Last Sunset of the Summer, 2015

And with it begins Yom Kippur. Tomorrow is the autumnal equinox here in the northern hemisphere (at 4:21am my local time). Busy day.

It’s been a good summer for me. Hope it was for you, too.

Nobody Likes An Asshole (Except Maybe Other Assholes)

Adam-Troy Castro has a post up called “Writers: The Long-Term Benefits of Not Being An Ass,” which I encourage you to read, with the awareness that the advice has works equally as well when you substitute any other profession for “Writer” (or indeed, you can also substitute “human” and it works just as well).

Also, let me just second nearly all of what Adam-Troy is saying there. Folks, the fact is that people’s tolerance for working with complete assholes is pretty low. In the field of writing, in my experience, being an asshole is generally neither here nor there in terms of how an audience sees you (they’re focused on your output, not your personality), but it has a lot to do with how much slack those who have to work with you will cut you. And when no one wants to work with you, it makes it harder for your audience to find you.

And yes, if you sell millions of books, then you probably get to be as big of an asshole as you want to be and people still have to put up with you. But not many people sell that much. The list probably doesn’t include you (sorry. It doesn’t include me, either). It’s been interesting recently to watch writers who sell relatively little who have nevertheless decided being a complete asshole to other people in the industry was a winning move. They are either extraordinarily confident they will never be dropped by their current publisher (which is not a smart thing to assume when you sell relatively little), or they hope self-publishing will save them (also not smart).

(Or they’re simply convinced that it’s not them who’s an asshole, it’s everyone else. In the latter case, well, you can believe that, but if everyone else outside your tightly-sealed little group disagrees with you, then you still have a problem.)

Or, and this has been suggested to me before, there’s the theory that being a complete asshole is a marketing strategy to build an audience. My thought on this is, well, okay, but the sort of person who gets off on watching you be an asshole is probably an asshole themselves. And while I suppose that an asshole’s money spends just as well as anyone else’s, I’d still be uncomfortable actively cultivating that particular market. Again, generally your audience doesn’t care about your personality, but if you make being an asshole a selling point, to the particular market of assholes, then that’s the market you’ll be stuck with, you know? Then you’ll always have to be an asshole. And, you know. I can be an asshole just like anyone else. But I try to limit the total time I am one. It’s tiring. I can’t imagine having to do it all the time.

So, yes. Listen to Adam-Troy. Try to be a decent person, to the people you work with and even the people you don’t; Remember how you treat people on the way up is how they treat you on the way down; Maybe you can be an asshole if you sell millions, but you probably don’t and even if you do, you should still try not to be one. People remember. And people talk. And people choose who they want to do business with, and who they want to help.

Duran Duran, Neil Gaiman, and Beginnings

I’m both a friend and fan of Neil Gaiman, and a former music critic. So for years I’ve known about, but had never seen, Neil’s very first published book, the 1984 quickie biography of Duran Duran, arguably the biggest band to emerge from the first era of MTV (“You know! Back when they actually played music!” the 80s kids grouse, shaking their canes in unison). It’s a difficult find because a) it was a quickie bio of a pop band, not exactly meant to survive through the ages, b) apparently the company that published it went under shortly after it was published, so there were never that many copies to begin with. The fact that Neil’s become NEIL GAIMAN also adds to the rarity as collectors snap them up. Decent copies of the book fetch hundreds of dollars; at this moment on eBay there’s a copy whose description all but implies the tattered book is smudged with a then-14-year-old girl’s kisses which is being offered for $130. And while I like Neil, I’m not sure I’m willing to part with that much in order to see the thing.

Fortunately, there’s now a “Neil Gaiman Rarities” eBook Humble Bundle (which, at the time of this writing, is on its last day — pick it up here if you see this within 24 hours of this post’s publication), and Neil stuck in the bio as part of the bundle. As soon as I saw that it was in there, I slapped down my money (more than the $15 required to unlock the tier that included the bio, I’ll note) and made a beeline to download the pdf version.

