Every year as the holiday season begins I run a gift guide for the holidays, and over the years it’s been quite successful: Lots of people have found out about excellent books and crafts and charities and what have you, making for excellent gift-giving opportunities during the holiday season. I’ve decided to do it again this year.
So: Starting Monday, November 29, the Whatever Holiday Gift Guide returns! If you’re a writer or other creator, this will be an excellent time to promote your work on a site which gets tens of thousands of viewers daily, almost all of whom will be interested in stuff for the holidays. If you’re someone looking to give gifts, you’ll see lots of excellent ideas. And you’ll also have a day to suggest stuff from other folks too. Everybody wins!
To give you all time to prepare, here’s the schedule of what will be promoted on which days:
Monday, November 29: Traditionally Published Authors — If your work is being published by a publisher a) who is not you and b) gets your books into actual, physical bookstores on a returnable basis, this is your day to tell people about your books. This includes comics/graphic novels and audiobooks.
Tuesday, November 30: Non-Traditionally Published Authors — Self-published? Electronically published? Or other? This is your day. This also includes comics/graphic novels and audiobooks.
Wednesday, December 1: Other Creators — Artists, knitters, jewelers, musicians, and anyone who has cool stuff to sell this holiday season, this will be the day to show off your creations.
Thursday, December 2: Fan Favorite Day — Not an author/artist/musician/other creator but know about some really cool stuff you think people will want to know about for the holidays? Share! Share with the crowd!
Friday, December 3: Charities — If you are involved in a charity, or have a favorite charity you’d like to let people know about, this is the day to do it.
If you have questions about how all of this will work, go ahead and ask them in the comment thread (Don’t start promoting your stuff today — it’s not time yet), although I will note that specific instructions for each day will appear on that day. Don’t worry, it’ll be pretty easy. Thanks and feel free to share this post with creative folks who will have things to sell this holiday season.
Here’s the spread at the Scalzi Compound today: Turkey, ham, two types of cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, sweet potato soufflé, green bean casserole, sage stuffing, deviled eggs, dinner rolls. That doesn’t count the opening round of appetizers, or the desserts (pumpkin and pecan pies, ice cream, sugar cookies). I can’t imagine I ate less than five thousand calories today. It’s a miracle I’m still awake to type this.
If you’re in the United States, I hope today was one in which you reflected on the good things in your life, surrounded by people you care about. If you’re outside the United States, I hope you had a satisfactory Thursday.
Tomorrow is Thanksgiving here in the United States, and while I think a lot of people these days see that holiday mostly as a turkey-spangled speedbump in front of the unstoppable juggernaut that is Christmas, I do think it’s useful to take a moment and reflect on the things that one has to be thankful for, especially over the course of the year. So here are things I’m thankful for, here in 2021.
I’m thankful for Joe Biden. Not in a creepy, “this is my man and I will follow him unto death” sort of way, because, come on, no one thinks about Joe Biden that way, possibly not even his dog. I’m thankful for him in the sense that for ten months now I haven’t felt a sickness in my gut wondering what damn fool, possibly unconstitutional, definitely self-centering thing our president is doing today. I can in fact go entire days not thinking about Joe Biden, which honestly is both refreshing after the previous four years, and should be my right as an American, with regard to the President of the United States.
Biden’s not perfect by any stretch, and clearly his current approval ratings are, uhhhhh, not great. That said, he is performing pretty much to my expectations, and as well as he can, considering the 50 Democratic senators he has for his majority are actually 48 Democratic senators, one clearly-a-Republican-but-pretending-to-be-a-Democrat-for-lulz, and one chaos agent, considering the opposing political party has lost its mind and would rather burn the country to the ground than do anything useful, and considering that, like every other Democratic president in recent memory, Biden’s first job out of the gate was dealing with all the disasters and time bombs the previous administration left behind. One works with what one has, and Biden’s doing all right with that. Even if he wasn’t, he’s still better than what we had. Thanks for letting me not think about you, President Biden. I surely appreciate it.
I’m thankful I wrote a novel this year. And a novella too, actually, but the novel was, career-wise, a smidge more important. 2020 was a bust on the novel-writing front, for various reasons, mostly relating to the fact that reality was continually pulling focus on me, and the fact that the novel I was trying to write last year was meant to be a bit grim and cynical, and 2020 wasn’t the year to write grim and cynical (or at least, it wasn’t the year for me to write it). So to be able to turn around from that disaster scenario and write a novel that’s a) really fun, b) that I really like, c) and that my publisher is pretty damn happy with too, was, bluntly, a massive fucking relief. There are other reasons to be thankful about it on the practical side of things (i.e., this is how I make my money, and I need money, because we live in a capitalist society, and also, I do ill-advised things like buy six-necked guitars), but mostly, I was just happy that after a year of grinding gears, creatively, 2021 saw me back on track in a big way. Related:
I’m thankful I didn’t release a novel this year. Fun fact: the novel I was writing in 2020 was supposed to be out this last October, and Kaiju was written quickly enough that Tor could have, in fact, slotted it into that release date. Instead, Tor looked at the publishing landscape of 2021 and said to itself yeeeeeeeah, let’s not, and bumped Kaiju into 2022 instead. Which was good! We’ve had more time to plot and plan for the release, and also, hey, you know that “supply chain” issue this year? It’s been particularly bad for publishing, and October was especially a not good month on that score. We dodged an actual bullet on that one, and didn’t make life worse for the authors who did have books out this October by fighting them for, like, paper. Also, hopefully by March we may be able to do in-store events and have a live-action book tour and all of that good stuff.
