Reader Request Week 2012 #9: Writery Short Bits
Posted on March 24, 2012 Posted by John Scalzi 23 Comments
You all asked writer-related questions this week; here’s a compendium of short responses.
Madely: Comics books: Do you read them, or if not did you used to read them? Any favourites? And would you ever think of writing some?
I like comics generally although at the moment I’m not reading any; my big comics-reading years were in college and right after, which is where I discovered folks like Neil Gaiman and Kyle Baker, who I still follow professionally. I actually wrote for comics in college; there was a University of Chicago comic book called Breakdown, which featured such notable writer/artists as Jessica Abel and Ivan Brunetti, and I authored a story called “Chemuel: Angel With an Attitude,” which was drawn by my friend Richard Polt (who is now a notable expert on Heidegger). I’m not opposed to writing more comics in the future, although at the moment it’s not something I’m actively pursuing. I’ll note there were plans at one point for an Old Man’s War manga series, but it fell through.
RevRob: What way of us buying your books helps you out the most? (Pays the best, provides better press, stokes the ego most. . . ) Maybe rephrased better as: How would you prefer we buy your books?
As long as you’re buying them new, really, it doesn’t matter. Buy them in hardcover, buy them in paperback, buy them electronically — at the end of the day it pretty much all comes out in the wash. If such things are actually hugely important to you, then buy the book in hardcover the week it comes out, because that’s my best shot at getting onto the New York Times bestseller list, and that makes my publisher happy, and I have to admit that I don’t mind, either. But otherwise it’s pretty much all the same. I’m glad you’re buying the books, and my royalty rates on each format are perfectly good.
Komavary: Being a well-translated author (Hungarian edition of OMW is coming soon! Finally!), what is your stance on foreign (genre) works translated to English? How do they affect your reading? Do you seek them out, give them the same chance as English books or you don’t bother much with translations? Also, in a general sense, how do you see the relationship of English and non-English science fiction? (One-way cultural export, living conversation or something else?)
I don’t really see that much in the direction of non-English SF having an impact on writers and readers here because there’s not enough in translation, and what is in translation doesn’t sell particularly well. Non-English SF has a huge influence elsewhere, for example in film and comics, but in the written field it’s a desert. I know of grassroot efforts to change this and I do applaud it since I’m reasonably sure we’re missing out on some great SF. I’m personally happy to read SF/F or any other work in translation, because, being depressingly monolingual as I am, how else will I read them?
Dave Nichols: Since books pay the mortgage etc. Have you ever wished social networking had never taken off? No twitter, Facebook etc? Would you be happier in a garden shed miles from distractions quietly turning out masterpieces?
You know, I did an admirable job of procrastination before there were social networks or the popular Internet. If they didn’t exist I would still find ways not to do work. So I really can’t blame the Internet or Twitter for that.
Kevin Williams: What would you change in our copyright/trademark/patent regime to make it sane and useful to society, while still protecting producers?
Addressing copyright only: 75 years for corporations, 75 years or life + 25 for individuals (whichever is longer), renew from that point annually at the cost of $2 to the n (where n is the number of years past the end of the initial term of copyright), with the sums generated by the renewal going to pay down our national debt (in the US, at least) and then into a general fund. Seems like a good way to a) make sure significant value is extracted from the work by the creators, b) let the public benefit either from the work in the public domain or the revenue extracted from those unwilling to release the work thusly.
Regan Wolfrom: How do you feel about bigotry and hate within the speculative fiction community? Do you believe that there is an increasing polarization between progressive authors/editors/readers and their more socially conservative counterparts? Does it feel strange to run into people at conventions and other events who you know are actively involved in advancing goals that you may personally find abhorrent?
I feel about bigotry and hate in spec fic as I feel about it everywhere else: It’s stupid and wrong, and I like to think I’m on the side of the angels on this, although like anyone I have my moments of cluelessness. That said, I think we need to be careful in the implicit association of “conservative” and “bigoted,” and likewise “progressive” and “non-bigoted,” because while there are some real-world correlations, I know a fair number of conservatives who oppose bigotry on explicitly conservative philosophical grounds, and I’ve known people who sign onto progressive ideals but who also show their asses on matters of race/gender/sexuality and so on.
As regards seeing people at conventions who hold differing political opinions than mine — including people who I’ve clashed with politically online and elsewhere — well, in some ways that could be anyone, right? I’ve previously and pithily described my personal politics as “I believe in the right of same-sex married couples to carry concealed weapons,” which means that if I wanted to, I could spend a whole lot of my time getting into political arguments all over the spectrum. But generally I’m not at a convention to do that. If I there’s someone I find personally abhorrent for whatever reason, I usually avoid them. But most people don’t rise to that level, regardless of politics.
