Reader Request Week 2014 #9: Short Writery Bits
Posted on March 21, 2014 Posted by John Scalzi 41 Comments
Questions on writing/publishing/etc that I didn’t want to give a full entry to, but were interesting:
Skyfisher: “How much do you think the cover of a book influences how people (especially you) judge it?”
It depends on the person. Having read and made gifts of science fiction and fantasy books all my life, there have been times when I would tell someone to whom I gave a book “ignore the cover, the book is good anyway.” To my eye, these days SF/F covers are less questionable than they were when I was younger, so that’s nice. But even outside of SF/F, you notice cover tropes repeating, and eventually to me an oft-repeated cover trope suggests the material inside may be a retread as well. Whether that’s a positive or negative depends on what you want out of the book, I suppose.
Erf: “How do you approach researching a topic (be it for a non-fiction work, novel, blog post, personal interest, whatever)? ”
I usually start with Google/Wikipedia and proceed from there. I also take time to evaluate the source of the material; if I find something on some random site, I doublecheck it against a source I recognize as authoritative before I use it. But for quick grazing and idea generation, Google and Wikipedia are fine places to begin one’s research.
Adam: “What influences, entertainers, medium or style do you credit for developing your sense of humor?”
In no particular order: Dorothy Parker, James Thurber, William Goldman, Elaine May, Nora Ephron, Michael Maltese, Larry Gelbart, Douglas Adams, Dave Barry, P.J. O’Rourke. Those are the ones off the top of my head; there are definitely others.
Guess: “How come SFWA writers can’t get along? Liberals and conservatives get along all the time. Have you considered that it might just be that many of you have personality issues and not just the people you don’t like?”
Well, you know. SFWA has 1,800 members. It seems unlikely that any groups that large will have everyone get along all the time. With that said, I think you may be overestimating the number of members who don’t get along with the others — even the biggest arguments involving SFWA tend to involve a couple dozen principal actors, and usually less than that. The large majority, in my experience, do just fine with each other. Also, just because people disagree on a some topic doesn’t mean they don’t get along with each other otherwise — a fact oft-overlooked in online spitting contests.
FBSA: “I’d love a discussion of your epic literary feud with Brandon Sanderson. Complete with epic poems, Klingon operas, the Great Pen Scalzibane, and Twitter wars.”
Heh. You know, this “feud” of mine and Brandon’s has worked out pretty well for the both of us. I think we should continue it, obviously.
Chris Davis: “For a lot of writers, their alien characters come across as humans in rubbery costumes. Can you talk on creating believable alien characters, especially their psyche, philosophy, and emotions. Where do they differ from humans, where would they be similar.”
I think if you’re having your aliens be point of view characters in some way, that there usually has to be something that readers can relate to, otherwise it’s harder for them to find purchase in the narrative. If you’re using aliens as set dressing, or not doing a whole lot of getting into their heads (or whatever), then you have a chance to make them more “alien,” as it were. For me at least, a lot of it will come down to whether I am spending a lot of time with the aliens, having them speak, and so on. Note that “having something readers can relate to” doesn’t just mean “humans in rubber costumes” — it does mean some motivations these aliens have should be recognizable to humans. Writers can ignore this observation of mine to great effect — see Ted Chiang on this — but if you do, you should have the skill to make it work — see Ted Chiang on this, too.
TheMadLibrarian: “Have you ever considered mentoring someone, or felt that at some point in your early career a mentor would have been beneficial?”
I participated in an online mentoring program a few years ago and I think it was useful to the mentorees, but for me a great problem with me being an official mentor is the fact my time management skills are shaky enough as it is. I prefer just being friends with people and talking shop — which is largely what I did with my journalist colleagues early in my career. Same result, different dynamic.
Rob G: “Why do publishers release a hardback edition first and then wait so long to release the same work as a paperback?”
Because they make money that way, i.e., why almost anything is done, in the commercial space.
Mtpettyp: “How can someone like myself who exclusively buys ebooks support their local independent bookstore? These stores can be a great source for suggestions on relatively unknown authors and books, but at the end of the day I have no desire (or room) to buy the dead-tree versions from them.”
Print books make great gifts. And everyone likes gifts!
Quorn: “What non-anglo SF most interests or influences you?”
