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.

In Which We Achieve Maximum Giving Tree

At the front of our property stood four ash trees, which were lovely but over the last few years became diseased, in no small part because of emerald ash borers, which landed in Ohio in 2003, apparently, and have taken out a substantial number of trees. Including ours; three of the four were basically dead trees standing, and the fourth was on its way.

So, today, down they came, all four of them. In their place, for now, are four piles of firewood which we will use in the fire pit out back, and later, four new trees, probably maples, more or less where the ash trees stood. It will take time for them to grow to the height of the ash trees, but, you know. We’re not planning on going anywhere at the moment.

I was sad to see the trees come down, but as noted they weren’t exactly healthy trees; bringing them down was the right thing to do. In the coming months, as the nights get colder and suited for fires in the backyard, I’ll toast some s’mores in their honor.

The Big Idea: Greg Van Eekhout

Oh look, Here’s Greg Van Eekhout, wrapping up his terrific Daniel Blackland trilogy with Dragon Coast. Perhaps it will have dragons in it? And possibly a coast? Seems likely on both counts. Let’s have Greg give you a couple more specifics on it.


Look, the title is Dragon Coast, there’s a dragon right on the cover, and the dragon’s in the very first paragraph of the book. Obviously, the big idea for the conclusion of my Daniel Blackland trilogy was this: Have fun.

To review, the first book, California Bones, is about Daniel Blackland, a young wizard-thief who gets his abilities by consuming the remains of magical creatures, such as griffins and basilisks and dragons. Because of family history and the politics of a magical Los Angeles, he finds himself constantly pitted against other osteomancers who want to eat him. At its spine, the book is a heist novel, but the flesh and blood is about created family, sacrifice, and exploitation, weird magic, and transforming familiar cityscapes. I had a fun time writing it.

The second novel, Pacific Fire, has Daniel acting as guardian to his arch enemy’s  magically generated clone, who’s trying to sabotage the bad guys’ weapon of mass destruction, a patchwork dragon. And, gosh, did I ever have a ball working on this book. We’re talking pizza-party level fun with a side of air hockey. Kish-kosh-kish! (Those are my air hockey noises.)

With the third novel, I found myself looking at the prospect of writing what might be my final story in this world and my last ride with these characters. So. What would be most fun?

Dragons. Dragons are fun. So Dragon Coast has a huge Pacific firedrake wreaking destruction across California.

Heists are fun. So someone steals the dragon and Daniel has to masquerade as the brother he killed and steal a powerful bone in front of the assembled aristocracy of Northern California, including the most powerful osteomancer in the world.

Shipping is fun, or so many readers have told me, so Max and Gabriel (Maxriel) are back.

For me, though, the most fun thing of all, the reason I wanted to write this book and the place I inevitably arrived at, was discovering who my characters are now, having spent two books fighting and adventuring and bantering and hating and loving and snacking. After hundreds of pages, how have their scars changed their bodies and brains and hearts? Who are they to each other, to their enemies, to themselves?

In Dragon Coast, Daniel’s pretending to be the brother he killed in the last book. That’s going to leave a mark. Gabriel Argent, the chief hydromancer who’s always been nervous about wielding power, has to decide if he wants control of a weapon of mass destruction. And his ever-loyal assistant, Max, has to decide if he’ll let him. Cassandra Morales has to decide if she’s willing to do unthinkable things and alienate her friends forever in order to save their lives. Someone has to pilot an out-of-control dragon from the inside and face an evil at the very nucleus of his being. And poor Moth has to learn how to make jewelry.

In short, the dragons and the heists are the conspicuous fun, but pushing the characters toward their ultimate ends was the most important fun. And with Dragon Coast, that was my big idea: Have the most fun ever. Kish-kosh-kish.


Dragon Coast: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

Here’s a Quarter

Many years ago — actually about a quarter of a century ago — I had applied for the job of Student Ombudsperson at the University of Chicago. The job of the Ombudsperson was to help students navigate the bureaucracy of the university, and to help them get their concerns heard when the usual channels weren’t working. It was a job where I got to problem-solve and advocate for people, and that appealed to me.

One part of the process for being considered for the job was an interview with a selection committee, which featured members of the faculty, administration and student body, who asked me (and presumably the other candidates) questions and offered hypothetical issues to resolve. It was during one of the hypotheticals, the details of which are not especially important, that I was confronted with a hypothetical student who simply wouldn’t be happy with any outcome. So, like this:

Q: A student comes with “X” problem. How would you resolve it?

