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harry potter

(Posted by Claire Light)

just got my harry potter amazondelivered. who else is going to hogwarts today?

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Rape Dilemma

(Posted by Claire Light)

One of the most distressing things about growing up and getting older is that you run into more and more controversies the rights and wrongs of which you can’t decide at a glance. Is it that the world is getting more morally ambiguous, or am I just getting more tentative?

I saw on News of the Weird last week that South Africa, sometimes known as “the rape capital of the world” (1.69 million women a year are raped there, by the South African Law Commission’s estimate) has been thrown into a tizzy recently by a new anti-rape device, known as a “rat trap”. The rat trap is placed inside the vagina and designed to wrap around a rapist’s penis, hooking into the … er … protuberance in such a way that it could not be removed without medical intervention.

I’m really ambivalent about this one.

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Teach them well and let them lead the way

(Posted by Eric Magnuson)

If you’re like me – and since you’re reading blogs on a summer day, I somewhat safely assume that you are – the internet has worked its way deeply into your daily life much like sand bugger did to Chekov in “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan“. How many of us open a browser and start surfing through our favorites in the morning even before we make a cup of coffee? And for how long has that been the case? I remember back in ’93 seeing a grad school prof almost burst into flames with nebbish delight when he showed myself and a handful of other techie minded journalism students the wonder that was Mosaic. I assume we all have similar if not far earlier exposure to this world-changing technology. It’s a part of our lives. It is evolving daily. But if one snaky law firm in Philadelphia is successful, the history of the net will be much harder to hang onto.

For those of you that didn’t see coverage of the suit I’m referring to, what looks like a crappy healthcare information company claims that the beloved non-profit Internet Wayback Machine has violated the DCMA (the Hollywood-friendly broad-reaching intellectual property law). So they want…well, I’m not exactly sure what they want except for money justified by some vague claims of privacy protection conjured up by their law firm. But when I read that the Wayback Machine info-archive now contains 1 petabyte (1 million gigabytes) and that it is growing at around 20 terabytes a month, I took a briefly Googled trip down the memory lane of internet phenomenons from the past 9 years or so. Going back that far felt like setting the dial for the 19th Century. But thankfully it’s all seemingly still out there in the ether.

Who can forget the beloved silliness of Mr. T and Chewbacca’s all-consuming taste for testicles? The WIRED interview with the originater of the joke thanks to a broken exit light in a freshman dorm hallway sheds much needed irreverent delight on that craze from ’96.

Or the still brilliantly inane all your base are belong to us.

And what of Mahir? How many of us have longed for his red speedo and ping-pong pics circa ’99 to appear again in the hottest lane on ye olde information superhighway?

Will any of these old diversions have any sort of impact on kids today? I’ve got a 4-month old daughter who I hope won’t see the importance of any of these things, even if the Dancing Baby might still conjure a giggle or two from her in the years ahead. But I, for one, strongly appreciate that the Wayback Machines and Googles of the world are protecting this largely irrelevant history. For our children and our children’s children.

Any faves in your own personal Wayback Machines? Beguiling minds want to know.

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See A Guest Blogger Live

(Posted by Jim Winter)

Hello, all. Sorry to barge in so early in the week. However, if you’re wondering what any of us crackpots* covering for John look like, I have an opportunity for you. I, your humble Sunday narrator, will be at Mystery Loves Company in Baltimore this Saturday, signing books and generally trying not to look like a hack at Laura Lippman’s favorite store. (It’s the real life model for Tess Monaghan’s aunt’s store.) So if you live in Baltimore, Philly, or DC, stop by. Kill an afternoon with me. Come heckle.

We now return you to our regular guest blogging, already in progress.

*I know. Crackpot’s a horrible thing to say. But I have only me to judge by, so the bar’s probably lower than it should be.

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Selling a Motorbike

It’s John Scalzi, popping in real quick. My father-in-law is having me sell his motorbike on eBay, so I thought I’d mention it here as well. If you know anyone who might be interested in a 1965 BSA Thunderbolt in good condition, direct them to this eBay auction here. It just started (like, 15 minutes ago). Here’s a picture of the bike:

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Mmmm, Karen Black!

(Posted by Ron Hogan)

Well, okay, I think maybe John & Brian were the only people who demanded it… and I suppose “demand” is really sort of an overstatement. Nevertheless, here is pretty much what the cover of The Stewardess Is Flying the Plane will look like when it comes out this November:


The bottom row features Alec Guinness, Sissy Spacek, Paul Newman, Tommy Chone, George C. Scott, Richard Roundtree, Marlon Brando, Gene Wilder, Dennis Hopper, Raquel Welch, and Henry Winkler–and, no, that’s not a TV reference thrown in at the last minute.

