Reader Request Week 2006 #7: Writing on Writing

We’re getting to the close of Reader Request Week 2006 — and a successful one it was — so to clear the decks, I thought I’d do an omnibus entry featuring questions related to books and writing. So let’s line up your questions and see what pithy answers I can pull out of my head.

Rick McGinnis: "The Death of the Book: Inevitable, desirable, or just a crock of propellerhead hype?" 

I don’t really see the end of physical books anytime soon, because the metaphor of the book is an excellent one for the storage and use of text: It’s convenient, the access is intuitive, and it’s cheap. Now, people will point to the current transformation of music out of physical storage into iPods and other jukeboxes and will suggest the books are generally heading the same way, but I think what they’re missing is that music files (and the tiny storage devices we put them on) are a vastly better way to manage and archive our music libraries than stacks of CDs or LPs, which are constrained by their physicality to storing only a couple dozen tracks at best. iPods also fit the way people listen to music — people like variety and they want to be able to carry lots of music with them, and the sound quality is acceptable for having it coming at you from earbuds. People don’t feel the same need for volume with books, nor is the way e-books are organized and accessed as comfortable as with electronic readers. That may change with the new generation of e-readers (which display text more naturally), but in terms of being easier than books, they’ll still have a way to go. Frankly, today’s novels are too damn long for most people to read as e-text.

What I see e-book readers possibly doing is helping to revive the short story format, because a short story works for the electronic metaphor: short, snappy pieces of entertainment that you can read in just a few minutes, are cheap to acquire, and you can store thousands and line them up to suit your mood, a sort of "build your own anthology" setup. Someone creates an iTunes for short stories that works (Amazon is trying to do that with its short story service but I’m not so sure how well that is working) along with a cheap, easy-to-use reader, and suddenly we’d be looking at a new age of short stories. Which definitely would not be a bad thing. And we’d still have books, because that’s a better way to read longer works.

Nina Armstrong: "New Nebula Award for YA-good idea or bad?"

Nina’s talking about the new Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy, given out by SFWA. Technically it’s not a Nebula Award, but since it’s given out by the same organization at the same ceremony and uses the same selection process, this is a distinction without a difference.

I think it’s a perfectly fine idea. YA books are critical gateways to get people to read (and in science fiction and fantasy, to get people to read those genres). There are some excellent writers doing work in YA today, and for whatever reason YA books are likely to be given short shrift at awards time simply for being YA, so why not? I wouldn’t be opposed to a Young Adult Hugo award, either; it can be swapped in for the asinine "dramatic presentation" Hugos, which are a complete waste of time and effort.

Soni: "What is your take on the direction that the swelling ‘free for
all’-minded generation is going to take us? Seems I can’t log onto the
Internets lately without hearing about how more and more people are not
only expecting to get stuff (music, literature, software, etc) for
free, but on the other side of the spectrum there is an equally
fast-growing number of folks who are creating their own stuff and
giving it away for free as a matter of course."

Well, and you also can’t get online without hearing the head of a telecommunications giant saying he wants for his company to be able to start charging online companies for preferential access to its customers, either. So there’s pressure on both ends of the pay structure.

But I don’t really think the free end is all that much of a problem. The Internet certainly creates and fosters a forum for amateurs — people who make things up for the fun of it and who don’t particularly care whether they get paid for it or not. I’m certainly part of that myself; I used it to my advantage with Agent to the Stars, and I’ve also posted music I’ve made online, and I never expect to be paid for that. People like playing and sampling and having fun: The Web is one big amateur sandbox.

But it’s also not stopped me from making money: My books are doing well, even Agent, which is available for free, so people really do have to make the conscious decision to buy it. Giving away a certain amount for free fostered those sales, I’m sure, both by assuring people of the quality of the work and also creating a community of people who are happy to see me succeed (and help me do so buy occasionally buying something of mine).

All the Internet is doing is changing the dynamic of how people make money from their creative work. People will still pay for work they like from people they like. I could be wrong, but I don’t think I am.

Tim Walker: "The whole Chabonesque ‘genre fiction versus "literary" fiction’ thingy.
Are boundaries between them useful? Morph this into a general
discussion of where you see fiction headed, if you like."

Literature genres are a matter of two things: marketing on the part of publishers and booksellers, and self-identification on the part of the audience. It has nothing to do with quality of writing, or quality of story, or whatever. Why is Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go marketed as literary fiction? Because that’s where Ishiguro’s audience sees itself as. Why is China Mieville’s stuff marketed as dark fantasy? Same reason. But Ishiguro’s audience would probably love Mieville’s work; Mieville’s audience, likewise — if only they admit they could read that other stuff. The mechanics of fiction are universal; you use the same mechanics to write literary fiction as you do to write science fiction and fantasy. Moreover, the mechanics of fiction will continue to be universal.