I don’t think it’s entirely surprising that it would be Japanese SF, in the form of manga and anime — it’s the non-anglo SF most readily available (and exhibited) here in the US. I’d be happy to see more and different SF, but I also admit to laziness in seeking it out, so I don’t see much of it. Vicious circle, that.
Not That Frank: “How has Twitter affected your writing experience, particularly here on the blog. Although I’d be interested if it affects your fiction writing as well.”
It doesn’t affect my fiction as far as I can tell; when I’m writing fiction I tend to pull the DSL line out of the computer so I can get work done, so it doesn’t affect the process. In terms of mechanics of writing, Twitter is pretty far removed from novel writing. In terms of this blog, I’ve noted before that a lot of short, silly stuff goes on Twitter now instead of here. But then again, some really nifty Twitter conversations have found their way back here, because of my desire to have them part of my “permanent record,” as it were. So maybe it’s a wash.
MWC: “As a writer, what is your opinion of used bookstores? Is there an acceptable tradeoff between making money on your work through new purchases vs recirculating dead trees in book form?”
I don’t have any problem with used bookstores and tend to think they’re a good way for people to sample the work of unfamiliar writers at relatively low cost. I don’t see them cutting into my income in any significant way, and I tend to think that the benefit to the community in having a store of books for sale outweighs any lost income to me. That said, as always, if you really want to support an author whose work you love, buy their books new. We don’t make any money off used books.
Neil Hepworth: “What do you do when you’re asked to review a book, you agree to review a book, and then you really don’t like the book? ”
At this point I don’t usually review books professionally — not enough time and also if I don’t like a book I’d prefer not to note it at all. It’s one of the reasons I created the Big Idea: It gives me a chance to spotlight writers and let them speak to my readers directly, without me getting in the way. That said, when I do read a book for my own enjoyment and like it, I’m happy to tell people about it.
Megan: “[T]o what extent do you believe that I, as a writer, am responsible to portray three-dimensional non-cisgendered straight white people? Am a propagating so much of what is wrong with our culture if my characters are straight? Or if they’re white?”
I think you should have fully-realized characters regardless of anything else, and if you intend to reflect reality (or achieve reasonable verisimilitude in the fantasy/science fiction work), you should have more than just straight white people in your work, because in the real world, there are more than just straight white people. And anyway, it’s not that difficult to add people who are not just straight and white to your writing. Here’s one way to do it: When introducing a character, ask yourself: “Is it absolutely critical for the story for this character to be straight and white?” If the answer is no, then consider not making them that. Because why not? If you create a world where diversity is just there, then it stops being a thing — it just becomes how the world is. And then you get some experience writing different kinds of people, and that’s a useful skill to have in your writer toolbox.
Re: Mtpettyp: “How can someone like myself who exclusively buys ebooks support their local independent bookstore? These stores can be a great source for suggestions on relatively unknown authors and books, but at the end of the day I have no desire (or room) to buy the dead-tree versions from them.”
Kobo has a partnership with the IndieBound stores such that 1. the IndieBound store gets a cut when you buy a device and 2. the store gets a cut for every ebook you buy thereafter. Also the Kobo e-readers and tablets are great. (No, I don’t work there, I just read on one.) Another way, har har, hee hee, if for example you are extremely wedded to your Kindle, is to ask your bookstore if they’ve set up an Amazon affiliate code you can use when you buy your Kindles (a nice cut for them) and ebooks (those nickels and dimes add up over time).
I just thought of one more Reader Request topic that I would have submitted and since it’s writerly and short, maybe you could address it here:
The recent discussion of Heinlein made me start wondering about how much you can interpret about an author’s own opinions and beliefs by reading those of the characters. I know you can’t speak to anybody else’s writing, but I was wondering how much you think your own ideologies leak into those of your characters, either purposefully or not. Are there any particular characters you’ve written who ended up speaking in your own voice? And if so, was that intentional at the time or something you only noticed after the fact?
I discovered your work because of Brandon Sanderson’s #scalzilovehate campaign several years ago. I agree that this feud must continue. It’s highly entertaining.
I have a question related to an earlier one you answered. Why is it that sometimes a book, even an e-book is available in one country a year ahead of being released in another country? (example “Broken Homes: A River of London Novel” – but I’ve heard it’s worse for American novels going overseas)
I tried using a B&N gift card to buy an e-book in a store once. I couldn’t do it, so I bought the book I wanted from home.