As I get closer to the actual pub date, I’m starting to get excited about the book again. I have to admit there was a period just after I’d turned in the manuscript when I didn’t even want to think about ’70s movies for a while. It’s still a little difficult for me to work up the energy to actually watch stuff that comes up on cable that I didn’t manage to see when I was doing all the research. But I think I might finally manage to make it through Detroit 9000 today, if I can transcribe enough interview tapes for the magazine article I’m writing (about the somewhat less sexy subject of test prep and college admissions guides…)

Anyway, I pretty much want to just open up the floor here, so start telling me all about your favorite ’70s films, the ones you’re going to beat me over the head with my own book at my signings if they’re missing from it…

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Pride and Joy

(Posted by Laurel Halbany)

I thought it was de rigeur for children of writers to suffer the angst of their writer-parent’s shadow. (If they choose to be writers, of course, which is less a choice than you might expect.)

It’s never a problem I myself had; my parents are both educated, and intelligent, and I grew up in a house full of everything from archy and mehitabel to 1984. But they’re not writers and were never moved to write much beyond college. I had no so-you’re-so-and-so’s-kid! with which to contend. My struggles are my own, and I’ll never have to worry that I got the benefit of the doubt because of my Famous Parent. Nobody will eye anything I’ve written and wonder if it only got published because the senior Halbany wrote a series of best-selling novels, and nobody wanted to piss off his editors.

One of my children is turning out to be a writer. I was a little concerned that if my plodding efforts ever turned into publication, that she might have issues with being in my shadow. It’s becoming increasingly clear that I am in danger of having the shadow fall the other way.

Oh, sure, every parent whose kid can string three words together will probably tell you how creative they are, but remember, I have three; the other two are certainly talented, but none of their teachers pull me aside and tell me those children have an amazing gift. Relatives coo over their efforts, but Grandma has never quietly asked me if I’ve thought of sending them out for publication. None of them ever wrote a story that won an ABA online contest (and made me buy the prize mug from her). No, she’s not writing the Great American Novel–yet–but she might, rabbit, she might, given time and talent.

There’s a ten-year-old on my tail, and if I don’t get my writerly butt in gear, the angst is going to fall in the wrong direction.

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Trivialities…

(Posted by Jeff Porten)

Sorry to break in on a Monday, but I decided that my promised commentary on airport security was far too trivial to inflict on the Republic of Whatever, so I’ve moved it over to my own blog.

And a burning question — John collected the guest bloggers’ pictures, Claire has commented that she’s seen them, and I am apparently as dense as a fudge-covered brick. Can someone tell me where to find these?

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Time For A Change In The Language

(Posted by Jim Winter)

Last week, I managed to stir the pot with my opinions on Reagan and of the recent Discovery Channel poll of great Americans. One of the results was an interesting back blog debate between my fellow guest bloggers Claire and Jeff as to male and female and gender roles and designations. During that discussion, Jeff made the point that “man” and “he” are often used as gender-neutral and came up with the following:

“‘they’ is grammatically incorrect in the singular.”

Let’s stop and think about that, shall we? Why is it grammatically incorrect? The obvious answer is that it’s plural and not singular, therefore it is grammatically wrong. To which I ask, why should it be?

If you look at the history of the English language, it becomes clear that “they” used for gender non-specific singular is more than feasible. In fact, it’s almost mandatory. Why? English has no gender-nonspecific singular pronoun except “it.” “It” doesn’t cut the mustard (another point Jeff made.) “Yes,” you say, “but one can always use ‘he’ or ‘she’ randomly to fill in the blanks.”

To which I say, that don’t cut it, either, kiddo.* English often uses plural pronouns in place of singular. In fact, you and I use one such pronoun everyday. And if that’s acceptable, so is they as singular gender nonspecific. What is it?

Well, let’s look at a more obvious example first. The royal “we.” We (meaning all or most or at least a large number of us) use “we” in place of “I” from time to time. Royalty used it to denote their place above the fray. Now, granted, “we” meaning “I” has fallen out of favor and for good reason. When you say “I,” everyone knows who your talking about. To use “we” as singular, given its history, is just plain pompous and quite a bit useless.

“So what’s this pronoun we use everyday?” you say. What pronoun sets the precedent for “they” being grammatically correct? Well, do you hear people saying “thou/thee/thine” a lot these days for second person? You don’t? You know why? Because speakers of English sometime around the age when Cotton Mather was burning witches because some little girl had bad dreams** decided the royal “you” was more efficient than using “thou” for singular and “you” for plural. Now, based on the criteria of why “they” singular is grammatically incorrect, “you” is also used incorrectly billions of times a day. Why all of you should be ashamed of yourselves for referring to the person thou’re talking to as “you.” It’s deplorable, a travesty. It might…

(*Gasp*)

Change the language.

Is that the problem? We can’t have “they” be singular third person because, heaven forbid, the language might change, grow…

Evolve?

But the language has to. One of the great aspects of the English language is its adaptability. Having “it” as the only gender nonspecific pronoun is really a major flaw in the language in that it implies an inanimate object. So why not “they”? If we’ve already ditched “thou” for “you,” “they” is a no-brainer. Certainly better than the synthetic s/he or the inadvertantly sexist “he” (or “she” for that matter. What? Without a penis was bad, so now without one is? That’s just repeating the problem, not solving it.)

