In Which I Now Reveal a Secret

In e-mail, a request:

Share something with us that you’ve never shared here before.

Well, see. Typically if I’m not sharing something, it’s because I have a reason for not sharing it, like: I signed an NDA. Or: It’s none of your business. Or: I’m not ready to tell you yet. Or: It’s something so boring that you would fall asleep as I told you. And in all those cases I’m perfectly fine not telling you those things. I think you’d appreciate my restraint.

But, fine. I racked my brain for something I haven’t talked about here before, and I think I’ve come up with it. Here’s today’s secret:

I am a secret best-selling poet.

Shut up, I totally am. The secret best-selling work of poetry in question? This:

True fact: The Sagan Diary was composed entirely in free verse. Then, when I was done writing the whole thing, I went back and formatted it into traditionally formed sentences and paragraphs, so as not to scare away the sort of reader who freaks out when presented with poetry not in the form of song lyrics. Be that as it may, The Sagan Diary is a poem, and when you read it knowing that, this fact becomes fairly obvious.

Since TSD came out, about four years ago now, it’s sold about 8,000 copies. This a very healthy amount for a 12,000-word novelette in hardcover format, but it’s also a fairly impressive amount for a modern book of original poetry aimed at adults. Or would be, had I claimed it as poetry before this moment, which I have not (well, I’ve mentioned it to people before, but haven’t written about it). So, big “secret” reveal aside, I don’t make any real claim to being a best-selling poet.

And to be clear, even if I had claimed it as poetry, this would not be dispositive regarding the quality of TSD as poetry. When one remembers that one of the most successful modern books of poetry, sales-wise, erupted forth from Jewel, one remembers that sales do not directly equate with quality. I think TSD works perfectly well as a piece of writing, myself, and writing it in that format got me into an “internal monologue” mindset, which is what the story needed to have. Does it work as poetry? It’s an interesting question and I’ll let other people answer it.

So that’s today’s big secret.


The Office Tour

As most of you know, this year my office got a fairly substantial overhaul as I cleared out the previous particle board desk and shelves, put down a wood floor, and had new custom cabinetry installed. I’ve displayed the occasional bit or piece of the reconstruction, but now all the work and most of the decorating is done, so I can finally reveal the whole thing. For those of you interested, come take the office tour after the jump (if you’re seeing this on the RSS feed, you won’t have a choice. Sorry about that).


A Girl and Her Dog

Thankfully not a sequel to any Harlan Ellison short story you might care to name.


Comments Are a Lot of Work

This weekend Tobias Buckell announced on his blog that he’s going to try an experiment: For the next couple of months (at least), he’s turning off the commenting on his blog. He has a number of reasons for this, which he explains in detail, but essentially they boil down to: Managing comments is a lot of work, both in time and in psychic energy, and Toby’s of the opinion that at the moment, this is not the best use of his own person bandwith. So off go the comments.

I say: Good on Toby. Not that he needs my endorsement, but I fully support his decision to trim off the comments and give himself a break. Why? Because:

1. It’s his blog, and he should do whatever the hell he wants with it. I do think that people forget that personal blogs are personal, and that the person who owns it gets to decide how it’s run. Arguments of “well, most blogs do [x]” are in fact null arguments; if most people running a blog decided to jump off a cliff, I would not be obliged to follow them, and neither would Toby, nor anyone else. Comments can be part of a blog, but then again there are any number of successful blogs that don’t have them, too.

The first five years of Whatever, there was no direct commenting here, either. That was partly rooted in technical issues — things were harder to implement back in the day — but it was also rooted in the fact that I didn’t really want any comments here. I implemented comments in 2003 as a “let’s see how this works” sort of experiment; if I hadn’t have liked it I would have pulled it. Fortunately, you were all entertaining enough. However:

2. Managing comments is a lot of work. If you don’t want your comment threads to turn into a pointless morass of trolls and spammers, you have to put work into keeping them readable, and it is a lot of work, particularly when you feel free to comment on controversial subjects — which, this being the Internet, could be any subject at all. Call it Rule 34 and a half: If a topic exists, someone will be an asshole about it in a comment thread.

I mean, Christ. I wrote about my dog dying, and inevitably some jackasses showed up in the thread to say “whut r u so sad about, itz just a a stoopid dawg.” I knew they were going to show up, and when they did I zapped them, but it still meant I had to stay on top of the comment thread and be ready for them when they showed up, ready to be asswipes for the lulz. Which is another thing, of course:

3. Lots of commenters are a drag. We’re not even talking about the out and out trolls and spammers. There’s also the single-issue tubthumpers, the condescending rhetoricians, the “devil’s advocates,” the concern trolls, the unintentional derailers, the grievously offended, the eager self-promoters, the cluelessly “helpish,” the ignorant who think they’re not, and so on and so forth. Mind you, you are not any one of them — of course not! — but I’m sure you’ve seen them in the comment threads, and they have to be managed if the comment threads are to have any value at all. Which brings us back to “managing comments is a lot of work.” It’s enough work, in fact, that:

4. Sometimes the amount of work required to manage a comment thread has an impact on what gets written. I quite obviously don’t shy away from subjects here that can garner hundreds of comments and/or require a fair amount of my attention in the moderation thread, but what’s not so obvious is that before I post about something I know will be controversial or likely to garner comments, I’ll ask myself if I actually have the time to deal with it. Because, you know, I don’t get paid for my comment thread management tasks, and I do have work that has to get done if I want to keep this lovely roof over my head. If I don’t have the time to deal with a comment thread, I’ll sometimes punt that topic to a later date.

