I’m doing a series of articles on Star Wars for the Dayton Daily News; the first one is here (there’s registration required; I suggest bugmenot), and there will be a couple more leading up to the release of Revenge of the Sith next Thursday. This one talks about the various Star Wars controversies, from Ewoks to Jar-Jar, and I’m pleased with the results, although I’m sad my reference to the Endor Holocaust didn’t make it through the editing for space. That’s life in the newspaper biz. The art for the story takes up the top two thirds of the front page of the Life section. Groovy.
As much as I’m now pretty much barnacled into the online writing lifestyle, I have to say that I still really enjoy seeing my writing in the local newspaper. I’m not one of those people who thinks local newspapers are going the way of the dodo; I think online news will kill off a lot of bad newspapers — the pointless ones that just run wire copy and don’t serve as anything more than a carrier for the local supermarket ads — and since bad newspapering offends me, I’m not exactly going to shed a tear about that. But I think smart, locally-engaged newspapers will always remain in one form or another because they quite simply fill a need for their community, and speaking as a writer I like to keep a hand in that.
And I’d still love to have another newspaper column, too; much of that urge has been subsumed or obviated my the Whatever, but I still love the idea of raising a ruckus on a local, concentrated level. If the Daily News ever asked me to write one, I wouldn’t think twice about it before saying yes; some part of my brain still sees that as the symbol of arriving as a writer. I think I’ll drop a hint to them the next time I’m down there.
Whether or not that ever happens, it’s still a kick to open the paper and see my byline. Once a newspaperman, always a newspaperman.
I was going to post something longer, but a very nasty thunderstorm is bearing down and we have a severe thunderstorm alert until 10pm, and I’ll be powering down the computers as a precaution. Instead, I present two pictures just I took as we were on the porch, watching the storm roll on in. See you on the other side of it.
I know, for a guy who says he’s taking the day off, I sure keep updating a lot. But I thought you’d like to see the new cover art of the trade paperback edition of Old Man’s War and the cover art for The Ghost Brigades, both of which were sent to me by Tor, I can only surmise, as a birthday present. Yay! The new artist is John Harris, who has previously done covers for folks like Orson Scott Card and Ben Bova. There is worse company to be in. Anyway, here they are.
Actually, before I take the day off for my birthday, let me suggest a meme to propogate while I’m gone:
Pair up a picture with a song that best describes the picture (or vice versa). “Best decribes” being open to interpretation — it could literally describe what’s going on in the picture, or it could be a piece of music that invokes a feeling you associate with the picture, or whatever. Also, you can just name the song, if you think it’s something most people will recognize.
Here is my picture, and the song that goes with it:
36 today. 35 was largely a good year; I thank it for its service. 36 will hopefully carry on the tradition. Also, now that I am past the midpoint of my 30s, I have to say that it’s shaping up to be a damn fine decade. As with last year, I check to see if I have any deep insight into the world to share with you all, and once again the answer is: Well, no, not really. Be nice to each other. Floss. Don’t eat that fifth donut. Aside from that, I got nothin’.
I’m taking the rest of the day off; if you want to do the same, that’s your call.
How much wood would a woodchuck chuck, if a woodchuck could chuck wood?
You know, I actually wrote an article about that.
(goes to bookshelf, pulls down the book for which I wrote the article, goes to the page the article is on)
Says here that woodchucks do chuck wood, if you give them wood to chuck, which researchers at Cornell have in fact done. Also, naturalist Richard Thomas estimated that if woodchucks chucked as much wood as they chuck dirt while making their homes, it would be 35 cubic meters, or about 700 pounds. So there you are.
Occasionally I am asked if I believe in Jesus. My standard answer to this is “as much as I believe in evolution,” which serves the dual purpose of both answering in the affirmative and usually annoying the person who asks the question. There is no doubt that Jesus lived; I have no doubt Jesus died, and did so with the belief he was doing so for the sins of the world. Whatever one feels about the divinity of Jesus, this is a staggering assumption of moral responsibility, in the face of which one must feel humbled. I’ve read the words of Jesus, to benefit from his wisdom and also to try to understand this most influential of men.
