And on Valentine’s Day, too! Awwwwwww.
I’m out because I feel like it but also because I have a project to finish. So, unplugging from the Internet to get done. As one sometimes has to do. See you all next week.
And on Valentine’s Day, too! Awwwwwww.
I’m out because I feel like it but also because I have a project to finish. So, unplugging from the Internet to get done. As one sometimes has to do. See you all next week.
Why would I bring this trailer to your attention? Oh, no reason. No reason at all. Still, you might want to block out some time on March 15 to see the series. Just because.
(Note: the above trailer is very noisy and probably NSFW.)
Yesterday I reached 160,000 Twitter followers and polled my followership with how they wanted me to celebrate: A preview from an upcoming work, a song, a cat picture or a “burrito.” The burrito won. This is what followed.
HUMANS OF TWITTER:
It is time.
Yesterday, having reached 160k Twitter followers, I promised one and all that I would make a VALENTINE BURRITO to mark this momentous occasion.
I have done so. And recorded its creation for you.
LET US BEGIN THIS BURRITO JOURNEY TOGETHER NOW.
Here I am, eating the thing.
WARNING: You are not prepared.
Immortality has been done in fiction, many times. But has it been done like Charlie N. Holmberg does it in Smoke and Summons? Holmberg is here to explain why the immortality found here may be unique after all.
CHARLIE N. HOLMBERG:
Once upon a time, my agent and editor got together behind my back, schemed, and then called me demanding I stop this standalone nonsense and write another series. This was in the middle of my California vacation.
I am a prolific writer (having no other hobbies, I have to spend my time doing something). I jump from idea to idea, and my brain likes to work in short and sudden chunks, thus the streak of standalones. I’d written one series, one time, and it was honestly a fluke. It started with a standalone that had more story to tell, so two more books almost accidentally happened. But that series outsold my standalones ten to one. So I wasn’t surprised to get pressure to do it again.
Problem was, I didn’t have any ideas big enough to encompass multiple books. And I needed a good, big idea, because I don’t like staying in one world too long. I needed to create something that could suck up about 300,000 words, be interesting, and be especially interesting to me.
I started going through my Pinterest boards, phone notes, and idea folders, pulling out literally anything and everything that sounded interesting. I’d figure out how to tie it all together later, hopefully. It was during this Frankensteining of creativity that I came across THE THING. Something I had written down about a year earlier. Something I didn’t even remember writing down. It was just two words in its own Word document.
And I knew I had my big idea. I only needed to look down at my hands to determine how I was going to create this immortality switch: fidget spinner. I was going to make a magical fidget spinner that let my character be immortal, but only for one minute each day.
This opened up a world of possibilities. What could a person do with one minute of immortality, where consequences were nearly moot? It could be used for crime, for gain. To save oneself at the last moment, or kept on hand as a safety net. It could be used to cure the terminally ill or mortally wounded. And how it would be used would depend on who was holding it at the time. Who would know about it? Who would have access to it? What happened if someone snatched the device from someone else mid-spin?
So I made it. I gave it a history and a value. And I gave it to a poor sewage worker who could use it to turn his life around. In fact, his new life depends on it, so when a woman on the run steals it, he’ll do anything to get it back.
The device is rare, ancient, and more special than anyone realizes; I was able to connect it to a bigger magic system, the secrets of which carry across a whole series. Eureka! And I called it an amarinth. An amaranth is an imaginary, undying flower; an immortal thing. But then my vegetarian friend told me amaranth was also a fancy grain and was likely to be the next hot and popping thing for healthy people, so I changed one of the vowels in my term. Super creative, I know.
Ultimately, when readers dive into the Numina world and learn about this device, I want them to ask themselves one thing.
What would I do with my minute?
It was big and bright and I had Krissy come out and look at it, and then I tried to take a photo of it with my Nikon, and you can barely see it in this exposure:
I also took a photo of it with my Google Pixel with Night Sight on:
Now, I should note that if I put my Nikon on a tripod and took a longer exposure, the ring would be much clearer, and I might do that a little later. But for now, Google Pixel to the rescue.
Night follows day, day follows night — or does it? It depends on where you live. And in The City in the Middle of the Night, award-winning author Charlie Jane Anders considers a world where neither follows the other, and everything that entails for her characters and their lives.
CHARLIE JANE ANDERS:
Five or six years ago, I became obsessed with tidally locked planets.
These planets, where one side always faces the sun and there’s a permanent day side and a permanent night side, were turning out to be incredibly common in our galaxy. And it was looking as if any exoplanet our descendents might colonize would turn out to be tidally locked.
And this image, of living on a planet with permanent chilly darkness on one side, and boiling hot sunlight on the other, captivated me and took over my imagination. In my novel, The City in the Middle of the Night, direct sunlight is actually toxic, so humans can only live in the thin zone of twilight in between the day and night sides.
(I thought about calling my novel Twilight, or The Twilight Zone, but apparently those titles were already taken? Also, the strip of twilight is called the Terminator, so I thought about calling my novel The Terminator—but turns out someone already used that one, too.)
I grew up in the country, with no street lights anywhere nearby. So the nights were incredibly dark, and if you wandered far enough from my parents’ house, you couldn’t even see your own hand in front of your face. I used to play flashlight tag with some of the neighborhood kids, and we would run around in total darkness until one of us ran into the electric fence around the horse field out back. Good times.