And then there are other times where I’ll not write something here because, you know what? I don’t wanna argue. I love you guys, honestly I do, but, man, sometimes? I just don’t want to hear from you. Now, there’s also the flip side of this, when I post something and then say bring it, suckas, and hit the “refresh” button on the comment thread every fifteen seconds. So it’s not all bad, trust me. But the point is, sometimes the mere thought of having to deal with comments makes a difference whether I rouse myself to write on a topic.

Of course, there are good things about comments and commenters as well, and while I’m not going to detail them at the moment, let’s just say that I wouldn’t keep my own comments open if I felt all y’all were a constant burden. But, look. Even with all the good stuff, it’s still a lot of work. And it’s not in the least unreasonable for someone running a blog to decide that it’s more work than they have time and energy for. Especially if the way they pay the bills is by writing other things.

If by giving himself a break on comments, Toby finds he’s more interested in writing his own blog and sharing his own thoughts there, then I think both he and his readers are going to benefit. I’m one of his readers. I know I like it when he blogs. If this means more, I’m willing to forgo the comments. Lord knows I (and others) have other ways to make our thoughts on what he writes heard.


Next Year in Toronto

It’s been officially announced, so I can now announce it here: I’m going to be the International Author Guest of Honor for the 2011 edition of SFContario, Canada’s newest science fiction convention (it just wrapped up its first edition yesterday). Joining me in Guest of Honor-dom will be the excellent Karl Schroeder (Canadian Author Guest of Honor), David Langford (Fan GoH), Gardner Dozois (Editor GoH) and Toyboat (Filk GoH). The convention will take place November 18-20, 2011, at the Ramada Plaza Hotel in Toronto. I’ve added it to my “Scheduled Appearances” page.

As a side note regarding the “Scheduled Appearances” page, I’ll note that in the next month or so I’ll be filling it out more completely, but that my 2011 is in flux at the moment pending more information coming my way. The back of my Fuzzy Nation ARC tells me I’ll be having a tour of some sort, for example, but at the moment I’m not sure when (I suspect sometime in May/June) or where. Likewise, there’s a very good chance I’ll be going on my first international tour in 2011, but again the details of that one are very much in the air (but if it does happen, will be in the last quarter of the year). As soon as I lock everything down I’ll be posting the information here, trust me.

But no matter what, I’ll definitely be in Toronto in November 2011. And I’m very much looking forward to it. Hope to see you there, too.


The Executive Decision to Run Away From the Blog Until Monday

I has made it. But I am leaving you with a cat picture, so that’s all right:

There you go. Have a good weekend.


Adventures in High Contrast Black and White

Photoshop is interesting.


Surprise! It’s Open Pimp Thread Time!

Someone recently asked me on Twitter when I was going to do an Open Pimp Thread again, because it’s been a while. I told him “NEVER.” Why did I do that? To lull him into a false sense of security, that’s why. So that when I did do another one, he would be, like, totally surprised. So HAH, Twitter person! Bet I just made you spill your coffee all over yourself. What a rotten bastard I am.

For those of you new to Whatever or otherwise totally forgetful, an Open Pimp Thread is when you — yes! you! — recommend something for other people to be excited about. Could be a Web site, could be a new book, could be some other sort of awesome project. It could be something you’re doing, or maybe something a friend of yours is up to, or maybe it’s done by people you don’t even know, but is still so cool you’d like to share. So share!

How to do that: in the comment thread, tell us about the cool thing, and then leave a link. Easy. Note that if you do more than a couple of links in a comment, you might get the message punted into the moderation queue. I’ll be checking that queue from time to time today to release those messages, so don’t panic if it doesn’t immediately post. I recommend one link per comment, and making more than one comment if you have more than one thing to suggest.

So: what do you want to tell people about today? In this surprise open pimp thread?


Two More Countries Heard From

It’s a good month for The Ghost Brigades: Here you see its Hebrew and Romanian versions, respectively. Both are fairly interesting cover treatments, I have to say.

In other news, I agreed to new foreign language offers for both Fuzzy Nation and The Android’s Dream (which foreign language to be revealed when the contract is actually signed), so my work is still making the rounds. Yay! More new cover art is coming! I love new cover art, man.


That’s My Kid

My daughter had to serve detention today.

Her crime: Being sarcastic to a teacher.

This is, you can imagine, a bittersweet moment for me.