Quite frankly, the ban on “they” singular has to go. Unless someone comes up with something better, people should embrace the singular “they” as a part of everyday language.

“But that goes against tradition!”

Screw tradition. It’s also traditional that a woman take her husband’s last name. If you think going against that grain is dead wrong, my wife, whose legal last name is McCarty, would like to have a word with you.***

English is supposed to be a living, breathing, changing language, and usage changes it. Using “they” to refer to a person of indeterminate gender is only logical. All it does is add a new meaning to the word, one that’s already in use. Do we want our language to stagnate and die? Let me know, because there’s a Berlitz school in the building where I work. I can always go find something more adaptable and less rigid there.

*Yes, I’m aware that’s grammatically incorrect. I’m sprinkling fairy dust here, though. Work with me.

**Yes, I’m being overly simplistic. Again, work with me here.

***My mother-in-law refuses to call her anything but Mrs. Winter, despite my insistence she’s disrespecting my wife’s name. We’ve agreed to not discuss the subject during holidays.

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Vigilant

(Posted by Jeff Porten)

Summertime, and the living is orange.

I am on the down elevator to the Washington Metro trains, and an abandoned water bottle is on the floor in the back. Upright, maybe an inch or two of water in it. Clear sport bottle with a closed spout, no label.

This is not out of the ordinary. This is not uncommon. This is par for the course at the Metro stop for the National Zoo, where among the 20,000 tourists that passed through today you have to expect some cretins who treat the nation’s capital as their own personal trashcan. This is mundane detritus.

And yet….

There are plenty of chemical agents that dissolve in clear liquids. There are many such chemicals that aerosolize. Pinholes cannot be be seen from a standing height. And if I were the architect of a terrorist attack, what better way to ensure that my vector would stay undisturbed than to abandon it in plain sight, in an everyday object, as common trash that no one will deign to pick up?

Fifteen seconds have passed, the elevator is one-quarter of the way down to the platform, and I have considered the above. For the rest of the trip, I balance the following:

  1. The odds that this is in fact not an abandoned bottle of water. Estimate: nonzero, but exceedingly tiny.
  2. The odds that reporting this bottle of water, as we are asked to do in this time of extra vigilance (without much guidance as to what to be vigilant for), will tie me up for the rest of the evening, or cause the temporary closing of the station, or otherwise create a snowball effect that is far worse than the danger of a bottle of water. Estimate: low, but greater than “tiny”.

The doors are opening. I have decided to leave well enough alone.

At that moment, the overhead speakers are activated with a systemwide announcement reminding us that the Department of Homeland Security has raised all public transit systems to Code Orange (the rest of the nation remaining magically Yellow), and we should be certain to report any unattended items or anything else out of the ordinary.

The bottle of water is a perfectly ordinary unattended item. I report it. The station manager appears utterly unconcerned, and as I board the escalator descending to the train platform, he still has not left his booth.

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Fifty years ago, and today

(Posted by Jeff Porten)

I am doing my best impression today of a highly ambulatory decapitated chicken in preparation for my trip to MacWorld starting tomorrow, so abbreviated remarks follow about what’s on my mind, with permission from the Speaker to revise and extend them for the Record at a later date.

Today is the 50th anniversary of the publication of a wholly remarkable document, The Russell-Einstein Manifesto. It begins, “We are speaking on this occasion, not as members of this or that nation, continent, or creed, but as human beings, members of the species Man, whose continued existence is in doubt.” It led to the founding of the Pugwash Conferences, which along with its co-founder Joseph Rotblat shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1995.

I received an email from an activist friend earlier this week who asked me, somewhat tongue in cheek, if I was still trying to save the world. I responded in the affirmative, but in reality I can’t say such things. On the other hand, Rotblat is a man who I believe truly has. Fifty years on, he is still pursuing this work, and his work is not over.

Moving on to current events, one begins to wonder about the value of keeping the population under constant surveillance (if one does not already) when considering that London has the most police cameras per capita in the world, and under the lenses of these cameras a terrorist attack was successfully completed. Had that happened in the US, I have little doubt that the response would be a panicked clamor for more cameras, more government tracking, and greater restrictions on “dangerous” movements, speech, and activity. But reports from London indicate a calm that is entirely in contrast to our own hysteria (and in keeping with their historical mien). It will be interesting to see whether the attack brings upon a redoubled pursuit of illusory safety, or if people will ask somewhat more loudly why the millions of law-abiding are watched when the criminals are not deterred.

More to come.

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Wombatman Wombegins

(Posted by Claire Light)

My favorite joke is intertextuality; I throw it in wherever, whenever I get the chance. Intertextuality is the perfect way to shit on something: just say it’s derivative, or has no existence of its own, separate from what has gone wombefore. It’s an argument impossible to defend against. Love it.

