Some Writery Things on My Mind, 1/22/14

First, an observation from earlier today, which is as true now as when I first said it, uh, like, four hours ago:

Yeah, that.

Second, I’m seeing various people commenting on these poll results from Digital Book World, in which it is pronounced that most writers — no matter how they publish — earn less than $1,000 a year from it (here’s a longer article in the Guardian about it).

My thoughts about it: Well, the poll doesn’t seem particularly rigorous, as it appears the participants were self-selecting; there’s some bit of selection bias going on there. So take the numbers with the appropriate grains of salt. That said, even if we discuss only the universe of respondents to the survey, the results aren’t telling us anything we don’t already know, both factually and anecdotally, which is that most writers aren’t making a whole lot from their writing, and that having a diversified set of income streams is the way to go (also, day jobs and awesome spouses/partners are nice to have when you can get them).

This isn’t necessarily an excuse for despair or resignation (i.e., the “no one becomes a writer to get rich” gambit, which I dislike). But it is useful in remembering that writing is work and that while finishing a work — and then publishing it! — is the end of one process, it’s additionally the start of another process entirely, one that takes as long (or longer) than being published, and which has its own set of victories and frustrations.

Third, along the line of that last sentence, see this piece by Kameron Hurley about the long, long path of being a writer, and what “success” looks like from the inside and outside.

Fourth, as a piece of personal archaeology, here’s the page for Scalzi Consulting in 2002. What? You’ve never heard of “Scalzi Consulting”? It was the name of my company when I was doing a lot of corporate and marketing work, before the whole “writing novels” thing took off — which, incidentally, it only really has in the last few years. Before then, consulting with tech and financial services companies was how I paid most of the bills as a freelancer, and should the novel writing thing ever collapse out from under me (and it might, you never know), it’s probably where I’ll go back to. Hey, bills won’t pay themselves. Mind you, for now I plan to ride this novel-writing train as far as it will go. I think it’s got a few miles left on it. We’ll see.

The Big Idea: Lillian Stewart Carl

In today’s Big Idea, author Lillian Stewart Carl has a bone to pick with Sherlock Holmes — a bone that informs The Avalon Chanter, the latest novel in her paranormal mystery series. Take that, Sherlock!

LILLIAN STEWART CARL:

In “The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire,” Sherlock Holmes proclaims, “This Agency stands flat-footed upon the ground and there it must remain. The world is big enough for us. No ghost need apply.”

My imagination being what it is, I envision ghosts lined up at a paranormal job fair, muttering about discrimination, perhaps even filing suits against Holmes’s agency with the Equal Employment Commission.

But, I hear Holmes say, ghosts aren’t real.

Really? Ask people who’ve seen one. Or who think they’ve seen one. As my character Jean Fairbairn would say—and does, multiple times—seeing might be believing, but believing is seeing.

No, my Big Idea is not the nature of reality (I’m not that ambitious) but our perception of reality—especially historical reality, where fact slips as easily into legend and myth as ghost stories slips into tourist brochures. It doesn’t matter whether ghosts (or the Loch Ness monster, or the deeds of a historical character) are factual or not, if people believe they are. Because beliefs make people act.

Jean Fairbairn and Alasdair Cameron are the protagonists of seven mystery novels. She’s a former history professor now writing for a Scottish history-and-travel magazine who inadvertently becomes an amateur sleuth. He begins the series as a professional sleuth, a Scottish police detective.

In the first book, The Secret Portrait, Jean sees a ghost and realizes Alasdair, of all people, can see it, too.

Jean looked around, not knowing whether to hug him or hit him. “No snappy comebacks? No skepticism? Or have you known all this time you’re allergic to ghosts, too?”

“Well then,” he said, with a crimp of his mouth that was almost a rueful smile, “I suppose I was wrong about all the ghosts being tired. Not for those with eyes to see and hearts to know.”

The like us hung unspoken in the air.

No surprise that Jean’s stock-in-trade is history and legends, the facts behind them and the way they can be distorted by true believers. Or, as she says, “Where the legend hits the road and blows a tire.” Having a skeptical significant other dovetails neatly with her work, even as it leads to heated discussions and more than a little eye-rolling.

Okay—I hear you backing away slowly and muttering about high school history class, where a football coach between practices droned the textbook out loud. Boring! Irrelevant! Eyeroll.

So how can I hit the road with my Big Idea and not blow a tire on potholes filled with boring?

Because history isn’t boring. It’s gossip shared over time’s back fence: Sex! Scandal! Thud, blunder, and bad choices!

Every day we citizens of the twenty-first century apply these clues from the past, be they fact or be they fantasy, to solve the mystery of just how the heck we ended up here and not down some other rabbit hole of memory and desire.

The muse of history is named Clio. I don’t know whether she’s a proper Athenian miss or a wild-eyed maenad—I only deal with her indirectly. My personal muse is a punk bagpiper wearing an earring, a kilt, and combat boots. When he’s good, he’s very good. And when he’s uncooperative to the point of hostile, I lure him out by offering him the history of Great Britain in general and Scotland in particular.

It’s great sweeping drama and odd little incidents. It’s bravado and lament. It’s my own ancestry, a paradoxical and pixilated blend of Celt, Norseman, and Anglo-Saxon. My maiden name, Stewart, is a rich source of historical material.

For example, I may well be descended from Robert the Bruce, whose grandson was the first Stewart king of Scotland. Do I fume at the Bruce’s depiction in Braveheart? Does my keyboard have an indentation from my forehead?

But then Braveheart, having about five seconds of historical verisimilitude, is an example of the smackdown between fact and fallacy that Jean and I love to write about. Relatively benign conflicts, not the full-bore international disaster of, say, the Nazis’ Aryan Myth.

Historical wishful thinkers make great characters. So do ghosts, who are manifestations of the past lingering into the present, of unresolved mysteries and uneasy memory. And who often depart this Earth thanks to murder.

If that coach had been sharing juicy details about a murder, you’d have stayed awake during class, right?

The victims in my mysteries die because of legends not only about the lost gold of Bonnie Prince Charlie, but about Charles Edward Stewart himself, goat or hero, depending. They die because of the possibility of the Loch Ness monster and the certainty of black magician Aleister Crowley, whose home above Loch Ness still creeps out the local people.

My victims die because of the mytho-babble behind The Da Vinci Code and others of its dent-in-the-keyboard ilk. They die because of legends of witchcraft in the American colonies, because of a decaying estate on the Isle of Skye named for the wee folk, the fairies, and because Edinburgh’s claustrophobic catacombs make good business.

In The Avalon Chanter, I take my odd couple from their usual haunts in Scotland to small Farnaby island just across the border in England. Here my historical maguffins are King Arthur and Queen Guinevere. Is Farnaby the Isle of Avalon? Archaeologist Maggie Lauder has personal reasons for trying to prove it is. But (of course) neither the body she finds in a medieval tomb nor the history of her own family are what she believes them to be.

Because history, both in the national and in the personal sense, doesn’t trace a direct line from past to present. It’s interlaced like the patterns decorating the Lindisfarne Gospels, as generations of men and women weave desire with destiny.

And if the thing going bump in the night is doing so only in your imagination, that doesn’t make it any less real—never mind Sherlock Holmes and his flat feet.

—-

The Avalon Chanter: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s blog. Like her on Facebook.

 

The Big Idea: Scott Sigler

With a title like Pandemic, you know that things are not going to look good for humanity in this book. But author Scott Sigler isn’t wreaking havoc on the world without a plan — oh, no. He’s got a plan, friends. One that he’s been working on for years.

SCOTT SIGLER:

When I was a little kid, my dad took me to see the ’76 version of King Kong. Ever since that afternoon (once I stopped screaming in fear, of course — I was seven; giant gorillas were terrifying), I’ve been hopelessly addicted to horror movies.