A: I would do “Y”, and here’s why [explain why].

Q: Okay, but they’re not happy with that solution. What do you do then?

A: Then I would try “Z,” and here’s why [explain why].

Q: Okay, but they’re still not happy. Now what?

A: Well, then let’s try “Q,” because [explain why].

Q: They’re still not happy.

A: Fine, I would try “K,” because [explain why].

“Okay,” my interviewer then said, “But they’re still not happy with your solution or your efforts. What do you do then?”

“I give them a quarter to call someone who cares,” I said. “Because at that point it’s clear they’re more interested in being upset than anything else, and I have other work to do.”

Yes, I actually did say that (or something very close to it; it was 25 years ago and I didn’t record it).

And yes, I got the job.

Here’s the thing: I believe that we owe our fellow human beings a certain amount of compassion and courtesy and respect, and to listen to their complaints and grievances. We should ask ourselves whether those complaints and grievances are valid, and whether we can help — and in some cases, ask whether we are the author of those grievances, and if so what we can do to resolve them.

But I also believe that after a certain point, it may become obvious that some people just want to complain, or to be angry, or to be an asshole, or whatever, and that nothing a reasonable person can do will ever make those people happy or satisfied. So you give them a quarter, metaphorically or otherwise, and tell them to call someone who cares. Because you have other things to do. And then you go on doing those things you need to do.

They won’t be happy, but then they were never going to be happy, and it’s not your responsibility to fix their problem — “their problem” not being whatever specific complaint or grievance they might have, but a worldview that requires them to always have a complaint or grievance, and/or to believe that the root of that complaint is somehow about you. That’s something for therapy, perhaps, not for you, or anyone else who isn’t getting paid by the session.

You should be a kind and compassionate person to others when they have a problem or grievance. You should also know when it’s a problem you can’t solve, and also, when the person doesn’t actually want the problem to be solved. It’s neither kind nor compassionate to them or to you to keep being involved after that point. And to be sure, after you’ve given them their quarter, they will likely complain that you are a terrible person, and/or part of a conspiracy to keep them down, and so on and so forth. That’s their karma, not yours.

I was and am pretty proud of my time as Student Ombudsperson at the University of Chicago. I ended up helping a good number of people, and making sure that the students could get their voices heard. But I never forgot that part of the reason I got the job is because they knew I knew where to draw a line. It was a useful skill in that job. It continues to be useful to me today.

The Big Idea: Sarah Prineas

Happily Ever After… but why? And to ultimately what end? Author Sarah Prineas considers this in Ash & Bramble, and she’s not the only one who asks.


The story of Ash & Bramble, which is more an exploded fairytale than a retelling, arose out of two Big Idea questions.

The first question came out of this experience I had back in grad school when I was reading a lot of Marxist theory and joined a student group that staged a sit-in to protest that the university basically relied on sweatshop labor to produce school-mascot t-shirts and hats and backpacks. What I learned was that our stuff comes from somewhere.  We don’t have fairy godmothers who wave their wands and new t-shirts appear, wallah!—even though shopping online can be like that. But no, an underpaid, overworked laborer somewhere far away from where you live probably made the clothes you are wearing right now. She made the clothes I am wearing right now, too (pajamas from Target).

That led me to wonder: there’s all this stuff in fairytales: a dancing slipper made of glass.  A poisoned apple. A sharpened spindle. A glass coffin. And of course, the gorgeous, glittering ball gowns.

So where do all of those story elements come from? Who makes it? I mean, there’s no amazon.com in Fairytalandia, and the stuff has to come from somewhere, right?

The logical conclusion is that the Godmother has a kind of fairytale version of a sweatshop, full of shoemakers, bakers-of-gingerbread, lace-makers, Jacks-of-all-trades, seamstresses…

My stitches march on, inevitable, a straggling, wandering line of foot soldiers, with here and there a casualty where I accidentally prick my finger on the needle and the tiny bead of blood is blotted by the cloth. My fingertips ache; my hands grow stiff. 

The seamstress of Ash & Bramble is the one person who dares look up from her work and ask, “what is all this stuff for?”

