doomed!
Okay, and? His or her experience may have been different than mine. Bear in mind that authors are not usually perfect reporters — they carry over grudges, loyalties, slights, personal experiences both positive and negative, etc — and that in general, in my experience, and intentionally or otherwise, they tend to universalize their own individual situation.
Are you calling [insert Author name here] a liar?
Only as much as I’m calling myself a liar, since it works that way with me, too. The point to take away here is that maybe you might want to consider the idea that not any one author should be considered the last word on these sorts of things. This is especially true if the author is nursing a grudge, or has an explicit economic interest in a particular publishing model.
But [insert Author name here] sells lots of books!
So do I. Is there a point you have here? (Also, somewhat related, does anyone else see the irony of criticizing certain traditionally published authors — me among them, I will note — as being part of “the 1%” and thus being somewhat clueless to the real world of working authors, while lauding certain self-published authors whose earnings would also put them into the 1%, in terms of author earnings? Seems sketchy logic to me.)
You feel threatened by this new wave of self publishing and that’s why you hate it!
One, it’s not new — please see my notation of having self-published my own novels, the first one 15 years ago now — and two, I don’t particularly feel threatened by it or hate it, no. Why should I?
Because it will doom the way you get published!
You know, at this point I gotta say I’m not exactly concerned that I won’t be able to sell work, regardless of the publishing environment.
New writers are nipping at your heels!
Excellent — I always need new things to read.
Look, here’s the thing: You can construct in your mind a world where there are the tough and scrappy self-published authors on one side of a battle and the posh and pampered traditionally published authors on the other, and pretend to set them against one another, like flabby, middle-aged Pokemon. But I think that’s kind of stupid and I’m not obliged to live in that particular fantasy world. Nor do I believe that the successes of other writers take away from my own. It’s not actually a zero-sum game where only one publishing model (and the authors who use it) will survive and the rest are eaten by weasels, or whatever. The world is large enough to have authors publishing one way, or another, or by some combination of various methods.
And none of that, mind you, has anything to do with Amazon and Hachette negotiating with each other. Trying to conflate the two suggests you’re not actually paying attention.
You’re smug and obnoxious and condescending.
I’m fine with you thinking that.
I will never buy your work!
This whole conversation is just you using strawmen to make your own points for yourself!
I WILL NOT BE SILENCED.
Seriously, though, what do you want out of this?
Me? I want Amazon and Hachette to figure out something that allows both of them to be happy with the outcome — or at least happy enough that they can continue to do business with each other — and for Hachette’s authors to have the same access to Amazon as other authors currently have. I would like for both Amazon and Hachette to have economic models that work nicely for authors, so that everyone makes money and everyone is happy. And as I’ve repeatedly said, I would like authors and everyone else to stop thinking this negotiation is about an epic clash of cultures, and see it for what it is: Two companies trying to maneuver for their own economic advantage.
But it is an epic clash of cultures!
Maybe you need to get out more.
I have a complaint not addressed in this entry!
That’s what the comment thread is for.
Amazon is not in the least bit happy about the full-page ad some authors have placed into the New York Times this weekend, complaining about its tactics in its negotiations with Hachette, so it is perhaps not entirely coincidental that this weekend Amazon is trying a new tactic: Trying to convince readers that it is in their best interest to favor Amazon’s business needs and desires.
Thus readersunited.com, which posts a letter from Amazon to eBook readers. Go ahead and take a moment to read it (another version, almost word for word, went out to Kindle Direct authors this morning as well), and then come back.
Back? Okay. Points:
1. First, as an interesting bit of trivia, readersunited.com was registered 18 months ago, which does suggest that Amazon’s been sitting on it for a while, waiting for the right moment to deploy it, which is apparently now.
But as a propaganda move, it’s puzzling. A domain like “ReadersUnited” implies, and would be more effective as, a grassroots reader initiative, or at the very least a subtle astroturf campaign meant to look like a grassroots reader initiative, rather than what it is, i.e., a bald attempt by Amazon to sway readers to its own financial benefit. Amazon isn’t trying to hide its association with the domain — it’s got an Amazon icon right up there in tab — so one wonders why Amazon didn’t just simply post it on its own site, to reinforce its own brand identity. The short answer is likely this: It’s just a really clumsy attempt to reinforce the idea that Amazon is doing this for readers, rather than for its own business purposes.