I also read his words to understand the actions of some of those who claim to be his followers, and who are, at the moment and alas, trying to jam a certain suspect iteration of “Christianity” down the throats of all the rest of us — “all the rest of us” being non-believers, believers in other faiths and those Christians whose understanding of the teaching of Jesus does not appear to require such militant intolerance as is being practiced by this evanescently powerful minority.
As far as I can tell, the primary source of power for this group lies not in the teachings of Jesus, since what they do has little to do with that, but the simple fact that they feel they own Jesus, and have been reasonably successful in propagating the idea that their particular perspective on his teachings is both predominant and correct, neither of which is necessarily true. Nevertheless, by implicitly and explicitly claiming ownership of Jesus, these folks have made any attack on their agenda or their practices an attack on Jesus, using Him as a flak guard for policies and practices that would, frankly, appall this shepherd of all men.
Well, of course, these people don’t own Jesus. He died for the sins of the whole world. Nor do they have a corner on the understanding of his words or his work. The Jesus I know and whose words I have read and striven to understand would not sign off on a much of the agenda of those who now parade Him around like a fetish, and in doing so have created this other Jesus, a vacuous, empty vessel for an uncharitable worldview.
But this implicitly asks a question: What would the Jesus I know do, confronted by this Fetish Jesus? Would he fight him? Argue with him? Denounce him? Engage in a mystical battle of miracles?
The answer is: None of the above, of course. The Jesus I know would do the hardest thing imaginable: He would forgive.
He would forgive this Jesus, who inspires His followers to persecute those they fear.
He would forgive this Jesus, who would demand His followers declare some people unfit to love, to care for children, to serve their nation, or to be full members of their society.
He would forgive this Jesus, who appears happy not only to let His followers be blind to the natural miracles around them — the subtle handiwork of God that took billions of years to achieve — but also to force their blindness on everyone, in His name.
He would forgive this Jesus, whose followers reflect His high opinion of His own righteousness without the appropriate reflection or doubt, and who aren’t shy about letting others know that fact.
He would forgive this Jesus the overweening pride He feels in saving His followers, and the pride His followers feel in being saved, a pride they believe sets them above all others, even though pride famously goes before the fall.
He would forgive this Jesus the idea that all of His flock must act, think, and vote a certain way at all times, without exception, or they are not one of His flock.
He would forgive this Jesus the small ways He tries, though His followers, to denigrate, isolate and diminish those who do not conform to His whims.
He would forgive this Jesus all large ways he tries, through His followers, to hurt, humiliate and destroy those who fight to keep their own point of view.
He would forgive this Jesus the fact that He has stood by while His followers have lost the view of the Kingdom of Heaven, in a drive to gain treasure in this world — even as the least among them suffered.
And finally, He would forgive this Christ the loss of His divine self that comes from allowing His name to devolve into a shibboleth for grasping opportunists, a bludgeon to cow those who are doubtful of the wisdom of His followers’ agenda, and a mask to hide unethical practices that have nothing to do with the Gospel and promises of the next world, and everything to do with mere, banal power in this one. He would forgive that this Jesus had diminished Their mutual name, the beauty of Their message, and the astonishing power of Their sacrifice, two millennia in the past, a sacrifice for all people, not just this small and frightened tribe who demands that they and only they know Jesus and what He wants.
What an act of forgiveness this would be! And what an act of forgiveness for the rest of us to attempt to emulate.
This is what I will try to do from now on. When someone confronts me with the proposition that their faith in Jesus demands intolerance, ignorance or fear, I will simply say “My Jesus forgives your Jesus these things.” And when they become indignant and retort that there is only one Jesus, I’ll probably say “you don’t say,” and let it hang there in the air a good long time. And when they come back at me with more intolerance, ignorance and fear, I’ll just remind them again that my Jesus forgives their Jesus these things.
At no point will I cede ownership of Jesus to these people, or the idea that the Jesus I know supports the intolerance, ignorance or fear they claim He does. They don’t own Jesus, and I strongly believe He doesn’t support their intolerance, ignorance or fear. And I think it’s perfectly reasonable to let these folks know this, in a way that explicitly undercuts the proposition that they hold the monopoly on understanding Jesus.