Claire: Feminism! Do you think about it when you write? Do you think about it as you raise your kid?
I don’t generally actively think about it, no. I do think about representations of women in my work and whether they are doing things that reflect their own agency rather than simply existing to support the (so far usually male) protagonists of my work. To be honest about it, the single most useful thing to me in this regard has been the Bechdel Test, because it’s simple and yet also really effective in helping to keep one’s work from being a desert of female agency. But I don’t know if that counts as thinking about feminism in any real sense. I don’t want to give myself undue credit.
Do I think about feminism as I raise my child? To the extent that I (and more accurately, we) have raised our daughter to question assumptions related to her gender, and also to stand her ground against anyone who tries to put her into box, yes. But I’m not comfortable claiming a feminist cookie, if you know what I mean. Athena’s feminist sense of self — and she definitely has one — is rooted more in her own initiative than it is in our top-down application of it. Which I think is probably more useful to her in the long run.
Trevor: How has Baconcat affected you as a author/writer financially and in regards to work? Speaking for myself I wouldn’t have found you if not for Baconcat.
Baconcat brought folks into Whatever for the first time, and it’s still something that gets around, both online and off, which I find deeply amusing. And my subsequent association with bacon means that any time that particular meat shows up in one of my books, people in the know get to enjoy a moment of inside-joke-ness. But in terms of direct effect on my financial life as an author? It’s not really had an impact. I don’t sell books because of Baconcat, in other words, and often those people who know of Baconcat and not of me, who then learn of me, are surprised that, you know, I’m not just a nerd in his mom’s basement. Alternately, people who know of me and not of Baconcat are often taken aback that I would do something like that to my cat. The cat, I should note, doesn’t care one way or another.
Eric: A lot of people seem to think that reading a book is a more wholesome activity than watching TV or playing video games, though to me they’re just different mediums through which we gain ideas or enjoyment. What are your opinions about this?
I don’t know. Reading a pornographic book is not more wholesome than watching Mr. Rogers, nor is watching Best Sex Ever on Cinemax more wholesome than reading Beatrix Potter. Which is to say it’s not the medium, it’s the work in question. I personally have a balanced diet of several entertainment media, which suits me fine. I will say to date I find video game porn unedifying.
Gary: What are your thoughts on the use of the acronym “TL;DR” (too long; didn’t read)? Do you think this is a cop-out (“Oh, that’s at least a paragraph. My lips get too tired by then.”) Or do you think it necessary in order to deal with people who bury you with inanity (and insanity)?
On one hand, “tl;dr” feels like an advertisement for willful ignorance — “what, you can’t condense your point into a 140 characters? Screw you, I’m going home” — but on the other hand there’s a lot of long, badly-written, meandering crap out there online, and life really is too short. And there’s the fact that on the occasions where I am reading slush (i.e., unsolicited fiction submissions), I’ll stop reading a submission as soon as I get bored with the writing, which is often before the end of the first page. No, I don’t care if it picks up later, because I’m bored now.
Let me put it this way: If you’ve written something well, I’ll read it even if it goes on at length, but if you write poorly, I won’t finish it even if it’s Tweet-length. So, I wouldn’t use “tl;dr.” I might use “ws;sr,” which is “writing sucks; stopped reading.”
DaveA: You frequently talk about friends and people you respect among science fiction and fantasy authors, hanging out with them at conventions, etc. You seldom/never talk about the largest-selling authors in the genre (David Weber and Misty Lackey come to mind; I could think of others.) Do you not talk about best-selling authors because (a) they don’t need the advertising, (b) you don’t respect their work, (c) you don’t like them, (d) you just don’t run in the same crowd, or (e) something else? And, for some reason I really want to know… what do you think of David Weber’s works?
I like David Weber’s work just fine, but I don’t know him very well. I’ve met him precisely once, last year at ALA in New Orleans. He was lovely and we got along well, at least from my point of view. Likewise, I know Ms. Lackey professionally but not personally; I don’t believe she and I have been at a convention together. I tend to talk about my friends in science fiction and fantasy because they are, you know, my friends, and I see them and have fun with them. My not talking about someone in the field shouldn’t imply anything other than that I’m not talking about them.
Mike Turner: Do you feel you could come under the classification of a sesquipedalian author?
Generally, no. I tend not to use long words just to use long words; I will use a long word if I think it’s the best word, however. And anyone who looks at the length of my novels (i.e., short) knows I don’t say in a quarter of a million words what I can say in 75,ooo.
