Reader Request Week 2014 #9: Short Writery Bits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Print books make great gifts. And everyone likes gifts!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reader Request Week 2014 #8: What Writing Lurks In the Shadows?

Katy asks:

Is there anything you’ve written that is sitting in a drawer/file cabinet that will never see the light of day?

Not really, no. The very first novel I wrote was Agent to the Stars, which I sold shortly after Old Man’s War (the second novel I wrote) was published. All the other novels I’ve written since were either written under contract or claimed after I wrote them. Likewise, I only wrote a couple of short stories before OMW was published and I sold both of those, and since then I only write short stories that either have been commissioned or that I write for my own amusement and then post here. So there is literally (hah!) no backlog of material from me, and (thankfully) no stuff I’d be embarrassed to show off.

Now, the above applies only for work that I wrote as an adult. When I was a teenager I wrote several stories (not to mention poetry and song lyrics), and I have them here in the office with me. Most of these are, well, not good — I think they’re fine for the output of a teenager, but I’m definitely grading on a curve, there. I’m not ashamed of them, but neither do I imagine there’s much of a market for them (one of the stories, set in the future, features a semi-truck full of cassette tapes). Unless I decide to pay someone to type them into the computer, and then post them here purely for archaeological interest, I don’t imagine any of you will ever see them.

I’ll also note that there’s a fair amount of material I wrote professionally that isn’t readily available on the Internet — most of the work I did for newspapers, for example, which is only accessible via paid archives; a lot of the other print work, which is not available anywhere online; most of what I wrote for AOL back in the day, which also went away when the client-based AOL service did, and material posted here prior my first Movable Type installation in 2003, because I revamped the site and took a lot of that stuff offline.

None of that stuff will “never see the light of day” because in fact most of it was seen by a ton of people when it was first published. It just won’t be seen again. The good news there is that a fair amount of it isn’t worth seeing again, for reasons ranging from marginal competence on my part, to the material simply being woefully outdated. No one will miss it much, me included.

So: Yeah. I got nothin’ for you lurking in the shadows, I’m afraid. What you’ve seen from me is really and truly everything I have. Well, except for the upcoming novel Lock In, and the novella I finished up a couple of weeks ago. But those are both on their way. Honest.

Twenty Years Online

Above, you see the very first verifiable evidence of me being on the Internet: A USENET post, on the sci.astro newsgroup, dated March 20, 1994 — twenty years ago today. For trivia fans, it was posted from my apartment in Fresno, where I was working at the local newspaper as their film critic, and if memory serves, I posted it on a Mac Quadra (probably this model), whilst facing north (no, really).

This is what I looked like in 1994:

At least Krissy looks pretty much the same.

Of course, it wasn’t the first time I had been online. Prior to that I had been online via a local BBS in high school and the Prodigy online service, starting in 1992, but when I upgraded to the Quadra I also started looking around at that new-fangled “World Wide Web” thing I had heard so much about. Once I started looking about, in reasonably short time I had my own hand-rolled Web page via a local service provider (, now defunct) and begun reading an posting to USENET, most notably at alt.society.generation-x, which was a center of my online life until I got my own domain, started Whatever, and began blogging in earnest here. But as far as the memory of the Internet is concerned, this sci.astro post is where I first pop up. As I mentioned elsewhere, I’m immensely relieved that the Internet’s first note of me is of me asking about science, rather than porn.

This is the part where I would note with wonder all the changes that have been wrought to the Internet since that fateful day, two decades ago, when I dipped my toe into the cyber-waters, but you know what, blah blah blah blah blah take it as read. I will say, as all middle-aged and older folks must in situations like this, that it’s a little amazing that twenty years has gone by. Sitting there in my Fresno apartment, staring into my Quadra’s monitor as I use Netscape to visit Spatula City, really doesn’t seem all that long ago. I wonder how it will feel in another 20 years.

Reader Request Week 2014 #7: Editorial Independence

Dpmaine asks:

How do you intend to maintain editorial independence given that you are now working with one of the largest international media conglomerates, headed by a notorious right-winger billionaire?

Context: My book Redshirts is in development as a limited TV series at FX, a cable station owned by 21st Century Fox, owned by Rupert Murdoch. 21st Century Fox was a company formed when News Corporation split into two companies: Fox for film/broadcast properties and News Corp for its publishing properties. Both companies have Murdoch as their Chairman/CEO. Fox News was assigned to 21st Century Fox rather than News Corp, which makes it easy to snark that it was grouped in with the entertainment properties (i.e., film/tv) rather than the news properties (i.e., publishing).

I’ll begin by noting that my association with FX is not, in fact, my first association with a large international conglomerate; indeed, I have worked with several. I worked with AOL during the time it was part of Time Warner (or more accurately, when Time Warner was part of AOL, as technically AOL bought TW). Old Man’s War’s movie option was with Paramount, part of Viacom. When I was Creative Consultant for Stargate: Universe, that was on Syfy, part of NBCUniversal. I did consulting for Disney on a project that I’m not at liberty to disclose publicly. I’ve published books with Rough Guides and Heyne, now both part of Penguin Random House, jointly owned by Bertlesmann and Pearson, both major international conglomerates; and of course I publish with Tor Books, owned by Macmillan, which in turn is owned by the Holtzbrinck Publishing Group, which is also, you may surmise, a large international conglomerate. So, again: working with 21 Century Fox will not be my first time at the conglomerate dance.

(Note bene: In all of the above, my relationship with the conglomerates has been as an independent contractor, often for a company that itself contracted with the conglomerate, and not as an employee. I was an AOL employee once, but not during the Time Warner era.)

Does working with a conglomerate impede one’s editorial independence elsewhere? Well, yes, it can. You may see an example of that above, where I noted that there was a project I worked on at Disney that I can’t discuss publicly. That’s because I signed an non-disclosure agreement about it. I’d like to tell you about it, because it was a very cool project and I worked with very cool people on it, but I can’t. I’m legally obliged not to, and also, I said I wouldn’t, and I prefer to keep my word.

Likewise, sometimes in contracts, one is asked to sign non-disparagement clauses. In my experience these are usually confined to specific projects. So, for example, if I worked on [X], I would agree not to say disparaging things about [X] to the media or on social media. So I couldn’t come here or go to Twitter or Facebook and say “Jesus, I’ve been working on [X] for months now and I can’t believe what a tremendous pile of crap it is.” I don’t think that’s usually an unreasonable thing to agree to.

But even without that contractual bar, I’d have to say it would be very very very unlikely you’d see or hear me publicly rubbish a project I was directly working on. One, in my experience most everyone is trying to make a project work, and sometimes it just doesn’t, and that’s the way it goes. Two, only an idiot burns bridges when they don’t have to. Future work can still come out of failed projects.