According to the movies I love so much, there are a seemingly infinite number of species that want to kill or enslave humans. As in, all of us. Exterminate, exterminate, indeed. This species-wide genocide comes in several flavors, including the invasion, the plague and the horde. Often movies act like Ben & Jerry on bad acid, combining flavors in various, lethal combinations. An invasion/plague? Andromeda Strain. A plague/horde? The Walking Dead. There’s no end to the fun this Easy Bake Oven provides.

When any of these flavors are present, the demise of peoples tends to come in three stages: the Patient Zero Phase, the National Response Phase, and the Global “Oh, Shit” Phase (a.k.a. “the apocalypse”). Yes, I just made these phases up, but clearly they are 100% accurate and scientifically sound. No peer review necessary.

In any given book or movie, we often get to see one of these phases, sometimes two, but rarely all three. Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a Patient Zero film, meaning you see the attack from the earliest stages and go through the process of discovery along with the characters — we don’t really see a national response or know if one happens. In a movie like Outbreak, we see that defining factor of the National Response Phase: a Room Full of Important People watching red circles expand across a map of America, showing the spread of the disease. And there are several examples of the Global “Oh, Shit” Phase, where everything goes to hell in a hand basket, a la Night of the Comet, Lifeforce and many more.

My Big Idea? Write a trilogy that shows all three phases, so you are there at the very beginning, you witness the inevitable spread, and you bleed along with the characters for the final swan song.

I began this quest in 2008 with my novel Infected, which had its very own Big Idea. When a movie’s showing us the Patient Zero Phase, we often see a body count of the faceless masses lost in the “first wave.” Infected does something different: it tells the story of just one of those victims, Perry Dawsey, letting you experience his horror and confusion as an intelligent pathogen colonizes his body and his mind. He doesn’t know what’s happening because no one knows: the world has never seen anything like this. And those books and movies where the small team of victims barely stops the disease from escaping? Infected isn’t one of those — by the time Perry’s story closes, the vector has gone wild.

In the second book, Contagious, the camera rolls back and we see how this pathogen impacts all of America. We see the President try to process an impossible situation, the CDC working to contain the vector, and — yes — we see the Room Full of Important People watching red circles spread across a map of the US. Contagious ends with a bang, and all involved think the disease is gone for good. But as happens in a cataclysmic trilogy, not so much.

For the final novel, Pandemic, we’re in full-on Oh Shit Phase. We watch the human race fighting a losing battle for survival. This disease doesn’t just kill, it turns people into killers, creating a slowly shifting balance that steadily teeters towards the point of no return. Characters from both books return and strive to contain a disease that constantly changes, that thinks, that strategizes, always looking for the way to wipe humanity out forever.

Infected was the first novel I wrote. I finished the first draft some twenty years ago. The concept was simple: I would teach myself how to finish a novel by writing a very straightforward story — one man, alone in his apartment, facing the nightmare of his body turning against him. That first draft was very small town, very much indebted to early Stephen King. It only had a handful of characters and was filled with contrivances that kept away the outside involvement of real-world things like cops and doctors.

That small-town feel is where I’m most at home as a writer. Probably because I grew up in a small town, and that limited cast of characters in an isolated setting feels natural. The endless re-writes of Infected, however, forced the story out of Perry’s apartment and into a Tom Clancy arena where I had no experience and a comfort level of zero. I had to start thinking about how the police, the CDC, the FBI, and the government at large would respond. What I’d intended to be a very simple, laser-focused Patient Zero story set entirely in one poor bastard’s apartment — almost a ‘bottle episode’ of a novel — eventually forced me not only to expand my real-world knowledge, but to learn how to incorporate those real-world structures into a compelling narrative. It was challenging, but it was only the beginning.

When Contagious required the move to the National Phase, I faced new questions. Who actually responds to a new plague that turns people into psychotic murderers? How does something like that go up the chain of command? What governmental agencies have jurisdiction, and how do they react? When the shit truly hits the fan and an administration is looking at catastrophic loss of American life, what laws will our leaders break to stop an outbreak before it expands beyond any hope of control?

Pandemic compounded those complications even further. I had to factor in international relations, global transportation’s effects on vector spread, foreign deployment of US forces (along with when they would strike, with what and how hard), and the most disturbing thing of all: the real effects of a nuclear detonation on a modern city.

Now that the series is done, I don’t think I’ll swim in the global pool again. For future projects, all those pages that had to be used explaining real-world laws and organizations can — at least in part — be used for character and relationship. Hopefully, the small town boy can go back to the small town.

If, that is, there are any towns left after Pandemic.

—-

Pandemic: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

A Season in the Show

This last weekend I had an enjoyable time at the Confusion convention, which is no surprise, as I usually do — it’s one of the reasons I’ve gone back to it now for nine years running. I mostly hung out in the bar and talked to writers, doing the usual combination of business talk and complete idiocy, as writers generally do at conventions when they chat with each other.

One evening I talked to a couple of different authors about writing careers and the ups and downs careers have, and how from time to time we’re all filled with frustration with them, especially during a downturn. We all want to be on award lists; we all want to have bestsellers. If those things don’t happen we can wonder if what we’re doing matters much at all. As we were talking about it I came up with a metaphor which I thought was useful, in terms of talking about careers. Not entirely surprisingly, it involves baseball.

In baseball, getting into the major leagues is called “going to the show.” When you get to the show, what that means is that your skills are advanced enough that you can play at the highest levels — you’re one of the top 750 people who play the sport. Even the lowliest major leaguer has skills and abilities that can impress.

Not every player in the major league is going to play in the All Star Game; not every player in the major league is going to go the World Series. Some years will be better than others. You can have a career year one year and be in danger of being dropped the next. Sometimes a player will be traded. Sometimes a player will be sent to the minors and will have to fight their way back into the show. Some will be instant stars. Some of those stars will fade. Some will never be more than journeymen, going from team to team and hoping to be seen as utility players, working whatever position there’s a need for. Some of these utility players, with the right team and coaching, might find everything clicks and be propelled into the game’s front ranks.

Thing is: You never know. You only know what’s going to happen by playing the game. The longer you play in The Show, the more chances you get to make things happen for yourself.

Being published (by major publishers primarily, but with some notable exceptions) is like being in The Show. It means that you’re working at the top levels of your field — just having a book out there in the world means you’ve got skills that distinguish you from the mass of people who hope to be where you are. It’s an accomplishment in itself.

But as with major league players in their idiom, not every author is going to be an instant, obvious success. Not every book is going to get into the bestseller lists. Not every book is going to get nominated for an award. Some writers have instant hits; some have to keep at it for years, slowly building an audience of readers. Some authors will never hit it big; some that do hit it big will have it happen just once. Sometimes authors will be dropped from their publishers and need to find another one. Sometimes they will have to use a different name to get published again (and sometimes they will be a hit under that different name). Sometimes the book an author thinks is their best will sink while something they think as inconsequential is a major hit.

Once again: You never know. No one knows. But as long as you keep publishing, you get to keep making chances for yourself.

An example, you say. Okay: Once upon a time, there was a young author who started publishing in, oh, let’s say, 1970. Within a couple of years this writer started making a name for himself and getting nominated for awards, winning his first major award five years later. He starts writing novels but they don’t do fantastically well, and one of them does so poorly (by the writer’s own admission) that less than a decade and a half after his fiction writing career began, the writer assumes it’s over and moves on to other related fields to support himself.

Nevertheless, two decades after his first story is published, this writer decides to try again with another novel. It’s published more than a quarter century into this writer’s career and is a success. The fourth book in the series, published almost a decade later, is a number one New York Times hardcover bestseller. So is the fifth. A television show based on the series becomes one of the most popular and talked about shows in the medium, now forty-four years into this writer’s career.

I am obviously speaking of George RR Martin here. His career was up; his career was down. He was finished as a novelist; he’s currently arguably the most famous novelist alive. Who knows what will happen tomorrow.