That said, this entry is right at 2,000 words. Time to close it up.
Stupid non-gamer question: Why would anyone want to view pornography while trying to kill Bowser? Mario Bros is hard…um, difficult enough as it is. I remember playing Super Mario on the SNES as a kid and thinking that video games were suspiciously like boring, frustrating, repetitive work that gave you aching thumbs. Virtually everyone that ever worked with or for me was a gamer to some degree. They’d finish a full days work and then go and play Warcraft in the conference room as if managing little pixelated towns was relaxing.
Now a book with a but of good romance I can understand…
As a footnote to Kevin Williams’ Q and Mr.Scalzi’s A, my Intellectual Property attorney son and I have published some papers on suggested changes to Copyright and Patent laws for the future when human/computer collaborations become much more significant. See the YouTube on the non-Beatles Beatles song performed, as constructed from computer analysis of the Beatles corpus; or the guy whose company has literally published over 1,000,000 books (each printed in a small run, mostly for libraries); or the key question asked by Stephen Wolfram: if a computer data-mines the Ideocosm (space of all possible ideas) and fins a valuable one, who SHOULD own the rights? My son is rewriting the latest of our (fanzine!) publications on the topic, for a Law Review. But meanwhile, he and I have bills to pay.
By the way, I also wrote for comics, including a Science Column in one comic book line; and I eagerly await publication of my graphic novel about the Lucasian Society (Newton, Babbage, Hawking, et al) as Defenders Against the Dark Arts… I’ve already been paid for it, you understand, but I want to hold it in my hands, and see people at Comic-Con holding it in theirs…
Who else? IBM ;)
I’d suggest an amendment to the “75 years or life + 25, whichever is longer” copyright term: to get the benefit of the “life + 25” term you should have to register with a national database and maintain current contact information. This avoids the “orphan works” problem under current law, where you may want to reprint a work but not be able to find the copyright holder or even know what year the author died.
I don’t like “tl;dr” due to the fact that it is a bit of an “advertisement for willful ignorance.” I think that the solution to dealing with the long, badly-written, meandering crap out there is “cool story, bro” – which preserves the snark, but without the downside of “tl;dr”. Plus, “cool story, bro” can be used for shorter badly written crap.
The problem with any overly simplistic assessment like the Bechdel Test is that… well, it’s overly simplistic. As a guideline for a male author genuinely concerned about his realistic and meaningful portrayal of female characters, I can see that it would be exceedingly useful to help the author ensure that his characters are developed accordingly. But as an unthinking assessment as to whether a given completed fictional work exhibits decent female characters, the Bechdel Test fails utterly. Deliberately crafting independent female characters means you pass the test, in both letter and spirit, but it’s neither a necessary nor sufficient condition. Passing the letter of the test doesn’t mean it’s not a steaming pile of misogynist tripe, and failing it doesn’t necessarily mean a female character doesn’t reflect her own agency — it might just mean she doesn’t talk to people.
The English-language version of the film “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” fails the test, because Lisbeth never speaks to another named female character. “Sucker Punch” passes.
I wouldn’t suggest that the Bechdel Test leads to good work or bad work; it does lead one to think about how women are represented in the work, and whether, if women are not represented (or represented without agency), it’s because of the story or because authorial laziness.
In other words, it’s like any tool. One can use it well, or not.
Being depressingly monolingual” as well, my reading goal this year is to read one translated book a month.
By year’s end, I want to be able to (mostly) enjoy reading something in an original language with a face-to-face translation into English.
Wish me luck.
I like the idea of renewal fees, but I have to concede that I prefer Mike Z. Williamson’s more restrain terms. Mike suggested:
“I oppose eternal copyright, as Disney is trying to do with Uncle Walt’s stuff. I think it’s perfectly reasonable to have 20 year increments, renewable during the author’s life, then once afterward, for descendents. For corporate created works we could go with 50 years one time. This is close to what the law used to be. Patents are currently 20 years, and renewal depends on several factors.”
That said, I think the biggest problems in modern IP are not copyright duration, but the trampling of the fair use doctrine. Creative work is derivative.
My living comes almost exclusively from my IP in the form of code. But I will say that most attempts to play gatekeeper when the horse has already left the barn and taken up residence on the end-user’s machine is folly of the most doomed variety. Now everyone and their brother is salivating over zero-client footprint apps, and those have amazing potential, but the people who think it’s going to keep everything under central control are deluding themselves as usual. In the end, the distributed computing will be the death of user lock-out, not its savior. Copyright is the right to sell copies, not the right to strong-arm the user into using her copy the way you want her to; trying to circumvent this basic fact with legally indefensible EULAs and horizon-broad interpretations of IP law is simply going to war against your customers.