With all that said, I don’t think that working with a large media conglomerate is an automatic bar to criticizing it or the practices of the corporation (or some portion of it), or the output of that conglomerate. Indeed, there’s a long history of one part of a corporation looking at other parts with a critical eye. Entertainment Weekly and Time Magazine have panned Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema films; The Wall Street Journal has cast its eye on the business practices of various part of the Murdoch empire; and The Simpsons, shown on Fox network, has said less than nice things about Fox News (see the graphic at the top of the entry).

Yes, yes, but would you do that criticizing, you ask? One way to answer that is to note I’ve done it before — I’m published by Random House (via Rough Guides and Heyne) but that did not stop me from expressing my displeasure in no uncertain terms about the company’s (now-updated) contracts from the Hydra and Alias imprints. Likewise, I’ve criticized Amazon and its business practices, even as the company is one of my publishers — and a very good one, I will note — through its audiobook subsidiary Audible. I made snarky comments about the Sci-Fi Channel changing its name to Syfy after I agreed to be the consultant for SGU. Past actions are not a guarantee of future results, of course. But it is indicative of how I approach these things.

Now, I think it would be perfectly reasonable for people to remember my various business associations and take them under consideration when they see me talk about things that touch tangentially (or not-so-tangentially) on those associations. But I would ask them to keep in their minds that thinking I am or am not discussing a subject because I am in the pay of one conglomerate or another is a fairly reductive way to look at things. There are going to be times when I might say “I’m a little too close to this one, so I’m going to stay out of it publicly,” because sometimes that’s true. But there are a lot of reasons why I might choose not to comment on a thing.

In short, I don’t think the fact that I’m working with FX will keep me from commenting when, say, someone on Fox News says something egregiously stupid enough to inspire me to comment. Alternately, I don’t see me starting to positively quote nuggets of wisdom from Sean Hannity, just because a chunk of my income issues forth from the vasty Murdochian depths. I don’t imagine anyone at FX will care — or anyone at Fox News, for that matter. Nor Rupert Murdoch, bless his heart.

Reader Request Week 2014 #6: Enjoying Problematic Things

H. Savinean asks:

I would like to hear your thoughts on liking problematic things, e.g. media with historically accurate but objectionable portrayals of gender/race/etc., media with no historical excuse for the above, media that simply ignore women and people of color, comedians/actors/writers who plant their feet firmly in their mouths way too often… It’s something I spend a fair amount of time on.

Oh, boy! A can of worms! Let me just come over and open it!

Let me skip lightly over what “problematic” means in a larger sense and suggest that for the purposes of this piece, the word means “work/people I have issues with for some substantial and to me relevant social/moral/ethical reason.” With that understood:

I think it’s fine to like or recognize the value of problematic people/things. I think it helps to additionally recognize two things: One, that the person/thing is problematic, regardless of the fact that you like it; two, that the fact you like it doesn’t mitigate the fact that it is problematic. You can hold the two thoughts in your head simultaneously.

So, an example from my own personal problematic files: Chinatown. Fantastic movie, and the guy who directed it drugged and raped an underage girl. The film is a classic and Roman Polanski should have gone to prison. That the film is one of the best films of the 1970s doesn’t change the fact that Polanski is also a rapist. Should you feel uncomfortable about Polanski and his actions? Yes you should. Can you acknowledge Chinatown is still a substantial piece of work? Yes you can.

Another example: Triumph of the Will, by Leni Riefenstahl. For reasons relating to cinematic technique, one of the major films in cinematic history — echoes of the film pop up everywhere from Star Wars to The Lion King. For subject matter, an unapologetic celebration of the 1934 Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg and of Adolf Hitler, it is literally horrifying. Riefenstahl herself: A brilliant filmmaker and forever (and rightly) tainted by her association with a genocidal regime; one of the first great women directors, who unquestionably lent her considerable talents to the furtherance of evil. Can we appreciate the craft she brought to the film? Absolutely. Should we argue that this craft mitigates the purpose for which it was used? Absolutely not. Should Riefenstahl’s embrace of the Nazi party be excused because of her cinematic talent? Not in a thousand years.

And so on. I used two examples from film, but examples can be found in every field of creative endeavor, including — obviously — writing. Likewise, Polanski and Riefenstahl are easy examples because of the unambiguous nature of their actions, but for every clear cut case like theirs, there are a thousand less clear cut — or at least, less clear cut to you. Someone else might disagree, occasionally emphatically.

If you accept that you can both appreciate a problematic work/creator and recognize its problematic issues, there are a host of other issues for you to consider. Some of them:

* Should you support the work with money? Example: Would you pay to own a copy of Chinatown, or merely watch it when it came on television?

* Do you differentiate works from different eras in the creator’s life? For example, if you have a favorite book and over time the creator turned progressively homophobic, can you cherish the work written before that transformation, or do you judge it by the author’s “final form,” as it were?

* How much weight should you give to historical context?

* How much do you care about a creator’s personal life?

* Does it matter whether the creator is living or dead?

(The latter, incidentally, is one I think about a lot. I anecdotally noted a resurgence of Michael Jackson’s music in the common culture after his death, and I hypothesize that his passing removed a lot of the “squick” factor related to his possibly entirely inappropriate relationships with kids. It’s easier to get into a “Thriller” zombie line if you’re not worrying about what Jackson might be doing at one of those Neverland slumber parties, etc.)

Cards on the table: I like a lot of work I think is problematic, and I like more stuff that other people would find more problematic than I do, because they have different standards and life experiences. There’s other stuff I don’t like because I find it too problematic, but I also acknowledge there’s room for hypocrisy in my choices there, too. For example, I find some of Chris Brown’s work catchy but I’m not going to give him my money because he beat a woman and by all the evidence I can see he doesn’t especially regret having done so. On the other hand, in the early 70s Jimmy Page knowingly had a sexual relationship with a 14-year-old girl — that’s statutory rape despite the girl’s then-consent — and I own a whole lotta Zeppelin (on the other hand, I haven’t bought any since I found that bit out. Even so).

Does this dichotomy reflect my judgment regarding their respective actions, some latent baked-in racism, my preference for rock over R&B, or the fact one was just a few years ago and the other over before I even knew about it? You got me. Mix and match. And while you’re doing that, I’m gonna have to think about it some more myself.

Which I think is a thing worth doing as well: When you like a problematic thing, rather than reflexively defending it with the “I like it and therefore it can’t be bad and why are you making me feel bad about it,” response, go ahead and ask yourself why you like it even though you acknowledge it’s got problems. You might find after questioning it, you like it less — or more, because you’ve thought it through.

As a final thought here, I think it’s probably likely that some readers of mine find my work problematic for various reasons — either for what’s in the text of the work, who I am as a person (as far as they know from my public presence and/or their private interaction with me) or some combination of both. It’s part of the territory of being a creative person. Are they wrong for doing so? No; you have to accept that everyone comes to your work with their own perspective and will have their own criticisms of it (and you), some of which you will disagree with, or find to be a feature rather than a bug, as it were.