Will you, as a writer, become like George RR Martin? Probably not. But you might find your own measure of success, so long as you keep showing up. Maybe you have the sort of career where at the end of it all you’ve done is published a bunch of novels that have sold just well enough to allow you to get that next contract. Which means that you’ve published a bunch of novels, i.e., stories that previously existed only inside your head are now out there in the world. You’ve done a thing, and had a career, that millions of people have only dreamed of. You made it to The Show, and that’s a hell of a thing.

So, writers, just keep writing. Every time you publish is another season in The Show. And maybe you’ll be a bestseller and maybe you won’t. Maybe you’ll get an award and maybe you won’t. You never know. It’s fun to find out.

Notes on Harassment Policies, 1/20/14

Convene magazine is the magazine of the Professional Convention Management Association, i.e., the people who actually organize and run conventions, and its December 2013 issue had a long piece on why harassment policies are a good and intelligent thing to have (pdf link). I’m quoted in it quite a bit, but the article also features quotes and comments for several professional convention runners, as well as lawyers, discussing liability, setting and managing expectations, and what conventions and conferences can do and can’t do with regard to attendee behavior. For the folks who are interested in this particular topic, it’s well worth the read.

(As noted above, the link is to a pdf of the magazine, and note that the article is bisected by an insert on another topic entirely; just keep turning pages.)

Among other things, the article answers, rather more comprehensively than I could, this hand-wringer from Michael Kelley in Publishers Weekly, concerning the ALA posting a statement of appropriate conduct for attendees of its conferences, starting with Kelley’s sensationally leading opening sentence and going on from there.

I will say, as someone who was ultimately responsible for a small convention for three years (and who was incredibly fortunate to have seasoned convention runners at the tiller to ensure things ran smoothly as possible), that when I see people thumping about on how harassment policies are a threat to free speech, I see them as naïve at best and disingenuous at worst. Leaving aside (yet again) that conferences and conventions are almost always private events by private companies in private spaces, and that each of these private entities is able to set its own policies and expectations, in the best traditions of free enterprise, the sort of person who conflates “free speech” issues with a convention or conference rightly deciding to set attendee expectations as regards reasonable behavior and limiting its own legal liability should an attendee decide to do something stupid, is someone whose understanding of any of those concepts is simplistic or at the very least blinkered to the point of uselessness.

Tangentially related to all this is the ruckus that went down this weekend regard in the Chi-Fi Convention, in which the organizers cancelled the event, claiming the hotel was unwelcoming and that it disapproved of the convention’s harassment policy. The hotel replied rather strongly to the assertion, flatly calling the claims “false”; subsequent investigation suggests that at the very least lots of details were elided, regarding Chi-Fi’s initial statement.

There’s a lot I don’t know about the details of the Chi-Fi ruckus, so I’m going to offer what follows here as a general comment, not tied to any specific convention or hotel, regarding harassment policies. And it is:

If a convention wants to have a harassment policy and the hotel hosting it disapproves of the convention having such a policy, it’s possible that the hotel is staffed by assholes. However, if a convention decides to publicly and falsely (or at least so incompletely as to effectively falsely) claim that a hotel did not support its desire to have a harassment policy as a way to deflect attention from the convention’s other organizational issues, then it’s not the hotel staff who are being assholes.

A harassment policy should not be used as a shield to deflect attention or legitimate questions with regard to the organization of a convention. Aside from any other problematic issue with such a maneuver, doing so has the potential to make it harder for other conventions who wish to implement harassment policies to do so, or for other conventions to work with hotels at all — now hosting hotels may be concerned that such a policy might be used as cudgel, i.e., “if we don’t get our way, we’ll use the harassment policy to drop the Internet on your head.” The short-term (and very temporary) ass-covering for one convention has long-term implications for every other convention.

So let’s hope that never actually happens.

A Momentary Pause

So, there was a story on a moderately contentious subject I was going to link to and comment on, but then I remembered I was at a convention with real live people and I didn’t want to spend the day babysitting a comment thread online. So you’ll get it on Monday! Lucky you.

Have a good Saturday.

Traveling Today

Headed up to the Confusion convention. I expect the weekend to be full of wacky adventures! Will most likely not be around here all that much. Try to survive through the disappointment. This will be a test of your character. Be strong, friends. I will return. And in the meantime, uh, will probably be on Twitter a lot. Yeah.

Oscar Predictions, 2014

Every year the Oscar nominations come out, and every year I offer up my first-blush thoughts and predictions on the nominees. It’s a nod to my days as a film critic, when I would be making the predictions as part of my job. These days I do it for fun! And am about as accurate as I was back then (typically I get five out of six of the main categories right, usually blowing one of the supporting acting categories).

So, what looks good this year?

BEST PICTURE

12 Years a Slave
American Hustle
Captain Phillips
Dallas Buyers Club
Gravity
Her
Nebraska
Philomena
The Wolf of Wall Street

Last year was very unusual in that the film that won best picture didn’t have its director nominated; to give you an idea of how unusual this is, in the last 30 years it’s only happened twice: Last year with Argo and in 1989 for Driving Miss Daisy. Last year there was a strong feeling Ben Affleck got cheated out of a director nomination, which played a part in Argo’s eventual win. I really don’t think that’s going to happen again this year. In which case, Captain Phillips, Dallas Buyer’s Club, Her and Philomena get shown the door early.

Next out for me is Nebraska, because it’s the least flashy of the remaining nominees, and I think if it’s going to be rewarded, there’s another category where it’s more likely, and the Academy voters will think that’s sufficient. After that The Wolf of Wall Street is out; Martin Scorsese films are reliable nominees in this category, but I think there’s another film this year focused on the venality of humans that is resonating better. Gravity I suspect peaked too soon in terms of attention, and although I’m hesitant to write it off completely, I’m guessing its moment has passed.

This means that the contest is down to American Hustle and 12 Years a Slave, and at the moment you could flip a coin to decide the winner. I think at the moment Hustle has momentum, but on the other hand Slave is an unflinching look at the US at its worst, and that’s a draw for the Academy voters who like their Oscar winners to be about Important Things.

At the moment I’m going to nod toward Slave, but it’s a pick with no confidence; this is one of those years when the time between the nomination and the vote really is going to matter. I’ll check in again on this just before the ceremony and see what I think then.

Will Win: 12 Years a Slave
Should Win: 12 Years a Slave

BEST DIRECTOR

Alfonso Cuarón, Gravity
Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave
Alexander Payne, Nebraska
David O. Russell, American Hustle
Martin Scorsese, The Wolf of Wall Street

Scorsese out first, I think; he’s the Meryl Streep of the Directors category, and also he’s won it before. This year there are directors who haven’t won before worth paying attention to. Next out is Alexander Payne, because I don’t think Nebraska is in the running for the big one, and because I think the voters will feel the film will be compensated for in other categories. Cuarón out next, although again it’s possible Gravity will make a comeback and him with it.

Again, the battle will come down between American Hustle and 12 Years a Slave. In this category, however, I think Russell has the edge; he’s been nominated in the category before with his last two films, he’s guided actors to Oscar wins in those films, which doesn’t hurt with that branch of voters, and finally, people love a redemption story (Russell was famously mercurial and appears to have reined in that side of his personality to make excellent films). Academy voters have a rare chance to vote for a black director (although, not trivially, not an African-American director, as Steve McQueen is British and of Grenadian descent), who has also directed memorable recent films. But I think at the end of the day Russell will have the “he’s due” sentiment on his side.

This means that there could be a best director/best film split, which (not withstanding last year’s very unusual situation) is fairly rare. That said, among other things a split might be the way to honor both Russell and McQueen, as McQueen is a producer on his film, which means he’d take home an Oscar if the film won Best Picture. Just like Ben Affleck!

Will Win: Russell
Should Win: Russell

BEST ACTRESS

Amy Adams, American Hustle
Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
Judi Dench, Philomena
Meryl Streep, August: Osage County
Sandra Bullock, Gravity

I could go on and on, but I think this category’s a lock: Amy Adams. One practical reason: Everyone else in the category has won a Oscar in the reasonably recent past, including Streep two years ago and Bullock two years before that. Meanwhile Adams has been Oscar nominated four times in the last eight years, not including this nomination. Plus her performance in Hustle has gotten uniformly terrific reviews. If ever there was a “now is the time” award, it’s this. There’s a small chance Blanchett or Dench might upgrade their Supporting Actress Oscars, but very small, I think.