So I loved the image of endless, total darkness, which humans can barely even explore because we’ve lost all of our survival gear and all-terrain vehicles. The City in the Middle of the Night started to click for me when I thought of it as the story of a girl, Sophie, who gets banished into the night side of her planet, and learns to communicate with the creatures who live in the darkness.
These creatures, the Gelet, have their own science and technology, but humans decided they were just dumb animals because we couldn’t understand them. And they can’t live in our light, any more than we can live in their darkness.
That image of a girl getting banished into total darkness, colder than the South Pole, led to a whole story. Sophie is a shy girl, who doesn’t talk to you unless she knows you really well —-in fact, she’s the opposite of a lot of the other heroes I’ve written. She stays in the background and never raises her voice, and she definitely doesn’t stand up at any point and give a rousing speech. But she’s still the hero of the story, and her courage inspires people and changes the world.
And Sophie goes on an incredible journey—-not just wandering into frozen darkness, but also traveling from one human city to another. She has to journey with a group of smugglers from her hometown to the city of Argelo. They cross the Sea of Murder, which is a whole ocean that is a solid ice shelf on one side, and on the other side is a scalding wall of steam that will cook you alive if you sail too close to it. And did I mention the Sea of Murder has pirates? And giant sea monsters?
The other thing I kept thinking about as I wrote this book is just how weird it would be to live without sunrise and sunset. If you couldn’t look up at the sky and see the sun changing positions, along with the shadows moving around and changing shape, how would you know when to sleep and when to work? How would you even know how much time was passing if the sun never changed its position?
In my book, “night” and “day” are places rather than times, and I avoided using any words like “minute,” “hour,” “second,” “yesterday” or “tomorrow.” (Thank goodness the amazing copy-editor caught a few places where I slipped up.)
And this becomes a huge social divide for the humans living on January, as different societies approach the problem of sleep and time management differently. One human city has a rigid curfew, and everyone sleeps and works at the same time, because they believe that if we don’t keep a strict circadian rhythm, then we stop even being human. But another city, known as the City That Never Sleeps, has a much more chaotic approach (and way better parties.)
This debate is about more than just what time to go to sleep, or how to structure your life: at its root, it’s an argument over the nature of humanity, especially when we’ve gone to live on another planet where we’re an invasive species.
And I guess that’s the thing I was obsessing about in general in this book. My fascination with tidally locked planets led me in a couple of different directions: 1) Communicating with radically different creatures who live in an environment we can’t even visit, and 2) The debate over when to sleep and how to organize our time, without sunrise and sunset. And both of those questions come down to: what does it mean to be human? Who do we think of as people? How do we understand each other as equals, instead of trying to control each other?
When never-ending darkness lurks on the edge of town and the sky offers no clues as to how much time has passed, “human nature” is up for grabs. I had a lot of fun exploring this bizarre world and the questions it raises, and I’m so excited to share The City in the Middle of the Night with you.
Meanwhile, Spice, in the background, knows better.
Be descriptive and detailed, yet vague. For example:
“The transparent portal slid open and the creature, radially asymmetrical, used its ambulatory stalks to cross the threshold. The creature, covered in keratinous extrusions and small, dead plates, swiveled its perceptual array, hoisted on a third stalk, and used its electromagnetic sensors to locate what it was searching for: the anti-entropic chamber. It spotted the chamber and moved to it. Using yet a different stalk, which divided into smaller stalks at its terminus, the creature defeated the magnetic field employed to seal the chamber.
“Therein it found its prize: A pressurized cylinder of carbonic acid, mixed with bonded ethyl and hydroxyl groups. The stalk that defeated the chamber’s magnetic field acquired the cylinder and carefully manipulated it open. It placed the contents in a staging area, where cursorial perceptual tests were conducted, before conveying those contents to a connected cavity, designed to chemically process cylinder’s former cargo.
“There, in the humid dark, the desired reactions commenced.”
“A person opened a sliding glass door, walked through, located the fridge, opened it, got out a beer and drank it.”
Thank you for coming to my writing workshop.
Another week down. Enjoy the weekend!
Because I assume most people lead full, rich and happy lives that do not revolve around the Internet, some of you may not be aware that a couple of days ago Writer Twitter blew up because a writer and editor named Jason Heller wrote a thread about day jobs, the first post of which was this:
(click on the tweet for the full thread)
Writer Twitter blew up at this advice and thread because the general mass of writers on Twitter consider this absolutely terrible advice (including, in the interest of disclosure, me). Things got testy, as they do on Twitter, because it’s Twitter, and a bit of the plot was lost. But now, a few days later, I think it’s worth looking again to see why this is still pretty bad advice in most cases, and also to note the few circumstances when it is not.
Let me preface by saying I’m pretty sure that the place Heller is coming from is something along the lines of “don’t let fear keep you from the work you’re meant to do” and also “seize the day.” Which, if that’s indeed where he’s coming from, is not bad advice! The time you have now is all the time you will ever have in the world, so if you’re not making the time within it to do the things you want to do with your life, you’re cheating yourself. Don’t do that. Do the things, creatively, you want to do. It will take time to get to the level you would want to be at, so starting sooner is better than later.