If you feel the same way, then you might consider doing the same thing. Proudly proclaim your relationship with Jesus, in whatever form that may take, and let everyone know the Jesus you know is not who they claim Him to be; He’s someone better. Reclaim Jesus for yourself. He’s not private property, His words aren’t copyrighted, and He’s not the exclusive trademark of religious conservatives. He’s yours if you want Him.
And when they get angry at you for doing it, the solution is simple: Forgive them. That’s what the Jesus I know would do.
(Like the “bumperstickers” with this entry? Here, have them — use them however you want. My gift to you.)
Overall I like Tiger, but it’s not life-changer, and I certainly don’t feel the paroxysms of joy over it that other people seem to have felt. I was on the phone with Krissy yesterday after I had installed Tiger and she asked me how it was. I assured her that once I installed it, it optimized my Mac, paid my taxes, resolved my long-standing parental issues and whipped up a light and tasty cheese soufflé. She was skeptical. Well, and who can blame her.
Some more detailed thoughts:
* Clearly, if I’ve managed to download and install the Creatures in My Head widget, I’ve figured out how to play with Tiger’s most-hyped-yet-fundamentally-pointless feature, which is the dashboard. It’s a fun little thing, to be sure, but as others have noted, it doesn’t seem fully baked to me; it basically seems like a way for people to feel clever and arch with their computer, the best example of this being the hula girl widget. Look! A hula girl! Aren’t I wacky and non-conformist! Now excuse me, but I have to get back to writing this ad copy for this here mutual fund. No, I don’t have the hula girl widget on my computer. That’s just silly. I mean, I like the dashboard, but I’m not necessarily convinced it should be a cornerstone achievement of a new operating system.
* Spotlight is rather more useful — useful enough that I’m already frustrated with it because I want it to be able to index files on the network as well, since most of my files are still on my PC although accessible through my Mac. Last night while compiling some information for the Science Fiction film book, I ended up dragging the book’s folder onto the Mac, so Spotlight could index it and I could use it and I could use it track down particular movies. If you’re doing something like that within a few hours of installing an application, that tells you the application is useful. There do seem to be some limitations to Spotlight, but I need to play with it some more to see if those limitations are inherent in the application or inherent in me not knowing how to use the application. But in the short term, at least, thumbs up.
* Other improvements that Tiger brings to the Mac OS are less obvious to me, in part because I’ve only had my Mac for a couple of weeks and the OS’s flaws and problems were not made apparent to me in that time. Most of my “heavy lifting” applications reside on my PC — for example, all of my Photoshopping is done on the Windows Box — with the Mac being used for e-mail, some Web browsing and writing, and it seems to handle those tasks well enough. I also like Safari’s implementation of RSS support, although Firefox is still my browser of choice on the Mac. Other features of the OS, such as the support for video conferencing, mean little to me at the moment since I don’t have the Apple video cam, and it’s unlikely I’m going to shell out $129 or whatever an iSight costs for the purpose of jabbering online.
Overall: B. It’s nice, but at the moment, only Spotlight is doing much for me. I suppose if I were a hardened MacHead, I’d be more impressed with the overall package, but since I’m not, and I had my moment of initial Mac joy a couple of weeks ago, this update is merely an incremental boost. I’m still very happy with my Mac, mind you — it’s quickly become my primary computer (although, ironically, I’m currently writing this on the PC because I still don’t have any useful photo software installed on the Mac). But if I could simply have gotten Spotlight a la carte, I’d probably have done that.
The bulk of The Rough Guide to Science Fiction was finished last month, but I shipped off the last of the “canon” pieces last night — meaning the 50 reviews of the science fiction films every human should see, and which are the centerpiece of the book (the last one I wrote up: Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which I feel is significant but also vastly overrated). in the book proposal, these 50 reviews were supposed to clock in at 20,000 words; I ended up writing 32,000 words, and probably could have written more had I not forced myself to keep some of the reviews as short as possible. But no matter how you slice it, I overwrote this section by about 50%.