Well, surprise! It’s not. That much is obvious in the Tab header for readersunited, which (currently, at least) reads: “An Important Kindle request.” That much is correct — Amazon is doing this to support its own Kindle brand, not directly for readers (or for authors) at all. It was (again) clumsy of Amazon to leave that in there, but then I don’t think much of Amazon’s messaging in this corporate battle with Hachette has been particularly good. Amazon’s PR department is good at not commenting on its business practices; when it does comment, it does a lot of flubbing.
2. Amazon reheats in this new letter a number of arguments it made in a previous letter, arguments which have been picked apart by me and others. I’ll refer you to my previous commentary on the matter for further elucidation, and otherwise note that in general Amazon’s points make perfect and logical sense as long as one proceeds from the assumption that Amazon is the only distributor of books whose business needs one should ever consider.
Sadly for Amazon, the real world is not like that. Readers might see a benefit in not having Amazon being the only distributor of books in the world — if, for example, they like having physical bookstores in their home towns, employing local people and contributing to the local economy, and keeping money in the area rather than shipped to Seattle, or if, simply as a matter of practicality, they remember that companies trying to drive the market toward monopoly rarely are on the side of the consumer in the long run. Or for any other number of reasons.
3. Amazon’s new(ish) argument appears to be that the eBook is a new and amazing medium (which is in many ways true), and compares it to the paperback disrupting the publishing industry before World War II. Well, let’s talk about that for a second.
Leaving aside that Amazon’s initial phrasing of their argument seems to be largely and clumsily lifted from a Mental Floss article, and that paperback books existed well before the 1930s — see “penny dreadfuls,” “dime novels” and “pulps” (further comment on these and other flubs here and here) — the central problem with Amazon’s argument is economic, to wit, it’s trying to say that its drive to have all eBooks priced at $9.99 is just like paperbacks being priced ten times cheaper than hardcover books.
Well, except that $9.99 isn’t one tenth of the price of a hardcover book, otherwise hardcover books would regularly cost $100, which admittedly is a bit steep. $9.99 is something like 40% of the cover price of most hardcovers, and since most retailers discount from the cover price of a hardcover, the real-world price differential decreases from there. This is hardly the exponential cost savings that Amazon wishes to embed into the mind of the people to whom it is making its argument.
Amazon also continues the legerdemain of hyping very high e-book price points — it’s doubling down on its previous $14.99 boogeyman price point by introducing another one that’s even higher: $19.99! — while conveniently ignoring the fact that most eBooks are priced at neither of those price points, even ones tied into a new hardcover release.
As an anecdotal piece of information, the eBook price of my upcoming novel Lock In is $10.67 on Amazon — not $14.99 or even $19.99 — a price that is roughly 40% off the price that Amazon is willing to sell you the hardcover for ($18.62). As another anecdotal piece of data, Lock In currently the most expensive English-language eBook of mine in Amazon’s Kindle store — the other prices range from 99 cents (for various short stories of mine) to $9.01.
When Amazon’s absolutely-amazing, totally-disruptive price point of $9.99 is in fact less than 10% off from the real world price point of the latest eBook from a Hugo-winning, New York Times best-selling novelist with two television series in development, and more than the price of every other eBook of his, what does that tell you? It might tell you many things, but the thing I’m hoping it tells you is that the $9.99 price point is less about changing the world than it is about serving Amazon’s own particular business needs — not the needs of the consumer or (for that matter) the author or the larger business of bookselling. It’s worth it for readers to ask what Amazon’s business needs are.
4. My notation that only one of my English language eBooks is priced above $9.99 at all should bring home the point that this battle between Amazon and Hachette isn’t really about consumer choice. The consumer who wishes to buy a John Scalzi eBook will discover that more than 90% of his work available for sale for less than $10, just as she will discover that large majority of work of almost all authors is priced below $10. The budget-minded consumer is spoiled for choice in the sub-$10 eBook realm. If Amazon fails to get Hachette to bring down its prices on its new releases, than consumers will still be spoiled for choice in the sub-$10 eBook realm.
What it’s about is two large corporations — Amazon and Hachette — arguing about whose business needs are more important. Hachette wants to continue to price new-release eBooks above $9.99 so it can continue to make what it considers an acceptable amount of profit on new releases and then lower the price point as the new release matures, capturing other audiences as it goes. Amazon wants to nail the price at $9.99 because it’s in the business of selling everything to everyone, and price control is a fine way of locking the consumer into its business ecosystem.
But Hachette colluded! Leaving aside that Hachette’s past actions are neither here nor there in this new set of negotiations between these two corporations, if Amazon wishes to note the mote of illegal business action in Hachette’s eye, it ought to equally note the beam in its own. Which is to say that Amazon is no angel on the side of consumers any more than Hachette is — they both have their business interests, and by all indications they are both willing to see what they can get away with until they’re called on it.