MFA Programs and Commercial Publishing

Elise Blackwell, author and director of the MFA program at the University of South Carolina, offers in The Chronicle of Higher Education a rebuttal to my suggestion that MFA writing programs offer a course on contracts and the publishing industry. Her position is that the goal of MFA programs is “not to grow hothouse flowers but to protect writers for two or three short years so that they [can] write a book without distraction,” and notes that one real issue is MFA programs which charge large sums for tuition, thus adding additional pressure on their students to find a way to defray their debt load as soon as possible — and thus making them more susceptible to hucksters like James Frey. Her problem with the Columbia MFA program is not so much that it doesn’t offer a business/contracts course, but that it costs close to $50k a year to attend (the MFA program Blackwell attended, at UC Irvine, apparently funded its students).

I encourage you to read the article, which I think is an interesting and useful perspective from the other side of the MFA fence. That said, I (naturally) have some quibbles with the article, and here they are.

* Blackwell and I are certainly in agreement that $50k a year for an MFA is a ridiculous sum on its face, and I agree that staring at that debt load is bound to make a writer quiver. But as I’ve noted elsewhere, part of the reason one pays for a degree from an elite institution is not just for the degree but for everything else such a degree confers, including connections, a robust alumni/elite school network, and an (at least initial) economic leg up on other folks with an equal or comparable degree from schools perceived as less elite. I remember the editor who hired me for my first job telling me that my degree from the University of Chicago was “impressive”; I’m pretty sure that the same degree from Fresno State would not have elicited the same response. And I of course was happy to let that editor be impressed. I wanted the gig. But beyond that, that was one of the things a U of C degree was supposed to do for me, and did. That made it, both short and long term, worth the cost.

Let us stipulate that a writer who is accepted into Columbia’s graduate writing program very likely had her choice of other programs to attend, including ones substantially less expensive. One reason to choose Columbia despite the cost is for these ancillary benefits. This is not to defend the actual price tag of $50k, which I think is a silly amount. It is to suggest there is a rational reason to make that expensive choice.

It’s also worth noting that those students who make that choice for that reason are already looking beyond the classroom to their overall careers. So while the MFA program can offer a safe harbor to focus on writing and study, that’s not the only (and perhaps not even the primary) reason students are in the program. In which case, a little practical knowledge would not be a bad thing.

* Likewise, I suspect that Blackwell rather overadvantages the idea of the MFA writing program as a cloister for the life of the mind, with students inwardly turned to the program rather than outward facing into the world. She and I certainly do not disagree that there are advantages to the former, nor do I think it’s wrong for an MFA writing program to say to its students “your head should be here, now” and to tell editors and agents hovering by the door to piss off. That said, I think a program should be realistic about the latter at the same time, because, surprise, whether in theory an MFA writing program is about literature and the life of the mind, in practice people want to be publishing sooner than later — maybe not for good reasons and maybe before they should, but, well. That’s ambition for you, and that ambition will be there regardless of the cost of the program.

That being the case, the argument for a business/contracts class is as much about protecting the “hothouse flowers” who are anxious to jump the fence into commercial writing as it is preparing the people who have stuck with the program to make their first sales. A practical understanding of the traps and disadvantageous things writers both do and let slip past them in contracts can be a useful cautionary tale that feeds into the overall goal of the MFA program of keeping its student’s head in the program, not craning out to a hustler with a genuinely crappy contracts.

* Speaking of which, I think Blackwell is rather too dismissive that the awfulness of Frey’s Full Fathom Five contract. She writes:

Some suggest that Frey’s “victims” were made vulnerable by MFA programs that didn’t educate them about publishing, but it requires little training to identify Frey’s contracts as absurd. (Does anyone really think $250 is fair market value for a commercially viable novel or that letting someone else use your name as they please is smart?) The writers who signed those contracts weren’t acting out of ignorance but from some combination of desperation, hope, and a sense of exceptionalism that writers need to get out of bed. (“I know James Joyce died in poverty, Kafka worked a desk job, and Dan Brown can’t coax a sentence out of a bag, but I can be brilliant and rich.”) Some of them were just taking a flyer.

The issue with that awful, awful contract isn’t what’s obvious, but what’s not. Sure, anyone with a brain could see that $250 for a novel is terrible, but what those damnably ignorant MFA students were looking at wasn’t the $250; they were looking at the alleged 40% of backend, which includes (cue Klieg lights and orchestra) sweet, rich, movie option money!!!!!!!! And what they don’t know, or undervalue because reading contracts is difficult when you’ve not done it before and no one’s explained them to you, is that it’s not really 40% of everything, it’s 40% of whatever Frey decides to give you after he’s trimmed off his share, and, oh yeah, you have to take his word for it because you’re not allowed an audit. So yes, the $250 (or $500) for a book is awful and obvious. But it’s everything else about that contract which is truly rapacious, as it appears to promise so much more, and it all seems perfectly reasonable when you don’t have the experience to know what a horror it is.

Beyond this, of course: Has anyone told the MFA students holding those contracts the odds of a book making it through the production gauntlet, even when they’re from best selling authors? Has anyone told them how much the average film option is for (hint: Not a lot) or that it’s not paid all at once but often in installments that dribble out over years? Or that the real payday is not up front, but on the back end — if the property ever goes into production, which it probably won’t — and in the meantime they will still have to eat? Does anyone expect James Frey to be honest to them about all of this? No, what they can expect from James Frey is what he no doubt says: “I’m offering you not a lot now but there’s a huge potential later.” Which is perfectly accurate as far as it goes. It just doesn’t go very far.