Will Win: Adams
Should Win: Adams

BEST ACTOR

Christian Bale, American Hustle
Bruce Dern, Nebraska
Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave
Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street

This is an interesting category that could go all sorts of ways. McConaughey’s Golden Globe win puts him in better stead than I would have expected otherwise, Christian Bale has become the new Robert DeNiro, and DiCaprio’s gotta win one of these things one of these days, and this wouldn’t be a completely terrible year for him to do it.

For all that I think it’s going to come down to Ejiofor and Dern, and I think in the end this is Dern’s Oscar to lose. He’s got the “I’m an old guy who’s done his time” thing going for him, and also, I strongly suspect that this is the category the Academy voters who want to give Nebraska something will decide to do it in. Which is fine; Dern is a good, solid and safe choice. I’d personally vote for Ejiofor.

Will Win: Dern
Should Win: Ejiofor

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Sally Hawkins, Blue Jasmine
Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle
Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave
Julia Roberts, August: Osage County
June Squibb, Nebraska

I think Squibb and Hawkins are destined for the “happy to be nominated” bin; Hawkins is in the “supporting actress in a Woody Allen film” slot, which is an unusually lucky place, statistically — but she has the misfortune of Blanchett being nominated in Best Actress for the same film, which I think draws attention from her. I really don’t imagine that one year after giving Lawrence Best Actress, that they will give her the undercard Oscar, and I suspect Lawrence knows that too. Julia Roberts? Maaaaaaaybe? But she’s been kind of out in the wilderness for a bit, it seems. I don’t feel a lot of momentum here.

This leaves Nyong’o, who I think has the best chance: acclaimed performance, a film with a lot of nomination momentum behind it, and this is one category where being relatively unknown is not a hindrance. I think it all lines up for a win for her.

Will Win: Nyong’o
Should Win: Nyong’o

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

Barkhad Abdi, Captain Phillips
Bradley Cooper, American Hustle
Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave
Jonah Hill, The Wolf of Wall Street
Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club

The most competitive field of the main categories, and with the exception of Leto, who I think would have had a better chance in any field other than this, it’s wide open. Abdi is a literal unknown, which has its appeal, and if voters want to honor Philips, this is the place to do it. Cooper may ride the Hustle train, and he’s still fresh in voters’ minds from Silver Linings Playbook. Fassbender one of the hottest actors working today, and his performance in Slave was despicably delicious. And everyone seems to agree that Jonah Hill was the best thing about Wolf — and he’s was nominated in the category before! He’s not a fluke!

I have no idea who will win this category. My gut tells me: Hill? Maybe? But honestly, I have so little confidence in my gut. This is another category where I’m gonna have to see how the period between nomination and ceremony plays out.

Will Win: Hill? Maybe?
Should Win: Abdi

OTHER STUFF

I wouldn’t vote against 12 Years a Slave in Adapted Screenplay, and in Original Screenplay, I’m gonna go with a dark horse and say Her, on account of the film making the Best Picture category and Spike Jonze I suspect being popular enough to have this as a consolation prize (we should all have such consolation prizes). I’m ready to be wrong about that. Frozen I think is close to a lock for Animated Picture, but The Wind Rises may surprise everyone. I can’t imagine American Hustle not winning Costume Design. I would be very surprised if The Act of Killing doesn’t win Documentary Feature.

Finally, the surprise of the season for me is how little Inside Llewyn Davis is to be found on the awards slate: Only two nods, in Cinematography and Sound Mixing. The Butler, which was clearly built to be a nomination dragnet, got none at all. It suggests this is a really, really, really competitive year.

Your thoughts?

Update 2/21: I usually wait until later than this to do my follow-up, but I’m off the Internet for a bit and won’t be back onto it until after the ceremony, I think. So, updates:

Best Picture: 12 Years has faded a bit, but I think it’s still the top contender. Gravity looks better than it did to me earlier, so I wouldn’t be surprised if it gets by.

Best Director: Alfonso Curaon won the DGA and the Golden Globe, which puts him in pretty good stead here (and which ups the value of the film for Best Picture). I’d say he’s the new front runner.

Best Actress: Everyone said I was crazy not to think Cate Blanchett wasn’t going to walk with this one. Maybe she will, but I think the recent mess with Woody Allen might drag her down a bit. I’m gonna stick with Amy Adams, but if Blanchett wins, I’ll accept the “told you so”s.

Best Actor: Matthew McConaughey kind of swept the table in the run-up awards, which I did not expect, so I suspect he’s the front runner now, although Dern should still not be discounted.

Best Supporting Actor: Also, everyone tells me I was wrong about Jared Leto, and I suspect now they’re right. I agree he’s the front runner.

We’ll see what happens from here.

The Big Idea: Kathe Koja

Authors have all sorts of ways into their books and stories. For Kathe Koja, the way into her latest novel, The Mercury Waltz, the sequel to Under the Poppy, was through dance. Appropriately enough!

KATHE KOJA:

To dance well requires two things: skill, the ability to feel and match the tempo, swell, or skitter of the music; and rhythm, the capacity to just let go and trust that music to lead you away. When we consider the waltz, the first seems to make perfect sense for a dance of such structure and formality. (Although the Times of London once “remarked with pain” on that “indecent foreign dance called the Waltz … the voluptuous intertwining of the limbs and close compressure on the bodies …” Yowza! Twerk that, Vienna!) But the second, the letting-go – how so?

As on the dance floor, so at the desk . . . Under the Poppy, that tale of wild Victorian love, betrayal, and reunion, came to me as a passionate surprise.  After eight YA novels, the grown-ups were definitely back onstage, tossing dark confetti and parading their dangerous puppets all around. As that novel came to its close, I felt a large and definite pang—goodbye, grimy, lovely, intricate world.

But such a fully theatrical story seemed to beckon for a matching adaptation. So, in company with some very talented actors and collaborators, I wrote and directed a series of immersive (were they ever) performances. Here’s a look at the shows leading up to the grand performance in a Victorian mansion. Writing the scripts and assembling the creative ensemble was a new way of viewing that world of the brothel, its characters and desperations and desires.

But the music was still playing.

The Mercury Waltz is a manner of accidental sequel, nothing I intended to write, nothing I even knew was available to write, until the Poppy came to what I thought was its end. Then that big pile of unused notes, those phrases and sketches, that research, reached a sudden accretion, as if a door had been opened, a turning made to show an entire, and entirely vivid, new bend in the road for those gentlemen of the road, stalwart Rupert and winking Istvan: and the new young gentlemen whose paths cross theirs, the stubborn, poetic, provincial writer Frédéric-Seraphim Blum and the slippery street sharpster Haden St.-Mary, alongside a fierce and mystical young lady called Tilde, whose blue eyes I saw with an immediacy just as vivid and intense.  And their histories, their fears and longings, their hopes, all converged in an aged city on the fatal cusp of change, a place as jittery as badly-tuned clockwork, as bright and false as paste jewels in a mercantile window, a city where a theatre called for Mercury, that god of commerce and tricksters, opens its doors to show the populace some jolly, strange, and truthful puppet plays.

Which is where the dance comes in, and the letting-go.

If, from the beginning, I had suspected that this story was so large, much larger than I guessed in its conception, and so emotionally complicated, that it needed more than one book to tell it, would I have been bold enough to begin? Or would I have backed away in doubt: A sequel? What if I forget plot points, or mix up chronology, what if I don’t have the stamina? What if … If I had considered only the demands on my skills—the long patience required to keep walking, tussling, finding the way, the painstaking attention to be sure no threads were dropped or characters confused (and yes, I used a lot of sticky notes)—the whole project could have been stillborn.

But when the brothel closed, the Mercury Theatre opened, its music gone tinkling and mechanical and fey; and I trusted that music, and I let go. And waltzed.