However (and this is where Heller is giving bad advice, and why Writer Twitter blew up at him), not only are having a day job and following your dreams not mutually exclusive, much of the time a day job is the thing that allows one to continue working toward those dreams, because it provides the things people need in order to live life generally, including money, health insurance (in the US, at least) and the relative stability that alleviates stresses in one’s life. Stresses like “oh, shit, how am I going to pay for rent this month” or “I’m out of my medications and can’t afford any more, which means I might die” or “I can’t feed my children, what’s up with that, the state frowns upon starving one’s progeny.” All of which can, in fact, put a damper on one’s creative drive.
Now, Heller addresses this by noting that he was punk and had been poor and didn’t expect a middle-class standard of living anyway. Well, that’s fine for Heller. But not everyone wants to be punk, and not everyone romanticizes poverty as an acceptable lifestyle if you have the ability to make a different choice. As it happens, I also have stretches of poverty in my history, occasionally of the “we don’t have a place to live and also here’s a box of Raisin Bran, let’s try to make it last a week” sort. I find valorizing that sort of scenario as an acceptable lifestyle choice odious, especially if other people are involved and are essentially hostages to your choices. Desperation almost never leads to art (and especially, good art). It mostly leads to making poor choices to get through one’s life because poor choices are the options one has.
But at least you have time to work on your art if you quit your day job, yes? Well, no, not really. Speaking again from experience, poverty and desperation are really time-intensive. One still has to live in the world, and when you’re poor and have limited resources, navigating a world designed to cater to people who can solve problems with money takes effort, and time, and the willingness to thread through all the barriers that are put up against the poor in our society. At least if you have a day job, the hours that you aren’t able to fill with creative work are exchanged for money (and health care, and 401(k)s, and such).
(Not to mention that even people who are full-time writers and creators aren’t always exactly clocking in eight hours a day on art. I do four hours a day max when I write because after that my brain is like “I’m done being creative for the day.” Sometimes I’ll get two hours. Sometimes less. So what do I do with the rest of that time? Shit, I could do a day job with that time — and did, for years, because I was working as a freelance writer and consultant. It was fun making money after my brain turned into a flan!)
Heller says in his Twitter thread that “You can and should say ‘fuck you’ to conventional wisdom and throw yourself off the cliff and see if you can learn how to fly on your way down.” Okay, but here’s the thing about that: Never in the history of the world has anyone ever thrown themselves off a cliff and learned to fly on the way down. Physics is not conventional wisdom. What people who fling themselves off cliffs do is accelerate, falling faster and faster, until they hit the ground and die, or if they’re lucky, merely break every bone in their body and take months or years to recuperate, if they do at all. Jesus, Scalzi, it’s a metaphor, I hear you say. Sure, it is, but look at the actual metaphor and what it says: See if you can do the thing literally no one else has ever done. It’s gonna be awesome! Meanwhile, right here by the cliff is a trail that will lead you to the bottom safely — sure, it’ll take longer to get to the bottom, but your arrival will not be occasioned by a broken, shattered body, and along the way you may have time to think and plot and strategize, so that when you arrive where you want to go, you have a plan for where to go next. Sexy metaphors are sexy, but there are better ways to actually lead one’s life.
“It’s so fucking harmful that we’re instilling writers with this dull, gray terror of taking risks or hurling themselves recklessly into their passion,” Heller writes in his Twitter thread. But I think his position is, intentionally or not, disingenuous. First, and again, it’s not either/or — one can take massive risks and live dangerously in one’s creative life, and still have a day job, and a comfortable material existence. Indeed, when one’s basic physical and psychological needs are met, one does not have to expend mental cycles on those needs and has them available for one’s creative work. Second, it’s not actually “fucking harmful” to tell writers (or any other creators) it’s all right to acknowledge they live in the world, and the world is set up in a way that they have to navigate, and also, can navigate and still have time for their passion.
Third, as noted by Annalee Flower Horne in her own Twitter response, some people like their day job and find it a source of validation and inspiration. That’s right, you can actually enjoy your day job and find it fulfilling! You might even use it as a wellspring for your creative life! And even if you don’t, you might still decide that as a person, you are living your best life with your day job and a creative job. It’s possible! And for some people, even essential.
The short version of this is it appears either Heller doesn’t know you can live dangerously and passionately in art and comfortably in world, or is aware of it, but is kinda contemptuous of it. If the former, well, he’s been told now, by lots of people, over and over, and it’s up to him to internalize it. If it’s the latter — and it might be, as his thread comes off as dismissive of people who aren’t willing to throw themselves off a cliff — then, as he might say, that’s a choice. It’s also not a choice everyone else has to make, or is often the best choice they could make, either for themselves or for the other people whose lives are tied to theirs.
Mind you, Heller may also believe his advice is predicated on a ticking clock. As he declares at the onset of his thread, “The world is ending.” So, here’s the thing about that: The world’s not ending, either physically or with respect to humanity. Physically, the world will end in five billion years when the sun, as a red giant, expands to engulf the planet. You will probably not be around for that. Before then, the world will still be here.
Now, that’s probably not where Heller is going; he’s probably suggesting that “Creeping fascism + global climate change = end of the world for humans.” And to be sure, it’s not a great combination. But then, in the 1980s, “Cold war + Mutually Assured Nuclear Destruction = end of the world for humans.” In the 1930s, “Rise of fascism + economic ruin of nations = end of the world for humans.” In the 1910s, “The First Global War + virulent supervirus = end of the world for humans.” In pretty much every era the equation is “[social/political issue] + [existential threat to human supremacy on the planet] = end of the world for humans.” It’s not to discount that creeping fascism and global climate changes are serious problems we need to address. Please, let’s. It’s to say there is always a potential end of the world.