Which is actually the case with the entire book: It was originally envisioned at about 80,000 words and I ended up sending along about 120,000. My editors are doing their thing now, trimming the book down, but no matter what it’s likely to be 20% to 30% longer than we envisioned. Why? Simple: There’s so damn much to write about in science fiction film, and even at 120,000 words, I feel like there are still gaps in the text. In the next few days I’ll be going through the book’s “thumbnail” reviews (most under 100 words) and looking to see which science fiction films I’ve missed that I’d look like a fool for not including (“You idiot! How could you forget The Forbin Project?!??!?”), and I expect I’ll probably want to add at least another 50 or so before my poor editors grab them from me, kicking and screaming, and tell me to go away so they can do the layout of the book, already. At some point sufficiency is the order of the day. I’ll just hope that any big gaping holes I see will be invisible to the rest of you. Hey, it worked for the Universe book. I do know that the very last day I’ll add something to the book will be May 19th, when I have to dash off a couple of paragraphs about Revenge of the Sith, since it would be stupid not to include it in the book. After that, it’s out of my hands.
It helps that I actually think this is a good book. As I’ve noted before, this book was supposed to jammed out in three months but it ended up taking close to nine because there was so much research to do; we not only hit science fiction film but have bracketing chapters to cover the entire history of science fiction as well as the current reach of science fiction in fields other than film. We cover a lot of ground. If nothing else, it’ll give a really value for the money and for the form factor: The books in Rough Guides movie have a small, square appearance — they’re kind of the MiniMac shape — and I think people who assume that a small book will mean a surfacey treatment of the subject may be surprised. There are worse things.
For this reason, I don’t really think I overwrote the book; I have many flaws as a writer but writing more than I absolutely have to has not been one of them. I wrote more than I thought I would, but I wrote as much as I think the subject needed in the time I had to do it. Hopefully, it’ll be enough.
Update: Before I forget: The Rough Guide to Science Fiction Film has a tentative release date of September 29, 2005. In the UK, anyway. I don’t know what the US release date is, but since my other Rough Guide books were released simultaneously in both countries, I can’t imagine it would be substantially different this time.
Got an e-mail today from a reader who asked me what I thought about writing “on spec,” and being the helpful sort of person I am, I thought I’d address it.
For those of you who don’t know what “on spec” means, it simply means that you are writing something for a publication without the promise, implied or explicit, that the publication is going to buy it from you after you’ve finished it. Basically, as a writer, you’re taking a shot in the dark and hoping the editor says “nice aim.”
The fact that this person is asking about writing “on spec” at all suggests they are coming from the world of non-fiction writing, since writing on spec is so much the standard in fiction that as far as I know very few writers even think about the fact that is what they’re doing. It’s utterly non-controversial. For example, later on this year I’ll be acting as an editor for Subterranean Magazine and opening the doors for fiction submissions. All of those submissions will be “on spec” — which is to say that their writers hope I buy their submission but haven’t been guaranteed anything. If I don’t buy the piece, it’ll be a bummer, but then the writers will do what fiction writers have done since the beginning of time: Stuff that story in another envelope and send the story to the next editor in the line, and repeat the process until either the story gets bought or the writer runs out of editors. It’s relatively rare that a fiction story is so specific to a market that it couldn’t be sold somewhere else, especially if the writer is willing to do a little touch-up work.
Non-fiction is a different kettle of fish because in fact the writing is often specific to the market. If you’re writing a piece for (extreme case) Bug Crush Quarterly, the magazine by and for erotic bug crushing enthusiasts, there’s a somewhat reduced secondary market for the piece you might produce. Therefore writing on spec is a rather riskier proposition. This is why the submission process for most non-fiction markets is designed to reduce risk for both writers and editors: Non-fiction writers query with a story idea and previously-published story clips (if any) that are on point to the proposed story. The editor looks at the story idea and the clips and tries to determine whether this particular writer is a good fit for the story. If he or she is, usually (but not always) the writer is contracted to write the story for an agr)eed-upon fee, with something called a “kill fee” (i.e., a smaller sum if the piece is found unacceptable or is not run for whatever reason. If he or she is not a good fit, then the writer is out only the effort of writing a query, not of writing an entire piece.
(Kill fees in themselves are controverisal — not unreasonably writers feel that if they’ve done their job competently, their efforts should be rewarded no matter what happens to the piece. My personal opinion is that kill fees are acceptable if the piece is unsatisfactory or if the piece is still in the early stages, but otherwise you should get paid for what you write. When I’m an editor, this is how I structure my kill fees, and if you ever get a kill fee from me it’s not going to be a good thing for any future writer/editor relationship between us.)