I was unfamiliar with your “feud”. Where can I be entertained by it?
“When introducing a character, ask yourself: “Is it absolutely critical for the story for this character to be straight and white?” If the answer is no, then consider not making them that. Because why not? If you create a world where diversity is just there, then it stops being a thing — it just becomes how the world is. And then you get some experience writing different kinds of people, and that’s a useful skill to have in your writer toolbox.”
Wow, that is such a well-put reminder (that on reading, I think I need to remember more often.) Thanks!
That last comment about writing more diversity into your characters really struck home with me. I’ve often wondered about why so many of my characters appear white in my head when I’m writing them, yet I have a strong Latino heritage that I’ve never really brought out into my stories. We definitely need to write more about different cultural, ethnic, and gender identities.
Just wanted to say that I really love your response to Megan. One of the things I never liked about ST: TOS is that all the aliens were in humanoid form (minimum of two arms, bipedal locomotion). At least by the time TNG came around, special effects had advanced to the point that sometimes the aliens were represented as beams of light, or something else, nothing remotely humanoid at all. And I loved the DS9 episode with the Trill (humanoid host, but the “alien” actually lives inside the humanoid) couple who’d been a humanoid heterosexual couple in a previous incarnation, but met up again when both aliens were inside female hosts. I absolutely loved the fact that DS9 was willing to say “yes, as a matter of fact, love does cross gender ‘boundaries’ .”
“three-dimensional non-cisgendered straight white people”
a non-cisgender person can also be described as a transgender person
i *think*, Megan meant to say simply “cisgender straight white people”
tho, if i’m wrong, then i totally wanna read about all the great three-dimensional trans* characters in Megan’s work!
I dunno, John, a while back you posted a panel from a graphic novel, and one of the lines sounded very much like one of your tweets. I don’t remember details, but it ended with “WITH SCIENCE.” Very @scalzi-tweet-like.
Jennifer, I agree that was nice but it kind of spoiled it for me when the Star Trek team reacted violently and abusively to any suggestion that there might be two men in love. Not only did they never put gay men in any of the series (apparently the gay male gene will be eliminated by medical technology in the future, he said sarcastically), but when the fans suggested that there was a bit of a bromance brewing between Tom Paris and Harry Kim, and that in the prison episode it might have become more, Rick Berman and Michael Piller were not just dismissive but actually abusive to the people who were suggesting it. It was quite a homophobic flareup even for the time.
Re: aliens: an alien that’s easily understood, whose values are phrased in terms of human values, is not truly alien, but a thinly-disguised human belonging to an unusual outgroup.
There’s obviously an argument to be made re: having characters that are easy to relate to and easy to understand. At the same time, I feel that treating aliens in this way is … cheating the reader of a sense of mystery, of a certain depth, of the need to fathom something that is hard to absorb, that is, well, truly alien.
One approach I’ve seen used is to treat aliens less as characters and more as part of the setting. Some older, mostly non-western, sci-fi does this.
A few examples I can think of are some of Stanislaw Lem’s books (Fiasco, Solaris, Eden), and those of the Strugatsky brothers (e.g., Roadside Picnic; though last I checked the English translation was of amateurish quality at best). Of the western tradition, some of the classics fall into this category as well: Arthur C. Clarke (e.g., 2001: A Space Odissey; Rendezvous with Rama), Frederick Pohl (Gateway).
Regarding gender/ethnicity…another approach might be to leave it up to the reader to fill in some of those blanks. If a character is not explicitly of a specific ethnicity, then they can end up being whatever ethnicity the reader prefers.
Heinlein used this approach a time or two. As have other authors. The hero in Starship Troopers was Filipino. The heroine in I Will Fear No Evil was probably of African decent. Both of those factors come out pretty late in those books.
If it isn’t crucial to have a blonde, blue eyed, character, then why mention it?