The answer is, it’s for Story. And this Story gains power every time it gets another Happily-Ever-After.  It’s the Godmother’s job to set stories up, to get the wheel turning by forcing people to play their designated roles, to provide the spindles, the glass slippers, the etcetera.

And our seamstress—her name is Pin, as far as she knows—to stop her from asking dangerous questions, the Godmother decides to put her into one of Story’s most powerful stories, Cinderella. According to Story, Pin is supposed to want the gorgeous gown, the prince, the insta-love, the marriage. Except for Pin, the glass slipper doesn’t quite fit, and she refuses to settle for one of Story’s pernicious happily-ever-afters.

She asks the second big question:

What if the Stories tell us?

And if they do, how can we escape?


Ash & Bramble: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s|Signed copies from Prairie Lights

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

Blurbs, Conventions and 2017

A couple of things to announce re: blurbs, conventions and 2017:

Blurbs: I am done considering books for blurbs for 2015 and will not be considering any new books until January at least. I’m swamped at the moment and need to clear out the works I’m currently considering for blurbs. I’m really far behind on some. I can’t in good conscience take on any more.

Conventions: My date card for conventions is entirely filled for 2016 and I will not be accepting any additional convention invitations for that year. I’m already scheduled to be a working guest at conventions in Boston, Detroit, Dallas, Portland, Kansas City and Hawaii, and it’s possible my publisher will add a couple more to the schedule. That’s plenty. I’ll put those all into my Upcoming Appearances page soon.

(Also, if you wanted me for something for 2015… yeah, no. Full up.)

2017: I’ve decided to take a convention hiatus year in 2017, which means that aside from conventions my publisher asks me to take part of (and a couple things I’ve already committed to attending, like Worldcon), I’m taking the year off from being a working guest. If I attend a convention in 2017, it will be as a regular fan. I do this occasionally to keep the top of my head from popping off.

This doesn’t mean I’ll be invisible in 2017 — I’m sure I’ll be at a few book festivals and other events, etc., and it’s entirely possible I will tour for whatever book is scheduled that year (currently, that’d be the Lock In sequel). Just that I probably won’t be a guest of honor at a science fiction convention.

What this means is that if you were planning to ask me to be a convention GoH or working guest in 2017, you should probably consider other guests instead, as my plan at this point is to turn down invites. The good news is there are lots of other very fine writers to consider. I don’t imagine you’ll have any trouble finding GoHs who are not me.

(I’ll be open to scheduling 2018 GoH gigs. Just, uh, not yet, please. Wait until 2016 at least to ask.)


In Which Patrick Rothfuss Gets All Bunned Up For Charity

Earlier today I noted that Patrick Rothfuss was getting close to a milestone:

This prompted the following comment:

To which I responded:


A deal is a deal, and I have donated to the Worldbuilders for Syrian Refugees campaign.

If you are also moved by Pat’s buns, may I suggest you donate as well? I, Pat, and his buns thank you.

The Big Idea: Max Gladstone

There’s a new publisher called Serial Box, which has this wacky idea that maybe, just maybe, you’ll enjoy fiction in serialized form — stories with new, regular installments that keep you on the edge of your seat, waiting to find out what happens next. It’s an idea that goes back to the times of Dickens and Dostoevsky, and seems ripe for a digital renaissance. In today’s Big Idea, Max Gladstone, one of the writers of Serial Box’s first series Bookburners, talks a bit about the series and why this story works well in this particular format.


Bookburners makes me a bit uncomfortable.

Consider: our world’s a small island in a sea of weirder stuff.  Sometimes monsters crawl up the beach from the water.  Sometimes springs and fountains of weirdness erupt from the sand.  People drown.  People get eaten.  People turn strange.  Of course there would be groups dedicated to managing the weirdness.  Not destroying it—how bloodthirsty can you get?  No, just—taking strange things and putting them in a box for a while.  Studying them.  Deploying top men.

All of which seems reasonable enough on the surface.  But, peer deeper.  Once weirdness is contained, studying it safely requires immense resources—and after containment, said weirdness isn’t, by definition, an urgent problem.  Your archive of the weird develops piles of barely catalogued cruft.  “Man-eating quarto, c. 1730, France.  Title unknown.”  You’re protecting people on the day to day—but you sit on top of vast resources that could transform the world.  If you just picked them up.  Used them.  Listened to them.

