Reader Request Week 2015 #9: Writing Related Short Bits
Posted on May 15, 2015 Posted by John Scalzi 32 Comments
And now, quick answers to questions related to writing, publishing, and such-like topics:
Standback: “What’s your take on the state of short fiction in the genre? Print magazines, anthologies, e-zines, and anything else? Is the form viable and sustainable? And how much of an audience does it actually have?”
I suspect short fiction in the genre is healthier than it’s been in years, because there are so many outlets for it, and both e-pub and self-pub have expanded the ability for authors to distribute. I see a lot of Kickstarted anthologies that previously would have had to wait for a publisher to greenlight them that now directly appeal to a niche audience, and I see a lot of authors taking their shorter work and putting it up for sale electronically, creating a nice second market for that work. I personally do very well selling short fiction online, via Subterranean and Tor. So, yes, I’m bullish on it.
Angua: “What is your stand on fan fiction and other transformative works? I’m not merely asking if you are ok with your characters and worlds to be interpreted by fans, but also what intrinsic value do you see in such works, if any?”
My stance on fanfic is the same as it’s been for years: I’m cool with it, and if people are writing it about my stuff, it’s a positive thing because it speaks to how invested they are in the world I’ve created. The intrinsic value? I think it varies from fanfic writer to fanfic writer. The one thing I particularly see fanfic having value in is letting newer writers have a low-pressure space to explore their own writing skills, as some of the creative work (characters, situations, etc) is already done and they can focus on other aspects. Many excellent pro writers have now come out of fanfic space. It’s not to say that’s the only value to it (or that all fanfic writers want to be pro writers), but that’s an advantage I see.
Beej: “The word ‘brand’ gets a lot of mockery, but I think you’ve established a brand for yourself: snarky, ‘light’ SF, often with an element of mystery. How much of that is deliberate? How much is a function of your own personality and tastes?”
Well, it’s definitely deliberate, and it’s definitely a function of who I am. I write what I like to read, by and large, on the adage that one’s first and best audience is always one’s self. The sort of writing I do isn’t the only sort I like, nor the only sort I can do (see The God Engines as evidence of the latter), but it’s a reflection of my general tastes. Also, as a practical matter relating to sales, at this point when people think “Scalzi” they often do have a particular style in mind, and it does behoove me to continue in this vein, commercially. Fortunately I still like this vein, and I have opportunities to do other things when I want to change things up. So it’s all good.
Caroline: “What was the title of the first science fiction book you read? Was that book what drew you to science fiction?”
The first science fiction novel I can remember reading (which may be different from the first I ever read) was Farmer in the Sky by Robert Heinlein. I liked it so I started reading more Heinlein and also more SF, so I guess you could say it drew me to the genre, yes.
Devnull: “If I recall, you attended your first SF con after you sold a novel. Do you think your relationship with con-going SF fandom is different than it would be if you had attended them before becoming an SF pro?”
Oh, probably, although obviously it’s difficult for me to quantify how. I suppose honestly it’s the difference between coming into any well-established subculture as an adult rather than as a younger person (or being born into it, as many of my friends in fandom were). I’m a citizen of SF/F fandom, but I’m a naturalized citizen. It doesn’t mean I don’t love it (or find it exasperating) any less, just that I started from somewhere else before coming into it. I like to think I still hold dual citizenship, with my other “country” being journalism.
Samantha Bryant: “Thinking back to the beginning of your career (first book). What do you wish you had known?”
Not really, because my first book was published when I was 32 and my first novel at 36, and in both cases I had been a professional writer long enough that there were no real surprises, and I was well-positioned to handle whatever came next — which was good because my first non-fiction book was a big failure, and the first novel a big hit, so they were definitely contrasting experiences. In both cases I handled them pretty well, I think.
Cat Amesbury: “If you could have a roundtable conversation with Heinlein, Mary Shelley, H.G. Wells, and Octavia Butler, what would you discuss?”
Almost certainly what a pain in the ass publishers and editors can be. It’s a staple of writer conversation.
A. Sebastian: “Is the publishing industry, and by extension, Hollywood, ready to invest real dollars on fantasy books featuring girls?”
