Reader Request Week 2009 #10: Writing Short Bits

I traditionally end my Reader Request Weeks with an entry (or two) of shorter answers to several questions. This year I’m doing two: One for writing questions, and one for the rest of it. Let’s get to the writing questions first.

Paul Barnes:

How about religion in modern s/f and fantasy? Of course, you could discuss the historic treatment of religion too.

This is worth a longer response, which I’ll probably get around to at some point, but for now I’ll note that religion is science fiction is not generally presented with any great affection, I think partly because many science fiction writer are not religious themselves, and also because religious organizations, like any bureaucracy that’s able to affect people’s lives, makes for a useful bad guy (religion in fantasy is more complicated, because fantasy often implictly involves gods and religion for both good an ill). I’m not sure that every science fiction writer needs to work on his or her presentation of religion, although I will say that in my work, I’ve noted that people still have religion in their lives and as a guiding principle, most particularly with the Colonial Mennonites in The Last Colony. I incorporated them not only because they were useful to the plot, but because I doubt somewhat that the religious impulse will leave us any time soon.

Steve Thorn:

Do you ever write any stories or novels in longhand first?

God, no. I can hardly read my writing; I can’t imagine writing a whole story in it. I do often write poetry in longhand, but even that I do less than I used to. I’m pretty much entirely crossed over into typing.

Jon S.

I’d love to see you compare and contrast Japanese science fiction with American science fiction.

I couldn’t, really, because I don’t have much basis for comparison; I haven’t read a lot of Japanese science fiction. That said, anime publisher Viz Media is launching a new imprint this summer called Haikasoru, which will translate Japanese science fiction novels into English. They sent along one of their novels, All You Need is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka, for me to look at. I liked it enough to blurb it — it was very high action and a lot of fun to read, and I think people who like military science fiction will enjoy the heck out of it. I don’t know if Sakurazawa’s work is representative of Japanese SF in general, but if it is, I wouldn’t mind.


Have you ever given thought to writing fiction outside the science fiction genre? Say, a mainstream novel, or a mystery?

Yup. But at the moment I’m getting paid a fair amount to write science fiction, and I enjoy writing it, so I’m happy doing that. If I do write in another genre, I suspect it may be mystery or crime fiction; The Android’s Dream was more than half way in that direction, anyway.

Patrick M:

Do you find that all these Conventions is difficult on your writing schedule? How do you balance that?

It’s not really the conventions that present a problem, as most of them are weekend events, and I try to relax on the weekends anyway, and in any event conventions are fun. It’s the travel that generally gets me, because it’s draining, and it often takes up most of a day. Add that up with the other business travel I do, and it does begin to impinge. I’m trying to balance it mostly by making sure I don’t over schedule myself with conventions, and making sure that I actually do writing on a daily basis.

Michael G:

Is it okay, when on the internet, to not give a shit about your writing? I mean, should one be taken seriously if their commentary is filled with leet/txtspeak?

Theoretically it should be the message that’s important, but as a practical matter, yeah, if you come across as someone who can’t string together a sentence, you will find people are not going to bother to get through to your message. I’m a big believer in trying to write well every single time you write, because if you do that, over time it actually becomes difficult not to write at least competently. There’s some allowance to be made for idiom, etc, but generally, yeah: Be clear, be readable, and don’t expect your readers to do all the work figuring out what you’re trying to say.

pedantic peasant:

What is/would be your approach to collaboration (writing, not reading)?

Not to do it. I know myself well enough to know it would annoy me to have to try to write a story with someone else involved — and thus would annoy them, too. And no one wants that. However, I will say I enjoyed the collaboration process the writers of METAtropolis had, which was to collaboratively create backstory, and then as we wrote our individual stories, show each other our work as we went along in order to keep the integration between stories tight. That stuck the right balance (for me, anyway) between working with others and doing my own thing.


How to handle success without letting it go to your head.