The archives whisper to you at night.

Bookburners is a supernatural procedural about agents working for the Vatican running around the world trying to save people from being murdered, possessed, transformed, and otherwise messed with by magic—if you like Warehouse 13, Shadow Unit, the X-Files, the Men in Black movies, odds are you’re ready to pick up what we’re putting down, dig what we’re shoveling, etc.  But the notion of “defending the earth from the scum of the multiverse” has always sat oddly with me.  Why hide the cool stuff?  Why not let things get crazy?

A few possible answers: “It’s for the public good.”  To which: I mean, possibly.  But our species doesn’t have a great history with people in power deciding what’s for the public good.  “People aren’t ready for this knowledge.”  Which seems a bit… disrespectful, to be honest, though, given human history of dealing with outsiders, it might be accurate.  “The cool stuff kills people.”  Hard to argue there—though humans do a fine job of killing themselves without magic.  That said I’m willing to allow there’s a difference between killing ourselves and being turned inside out by monsters.  “We’ve always done it that way.”

Fair enough.

Charles Stross has observed that organizations which outlive their founders tend to do so because their focus shifts from their original mission, to self-preservation.  The Men in Black, as an institution, care primarily about the upkeep of the Men in Black.  Which is not to say that individual Men in individual Black don’t care about protecting the earth from the scum of etc.  Or even about reforming the system of which they’re a part!  But systems are big, and change slowly.

We bear histories on our backs.  As we go to school, as we enter the world and make friends and vote and serve, we’re beneficiaries and victims both of an awful lot of choices, some of which—many of which—we’d have made differently.  Checking out is an option.  Pretending we can ignore history is another.  But history has a nasty tendency to hunt us down wherever we run, and rise from whatever grave in which we try to bury it.

Our main characters in Bookburners got into the fight for personal reasons—they’ve been hurt by magic; they’ve lost friends and family; they want to help people.  Some of them are more convinced the right approach to magic is locking it away; some aren’t.  They’re working within an organization that’s made a lot of decisions about how to manage magic in the world, some of which are more defensible, some less.  How can they deal with that?  Reform?  Revolution?  Doing the best they can from the inside?

The more I thought about this idea, the more I realized that what made Bookburners uncomfortable for me also made it valuable.  Sal and Grace and Liam and Menchú and Asanti are all making the same choices we all make, moment to moment—how to do things we care about in a complicated, and probably compromised, system.

This angle also makes Bookburners an ideal serial story, since serials support more expansive storytelling.  An episode can focus on one side of Our Heroes’ mission, pose one sort of moral question, while the next episode takes an entirely different tactic.  Having a room full of writers—Mur Lafferty, Margaret Dunlap, Brian Slatterly, and myself—contributing episodes also helps, since everyone has their own perspective on the characters and their compromises.  We talk these issues out among ourselves, and then, since we’re all storytellers, we rework those conversations on the page.

In Bookburners, we’re monster-punching our way to organizational change.

Join us for the ride.


Bookburners: SerialBox.com|iTunes|Amazon|Kobo|Google Play

Read an excerpt. Visit the Serial Box site. Follow Max Gladstone on Twitter.

The Privileged Poor

A (to me) fascinating article in the New York Times today, talking about “the privileged poor,” which in this case means poor students who were fortunate enough to attend elite high schools, and the advantages they have over other poor students when both groups went on to college. The article was fascinating to me because I was very much “privileged poor” — I attended a private boarding school in high school and was so well prepared for college because of it that it literally took me a year and a half at college before I was dealing with something I couldn’t just dip into my high school experience to deal with, and I went to the University of Chicago, not exactly a grunt school.

This is a topic I’ve addressed before, indeed very recently: The idea that my life had been manifestly changed because my high school let me in despite being poor; my upward trajectory in life started my freshman year in high school. It was, to be sure, an incredibly tough year, as I adjusted to the school and its expectations (the fact I was a willful little brat didn’t help any). I try to imagine that year of wrenching adjustment happening when I was eighteen rather than fourteen. I don’t know that it would have gone as well for me.

I don’t think you need to go to an elite high school to be reasonably prepared for college; lots of people don’t go to one and get along just fine. But the article does reinforce my belief that a good education leading up to college really is important. You can’t just chuck someone into the deep water of college– any college, not merely an “elite” one as noted in this article — and expect them to swim. If there’s one thing I would absolutely change about the US, it would be an immense overhaul of how we do schooling and how we prep our kids for the future. How it happens matters. It matters a lot.