I think the publishing industry already does invest lots of real dollars in fantasy books featuring girls (a quick check of both the YA and SF/F shelves in your local bookstore will confirm this). I would also be wary of taking the “and by extension, Hollywood” argument as a given. My experience, which is not entirely insignificant, is that they really are different beasts.
Rherdman1953: “If you were offered a cameo role in a movie/tv adaptation of any one of your books, what would your favorite one be?”
I could see myself being John Perry’s son at the opening of Old Man’s War. But I’ll note I’m not hugely interested in having a cameo. If I were going to be on screen I’d want something that would qualify me for SAG membership.
Dapeck: “Tom Bombadil: Important to the world-building of Middle Earth, or just needlessly weird?”
I’m not a Bombadil fan, and it’s one of the reasons why I think the Peter Jackson version of LoTR is many ways a superior telling of the story of Lord of the Rings than the books are (this is a very contentious position).
Just Good Sense: “What is the likelihood of you finding another publisher for—and updating—the Guide to the Universe and the Guide to Sci-Fi Movies? (They’re great, but could use a little refresh.)”
The rights to both have reverted back to me so it’s possible it could happen but as with anything the question is time and scheduling. Of the two I am mostly likely to update the Movies book, although if I do I would probably recast the book rather a bit while updating. We’ll see. But don’t wait up.
George William Herbert: “You wrote one book in another (now-deceased) author’s universe, more or less. If you could chose any still living author’s universe to write another book in, who and what setting?”
None, because I did that “write in another author’s universe” thing once and doing it again doesn’t interest me. I did recently write a short story in another writer’s universe for an upcoming anthology (more details later, I’m not the one in charge of these announcements), and I did that mostly for fun. But again it’s not something I’m actively looking to do more than once.
Rene Quebec: “Lock In in its bare bones, is actually a pretty good crime thriller. Have you given thought to writing outside of the genre?”
Yes, although as Lock In shows I can write any number of things and still be inside the genre, which is a nice thing, too. SF is a pretty flexible genre in that regard. As for writing outside the genre, as a practical matter the issue isn’t interest or opportunity (preeeeety sure I could sell a contemporary mystery, for example) but, once again, time.
Andrew: “What do you think about Eric Flint’s idea of changing the Hugo and Nebula categories to differentiate between novels, short novels, multi-volume, and series?”
I think it would be a lot of work and if someone wants to try it, I wish them joy. The only lit-related Hugo I’d personally be interested in adding at this point is a Young Adult Hugo; I think its absence is notable and a bit ridiculous given how huge YA is as a science fiction and fantasy market these days.
Anne: “When you write here on controversial topics, you are clear, direct, your prose builds, you include links that are interesting and to the point, and there’s humor. Do you have to do rewrites and research, then let them sit, and go back for re-reading? Or is what I read frequently off-the-cuff?”
Mostly off the cuff, but occasionally researched. And sometimes inbetween. Note as a former journalist, current freelance writer and as a grad of the University of Chicago, research is not something I find particularly onerous, especially in the current era of All the Information At Your Fingertips. You can find a lot of information, of good quality, pretty quickly these days.
Docrocketscience: “Being an ‘expert’: So, you hold a BA in Philosophy, but have been paid to write as an expert on various topics, such as film, finance, and astronomy. I understand that film criticism is mostly just expressing an opinion, and that you likely did significant research when writing the ‘Guide’ books. I’m also familiar with (read: have heard of) the adage ‘Fake it till you make it’. But, has the notion of presenting yourself (or being presented) as an expert in a subject in which you lack more traditional bona fides ever given you pause? If so, how do you reconcile? If not, why not?”
It doesn’t particularly bother me because I find that the more time you work/write in a field, the more your backlog of work — if it is of good quality — answers the question of your expertise for you. It also helps to, you know, not overstate your bona fides. I’ve written science books but I’m not a scientist, and I’m happy to note that. Likewise, my experience with finance is as writer and consultant, not as, say, an accountant. I’m perfectly happy with letting people know of my experience and then letting them decide, based on that and on the writing at hand, what they think of the information I bring to the table.
Tim: “What are your thoughts (if any) on the new Harper Lee novel, Go Set a Watchman, scheduled for release later this year, as well as the controversy and questions regarding her condition and wishes for the novel?”