To be clear, in a perfect world I would have had a novel out in 2021, consistent with the plan to have a novel out every year to keep readers happy. But, well [motions to the imperfect world]. Given everything, waiting made sense. And Kaiju, I think, will be worth the wait for most of you.
I’m thankful for the COVID vaccines. In both the case of the initial set of vaccines and then with the booster, I signed up to get them as early as humanly possible because, I don’t know if you know this, but COVID-19 is a novel virus that is highly transmissible, kills a lot of people it infects — 775,000 in the US to date — and leaves lots of the people who survive the infection with long-term debilitations. It’s bad! And if you get the vaccines, not only does your chance of initial infection go down by a significant multiple, if you do get it, the chance of requiring hospitalization for it goes down by an even more significant multiple and the chances of dying from it go down by an even more significant multiple still. This is just basic math. I got vaccinated and boosted. So did my family.
I’m deeply thankful my family is now highly unlikely to die or be significantly debilitated from this now easily-preventable viral infection that is still killing thousands each week, those deaths now almost exclusively concentrated among people who will not take a safe and effective vaccine because people who should have known better made avoiding a horrible fucking disease and looking out for others by not being an active vector of infection a political litmus test, and counted on their supporters’ ignorance and tribal inclinations to weaponize those positions. “Be willing to get sick and possibly die to own the libs” is no way to go through life, and as it happens, at least some of those who chose that route won’t get through it.
Anyway, get vaccinated if you can, y’all. I’m thankful I did. You’ll be thankful you did, too.
I’m thankful we got a dog. Because Charlie’s cute, and a little bit of canine chaos in the house is fun. Well, mostly. She can be exasperating sometimes too, but honestly, that can be said about any of us, can it not. I do continue to be thankful for my cats, too, just to be clear. It’s not a contest. Don’t make it a contest! We love all our pets.
I’m thankful I got to see friends and go out into the world again this year. From March 2020 to June 2021, I went no further than about 25 miles from my house and saw almost no one in person who wasn’t family or an immediate neighbor. It wasn’t horrible, but even for an introvert like me, it got to be a little much. But then we got vaccinated! And friends got vaccinated! And the chance we would accidentally kill or debilitate our pals by giving them a hug went down considerably! Also, events started to happen again, because sensible “mask and vaxx” policies became a thing. And now I have a real world social life and an appearance schedule again. I appreciate it and don’t take it for granted. It’s nice to actually see friends, you know?
I’m thankful for the usual things too. A family that I love, who is mostly happy and mostly healthy. A job I like and a house that’s nice to live in. That I am doing well enough that I can buy silly guitars. That I just get to live and not worry about my own circumstances most days. All of these things are good, and I don’t want to elide them to note the stuff I have above. So, here they are.
These are (some of) the things I’m thankful for, here in 2021, coming into Thanksgiving and the holiday season. I hope that there are things you feel thankful this year as well.
And that someone might have been me. Here’s one of the pictures I made fiddling with it (DxO Filmpack 6, in case you’re curious). Spice has never looked so moody! Or monochromatic!
Authors often put a little bit of themselves into their characters. And Patricia A. Jackson is not different in her novel Forging a Nightmare. But what parts and into which character and why… therein, folks, is the Big Idea.
PATRICIA A. JACKSON:
As a Black woman I carry my own unique baggage. Even as I write this essay, I’m bristling—worried about readers’ reactions to this post. I’m usually braced for the worst in people, all while trying to keep that stiff upper lip and smile. Well, my face hurts.
Black people (and Black characters) are expected to react to situations the way White people do. Newsflash: we don’t! Reacting often gets us arrested, beaten, or killed. And when we don’t react, we’re not human enough, not educated enough, or worse, we’re hiding something.
Being Black in the United States of America is akin to living in a perpetual state of PTSD. A lack of representation in film, literature, and other media only exacerbates my feelings of self-loathing, restlessness, blame, and isolation. My experiences watching TV and reading books is that the perspective of Black people has been callously denied or suppressed. When institutions double down on this exclusion, it becomes a subtle, but pervasive kind of racism.
Still here, dear reader? Good, because I need to tell you I don’t want to be part of a master race. I don’t want to be superior. I just want to be included.