My Almost Certainly Ill-Advised Proposed Award Voting Process

In light of recent events and posts, I’ve been asked, if it fell to me to create a literary award, how I might work the voting process.

My response is, first, I think I would rather pull out my own teeth with pliers than to take on the work and aggravation of helming an award, and this is from someone who was (only very nominally, and insulated by a couple of layers of extraordinarily competent people) previously in charge of the Nebulas. I’m super-impressed with anyone who can handle an award on the front lines. It’s not a gig for me.

Second, if you put a gun to my head and made me do one, or, alternately, put the gun to my head but then promised me that someone else would have to actually run the things so that all I had to do was think up the process, then here’s what I would do, for the process of a popularly-voted award.

1. Categories: Doesn’t matter, think up any category or categories you want, as the process would be the same no matter how many categories there are. I would suggest that every category would have to have a minimum number of initial voters to be considered; say, 500.

2. Who votes: Anyone can vote. Each voter gets their own ID, which can be used only by them. Stupidly obvious attempts to game the system can be disallowed by the poor bastards who actually have to run the system at any step in the process, but for reasons that will become obvious in a second, stupidly obvious attempts to game the system here doesn’t offer much long-term benefit.

3. How the vote works: There are three voting rounds: Nomination, long list, and finalist.

Nomination: Everyone votes for one and only one work (or person, if it’s that sort of category) in the category. The top ten or twelve vote-getters are sent to the long list stage (ties, etc are fine but the goal would be to get number of long list nominees as close to the ideal long list number as possible).

Long List: Everyone votes for up to three works on the long list, none of which can be the single work they originally nominated. That’s right! You have to choose something else in this stage, and hope enough other people like the work you originally nominated to include it among their own selections!

But what if people choose not to make selections in the stage in the hope that their lack of selection of other work will bump up the chances of their preferred work? Well, I would consider making a rule that says failure to participate in this round counts as a point against your original choice’s score in this round — which is to say if you don’t vote in this round, a point is deducted for your original choice’s score in this round (presuming it made the long list at all). You’re better off voting if you want your original selection to make it to the final round.

In this round, the top five or six vote-getters graduate to the final round. Hope your original choice made it!

Finalist: This vote is done “Australian Rules” style, where each voter ranks the works from first to last choice. “No Award” is an option in this round, so if you hated everything in the long list round, this is where you may register your disapproval. The winner is the one which collects the majority of votes, in either the first or subsequent balloting rounds.

Why would I do the voting this way? Because it emphasizes both individual choice and community.

  • Picking a single work in the first round makes you really think about what you loved that year and forces hard choices early; knowing that you will have to rely on other people to carry your choice into the final round also makes you think about what you believe others will find worthy.
  • Picking an initial single work also avoids obvious slating, while a long list allows for the possibility of a wider diversity of choices for the finalist round.
  • Forcing people to make a selection other than their original choice in the long list round makes them consider what else out there might be worthy of consideration, and also again punishes attempts at obvious slating.
  • Three choices for a finalist slate of five or six also again cuts down on obvious slating and allows for diversity in the finalist round of voting.
  • “Australian Rules” in the final round allows for a consensus vote for the best work in any particular category.

If you want to further reduce any chance of slating you could employ EPH to the long list round, but you get the idea.

Would this work? Got me. And as I noted I’m not going to go out of my way to implement them, because: Ugh, effort. But if anyone wants to try it and see how it works for them, knock yourself out. Could be fun. As long as someone else but me does the work.

Now: Pick it apart in the comments!

17 Years

On this day seventeen years ago I sat down and wrote the first-ever blog post on Whatever (or “the Whatever”; the disposition about the indefinite article was not resolved for a number of years). I’m still doing it, on a more or less daily basis. It’s the longest amount of time that I’ve ever kept time with something, excepting my marriage, and basic functions like respiration; even my daughter is younger than this blog by about three months. I’ve said this before and it continues to be true: In many ways, this blog is my life’s work.