I write genre fiction and unapologetically so, but at the same time I don’t accept that my readers only have to come from genre audiences. I want the skiffy geeks to read me, but I want other people to read me too. At the same time I think the SF geek who only reads SF/F is doing himself a disservice; he needs to get out and see how the other half lives. The best readers, I find, are promiscuous readers. I certainly feel that way. I’m a book slut; I’ll read anything once, twice if I like it. Speaking as a writer, that’s why I feel I can write to appeal to people outside my typical genre audience.

The boundaries between genres will exist as long as they help to sell books. I think that’s fine, but I think booksellers also need to help train readers to accept there is more out there than their favorite genres (publishers too, although to a lesser extent — one doesn’t expect, say, Baen, to go out of its way and help people find romantic mysteries). People will still read as much as they do in their favorite genres; they’ll just maybe try other stuff as well.

John H: "From a SF writer’s perspective, what futuristic technologies do you think we should be pursuing?"

Why as an SF writer? I’m an SF writer in part because of my interest in science, not the other way around (yes, this is true: I was into science long before I read my first SF book). I think we ought to be perusing technologies to make energy production as cheap, sustainable and pollution-free as possible, and we ought to be accelerating our study of biotechnology by significant amounts, because I suspect we’ll need both in the very near future.

Josh: "We already know that you’re planning on writing a third book in this series-which-is-not-a-series, but I’m curious: would you ever consider ‘loaning out’ the world you’ve built for a series of paperback originals? For that matter, how would you feel about your family and/or friends carrying on the universe once you’re dead, ala Dune?"

If the Old Man universe became so popular that people wanted to play in it, they would do it anyway a la fan fic. As toward a concerted commercial attempt to exploit the universe while I was busy doing other things? Well, I think that would be fine as long as the books didn’t, you know, suck. I think quality control would be an issue here, and without castigating media tie-in writers in general, many of whom are in fact very good writers, the fact is that with some media tie-in series, quality is clearly not job one. If we’re going to bring other writers into the universe, they should bring something to the universe too, not just grind out some slap-dash military porn thing.

For example, I hear that John M. Ford’s two Star Trek novels, The Final Reflection and How Much for Just the Planet? are not well-loved by Paramount because they futz with the established Star Trek formula. I say: Get me John M. Ford! Aside from the simple high caliber of the man as a writer, I’d want to read a book where the author gave me something worth reading for its own sake, not just as comfort food from the Old Man universe. And if I can’t get John M. Ford, get me someone who is as fearless as he. That’s what my universe deserves.

How do I feel about family/friends carrying on the universe after I’m dead? Well, I’ll be dead. What will I care? I’d simply hope the "don’t have it suck" admonition would cast a long shadow.

There, I think that’s enough writing on writing. 

18 Comments on “Reader Request Week 2006 #7: Writing on Writing”

  1. I think that there’s a tremendous potential for a comic book series, “Tales from the CDF”. Kind of like Sgt. Rock, but in space. Cool.

  2. I’m curious if you (or anyone reading this) knows of any other bloggers who, like John, writes about writing and the business of writing, but from a YA perspective instead of SF.

  3. I’m curious if you (or anyone reading this) know of any other bloggers who, like John, writes about writing and the business of writing, but from a YA perspective instead of SF.

  4. Eric, check out Justine Larbalestier. She writes YA and she writes about writing.

  5. “Why as an SF writer?”

    What I meant was, what fictional technologies have you written about or seen in others’ works do you feel are worthwhile pursuits? For example, the BrainPal and SmartBlood from OMW or the hoverboard from Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies.

  6. Ah. Well, I think a BrainPal would be delightful to have, so long as one could avoid viruses. Smartblood would likewise be useful, as the majority of diseases are bloodborne at one point or another. Also, I want a rocket car to the moon.

  7. Two other YA writers who often blog about writing are Tamora Pierce and Hilari Bell (and their books are pretty good too).

  8. Marketing and cross-genre stuff. Grrr… Sets my teeth absolutely on edge.

    I like reading all kinds of fiction, except for graphic novels. I remember getting into a big fight with my lit teacher when I went back to college five years ago because she insisted that Steve Erikson’s dystopic novels were not science fiction. Calling a dystopic novel SF is not a bad thing, it’s merely descriptive.

    And honest.

    I’m almost finished with writing my first novel that starts off mainstream/chick-litty and ends up mainstream/dystopic. I know, I’ve been told more than once that won’t work. But what the hell, maybe I’ll start an all new genre… ;->

    Fiction is fiction. We might enumerate the sub-genres, but it’s still fiction.