My father was born in 1934 in Alabama. The ghosts he saw in his yard were real. Evil men in white sheets and white hoods with evil agendas who burned crosses. Tattooed by the trauma of the Ku Klux Klan and Jim Crow, he tried to escape by joining the military and fell victim to another form of institutional racism. He became angry, bitter, but unbowed, and when I came into the world… fiercely protective.
For our survival, we lived in enemy territory: all-White neighborhoods. I went to a private, mostly White school and rode show horses in a sport where very few people looked like me. Though it was never his intention, my father could not have White-washed me anymore than the society in which we lived. As a result, I never learned to be comfortable in my skin.
I wrote my first novel when I was eight. My early protagonists came to me blond-haired and blue-eyed with flawless white skin. That is what I had been taught to believe was beautiful. If there was a person of color, I glossed over the description. My father had taught me it was never a good idea to call attention to myself—to my Blackness. It wasn’t safe.
“And lo, a black horse…”
Enter a Nightmare. Anaba Raines was the first character that came to me as I pondered writing Forging a Nightmare. She was unapologetically Black and unabashedly fierce. I wear my hair in dreadlocks because of her. An unrelenting, badass Marine, she was a spirited warrior, who spoke her mind (even to me) and used her fists for punctuation. I had difficulty finding a ‘leading man’ strong enough to withstand her brutal candor.
Black women get a bad rap. We’re too loud, too opinionated, too outspoken. But no one talks about how fiercely we love, how unconditionally we commit, how loyally we cling to traditions of family. The Marine Corps didn’t teach Anaba how to be faithful. It was written into her genes from generations of stoic matriarchs who stood their ground in the Antebellum South, and well after its fall, so that their progeny would thrive.
But Forging a Nightmare was not Anaba’s story to tell. A fact that pissed her off. She was already comfortable in her skin. Her co-star, the main protagonist, Michael Childs was… not. If characters are born from a sliver of their creator’s essence, Michael was me, masquerading as something he was not meant to be. White. So, I fed him (and that part of myself) to the fury of a Nightmare, and Anaba took us to Hell and back again. Literally.
Michael Childs is a reflection of my awkward struggle to relate to a world that was unaccepting of me, even hostile at times. As if my Blackness was a tragic flaw. The immortal James Baldwin said, “You have to decide who you are and force the world to deal with you, not with its idea of you.” Michael’s journey to accept himself became my quest to embrace my identity and project that image into the world, regardless of who liked or disliked it.
Reeling in my Black characters from the supporting ensemble, I set them center stage in the main roles, not as token heroes. I cast them as archangels, movers and shakers, making it evident that the diversity we deny on earth exists among the divine. I was forced to be comfortable in their skins, accepting of their Blackness. To define their purpose, I had to redefine who I was and how the world perceived me.
This journey has been a perilous one. I have stumbled, fallen, cried, and scratched desperately to crawl back under a rock, but Anaba would not let me. Through her and Michael, I learned to love myself and to be unrepentantly comfortable in my skin. The specters of a regrettable era in history and the ghost of this new one seek to psychologically lynch me to keep me silent. They will fail. Thanks to the antics of one wily, spirited Nightmare—Anaba. Thanks, gunny! For everything.
I Was Going to Write a Piece on Politics Today But It Turned Out the Metaphor I Was Going to Use Needs Some Workshopping, So In the Meantime Here’s Charlie With Some Autumn Leaves
I suspect you’ll consider this a reasonable substitute for now.
And you’re welcome!
Around this time last year I gave a little space to let my pal Meg Frank talk about the Kickstarter for Mermaids Monthly. This year, I’m doing the same, but with new editors and spokespeople: Miyuki Jane Pinckard and Noelle Singh. Here they are to explain why year two of Mermaids Monthly is worth your Kickstarter love.
Last year, the unstoppable powerhouses Meg Frank and Julia Rios launched Mermaids Monthly and built it into a premier, pro magazine of the mermaid-themed fiction, poetry, art, and comics. It was all made possible by fans, including many of you! This fall, they decided to hand off the project to me, Jane, and my co-publisher Noelle Singh. We couldn’t be more excited to take the helm.
So! Today we launch the Kickstarter campaign to fund Mermaids Monthly Year Two. It’s still mermaids. Only, more international. This year we’re focusing on sourcing at least 50% of each issue from creators outside the United States. We want to explore a world of mermaid lore from around the world, to the moon and back. We’re also building a community and events around Mermaids Monthly for fans to enjoy throughout the year: a space to share mermaids stories and art on a Discord server, poetry readings, watch parties, and Q&A sessions with our creators.
We really love how much Mermaids Monthly Year One supports queer, BIPOC, and disable writers, and we’re committed to keeping that a core part of our ethos, while exploring mermaid stories from around the world. We’ve solicited some wonderful art and words for the January issue, and the minute we hit our minimum funding goal, we’re excited to open general submissions to all creators.