And yet in every era, people created and held down day jobs! It’s possible to do, even when staring down the gaping maw of nothingness and oblivion. You can do it! If you want to! Also, the world’s probably not actually ending — it’s changing, but that’s not the same as ending — so maybe don’t use that as a serious assessing factor. Even with global climate change, it will take several decades for it to suss out. You’ll probably be dead for the worst of it anyway. Meanwhile you still have bills and need to eat (and also, hey, maybe agitate politically against global fascism and climate change denial, that would be awesome of you).
So, in sum: Yeeeeeeah, you don’t usually have to quit your day job in order to throw yourself into your art. And in fact, most of the time it’s probably not a great idea. So maybe don’t.
After all this, you may ask, when should you quit your day job to throw yourself, recklessly and passionately, into your art? Well, alone or in combination:
1. As Nick Mamatas notes in his own Twitter thread, if your day job (whatever it is) is giving you a life no better than what you would get being a starving artist anyway, why the fuck not?
2. If you have a spouse/partner/family who has a stable income/benefits and is willing to support your freeloading ass while you whittle away at your creative work, then, sure. But also be sure to acknowledge, to yourself if not to anyone else, that you’re catching a hell of a break here.
3. If you hate your job with such a passion that it sucks your will to live no matter how well it pays or how awesome the benefits, then you should probably consider leaving that job regardless of any creative aspirations. However, maybe see if there’s a different job with similar pay/benefits you could move into, one that doesn’t make you want to collapse into a ball, before just ditching it all. It’s amazing how fast the money runs out.
4. If you’re already financially doing so well with your creative work that your day job is acting as a drag to your income (which can happen!).
5. You are independently wealthy and you’ve been keeping a day job mostly as an affectation and/or have been awarded a grant (or book advance!) large enough to cover your life expenses for years as you create.
6. You have no dependents, are of a social demographic where taking years out of the labor pool to fuck about on a creative endeavor will not be taken as inherent flakiness (hello, straight white men!), and think starving in a cold-water bedsit is a cheeky adventure to be experienced, not a fate to be avoided.
Otherwise? Consider your day job may be a positive, not a negative.
In the end, the enemy of creativity is not a day job, or indeed, anything else that might exist in your life other than your creative impulse (which includes but is not limited to family, friends, spouses, pets, hobbies, politics, entertainment and the world in general). The enemy is you — and your choice to use any of the above not to engage in the creative life you believe you should have. The world is not ending, but you will. You will not be here forever. You have to make the decision to throw yourself into your art, with whatever time you have. If you decide it’s important, then you’ll find the time. Even with a day job. And all the rest of the world, ending or otherwise.
KEITH R.A. DeCANDIDO:
Finding an urban fantasy novel that takes place within the confines of New York City is about as difficult, to quote that great philosopher Edmund Blackadder, as putting on a hat. Just in general, the Big Apple is a very popular setting for fiction, not just of the urban fantasy variety.
But when you say “New York City” to the vast majority of humans, what they think of is the Manhattan skyline. They think of the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building and the Freedom Tower. They think of the Brooklyn Bridge and the George Washington Bridge and the 59th Street Bridge (and then they feel groovy). They think of Central Park and the Theatre District and Greenwich Village. They think of Harlem and Chelsea and Chinatown.
In other words, they think of Manhattan south of 125th Street. To most folks, that’s what New York City is. Maybe, maybe they might throw Brooklyn in there.
A Furnace Sealed is my attempt to remind folks that there’s a lot more to the Big Apple than that. The city has five boroughs. There’s also Queens to the east and Staten Island to the south. There’s Inwood and Washington Heights, the northern tip of Manhattan that is often forgotten.
And there’s the Bronx, my home borough, the northernmost portion, the home of the Bronx Zoo and the New York Yankees, the only part of the city connected to the mainland.
The Bronx has a long and fascinating history. It also has an image problem, as the only image most folks can conjure is the South Bronx forty years ago. Fort Apache, the Bronx was released in 1981, Howard Cosell famously said, “Ladies and gentlemen, the Bronx is burning” during the World Series in 1977, and all too often when I tell people I live in the Bronx, they think it’s still like that. “Do you carry a knife?” (I used to carry a Swiss Army Knife, but post-2001 airport security has gotten me out of that habit.) “Is it safe where you live?” (Very.) “Are you the only white people?” (No, and also, even if we were, so the hell what?)
But the Bronx has Little Italy (the real one, not the tourist trap in lower Manhattan), the aforementioned Bronx Zoo, City Island (a New England-style fishing village off the east coast of the borough full of great seafood and adorable crafts stores), several huge parks, the New York Botanical Gardens, Woodlawn Cemetery (where many famous personages from Elizabeth Cady Stanton to Miles Davis to Fiorello LaGuardia are buried), the Bronx Museum of the Arts, several great universities (Fordham University, Manhattan College, Mt. St. Vincent, etc.), and very soon an independent bookstore, the Lit. Bar. It’s where Edgar Allan Poe spent the last years of his life and where break-dancing and hip-hop were born. Alan Alda, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Neil deGrasse Tyson are all from the Bronx. And there’s so much more besides.