If the reader can simultaneously hold in their mind that they enjoy the work and find it problematic, I appreciate it. If they decide they can’t and drop me from their cultural diet, then that’s fine, too. We all have to make choices. I’d hope that choice comes after some thought on the matter. Ultimately that’s all you can ask for, as a creator of possibly problematic things.

(It’s not too late to get a request in for Reader Request Week — here’s how.)

Reader Request Week 2014 #5: Hitting the Lottery

Dan Miller posits an event:

You just hit the lottery big time – say $200M after taxes. You can now write exactly what you want for the rest of your life. What will you write? What will you not write? How much time will you spend writing (vs. goofing off, vs. managing the charitable foundation I suspect you’d set up…)?

This is a fairly unrealistic scenario involving me, as I don’t play the lottery, for the simple reason that I understand statistics well enough to know that lotteries are an extraordinarily poor investment. I also find the idea of preying on people who don’t understand statistics as a way to compensate for a sensible taxation scheme a bad way to run things. So the chances of me buying a lottery ticket are small; I think in the history of my life I’ve bought one. I did not win.

(I don’t count the local fundraising sort of lottery here, where the prize is, like, a homemade cake. But I don’t count on winning those, either.)

But let’s say for the sake of argument that I was gifted with a lottery ticket, which turns out to be the winner, and my net after taxes is $200 million. What will this mean for John Scalzi, the writer?

In one sense, it won’t change much. Dan suggests that having that much money will allow me to write whatever I like, but the fact is, I already do that. I write science fiction because I like writing science fiction. I write the occasional non-fiction book and have never had a problem selling those. I write here on the blog because it’s fun (and without the intent of making money from it, although that will sometimes happen). I don’t need to win the lottery to write what I want.

To be clear, there are other things I think about writing up — I’ve noted before I’d like to try a non-sf-related mystery or YA novel — but the thing keeping me from doing those is not money (or, more broadly, economic pressure) but time. I’m already a full-time writer by profession; $200 million won’t free me from the shackles of a day job. It won’t buy me any more time. What it might do is allow me to shift priorities, so I put something on my schedule in a different place in terms of production. But it doesn’t change what I want to write, or my ability to write it. So, again, in that respect, $200 million doesn’t change much in my life as a writer.

But let’s not be stupid: $200 million would be a life-changing amount of money for everyone who is not already a billionaire, and I am not a billionaire. I write what I want now, but I also write because it’s how I make my living, and $200 million would mean I would never have to worry about making a living again, ever. So the real question would be: Would I still write as much, or at all, if I had the financial wherewithal to do whatever I want?

My first blush answer would be “probably,” because I like writing and I get antsy when I don’t, and it’s not like I’m writing six books a year at the moment anyway; I’ve published twenty(ish) books in fourteen years, which is a pretty manageable schedule of production, even if one has otherwise given one’s life over to idle luxury. But I also have to admit that I don’t know. I admit to being lazy. $200 million purchases quite a lot of laziness. I might give it all up for lazing by the pool whilst servants peel my grapes for me.

There is one way to find out: Quick, someone give me $200 million!



Actually (and here we go off mostly on a tangent to Dan’s question, but I can do that because I can write whatever I want, remember) I don’t think a sudden windfall of $200 million will do anyone, including me, much good. We all know the tales of people who have won the lottery who a few years later are dead broke and desperately unhappy, because they didn’t know how to handle the money and because they very quickly learned that money changes how people look at you and what they want from you, which makes it difficult to trust people, even those close to you. I would like to flatter myself by thinking that I could handle such a massive influx of money well, but alas, I am as susceptible to base human stupidity as anyone, so it’s entirely possible I would do something stupid. Again, the only way to tell is to get that money in my hands and see what I would do.

Since I don’t have that money, and I can therefore be fairly rational about it because it’s an entirely theoretical construct, here’s what I’d like to think I would do with $200 million if it dropped into my lap:

1. Take some portion of it and use it to set up a very comfortable annuity income. Off the top of my head, say, $1 million a year. If I and my family can’t live within a million dollars year, I suspect I am doing something very wrong with my life. I assume I will be crafty here and create the annuity so that it compensates for inflation, etc. But even if not, a million a year should go a long way likely for the rest of my lifetime.

2. Take another portion of it and set it up as a general trust fund for my extended family to encourage education and entrepreneurship, i.e., help pay for college and businesses they might create. No trust fund babies, but a leg up in getting a place in the world.

3. Take the largest portion of it — at least half — and use it to create a charitable organization to address issues that find important. Off the top of my head these would include local education and community infrastructure, arts, literacy and hunger.

There would be a point to doing things this way. One, to put that money to work on things I care about, right now. $200 million is more than I could use in one lifetime and no point waiting until I’m dead to make it useful. Two, to lock up the money so that anyone coming along to wheedle it out of me is going to be structurally stymied. It would be lovely to say “well, you could apply for a grant” to anyone who thinks I’m just going to pay for their new car because they imagine we’re pals or second cousins.

But — again — this is all theoretical. The chances I will see $200 million in this life are pretty slim, either from the lottery or by any other means. The good news is that even without that tidy little sum I’m still fortunate enough to write the things I want to write and to otherwise have a pretty decent life. That said, if someone does want to gift me with $200 million, post-tax, well. You know where you can find me.

(It’s not too late to get a request in for Reader Request Week — here’s how.)

Reader Request Week 2014 #4: How I See You, Dear Reader

This question comes from Sassy Coconut:

How do you see us (readers of this blog)?
What are we to you?
Are we a faceless mass murmuring in the background? Gargoyles on the edges of your posts cackling and shoving each other around? Or are we mice scurrying through the sea of grass that is this blog?
Tangent: How does this sense of audience differ between your blog and novels?

Well, most of the readers of the blog I don’t know. The vast majority of thousands of people who visit the blog on any given day show up to read, not to comment. The number of readers who comment, on anything other than the very busiest of days, is a few dozen at best. The “Straight White Male” post gathered 800 comments in two days, while about 200,000 visitors saw the piece here in the same time. Even if each of those 800 comments was from a separate visitor (which they were not), that would mean less than one half of one percent of the people who read the piece here commented. Who are the other 99.5%? Got me. Outside of basic data supplied by my stats package, I don’t know, and can’t know.

(Well, I suppose I could know, if I followed back IP addresses and did a whole bunch of sleuthing, and maybe asked someone at the NSA to follow up for me. But I’m not going to, because I don’t actually care that much. I’m glad people come by, but if all they want to do read and move on, fine by me.)

As for the people who do comment here, well, I tend to think of them a number of ways. Some of them I know as actual people out there in the physical world; I like most of them and consider several of them friends. Others have been longtime commenters here and I consider them “regulars,” i.e., the people who help to constitute the community here. Some commenters I like, from what I can see of them via their words. Some I like less but as long as they follow the comment rules and take direction, they’re welcome to continue to comment (I suspect that some of you might believe that this falls along political lines, but you might be surprised).