More accurately, it chronicles a very specific time in my life. I started the blog in 1998, after I had been laid off at America Online and I had begun freelancing, first (ironically) for AOL and then for a number of other companies, and also for various newspapers and magazines. Two years in I published my first book; four years in I posted Old Man’s War, which then got bought and was published when the blog was six and a half. Before the blog, I was employed by a company, first the McClatchy newspapers and then America Online. The blog covers what happened when I became “my own man,” entirely responsible for whether I was working or not.

Oddly, until today I never really thought about it in that way. Obviously, I was aware when I started the blog, and the context in which the blog existed. I just hadn’t tied it to being a chronicle of this particular era of my life in any explicit way. But it is, and in that light is even more interesting to me because of it.

I’m not the same person I was when I started it. I’m older, of course (by seventeen years), but my position in the world is also rather a bit different. I was struggling when I started the blog, albeit, and significantly, that struggle was more for notability than financial stability, which fortunately came early. I don’t expect I could be said to be struggling in any sense today. I wrote things then that I probably wouldn’t write now; many of the things I would say I might phrase differently. I think I’ve generally become more tolerant, although specifically there are people who I am less tolerant of, mostly people superficially like me, whose monstrous sense of entitlement I find both appalling and wearying. I’m more comfortable with the idea that my opinions are not necessarily an accurate model of How The World Really Is For Everyone. I’m definitely balder.

I feel a direct connection with the John Scalzi of seventeen years ago, who started this blog; he was me. But I am me now, and I like me today. I think he’s probably a better person in some critical ways. There’s always room for improvement, mind you. I hope in another seventeen years(!) future John Scalzi sees the same sort of forward motion.

Last year at this time, I noted that how I use Whatever was changing, in part because of other social media (notably, for me, Twitter) and in part because of the circumstances of my life changing — me getting busier, basically. This continues to be the case, and I’m also experiencing something like fatigue on a number of topics, most clearly politics. I find it difficult to write about politics these days because what I mostly feel about them is exasperation, and exasperation is kind of a Twitter thing, which is to say, nicely expressed in 140 characters, somewhat dreary after that. I do imagine I will write more about it the closer we get to the presidential election; I don’t imagine it will become less exasperating, but it might have more daily relevance for my life, and that will help, in terms of kvetching about it here.

And once again, no matter what form Whatever takes in the next year, I do intend to keep writing it. I’ve been doing this for seventeen years, after all, and for as long as I’ve been in this part of my career. It’s an integral part of my life. I can’t imagine not doing it.


Kristine, 9/12/15

Because she’s lovely. And because the fact she’s lovely is absolutely the least fantastic thing about her.

Today’s Twitter Rant, 9/12/15

For Reasons. 

Related: Both this and this.

New Books and ARCs, 9/11/15

As we once again head into the weekend, here’s a new stack of book and ARCs that have come to the Scalzi Compound this week. What speaks to you in this stack? Tell me in the comments!

The Big Idea: Fran Wilde

Updraft is a world of cloud and bone, songs and silence, where danger hides on the wind and secrets bind a city. Author Fran Wilde is here to talk about the book, and about finding her voice in a wind tunnel.



At its heart, Updraft is about speaking, about being heard, and — in turn — about hearing others; it is about challenging, vocally, secrets, assumptions, and established beliefs. It is about singing and memory; about argument and politics.

(Updraft is also about monsters, in case you’re worried that it’s all talk. Invisible monsters that you don’t see until their mouths open right in front of you in the sky. And it’s about gravity and wind. Two more kinds of monsters. But the big idea is voice.)

When I began to write Updraft, it was as a short story called “Bone Arrow, Glass Tooth,” where two people battled for the right to speak.

… While flying.

… In a wind tunnel.

The short story was all action and eye-candy. Not just the human kind of action – I like building worlds, and “Bone Arrow, Glass Tooth,” featured an entire world pre-crammed into five thousand words. I do that a lot. Gets crowded in there.

This story also had a number of questions left unanswered: what kind of society would set its citizens against each other like this? What are the real stakes, beyond this current challenge? Who the heck are these people, and where did that wind tunnel come from?

Answering those questions gave me Kirit Densira, a young woman still living with her birth family, and happy there. Kirit’s aspires to become a renowned trader — an important job in a city of towers of living bone that rise far above the clouds. But before she can do so, Kirit breaks a law, and must pay the consequences… even though she does everything in her power to get past them.

Answering the questions raised by the short story also gave me a city that utters discord in its own way, and a citizenry desperate to appease it.