However much I like to joke about intertextuality, though, the movie Wombatman Wombegins is seriously it, incarnate. People have wombeen raving about it; it got 83% on rottentomatoes.com, and that despite the fact that it sucked, wombig time. I could not figure it out, so I went and started reading the reviews. And I found … intertextuality.

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Plans to stir get shaken

(Posted by Eric Magnuson)

As a guest host who wants to be viewed as courteous and attentive, I got up extra early today on yet another beautifully foggy San Francisco morning. I intended to offer my contribution to the already robust discussion of writing we’ve seen here in the past week. I’ve been reading closely, as I expect you have, and even as an as-yet-unpublished writer, I’ve got some logs to throw on the fire. But as we’ve all come to dread on some barely-hidden collective level, the news of the day invaded like the marauding barbarians in those seldom funny CapitalOne ads. London has been hit with coordinated bomb attacks during morning rush hour – reports now say 3 explosions at stops in the Underground causing an evacuation of the entire system and 1 blast that destroyed a double-decker bus. The news networks are wetting themselves in carnivorous glee as the video pours in and they anxiously fill their scrawl writers’ coffee cups and bring them extra donuts. Blair gave a morosely statuesque “we will not be shaken” speech with the other G8 leaders and their important guests arrayed behind him…just before he hopped a copter and said “ta-ta” to any hope of success from the conference intended to address poverty and global warming. Dubya has been quoted as asking Americans to be “extra vigilant” (practice your own imitation while mouthing that phrase). All of Europe, the DC transit system and all manner of other national systems are on high alert. Crazy reports are trickling in through always dubious avenues such as the Drudge Report – he posted an AP story that claims Israeli Finance Minister Netanyahu got a warning of the attacks from the British police minutes before the blasts. And a previously unknown al Queda group has claimed responsibility for the attack. So what’s a self-aware news junkie like myself supposed to do? Shelve plans for a more thoughtful post, hunker down for a bit, have a second cup of coffee and try to make some sense of all the static. But I’d love to hear what reactions those of you have to this unsettling news. If you have a moment, post a comment. Vent. You know you want to do it.

I’ll get more up later in the day, but I wanted y’all to know that I’m here to host and try to hopefully elevate the dynamic just a smidge on occasion with a few thoughts. Thanks for reading. Hug your kids, pets, and/or plants for me. Rock on.

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Don’t Hate SF, Because It’s Beautiful

(Posted by Ron Hogan)

I figured if I was going to be taking over a science fiction writer’s blog, even for just one day a week, I’d better reacquaint myself more fully with the field. You see, I used to read almost nothing but SF as a teenager, until I started grad school right around the time the first issue of Wired came out and suddenly the real world was looking awfully SFnal…(Wired got lame eventually, but that’s another story for another time…) Anyway, I kept up with just a handful of my favorite writers for the next decade or so; I always knew when a new William Gibson or Neal Stephenson book was out, and eventually I stumbled onto George R. R. Martin’s big ol’ epic, but mostly I was busy reading mainstream stuff for fun and profit.

So when a copy of Understanding Contemporary American Science Fiction: The Age of Maturity, 1970-2000 showed up recently, I figured it’d be a good way to get up to speed. Especially since it covers the most intense period of my immersion in the field, so it’d bring back some memories as well. And it’s fine as far as it goes. 1970 is a good time to start, as the New Wave was by then entrenched enough to make its influence felt, and when you get to lead off with stuff like Riverworld and Ringworld, you’ve dealt yourself a good hand. Likewise, if you’ve got to end someplace, 2000 is as good as any–it brings you up to Cryptonomicon, although as Darren Harris-Fain points out, then you have to ask yourself whether that’s really SF or not.

The only problem is that “as far as it goes” actually covers a very limited theme, which we’ve all heard before: some SF is really, really well written and why doesn’t the literary establishment get that? In Harris-Fain’s case, he puts forward “Octavia E. Butler, John Crowley, Karen Joy Fowler, Joe Haldeman, John Kessel, Kim Stanley Robinson, Connie Willis, and Gene Wolfe.” The point isn’t so much who’s not on the list–but where’s James Morrow? To me, it’s more like the consistent focus on the most innovative or “literary” work of the period doesn’t necessarily lead to a full appreciation of what was going on in science fiction during those decades. For example, Ringworld is the only substantial mention of Larry Niven; there’s nothing about his subsequent collaborations with Jerry Pournelle, nor about the entire subgenre of Reaganite Cold War military SF that followed in their wake. (Remember Gerrold’s War Against the Chtorr? This won’t jar your memory.) Perhaps that’s because it runs counter to the classic explanation he offers, by way of quoting Charles Brown, for why Michael Crichton isn’t really science fiction: unlike other genres, SF refuses to be “consolatory” and reaffirm our cozy assumptions about the way of the world. Which is pretty funny, because as he points out, a lot of classic SF is pretty much grounded in the notion that, sure, science and technology are going to change the world, but “the American way of life” will assuredly prevail.