Re covers: I’d like to weigh in here (in the light-middleweight division, as I reckon it) as the former editor of a newspaper’s book review section. Although most review copies (aka ARCs or galleys or uncorrected proofs) have plain covers — i.e., no art — some publishers go to the expense of including at least the working version of what will be the cover. Now, it’s been five years since I was in the biz, and book reviewing is no longer valued by most newspapers, but authors DO want to get reviewed, and I can tell you flat out, with only a small degree of embarrassment, that when pawing through some 300 galleys a week, looking for four or five to select for review, a striking cover would slow me down and make me take a second look. And that can make all the difference. A good title would do the same. Just imagine yourself wandering through a bookstore; your head swivels around and your eyes zero in on a book that’s just lying there twiddling its figurative thumbs. Why? Good cover, maybe. Or good title. That could mean (in my case) a review or (in the bookstore’s case) a sale.
The kicker: Authors — unless they’re big-time, indeed — have no control over the cover. None. And, kicker #2: Most authors have no control over the TITLE. Seriously. They don’t. Simon & Schuster changed the subtitle of my book, for example. They asked for my input, which they didn’t have to do, and ultimately they made the subtitle better, which certainly is not always the case. But a friend of mine got an advance of more than half a million dollars for a mainstream novel that boasted, for my money (my advance was ***ahem*** considerably less than half a mil, thank you muchly), one of the best, grabbiest, most intriguing titles I’d come across in years. It was edgy, provocative … and in the end the publisher got chilled feet, spiked it, and came up with something generic and milquetoast. Book didn’t tank, but it didn’t take off, either. Publishing. Go figure — I dare you.
howardbraze, I think John has answered this questions somewhere on Whatever before. The short answer, IRRC, is simply that releases in different countries require different contracts with different publishers/distributors, which may get negotiated and signed at different times, and who each have their own release schedules to consider. There isn’t really anything preventing global simultaneous releases, but such things require careful and deliberate coordination among any number of parties. Just because we live in a global economy, doesn’t mean we’re all buying from the same shop.
You could end up with a place that is improbably diverse, which may or may not be what you are looking for.
One could always decide in advance the distribution of whatever traits you consider relevant and then use dice to generate individuals.
I’m reminded of Grantville in Eric Flint’s 1632 universe, which is used as a shared world by several writers. Eventually it became necessary to generate every person who lived there before it was transported to the year 1632. The place was in danger of being overrun with retired Navy SEALs.
What about Erma Bombeck? For a lot of us, of a certain age, she was a fine example of newspaper humor. It seems she never gets credit for anything….
>> You could end up with a place that is improbably diverse, which may or may not be what you are looking for.>>
That’s why, I’d assume, the advice is to _consider_ not making the character straight and white, rather than doing so unthinkingly.
“It will result in an improbably diverse setting if I make yet another bank director in 1905 Cleveland an East African lesbian” is a reasonable consideration.
After reading Megan’s question several times, I decided I thought she meant “…am responsible to portray three-dimensional people who are not cisgendered, straight, and/or white?”
Made more sense to me that way, anyway.
“And anyway, it’s not that difficult to add people who are not just straight and white to your writing. Here’s one way to do it: When introducing a character, ask yourself: “Is it absolutely critical for the story for this character to be straight and white?” If the answer is no, then consider not making them that. Because why not?”
This seems like reasonable advice, but I don’t think it’s always that easy. Sure, there are stories (secondary world and far-future fiction, for example) where imagining a character’s experience of race or gender identity is mostly a worldbuilding exercise, and well within the comfort zone of most SFF writers. But there are also stories in which that kind of experience has to ring true to life for a reader who has actually lived it, and that can be a hard thing to do convincingly.
That’s less of an issue, of course, if one relegates diversity to the supporting cast. But it’s also pretty obvious to readers when an author is playing minority bingo with her bit characters.
Brandon Sanderson is doing a book signing in my area RIGHT NOW, Scalzi. BALL IS IN YOUR COURT.
On that straight white issue. When Neil Gaiman had written Anansi Boys he was politely exasperated by the fact so many people just automatically assumed the main characters where white, because Gaiman was white – and when NG pointed out why (based on the contents of the book) these characters really could not have been white, people asked him why he didn’t say out right these characters were black…
******. ******. ******
Yes, and the white Rhett Butler said to little white Alice (and her white rabbit) that it sure was good that all authors explicitly mentioned the colour of each character in every one of their books, otherwise readers might have to, you know, pay attention…?
@Mike – I’ve rarely seen a cast of characters I would consider “improbably diverse,” but I have seen many, many books and films that were improbably homogeneous.