My own personal gut feeling about this, unsupported by anything else, is that if Harper Lee had wanted the book out there in the world, it would have been out there already. Other than that, no opinion.
Yoyogod: “As a science fiction writer (and occasional ukelele player), what are your thoughts on filk music?”
If it makes people happy, then filk on.
Knightwork: “Since you’ve recently made another lap around the sun, would you reflect on the advance of writing technology in your life? Would you still be a writer if you were stuck with using an old Olvetti typewriter, white out, and carbon paper?”
I’ve always made it clear how delighted I am I came of age when computers started being the primary way to put down words, as the ease of editing it affords is hugely congenial to my personal work flow. I don’t want to say I wouldn’t be a writer if I had had to work on a typewriter, but I can say I imagine I would be a lot crankier about the writing and editing process, and also that the first thing I would have done when I became successful as a writer would have been to hire a typist to rekey everything after edits, because honestly, retyping is a bunch of bullshit, right there.
Lanternhues: “How would the discovery of (or the being discovered by) an intelligent alien species change the science fiction genre?”
Well, a lot of first contact stories would go right out the window, that’s for sure.
RE: Relative story quality of LotR books v. Jackson movies.
OK then. And the rest of the examples/reasons for your position are?
Tom Bombadil is a long way around the problem of getting the right sword in Merry’s hands so he can kill the king of the ringwraiths. But I like that longer arc of the story.
I wrote about it a long time ago here.
“My own personal gut feeling about this, unsupported by anything else, is that if Harper Lee had wanted the book out there in the world, it would have been out there already. Other than that, no opinion.”
I’m not necessarily disagreeing, but I do feel it might be relevant to point out that if we strictly honored authors’ wishes regarding disposing of their manuscripts, we wouldn’t have the Aeneid and the Metamorphoses. Both Vergil and Ovid left instructions for these works to be destroyed upon their deaths; both instructions were disregarded. And given that Shakespeare, for one, was notably influenced by Metamorphoses, the impact of that disregard is not at all negligible.
(Then again, I suppose generations of young Latin students might not feel quite so charitable to those who saved these works from destruction…)
Thank you for taking the time to do this Reader Request article – I found it very interesting and entertaining!
To be entirely honest about it, I’m surprised Watchman is going to come out while Lee is alive — I suspect it would have been a quintessential posthumous release.
I remember thinking, when I read “Lock In” that it reminded me strongly of Larry Niven’s Gil Hamilton/ARM stories, in that it combined mystery and police procedural elements with a tech-driven future society. I certainly wouldn’t mind reading further of those characters and milieu.
Answer to Samantha’s question: Bwah?!
In the event of actual First Contact, I’m not sure how many first contact stories would go *totally* “out the window”. There’s quite a lot of scence fiction that is now factually dated but still enjoyed.
The works that lean more on science / speculative science than on story and character might be more vulnerable to going out the window, but doesn’t fiction like that generally have a short shelf life anyway?
@Jason: as a former schoolkid who hated the Aeneid (both in the original and in translation) I must admit I found the idea of going back in time and making sure the manuscript ended in the cloaca maxima attractive. But then, no Aeneid means no Divina Commedia, which means the whole Italian language would be completely different – who knows, maybe the peninsula would now speak a Venetian or Sicilian (or horror, Milanese!) dialect instead of a Tuscan one. So, I’ll think altogether I’m happy with it.
“I would also be wary of taking the “and by extension, Hollywood” argument as a given. My experience, which is not entirely insignificant, is that they really are different beasts”
Thanks so much for taking time to answer! I guess I was thinking more Hollywood and less publishing, because, yes, especially in YA/UF, women are represented. Films, though, different story? Just yesterday I read again, this time from Ike Perlmutter, that a female-centric superhero movie is bad business, he cited Cat Woman and Elektra as disasters not to be repeated…
I was fine with the Fellowship movie leaving out Bombadil; and generally OK with the changes Jackson made there (although I wasn’t completely crazy about Merry & Pippin seeming more like accidental companions rather than true friends). And it was nice to see the visual representations of the actual war bits in Two Towers/Return of the King, since I generally have a hard time picturing fighting/war scenes. But I can’t forgive the changes to Faramir. They prevent me from really enjoying the series as a whole.