It makes sense that Amazon wants to make this about the benefit for the consumer (or the author), just like any corporation wants to make their wholly self-interested actions look as if they’re meant to directly benefit their consumers and stakeholders. Consumers, like everyone else, should ask what’s really at stake.
5. Amazon is correct about one thing in this new letter — authors aren’t of a single mind about this. There are a lot of authors who rely primarily on publishers like Hachette for their income; there are a lot of authors who rely primarily on Amazon for their income; there are a lot of authors who publish in a wide range of ways and receive their income from both and from other sources as well. They will all argue from their own economic point of view because that’s how they keep their lights on. This is not (necessarily) disingenuous, but it may be uninformed or heavily biased depending on the knowledge and inclinations of the author in question.
Readers need to be aware of this and factor in who is saying what, and how their bread is buttered. They should also read more than one author on the subject. Corporations — and in this case Amazon and Hachette — benefit the less you know about their reasons for doing anything; their promoters and detractors benefit when you only take their word for things. So don’t. Find out more, and don’t rely on a single source for information on anything. Including me — look, I’m pretty sure I’m reliably skeptical all the way around, here, and anyone who thinks I have have it in for Amazon while fawning over large publishing houses is delightfully misinformed. But then I would think that, wouldn’t I. So, yeah, get other viewpoints. More information is always good.
6. With that said, if I were a writer whose primary source of income was Amazon’s publishing platform, I would be rooting like hell for Hachette to win this particular round of negotiations. Why? Because if I buy into the argument that Hachette, et al are artifically propping up eBook prices for their own benefit, and I’ve priced my own work below those artifically high price points, then in point of fact I’m cleaning up in the heart of the market while Hachette, et al are skimming in the margins — and the very last thing I want is a large and now-hungry corporation now competing with me at my price point out of necessity. Driving Hachette and all the other publishers into my territory is not likely to work out for me very well.
But they can’t compete there! They’ll die! They’re dying already! Well, I know you want to believe that. But if you’re basing your writing life on that assumption, then you’re leaving yourself open to a very very rude surprise. You need to understand that nearly all of these publishers have been around for a very long time — decades and in some cases centuries — and they’ve seen more market shifts in publishing and in the book market than possibly you can imagine, some of which were as disruptive as the current one. How many disrupting mammals have these lumbering dinosaurs already seen come and go? And believe this: These large publishers may or may not be able to eat Amazon, but they can surely eat you.
I think it is a very good thing that self-publishing and electronic publishing has come and shaken things up in the publishing field; it’s wonderful that authors can connect with readers without having to route through a publisher they have to convince that this audience is there. It is correct that large publishers tend to the conservative and safe, and do what they know, and often only what they know; it is correct that many authors are better off doing their own thing without them. It is wonderful, as a writer, to have options. Speaking for myself, I know I am better off because I have the option, at any time, to chuck my publishers and make a go of it myself. It keeps them appreciative of me, at the very least. But it does not follow that Amazon prevailing in this particular negotiation with Hachette signals the end of “traditional publishing” or that any particular author — independent or otherwise — will benefit if it did. It doesn’t follow that Amazon prevailing in this particular negotiation is beneficial to anyone other Amazon.
If Amazon does not prevail in this argument, it changes nothing for the authors who already use it as their primary means of distribution. They are still in the marketplace, they are still (largely) pricing their works below the very highest end of “traditional publishers” and therefore able to take advantage of readers who are motivated by price, and they are still able to benefit from not having to share their income on the work with anyone but Amazon.
If readers are in fact primarily motivated by price, then the revolution is already here and indie publishers and authors and readers are already benefiting from it while the traditional publishers slowly thrash and die of hypoxia. In which case all that Amazon will do by forcing publishers into lower price points is give them a shot of oxygen and cause them to compete on the point where indies presumably have the advantage: Price. If I were an indie author, I would rather let the publishers thrash and die away from me, then thrash near me and possibly crush me in their dying throes — which may not in fact be dying throes at all and just merely crushing me.
In sum and once again: Amazon is not your friend. Neither is any other corporation. It and they do what they do for their own interest and are more than willing to try to make you try believe that what they do for their own benefit is in fact for yours. It’s not. In this particular case, this is not about readers or authors or anyone else but Amazon wanting eBooks capped at $9.99 for its own purposes. It should stop pretending that this is about anything other than that. Readers, authors, and everyone else should stop pretending it’s about anything other than that, too.