We would love it if you would support us either by pledging to our Kickstarter or by helping to spread the word!
Let’s get to the fun stuff, the rewards!
- For the first 48 hours of the campaign, we’re offering an Early Bird special, a full digital subscription to all twelve issues of Mermaids Monthly for the year, at $25.
- At 400 backers, we’re going to host a watch party of Ponyo by Studio Ghibli!
- We’re thrilled to have a range of gorgeous and cute rewards for a range of budgets: pins, stickers, stunning sea-themed jewelry, a custom Spotify playlist, and more.
- While physical rewards won’t ship until next year (and sorry in advance for any shipping delays!), we’re giving out digital gift cards for physical items that you can include if you’re planning on giving any of these rewards to someone.
- Speaking of gifts, digital subscriptions make awesome gifts for the mermaid fan in your life! We have a special “Tails for Twins” pack that includes two of everything–for you and a friend, with a digital gift card you can send to your giftee.
Thanks for reading. We’re super excited to continue the Mermaids Monthly voyage. If you’d like, please check out our Kickstarter campaign, follow us on Twitter @MermaidsMonthly, or on Facebook at Facebook.com/MermaidsMonthly.
Miyuki Jane Pinckard is a writer, game designer, educator, and the co-publisher of Mermaids Monthly. Her fiction can be found in Strange Horizons, Uncanny Magazine, Flash Fiction Online, and other venues. She likes wine and mystery novels and karaoke.
Noelle Singh is a multimedia artist and baking enthusiast, with a love of nature, specifically the ocean. She earned an art degree and double minor in environmental science and media, society & the arts. She got her SCUBA certification while studying coral reef biology and ecology abroad. She enjoys curling up in her grotto with her catfish and a good book. https://twitter.com/LibitinaSinistr
Hey, remember back when people used to go to science fiction conventions and hang out, and go to panels and get autographs and do all those things? Well, I do! And it turns out I’ll be doing that again, actually sooner than later. Attending DragonCon over Labor Day weekend convinced me it was possible to make conventions work so long as the conventions had and followed appropriate “mask and vaxx” policies, and also, I just got my vaccine booster shot so my immunological response to the COVID virus is topped up (I also recently got my flu shot, too, because flu sucks). So I went ahead and booked a series of conventions and events leading up to the release of The Kaiju Preservation Society in March. What are they? I’m glad you asked!
December 3-5: Emerald City Comic Con. I have a few panels and signings — here is the exact schedule. We may also have a few ARCs of Kaiju to give away, but we’re still working on that so don’t quote me as confirming that. It’s been several years since I’ve attended ECCC so I’m looking forward to seeing folks in the Seattle area again.
December 15 – 19: Discon III, the 79th World Science Fiction Convention — This year marks the very first time Worldcon has happened in December (you can thank COVID, of course), and I’ll be there because, among other things, my Interdependency series of books is nominated for a Hugo. Will it win? I have no idea! At this point my feeling is “Cool if I win, cool if I don’t,” because winning Hugos is fun and all, but all the other finalists for Best Series are pretty great, so if one of them wins, that’ll be just fine. Also, as I remind people, if I win, I’ll be “Hugo winner John Scalzi,” and if I don’t win, I’ll be “Hugo winner John Scalzi,” so. I will say that if I do win, the chances are very high I will accept wearing a Christmas elf suit, so if you want to see that, you should probably hope people voted for me (the Hugo voting is now closed). I’ll be on a few panels and doing some autographing and DJing a dance.
January 21 – 23, 2022: Rising Confusion — this Detroit-area event is my “home” convention and I’ve attended in person every year since 2005, not counting this year when they didn’t have it because, you know, plague and all. At this very moment I have not been scheduled for any programming (and as a general rule I keep my programming schedule pretty light for this one), but there’s a pretty good chance I’ll be doing some sort of thing whilst I am there other than just sitting in the bar. Stay tuned.
February 3 -6, 2022: Capricon 42 — This is in downtown Chicago, one of my favorite cities in the world. Rumor has it I may be DJing a dance, and who knows, I might do some other stuff, too. More as we go along.
March 5 – 12, 2022: JoCo Cruise — There has been no official announcement at this moment regarding performers, etc, and I’m not going to get ahead of those announcements in any way. But I can confirm that I will be on the boat, if for no other reason than I enjoy nerdery on the high seas, and I miss seeing friends there.
The Kaiju Preservation Society launches on March 15, 2022, and Tor’s PR folks are working on if/how/where promotional events will happen after that — well, “if” is already a foregone conclusion; we’re totally going to have events. It’s the “how” and “when” they’re working on.
Basically, the next few months look… almost pre-COVID in terms of me being busy with events! Which I am not going to complain about today. I like the idea that I, and we, are starting to go back into the world.
That said, you’ll notice (if you visit the sites of all of these conventions), that they all have pretty rigorous masking and vaxxing/testing policies, and indeed nearly all events in the science fiction/nerd world at this point have these policies. So if you want to go to conventions and nerd events: Go get that shot and mask up, okay? It would be lovely to see you out in the world.