Re Sebastian’s question… “Hunger Games” has been a huge hit, for just one example. My son and a ton of his friends LOVED the books and the movies both. YA is really leading the way here, I think. And grownups read them too, just as the did Harry Potter.
So: Some parts of Hollywood are already hip to movies with female lead characters.
(I have no idea what Marvel’s problem is.)
Dana- Re: Marvel…I didn’t want to call them out by name…people are touchy about MC :) and, totally agree with you there, Hunger Games is one of my favorite adaptations, and yet…it’s sort of the token franchise now.
In an attempt to stick to the question of whether the books or movies tell the story better, I, too, cannot forgive the complete change of Faramir. It made no sense at all, in terms of the story being told, and I thought JRRT’s version was a better story.
The other thing I have always disliked intensely about the movies is that there’s a tremendous focus on the battles. In the books, all of the major characters say, at some point or another, that war is a bad thing and is to be avoided except in the most dire situation, etc., but Jackson’s big battles elide that sense of sorrow that permeates the books. Certainly JRRT never glorified battle or spent many pages describing it. The onscreen time would have been much better spent showing the scouring of the Shire, because that, in many ways, is the payoff of the story.
As Avilyn notes, Bombadil is a sword-dispensing device in LOTR, but I did like the bit of odd world-building that Bombadil provided, and I like the idea that part of his powers were geographically specific (as with the Elven kingdoms, for that matter). That ties back to the scouring of the Shire, now that I think about it . . .
John, I really enjoyed your answers.
You truly are a professional writer in every sense and you enjoy these interactions with your fans. One thing I greatly appreciate (you are very wise to do so), is that you do not ever (AFAIK) over-sell yourself. You accept your talents as well as your possible shortcomings. As such, you have no inflated ego to defend. True professionals of all kinds have this quality.
I find that converting a story in your head into words on paper (or electronic memory) is a creative bottle-neck. Namely, the physical process limits my creativity even though I am a decent touch-typist. Laptops especially choke down the flow of thought. What can one do to get around this limitation? Even dictation has it’s process problems. Would simply putting down every thought without concern for final form (and sort the bodies later) help as a creative tool?
Getting everything down is fine as long as you trust yourself to be a tough editor on the revise pass, yes.
I learned to type on a typewriter, and went through my undergraduate education using one. Computers (word processors, really) weren’t commonly available until I was well into graduate school. I’m a writer (not fiction, but I do earn a living at it, so I spend a LOT of time writing).
I provide that context only to say that the question about having to use typewriters very literally sent cold chills up my spine. Dwelling on that possibility actually makes me nauseous.
The YA Hugo is one some of my friends are very keen on, but it doesn’t really make sense to me. The current Hugo categories are almost all driven by medium, not by content. And YA fiction has won the big one before, so it’s not like it’s excluded. How does one define the category?
I think writing on the fly versus rough draft then edit is probably a personal thing. I have a friend who thinks very hard before she writes each sentence, but they come out really well. I, on the other hand, shotgun all the words onto the page and then spend most of my time sorting and rearranging them. My initial drafts ramble something awful, but with sufficient editing, they condense nicely.
Somebody should make ‘KILL TOM BOMBADIL!’ bumper stickers! And I think movies more often than not improve on novels, though that’s an even more contentious position.
Bombadil’s always denigrated out of context. Those chapters give us insight not only to the ring but to the Lord of the Ringwraiths and a foreshadowing of the lands of Fangorn.
Those may have been covered in differing details in the Appendix and The Silmarilion but the Fellowship pre-dates both of those, so outside of those chapters, there’s nothing to refer to when it came out.
Also – If you re-read Dante, you’ll find a level of Hell meant for those who like the PJ story, much less think it’s better than Tolkien’s.
I think Peter Jackson’s Two Towers is far superior than the book. He took a dry middle book in the trilogy and turned it into a slick, faced pace action movie. The dropping of The Scouring of the Shire was great as well.