So, yes: Blackwell is wrong, here. It doesn’t take training to see the parts that are obviously bad, but the obviously bad parts are easily rationalized away. It does take training and experience to see the parts that are genuinely egregious, and to know why they are so. If an MFA program is going to let a snake into the garden, as Columbia did when it dropped James Frey into that classroom, then it should damn well should have some antivenom on hand.

* Finally, I found this bit egregiously classist:

M.F.A. programs are about the creation and study of literature, and it’s worth reminding people that you don’t need any degree to be a writer. A young writer whose central goal is commercial success should skip graduate school. (You don’t apprentice at an opera company and expect to be introduced to Nashville music producers, which I say with no disrespect to either milieu.)

Opera companies aren’t interested in commercial success? Nashville music producers can’t or don’t create art? I have news for Ms. Blackwell on both counts. Overt and woefully uninformed personal musical snobbery aside, it appears she’s confusing how each of these musical genres currently generally acquires funding with whether they are concerned with commercial success. This is not a good comparison.

On the same token, I can very easily picture a writer who has commercial motivations going to graduate school for writing because he has adjudged his own personal success as a writer depending on honing his own skills in a setting of collaboration and instruction. To suggest such a writer deprive himself of these advantages simply because he also dreams of best seller lists seems a bit dismissive. I certainly agree one does not need a degree to be a writer (hello!), but if Blackwell’s classmate Mr. Chabon is any indication (or indeed Ms. Blackwell herself), neither must an MFA doom one to a life of academic publishing and/or obscurity.

A love of literature and the study thereof, and a desire for commercial success for one’s own writing and art, are not either/or propositions. Even for MFA writing students.


Not Quite Accurate SF Movie Descriptions; Favorite Video Games

I’ve got two — two — TWO!! links for you this morning.

First, over at I’ve written up some “accurate but misleading” descriptions of famous science fiction films, inspired by Rick Polito’s famous TV listing of The Wizard of Oz (“Transported to a surreal landscape, a young girl kills the first person she meets and then teams up with three strangers to kill again”), and, of course, countless variations of the theme online. Come look at your favorite science fiction movie in a whole new way, and then if you’re so inclined add your own comment and/or accurate but misleading movies description in the comments.

Second, I’ve participated in SF Signal’s most recent Mind Meld feature, offering up some of my favorite science fiction-related video games over the past three decades. Because yes, I am that old. I saw TRON in the movie theater, you damn kids! Now get off my lawn, before I start cursing at you in COBOL! As with the FilmCritic column, any comments or observations should be offered up over there.

Enjoy both!


Backscattering and Groping

Been asked for my opinion on the new and egregiously invasive TSA scans. Well, I think two separate things.

One: On a personal level, I don’t really give a crap about whether the full-body backscatter thingamajig makes me look like a naked mannequin and some poor bastard TSA person might have a glimpse at my virtual backscattered junk. One reason for this is that I’m pretty confident my own fake-nude snapshot will get deleted as soon as it’s called up; even with my recent loss of 20 pounds, I don’t exactly have a body that calls for the “save” button, and I’m not nearly famous enough for such a picture to be of interest on the IntarWeebs. And even if I were, you know what? Like I care. Let’s recall that I purposely put this picture of myself on the Internets:

not to mention this one:

So it’s not as if I’m brimming over with concern about looking bad. I’m not going to volunteer a picture of my naked, increasingly middle-aged  body — I think too much of you for that — but on the other hand if some pervert at the TSA were to upload it and it were identifiably me, I wouldn’t lose a whole lot of sleep over it either. Yes, I would say, that is a very naked, plastic-y, gray version of my own shapely self. You enjoy that.

Likewise, I’m not going to particularly care about close body search by the unfortunate TSA apparatchik who will will have to run his hand up to my groin area. I don’t flatter myself that the fellow will get that much enjoyment out of it, and while I don’t thrill to the idea of being groped in an airport for security purposes, the actual physical act doesn’t bother me much, either. Basically I would have to keep myself from smirking as Boom-chika-bow-ow went through my head as I was being patted down, but really, that’s pretty much it. So, yes. Not nearly outraged enough about either on a personal level to have either stop me from getting on a flight.

Two: My complete personal indifference is entirely separate from the larger philosophical question of whether these additional invasive steps are actually necessary, or whether I, as an average-looking middle-aged white man with apparently a high tolerance for official invasions of my personal space, am likely to have the same backscatter/TSA body grope experience as, say, a young woman or a swarthy-looking fellow with a beard. I suspect rather strongly that in both cases the answer is no, and both of these in themselves are perfectly sufficient reasons for other people to be annoyed and to protest and to engage in civil disobedience regarding these things. Although speaking selfishly I hope that if they do, that they are behind me in the security line. Because, hey, the reason I am at the airport is to catch my plane.