The CDC and the USDA opened up COVID booster shots to everyone over the age of 18 yesterday, so guess what I did this morning? If you guessed “thought deeply about your mortality and your place in the universe,” then yes, in an rather abstract sense, I suppose I might have, but more specifically, I got a third dose of the Pfizer vaccine to ensure I have maximum coverage through the holiday season and beyond. Krissy went with me as well; it was like a morning date, to a CVS, to be jabbed with needles. And after I was done I bought myself a bag of gummi candies, because I was a very brave boy this morning getting a shot and all, and I deserved candy.
I got the booster shot because it was recommended by medical experts, and I have this thing where I actually do think it’s useful to listen to the experts about vaccines, and not, say, podcast hosts or virulently racist and/or performatively ignorant politicians. Beyond this, the holidays are coming up and most of us are about to spend more time indoors with more people, so a boost to one’s immune response makes sense to get right about now. Also, and this is specific to me, I live in a county where, still, less than 35% of the population is fully vaccinated. This number is unlikely to go much higher because this is a county that votes for and listens to virulently racist and/or performatively ignorant politicians, and unfortunately goes all in for the whole ecosystem of nonsense that comes along with that. Given these facts, it made sense to get an extra added layer of immunological protection once it became available.
I should be clear I didn’t worry too much about being significantly incapacitated by the COVID virus before this booster shot. I was already vaccinated and I don’t have any real comorbidities that would have complicated matters. I have been out in the world fairly significantly in this second half of the year, participating in major conventions and events. I regularly go into town for errands and shopping. It’s been fine. That said, I’m also well aware that “I’m pretty sure I have a good immune system” and “so far, so good,” are things people who are about to be unpleasantly surprised say. Plus there’s the fact that, at 52 years of age, regardless of my general physical health, I need to have a healthy (heh) respect for the truth that my body is, alas, less robust than it used to be. Getting a booster shot took a hour out of my day, during which I did errands I needed to do anyway. And now I am even better protected against a virus which is still killing people, and giving others who survive it substantial long-term health issues. There really was no downside. And it was free!
I regret that COVID happened at all, and that it first hit when we had a real chunderheaded dingus as president, who set the stage to politicize an effective treatment to end a pandemic. I also regret we live in a world where a substantial number of people seem to truly believe that there are microchips in a vaccine, and that a treatment designed to kill parasites in livestock will do anything against a virus. But it did, he did and we do, respectively, and now we just have to deal with it. The best way to deal with it, on an individual level, at least, is to get vaccinated if you can and have not done so already (or complete your vaccination if you’ve started), and to get a booster if you’re over 18 and it’s been six months since your second shot. It’ll make a difference for you, for the people around you, and hopefully in time for the nation and world. And then you’ll also be less likely to spend some portion of the holidays sick as hell, which is a not insignificant thing, either.
Go get that booster, folks. You’ll be happy you did.
Krissy, Athena and I went to Cleveland to see the multimedia Van Gogh exhibit (it was lovely) and while we were there for that, decided to take a short family holiday. It was delightful and I really do recommend taking a short holiday with your own family now and then if you can manage it (and, you know, like your family).
Mind you, a side effect of a weekday holiday is coming back to business to attend to, which I’ve been doing since we returned, and will do more of once I’m done posting this. But I thought you’d enjoy the photos. Today is a good day for a couple of quiet bits of beauty.
Because don’t I deserve breakfast cake? Yes I do! And so do you! Probably. I mean, you could have been a real shit to someone recently, in which case, no cake for you. But otherwise: Cake away!
I’m doing a family thing for the rest of the day so I’ll see you all here tomorrow. At least you have cake to get you through until then.
From a deleted post on r/explainlikeimfive that asked, “What makes a book a New York Times Best Seller and how does almost every book I read have this award?” The answers there were not, shall we say, entirely informed, so I chimed in. The post was deleted because the person who posted it did not confirm to the subreddit rules in some way, so I’m reposting my answer here, for archival purposes. Here’s what I wrote:
So, actual New York Times best selling novelist here.
One: The New York Times list very generally tracks sales, but also employs other criteria in order to mitigate “gaming,” — so, for example, they tend to disregard “bulk buys” of a book and will otherwise asterisk books they think have manipulated sales. Gaming the list is a moving target, so the criteria change over time. The point of the list is to give a snapshot of what people are actually purchasing but also, hopefully, reading (or at least giving to others to read).
Two: The number of books needed to get onto the list vary from week to week because one’s book is ranked against other books selling that week. I have two books that sold a roughly equal amount of units, and one made the NYT list and one didn’t, presumably because of how other books were selling that particular week.