I’m proud that most of the people who comment here, whatever their political/social persuasions, tend to treat each other with respect. I have a reputation for swinging the Mallet, but the fact of the matter is I do it less than perhaps people like to suggest. As an example, the “Orthodox Church of Heinlein” comment thread is currently 370+ comments on a deeply contentious topic, with participants coming in with a large range of views, and many of which disagreed with me strongly, and no malletings at all. Why not? Because the people commenting spoke cogently, respected other commenters and mostly weren’t assholes.

Which means that commenters here generally add value to the site — which is something that is frankly very rare for commenters to do. And because of that, I generally think positively of the commenters here, even the ones I don’t like as much as the others. And, now, to be clear, a fair amount of that is due to the comment rules here and my willingness to enforce them. But it’s as much due if not more so to the people who want to comment here being willing to be signal rather than noise. I’m willing to use the Mallet; but the commenters here are such that I don’t have to lift the Mallet often.

(When does the Mallet get the most exercise? When new people come in from elsewhere and assume the appallingly lax definition of “discourse” that applies elsewhere also applies here. Many are surprised and leave. A few are surprised and stay. In both cases, I’m generally happy with their decision.)

(I will also note that there are places online where my use of the Mallet is criticized. A quick look at what passes for the comment threads in those places tends to be instructive.)

For the tangential part of the question, I’ll note that in my experience the readers of my novels and the readers for the blog overlap but probably not as much as some people might think. The same is true (in both cases) for my Twitter readers. Which is to say each has its own native readership which may or may not be engaged with the other things I do. I find that interesting.

(It’s not too late to get a request in for Reader Request Week — here’s how.)

Reminder: Two Weeks to Get Your Hugo Nominations In

We’re on the downslope of the nomination time for the Hugos, so if you’re an eligible nominator (if you were a member of LoneStarCon 3 or a current member of Loncon 3 or Sasquan, that’s likely you) you have until the end of the month to get in your nominations.

Need suggestions? Here’s some from other fans. And here’s where a bunch of potential nominees let you know what works they have eligible. And finally, if you need it, here’s what I have out there that’s eligible this year.

Remember: Read deeply and nominate widely! Let’s get good works nominated from more than the usual suspects (the usual suspects including, you know, me). Unless the usual suspects made work that knocked your socks off, in which case do nominate them. But nominate worthy works from others, too. You’ve got five nominations per category. Use them all.

Reader Request Week 2014 #3: How I Stay Happy

Kate George asks:

You seem happy and well balanced. You have a great daughter and although I don’t know much about your wife you speak well of her. You are fairly consistent on your blog and don’t seem to have much angst about the times you can’t be here. How to you maintain your equilibrium, sense of humor and kindness when you must get really worn out with everything you do?

Well, one answer to that is that the reason I seem largely happy and well-balanced is that I intentionally choose to project an online persona that is largely happy and well balanced. I’ve always been pretty open about reminding people that the online John Scalzi is a tuned and mediated version of me — not a lie, but a presentation of who John Scalzi is that brings some elements to the front and moves other elements to the back.

The online version of me is (usually) friendly and engaging and funny, tells clever stories about his family, friends and pets, and so on. He also almost never talks about his home life in any great detail, never tells you when he and his wife are having a point of contention or when he gets annoyed with his child, and keeps most of his significant personal frustrations to himself. Why? Because it’s usually not your business, and also because it’s not usually relevant to what I do here.

Here’s one relatively harmless example of the difference between the online me and the offline me. Last year, when I did a recap of the LoneStarCon 3 convention, I mentioned that I came into the Worldcon not being “in the best of moods.” Generally speaking, this is true. A more accurate statement would have been to say I was in such a bad mood from the first half of 2013 and so tired from a combination of factors that I originally had no desire for, interest in or intention of attending the convention at all. The reasons for this are numerous, some of which are public enough to be guessed at but some of which are not; the point is I’d gotten to the stage where my feeling about most of humanity (and the science fiction/fantasy portions of it in particular) were, “you know what? Fuck all y’all, I’m going to sleep through August.”

The only reason I attended at all was because Krissy essentially told me I had to. Her exact words to me explaining why are not a matter of public record, but the gist of it came down to “You’re going to win the Hugo this year and I want to be there for it, and that thing is half mine for putting up with your whiny ass all this year.” So we went, and two things happened. One, I got in a lot better mood generally because I was seeing friends and other people who I liked, and I remembered that in fact I did like most people most of the time, including science fiction folk; Two, Krissy was correct about the Hugo thing, and I’m not going to lie: winning that rocket made me pretty damn happy.

Krissy, being right. Photo by Alan Wagner-Krankel.

Moral of the story: Listen to Krissy. And also: The online John Scalzi is a public persona — not a false persona, but one designed for its medium.

With that noted, I will also admit that by and large I am a generally happy person. I am susceptible to periods of irritation, fatigue and crankiness like any person would be (see above), but by and large my psychological resting state is one of pleasant contentment with my life — which is to say that mostly, happy where I’m at. How do I manage that?

1. I don’t appear to suffer from depression as a medical issue, which means I don’t have my own neurology inclining me toward being unhappy. Given the number of people I know who suffer from depression in this way, many of whom I count among my close friends, I’ve come to recognize this as a fortunate thing which I get for free. I’ll take it.

2. My life is good in all the ways a life can be good — happy family, excellent friends, good career, nice material possessions — and while it’s possible to have all that and still be fundamentally unhappy, for me I am mindful of the benefits that accrue to me from all of those. Reminding one’s self of the good things one has in life does smooth out the cranky parts, at least for me.

3. Related to this, I am in a fortunate position in my life where, with regard to most of the things I do, the worst case scenario is that my life is no worse off than it is right now. Reminding myself of that fact eliminates a lot of stress and allows me to be cheerful about taking some risks (and sometimes screwing up or failing).

4. I strictly limit the number of people I am obliged to pay attention to, when it comes to living my life. Currently, the people to whom I must listen in this case are my wife, my daughter and (rather down from there in terms of importance) editors and the occasional business partner. Everyone else gets paid attention to on advisory basis — or not, since I also consider the source. Knowing who I must pay attention to, and keeping that number small, is a key to happiness.

5. I also stay aware of the amount of time/energy/influence I can bring to things and as much as possible budget accordingly — which is another way of saying I try to know my limits, both when it comes to work and to things in my personal and online life. I’ll note that my assessment of my personal limits here will often run counter to what other people think I can or should do (this is particularly the case when someone wants to point me at a problem they see online), but this is where point four comes in handy.

6. Related to point five, and with particular regard to the online world, I remind myself that I have a great deal of control of who I interact with and who I don’t. Most people are lovely and deserve the same courtesy and kindness I would hope to get, but some people prove themselves not worth my time. Those folks I stop paying attention to. I know they’re still out there, hopping up and down and hoping I’ll engage. I won’t — or if I do it will be in a manner of my choosing, not theirs. Recognizing I have this sort of control makes me happy; it also makes the people who think I should respond to them they way they want me to unhappy. Which also makes me happy, because, honestly. Fuck ‘em.