In another case, Harris-Fain mentions in passing that Asimov returned to the Foundation series in the 1980s, but he doesn’t go on to mention how he then tried to tie together everything he wrote into a Heinleinian future history. For that matter, he doesn’t have much to say, beyond noting that some longtime writers could eventually get big advances, about how fandom helped the earlier Grand Masters extend their shelf life so you had, to pick two random cases, Asimov could run through Foundation sequels and prequels and Heinlein could churn out increasingly solipsistic material. (Let’s face it: The Number of the Beast? Job? Not the man’s finest hour.)

I’m not going to lose much sleep over most of what’s missing, especially the huge chunks that fall squarely under Sturgeon’s Law–and I suppose you could even make a good case that the Gor books are actually fantasies rather than SF, so he’s off the hook there. (Or wait, maybe “John Norman” was British…) And it’s hard if not impossible to fault any of the choices for “mature” works worth singling out. I’m not particularly keen with his emphasis on the “fix-up”–I think it’s fine to point out that a lot of book-length works were cobbled together from short stories and novellas, but I don’t think the term realistically applies to the expansion of a single short work into a novel, but that’s a minor quibble. Just keep in mind that this is only one story about what’s been going on in American science fiction since 1970, a story designed especially to appeal to the sensibilities of English departments and literary critics. Introducing mainstream readers to this tiny segment of the genre might make them feel better about reading science fictionl. Saying that it’ll get them to really “understand” it, though, might be like saying you only have to read Bridget Jones’ Diary to understand what’s going on in chick lit.

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Sing, O Muse

(Posted by Laurel Halbany)

I envy Jane Yolen. All right, yes, because she’s a prolific writer of astounding talent, and I’m a very beginning writer of questionable talent, that goes without saying: but also because her Muse is gentle and kind.

Backtracking: of course there is no such real, tangible (or even intangible) thing as a Muse. They’re a metaphor from Greek mythology, a way to describe the creative inspiration that seizes us, where an idea illuminates the brain like cloud lightning and says: Write. Draw. Dance. Do this thing, now, and do it this way, or it will possess you until you make it real.

The Greeks knew there was more than one Muse. There were nine, by their count, but I think there are more, and perhaps we all get the Muse we deserve. Jane Yolen muses on her Muse:

The Muse is an ornery creature and rarely comes when called. She wears feathers in her hair and birkenstocks on her feet and is often out in the woods when you are home at your keyboard.

But sometimes when you are writing, and are so concentrated on what you are doing that you pay her little heed, she comes into the room, looks over your shoulder, and breathes softly in your ear. It is a tickle, like baby’s breath, and could be mistaken for a shift in the internal wind in the room.

Mine is not so kind. She has a tendency to interrupt me when I have other things I need to be doing. She knows her power and she wields it as she pleases. I think when I struggle with what she wants, she finds it funny. She’s cruel and capricious and impossible to resist.

“Write about that Lesbian Avengers party,” she says, “not the real one, where you danced, but a different party where two women slip away for a very private meeting. Talk about what it’s like to kneel in front of a new lover and have nothing in your mind but bringing her pleasure.”

“I didn’t get laid at that party,” I say. She leans over my shoulder, her mythical and metaphoric breast brushing against me. She slides her fingers into the soft hair at the base of my neck, and yes, she breathes softly in my ear, her breath as warm and dangerous as the wind before a storm.

“Tell them,” she whispers, and I do, and “Girl Ascending” was bought by a real publisher and printed in a real book, for money, my very first professional fiction sale.

She sits in the imaginary office chair across from mine and curls her elegant legs up beneath her. She holds her long fingers up to make a square, like a director framing a shot. I pay attention: she rarely talks with her hands. “Here’s what you see,” she tells me. “There’s a man, handcuffed to a chair. He’s surrounded by other men, professional men, from the Mafia or something like it. He’s going to die. They’re waiting with him, because they’re not going to kill him. They don’t hate him, so they’re comforting him before the awful thing happens.”

“That doesn’t make any sense,” I say. “Why don’t they just shoot him? What are they waiting for?”

She uncoils herself from the imaginary chair and bends over me. I inhale, expecting perfume, but she smells like nothing at all. Her lips brush my ear.

“You know,” she says, “or you will know. Tell them.” And The Black Seal printed “Admission” it its fiction supplement, Five Million Years to Earth.

I don’t pretend she gives me talent or good language skills. Those are my department, not hers. Inspiration is her game. Sometimes she shows up when I barely have a minute to breathe; sometimes she goes away for long stretches of time, leaving me to spend my limited writing time putting commas in and taking them back out.

But when she deigns to drop by, I forgive her every time. “Tell them,” she whispers, and I do.

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All Over Japan, Little Kids Are Shouting “Gamera!”

(Posted by Ron Hogan)

Plumes of steam shot out of the sea yesterday off Iwo Jima, the result of an underwater volcano.

To answer science fiction and comic book writer Peter David’s question, yeah, I, too, thought it’d be cool if Godzilla poked his head up and said hello. But I’m not disappointed.