It’s because most of you reading this probably didn’t know most of what I just wrote about that I conceived The Bram Gold Adventures, of which the first book is A Furnace Sealed. Bram Gold is a Courser, a supernatural hunter-for-hire. He’s the guy you hire to wrangle a unicorn or babysit werewolves on the night of the full moon or get that pesky leprechaun off your lawn. And he works and lives in the Bronx. The first story I wrote with him appeared in the 2011 anthology Liar Liar, which had some fun with the history of the Marble Hill neighborhood, which used to be a physical part of Manhattan, then an island, and now is physically part of the Bronx (though politically still part of Manhttan).
The theme of the urban fantasy world I’ve created is that most of the creatures are not quite what you expect—much like the borough where the book takes place. Unicorns are, in fact, surly beasts any time they smell a male (which is why virgins can calm them—they don’t have man-funk on them). Vampires are total wusses who are pale and sickly and don’t like sunlight. Werewolves are mostly just people who turn into big dogs once a month.
And Coursers—and magic users, for that matter—are just people doing a job. In addition to letting people know that there’s a whole ‘nother part of the Big Apple to the north, I also wanted to make sure that I portrayed characters who need to feed and clothe and house themselves. Most people make decisions based on what they can afford, and fictional characters should do likewise. At one point in A Furnace Sealed, Bram has to put his investigation on hold because he’s working a shift at Montefiore Hospital. (In addition to being Bram Gold, Courser, he’s also Dr. Abraham Goldblume, who works two days a week as an ER doctor. He changed his name for the former job because if you want your nasty monster hunted, you’re not gonna hire a schmuck named Abe Goldblume. Bram Gold, on the other hand, sounds like he can get stuff done.) He has to work that shift, because he’s already called in sick too often, and if he does it again, he’ll get fired, and it’s hard to find more work when you’re fired for poor attendance at your only-twice-a-week job.
Back in 2009 and 2010, I worked for the U.S. Census Bureau, and I got to go to a lot of different parts of the Bronx. It was that work in particular that got the wheels turning about the manifold glories of the Boogie-Down Bronx, and I wanted to bring them to the world in a way that I hope youse guys (as we say in da Bronx) find entertaining. And if you do, rest assured, I’m already hard at work on Book 2 of The Bram Gold Adventures…
The Falling Joys, enjoyed by many Australians and maybe seven Americans, back in 1990. This song is “Jennifer,” which is pretty great. Hope you like it.
It’s always delightful for me when I learn a compatriot from my journalism days branched out, as I did, into the literary world. In this case, it’s E.E. Williams, with whom I shared a newsroom twenty five(!) years ago, writing mysteries, of which My Grave is Deep is the latest. In this Big Idea, Williams delves into the making of his mysteries, and why they take the time they do.
It took me 25 years to write my first mystery novel, “Tears in the Rain,” so titled after the famous line uttered in the movie Blade Runner. It took another 17 years to write the second book, “Tears of God,” and another five to complete the third, “My Grave Is Deep,” which was recently published on Amazon.com. All three feature amateur detective, Noah Greene, who sacrifices everything dear to him to follow a dream of becoming a private investigator.
Why it took that long to write that first book is a mystery in itself because from the time my father handed me a book – a thick tome about a black stallion in the Arabian desert, the name of which has vanished on the winds of time – and told me to read it, it was my life’s goal to be an AUTHOR. I put that word in caps because I didn’t just want to write books. I wanted to be famous, and rich, and so successful Stephen King would call me for tips.
I had this vision in my head that I would live in an A-frame house in the Colorado mountains during winter, where I would hunker down over my typewriter (yeah, that should tell you just how old I am), pecking out my next bestseller, and then in spring, take the manuscript to my publisher, drop it off, pick up a fat paycheck and catch a plane for Europe where my wife and I would travel and eat at the world’s best restaurants, and where I’d be recognized and asked to sign autographs for my adoring fans. I’d return to the states just as the latest book hit No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list and do a book tour that would take me from the East Coast to the West, and sell the movie rights to Steve McQueen or Paul Newman, before returning to Colorado and another winter of writing.
Oh, I was going to be a star. Excuse me. A STAR!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Then, life happened.
I got married my senior year in college at Kent State. I graduated with a degree in journalism and got my first job at the Dayton Journal Herald, now defunct. From there I went to the Miami News, now defunct. And then the Dallas Times Herald, now defunct. (Yes, I was a serial newspaper killer.)
It was when I worked at the Miami News that I decided to get serious about writing the book I always wanted to write – a mystery. A surprise, that. After reading the book my father gave me, I started a strict regimen of Sci-Fi novels. I devoured everything written by Arthur C. Clarke, and Ray Bradbury, and Robert Heinlein, and Ursula K. Le Guin. (Now, of course, I devour everything written by Scalzi, James S.A. Corey and Richard K. Morgan.) I thought if my dream were to ever come true it would be writing Sci-Fi. But … before I hit the shift key for the first time, I read an Esquire Magazine piece that stated some of the best writing being done by novelists was in the mystery genre. They recommended Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, Ross Macdonald and John. D. MacDonald.