Now, one thing to be clear about is that most of these points bring into stark relief a certain amount of — here comes that word — privilege I have in my life; bluntly put I have the means, ability and social capital to accentuate the things that make me happy and to minimize the things that make me unhappy, and more so than many other people. Do I recognize that fact? Absolutely. Is that fact it fair? Possibly not. Will that stop me from acting on it? Nope, because I still have to live that life, and I want to be happy.

And even with all that going for me, and to repeat, I still can be unhappy — note my mood going into LonestarCon 3. That’s because I can’t control some things that have an impact on my happiness; I sometimes make decisions (or through inaction allow others to make decisions) that act against my happiness; I can despite my best efforts focus on the things that irritate me; I can still sometimes be unhappy just because.

(And, also — and this is very important — sometimes I need to be unhappy because I’ve done something foolish and/or stupid and/or ill-advised and being unhappy is the appropriate response, as part of the process of correcting my own bad action.)

What I can say is that when I am unhappy, I usually try not to wallow in it too much. If there’s a reason for the unhappiness — and particularly if I am the agent of it being in my life — I try to correct it. If there’s not a reason for it, I try to get happy. Sometimes you do need to make the conscious choice to be happy. For all the reasons listed above, usually it’s not that difficult for me to do. That’s a good thing. And it’s a fortunate thing. It’s a happy thing.

(It’s not too late to get a request in for Reader Request Week — here’s how.)

Reader Request Week 2014 #2: Writerly Self-Doubt, Out Loud

Beej asks:

I’ve noticed a recent trend among the SF/F writers I follow on twitter in which they question their abilities as writers.

As a very successful writer who seems pretty self-confident, do you have moments of doubt in your ability? What do you think drives it, both in yourself and in the profession as a whole? Assuming you have these periods, what gets you past them?

I don’t tend to question my ability as a writer, no. I’ve been writing professionally for twenty-four years now, writing novels more or less continuously for over a decade, and have published twenty books and literally thousands of other pieces of professional writing (reviews, columns, features, interviews, etc). In my adult life, I have never not made a living writing, and I’ve accrued several markers of success in the field. It’s a little late in the game for me to doubt my basic competency at what I do. If I did, the evidence would be against me, and people would be right to roll their eyes at me.

(Mind you, people who don’t like my writing may still doubt my basic competency; the evidence, however, is against them too.)

When I was younger or newer at things? Well, I had two things going on. One was ego and the (not always entirely warranted) certainty that I could write anything I decided to put my hand to, if I worked at it. Two was a nevertheless somewhat realistic ability to assess my own competence at a particular writing task, so that if it wasn’t something I thought I could do, I generally didn’t try it all out until I thought I could. The latter kept the former in sufficient check most of the time; the former allowed me to move forward when the latter decided it was time to try something. And there was point three, which is that I didn’t spend a lot of time advertising a thing I couldn’t do, or did poorly, because what was the point in that.

This was one of the reasons why, for example, I didn’t attempt a novel until I was 27. Before then, I didn’t see that I had the skill/will/interest, so I did other sorts of writing, much of which went to help developing skills that would come in handy with novel-writing. I also didn’t talk to any great extent about having any desire to write a novel, any more than casually, until I was ready to try. At a certain point, I had developed enough that I decided it was time to make an attempt.

With all that said, I think I, as do most writers, try not to only stick with that which is comfortable. I like to try some new things when I write, to keep readers interested and to keep myself from getting bored. I always want to be a better writer, and pushing myself is a way to get more tools in the writing toolbox. Sometimes when I make that attempt, I fail — it will turn out that my own self-assessment was off, one way or another, and my ego these days, while still large, is not so large that I will continue unduly beating my head against a wall.

When that happens, again, I don’t tend to make big deal out of it, either in public, or in private. If I fail at a particular aspect of writing, I don’t think of it as a referendum on the whole of my writing ability. Again, I have too much of a track record for that. Instead what I try to do is a post-mortem on the thing that failed; see why it failed and what I can learn so that when I attempt it the next time, I’m better prepared. Once I’ve succeeded, I may talk about having failed earlier, but usually not until then.

This is not to say I don’t sometimes gripe and complain and moan about writing things on the various social media. I do, particularly when things are just slow or if the story is fighting me. I complain because a) it’s fun to whine sometimes, b) I know there are other writers out there who will commiserate, and misery loves company, c) other people will offer encouragement and that’s nice too.

Not being other writers, I can’t say with any certainty why they will gripe and complain and appear to question their ability online, although if I had to hazard a guess, I would say for many of them it’s mostly what it is for me — a way to let off a little steam when the day-to-day creative process is slow going, and to hear back from the universe that they’re not alone in what is essentially a solitary pursuit. I do imagine there are a few who may genuinely question their ability, for reasons ranging from commonplace Impostor Syndrome to a more troubling hitch in their creative ability that causes them to question whether their skills have abandoned them. Again, in cases that that, hearing back from other writers that this has happened to them and that this too shall pass is probably a comforting thing.

Which is to say that I think it’s likely that what you’re seeing there on Twitter is shop talk between writers, which you, by the essential nature of the medium, get to see even if it’s not directed at you specifically. I don’t suspect it’s shop talk that’s any different than the shop talk has been for decades — neurotic writers are going to neurot — it’s just that where before it was done in a bar or in letters, now it’s in front of a bunch of online bystanders.

I wouldn’t worry about it too much, is what I am saying. The funny thing about writers is that as much as we complain and muse that our Muse has ditched us, at the end of it all most of us eventually get it done. In that regard, if we’re questioning our ability to write, again, the evidence eventually stacks up against us.

(It’s not too late to get a request in for Reader Request Week — here’s how.)

Reader Request Week 2014 #1: Travel and Me

Let’s get started with this year’s Reader Request Week, then, shall we?

This year it seems the most popular particular topic is travel: Several people have asked why I travel (or don’t), where I’ve traveled (and where I would recommend not traveling), the difference between my personal/professional travel, etc. So in an attempt to make as many people happy as possible in a single post, here’s an amalgamation of travel information from me.

* First: Countries I have visited (not counting places where I’ve transferred via airport): Canada, Mexico, Australia, Scotland, France, Germany, Israel. Via cruises I have visited US Virgin Islands, Jamaica, Haiti, St. Maarten, Grand Cayman, Bahamas. I am mildly reluctant to consider those cruise stops genuine visits because they were heavily mediated by the cruise experience (i.e., mostly in tourist zones that differ vastly from the actual experience of the place).