Peter Jackson might be, though.

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Small Press Tutorial

(Posted by Bill Schafer)

Bill Schafer here.

As I mentioned last week, I make my living as a small press publisher. Along the way, I’d like to think I’ve learned a trick or ten.

Not Everyone Will Share Your Taste.
A fan of aquatic vampire stories about hunchbacks? Good for you. It’s a corner of the genre not yet fully mapped. Trying to build your press on such offerings is another matter entirely. Just like with the big publishers in NY, you have to publish what readers want, or you’ll find yourself using unsold inventory in creative ways — anyone for a coffee table made of books?

Do Not Cater Exclusively to the Collector’s Market.
There are a whole host of small horror presses that have cropped up in the past few years: Delirium, Necessary Evil, Bloodletting, Earthling, to name a few. They specialize in small print runs, always under 500 copies, frequently producing editions of under 100 copies. Some of these micro-presses produce sturdy, quality limited editions. Some don’t.

Even at the specialty press level, I believe publishers have an obligation to reach as wide an audience as possible. Microscopic print runs sell to the same few hundred collectors, who don’t necessarily buy the books to read them. Trust me, when we see another economic downturn, when hardcore collectors have fewer sheckels in their pockets for limited editions, we’ll see a winnowing among the micro-presses.

Company’s due here in a few minutes, so I’ll be back later with more, and a few tales of where SubPress’ bodies are buried.

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Personally, I Voted For Mike Judge. Huh-huh. Huh-huh-huh-huh-huh.

(Posted by Jim Winter)

Since tomorrow is July 4 – Independence Day us for Americans – I thought it appropriate to comment on the AOL/Discovery Channel Greatest American Poll. The results were as follows:

1.) Ronald Reagan
2.) Abraham Lincoln
3.) Martin Luther King
4.) George Washington
5.) Benjamin Franklin

Um… What’s Reagan doing in the Top 5? I’m sure history will judge him kindly, even put him up there with both Roosevelts as a great president. But as your charming host has demonstrated as recently as last month, Reagan’s too recent (and still too divisive) to be a good choice.

A look at the nominees’ page tells the story. Half the nominees were celebrities. Tom Hanks, Ellen DeGeneres, and Tom Cruise (WTF?) were nominated. Oprah Winfrey made the top 25, but Mark Twain didn’t? Was there an IQ ceiling for this poll? I’m amazed Reagan, who, you know, like, ran a country and stuff, even made the list, given vapid semblence of logic used to fill out the rest of it. I’m even more amazed that Reagan, along with Dr. King, Lincoln, and two founding fathers even showed up in the top 5.

Frankly, I’m embarrassed Americans voted in this poll. Tom Cruise is a great American? Where the hell was Tom Jefferson? Yeah, he owned slaves. So did #4, George Washington. I don’t recall in my history books Jefferson in the court of Versailles jumping up and down on the couch telling the Countess de Winfree how much he loved Sally Hemmings.

More disturbing, though, is how recent most of the nominees were. As I said, half of them were celebrities. Somehow, I think Reagan got on there not for destroying the most idiotic tax system in US history, nor did he make it for his part in ending the Cold War. No, I think he got on there because he died. Recently.

Which is really ashame, because it says little about him as a president, good or bad. Like I said, at least he made the top 5 along with two other presidents, a civil rights icon, and one ofthe architects of our nation. I’m assuming Franklin beat out Hugh Hefner because while he lived Hef’s lifestyle, he had that extra edge by inventing the stove and the lightning rod.

Well, Winter, if you’re so high and mighty, who would you pick for top 5?

Read on…

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Agoraphilic

(Posted by Jeff Porten)

Now that I’ve established my credentials as an unsuccessful writer, I’d like to propose an idea to aid unsuccessful writers everywhere—and maybe a few editors and readers to boot.

The problem with being a successful writer boils down to two crucial components:

  1. You have to write well.
  2. You have to start a business to sell your writing.

Most would-be writers get the first part but not the second, which is why the frustrated writer commmunity is the world’s largest market for voodoo dolls and Jim Beam. It’s not enough to craft the most beautiful essay in the English language, if you don’t know how to get it to someone who will buy it. Someone who is extraordinarily endowed on only one side of the equation may be able to overcome a failing in the other (and I suspect that this is probably more common with bad writers who are good salesmen), but you need both to really make this a working career. Exhibit A: John Scalzi, whom I think regular readers of the Whatever recognize as being well above-average on both scores.

The problem is that not every good writer has the ability or the inclination to be a good professional writer. The market as it stands allows plenty of good writing to be lost—most of it never being written in the first place. In Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, he postulates a dream library where all the things that were never written are curated. It’s a beautiful idea, but also intensely depressing; this is squandering the intellectual wealth of our species. Our writing is a bulwark of our civilization and our legacy for future generations. Engineering the free market to more effectively inspire good writing is one path to improving the lot of humanity.