It was John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee series that I first picked up. Travis lived on a houseboat, The Busted Flush, and did investigative jobs for hire. There was a color in each of the book titles. “The Deep Blue Good-by.” “The Girl In the Plain Brown Wrapper.” “Nightmare in Pink.” “The Dreadful Lemon Sky.” I was hooked. I devoured all 21 McGee novels like a starving man. Then chomped down Chandler, followed by Hammett, the other Macdonald and Robert Parker. I was fascinated by the stories of world-weary detectives overcoming long odds to turn back evil. That was the kind of book I wanted to write.
And so, I started a book that didn’t even have a title because Blade Runner was still off in the future. I wanted a McGee-like amateur hero, someone who loved movies with the same sort of passion as I did, and who lived in Miami because, well, that’s where I lived.
I dove into the book with gusto, determined to make it a bestseller. The gusto didn’t last long. I had a family – a wife and young son. Could I afford to take a risk on writing books, I asked myself. I was good at newspapering. What if I failed as a novelist? What if I failed my family?
So I put my energy and focus on writing about sports stars, and actors, and yes, other novelists. I did it well enough to keep getting promoted, a velvet fist if there ever was one. I bounced from one paper to another, – 14 in 42 years – working at some of the country’s biggest and best, including the New York Daily News, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and the Fresno Bee (where I met the estimable Mr. Scalzi).
Oh, it wasn’t as if I didn’t work on the book. I’d write for a day or two, sometimes three, and put it in a drawer and go months before starting again. By which time, the thread of the plot was lost, requiring a do-over. I did a lot of do-overs. Then I lost the manuscript in one of those 14 moves (remember, everything was on paper, not in a computer). Began again. Moved and lost it again. My wife, once threw it out in the trash, something I prefer to chalk up to as a tragic mistake rather than a comment on the book’s quality.
The years stacked atop one another and when I looked up, 25 of them had passed. I told myself it was because I had that day job. And yet, so many of my friends and colleagues were successful novelists – John, of course, and Sherryl Woods and John Katzenbach – and they all had day jobs just like me. I was embarrassed by my own inability to do what they’d done. I decided it was either do what I always dreamed of, or stop dreaming.
Eventually, I found the will and discipline to drag “Tears in the Rain” over the finish line and get it published.
Stardom, fame and fortune did not follow.
Still, I loved the characters I’d created and gave it another go with “Tears of God.” It’s a better book and only took me 17 years to write.
Stardom, fame and fortune did not follow.
Nevertheless, I continued to enjoy writing and seeing my characters grow, so out poured (can something that takes five years really be described as pouring out?) “My Grave Is Deep.” It is, I think, the best of the three.
If history is any indication, stardom, fame and fortune won’t follow. Regardless of its reception, I’ve started to write a fourth Noah Greene mystery and I have but one hope.
That it doesn’t take 25 years to write. Because, you know, death.
My Grave Is Deep: Amazon
I figure this will hold you until tomorrow. Have a good night!
So, in my time as a fiction writer, I’ve been nominated and/or was a finalist for a fair number of awards, and in some cases I’ve even won them. And in the course of more than a dozen years of being nominated/becoming a finalist/occasionally winning, I’ve learned some things about the process, which I would like to share with you today.
This is not an exhaustive list of things I’ve learned, merely a selection of pertinent points that I think would be useful to others. Some of these are (or should be) obvious; others less so. Ready? Here we go.
First, general thoughts about awards.
1. Awards are nice but not necessary for a career. Meaning that you can have a long, happy and maybe even profitable career writing (or acting, or playing music, or whatever, although for the purposes of this essay I’m focusing on my own creative field, which is writing) without once winning, or even being a finalist for, a single award. I can, off the top of my head, list at least a dozen hugely successful science fiction/fantasy writers who have never been near a Hugo or Nebula short list, and yet they are creating interesting and delightful work, selling that work and building fervent, devoted audiences.
This isn’t to say awards are entirely meaningless: They can make a difference (and I will give a personal example of this presently). But there are other ways to build a thriving career. And to paraphrase a saying, a happy audience will get you through times of no awards rather better than awards will get you through times of no audience.
2. Some of the most important works in a genre or field come nowhere near an award. Here’s a question for you: What major awards, genre or otherwise, did The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy win when it arrived in 1979? The Hugo? The Nebula? The Locus? Nope, nope, nopeity nope. According to the Science Fiction Awards Database, the only award of any note that Hitchhiker won was the Australian Ditmar Award, for Best International Fiction (It was nominated for the Best Dramatic Presentation Hugo for its radio play version, but did not win). And yet Hitchhiker was hugely successful, selling millions of copies, spawning multiple sequels (none of which had much award luck either), being adapted into multiple media, and fundamentally remapping what humor was in the genre of science fiction.
The three novels which comprise The Lord of Rings were eligible for the Hugo (which was getting its start in the early 50s) but were never nominated, and at the time the series garnered only the now-extinct International Fantasy Award (it won the very last one, in point of fact), of which I had never heard, prior to looking it up. Tolkien’s major award recognition would have to wait until the 70s and The Silmarillion. But no one (or at least no one who is not foolish) would suggest anything other than that The Lord of the Rings is foundational to the modern genre of fantasy, for all the good and bad that represents.