* States I have visited in the US,”visit” meaning stayed in for a day or more rather than merely traveled through to somewhere else, from roughly west to roughly east: California, Oregon, Washington, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Montana, Colorado, Wyoming, Texas, Louisiana, Missouri, Iowa, South Dakota, Minnesota, Illinois, Wisconsin, Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire. I have resided in California, Illinois, Virginia and Ohio, but visited each of those when I did not live there. When I was an infant, I lived for a few months in New Mexico, but I have no memory of it, and therefore it doesn’t count.

* Provinces I have visited in Canada: British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec.

* I did almost no travel at all the first eighteen years of my life and never left California, save for short camping trips I took to Mexico with my family, and visits to family in Las Vegas. The one exception to this was a “peccary trip,” a trip to dig fossils, which I was part of the summer between my freshman and sophomore year in high school, during which I hit a number of western states. One of the reasons I attended the University of Chicago was to get out of California and see some of the rest of the US.

* My first trip off the North American continent was in 1990, when I traveled to Israel as part of an educational junket sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League. That was a very interesting trip, which included a meeting with Israeli soldiers, Palestinian journalists and Binyamin Netanyahu.

* With that said, up until about 2006, I didn’t actually do a whole lot of travel. This was for several reasons. One, when young neither I nor my family had a whole lot of money, which limited travel (vacations were usually at home or at local vacation spots). As I got older I had more money but tended not to travel too much — occasional vacation trips to North Carolina with friends was the most of it. Part of that was because Athena was younger and small kids are not great travelers, and part of that is simply that I am not hugely motivated by travel. More on that in a bit.

* Most of my travel began in earnest in 2006 or thereabouts, when I started being invited to science fiction conventions as a guest, and/or traveling to book fairs and trade shows. Being invited as a guest had some benefits that I appreciated, namely, that my travel and lodging was free, and usually then I was going someplace that I knew I would have something to do. The drawback would be that unless I budgeted in time before or after a convention, I wouldn’t see much of the surrounding locale, and at first I was not very good at doing that.

* The fact of the matter is I’m not hugely motivated by travel. This is not to say that I don’t enjoy it when I do it, nor that there are not places I would like to visit, but the fact of the matter is that for me, given the choice between visiting places and visiting people, I tend to want to visit people — a fact that means that my destinations are less about the locale than the company. I’d rather go to Spokane than Venice, in other words, if Spokane has people I like in it, and all Venice has is a bunch of buildings which are cool but which I will be able to see better in pictures.

* Coupled with that is the fact I don’t really have much of a desire to be a tourist, which is to say, to go somewhere just to have the stamp in the passport and the fridge magnet (although there is nothing wrong with getting a fridge magnet once you’ve been somewhere, he said, hastily, because his wife has a nice collection). I don’t mind being a tourist once I am somewhere; I just usually don’t go somewhere for that purpose. I feel like if I’m going to go somewhere, I would want to be there, long enough to at least get a feel for the rhythms of life there. Unfortunately, at the moment, that’s not conducive to how my life actually is, either when I travel (again, mostly on business), or in the pattern of my day-to-day life.

* With that said, as I get older I find there are places I would like to visit, just to visit, independent of work obligations. I would like to take a long (three weeks, at least) trip to Australia, and a similar one to New Zealand; I’d likewise like to take a long trip through Canada, going one ocean to the other and stopping in as many provinces as practical along the way. I’m mostly Italian and Irish in ancestry and would like to spend a nice chunk of time in each country if I could. I was very pleased a couple of years ago when I got to do a book tour in Germany; visiting there had been a life dream, so I was glad to have been able to do it. I’d like to revisit Israel at some point; I have actually dreamed of the Dome of the Rock more than once and would like to see it again.

I’ve been invited to conventions and festivals around the world, but one of the things that’s increasingly true for me is that I don’t want to visit someplace just to go from airport to hotel back to the airport. I’d want more time, just to wander.

* More to the point, though, there are places I would like to live. I’d like to spend half a year living in, say, New York or London or Melbourne or Christchurch or Munich or Singapore or Hong Kong — long enough that I could really get to know the place; not long enough that I might take it for granted. Again, there are practical issues with doing this at the moment, but in the future, who knows? But I don’t know if that would actually count as travel. It sort of counts as staying.

* I do a lot of travel these days — between now and mid-June I am in Seattle, Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, Houston, New York, and Phoenix; after that I have several other travel commitments including another book tour for Lock In. It’s part and parcel of my work life now, since the life of a commercial writer is in many ways as much about selling the work as creating it. I’m fortunate to be in demand, but I’ll also note a lot of travel is tiring; what it does in that case is make me glad to be home when it’s done. I will note that I don’t think this is a bad thing.

* As a final point, I would note that now that Athena is old enough to travel well, we are motivated to travel with her and to take her places — but of course that has to be tempered with the recognition that she has, like, school. We don’t have any problem with taking her out of school for a week for a new and interesting travel experience, but it’s also not something you can do too much before the school gets annoyed and also, her education gets a ding. There’s a balance. On the other hand, I like the fact that we have the potential to give her travel experiences; so far, she does too. I’d like to keep doing that.

So that’s me and travel.

(It’s not too late to get a request in for Reader Request Week — here’s how.)

An Opportune Moment to Note a Thing re: Baen Books

Oh, look: A stack of new Baen books arrived at the Scalzi Compound, not 45 minutes ago. Here they all are (not shown: the nice Balance Point mug that was also in the package). This makes it a lovely time to address something that people have been asking me privately, which is whether my recent critique of the Baen publisher’s post on fandom means that I have somehow declared battle with an entire publishing house and all its authors, etc.

Short answer: No. Longer answer: Really, no. And here’s why:

1. I think Ms. Weisskopf’s posting was ill-advised for a number of reasons, which I don’t need to address again here. But we all show our ass on the Internet; indeed, future historians may come to define the Internet as “a global electronic communications network, tuned for the showing of ass.” It’s a thing that happens. I’ve done it myself. More than once! I may critique her words when I find fault in them (obviously), but I’m not going to decide this one critique means we are bitter enemies forever, personally or professionally. That seems a bit much. I’m certainly not going to hold it against the books and authors Baen publishes.

2. I like promoting authors and their work, and especially science fiction and fantasy authors and their work. Baen authors write good stuff; a lot of my readers will like the books and authors Baen publishes. If those books and authors do well, it’s a signal that the interest in the field is healthy. That’s good for what I do. So for my readers’ sake and my own as a writer, it makes sense to call attention to what Baen publishes, and I’m fortunate to be in a position to call attention to it.

3. I like many Baen authors and their work, either as people or as writers (and sometimes, both). I’m happy to promote their work because I like sharing what I like. Moreover, I know and like people who work at Baen itself. I’m happy to do my part to keep them employed. Sometimes these folks may have views significantly different than my own. I may still like them as people (or may still like their work) anyway.