Three: There’s also more than one list, and the lists cover various criteria. I’ve been on the Mass Market Paperback, Hardcover, Combined Print/EBook and Audiobook lists (all in fiction). Some lists are more difficult to get on than others and some have more “prestige” than others (Hardcover being the most prestigious for various historical reasons).
Four: Rumors of publishers gaming the list are (generally) more exaggerated than not. Remember from point 1 that the NYT actively mitigates for gaming, so tricks rarely work (or work for long). Be that as it may, when I go on a book tour, often the first few stops are to bookstores who are known to be polled by the NYT regarding sales. I still have to sell the books, mind you, to actual people who usually then want to read it. That’s acceptable, where “bulk buying” is not.
The idea that publishers go out of their way to buy copies of their authors’ books in order to get into the lists doesn’t have much relation to reality. First, it’s not an efficient way to spend marketing money, especially on a world where publishers can micro-target their advertising on social media. Second, it’s a strategy that would lead to an escalation, because everyone would do it and then you’d need ever-increasing piles of “sales” to get on lists, and eventually that becomes self-defeating. Third, I think people outside publishing wildly overestimate the amount of money publishers are willing to spend marketing individual books in general. Outside of a highly rarified stratum of authors and books, most books’ marketing budgets are modest – including those of books which sometimes end up on the lists.
Five: It is absolutely correct that publishers use “NYT Bestseller” for marketing, because, bluntly, it works – people often like knowing that they’re not going out on a limb and that something they’re thinking of buying had the implicit endorsement of others. This is the “50 million Elvis fans can’t be wrong!” angle. That said, no, something (or someone) being an NYT Bestseller is not an assurance of quality, other than in the most basic “this author was competent enough to sell to a publisher in the first place” way. Lots of crap is popular and lots of high quality stuff barely sells. It goes the other way, too, mind you. You won’t necessarily know by the “NYT Bestseller” bug on the cover.
Six: Finally, Bestseller lists, NYT and otherwise, are snapshots of what is selling at a particular time and under certain particular criteria, and lots of things are missed. Literally tens of thousands of sales I made of my last book were not counted for that book’s NYT Bestseller list placement, because they were in audio, not print/EBook (which was the list it ended up on). Likewise, my bestselling book of all time has never been on any major bestseller list at all. It just keeps selling a healthy amount, week after month after year, for a decade and a half. You can be a very very successful author indeed, and barely hit the lists.
Hope this is useful.
Music inspires us, moves us, and in some ways inhabits us and has the power to change our lives. It’s this power that Patrick Swenson draws upon for his new novel Rain Music — that, and something else as well.
When I began teaching over thirty years ago, it was to teach music. Some who know me may not actually have realized this. I trained in college to be a high school band teacher, and for the first nine years of my teaching career I did just that. During college I also took a concentration of courses in music composition. I had a few compositions performed in concert, including a concerto for trombone and piano. Later, I wrote a processional for brass quintet for a best friend’s wedding.
Music can be programmatic. It has at its heart an almost palpable need to be communicated, like a story. While teaching high school band, I wrote a long five-movement composition for wind ensemble called Memoria in Eterna, based on the classic SF novel A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, who makes the case that history is cyclical, alternating between creation and destruction. My own high school band performed Memoria at a final concert, and a fellow teacher had his students produce a slide show to project over the band during the performance. Like history, music is cyclical. The question is: can we change the cycle? Can we, as H.G. Wells once asked, change the shape of things to come?
Music’s long been in my blood. It’s something I’ll never let go of, even though I’ve now been teaching high school English for the last two-thirds of my career and haven’t touched an instrument (other than my piano) for a long time.
But still. It’s there. In my blood is the power of music—the magic of music—and this is something I wholeheartedly believe to be true. Music is uplifting and cathartic. It can also be harrowing and bring tears to your eyes. (Try listening to Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima by Krzysztof Pendercki and tell me you’re not shocked and moved by it.)
In my novel Rain Music, the music becomes my main character’s secret weapon against a coming darkness when he attempts to write his own symphony. His muse—a voice he hears only when it rains—sings a song that has him so enthralled that he uses it for his symphony’s main melody. There comes a time when he believes he can pull magic from it not only to defeat the dark mage of the story, but to regain his own memories.
I wanted to weave the positives of music with its darker possibilities to represent the uncertainty of one’s life. In music there are “accidentals”: markings that can quickly change the key and the tone of a piece for a short while. Then there are sudden stops (caesuras) and grand pauses. There are words—directions in musical scores—such as forte, and piano, and rubato, which can redirect the pace of music in an instant (or over several minutes).
There’s a phrase in music history: Diabolus in Musica, which means “The Devil in Music.” It refers to a musical interval (called the tritone) that clergy in the Middle Ages considered devilish. The idea came about when they attempted to represent, in music, the idea of the Holy Trinity. There was something evil in it, something corrupt, and the devil’s interval was banned from churches. Truman, my protagonist, must learn to harness the many facets of music, including its hidden, secret ones. He attempts to build his own trinity of music.