My understanding is that there is a movement underfoot to have 11/24 as “opt-out day,” in which people intend to refuse the body scan at airports on one of the busiest flying days of the year, thus likely slowing down the flying experience even more one what is likely to be an aggravating flying day for just about everyone. As noted, philosophically I have little disagreement with the protest; on a practical level I’m happy that the only travel I have planned for the Thanksgiving holiday is going down the road to the in-laws. Protests are often like that.

As an aside, one thing I occasionally see people asking why the US (and Canada) can’t run  airports more like Israel does. I don’t pretend to know enough to give a genuinely sufficient answer to this, but I will hypothesize that one reason may be that the Israeli way is possibly not scalable from a small, militarized country of seven and a half million to a large and largely civilian country with 40 times the population. Israel has 11 airports (two international and nine domestic); the US has 376 which have regularly scheduled airline service. This isn’t to suggest the US couldn’t do its airport security better or less invasively. Just that I don’t know if we could do it like Israel.


METAtropolis: Cascadia is Out

For those of you who enjoyed METAtropolis — and enough of you did that it became the first audiobook nominated for a Hugo — I’m delighted to inform you that today its sequel METAtropolis Cascadia is out and available for your listening pleasure. M:C not only reunites four of the five original authors of METAtropolis (Elizabeth Bear, Tobias Buckell, Jay Lake and Karl Schroeder) but adds two additional fabulous authors to the mix: Mary Robinette Kowal and Ken Scholes. Each contributes a story focused on the area and themes originally covered by Jay Lake in his METAtropolis story “In the Forests of the Night.”

But wait, there’s more! Each of the stories in M:C is narrated by an actor who performed in the Star Trek universe: Rene Auberjonois, Kate Mulgrew, Wil Wheaton, Gates McFadden, Jonathan Frakes and LeVar Burton, all of whom do a spectacular job reading the words of the authors (you can see the voice talent discuss their work on the project here).

Basically METAtropolis: Cascadia is a big ol’ ball of geek joy. I think you’re going to enjoy the heck out of it. I know I have. I hope you’ll give it a listen.


Nebula Award Nomination Period is Open

If you’re an active or associate SFWA member, it will interest you to know that it is now once again time to start nominating your favorite science fiction and fantasy works for the Nebula Awards. Over at the SFWA site we have all the details on how and what you can nominate.

Don’t worry, you don’t need to rush — the nomination period runs through February 15, 2011. Lots of time to consider what you want to tout as the best in science fiction and fantasy for 2010. But it’s never too early to start thinking about what to choose. Happy reading!


My Favorite Negative Review of The God Engines (Today)

It is:

This book is something that only a 17 year old Megadeth fan would be proud of. The characters are dull, the plot is dull, the themes are trite and stupid, and it has the worst third sentence of any book I have ever read.

I was actually drinking a Coke Zero when I read that sentence. It did come out my nose.

And, yes. Fair call on sentence three. I promise the third sentence in Fuzzy Nation is much better.

On another subject entirely, are there still 17-year-old Megadeth fans? At this point I would think the youngest would be, like, 35.


An Open Letter to MFA Writing Programs (and Their Students)

Dear MFA writing programs (and their students):

Recently New York magazine published a story, in which Columbia University’s graduate writing program invited James Frey to come chat with its students on the subject of “Can Truth Be Told?” during which Frey mentioned a book packaging scheme that he had cooked up. The contractual terms of that book packaging scheme are now famously known to be egregious — it’s the sort of contract, in fact, that you would sign only if you were as ignorant as a chicken, and with about as much common sense — and yet it seems that Frey did not have any problem getting people to sign on, most, it appears, students of MFA programs. Frey is clearly selecting for his scheme writers who should know better, but don’t — and there’s apparently a high correlation between being ignorant that his contract is horrible and being an MFA writing student.

I don’t blame Columbia University’s graduate writing program for inviting James Frey over to talk to its students about “truth.” If there’s anyone who knows about the word truth contained between ironic quotation marks, it’d be James Frey, and it’s probably not a bad idea for the kids to see a prevaricating hustler up close to observe how one of his kind can rationalize bad actions and even poorer ethics as transgressive attempts at literature. It’s always a joy to see how a master of bullshit spins himself up; publishing and literature being what they are, the students should probably learn to recognize this species sooner than later, all the better to move their wallets to their front pockets when such a creature stands before them.

What does bother me, however, is that Frey apparently quite intentionally was working his way through MFA programs recruiting writers for his book packaging scheme. You could say there’s an obvious reason for this, which is that MFA writing students are likely more competent at writing than your average schmoe writer on the street (this is a highly arguable contention, but never mind that now), and they’re all in one place, which makes for easier recruiting. But I suspect there’s another reason as well, which is that in general it appears MFA writing programs don’t go out of their way educate their students on the publishing industry, or contracts, or much about the actual business of writing.

And so when someone like James Frey breezes in and starts blowing smoke about collaborations, the response is this —

We were desperate to be published, any way we could. We were spending $45,000 on tuition, some of us without financial aid, and many taking out loans that were lining us up to graduate six figures in debt. A deal like the one Frey was offering could potentially pay off our loans and provide an income for the next decade. Do a little commercial work under a pseudonym, sell the movie rights, and never have to suffer as a writer in New York. We wouldn’t even need day jobs.