There are many voices in Updraft, and I realized early on that there were many stories I could tell, from many different perspectives.

There’s the voice of the city. The voice of Laws and tradition. The voices of those the community has set aside. The voices of the dead.

I chose among characters one whose voice resonated — roughly — and who sometimes spoke out of turn; who learning the ins-and-outs of negotiation as we all have to, learning and re-learning.

For Updraft, I didn’t want an expert. I didn’t seek someone who knew their voice and could use it perfectly. I wanted rough-edged and reaching. Someone who thought they were prepared, that they knew all the right words, but who didn’t, not yet.

For that character to find strength in their voice, to learn to control that strength, to learn when to shout, and when to stay silent: That’s the Big Idea.


Updraft: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

Can’t Brain 2: The Can’t-Brainening

Actually, today it’s not that I didn’t have brain capability, it’s just that it didn’t last past about 1:30pm. I could actually feel my brain shutting down! It was amazing.

Anyway, how are you today?

The Big Idea: Stephanie Diaz

Next time you can, go look at the moon. Pretty innocuous, right? Not for Stephanie Diaz and her Extraction series of books, of which Evolution is the latest installment.


For as long as I can remember, I’ve dreamed of having adventures in outer space. In fact, the first original words I remember writing were the lyrics of a short song: “Stephanie goes to outer space and all the way! Stephanie goes to outer space at dinner time.” I was six years old at the time, and I already knew I wanted to be an author. (Or an astronaut. But math proved to be too annoying of a subject for me.)

Now I’m twenty-two, and I still dream of someday boarding a space ship and traversing the outermost reaches of the galaxy. Yet in my first eighteen years of scribbling stories in notebooks and on school papers, it never occurred to me to try writing a science fiction story. I think I sort of figured I didn’t know enough science, or maybe I simply didn’t have an intriguing enough plot for a story set in space. Until the idea for the Extraction series (which ends with the upcoming Evolution) fell into my head.

Ever since reading The Hunger Games, I’d been toying with the idea of writing a dystopian novel. I’ve always loved exploring the dark side of humanity, the situations that lead individuals to make impossible choices of death and destruction. But with the market so flooded with dystopian works, I knew I needed something to help my story stand out from the rest. The Star Wars/Firefly geek inside me tugged me in the direction of space and galactic wars.

But it really all started with a moon.

Earth’s moon is pretty cool. It looks super lovely and it works with the sun to create ocean tides, which is great. But one day I started wondering how the world would be different if the moon had a bigger effect on our day-to-day lives—and not just any effect, but a deadly one.

What if the moon were poisonous?

And so Kiel was born, a planet somewhere out in the far-off reaches of the universe. A planet orbited by a giant moon with acid leaking off its surface and swirling down into the atmosphere of Kiel, threatening the lives of the planet’s citizens. Those citizens with more wealth and privilege were able to live in societies underground, while the unprivileged working class lived in concentration camps closer to the Surface, and fought to prove they deserved an escape. I dropped a spunky sixteen-year-old girl on the most dangerous part of the planet and wove the story around her, following her from her escape of one of the concentration camps to her realization that everything she thought she knew about her home world was wrong—including the dangers of the moon.

When I started writing Extraction, I honestly didn’t know where the story was going. But about halfway through I realized there was a twist in store that opened up the possibilities for sequels. See, I’d read other science fiction stories about planets where humans suffered from trauma due to the sun’s radiation, or where supernova exploded and led to an end of a civilization, but they were all a result of natural phenomena. I decided it would be most interesting if the poisonous moon in my story weren’t something natural at all, but a weapon of war. And hardly anyone on Kiel knows it.

The first and second books of the series, Extraction and Rebellion, explore the massive cover up in play on the planet Kiel, and follow Clementine’s attempts with a rebel group to sabotage the leader at the head of the cover up. In Evolution, the warriors behind the moon’s weaponization appear on the stage and the final showdown begins, complete with space ships and aliens and a galactic war on the scale I always wanted.

Extraction started with a poisonous moon. How the story ends…well, you’ll have to read Evolution to find out.

As for me, I’ll probably never get to board a space ship and have adventures on a planet far, far away, but the Extraction series let me have adventures through Clementine and the rest of her rebel crew. And that’s pretty shiny.


Evolution: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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