I’ll start with myself as an example of the difficulties of the market. I think I’m reasonably good at this wordsmithing thing, and I start new businesses with the regularity of lunar cycles. The issue is in opportunity cost. Freelance writing pays laughably small sums of money compared to what I make in my regular endeavors—or at least, it does now while I’m still getting started. I have to get to the bottom of my speculative barrel before trying to sell my words becomes the best use of my time.

Or take my buddy Brian Greenberg. We finally convinced him to start a blog, and he comments here on a regular basis. John just called him a smart guy in one of those threads, and it’s safe to assume that John’s criteria are similar to those of professional editors. But Brian is not self-employed, so he’s got even fewer career reasons than I do to write professionally. Plus I’ll guess that he knows little about getting into that marketplace and doesn’t have the time to learn. So he’ll probably sooner start moonlighting in Dixieland jazz (that boy can really swing) than as a freelancer.

That’s the author’s side. How about the editors? They have it as difficult as we do, because every one of them has to maintain a slush pile, the dreaded mountain of unsolicited proposals that buries every publisher who has even thought of listing in Writer’s Market. The worst piece you’ve ever read in print was the result of culling out the more execrable 99% that came in the mail slot. If they didn’t need new writers, acquisitions editors the world over would be using their slush for merry bonfires and toasting marshmallows.

But they need us, because every week or month they need another 50,000 words to fill in the space between the advertising. And most of them, I reckon, are in their line of work because of their love of writing, and truly do care about the quality of what they print. The avalanche of slush makes it that much harder for the truly good undiscovered writers to break out.

The solution, I think, can be found in the sister market to freelancing: book publishing. There the market has created a niche for a creature known as the “literary agent,” who acts as a middleman between the publisher and author. Agents are routinely despised as unfair gatekeepers by frustrated writers, but it’s simply a fact that they serve a vital purpose connecting good writers with the publishers who need them.

What I’d like to see is a writer’s agora: a community of authors, agents, and editors, mostly conducted online, who come together to broker short writing and take the pain out of the business of freelancing.

Here’s how I think it would work. Start with the agents, who will most likely come from jobs within the industry, and who will be part-timing here themselves. They’ll have experience, they’ll have fat Rolodexes, and they’ll have a clear understanding of what writing has to be in order to survive as a business.

They begin building a stable of writers, primarily reaching out to the Brians and Jeffs of the world, but possibly also to the Scalzis who want to stretch into new markets. I don’t suppose John knows offhand who the English language acquisition editors are in Tokyo, but maybe the Japanese are dying to learn more about astronomy and indie bands. The authors would either be invited or auditioned; unpublished writers are welcome, but only if they convince the agents with the quality of their work.

The editors will come of their own accord. A hunger for talent will find it—and the fat Rolodexes are there to get the ball rolling.

What follows is Internet dating for the literary set. Authors could query at will by submitting ideas to the agents, or by dropping whole pieces into a library of unpublished content. The agents would earn their keep by knowing what will sell; good stuff will be proactively moved to the most likely markets, while less salable work can sit on file until an editor asks for it. Meanwhile, the editors get quality work and fast turnaround, both to fill that emergency hole for Thursday’s deadline, or to provide peace of mind for a schedule six months in advance.

Such a business would require hefty volume to survive; even with a 20% agenting fee, it would be rare for a sale to make more than a few hundred dollars for the agora. But I suspect most authors would be willing to pay that fee, or split it with the editors—80% and getting published is better than the current state of affairs. Pipeline those fees through the website to ensure that everyone gets treated fairly. This reduces the agents’ risk, simplifies the paperwork for the publishers, and creates a de facto writer’s union to prevent an editor from delaying payment, lest he be cut off from future work until he makes good on his arrears. Good luck trying to enforce your policy of paying three months after publication with this crowd.

With any luck, this would make authors’ and publishers’ lives much easier, and could also provide a decent income for the agents in question. I’m hoping someone will mention in comments if something like this already exists; I’d much rather use it than build it. But the sites I have seen bypassed the agents, or tried to replace them with software, and collapsed under the weight of the slush pile and spam from vanity publishers. The critical factor for success is expert intermediaries.

If anyone’s interested, I suspect the Republic of Scalzi has critical mass on all three fronts. And I know a guy who can do the web stuff <ahem>. So swing on by the comments thread, and we can hash it out there.

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The Coming of the Antiscalzi

(Posted by Jeff Porten)

It is perhaps no coincidence that John assigned me the last day of the week, for Saturday signifies the End Times, and I am Jeff Porten, the Antiscalzi.

I have no adorable and precociously witty urchins to write about. I live in the selfsame urban metropolis that sent John fleeing to rural paradise. And the only pictures you’ll see of hot women dancing around my home office will be the result of Photoshop and a vivid imagination.

But most importantly, I’m not a writer.

Some people might argue with that. I wrote a book ten years ago. That book now sells for pocket change, which keeps me warm through the cold nights. I’m working on a new book, which should be published in a month or two (and you can be sure I’ll pimp it here before the month is out). I’ve done a smattering of technical writing and academic pieces. But I still feel like Epimenides’ countrymen when I call myself a writer.