— followed by a number of students receiving and then signing a contract that pays them next to nothing, and offers a deal so constrictive that by the terms of the contract Frey could publish works under their names and keep them from publishing again (via a gloriously vague “non-compete” clause). Frey was no doubt counting on the students being starry-eyed at the presence of a real-live bestselling author (even a disgraced one) who was waving a movie deal in their faces, but one reason he could count on it was because he was speaking to an audience whose formal educations did not include learning how to spot a crappy deal.

So, MFA writing programs, allow me to make a suggestion. Sometime before you hand over that sheepskin with the words “Master of Fine Arts” on it, for which your students may have just paid tens of thousands of dollars (or more), offer them a class on the business of the publishing industry, including an intensive look at contracts. Why? Because, Holy God, they will need it.

Now, perhaps you are saying, “We focus on the art of writing, not the business.” My answer to that is, please, pull your head out. Your students are not paying as much money as they do for your program strictly for the theoretical joys of writing. They are paying so they can publish, and it’s a pretty good bet, considering how many of those Columbia folks scrambled to pitch to Frey, that they actually want to be published commercially, not just in university presses, in which (sorry) low advances and small print runs don’t matter since it’s just another line on the CV. Yes, you are teaching an art, but whether you like it or not you’re also teaching a trade — or at the very least many of your students are coming to learn a trade, and put up with the art portion of it as part of the deal. Teaching them something about the trade will not hurt your program.

And then you might say, “there’s no point in teaching them about the business because if they go the commercial publishing route they’ll have agents.” To which I would say, wow, really? “Other people will handle the dirty money part” is a response that a) shows a certain amount of snobbery, b) sets up a writer to be dependent on others because she is ignorant of the particulars of her own business. You know how every year you hear about an actor or musician who has been screwed by his accountant or business manager? That’s what happens when you don’t pay attention — or more relevantly don’t have the knowledge to pay attention.

To be clear, I don’t want to paint literary agents, et al as suspicious and shady characters; I have two literary agents (one for fiction and one for non-fiction) and they are super-smart and do a great job for me, and I’m glad they do their job and leave me to do mine, which is writing. But you know what? Part of the reason I know they’re doing a good job is because I know my own business, which makes it easier for me to know what they are doing. It also means they know that they can discuss business with me on a realistic and sensible level. Beyond that, not everyone has an agent, or (alas) a good one if they have one.

Finally, you may say “We don’t have anyone on our faculty who can/wants to teach that course.” Well, presuming that your university doesn’t have a business or law school on campus, from whom you might borrow an appropriate professor every now and again, I can’t help but notice that adjunct professors are very popular in academia these days, and I’m guessing that maybe you could find someone. Try a working agent, maybe. Point is, if you wanted to offer this class, you could.

There is no reason not to offer a class on this stuff. And maybe students will choose not to take that class. But if that’s the case, at least then it’s all on them. Your students are all presumably adults and are responsible for their own actions, to be sure. But if you’re not giving them the tools to know when a huckster is hucking in their direction, if they get hulled, some of that’s on you.

Speaking of which, let me know turn my attention away from the MFA writing programs and to the writing grad students themselves:

Dudes. Learn about the industry, already, before you sign a contract. Otherwise you’re going to get shaved by the first jackass who waves a publishing deal in your face. Yes, I know, you’re smart and clever and you write really well. You know what, your belief in your intelligence and your cleverness and your writing ability as a proxy for knowing everything you need to know about the world is exactly what’s going to get you screwed. Because being smart and clever and writing well has nothing to do with the backend business of the publishing industry or reading a contract knowledgeably and dispassionately. Think about those MFA students who are now slaving away for Frey on the worst contract just about anyone in publishing has ever seen. I’m pretty sure they all think they are smart and clever and write well, too.

If your MFA program doesn’t have a class on contracts and the publishing industry, ask for one. Because, Jesus, you’re spending enough for your education. You might want to get some practical knowledge out of it as well. If it can’t or won’t offer that class to you, a) complain and b) seek out that information. The writers’ organization to which I belong, SFWA, sponsors Writer Beware, which offers some of the basics about avoiding scams and bad practices, and has an informational area which includes sample contracts. Other writers’ organizations also have information for you, and most bookstores will have sections on writing and the business of writing. Find that information, learn it, and use it before you have anything to do with anyone trying to make a deal with you.

But why you should have to pay extra for this essential bit of education, or search for it outside your writing program, mind you, positively baffles me.

Update, 11/17: Those of you coming here from The Chronicle of Higher Education, I offer a rebuttal to Ms. Blackwell’s article here.


How I Solved the Deficit

The New York Times has an interactive feature today that lets common ordinary folk just like you and me take a whack at solving the deficit issue, giving you two goals to hit: Clearing the projected deficit in 2015 ($418 billion) and in 2030 ($1.3 trillion). Presumably you’ll also hit all the marks in between.