And now the book is done, and the dance is ready for you to join, as the story of these men, these heroes, continues. And not only in the linear sense of travels accomplished, friends met and dangers faced: for as much as it’s a story of this new city and those new battles and loves, The Mercury Waltz is at its heart the continuing exploration of the shared life of Istvan and Rupert, the pains they carry, and the losses, and the wishes, the boyish glee and professional pride, the whole world their stage and themselves their sweetest audience. They learn what they learn, or cannot learn, from those pains and that sweetness, they keep playing the puppets as the music plays on.

—-

The Mercury Waltz: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Roadswell Editions

View the book trailer. Visit the author’s blog. Follow her on Twitter.

New Book/ARC Arrivals, 1/15/14

I noticed it was a slow couple of weeks for getting new books and ARCs in, and then I remembered it was the first couple of weeks of January, and it takes a little bit of time for the PR machine to get up and running after the holidays. And sure enough, today all of this showed up at the door. And thus, duly reported to you.

However, Baen Books sent over a bunch of books a couple of days ago, which I noted on Twitter but was remiss in noting here. So in the spirit of catching up:

 

So: Anything in either stack that catches your eye? Let me know in the comments.

The Big Idea: Rachel Cantor

Love! Time travel! Pizza! All things most of us, at least theoretically, enjoy. But how to tie them all together — with some deeper meaning to boot? Rachel Cantor’s makes the attempt in her new novel A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World. Here and now, she explains how she made those first critical connections.

RACHEL CANTOR:

Leonard is a complaints guy for a national Pythagorean pizza chain. In his world, Whigs, Heraclitans, and other ideologues seek converts through proprietary fast-food chains; Catharites and armed followers of the thirteenth-century scientist and friar Roger Bacon engage in bitter battle to claim the untranslatable Voynich manuscript; and all are vaguely under threat by a neo-Maoist movement that’s trying to radicalize the middle classes.

Into this world arrives Isaac the Blind, a thirteenth-century rabbi who can read people’s souls; he needs Leonard’s help. Leonard’s journey takes him from his White Room, where he relieves Clients-in-Pain with Neetsa Pizza coupons, to the fortress of the Latter-Day Baconians, to thirteenth-century Rome. Along the way, he must save the world with the help of Marco Polo, a rare-book librarian, his cartoon-drawing nephew Felix, and a quivering aleph.

A novel about a million things, seemingly. Yet it arose from one big idea. A big idea that itself arose from an unlikely source.

I attended a silent meditation retreat some fifteen years ago. For about ten days, we sat, we walked, we sat, we walked; we did not speak. The leaders, however, spoke: usually about meditation, but one evening they speculated—for reasons I can no longer remember—about the great flowering of mystical experience in the thirteenth century. The Kabbalah was born around that time, with the help of Isaac the Blind; the Zohar was written around 1280, which is also when the great Abraham Abulafia, said to have magical powers, was developing his eccentric meditative practices, variants of which we were attempting on this retreat. Rumi and other great Sufis were writing mystical poetry, while mystics such as St. Theresa and Meister Eckhart were changing Christianity forever.

What most struck my teachers, who were mostly rabbis, was how this mystical profusion could occur at a time when practitioners from various traditions could not, presumably, communicate with each other.

Or could they? Was there something—some force, some energetic—that connected these mystics around Europe and beyond, supporting their practice and increasing its creativity?

I like to think I always listened to my teachers, but I may have been especially attentive on the night of this talk. I had just published a story about the medieval trader Isaac the Jew (no relation to Isaac the Blind), who’d transported an elephant from the emperor Harun ar-Rashid in Baghdad to Charlemagne’s court in Aachen. I was then in the process of writing a novel about Dante’s Vita Nuova, a thirteenth-century work that ends with what can only be called a mystical vision. When my teachers talked about the Middle Ages, I listened especially hard!

For years, I thought about what they’d said. My first notes on the subject were written maybe a year later; they refer, already, to a hotline, to Marco Polo, to Abulafia …

Someone gets a phone call from someone in history, a hotline to history. Folks start communicating with each other through this mediator—s/he becomes an increasingly put-upon message center, which explains the wide, wonderful explosion of creative mysticism around the world during that century. But the secret for communicating with this guy is lost, or perhaps, tired of the interruptions to his life, the demands put on him, he disconnects the phone. What kind of phone would they use? Their mystical experiences clue them in to the existence of this wavelength, only the very accomplished can use it—Abulafia, Dante, Rumi, Marco Polo in his Genoan jail cell using methods he learned from traveling Tibetan monks …

Unlike many ideas, this one stuck. When I finished my Dante novel (Door Number Two, forthcoming from Melville House in 2015), a “realistic” work that concerns themes close to my bones (love, the purpose of art, family relationships), I was ready for something different. Something completely different. I wanted a change, I wanted to write something fun!

I remembered this big idea. I remembered the hotline, the put-upon mediator, Marco Polo in his Genoan jail cell.

Big ideas accrete other ideas—in this case, Pythagorean number theory, a fascination with ghostwriters (Marco Polo had one, Moses de Leon and other mystics claimed their books had been written by others centuries before), the bizarre features of the unreadable Voynich Manuscript (which I learned about in my alumni magazine!), a concern about how ideology can be used by politicians to distract people from serious political or economic concerns, a love for the topography of ancient Rome. All these came into play with A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World, as this new book came to be called.

I soon realized, however, as writers are wont to do, that it wasn’t enough to sit Leonard in a room fielding phone calls from mystics! Things had to happen. There had to be incident, conflicts, adventure.

I did some research. In 1280, Abulafia was in Rome, intending to convert the pope by sharing all sorts of signs and wonders with him—it was only the Pope’s death a few days before his visit that saved Abulafia’s life.

Wait, a Jewish mystic thought he could convert the pope? By sharing mystical secrets? I grew up in Rome! I wanted to write about Rome, I loved writing about Rome!

How to get Leonard away from his pizza-complaints hotline? How to make of him not just a put-upon mediator, but a hero, however unlikely?

In this way, the big idea evolved: by the time the book was finished, the mystics I wrote about were not necessarily communicating with each other. They were aware of each other, sure, they could and did travel across time and space to meet with each other, but this was no longer the point. The point was that they had access to mystical knowledge and a desire to share it, even though sharing it would endanger the world! By Part Two, Leonard had left his phone behind for good: he was out in the world. By the end of Part Three he had saved the world not once but three times, and this involved time travel, it involved peril and chases and the development of courage; it involved living by his wits; it involved falling in love. The big idea had become story!

—-

A Highly Unlikely Scenario: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the book page, which features an audio excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.

Zeus and Daisy, Just Chillin’, Y’all

And if you have a problem with it, it’s your problem, not theirs. Clearly.

The Big Idea: Brad Meltzer

Brad Meltzer is known as a bestselling writer of thrillers and the host of his own television show on History Channel. But today sees the release of two decidedly different books from him: I am Amelia Earhart and I am Abraham Lincoln, both illustrated by Christopher Eliopoulos, and both aimed at a rather younger audience than Meltzer has aimed for before. There’s a reason why he wrote the books — and a reason, as you will soon discover, why he rewrote them as well.

BRAD MELTZER:

Call this essay “How To Be Outdone By Your Artist on Your New Children’s Book.”

I met him on the Internet. I did. On Twitter.

I don’t remember what he first wrote to me about. Probably something about history: He watched my TV show, the self-importantly and yet perfectly titled Brad Meltzer’s Decoded. So I’ll wager he wrote to me about the Freemasons. Or the Illuminati. Or maybe Abraham Lincoln, if irony had a say.

Either way, I recognized his name and knew his art. Chris Eliopoulos. He’s a cartoonist. A great one. And little did I know, he’d soon change my life.

You see, I was in the midst of a crisis. A parental crisis. I was shopping for clothes with my daughter, and all I could find were T-shirts with images of princesses and more princesses. The only real difference between them was what hair color each princess had. And I started thinking to myself: I know so many better heroes than that.