My first teaching job was at a small K-12 school on the Olympic Peninsula, in Quinault, Washington, smack dab in the middle of the rainforest, where it rains a good twelve feet of rain a year. (It was a good place to . . . ahem . . . get my feet wet.) It is also a place I’ve gone back and back to, and now is the site of my annual Rainforest Writers retreat. I started the retreat because it was important to offer a spot for writers to focus on solitary and community writing in an isolated environment, supported by a collective of contemporaries of like mind and pursuits.
I know how hard it is (particularly with a day job) to get time to sit down and let words pour out. Over thirty years ago, I breathed in the music of Quinault. Much of what happened during the years I lived there slipped into this book. There is something magical that drenches me each year out in Quinault during the retreat, and it keeps me plugging away on my writing, even as it moved me to finish this very personal book. When I started it, the story was going to be set in the Quinault of the 1990s, during the heart of the controversy surrounding the timber industry, old growth forests, and the spotted owl. So much time passed, and so much restructuring of this novel happened, that I had to summon the magic of friends and other writers to not only help set it firmly in the present, but also splice in the past, as if the story were set in two places at the same time.
There’s some of that in the book. If we listen hard enough, I know we can hear the music of the spheres. The echoes. We can cycle back. We can reset.
Who knows what magic the rain and music will bring?
It feels like it’s been a while since I’ve posted a sunset picture here, so, hey! Look! It’s a sunset! And a lovely one, too, with orange clouds and the sun through branches and everything. You’re welcome. I’ll try to get in a few more before we finally roll 2021 up and chuck it out the window.
Also, as a general note, things are both good and interesting in my life at the moment, and the two don’t always sync up — “good” is often uninteresting, and “interesting” is not always good — but recently they have. I’m liking it. It does mean that for the moment a substantial amount of my attention is focused on the offline world, which has meant generally brief updatery here. This is how it sometimes is, which is why I’m letting you know: All is well! Pretty darn well, actually. Hope everything is well for you, too.
Writing a novel is often a journey, and in writing You Sexy Thing, author Cat Rambo discovered that their journey was taking them to some surprising but welcome places. Let’s retrace the journey, shall we?
For me one of the big ideas behind You Sexy Thing is its genre. I started it as military fantasy, but it turned into space opera along the way, which made me happy because space opera is big and beautiful and full of amazing sparkly bits. But beyond that, I strongly believe that it’s hopepunk, a newish name for a genre that has been around for a long time, narratives centered on the idea of found family, acceptance, and community, that also speak to a rejection of corporate-sponsored values and capitalism’s heavy handed stories.
Hopepunk’s not anti-reality, but it’s trying to show a reality that highlights the parts that draw us together in our fight against the darkness. It’s a genre that practices what it preaches, by modeling acts of community and kindness. Hopepunk posits that being kind is one of the most revolutionary things a human being can do in today’s world of corporate callousness, performative cruelty, and divisiveness. Kindness, hopepunk says, is essential if we want to survive as a species.
I first learned about hopepunk from this essay by Alexandra Rowland. I ended up incorporating it in a class I was teaching, All the Punks, which covered cyberpunk, steampunk, biopunk, solarpunk, splatterpunk, and more. It was interesting, but part of the large crowd of “-punk” genres and so it only got a fraction of the class time.
But even after the class was over, I kept thinking about hopepunk and the ideas underlying it. I ended up turning the section on it from that class into a workshop of its own, Writing Stories that Change the World, which looks at length at the reasons for writing hopepunk, as well as some of the tools for doing so. By now I’ve taught that class a dozen times, and every time I come away having learned something from teaching it.
I employed some of those accumulated tools while working on the book, particularly in thinking about creating a cast that had plenty of places for readers to see themselves, as well as one whose members manage to be distinctive without ever becoming stereotypes. And I took one of the things that I always tell my students, to write the sort of story they’d joyfully devour, full of the tropes and tricks they love in other author’s writing.
I firmly believe that stories can change the world, but I also think that one of the main ways they can do so is by teaching joy and kindness and hope, and an attitude that venerates and valorizes, rather than sneering at, such things. Niko and the others are former soldiers who’ve turned their talents to something constructive, and it’s a goal that they continue to pursue even in the face of explosions, space pirates, and the destruction of everything they’ve created.
The story’s not set in the near future, but in the far far future, with a universe in which humans are only a small minority, contending with a few other species that have come from Old Earth, most notably chimpanzees and dolphins. Only two of my cast are human, and having a group that ranges all over the place lets me create a wide, distinctive and hopefully engaging array. Niko and her crew show that a group full of differences can work together as a team, and that the whole of that team is much more than the sum of its parts.
I’m working on book three now, and following the journey of You Sexy Thing has been one of the most joyous things in my life. I hope you enjoy reading the book as much as I did writing it.