Given that even when I lived in Idaho and Wyoming, my social circle was not all white or all straight, having a book set in New York or San Francisco or almost any other good-sized city where there isn’t even tangential diversity seems like one of the more improbable set-ups. I have been in so few environments that were purely straightwhitecis that it’s shown me it’s less probable to have no diversity than a lot of it in most settings, especially when you go from the core characters to the wider population of a world. If it’s a woman and her two best friends you’re focusing on, it can make sense for them all to be the same, but when you get to their larger social circle? Their workplaces? Their love lives? Their neighbors? The people who talk to them on the train? It gets less and less probable the wider your sample size and the broader your arena.
And when you’re in space, or on another planet, or in a fictional world, probability goes totally out of it. It’s really less of a stretch to ask people to believe there can be a black person and a gay person playing a role in the same universe than that there are enough wizards or androids or zombies to make a difference in normal lives. If you think it is, maybe get out more.
“If you create a world where diversity is just there, then it stops being a thing — it just becomes how the world is.”
This, right here.
“Improbably diverse” is only a problem in bomber movies. Not an issue in any recent fiction, and certainly not in movies. Did you hear that the Institute on Gender in Media found that only 17% of the people in crowd scenes in movies are women? I don’t think that’s plausible even for the Mad Men era, and it’s certainly deeply wacked today.
I have to admit that I was startled when I went to Boston in the 80s. I hardly saw any people of color! But it turns out that Boston had the same percentage of POC as New York; it was just a much more segregated city. But if you’re writing about the future, do you really expect that to continue? How? Why? What impact does it have on your characters?
I have to agree with ERose. If you’re in the far future, it’s more likely that people will be diverse in gender and color (and other factors) than a) you see in fiction today, b) you see in the everyday world today, or c) it is that they won’t. And in a fantasy world, you should have a reason why the people are all white if they are, and realize that your justification will speak volumes about the story and about you.
That’s less of an issue, of course, if one relegates diversity to the supporting cast. But it’s also pretty obvious to readers when an author is playing minority bingo with her bit characters.
On the other hand…. if the supporting cast is all white-washed, that looks rather odd. E.g., the U.S.A (because I am American): neither the U.S. military, the government, nor the population of our cities is all white or all male. If you are writing a story set in modern America, having some non-white, non-male supporting characters reflects reality. How you handle your main characters is, of course, your artistic decision.
I’m not a professionally published writer, but I have written a fair amount of “amateur” fiction. (*cough*fanfiction*cough). I have main (*cough*canon*cough*) characters doing things in various non-US parts of the world. The local bit characters are rarely going to be Generic White Guys in those cases. For example, I have a villain protagonist character who runs a refinery in Libya–his staff is anything but white; it would be odd for them to be white, especially when his organization is really unpopular with the usual companies and contractors who have white employees in that part of the world. In another story, I had a scene set in the U.S., in an Air Force pilot’s club, where one of the pilots was definitely non-white, because the USAF stopped having an all-white officer corps quite a while back.
It works if you don’t make a Very Special Episode out of your various characters’ ethnicities, and if you are at least somewhat aware of cultural and religious differences and can write them sympathetically. I have found studying introductory Anthropology texts to be very helpful, along with comparative religion. (A good founding in anthropology is really helpful for worldbuilding, IMHO–and it’s almost as good as world travel for losing the parochial blinkers).
A friend of ours moved to the US and was sincerely suprised at the racial diversity, having grown up with a steady diet of American media which apparently does very little to reflect reality.
Even playing diversity bingo has to be better than the current situation.
TOS did have non humanoid aliens. Not many, but some. Have you forgotten the Horta?
Yes, I didn’t interpret that as meaning to do so unthinkingly, but thinking about it doesn’t make it easy.
Some shows try to achieve diversity by punching tickets in a way that’s fairly improbable. I’d say that Star Trek did that; a whole bunch of white people, with a sprinkling of diversity.
Grey’s Anatomy was cast using a scheme in which they didn’t commit to race for the characters in advance of seeing the auditions and in my opinion comes off more naturally in that respect than Trek.
<blockquoteIf it’s a woman and her two best friends you’re focusing on, it can make sense for them all to be the same, but when you get to their larger social circle? Their workplaces? Their love lives? Their neighbors? The people who talk to them on the train? It gets less and less probable the wider your sample size and the broader your arena.