So what does a loving father do at that point? He turns to a stranger on the internet, of course. I asked Chris to draw a cartoon version of Amelia Earhart. Below the picture, I wrote: I AM AMELIA EARHART. On the back of the shirt, I wrote: I KNOW NO BOUNDS.

That’s how it began. But soon, what started with a T-shirt had turned into an actual book. A children’s book, of all things. I always dreamed of doing a children’s book. And now, instead of just giving my daughter a T-shirt, I’d be able to give her perhaps the best thing of all: Amelia Earhart’s actual story.

From there, I wrote a biographical account of Amelia Earhart’s life, which Chris turned into pages and pages of art. A few weeks later, we handed in the proposal. My agent looked at what Chris drew. Then looked at what I wrote. And then she told me, “You need to make your words match his art.”

I blinked a few times, making sure I heard her right. But in that moment, I knew she was exactly right. Chris’s drawings were playful, fun, and passionate. They evoked my favorites – Peanuts and Calvin & Hobbes – cartoons that were alive and full of heart. Indeed, as I flipped through his drawings, I realized that was his superpower. This stranger from the internet, Chris Eliopoulos, did heart like no one else. And best of all, the more I looked at it, the more I felt like a kid again.

Right there, I tore up my entire draft and started from scratch. His breathtaking art forced me to be a better writer.

The result became more than a single book. It became our new line of children’s books, starting today with the publication of I Am Amelia Earhart and I Am Abraham Lincoln. The series was born because of our belief that the current definition of “hero” is broken. Today, so many in our culture celebrate reality TV stars and loud-mouthed sports figures.

I tell my kids all the time: That’s fame. Fame is different than being a hero. I wanted my kids to see real heroes…and real people who are no different than themselves. For that reason, each book tells the story of the hero when THEY were a kid. We see them as children. So it’s not just Amelia Earhart and Abraham Lincoln being famous – but them being just like us.

As for Chris, he of course became part of our family. And I’m part of his. We all went to DisneyWorld. I kid you not. Last week, we went there together. Both our families.

You should’ve seen the way my daughter was giving the stink eye to the princesses.

—-

I am Amelia Earhart: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s
I am Abraham Lincoln: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit Brad Meltzer’s site. Follow him on Twitter. Visit Chris Eliopoulos‘ site. Follow him on Twitter.

Yes, I Will Be at the Confusion Convention Next Weekend

Because people have started asking: Why, yes, I will be at Legendary Confusion (as it is called this year) this next weekend. It’s going to be a very excellent convention, with many excellent writers and fans. You should totally come to it.

What is my schedule for the convention? It is thus:

Hanging About: Friday 4pm – Sunday 2pm (Hotel Bar)John Scalzi slouches agreeably in a chair while all his friends run around doing programming. Ha! Ha! Ha!

I should note I will take occasional breaks from that schedule for things like food and sleep. But otherwise, yeah, that’s the plan.

Why aren’t I doing any programming? Because I forgot to tell the Confusion folks I was willing to do programming, and they didn’t ask me if I was interested, and to be clear it’s my job to do the former, not their job to do the latter.

So no panels/readings for me this year. I may ask to sit in on the mass autographing session on Saturday afternoon, but otherwise I’ll just be there as a fan. Do feel free to come up and say hello, if I am not already previously engaged.

The Big Idea: PJ Schnyder

On a day to day basis, you might not think about the advantages and disadvantages of shapeshifting, but then, you probably aren’t author PJ Schnyder, for whom the details of such a process are a key aspect of her novel Fighting Kat. She’s here to explain why it matters.

PJ SCHNYDER:

It can take as little as 8 pounds of force to crush the human skull.

Human mandibles exert 120 to 150 pounds of force per square inch (PSI). And according to NASA and MythBusters, average static push strength of a medium-sized male is around 200 pounds of force (close to 1000 Newtons). So a human isn’t going to be crushing another human’s skull any time soon, either by biting or with bare hands.

What about predatory cats? A lion’s bite force is approximately 650 PSI. A tiger’s? Approximately 1050 PSI. A jaguar’s? Approximately 1,350-2,000 PSI.

That’ll do it.

Given the choice, it might seem a better idea to enter a death match as a predatory cat armed with superior bite strength and a full set of slashing claws. But…humans have thumbs. Weighing the pros and cons might take a few seconds.

In Fighting Kat, Kaitlyn Darah is presented with this choice. The ability to shapeshift from human to panther might as well be a super power, really. And considering the advantages, the choice would seem clear—cat-form it is. Right?

But at what cost?

As a shapeshifter, Kaitlyn is on the run from the Terran government. There are standing orders to bring in any and every shape shifter for study. If she wants to remain a free cat, and not a lab rat, she needs to keep her ability a secret.

But she and her lover, Lt. Christopher Rygard of the Terran military, need to form a team and go deep undercover. They’ll be posing as gladiators in a black market fighting arena in order to find captured soldiers and rescue them, if possible.

In order to survive, Kaitlyn must make the choice. If she fights as a human, she and Rygard could die. If she leverages her shape shifting abilities, she might lose her freedom even after they break free of the arenas.

Rygard has to make hard choices too. Follow orders, or stand with the woman he loves.

I created a cast of dynamic characters to support my hero and heroine. Some of them are proven friends and allies. Others aren’t so clear in their roles. There’s a mentor and an anti-mentor—like an anti-hero, only not—and there are people my heroes should be able to trust but can’t.

I wanted to tell a story of strong people in a universe where their choices matter. Where black versus white isn’t absolute and right versus wrong isn’t simple, yet each decision closes the door to a possible future. Where every decision triggers a series of further choices in a cascade of consequences that will lead both Kaitlyn and Rygard to places they’d never have anticipated.

Fighting Kat is a science fiction romance novel encompassing all of these things.

As a reader, I grew up on science fiction and fantasy and I read nonfiction just as avidly. And when I began to seriously delve into the craft of writing, I took a critical look at the structure of my stories. I came to a surprising realization: I write romance.

My stories focus on the development of the relationship between my characters. The romance drives the plot and the decisions my hero and heroine make every step of the way. Kaitlyn and Rygard grow individually and together based on the decisions they make in Fighting Kat.

Plenty of science fiction books contain romantic elements, but there the romance is woven in to spice up the story and not intended to function as the central plot line. You could remove the romantic elements and the plot would still stand on its own.

In my books, the romance is the plot line. If you took it out, it would just be a random series of events and with no driving force behind the actions the characters carry out.

Additionally, I prefer a happy ending. Perhaps not as far as a Happily Ever After, but by the end of the book I want my characters to be “Happy For Now” in a plausible and satisfying way.

These characteristics in my writing make my stories romance. If you’d asked me a decade ago, I wouldn’t have anticipated writing romance in my future. But now? I embraced the decision to write romance and have no regrets. Romance allows me to write science fiction, paranormal, steampunk and more. It’s given me freedom for my creativity and an audience of voracious, open-minded readers willing to try a new type of story.

It led to me creating the universe of the Triton Experiment and to writing Fighting Kat. It’s a science fiction romance and I am in love with it. I hope readers will enjoy it too.

__ _

Fighting Kat: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Google Playstore

Read an excerpt. Visit PJ Schnyder’s site. Follow her on Twitter.

(Say hello on Facebook, Pinterest, or YouTube too.)

10 Non-SF/F Books That Meant the Most to Me (as a Writer)

A few months back I wrote about The 10 SF/F Books That Meant the Most to Me in the days before I was a published science fiction author. It’s worth noting, however, that I didn’t only read science fiction and fantasy growing up, nor were the writers and books I admired — and which I think eventually helped shape me as a writer — confined only to those genres. Indeed, how much poorer my life would have been, both as a reader and a writer, if I had read only in one thin slice of the literary world.