Well, I’m concerned about the deficit, so I thought I would give it a try, and I’m delighted to say that in fact I did manage to curb the deficit quite handily, cutting over $430 billion from the budget in 2015 and over $1.5 trillion from 2030. How did I do it? The link in this paragraph will take you to my actual worksheet, but if you’re lazy I’ll hit the highlights below.

My particular formula combines both cutting the size of government and trimming back some entitlements (yay! I’m conservative!) while also recognizing that taxes aren’t evil and in some cases should be raised for the overall benefit of society (yay! I’m a liberal!). It works out to 58% of the reduction coming from spending cuts and 42% coming from tax increases, which I think is perfectly reasonable.

(Update, 10:43 am: Adding in what I should have noted earlier — in doing this I’m working from the options provided by the interactive feature, which are both limited and elide over annoying little details that are nonetheless relevant. My own real-world choices would be similar to the choices I make here, but with some probably more subtle distinctions and details.)

Domestic Programs and Foreign Aid

In this category I leave pretty much everything untouched except for the number of people employed by the government, choosing to reduce the government workforce by 10% and to eliminate 250,000 contractors. I assume the contractors will be let go at the end of their contracts and the government workers through retirement and typical attrition. This saves $29 billion in 2015 and $32 billion in 2030.


Only two things touched here: I reduce the size of our nuclear arsenal (because I figure 1,000 nuclear warheads is enough to nuke the planet sufficiently) and I draw down our Iraq/Afghanistan troop numbers to 60,000 in 2015. This saves $70 billion in 2015 and $187 billion in 2030.

Health Care

This is where the biggest savings come in. For you conservatives out there, I institute medical malpractice reform, which I know you’ve been itchin’ for. Don’t say I never did nothing for you. I also increase the Medicare eligibility age to 68, although I’ll note that if people really howl about this one I can take it out while still covering the projected deficits for both years. But the huge item here is capping Medicare growth starting in 2013, tying it to GDP growth plus one percent. Now, before everyone begins griping at me about this, I’ll note that in 2030 I’ll be 61, which means I’m putting these reforms on my own tab, and the tab of my own generational cohort. Sorry, Gen X. We’re the ones taking the hit, as usual. But on the other hand we’re saving $45 billion in 2015 and a staggering $631 billion in 2030.

Social Security

You know, if memory serves, when Social Security first started, the life expectancy for the average American was only about a year beyond the retirement age of 65. Now life expectancy is closing in on 80 years, so you can spend 15 years collecting Social Security. This longevity is one reason why I don’t feel entirely bad about deciding to raise the Social Security retirement age to 68 (it was already going up to 67). Once again, it’ll be me and my generation working those extra three years, and I’m fine with that. I also trim down the Social Security benefits for high income folks (more accurately have those benefits determined by a slightly different formula), because you know what? They generally have better retirement set-ups and as a high-income sort of person, I’m fine suggesting to other folks like me that we can probably get along just fine and let the government tend to those who have actual need. This saves $19 billion in 2015 and $125 billion in 2030.

Existing Taxes

The estate tax, gone this particular year (if you’re a billionaire, your heirs want you to die now!!!) will be coming back, although for my part I choose the Lincoln-Kyl formulation of it, which is a 35% tax on estates larger than $5 million, indexed to inflation. So relax, death tax hysterics; you’re almost certain not to get hit. I also boost capital gains and dividends taxes to 20% on high income investors, because 20% is not an onerous tax rate. Likewise I let the Bush tax cuts expire on people making $250,000 or more a year. Don’t wring your hands for the well-off, folks. I assure you we can afford it. I also boost payroll tax on high-income folks so that 90% of incomes are covered (it’s about 80% now). This saves $126 billion in 2015 and $259 billion in 2030.

New Taxes and Reforms

Two things here: One, I implement the Bowles-Simpson plan, which gets rid of a number of tax loopholes but then also generally lowers tax rates overall, which I suspect benefits most people with relatively uncomplicated tax profiles. Two, I institute a bank tax, because you know what? After spending a trillion dollars in the last couple of years to bail them out of their own greed-fueled stupidity, I think it’s fine to use taxes to put something aside for the next time their greed-fueled stupidity gets the best of them. This saves $148 billion in 2015 and $278 billion in 2030.

That’s how I would do it. Your thoughts? How would you do it?


The Man in the Frey Flannel Suit

Folks from all over are sending along e-mails asking me what I think of this story in New York magazine about author James Frey’s book packaging shop, in which Frey trolls classrooms full of impressionable MFA candidates and/or aspiring authors to get them to give him their ideas, in return offering them a contract that is a high water mark in being a complete asshole:

In exchange for delivering a finished book within a set number of months, the writer would receive $250 (some contracts allowed for another $250 upon completion), along with a percentage of all revenue generated by the project, including television, film, and merchandise rights—30 percent if the idea was originally Frey’s, 40 percent if it was originally the writer’s. The writer would be financially responsible for any legal action brought against the book but would not own its copyright. Full Fathom Five could use the writer’s name or a pseudonym without his or her permission, even if the writer was no longer involved with the series, and the company could substitute the writer’s full name for a pseudonym at any point in the future. The writer was forbidden from signing contracts that would “conflict” with the project; what that might be wasn’t specified. The writer would not have approval over his or her publicity, pictures, or biographical materials. There was a $50,000 penalty if the writer publicly admitted to working with Full Fathom Five without permission.