By and large I think non-fiction should proceed as above, which is generally why I don’t do non-fiction on spec. Having said that, I’m not violently opposed to non-fiction markets saying that material written for them is on-spec through purchase, as long as such is made clear as possible. The Uncle John Bathroom Reader people, for example, buy all their material on spec from all their writers, even people like me who have been working with them for a reasonably long time (the exception being the Book of the Dumb books, for which I am the sole author, and for which, quite naturally, a contract was in place detailing conditions of acceptance of the work). The Uncle John folks have a contract which spells out their process, so as long as you read the contract, there are no surprises. So, you know, always read your contract (certainly no one should assume a “no on-spec” default in any event).
The Uncle John books are actually a good test case for writers as to whether writing non-fiction on spec makes sense for them. On one hand, there’s no guarantee that one’s work will sell to the Uncle John’s people. On the other hand, they pay well (better than some well-established magazines) and are willing to look at work from new writers, which some non-fiction markets are reluctant to do because the editors use clips to gauge the writer’s competence, and without clips they’re at a loss. So for a new writer needing to generate some experience, the Uncle John books (and other markets like them) might make sense. Likewise, for a writer who reliably bangs out competent work that makes editors happy, writing on spec my be a non-issue. I write on spec for Uncle John’s, but on the other hand I’ve been writing for them for several years now, know the editors and their expectations, and usually can hit the target. I’ve had pieces I’ve written for them go unbought, but as a percentage it’s low and so for me on average it’s a good deal.
But they are an exception to the rule for me, because I have the experience of working with them. I will say that with new markets I am rather less willing to write non-fiction on spec, because I’m at a point in my career that I know what I’m capable of writing, and I have enough of a track record with my work that an editor should feel reasonably assured I can do the writing. If an editor still feels that after nine books and fifteen years of supporting myself as a writer they still need to hedge their bets with me by requiring me to write on spec, I’m apt to see this as a warning flag about the editor instead of as an opportunity. As they say, your mileage may vary, depending on who you are and where you are in your writing career.
As I said, with fiction, by and large this isn’t an issue: Until you get to a certain point in your career where editors are pre-emptively asking you for work, everything (short fiction-wise, at least) is assumed to be on spec. With non-fiction, it’s a matter of judging the risks and rewards. If the rewards make sense for you as a writer, it might be worth the risk of putting together a piece that you might not be able to sell elsewhere. Whatever you do, make sure you understand clearly what you are doing and why, and what the upsides and downsides are for you and time you are spending (and possibly wasting). Of course, this is good advice in every situation in which you’re writing something.
So, I really enjoy reading other people’s friend lists on LiveJournal; it’s like being able being able to spectate in other cliques’ conversations without them even knowing you’re there. Also, it’s interesting to find out who your friends’ friends are when they’re not hanging around with you. I’ve even gone so far to bookmark Patrick Nielsen Hayden’s friends page because he’s already gone through all the trouble of “friending” interesting people, and by reading his feed, I don’t have to make the effort myself. I even get irritated with PNH when he “friends” a feed I’m not interested in — damn it, Patrick, you’re diluting my reading experience!
(I suppose I could simply replicate PNH’s feed on my own friend feed, minus the occasional feed I find pointless, but there’s something profoundly creepy about replicating someone’s feed nearly in toto, and anyway, PNH’s feed and mine already have a high enough incidence of repeatage as it is.)
So, my question for those of you with LiveJournal accounts: is this sort of “FriendBrowsing” that I’m doing at all the usual thing? I mean, it should be — all those friends pages are just there waiting to be read, all the better to help you form an opinion of the people whose friend pages they are — but maybe I’m just a freak or something (in this particular instance; let’s leave the issue of my general freakishness for another time). Also, to feed my pathology, if you do read other people’s friends pages, are there ones you recommend? I can always use another pile of reading material.
You know, if any of you ever hear me kvetching about my wife in any way, I hope you will do me the favor of immediately pummeling me with an athletic sock filled with hard, unripened oranges. I will deserve no less.
The coolest thing about my wife? The fact that she’s unspeakably hot is the absolute least interesting thing about her. Yes, I know I don’t deserve her. But then, who does?