4. There are writers and others at Baen whose opinions may differ from (or flat-out oppose) my own, and I may find those opinions anything from silly to dangerous. But, as it happens, there are writers and others at Tor, my own publisher, whose opinions may differ (or flat-out oppose) my own, too. I’m not going to stop reading and promoting Tor books; I’m not sure why I would treat Baen books any differently.

5. Likewise: There are authors and others all around who think what I do/say is silly or stupid or obnoxious or otherwise ill-advised. If on that basis they decide to have nothing to do with me, well, that’s fine. I would be sad if they decided that because of me, they would have nothing to do with any writer at Tor. Again, that seems a bit much.

6. But, you may say, Ms. Weisskopf is the publisher, and that’s different. Okay, but: You all know that I recently signed to do a TV series with FX, correct? That’s owned by Rupert Murdoch, the same fellow who is responsible for Fox News. He’s also responsible, if that’s the correct way to note it, for The Simpsons, Firefly and the new Cosmos series. It’s possible to have issues with a company, its C-suite and things it does and still find reasons to do business with them and/or support some of the things it does (please watch Redshirts when it comes out, on FX. Thank you).

7. At the end of the day, as a writer, what I want people to judge me by is my writing, and not so much who puts out the book. Clearly I think that should apply to other writers as well. As an example, the current Nebula slate has a Baen book on it: Fire With Fire, by Charles Gannon. If people voting for the Nebs hold the publisher against the book, that’s foolish. There’s also a self-published novel on the ballot: The Red: First Light, by Linda Nagata. If people hold the fact that it’s self-published against the book, that’s foolish too. In both cases (and indeed in every case), what matters are the words on the page. With any book from anywhere, ask: Is it a good book? Does it deserve note? Do I like it? If the answers to each are “yes,” then enjoy it and share it. Simple enough.

So that’s where I am with Baen, its authors and their books.

Also: Any books up there that seem interesting to you?

Reader Request Week 2014: Get Your Requests In!

Huh. Looking at my schedule for the next couple of months, it appears that next week is the only week through mid-June that I am not going somewhere or coming back from somewhere, and it’s the only week where I don’t have a batch of Big Idea pieces scheduled. Which makes it the perfect week to do my annual Reader Request Week.

And just what is Reader Request Week? Why it is what it says: Once a year, I let you, the readers of Whatever, offer up the topics I will write about for an entire week. Always wanted me to answer a question? Frustrated that I never write about what you want me to write about? Wish I would write more about a specific topic you can never get enough of? Now’s your chance! Submit your request, I’ll go through and select topics, and I will start writing them up, beginning March 17.

And what topics should you request? Anything you want. Politics, sex, religion, cats, entertainment, favorite talcum powders, advice for living, technology — honestly, whatever topic it is, if you wanted my opinion on it, this is where to ask.

With that said, some suggestions:

1. Choose quality, not quantity. Don’t unload a whole bunch topics that are really generic or overbroad, because those won’t interest me and I won’t write about them. One really excellent topic is more likely to catch my eye. As an example, don’t ask me “could you write about cats?” because that’s too general and kind of boring. Asking something like “You have three cats — how do their personalities differ and what does that mean for how you relate to them?”, on the other hand, would pique my interest. I think you can see what I’m getting at here.

2. Questions on writing will not be a priority for selection. Because, dudes, I write about writing all the time. I’m not saying you can’t ask questions about writing, or that I won’t answer some, I’m just saying that I’ll be looking for topics that aren’t about writing first, and the ones I do answer (in a nod to point one above) will be stuff that’s specific and interesting. I note this every year, and yet every year about half of the questions are about writing. Be different this year!

3. Don’t request a topic I’ve answered recently. To help you eliminate these topics, you’ll find the last five years of Reader Request Week topics below. If you see your intended topic there, it’s very unlikely I will answer it again this year (and by “very unlikely” I mean “I won’t”).

How do you submit requests? The simplest way to do it (and the way I prefer, incidentally) is to put them in the comment thread attached to this entry. But if you have a reason not to want to have your request out in public, the other option is to send me e-mail (put “Reader Request Week” in the subject head so I don’t have to hunt for it). Please don’t send requests via Twitter/Facebook/Google+, since I don’t always see those. I credit those whose topics I write on, but feel free to use a pseudonym if you’re asking something you’d prefer not to have attached to your real name.

Reader Request Week is one of my favorite weeks of the year, and I’m looking forward to what you want to have me write about this year. Make me dance like a monkey, people! Get your requests in now!

Here are the Reader Request Week topics for the last fives years (click through to see the full articles):

From 2009:

Reader Request #1: SF YA These Days
Reader Request #2: OMW and Zoe’s Tale (and Angst and Pain)
Reader Request #3: Space!
Reader Request #4: Procreation
Reader Request #5: Having Been Poor
Reader Request #6: 80s Pop Music
Reader Request #7: Writing and Babies
Reader Request #8: Twitter
Reader Request #9: Can I Be Bought?
Reader Request #10: Writing Short Bits
Reader Request #11: Wrapping Up

From 2010:

Reader Request #1: Christianity and Me
Reader Request #2: Rewriting the Constitution
Reader Request #3: How I Think
Reader Request #4: Quitting Writing
Reader Request #5: Rural Ohio, Revisited
Reader Request #6: Depression
Reader Request #7: Writery Bits
Reader Request #8: Short Bits

From 2011:

Reader Request #1: Children and Faith
Reader Request #2: The End of Whatever

Reader Request #3: Middle Ages Me

Reader Request #4: Old Man’s War and the Best SF/F Novel of the Decade

Reader Request #5: Taking Compliments

Reader Request #6: Sociopathic Corporations

Reader Request #7: Unruly Fans

Reader Request #8: Short Bits ’11

Reader Request #9: Writery Bits ’11

From 2012:

Reader Request Week 2012 #1: Snark and Insult
Reader Request Week 2012 #2: Would I Lie to You?
Reader Request Week 2012 #3: Why I’m Glad I’m Male
Reader Request Week 2012 #4: Future Doorknobs or Lack Thereof
Reader Request Week 2012 #5: Them Crazies What Live in the Woods
Reader Request Week 2012 #6: The Cool Kids Hanging Out
Reader Request Week 2012 #7: My Complete Lack of Shame
Reader Request Week 2012 #8: Short Bits
Reader Request Week 2012 #9: Writery Short Bits

From 2013:

Reader Request Week 2013 #1: Further Thoughts on Fame and Success
Reader Request Week 2013 #2: Regrets
Reader Request Week 2013 #3: Guilty Pleasures
Reader Request Week 2013 #4: College Education (And Costs Therein)
Reader Request Week 2013 #5: How to Be a Good Fan
Reader Request Week 2013 #6: Intuition
Reader Request Week 2013 #7: Books and My Kid
Reader Request Week 2013 #8: Whatever Topics and Comments
Reader Request Week 2013 #9: Women and Geekdom
Reader Request Week 2013 #10: Short Bits

So: What do you want to know now? 