How is it?

Oh, my friends. It is glorious.

It is glorious primarily because it is a triple-treat bit of nostalgia. One, it’s a nostalgia piece for the 80s, and of a certain stripe of 80s British music journalism, a tone and feel I personally most associate with Smash Hits, the magazine me and all my we-want-to-be-too-cool friends in high school would read to find out what Morrissey and Pete Burns were up to (apparently they were friends! Pete would come round for tea! or so I recall). Two, obviously, it’s a nostalgia piece for Duran Duran, who when the book came out were at their most Duran-iest, which is to say, with the original line-up, before Andy and Roger left, with those first three studio albums and all those Russell Mulcahy videos.

Three, it’s a nostalgia piece for Neil, although I suspect as much or more so for him as the rest of us, because here Neil is 24 years old and a journalist and almost no one has the slightest idea who he is. He hasn’t become NEIL GAIMAN and won’t start being that guy for a few more years yet, when Sandman kicks in. Nevertheless this is a reminder that everyone who is someone comes from somewhere and starts with something; this is where Neil begins as an author of books. For anyone who is a published author, a book like this is going to be evocative of their own first book, however many years back in the timestream that is.

Yes, yes, you say. Fine, nostalgia, whatever. Is the book itself any good? It’s Neil Gaiman writing but can we see the NEIL GAIMAN he became in it?

Maybe a little? I think maybe there’s some expectation management that needs to be put in place. To wit: it’s a quickie bio of a pop band. The thing is 132 pages long, and most of that is pictures. It ain’t exactly Mystery Train, nor would it be fair to suggest it was supposed to be. I don’t know the specifics of its compilation, but I would be a bit surprised if Neil had more than a couple of months to cobble the thing together with bits and anecdotes from newspaper and magazine articles. There’s nothing in the text to suggest that Neil spent any time with the band itself, back when the thing was put together (he does go to a concert, however, where he’s frustrated by the inarticulateness of the band’s fans, which leads, somewhat amusingly, to him being upbraided for his snobbishness by a fan on a train, after the concert).

The nature of bio — short, full of facty tidbits rather than personal connection, probably written fast — mitigates against actual, shall we say, art. Neil gets in a clever line here and there, and his penchant for sardonicism via phrasing and pacing is in embryonic form in the text. If you know Neil Gaiman’s mature writing, you can see some of what he does in that, here. If you were reading it cold, I don’t know, maybe you’d see it? It’s hard to say.

As noted above, the tone of the text owes as much to a certain style of journalism as it does to Neil’s native writing gifts and discipline. I doubt that anyone who read this in 1984 slammed it down on completion and said “My God, this is the voice of a man who will become one of the most beloved fantasy authors of our time!” On the other hand, I doubt that if you got into a time machine and told that same 1984 reader that Neil did go on to become one of the most beloved fantasy authors of our time, they would look at you in horror and wonder what sort of dystopian hellscape allowed such a thing to occur. I suspect they would go “Really? Huh,” and then ask you why, if you indeed had the privilege of a time machine, you would waste it on such a trivial errand.

Which is to say: The bio’s not bad. It’s competent — possibly more competent than its editing, which occasionally allows for paragraphs to appear more than once. It’s light and it’s a quick, mildly informative read. Neil jams in the Duran Duran trivia (you can tell it’s the eighties because we learn all the band members’ astrological signs) and even attempts a bit of criticism with the albums and the videos, although none of the criticism is really that critical; there are a couple places where Neil is all “well, that one was a bit dodgy, wasn’t it?” but that’s about it. This is not an actual complaint on my part, because again: quick bio of a pop band, aimed at its fans. If Neil had gone off on a rant about how none of the lyrics of Seven and the Ragged Tiger actually mean a single goddamn thing Jesus what the hell is going on in Simon Le Bon’s head besides cocaine and Cristal I suspect his editors would have pulled him aside to let him know to trim it up otherwise he’d be murdered by a roving pack of Duran Duran fans. And thus would the history of comic books and fantasy literature have been irrevocably changed.