You can’t. Success always goes to your head; it’s what you use to be aware of your success. The key is to handle success without becoming too much of an asshole. One way to do that is to remind yourself that almost everyone who goes up (even the relatively modest “up” of being an author of science fiction) eventually comes down in one way or another, and you are not likely to be an exception, and how you treated people on your ascent will be visited upon you on your descent. And therefore, to paraphrase the immortal words of Harlan Ellison Kurt Vonnegut, “Goddammit, you’ve got to be kind” — if not because it’s the right thing to do, then because of self-preservation.


I know there is the old saying, “There is nothing new under the sun” but do you feel this way when you are starting a new project? If so, what do you do about it? Just suck it up?

As the retreading of Starship Troopers in Old Man’s War makes abundantly clear, I’m not horribly concerned about when I’m treading on old story tropes and indeed enjoy playing with them. What I worry about is using them to tell a story that readers will enjoy. I also try not to repeat myself (or when I do, for example in Zoe’s Tale, to tell the tale in such a sufficiently different fashion that it’s mostly new).


Have you ever done any acting, or drawing, or any creative endeavour that isn’t writing?


More short bits tomorrow.

16 Comments on “Reader Request Week 2009 #10: Writing Short Bits”

  1. A thousand pardons, but I believe it was Kurt Vonnegut that wrote “…God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”

  2. Before or after he groped Connie Willis, Djscman?

    …er, that was unkind, wasn’t it.

  3. Is it okay, when on the internet, to not give a shit about your writing?

    It’s never okay to not give a shit about your writing, except, and this is the only exception, except in the first draft. And anything that gets read by anybody apart from yourself is by definition not a first draft.

    The Internet does not magically turn mail-order companies into insanely profitably money-making machines; neither does it relieve anybody of the need to spend at least a small amount of time on the niceties of grammar if they want to be taken seriously.

    I’ve never understood why one would bother putting anything into the public eye if it wasn’t at least spell-checked; much less how people can pride in it.

    In person, I’m much more relaxed. Honest.

  4. For an interesting presentation of a wholly fictional religion, see Philip K. Dick’s 1970 novel A Maze of Death – the ending of which was quite distinctly ripped off by ABC’s Life on Mars a few days ago.

  5. A very interesting take on religion in SF is Card’s “Folk of the Fringe” — it’s a set of post-apocalyptic tales featuring Mormons (no big surprise), and faith is a big part of the stories. I’m a person of no faith, and it provided some very interesting viewpoints on survival and society, the sort of thought exercise you normally get reading Cherryh or Vonnegut or LeGuin.

  6. I think I may be the only person on the planet who actually uses full words and punctuation in text messages. Which is why I don’t text much. Or Twitter at all.

  7. MasterThief @11: No, you are not the only person on the planet who actually uses full words and punctuation in text messages. There are at least two of us. :)

  8. I’m disappointed you are not planning on writing a horror novel, John. I think it could be great.

  9. Yeah, sorry to bring my Ellison baggage in. Well, a little sorry anyway, because this was a great entry. I’m especially pleased to hear that Viz will be importing some Japanese sci-fi, and added the book you mentioned to my Amazon wishlist– a quick poke around the Web shows you’re not the only reader who was impressed.

  10. As far as religion goes, C. S. Friedman’s Coldfire Trilogy has one of the best treatments I’ve ever seen in any fiction, let alone SF. It helps that her religion feels completely natural to the setting, is integral to the plot, and is neither unabashedly loved or hated.

    Then again, she’s a heck of a writer.

  11. Ahahaha, the Scalzi bows to my whim again!

    Actually, John, I forgot about those Mennonites in The Lost Colony, whom I liked quite a bit, especially since their archaic knowledge proved to be so useful.

    I would add two works where religion was prominent and interesting: First Meetings by Orsen Scott Card and A Canticle of Liebowitz by Walter Miller.

    I cannot stress my love for Miller’s book and the very realistic relationship between religion and the state that is shown in the book.

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