Michelle Sagara West wrote up a very nice review of Old Man’s War in Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine this last month (you can find the review here), which includes an apt but somewhat surprising observation of the Whatever. She writes:
I always read “The Whatever,” a blog of longstanding in which Scalzi airs his somewhat direct opinions, some of which clash with mine, and many of which don’t. He has a very down-to-earth sense of humor, an endearing hubris, an adorable daughter, and a way with words that is almost entirely without poetry, and never without both humor and truth.
The phrase which got my attention is “almost entirely without poetry.” I know pretty much what she means — we don’t much cotton to any fru-fru talk ’round these here parts when a direct statement will do — and it is true that I don’t personally write much poetry, or at the very least don’t write much poetry that is of sufficient quality that I feel comfortable inflicting it upon others.
Be that as it may, I don’t want to give the impression that I can’t or won’t appreciate a poetic phrase or two when it comes around. To prove this assertion, and to up the percentage of poetry on the site an infinitesimally small amount, allow me to present the one poem I’ve ever written that’s worthy of public presentation (or re-present it, actually, as I put in on the site many years ago, but took it down in one of the site re-orgs). It combines classical literature and fractals, and really, you can’t beat that.
Yes, there’s a personal story behind it. No, I won’t tell you what it is. A guy should have some secrets.
There is no difference between far and near.
Perspective is all
A mountain and a rock that falls from its incline
Are shaped by the same forces
Separated only by scale
And the attentions of the observer.
I keep this in mind as I unravel my work
And tear it down to its component thread.
Today’s design was a masterpiece
Hours of planning and execution
Done in by a casual pull at the end of the day.
It is no matter.
The action is lost in the larger picture of things
Today’s destruction a building block
For a greater work.
Down the hall voices call to me
Insistent suitors demand my presence.
Soon enough I will join them
Some honest enough, others something less
They will ask about the progress of my work
And I will tell them that it remains unfinished.
We will not be talking of the same work
But it is no matter.
There is no difference between far and near.
Perspective is all.
I don’t know whether to blame you or your stupid war.
It is easiest to blame the war
The insistent beating drum
The pretense of noble purpose
Masking a banality so insipid
As to stagger the observer.
But you were always one of the best
Not the strongest, but the smartest
Not forceful, but with a craft
That became its own definition.
You, who upstaged ten years of anguish
With one night and a gift.
You are magnificent
A prize for poets.
It’s hard to understand how one of your talents
Has managed to stay from me for so long.
I imagined your return so soon after your victory
A homecoming which would shine to the heavens
Pure in emotion and joy.
Yet now you are as far away as when you began
Your arrival a distant dream
Your homecoming unfulfilled.
Your war is over
But you are not home
If there is blame
It is yours.
But it is no matter.
It makes no sense to talk of blame
When circumstances rule the day
No sense for anger
When chance plots your course
Whatever mysteries you hide from me
I know your heart.
Your homecoming lives there
Waiting to come true.
It lives in my heart too
Two views of the same moment
Two dreams with the same end.
My suitors engage me in idle banter.
I am sometimes painted as a noble sufferer
enduring unwanted attentions
But in truth, I enjoy the diversions
My suitors entertain me, amuse me
And no few arouse me
Their endless chatter every now and then
Showing promise of something greater
Of depths that dare to be plumbed.
They appear worthy suitors
And indeed some of them are
But there is not one
Who shines so bright as to dim your memory.
The curves of their arms and legs
Call to mind your own sweet body
Their lips and eyes
Bring your own gentle face
Calls distantly from their throats.
Every one that comes to me
To cajole, whisper or impress
Becomes a window
Through which I see you.
I smile frequently when I am with my suitors
And they smile back, convinced that the pleasure in my eyes
Is brought by their form.
But it is not them I see.
Perspective is all.
My work is now unraveled
And my intentions secure for another day.
Tomorrow I will create another
And unravel it, each tomorrow
Until you return to my shore.
It is a difficult task
Building a creation from which
All that is seen is its daily destruction.
It is a work that only I can see
Its completion something only I desire.
It is no matter.
There is no difference between far and near
Perspective is all.
Perhaps from the distance where you are
You can see my larger work.
Use it as your beacon
And have your homecoming at last.