The point is that awards are nifty and fun, and also, they are no better at guessing what is enduring and influential in a genre than any other method. Sometimes the awards get it right — William Gibson’s Neuromancer, which put cyberpunk on the map, won the Hugo and Nebula in its year, and its echoes are still reverberating through common culture — but sometimes they don’t.
3. Award winners sometimes win for reasons other than being “the best.” For example, the Hugos have a “ranked choice/instant runoff” voting process, which means sometimes a work that was not the majority (or even plurality) choice can win the award as other works are eliminated and their votes reapportioned. Sometimes juried awards settle on a compromise candidate when the votes aren’t there for the works the jurists feel the most passionate about. Sometimes people award their vote not because the particular work stands head and shoulders above the other finalists but because the voter thinks it’s good enough and also it’s the author’s “time” (conversely, sometimes a voter would rather run their arms over a cheese grater than vote for a specific author, regardless of the quality of the work in question).
None of this means a winner isn’t worthy of winning; one makes the assumption that, barring direct and obvious gaming of the actual nominating process, all the finalists are of a certain, reasonable competence and quality. It does mean that lots of factors go into the process of selecting a winner, not all of them straightforward.
But that’s all right, because here’s a real thing:
4. Winning an award is not always as important as being a finalist. I can speak to this personally: In terms of my career, it was far more important for me to have been nominated for the Best Novel Hugo award in 2006, than it was for me to win it in 2013. Why? Because in 2006 I was new to the field, and having my first novel nominated was a thing, especially when coupled with the nomination for the Campbell Award for Best New Writer. I was the first person in more than twenty years to get nominated for the Campbell and Best Novel in the same year, and it changed my status in the field from “who is John Scalzi” to “oh, that’s John Scalzi.”
I didn’t win the Hugo that year (nor should I have: Spin by Robert Charles Wilson won, and deservedly so), but it didn’t matter because the boost put me in a different career orbit. When I did win the Best Novel award, several years later, it was great, and I loved it, and I wouldn’t trade the experience. But careerwise, it wasn’t a transforming event. It was a confirming event. My professional career didn’t change all that much after I won. Whereas being nominated earlier was transforming, and ultimately more important to my career.
The takeaway from points one through four is simply this: Awards! They’re neat and fun! Enjoy them! But they’re not everything, and winning them isn’t always as important as you might think.
With that in mind, if you are nominated, or become a finalist for, an award, here are some things for you to consider:
5. Enjoy the hell out of the ride. Enjoy the congratulations, the happiness others have for you, and the moment in the spotlight. If someone tells you to dial it back, you have my permission to ignore them, because this is a personal and professional highlight, and you deserve to dance around like an over-caffeinated monkey (literally and figuratively) if such is your joy. Let them be all muted and circumspect when/if it’s their turn to be nominated for something in the future. You do it your way.
The flip side of this is, with the happiness comes the anxiety of “Oh God, what if I win? What if I don’t win? What if people don’t think I deserve it? What if I don’t deserve it? Now do I have to get nominated every year or I’ve tumbled into the abyss of failure?” So, quickly:
The point is: This is a moment. It’s for you to enjoy. Enjoy the moment! Don’t worry about what happens after the moment, if you don’t want to. Give yourself permission to be happy.
6. The other finalists aren’t your competition, they’re your peers. I mean, yes, they are your competition, in that only one of you is likely to take home the award (sometimes there’s a tie. Don’t count on it). Buuuut, look back at point three up there. It’s a real thing. Again, whatever wins deserves to win — and that’s because any of the finalists probably deserves to win. All of the finalists have produced work that is award-caliber, and that includes you. You can be justifiably proud of that, and you can look at the field of finalists and be content that you deserve to be in their company (and equally importantly, they in yours).
I’ve been nominated for the Best Novel Hugo five times and the years I lost my “peer group” included Robert Charles Wilson, George RR Martin, Ann Leckie, NK Jemisin, Neil Gaiman, Neal Stephenson, Charles Stross, Yoon Ha Lee, Cory Doctorow, Mur Lafferty, Ken MacLeod, Ian McDonald, Robert J. Sawyer, Kim Stanley Robinson and Michael Chabon. The year I won, my peer group included Seanan McGuire, Saladin Ahmed and Lois McMaster Bujold. I mean, are you kidding me with this? I get to put my work in the same field as the work of any of these writers? How can you not pinch yourself and consider yourself lucky?
All of us got to have that moment where we were placed in each other’s company, and each of us can be proud of the association. Some of these people were friends before we were finalists together. Some of them became friends afterward. Someone goes home with the award but everyone in the field gets to have this moment of fellowship and perhaps even friendship. Guess which lasts longer and feels better. Be happy with your new peer group.
7. Practice your zen. With every award, there will be people who will proclaim loudly that there’s something wrong with who is a finalist, who won, and come up with all manner of reasons why things happened the way they did, some nefarious, and some just petty and dickish. Sometimes the focus of their ire might be you.
Remember that some people are always going to kvetch and complain and it’s not your job to validate their grievances or to agree with their assessment. You’re not responsible for their opinions and it’s not your fault they’re upset. That’s on them. If it’s just general whining and complaining, it’s often best to just let it go — everyone has their opinion and you don’t have to engage with them (especially because, no matter what, you’re already on the finalist slate, so you have that going for you, which is nice). This is especially the case if they’re not complaining to you directly, just venting somewhere you might happen to see it.