So, for your interest and delight, I present ten non-SF/F books that meant the most to me as a growing writer. Again, this list is confined to the time prior to me writing books of my own; the latest I encountered one of them was when I was in college. Likewise, as with the earlier list, this is not a list of “best” or “most important” works in a general or competitive sense — just the ones that had an impact on me, and with particular regard to the sort of writer I would eventually become. This list is in alphabetical order, by author.

J.L. Austin: How to Do Things With Words: I have a degree in philosophy and the focus of that degree is language and all the things we do with it. Of all the books and philosophers that I read in the course of obtaining that degree, this book, and Austin, stand out. For one thing, Words is a surprisingly enjoyable read — it’s taken from a series of lectures, and Austin was apparently aware that speeches work better if you’re not falling asleep at them. For another thing, Austin put into words a thing I had always believed but (appropriately) wasn’t able to express: That language itself could do things, not just say to do things — that it wasn’t just a vehicle for intention, but could be used for action. Whether Austin intended it this way or not, this said to me that language has its own native powers, and got me to think about what I and everyone else was doing, intentionally or not, when we used the words we used. That’s been useful for both my fiction and non-fiction.

Truman Capote: In Cold Blood: I read this in middle school, for my own curiosity rather than a book assignment (I don’t imagine the book, then or now, would be assigned in most middle schools). I can’t remember specifically why I picked up the book, but I remember being sucked into it by the way Capote told the story, setting the scene and chronicling the events in a way that read halfway between journalism and fiction. I’d learn later that people called it (both positively and negatively) a “non-fiction novel,” which I think very accurately represents the feel of the book. There is some question as to whether all the details of the book are accurate to true life (it seems not), but for me it was captivating to read it and know that this — or something very like it — happened in the real world.

Louise Fitzhugh: Harriet the Spy: I read this, I think, in fifth grade, and there was a massive disconnect between the late 70s poverty-ridden suburban California boy I was and the mid-60s privileged New York girl that Harriet was, and yet I felt a very real connection to her. We were both smart, observant, stubborn and more than occasionally jerks, as much out of the principle of the thing as anything else. Fitzhugh did two important things in Harriet: One, she didn’t make Harriet any more likable than she should have been, and that was a revelation in itself. Two, she told an unvarnished truth about human relationships (through the character of Ole Golly) and trusted Harriet — and by extension the reader — to understand the subtleties at play there. It was a book for kids that took the kids seriously, as characters and readers both.

Stephen King: Christine: Christine was not the first Stephen King book I read (that would be The Stand, which I read at ten years old, which is, uh, an interesting age to read that particular book), but it was the first Stephen King book I read where I got what it was that King was doing — making a normal world with normal people in it and have everything progressively go further and further into hell. King doesn’t write like someone who condescends to the Great American Middle, or tries to explain the people in it to readers on the outside, staring in like they were at the zoo (which is among other things why he was underappreciated for as long as he was by literary critics). He just shoves those people into the crucible and waits for the heat and pressure to kill them or make them heroes, and writes interestingly about what happens to them either way. This is hugely important stuff. Christine isn’t King’s best, but it’s the one that I first took an important writing lesson from, and for the purposes of this list, that’s good enough.

Gregory Mcdonald: Fletch: Fletch and Mcdonald are important to me for one word: Dialogue. As in, Mcdonald was a master of it, and it was absolutely essential to Fletch (and its many sequels). How important? Important enough that the book’s dialogue was — and as you can see from the cover shown here, still is — a featured graphic element on the book covers of the entire series. That’s a genuinely remarkable thing. And it’s correct; the dialogue is incredibly important in establishing characters, setting scene and telling large chunks of the story. Mcdonald was not big on description; it was hardly there and when it was, it was the bare minimum required for the story. It’s not a stretch to suggest that of all genre writers, the one that my writing style is closest to is Mcdonald. It’s also worth noting that when I first set down to see if I could write a novel, I more or less flipped a coin to see if I would write one in science fiction or one in the crime genre. In another, slightly different universe, it’s entirely possible that the reviews for first novel I had published have me hailed as “the next Mcdonald” rather than “the next Heinlein.” I would have been okay with that.

H.L. Mencken: A Mencken Chrestomathy: In my freshman year of high school I was reading from a book of quotations and noticed that many of the best quotes — the ones that were really punchy — were from some dude named Mencken. I went to my school library, which had the Chrestomathy, checked it out and started reading. By the time I was done with the book two things had happened. One, I had fallen in love with the 1920s (a fact which will be important later in the list). Two, I wanted to be a newspaper columnist really really badly. It’s not at all incorrect to suggest that for the first portion of my writing life, the part where I wrote columns and reviews for a living, Mencken was arguably the most significant influence. Nor is it incorrect to suggest that he continues to be important, since you may note that I’ve been writing columns here for more than fifteen years, and have no intention of stopping.

Dorothy Parker: The Portable Dorothy Parker: As noted above, HL Mencken was my entrance into the world of 1920s literati, and it wasn’t long until I made the acquaintance of the members of the Algonquin Round Table. They were funny and witty and, from across the gulf of six decades, the possessors of the sort of deeply romanticized writing life I wanted to have one day when I grew up. Pre-eminent among them for her wit, her quippiness and general smarts, was Parker. The Portable has many of the good bits I first enjoyed from her, as well as the bits that I enjoyed the older I got and the more I learned about Parker and her compatriots, and realized that the quippy glamour of their lives was not all there was to it, and the rest of their lives were as muddled and occasionally unhappy as anyone else’s (she did end up attempting suicide, after all). For all that, if one has to have an early idol of humor and wit, one could have done far worse than Ms. Parker.

Carl Sagan: Cosmos: The companion book to the TV series was given to me as a birthday gift, I think for my eleventh or twelfth birthday. The big, beautiful, full-color hardcover, I would note, which to me seemed like the most amazing thing humanity had created to that point. I spent about a month just looking at pictures and captions before diving in and reading the actual text — which of course was another treat in itself. Sagan’s obvious love of science and the universe, and his desire to share that love in a way that was accessible to all but the most truculent of others, is something that I took to heart when I was writing my own non-fiction and even in my science fiction: That most things can be explained to most people, in a way that didn’t talk down or condescend but instead lets people in on the secret and makes them want to know more. That’s a gift I can’t thank the man enough for.

George Bernard Shaw: Saint Joan: In high school I had a class called Individual Humanities, the idea being that the whole point of civilization was the development of “independently acting and thinking individuals who saw as their highest life crisis service to their community.” Which is a hell of an idea if you think about it. One of the readings for the class was Saint Joan, and along with the play itself, we read the prefatory material (which with many of Shaw’s works was often longer than the play itself) in which Shaw discussed the “evolutionary appetite”: the idea that some people, against all personal benefit or gain, are compelled to act in a way that pulls humanity forward (often with kicking and screaming on humanity’s part). It’s a heady idea, and whether it has a rational basis in fact, it’s something that’s embedded in my head when I write characters who are facing crises of their own.

David Wallechinsky and Irving Wallace: The People’s Almanac: I ate this book and its two sequels when I was a kid. It was random and yet so densely packed with digestible information that it seemed likely that everything it was possible to know was in the book. For a six year old with a voracious reading appetite, which I certainly was, it was godsend. My mom thought the same thing, since she could give it to me and I would squirrel up in a corner with it for hours at a time. From these books I learned that everything could be interesting, and since everything could be interesting, that it was interesting to learn about everything. This is an idea and ethos that have served me well as a writer: Since I know a little about a lot of things, it’s convinced people to pay me to write on those subjects (which has given me a reason to learn more about them and get paid while doing it). It also makes me excited to tell other people about what I’ve learned. If you want to know where it all began for me, in terms of writing, this really is the place to start.

Not noted here: A number of works for stage and screen, and other non-literary media which still require writing, and the brains that create that writing. I’ll talk about those, possibly, some other time.