The Big Idea: Denise Kiernan

Fiction and non-fiction are different categories of storytelling — but in both cases the author has to decide what to tell and how to tell it, shaping the story so that it is a story, rather than just a leaden bundle of information. When researching the real-life information the would become The Girls of Atomic City, author Denise Kiernan found an interesting idea… now all she had to do was make a tale out of it. Here’s how she did it.


A story without conflict is like an inhibited lover. It just lies there. No matter how hard you try to get turned on, you lose interest. It can’t be over soon enough.

What attracts me as a writer to a particular story, what inspires that chemistry, is often—on the surface at least—unpredictable. Though there may not appear to be much rhyme or reason to my tastes, the one thing that always hooks me is that those tales keep me guessing. Their conversations grab me and I keep coming back to get to know them better, to keep turning their pages.

As a writer, sometimes it is just a look—photos, specifically. That’s what happened with my latest nonfiction book. I came across a vintage, black-and-white photo of some very young women operating some very odd-looking machines. The caption explained that many of these young women were recent high school graduates from rural Tennessee, and that they were enriching uranium for the first atomic bomb. The kicker: they had no idea that that was what they were doing.

Fantastic dramatic tension! I thought. You’re working on the most destructive weapon known to mankind and you have no idea until that very same weapon is revealed to the world? I dove in, and the story kept getting better. People were recruited from all over to live and work in a secret government city not found on any maps. They were highly trained to perform intricate tasks with no idea what larger purpose those tasks served. Better yet, if they asked too many questions, their stay living and working in this mysterious town was over in a hurry.

I was hooked by the Orwellian feel of it all. Looming billboards reminding everyone to keep their lips zipped. Undercover agents and citizen informants stealthily listening in on conversations in dorms and cafeterias. While I felt the story had all the hallmarks of an engaging novel, I figured that when truth seems stranger than fiction, why not stick with the truth?

This presented a couple of challenges. First, my subjects were in their eighties and nineties. If I  was going to write a work of narrative nonfiction, I wanted the women’s experiences to move the story forward. I wanted to stay with their voices and their perspectives. While I was routinely amazed at the level of detail many of them recalled regarding events that had transpired so long ago, there were certainly gaps in everyone’s memories. In order to tell what I considered to be a complete story about the town of Oak Ridge during World War II, I had to use multiple women. There was an incredible amount of time-lining and Post-It shuffling going on all over my living room floor (no computer screen was big enough in the early stages) in order to piece it all together.

Another central challenge revolved around the book’s big idea: Only they didn’t know… I wanted to embrace the “not-knowingness” of those characters, which was going to provide the most juice, dramatically speaking. So while the reader knows the story is headed to the dropping of the world’s first atomic bombs, I still needed a way to let the main characters drive that story, even if they were essentially driving blindfolded.

I considered various approaches. Omitting the entire behind-the-scenes maneuvering of the Manhattan Project officials and scientists kept my female leads in control, in a sense, but it risked leaving the reader too far behind. If he or she knew too little about the history of the Manhattan Project, the real stakes of that moment in history would be lost. Third-person omniscient seemed promising for a bit, but whenever I heard my inner voice beginning to say, Little did they know… I started to feel as though I was writing a cheesy movie trailer instead of a nonfiction book.

So I decided to take a hint from the Manhattan Project itself: I decided to compartmentalize. One of the ways the folks in the know kept a lid on the Manhattan Project was by keeping jobs, responsibilities and access to information as limited and as separate as possible. There were two worlds, really, one in which workers toiled away with little idea what they were working on and a much smaller, more exclusive world in which strings were pulled, strategies were devised and nuclear history was made.

I decided to create two worlds, too. I wrote interstitial chapters that took the readers out of the world of Oak Ridge and gave them a peek at what the was going on at the highest levels of the Manhattan Project. I deliberately kept my women, my characters, out of that world and those chapters. That separation reinforced one of the key strategic elements of the Manhattan Project, kept my characters in control of their piece of the puzzle, while helping the reader understand the larger stakes impacting my characters’ lives.

In the end, this freed up my characters to explore their own wartime dramas, ones I found were filled with the kinds of surprising twists and challenges that we all can relate to. They found loves and lost loved ones. They faced fears and forged unexpected friendships. They wondered what was going on around them, but put their heads down and got to work and I, in turn, got to work for them. They kept me hooked, and I was happy to let them take the lead.


The Girls of Atomic City: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s 

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

An Anecdotal Observation, Relating to Robert Heinlein and the Youth of Today

As it’s relevant to yesterday’s discussion:

About a year ago Athena was wondering what she should read next, and wandered into my office to look at books. Since she was amenable to suggestion, I went ahead and offered her Starman Jones, which is one of my favorite of the Heinlein juveniles. She looked at it a bit skeptically (it was an old copy with typically 80s cover art), but she was willing to give it a try.

And she did — she read a few chapters, and then she put it aside and read something else. I asked her later why she abandoned the book, and she more or less shrugged and said it was okay but it really didn’t speak to her.

Which on one hand made me sad — big Heinlein fan here, and also a fan of that particular book — but on the other hand didn’t surprise me all that much. Athena reads a ton of books and almost all the books she reads have been published in the last decade. The good news is that books in the last decade have been pretty excellent (the occasionally 50 Shades sort of thing notwithstanding — which Athena read, unbeknownst to me, and found less than impressive), so she hasn’t suffered for a lack of good work to read.

The sad news for me, though, is that it means a lot of the books I loved when I was a kid, she doesn’t have much time for. It’s not just Starman Jones, to be clear. Over the years it’s also been the Dark is Rising series, A Wrinkle in Time, The Phantom Tollbooth and a whole other host of books I loved but she… didn’t. In their place were books by John Green, Scott Westerfeld, Suzanne Collins, Margaret Peterson Haddix, Neil Gaiman, and so on. All good books and authors… just not my books and authors. Which is, of course, fine. My daughter also has different music than I do, and different favorite movies and television, and we frequent different places online. It shouldn’t be entirely surprising that her tastes in books also moves away from my own.

It’s also to the point that culture is not static and that every generation wants their own music, books and movies. In the case of Starman Jones, the book was a little old-fashioned when I first got hold of it around 1980, 27 years after it was originally published. I gave it to my daughter to read sixty years after its publication date. Regardless of its charms as a book, that’s a steep uphill climb for any book. It’s not that the book can’t be gotten into. It’s just that nearly everything about it is several steps out of sync with my daughter’s world.

Do I see Athena ever reading Heinlein? It’s certainly possible, if she takes a special interest in science fiction and decides to work her way back from current authors. But I don’t really see him ever being one of her authors in the way he is one of my authors. And while extending out from a single example is always fraught with danger, I have to say I wouldn’t be surprised if Heinlein is today only very rarely a teen’s author like he was my author. I suspect that door is closing, if it’s not already closed entirely.

Well. We still have Shel Silverstein in common. I can work with that.