(Although, seriously: Seven and the Ragged Tiger. Nothing there makes even the slightest lick of sense. “The Union of the Snake” is just friggin word salad, man. We can say it now, here in 2015.)

But, you know. I didn’t read it expecting it to be brilliant stuff, and I don’t find it glorious because of its prose. I find it glorious (aside from the nostalgia value) because it’s 2015 and I know who that 24-year-old writer is going to become one day, even if he doesn’t. I know that 31 years down the line, the kid writing about these other vastly more famous kids — Neil is the same age as the Duran Duran members — is going to be in his way just as famous as any of them, individually or possibly even together, and he has absolutely no idea. It’s probably not even on his radar, because how would it be? All he knows is that someone said (more or less): “Hey kid, write a book on Duran Duran,” and he said “Yeah, okay, I can do that,” and inside he was probably thinking this is it. I’m on my way. Because when you get your first book, that’s what you think: Here we go.

I wish I could get back in that time machine to 1984 and tell 24-year-old Neil about this. “Neil!” I would say. “In 2015 you will have 16 times as many Twitter followers as Simon Le Bon!” And he would say “Those words all make sense individually but not as a sentence,” as politely as possible and then he would back away quickly from the very odd American blathering nonsensical terms like “blog” and “Internet,” who is telling him something about people named “Amanda” and “Anthony” (two people named Anthony, actually) and suggesting that black really is going to be a good look for him, just wait and see. Poor 24-year-old Neil, accosted by creepy balding Americans from the future. Perhaps best to let him be.

I also find it glorious because 24-year-old me was not at all unlike 24-year-old Neil: A journalist, writing about famous people and not really knowing how vastly different his future was going to be from his then-present. In fact, one of the famous people the 24-year-old me wrote about and interviewed was a guy named Neil Gaiman; I wrote a whole newspaper story about the hip new medium of graphic novels just so I could have an excuse to call him up and talk to him (I didn’t know how to pronounce his last name so when his daughter picked up the phone and I asked to speak to him, I could hear her say “Hey dad, someone wants to talk to Neil GUY-man!”). My own first published book wasn’t a quickie bio, but a book on online finance, now also out of print and utterly unrelated to the sort of work I would become known for (it’s also competent and a quick, informative read).

I don’t want to press the comparison too heavily, mind you; Neil’s, uh, a little bit further along than I am (and Simon Le Bon has twice the Twitter followers I do). But I am saying when I read the Duran Duran bio, I smiled, because I remember being someplace very similar to where that kid was, back then.

As I said, the Duran Duran book is an exercise in nostalgia. But a nostalgia that does not suggest that the past was a better time than now; just a different time, gone but not entirely forgotten. Here in the present, within days of each other, Duran Duran, 35 years into a career, put out a new album, and Neil has put out a new edition of his own (in collaboration with Amanda, his beloved wife). Times have changed, and times are good. The bio chronicles the start of a band and of a writer, and both are still going strong. I like that I’ve seen the beginning, and the latest, from each. The world has not heard the last of either.

(Reminder: If you’re seeing this within 24 hours of its publication, you still have time to pick up the Duran Duran bio, and other rarities from Neil, through the Humble Bundle. Totally worth it, plus you help the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund and literacy charity The Moth. Go get the bundle while you still can!)

The Big Idea: Kent Davis

For his Big Idea piece today, Kent Davis explains how a mental image, and some experience writing role-playing games, ended up being the foundation for his novel A Riddle in Ruby.

KENT DAVIS:

I had this picture in my head. It clanked around, bumping into the furniture and leaving oil stains on all the brain-curtains. Certainly it wasn’t the most heroic of images, but it hung on, badgering and rattling and poking for days that turned into weeks.

A girl, shoulder-deep in a large whiskey barrel. The girl wears a battered tricorne hat, and the barrel stands atop articulated metal ostrich legs.