Kickstarter is Cool (and Probably Not for Me)

I am not infrequently asked whether or not I’ll be running a Kickstarter campaign for some of the things that I want to do creatively, given that so many of my friends have done them and seem to have been reasonably successful at them, and because I think that in a general sense Kickstarters (and their various cognates via Indiegogo and other such funding sites) have been a very cool thing for a lot of creative folks. In many ways it would seem I’d be a prime candidate to do a Kickstarter.

I don’t see one in my near future, however, save possibly one in which I have a cameo role at best, and for which I have no responsibility for planning or disbursement (for example, as I did with Paul & Storm, in which I chipped in a couple of extras if certain funding levels were met). The reasons for this have very little to do with the politics of self-funding — and there are politics of self-funding, which I find hugely irritating and enervating and kind of boring –and have mostly to do with my own circumstances and personal make-up. In no particular order, they are thus:

1. I’m already under contract for projects for the next couple of years. Which is to say, I’m busy and will continue to be so for a while, thank God.

2. The things I want to do that are not under contract I’m likely to get contracts (or similar business agreements) for. At this moment in time I am a reasonably safe bet for publishers, so many of them are willing to give me money for things, on terms I find largely congenial. This works for me, because:

3. I would prefer not to have to do everything. And most Kickstarters are a commitment to have to do everything. Some people want to have control over every step of the process, or at the very least are willing to put in the work. Good for them. I’m of the “I’d do all of it if I had no other choice, but if I have other choices I’d rather do that” school of thinking. Related to this:

4. Kickstarters are an immense commitment of time and energy, before, during and after. The initial planning, the advertising and marketing of the Kickstarter, the stretch goals and the planning for them, the fulfillment of said stretch goals in addition to the original products, so on and so forth. Jesus, I look at what some of my friends who do Kickstarters oblige themselves to in order to get their funding and I get tired and want to cry. Also:

5. I am aware of all the things I don’t know about planning/budgeting/creating/marketing a finished product, and also aware that means there are all sorts of pitfalls that I won’t see until I flail down them. Again, some people have a taste for adventure and a willingness to put in the time and effort to learn all this stuff. Good for them. I’d much rather let other people who already have experience do that for me. And you may say here, well, you could hire those people! To which I say, well, yes. That’s exactly what I do when I partner with a publisher. 

All of which is to say:

6. By and large the advantages of doing a Kickstarter, for me, do not outweigh the disadvantages. The advantages are: People give you money! On your own terms! The disadvantages are: Then you have to fulfill your promises! On the terms you set! Which may turn out not to be to your actual advantage, unless you are very smart and careful and lucky. I know myself well enough to know that the sort of person who is all three of those, in the context of a Kickstarter campaign, is unlikely to be me.

Again: The issue here is not the Kickstarter model, which I think is fine and which is perfectly congenial for some people. Some people really like the whole Kickstarter experience, and I think that’s fantastic. It’s just that I look at it and think Oh God, so much work and then hope that the world never gets to the point where it’s the predominant model for funding creative work, because then I’m just going to sell blood plasma and live beneath an underpass.

So, yeah. I like Kickstarter (and other similar companies) in theory and as a new and vital avenue for works to be funded when they might not otherwise. I’m not sure it’s for me — or at least, not right for me without a team of people behind me to do everything I don’t want to/am not competent to do.

Fortunately for me, at the moment at least I can already work with teams of competent people willing to do the stuff I don’t want to, called “publishers.” I’m going to keep working that angle for a while, I think.

The Latest Bit of Domestic Technology

We have a new washer. And it’s a super-deluxe sort of less-water, less detergent-using sort of washer that as far as I can tell barely gets your clothes wet at all but still does actually manage to get them clean. When it spins up, it sounds like a jet engine powering on. A very quiet jet engine. Like, Wonder Woman’s invisible jet engine quiet (I assume it’s quiet. An invisible but very loud jet isn’t really invisible, is it). I suspect this washer may be more technologically advanced than the last three computers I bought. Honestly, I don’t know if I’m qualified to work it. I think it runs for me out of pity.

Incidentally, and related, the first time I really kind of felt like an adult was when I was 23, about to move from my very first apartment, and I made the decision that, with God as my witness, I would never live in an house or apartment without its own washer or dryer ever again. Because a washer and dryer to call your own is one of the very sweetest gifts of modern civilization. Yes, yes, petty bourgeois sentiment. Eat my socks. If you could get to them, that is, which you can’t because I don’t have to show up in the same laundromat as your sorry ass anymore. So ha, I say! Ha!

Anyway: Washer! It’s nice.

 

I Completely Forgot to Update Earlier Today, So Here, Have an Obscure 80s Britpop Tune

“Jacob’s Ladder” by The Monochrome Set. Simply divine.

The Big Idea: Gard Skinner

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One of my favorite video games of all time was Unreal Tournament 2004, in part because the game had a bunch of “bots” — artificial intelligence players — who were good enough to make the game really enjoyable. Why is this comment relevant in relation to Game Slaves, the novel by Gard Skinner? Just you wait.

GARD SKINNER:

The best thing about science fiction is that it’s a brutally honest way to examine what it means to be human, but do it through the eyes of revolting, evil non-humans. We get to see what makes Earthlings tick from the perspective of robots, monsters, alien conquerors, dark lords, magic high school students or busty Amazon royalty from lush beach planets.

borderlands1Game Slaves – as a Big Idea – seemed obvious. I was playing (I believe it was Jak 2 or 3) and I couldn’t beat the last boss. To get to him, right after the save point, I had to shoot a few of his minions. I’d killed them dozens of times, then I’d lose again.

While I was thinking how I was tired of shooting those idiots, I realized that they were thinking how tired they were of getting sniped by a bigger idiot who couldn’t defeat their boss. Maybe hoping they could bring bigger guns or hide in different places the next time I respawned.

The quality of the AI used to be a huge element in video game reviews. It was always mentioned. The original NPC, such as ghosts in Pac-Man, were mostly just proximity detectors who followed or shot you if you got close. In 90s, the enemy kept getting smarter, and designers were trying to find ways to make their game interesting on a second playthrough.

The core challenge is making game experience variable. Once any narrative becomes predictable, it becomes easy, and the player puts it down. AI has stagnated, and this led to the popularity of online shooters, because at least when you play another human or squad of humans, you never know what they might do.

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What I got to do in the book – and this advance is, realistically, thirty years in the future for game AI – was to assemble a group of programmed, self-aware, elite game combatants with almost zero life experience.

I got to make them live and love and solve puzzles at a video game pace.

And, I got to make them want things.

They get to be the ones who examine what it really means to be human. From our frailties to our strengths, our motivations to our passions, NPC “extras” became the lens.

And not only do the characters make their decisions through the limited experience they have, but also through the experience they lack: What if you never learned to lie? Or to cheat? What if you had not been exposed to greed?

It was a great journey, and they surprised me along the way.

What’s been fascinating so far is the feedback on those characters – whether they are deep or shallow. I suspect that’s an indicator of each reader’s familiarity with modern games. Did they recognize the influence of Master Chief? Fenix? John Marston? Brick?

If readers do, that’s cool – if not, that’s cool too. Game Slaves is a world built on top of dozens of great game worlds. It doesn’t matter how you got there.

Gamers, like readers, have spent a lot of time running around in certain environments. We know Pandora and Sera, but couldn’t tell you which Sea that Old Man was fishing. We understand that rocket launchers take a long time to reload, and what ragdoll physics can add to laying traps with remote detonators.

borderlands3Pew Research reports that 97% of teens play games. That’s a sit-up-and-take-notice number. Games are now where they’re learning about characters, world building, pacing, conflict and all the rest of the nuance that our generation learned from movies, comic books, and groundbreaking novels. I had a blast mimicking that pace, the puzzle solving, and those decision points.

I think it’s a good idea to learn how the next generation now experiences science fiction. Many games tell as great a story as any other media. And, they’re so much fun. The worlds are captivating. I just wish they were that way the second time through.

(The game character screenshots are from Gearbox Software’s BORDERLANDS)

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Game Slaves: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indiebound | Books A Million | iBookstore  | Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s blog. Follow him on Twitter.