(Update, 8/11: Followup responses to criticisms I’ve seen to this and other Amazon/Hachette pieces I’ve written.)
Other excellent books and ARCs that have arrived at the Scalzi Compound over the last several days. What looks interesting to you? Share in the comments!
DELILAH S. DAWSON:
Hey, you! Buy my book.
What, you don’t take orders?
Yeah, me neither. I used to, but not anymore.
And neither does Dovey Greenwood, heroine of my Southern Gothic Horror, Servants of the Storm. At first, I thought my Big Idea was loyalty or fighting prejudice in the Deep South, but then I realized that the very root of the entire plot is Dovey’s defiance.
Everyone tells her to take her meds. But one day, because she thinks she sees her dead best friend, she flushes all those pretty white pills down the toilet.
Turns out, she wasn’t on antipsychotics to help her deal with the grief of losing Carly in Hurricane Josephine. Turns out, there’s more lurking around the ruined alleys of Savannah, Georgia than just the usual panhandlers and tourists. Turns out, Josephine is more than just a storm, and now that she’s settled in like a pig in shit, she and her demonic minions want to take everything Dovey has, including her soul.
Dovey’s answer? Hell no.
Once the meds wear off, she’s dead set on finding answers. She stands up to both prejudice and demons and refuses to accept that her destiny has already been determined, even against impossible odds. And one of the reasons I wrote her this way, pig-headed and defiant and suicidally reckless, is because when I was her age, I didn’t say Hell no. I said Yes sir. And it nearly killed me.
I grew up in a house where No wasn’t allowed and Hell no would’ve gotten me smacked and grounded. I was terrified to break a rule, color outside the lines, or speak up when I disagreed. I got all As. I worked thirty hours a week. I did everything I was told to do.
And maybe that’s why I didn’t stand up for myself when I was bullied. Maybe that’s why I didn’t tell anyone when my dad was emotionally abusive. Maybe that’s why I was willing to shrug it off when that ex-boyfriend started stalking me. Maybe that’s why I let him corner me, alone, to talk. Maybe that’s why I didn’t fight back when he raped me at knifepoint. And maybe that’s why I didn’t tell anyone, after. I was too scared to take risks, too scared to get in trouble, too terrified to do more than whisper No because making a man angry meant I could get hurt even worse than I already was.
So when I started writing Servants of the Storm and putting together the pieces of the puzzle, the pictures of Six Flags New Orleans after Katrina and the Spanish moss in Bonaventure Cemetery and the dangerous neighborhoods where my husband grew up in Savannah, the heroine who emerged was tough in ways I had never dreamed of being, defiant in ways I wish I had been, back then. When my instinct as a writer was to take the easy path and let the story move her along, Dovey ran in the other direction, flicking me off.
The truth is, if I had seen a flash of my dead best friend when I was seventeen, I would’ve rushed home for more pills. But Dovey spits her pill out and goes back to wait to see Carly again. She runs down dark, unfamiliar streets chasing a stranger and walks into hell for the chance to save the person she loved most. Sometimes, when I was writing, I felt like I was both Dovey and Carly, like the current me was the brave, strong, tough girl willing to break the rules while the old me, the teen me, was the sad, quiet zombie going through the motions, doing what she was told.
I’m thirty-six now, and Hell no is one of my many indulgences. I would say it’s a battle cry, but it’s more often something I mutter in my head while smiling politely. Nobody can make me do anything I don’t want to do—not anymore. Writing Dovey’s defiance was like looking back to the girl I was and giving her the strength I never had. Every time she plants her feet and refuses to obey, I cheer. Whenever she makes what an adult reader would consider a stupid mistake, I’ll defend her. Because it’s her mistake, and she owns it… and usually pays for it.
Children are born crying and defiant, and we do our best to quell the rebellion and teach civility and courtesy. With teens, every moment is a choice between Hell no and Yes sir. Part of the escape of YA is shrugging the responsibility off our mature shoulders for a while to recall the sudden fire of disobedience, the thrill of running in the wrong direction, or the butterflies of kissing someone when we know we shouldn’t. If you’d like to step into the shoes of a fiercely loyal girl who makes terrible mistakes for all the right reasons agains the backdrop of a beautifully decaying city, I hope you’ll give Servants of the Storm a try.
Also, there’s a demon Basset hound. If the defiance doesn’t lure you, that should do it.
Baen is very good at sending along their latest releases. Here’s what we’ve got for August. See anything you like? Let me know in the comments!