Dave asked John:
David Weber crafts beautifully rich histories and cultures, and I love that he has a number strong female characters and telepathic cats. But good gawds could his recent work use some hefty downsizing. Back when I would chew through several books a week, I would occasionally make time for writers that regaled me with every last detail of every scene’s scenery, gesture, word and cough, but school and opening the new dojo has seriously cut into my recreational reading and never-ending stories no longer pass muster. To all the wonderful writers coming on the scene or recently arrived (and that includes John) brevity is your friend!
I always think of books as being “more wholesome” mostly because they engage my imagination more. Us humans are very visually oriented (with obvious exceptions,) and in a well written book, I stop seeing the words at a conscious level, and instead see the world my brain has created based on those words. This is where the old writer’s advice “show, don’t tell” seems like the most awesome advice, ever.
Then again, a good video game or movie can engage my imagination, too, just in a different way, so it’s probably a wash, in reality.
Happily, that’s not what the Bechdel Test actually tests, the little dig about it being ‘unthinking’ aside.
On the macro level, and where it originally came from, was a point about movies: that it is groudon hard to find any movie that not only has more than one female character, but has female characters who talk about something other than The Man. It illustrates Hollywood’s unthinking assessment of important characters as always being male, unless they are a romantic interest/femme fatale/helpmeet, in which case they’re female and you only need one or two per movie.
On the micro level, for the creator – which as you remember is the context in which Scalzi answered the question – it’s not a test of whether X movie/book/story is good or bad, or sexist vs. nonsexist. It’s a check-in. “Am I considering women as actual, like, characters in this work, or am I just assuming everybody is a guy? Does it occur to me that women ever talk to each other about anything other than [us] men?”
Now of course there are going to be works that can’t or even shouldn’t pass the Bechdel test; if you’re writing a story set on a British Navy vessel, or about the travails of Roman legionnaires trapped behind Hadrian’s Wall, then duh, they’re all gonna be guys, and you’re not going to throw in two washerwomen nattering about the weather just to get your Bechdel Cookie. But that’s why it’s a check-in: Is there a good reason for this? If so, okay, but if not, fix it. That strikes me as the opposite of an “unthinking assessment.”
But as an unthinking assessment
You have discovered that any tool, poorly used, is a tool poorly used. Well done.
mythago talks sense as usual.
I wrote a script for a short film last year, and it utterly fails the Bechdel Test. Why? Because it has only two characters and takes place entirely in a police interrogation room. Females are referred to, one of them the victim of the crime one of the characters is accused of, but none appear.
Now, they COULD both be women. It would require changing some lines, but it could be done. It would change the sympathy vectors a little, and not in ways I find desirable. It would pass the Bechdel Test, but it wouldn’t be any better or any more “feminist.”
Quite, and again it’s worth considering the context in a which it was introduced into Bechdel’s strip Dykes to Watch Out For. IIRC, it was movie night which is probably always going to be a trial for feminist-lesbians. :)
Now, someone up thread mentioned The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo. Personally, my big problem wasn’t it’s failure to get the Bechdel Test tick but that every damn woman in the thing is horrifically, graphically raped and/or tortured and/or murdered. Alison can speak for herself (and does) but I suspect she’d have a whole other set of problems with a film based a book whose original title literally translates as “Men Who Hate Women”.
Do you mean that makes it disturbing – which it was supposed to – or that it’s a failing in the story itself?
Having not seen the movies (though the first is in my Netflix que) and only read the English translations of Stieg Larsson’s original trilogy, I may be speaking from ignorance here. But Larsson said in interviews that he wrote the Millennium trilogy because of specific cases of violence against women at the hands of men, a gang rape he witnessed as a teenager and two Swedish women murdered in “honor” killings. He cites his shame over not trying to intervene in the gang rape as a major inspiration for the novels. Nor does he reduce all male characters to villains. There are most certainly men in the books that do not hate women, but they are not who the books are centrally about.
I’m only a casual gamer myself, but it occurred to me, on reading your comment, that one of the ways in which people may find games satisfying is that they *are* like work, except you get immediate feedback.
I mostly agree with Sarah: “games satisfying is that they *are* like work, except you get immediate feedback.”
To me Mathematics is a Game and a Perfoming Art. I’ve had 3,040 listed to contributions to The On-Line Encyclopedia of Integer Sequences. This is partly because I do Math every day, just as I write an average of 2,000 words of fiction per day (mostly Science Fiction and Fantasy).