Beyond this, there are the occasional trolls and dickheads who will try to engage you, because they’re assholes or because they have a social/political agenda they think they’ll further by enraging you and/or making you unhappy. You can engage if you like — and I’ll be the first to admit that sometimes I’ve poked the more reprehensible of this species just to watch them spin in tight little circles — but usually it’s like wrestling the proverbial pig. You both get dirty and the pig likes it. Also, if you don’t have straight white dude privilege (or experience of dealing with assholes on a regular basis) it can get overwhelming. So generally I suggest just blocking or muting these dudes if they decide to bring their grievances to you. You don’t owe anyone your attention, especially a troll.
Just remember it’s almost never the case that everyone in the world is going to be 100% happy with any finalist slate for anything, and that you don’t have to justify your presence on one. Your presence is its own justification.
8. Pro tip: Assume you won’t win, and be ready to be happy for the person who does. There are a few reasons for this. One, statistically speaking, you generally have a 75% to 80% chance of being correct, so it’s always a safe bet. Two, freeing yourself up from worrying means you can enjoy being a finalist for itself, without additional angst and angina. Three, it gives you an opportunity to enjoy the work and the personality of the other finalists, and to remind yourself that you’re their peers (and they’re yours). Four, if you do win, you can be happily surprised.
This does not mean that you should assume you won’t win because your work isn’t good enough — don’t be the person who runs themself or their work down in order to shield themself from a disappointment. Your work is good enough (otherwise you and it wouldn’t be a finalist) and you can be assured that’s not an issue. Again, see point three above. The point here is not to psyche yourself out of wanting to win. Want to win! It’s allowed. The point is to give yourself permission to be happy with how far you come even if you don’t win.
As for being happy for the person who wins when it is not you, well, why not? It does you no harm, and it means that in the future if you should win an award, you will likely have one more person happy for you. Can you be a little sad you didn’t win? Sure! Everyone wants to win, and you don’t have to pretend that you don’t. Be a little sad! But you can do that and still be happy for someone else.
(Also, sometimes it’s actually easy to be happy for someone else. The last Hugo I lost was to NK Jemisin, who capped off a remarkable three-peat Best Novel win at the Hugos. Her winning, aside from being richly deserved in itself, represented an appropriately seismic recalibration of where the center of our shared genre now resides. It’s hard to be churlish about not winning when you get a front row seat to literary history. As I’ve said before and will probably say again, I’ve never been happier to have come in second.)
9. If you do win, share the love. Thank your editor. Thank your agent. Thank your cover designer, and copy editor, and everyone else you can think of. Thank your partner. Thank your kid. Thank your dog. Have good, kind and true words for your fellow finalists. I’m not going to say be humble — I mean, you just won an award, that’s pretty great — but be mindful of the people who helped you to that award, and the peers whose work your work stood with to get there.
Also speaking as someone who knows: It helps to write something out beforehand. Really, do that.
10. Win or lose: Get back to work. When I won my Best Novel Hugo, I allowed myself a whole week to enjoy the fact — and then, I had to get back to what I was doing, which was, writing the next thing. When I lost my last Hugo, I also gave myself a week (mostly because I was traveling to another convention and it’s hard for me to focus on the road), and then got back to what I was doing, which was writing the next thing.
Win or lose, awards are a moment, and the moment ends, one way or another. On to the next thing. Always, on to the next thing.
There are worse ways to start a week than to find out one of your novels is a finalist for an award. Head On is a finalist for the Audie Award (that’s for audiobooks), in the category of science fiction. Other books that are finalists in the category:
Nice company to be in. Also, the version of Head On that made the finals is the read by Wil Wheaton, although I think honestly it had to have been a coin flip between his and Amber Benson’s narration, both are just that good.
I’ve been a finalist for the Audies several times before and have won twice. It’s always a delight to be a finalist, and I’ll be happy to win if I do but not at all disappointed if I don’t. It’s a very fine finalist field, and also, you know, why be greedy.
Likewise I have a number of friends whose work are finalists in many other categories: Here’s the full finalist list. 2018 was, if nothing else, an excellent year for audiobooks. Congratulations to all the finalists!
The top picture here is from yesterday, roughly at 10:30 am, and the second picture here is today, just a bit after noon. By this evening all that snow will be gone because it’s currently 48 and we’ll get up to 57. As a reminder, a couple of days ago we were in negative temperatures. Winter has become this very weird season around these parts. Mind you, I personally prefer 57 to -8. By rather a lot. I’m not entirely sure we’re meant to have 65 degree temperature swings this quickly, however. Just another thing for us to come to terms with.
A hazy shade of winter.
Whoa, February already. And to start the month off, please enjoy this very fine stack of new books and ARCs that have come to the Scalzi Compound. What here is ringing your bell? Tell everyone in the comments.
And my in-house editor is ready to go!
Also, it’s cold as balls right at the moment: -2, without windchill. Yes, I know other places in the US are colder at the moment. You know what? -2 is cold enough. This isn’t the Freeze Your Gonads Off Olympics. And if it is, I’m happy to let someone else take the gold.
I think I’m done traveling for a whole month. I don’t even know what I’ll do with myself. Actually I do: I’ll write. It’s kind of my thing.
Hope if it’s cold where you are that you’re keeping warm. And if it’s warm where you are, well. Have your smug little moment, I suppose.