How often do we learn about the ethnicity, or sexual orientation, of the people who characters in fiction speak to on trains? We are likely to learn about the sex in most cases, Ancillary Justice being a notable recent exception.
We don’t necessarily have to learn these things about the main characters if it doesn’t come up.
Johny Ricco’s ethnicity was hinted at in places in Starship Trooopers but not really stated. I didn’t notice the omission at the time.
On fiction set on other planets in the future, it’s entirely possible that the tags we use to describe race don’t even have meaning.
A note on the US vs UK book release differences. In the case of Pratchett and Aaronovitch, in addition to different UK and US publishers, both of those changed US publishers with their new books. US released had been closer with recent Pratchett with Harper Collins, but he switched to Doubleday and the release moved back. Ben A’s series was always a bit behind with Del Rey. Now he is with DAW so things may move closer (or they may not).
Aaronovitch said on his blog that the long delay in the U.S. release of “Broken Homes” was due to his late delivery of the manuscript. Betsy Wollheim told him it should be possible to synchronize the releases of the next two books if he’s done on schedule.
Note all the people who were dismayed that Rue was >gasp!< black in the Hunger Games movie despite being described as dark skinned right there in the book. So even paying attention to skin tone mentioned in the text apparently requires too much attention for some folk.
Why is it that when people mention the desirability of having a characters in books reflect reality, it’s practically inevitable someone will pop up and talk about tokenism? The people in reality who are gay, trans or other ethnicities or religions are not tokens in life. Why relegate the idea of them to tokens in fiction?
Sir, I cannot agree more.
I just wish that there were an opera in thlIngan Hohl and gold copies of the Great Pen Scalzibane to commemorate the epic literature war for eternity.
Plus, that way you and Brandon would snag some extra loot that you both seriously deserve.
Anyway…I’ve become addicted to Words of Radiance. Neglecting work, sleep, Whatever…pretty much everything. Except when college acceptance letters (4 so far) come around. Then I tear myself away from my 197th reread of Kaladin Stormblessed kicking major ass. But otherwise, it’s been a nonstop Brandon binge.
I’ll be back to the glorious light of Scalzi soon enough, though. Can’t wait for “Lock In”!
I want to buy the works of my favorite authors and help support their efforts, but I live on a fixed income (which is barely enough to live on) and the $$ to support my reading habit are severely limited. If I’m lucky, my book buying budget for the month might be $15. I can buy maybe one or two dead tree editions new or maybe two or three e-books, or I can buy or exchange used copies and get as many as 8 used books for the same amount of money and trade ins. Too many times, it’s a question of buying books or buying food. I try to make up for this by highlighting books I like or authors I like in my blog, and talking them up to friends I think would enjoy a particular author or book, but I still feel bad about it and angry that the economic situation is as it is and that my situation is not going to change (except to get worse).
On the other hand…. if the supporting cast is all white-washed, that looks rather odd.
Agreed. All I meant by “playing minority bingo with the supporting cast” was that it’s both safe and easy to represent diversity at the margins of your story, and another thing entirely to do the same with the characters at its center.
Bringing together two threads…
In the “Rivers of London” series, the author consistently explicitly identifies all the characters, not just the non-white ones. If the character is white, he mentions it. If they’re something else, black , asian, etc., he also mentions it.
That way there’s no excuse for assuming a character is white.
re: writing aliens: For my money, Greg Bear is The King of conveying a certain alien sensibility. You would NEVER mistake his aliens for humans– they are just deeply wierd, but logical-ish.
They are usually not POV characters though. I’m not sure they can be.
(loved that question, btw)
Mike Maltese? Just when I start thinking you’ve maxed the coolness quotient…bam!!
@Guess: “Liberals and conservatives get along all the time.” Um, really? And where is that happening?
John, thank you for your answer!
ebbr in Salt Lake – Washington, DC, for one. Congress mostly gets along just fine in person, if not in politics.
Regarding used books: generally I’m much more apt to experiment with low-cost used books. I’ve discovered quite a few authors that way (Including you) and when I like the work, I’m then waiting for the next book, which I usually buy in paper form, new and in hardback. So I tend to think of used bookstores as incubators of potential readers and customers.