Why? Well, let’s compare with my gracious host. John gets hired to write about movies and video games. John gets a paycheck for blogging from the same people who own Superman and Bugs Bunny. And the kicker is… he makes it look easy. If there’s a blood-spattered Underwood platen in the back of John’s office, you sure can’t tell when he writes about translucent supermodels and senior citizens getting frisky.

So as a public service, and as a change of pace for the Whatever, I thought I would introduce myself with a short primer on how to be an unsuccessful writer. Just do all of the things I did, and you too can dream to one day reach your largest audience on someone else’s website. Ready? Here we go.

1) Sell your first book before you’re ready to write one. I sold that book in 1992. The process was as follows: a) Buy a copy of Writer’s Market. b) Send one query letter asking, “hey, would you be interested in publishing a book about the Internet?” c) Get invited to a very tasty lunch when that editor visits your hometown. d) Be utterly clueless about how you’re not supposed to be able to sell a book without an agent, an outline, or pretty much any experience outside of writing humorous essays for friends. Be so clueless, in fact, that you only have a bowl of soup at that lunch because you haven’t learned that the editors always pick up the check.

Which led to e) Write three chapters of stunningly turgid prose that would put a dissertation committee to sleep. I recall writing five pages about bang paths, which were these addresses you had to use in order to get prehistoric email messages where they were going. As that’s all I can remember, I’m guessing this was the most interesting thing in the book.

2) Be stunningly obtuse about the marketplace. I put my first book out of its misery when Ed Krol published The Whole Internet User’s Guide. I wrote my editor to say that I was having a lot of difficulty, and since “the Internet book” had been written, I didn’t see a market any longer. We shook hands and went our separate ways.

Cue the violins a year later, when I couldn’t walk into any bookstore without seeing shelves upon shelves of Internet books, most of which had the clarity you’ve come to expect from the computer science industry. Krol’s book (which was excellent, damn his eyes) sold 250,000 copies, and most of the others did well enough to keep their authors knee-deep in scotch and caviar.

3) Agents start out hungry, too. At this point, I took a step away from the path of unsuccess and met my agent. In fact, I met John’s agent, who at the time was just starting out himself. Finding my agent was a long, arduous journey. I went to a happy hour for the self-employed, drank most of a beer, and said to the chatty, amusing guy to my left, “You went to Penn? Hey, so did I!” An hour later, we had an idea for a book.

He went on to get me mentioned in Washingtonian magazine as a “young writer with an important voice.” This was for the second book that I was unable to write. But I still have 30 copies of that magazine.

4) Actually get it right, eventually. That same agent managed to get me writing a year or two later, and the result was the book you can now buy for a penny. Which is not to put it down one whit—of all of the things I’ve done in my various self-employed guises, it’s in the top five I’m most proud of. But the fact remains that I don’t think it ever would have happened without his prodding.

(By the way, if you’re wondering why I’m not naming him, it’s because I don’t want his slush pile to get any bigger than it already is. I’ve tried the man’s patience enough over the years.)

5) Return to comfortable obscurity. I’ve come up with a number of other book ideas over the years, all of which were unmarketable, unwritable, or uninteresting. And faced with that challenge, I did what any self-respecting unsuccessful writer would do: I gave up.

Which is to say, I limited myself to writing only what I wanted to write, and if that didn’t sell, then I just didn’t write for money. Contrast that with the successful writer’s credo of taking on marketing brochures for funeral homes, or trade publications for industrial lubricants. For some odd reason, I fell under the common delusion that my writing had to be “important” to be worthwhile. If I had taken the same attitude with my day job, IT consulting, I’d be asking people today if they wanted thin potatoes with their main course.

So that’s why I wince when I call myself a writer. Yes, I get paid to write; a fair chunk of my income comes from writing technical analyses for my clients, and it’s safe to say that one of the skills that earns my keep is my ability to translate binary into English. But that’s getting paid by the hour, not the word. I’m a writer in the same sense that the Redskins and Arsenal are both football teams.

But I still have my merit badge. Like “Senator” or “adulterer,” you keep the “writer” title long after you’ve lost the job description. Lifelong admission to the inner circle. I still get emails from my readers from time to time. Unpublished writers ask me for advice. And now that you’ve heard that advice, you can see why I start laughing every time it happens.

If you haven’t yet decided on whether you want to be an unsuccessful writer, don’t let me dissuade you. It has been a lot of fun, and useful to my other nonwriting endeavors. But I recommend that you choose at the outset to be my kind of writer or John’s kind of writer. Read between the lines of his many essays on the topic, and you’ll see the dues-paying he had to do to get to where he is now. I skipped over all that, and that’s why I’m still a dilettante. Unsuccessful writing is easy. Successful writing only looks easy.

Tune in later for Part II, wherein I propose a great untapped market for unsuccessful writers, and hand out a free business idea to anyone with the moxie to pick up the ball and run with it.

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