You can see the actual contract in question here.

Just to be clear, if James Frey (or anyone else) tried to offer me this contract to write a book, here’s what I would do: Have my agent schedule a meeting with him for the clear and specific purpose of kicking him hard and square in the balls.

But then again, James Frey would never offer me this sort of contract. I’m too old and ossified (read: agented and with knowledge of the publishing industry) for him. He doesn’t want to deal with writers who know the appropriate response to this contract is to knee him in the groin. For Frey’s scheme to work, he needs writers who don’t know better, and apparently our nation’s MFA programs don’t actually have classes on contracts or how the publishing industry works, so they make fertile ground for a huckster intent on dazzling the kids.You can’t say Frey doesn’t know his target audience.

Seriously, people. $500 and unauditable net points for a novel? That contract probably also specifies that the writer has to spring for the lube.

The lamentable rejoinder to this is that some people will think that it’s worth it for the exposure to the film industry or publishing industry or whatever. Folks: being an anonymous, uncredited cog in a book packaging scheme doesn’t actually get you exposure to anything, except to the fact that you’re working for peanuts for The Man, and The Man is a rich bearded hipster who walks around in socks, and doesn’t care about you, just what you can do for him. Congratulations: you’re the man in the Frey Flannel Suit. Not that you could afford a suit on what you’re being paid.

Writers: This contract would be appalling and egregious regardless of who was offering it. A story idea good enough for James Frey to sell to Hollywood would be good enough to sell to Hollywood without James Frey. Write your story, get an agent, and sell your work with your own name on it and all your rights to the work intact. It may take more time, but it will be worth it. Have more respect for yourself and your work than quite obviously James Frey will have.

Update, 11/15: An open letter to MFA writing programs (and their students).


How To Get Signed Books From Me For the Holidays

Hey! Kids! In the United States and thinking of giving some of my books for Christmas/Hanukkah/Winter Solstice/Enter Your Favorite Winter Holiday Here? Well, why not get them signed and personalized? By me, even? Because, you know, nothing says “I love/like/am in some way obligated to you” like a signed, personalized book. From me! And while you’re doing it, you’ll be helping out a local independent book store. Which means your literary karma will go right through the roof. Everybody wins!

Here’s how you can do it: call or e-mail my local book store, Jay and Mary’s Book Center, in Troy, Ohio, and tell them:

a) What books of mine you’d like;

b) Who you would like to have the books personalized to;

c) Any specific message you like me to scribble (within reason);

d) Where you want those books shipped.

They will tally up your order (the cost of books plus shipping), take your credit card information and fill your order. And then, every few days between now and December 20 (or so), I’ll head down to the bookstore, sit in their stock room, and sign those books for you. How many books? As many books as you feel like ordering. You order a hundred, I’ll sign a hundred (go ahead. Order a hundred. I dare you).

And then off the books will go, toward whomever it is you wish to receive your gift — or to you, if, say you want to wrap them yourself and/or are ordering the books for yourself. Because, hey, don’t you deserve a signed book, too? You sure do.

Here is Jay and Mary’s contact information page, with their phone number and an e-mail form. Give them a call, they would love to hear from you.

And now, an important shipping note you should pay attention to: In talking to Mary today, she suggested that in order to make sure that your books get where they’re supposed to go by Christmas/Solstice, you should probably get your orders in no later than December 10 (if you want them for Hanukkah, better get to the phone right now, because that starts December 2).

Jay and Mary’s will happily take orders after December 10 but can’t guarantee that books ordered after that date will arrive on time for Christmas, because, hey, US Postal Service during the holidays. You know how it is. Be that as it may I myself will be signing any order that comes in before December 20, so even if you miss the 12/10 date, you can still get books signed.

I regret to say Jay and Mary’s cannot ship outside the United States. Because it really is a pain in their ass to do so. Sorry, whole rest of the planet.

And you ask: what books of mine will Jay and Mary’s have available? Basically, if it’s in print, they can get it. Here’s what’s in print, and in which format:

CURRENT HARDCOVER: METAtropolis, The God Engines

CURRENT TRADE PAPERBACK: Agent to the Stars, Old Man’s War

CURRENT MASS MARKET PAPERBACK: Old Man’s War, The Ghost Brigades, The Last Colony, Zoe’s Tale, The Android’s Dream, Agent to the Stars (as of 11/30/10), The New Space Opera 2 (anthology; my story “The Tale of the Wicked” is in it).

CURRENT NON-FICTION: Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded (essay collection, Hugo winner), Book of the Dumb, Book of the Dumb 2 (both humor books), The Rough Guide to the Universe, second edition (Astronomy), The Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies (film). All my non-fiction is in Trade Paperback format.

So just call Jay and Mary’s with your order and they’ll get you set up.

Any additional questions? Leave them in the comments and I’ll answer them for you. Thanks, and happy shopping!

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