Breaking the Hugo’s out for YA books would be fairly difficult – where do you draw the line? Some are fairly clear (Artimis Fowl, Harry Potter) but it’s not as clear cut when you get to book in, say, McCaffrey’s Dragonriders series or some of Moorcock’s (to go back in time). Are the Hunger Games really YA or are they considered that since the protagonist is so young? Same with Divergent (or the never-to-be-nominated Twilight).
I might be easier to break out Fantasy from Science Fiction (lol) than to try to fine a realistic line for YA.
So is Samantha’s question “Is there anything you wish you had known?” or is there something else going on?
In my callow *ahem* “youth,” I too suffered from the common prejudice against fanfic, but a few minutes thought set me to rights.
For starters, all those TV shows you like? Star Trek, Farscape, Fringe, Stargate, the Flash, et al…fanfic. All of it. Well, hopefully fanfic, at least appreciation for the source on the part of writers, if not outright fandom.
And speaking of the Flash, comics too. Bob Kane hasn’t written Batman for years, and likewise, we haven’t seen a new Siegel and Shuster Superman for a while, either.
And those media tie ins and shared world anthologies, to bring us back to the world of the ink-stained wretches, again, fanfic. And once we start digging, we can start adding a good number of historicals to the mix. Then we realize it’s fanfic all the way down.
I love these answers, John. As far as fan fiction, while I won’t claim that I will never ever write any, I think another way in is to use public domain works as the jumping off point. I have a story idea related to Treasure Island that I’m slowly working on, for the same reason you mention – no pressure, work on writing in a world already mostly filled in. I guess that is still technically fan fiction, but with a work in the public domain you aren’t risking that a still living author may just decide to clamp down on your fanfic.
I’ve never really understand the rationale for the YA Hugo, so if you feel the interest in elaborating on that, it’d be appreciated.
It kind of feels like cutting it out as a separate category is patronizing (“Here’s a category for your cute little books that can’t compete with the real SF novels.”), especially as the awards don’t call out any other publishing categories. Defining who’s eligible also strikes me as a non-trivial task.
I also have a hard time seeing the need. Not only have we had YA books win the Best Novel Hugo before, we’ve literally had a year (2009) where the majority of the nominees for the Hugo Award for Best Novel, including the eventual winner, were YA books.
Thanks for answering my question on short fiction!
I’m definitely with you on there being more and more short fiction venues – and more diverse ones, catering to a wider range of interests, including very niche ones.
At the same time, though, I feel like the readers of short fiction are getting rarer and rarer. Magazines, webzines, and anthologies seem to be a niche interest in and of themselves – and one divided into many, many sub-niches, as above.
This might just be my own personal impression. But I feel like my own social circle, which has no lack of geeks and genre fans, nobody reads short fiction (except a couple of people who write or edit themselves – and not all of them, either). I don’t see a lot of buzz or discussion over short fiction, the way that I do for novels. The Hugo nomination data certainly demonstrates that quite few people are nominating in those categories (in absolute numbers, and relative to Best Novel), and that’s in the convention probably most geared towards short fiction enthusiasts!
But yes, at the same time, there’s more short fiction than ever. Are the readers just very quiet? Are they split up into too many niches to make a lot of buzz? Or am I just not hanging out in the right circles?
I thought this was about writing “related short bits”, which seemed a little odd.
You need “Writing-related short bits”.
Jackson over Tolkien? Phah! Jackson took a majestic, carefully paced and beautifully written epic and reduced it to a cheap and tawdry action movie. Worse than what he took out was the unnecessary crap he put IN.
For shame! :)
I never understood The Scouring of the Shire part of LotR until I saw the PJ movies, then I realized just why it was so important — showing how the journey had changed the hobbits and how heroism and sacrifice are so often unappreciated by the people they were made for. Always was a Tom Bombadil fan, though I understand why he didn’t work in the movie version.
But if there’s anything six PJ movies have shown me, is how important it is to force creators to edit. For FotR, Jackson was under huge pressure from executives and had to justify all his choices. After he made oodles of money, though, he was given the freedom to do whatever he wanted, and insufferable bloat set in.
Regarding word processors … I learned to type on electric typewriters and tried writing my first, terrible short stories on them. It’s bizarre trying to remember that era.
Hrm… I could swear my comment was on-topic when I started writing it. Apologies if it ended up too far afield.