Here’s a surprise. Take a bookish Jewish girl from New York, one who knew nothing about sailing, whaling, harpoons, but a lot about the city (Manhattan, not the boroughs) and ballet shoes and horses; growing up taking subways and poetry and could recite the “Jabberwocky” with gusto. But around 4th grade someone handed her Moby Dick. Would you be surprised if I tell you that is just what happened to me, and for the next 30 years or so, I re-read Moby Dick approximately every one to two years. I didn’t reread a lot of books, but this massive, in some ways seemingly seamless and in other ways clearly un-edited book, tolled in me like a bell.
About the time I stopped re-reading it on a regular basis, maybe dropping to once every five years, after I had published about 100 books of my own with major presses, I had a dream. In that dream a young Nantucket boy, Josiah, who lives in the mid 1800s, whose father is first mate on a whaling ship that is already a half a year overdue, whose mother is lying sick abed for quite some time, hears a knock on their cottage door in the early morning. Josiah rushes to open the door, where a weather-beaten stranger stands. It’s a small island, Nantucket, where everyone knows everyone. Josiah does not know this man.
In the dream I am leaning over Josiah’s shoulder. I am not his mother. And I don’t know the man either. “Who are you?” Josiah asks. “Call me Ishmael…” says the man. And I crash out of the dream and think about this gift that has just been given to me. I know who the man is— and I know who Josiah is: first Mate Starbuck’s son. What I don’t know is how to unfold the story.
I wrestled on and off for years with this notion, this not-formed story, which I called in my head Moby Dick v. Robinson Crusoe, for it was problematic. As the boy Josiah is the major character, the book needs to be a middle grade book, i.e., it can’t be as long or as sophisticated or as discursive on as many subjects as Moby Dick. But it was the amount of research necessary that bogged me down. I am, not a sailor, and don’t know the technical stuff….and the book needed a LOT of technical stuff to come alive. Not easy to disguise.
Readers, I put the idea of the book and the dream away.
I published two hundred more books. I ran SFWA. I had grandchildren who were fast growing up. I buried my beloved husband David who died of cancer holding my hand. I went through fifteen years of widowhood NOT thinking about the Moby Dick book. My book count rose to 400. And right as covid was putting us in our places, I re-met a man, Peter Tacy, whom I had dated in college, he at Williams, me at Smith. He was now a widower of five years. He had been in boats all his life, small boats and big boats. Peter was a teacher who taught Moby Dick every year to his Independent School students. He had been Commodore of the Stonington Ct. Yacht Club for two years around the time I was running SFWA. He is funny and brilliant and knows damned near everything, and he loves the Oxford Comma.
Readers—I married him.
And then I remembered the book idea.
I re-read Moby Dick, we went over charts that Peter found for me, that show how to sail around Nantucket. He taught me weather stuff, wind stuff, how to trim sails. He read the manuscript and made sure the way my boy sails his catboat (Peter even found me pictures of catboats of the period) was realistic. And that’s how Arch of Bone finally got written.
This is one of those “wait, what?” deaths, in that Petra as I knew her was so absolutely full of life and energy that the idea all of that would come to a sudden stop is a little breath-taking. I knew Petra through science fiction and through the JoCo Cruise, where she was always in attendance when I DJed a dance. The fact that she enthusiastically flew the science fiction and fantasy flag at NPR meant that I and quite a few other writers got more serious attention paid to our work than we might otherwise have gotten. She was definitely one of the behind-the-scenes movers in nudging genre literature closer to the mainstream. She should be honored and remembered for that. But I will mostly remember her as my friend.
The first substantial snowfall of the season. I prefer the first snowfall to happen after Thanksgiving, but I guess the weather doesn’t actually care about my needs or wants, so. Here it is, mostly in slow motion, because it’s prettier that way. I go now to hibernate until April.
My previous keyboard, which I have had for a few years and have written at least three novels on, developed an alarming list on the right side of its space bar; it was suddenly catching and not releasing. Which meant it was time for a new keyboard — or at least, now I had an excuse to get a new keyboard, which I was thinking of getting for a few months now anyway. I selected a Razer Huntsman Analog keyboard, which promised durability (each key rated for millions of keystrokes, or so I was informed), and also a host of gaming-specific bells and whistles which I may or may not ever use.
Now it’s here and the thing I notice most about it is how loud and clicky it is. There are a lot of keyboard nerds who love a satisfying clack to their keyboards; I’m not sure I am one of them. But aside from the clack, the keyboard action is good. The keys depress slightly further than I am used to, and it’s throwing me off a bit; I suspect it will take me a day or two to get entirely used to.
I got exactly one photo of this new keyboard before a cat came up and started depositing hair on it; if you look at the photo above you can see the first of what I assume will be many cat hairs, there on the “D” key. I thought I might have the keyboard for longer than five minutes before a cat started shedding on it, but no. This is what I get for having four cats, I suppose.
In any event: New keyboard. If you notice a few more spelling errors over the next couple of days, that’s the excuse I am using for making them. Indulge me, please.