But in the latter case, the waiting is long. I currently have [*checks printout*] 23 short works of fiction on editors’ desks, have a recently rejected 12 to resubmit to other major markets, and a backlog of over a dozen unsold novel manuscripts.
For fiction, I usually wait months to years before a work eventually sells. For On-Line Encyclopedia of Integer Sequences, I solve a problem, or repackage in esoteric line of someone else’s publication, or cross-reference pre-existing database entries (of over 210,000 in their foundation-owned wki) , or create something new, elementary, and nontrivial, and submit it within half an hour. Editors check it out, and it is usually published within 24-48 hours, after emails and messages back and forth. So On-Line Encyclopedia of Integer Sequences is so successful not just for its utility to students and researcher, but because it is collaborative and faitrly rapid to respond. Gamelike!
I probably have written more Math-related science fiction than anyone alive, including my superiors Rudy Rucker, Vernor Vinge, and Greg Egan. They are hard to get published, because few editoers of genre fiction also have Math backgrounds.
I think it’s a mistake to compare books to movies, just as it’s a mistake to compare books to music. When I read a well-written book, it engages all my sense. But the author’s words merely plant a seed to grow in my mind, which means she can never convey exactly what is in her mind.
There’s a reason architects don’t simply write textual instructions for building their designs. When I see a brilliant movie with good acting, inspired cinematography and coherent editing, I’m seeing exactly what the movie’s creators built. In other words, the imagination phase space is smaller, but more specific. If a movie maker has a great cinematic idea they want to get across, movies are the better medium. This is also why, if you read some of the best plays and film scripts without seeing the staged result, they can often seem as trite as the unadorned frame of an ingenious building.
“The medium is the message” ~ Marshall McLuhan
John, sorry about all my different replies to this thread. You left this smorgasbord of thoughts rattling around my brain all weekend and I kept thinking of new comments.
Re: Gary and Regan’s questions:
Funny you should mention it, considering the asshole you tweeted about yesterday.
Re: Eric’s question:
What an odd way to answer. Both of your counter-examples were porn, stacked against something the polar opposite of porn. Alt-tabbing while writing? ;-)
Anyway, I’m not sure that gets to the question. Here are a couple more examples: is reading a “Mass Effect” spin-off novel more wholesome than playing Mass Effect? Is one more engaged reading Atlas Shrugged than playing BioShock? Do you worry audiences will lose something important if they only ever see Petersen’s “Old Man’s War”?* It goes without saying that there are some things one can only experience through reading.** Do you feel that that “something” is inherently “better”?
*Obviously, you haven’t read the shooting script. I’m speaking about general principles.
**And, again obviously, there are things you can only experience through watching a film, playing a game, etc.
Careful, man. Don’t get reflexively defensive about the Bechdel Test. (Almost) every proponent of it acknowledges that it is simplistic, and that it should not be mistaken for a test of quality. The Bechdel Test is just a clear, easy to understand way of highlighting a problem: that not only are most of the stories we tell in this culture about men, but that even the women featured in those stories tend to exist only to support men. That that’s true of any given story is fine – there’s nothing wrong with stories about men. But half the population is women. It’s not unreasonable to ask why half the stories aren’t about women. An ideal world is not one where every story passes the Bechdel Test. It’s one where, a) half of the stories can be subjected to an inverse-Bechdel Test, and b) where every story that “fails” its Bechdel Test does so for a good reason.
@ Doc RocketScientist
First off, I disagree with Stephen McNeil. The Bechdel Test is not an unthinking one, and Stephen’s attempt to deprecate it falls flat. If your story doesn’t pass it, asking why is a valid question.
In the devil’s defense, however, in the original DTWOF strip in which the test appeared, the character who presented it didn’t say it might disqualify a movie from be worthwhile to watch, but that it did so as a strict rule. So while the character doesn’t explicitly say it means that any movie that fails the test is generally a bad movie, she does say it is not worth watching to her personally. Then again, I eschew movies all the time that are not to my taste, but that doesn’t automatically imply that even I personally think they are bad quality movies.
In the final analysis, the strip was commenting on the rarity of independent female agency in the movies, and how that rarity was poor marketing to half their potential audience, not setting a universal critical standard.
DTWOF: The Rule [circa 1985]:
Oh. So that’s what “tl;dr” means.
Sesquipedalian? Try this editorial advice:
Never use a big word when a diminutive one will do.
Does “Sucker Punch” pass the Bechdel Test? Do the girls ever have a conversation that isn’t ultimately about the men who are oppressing them? They very well might, I just honestly don’t remember.