Yeah. Random. But somehow charming. And oddly compelling, too. Why a tricorne? Why a barrel? Who is this girl? And what’s the flippin’ deal with the metal ostrich legs? The picture clamored to be explained. It wanted to be lit up. So I tore it apart.

The battered tricorne beckoned first. I’ve always had a thing for the North American colonies, but in the time before the War of Independence. Like, half a century before. Holding for dear life onto the edge of the East coast, rife with both pluck and gumption, pocked with colonialist warts, watching the Age of Reason unfold from the continental kiddie table? That’s my jam. Frontier cultures have a special attraction for me—I live in Montana—and I love the idea that in earlier times the borders of the known world (at least for the Europeans) lay mere miles from isolated little settlements like Philadelphia or New Amsterdam.

Then came the barrel with legs—articulated, gawky, powered by means unknown! The whole contraption gave off more than a whiff of steampunk, but I didn’t want to give up the colonial feel, or the pluck, or the gumption. Besides, the story needed magic, and I was searching for something a bit more exotic than steam. I came to understand, however, that the necessary magic was not the pointy-hatted, wand-ridden, unicorns and elves kind. It required arcane mysteries suited to the beginning of the Enlightenment, practiced not by Gandalf or Glenda, but by the Bacons and Germains and Newtons of that historical moment. What if a kind of science that produced its own miracles could be the magic engine of the story? Like chemistry, for example?

I’m the co-creator of a tabletop RPG that sports a magic system for alchemy, where arcane scientists essentially nudge the laws of chemistry in spectacular and sometimes even miraculous ways. Stone walls change into glass. Frozen lakes puff into clouds of superheated steam. That sort of thing. What if this magic/science manifested in the setting? It would make for a very short walk to the land of antimony ostrich legs.

But this magic wouldn’t exist in a vacuum. It couldn’t help but change the course of history. The ripples spread, and more questions got answered. Applied chemystry—now sporting a sexy “y” instead of its conventional “i”—would quickly allow artisans to leap forward in their manipulation of materials to create great works of chemystral craft, pushing technology and manufacturing forward to levels only seen in our 1800s. Of course, that kind of change would topple all manner of political and economic dominoes, not to mention give rise to an array delectable bonuses: alchemycal automatons, clocklock pistols, cobalt gearbeasts. This nascent world suddenly began to offer up its own ideas! That’s when the dancing around the room began.

However, the final and arguably most important component of this Big Idea remained: the girl.

What kind of hero lives in this chem-driven and slightly batty world? I thought perhaps one built to fit a society on the brink of social revolutions: imperfect, a little bit odd, bold to the point of endangerment, gifted but a touch lost. A scrapper. Her name is Ruby Teach, and she is an apprentice thief, a smuggler’s daughter, and a repository of secrets. She’s thirteen, and she is not the Chosen One of high fantasy. No prophecies have been written about her. A noble lineage is hers neither in public nor in secret. She’s common. She bears a secret, true, but even it does not belong to her. This riddle makes her a sort of carrier. In her words, she’s the baggage.

But she has a mind and a will of her own, and when her world is turned upside down she takes action in courageous, reckless, and sometimes even ridiculous fashion. She acts. She does not wait to be told, and she often spurns the advice of those who think they know better. She wants to discover the truth for herself, even if it hurts. I tried to write a girl that my wife would have loved as a kid, and I tried to write a girl that I would have loved as a kid, one lost in the clanking tinker towns and forbidding frontier forests of the Chemystral Age. I hope your kids might love her, too.

Or you. I mean, you might like her. Sure. Why should the kids get to have all the fun?

So. The tricorne, the ostrich legs, and the girl. That image went the way of many big ideas: dissected, chopped up, and blended into an alchemycal stew far more exciting to me than the original.

By the way, the barrel shows up, too, but the when of it is a surprise. Ruby shouldn’t be the only one who gets to have secrets.

A Riddle in Ruby: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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