    The bigger problem is, of course, when fiction is marketed as non-fiction. And that seems to be happening more all the time.

  9. “At the same time I think the SF geek who only reads SF/F is doing himself a disservice; he needs to get out and see how the other half lives.”

    See, that’s me. I know I should read outside the genre, just like I should get plenty of exercise and take a break from the screen every hour; I just never get around to it. A part of that is that I don’t know where/how to begin, other by reading classics (I loved The Count of Monte Cristo, but I never got around to finishing it!) — with SF, I know on an almost-instinctive level that Asimov, Heinlein and co were the pioneers whom I should read for old-school quality, I know I should read Charlie Stross for cool idea-geekery, I should read Steven Brust for wit, style, cool characters, and a rollicking plot… but with the mainstream/lit?

    Another problem is that I have to get over my stereotyping of litfic (partly a visceral “up yours, too!” reaction to their marginalisation of sf); even then, I’m not sure how much it’d be my cup of tea. How much of it is actually Kelly Link-esque? I tried reading Stranger Things Happen and gave up after a couple of stories; I just didn’t get it. I suppose slipstream isn’t my thing.

    (I don’t count other genres such as thrillers, incidentally, which I do read on occasion.)

  10. Re: e-book readers as iPods via short stories:

    This is an interesting idea but I think you may make the same mistake I did few years ago. I though too that books are only good in “traditional” form and certainly reading anything longer on the computer is not possible.
    (“And we’d still have books, because that’s a better way to read longer works.”)

    Well, I think we both are right but …

    After I used PDA (PocketPC) with a good reader (I love uBook reader but YMMMV – try at least few commercial and free ones to see what fits your needs best) my perception changed. It is not only working but it works better than I ever imagined(!). I was forced to do this as I keep moving and simply boxes and boxes of books are becoming a huge issue so I decided to give a real effort to use ebooks and it paid of handsomely!

    I start to have problems when I have to read a “traditional” book: fonts are too small, I can not instantly lookup words, copy passages or google stuff. Some books are so heavy (paperbacks of 500+ pages are really _bad_) and finding something that I read is real pain (“Find” in electronic text is a breeze …)

    So I would urge anybody that considers it to give it try but invest in a good pocket book reader (and sizeable memory card to keep all your books), with a good screen, software support for ClearType for really readable fonts (when I read “old” books I keep unconsciously looking for “enlarge fonts” options) and good software (I can highly recommend uBook for reading HTML formatted books that compressed with ZIP).

    Alek (eBook convert :) )

  11. Well, I don’t think people won’t read novels in e-book format; I know they do because most people who have read Agent to the Stars have read it that way. I just don’t think it will be the predominant format.

  12. Brandon, I liked Maus a little. My husband and daughter like Sandman, Watchmen, Sin City (et.c.) but they just didn’t do anything for me.

  13. Re: eBooks and iPods and Aleksander, oh my!

    I agree with the sentiment that eBooks on a good, large handheld device can be an excellent experience (disclaimer: I work for a company that makes a good, large handheld reading device), often better than paper. Just being able to stick the thing on your lap and shell pistachios while you read makes it worthwhile for me :) But I also agree we won’t be seeing a mass conversion to eBooks in the near future. The music analogy just doesn’t hold up – first of all, the history of the printed word is much longer than the history of recorded music. Human history is hard to overcome (we still have a flat-earth society and creationists). It is also easier to prepare music for digital distribution – that hurdle was cleared with CDs. It is almost no more work to prepare an audio file for iTunes than it is to make a track for a CD (in fact, it’s much the same work). CDs made the jump to online distribution easy because all the hard work had been done. No such effort has been made for books. Producing an eBook after producing the printed version requires significant human intervention, and thus money. With publishers running scared by horror stories from the music industry, the conversion to digital will probably bumpier (with lots more DRM along the way).

  14. Brad,

    that is very good point about how publication process has not (yet) incorporated e-book creation as an output but should be easy to change as content production is now digital so getting output to paper or HTML /should/ not make a big difference …

  15. John,

    as far as /predominant/ format goes I do not see paper going away fast (or ever?) – paperless office proved that long time ago but I am just describe my experience and what happened to me. I still do read books (and I like to print papers …) but a handheld with a good screen (so form is similar to a book) with very readable fonts wins hands down for me – especially for “mammoth” paperbacks. BTW: another delight is page count – it is psychologically satisfying to finish 7000 pages long books even though is it is only 900 in paperback form :)

  16. Hmmm…I’ve always thought that Ford’s Star Trek books were among the most original and enjoyable I’ve ever read. I liked his take on the Klingons in The Final reflection much more than the stereotypical, shallow Klingon society presented in the series. He managed more believable depth in a single book then any of the TV series ever did.

    Bring on more Ford!

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