Reader Request Week 2016 #9: Short Bits on Writing

This is the part of Reader Request Week where I quickly blast through a bunch of questions on writing. Ready? Strap in.

Marc Criley: If you had J.K. Rowlings’ money in the bank, so complete freedom to write whatever and however you wanted, would go off in new writing directions? Experiment with topics and styles?

Well, you know. I already have complete freedom to write whatever and however I want. I mean, generally speaking I can write a novel in three to six months, and I only have to put out a novel a year. So that leaves me a lot of free time to do whatever I want, writing-wise. Apparently what I want to do at this point when I’m not writing novels is write on this blog and on Twitter. So, you’re looking at it.

Nicoleandmaggie: Whatever happened to 101 Ways to Use a Goat? (Was that the title?)

It’s 101 Uses For a Spare Goat, and it’s still in process, although I make no promises as to when it shows up. It happens when it happens.

John Hattan: What do you consider to be your worst book, and why?

I don’t consider any of my books to be bad, because if they were bad, I wouldn’t publish them. That said, I think probably the least of my books is my first one, The Rough Guide to Money Online. It was a non-fiction book about how to do various financial things online, back at the turn of the century. It could have been written by anyone, not only me, so there’s that, and also, of course, sixteen years later there’s almost nothing in it that’s accurate. It’s out of print and justly so. For all that, it being published made it easier for my next book to be published, and so on. It made me an author.

Logophage: What would be the characteristics of the ideal book tour stop? Any details you care to include, from time of plane arrival to venue floorplan to host behavior…

All I really need is a lectern or table, a bottle of water for if my throat gets dry, possibly a microphone if it’s a large audience, and people showing up. Everything else is fairly negotiable. I’m not notably picky.

Listhertel: There’s an adage not to judge a book by its cover, but we all know people do. I know authors get little to no say in the cover art, but do you have any preferences? Painting versus digital, people versus objects, a consistent look versus variety? Are there any of your covers you particularly love or hate (including foreign editions)?

The book cover of mine I like least is the one on The Book of the Dumb, but inasmuch as BotD sold over 150,000 copies, meaning that the cover art worked for the book, this might tell you why authors are not generally given refusal rights on their covers. Cover art is advertising, both to booksellers and to readers, and that has to be understood. I’m at a point where if I really hate a cover, I’ll be listened to, but I also know what I don’t know, so I rarely complain. But it also helps that, particularly with Tor, the art director knows her gig, and they do great covers. I would probably complain about oversexualized covers, or characters not looking on the cover they way they’re described in the book, but in neither case has this happened to me.

Heather: What do you think will happen to the literary and Sci-fi ‘canon’ as readership and population diversity is increasingly acknowledged by the publishing industry and enabled by self-publishing. As a woman, there are a lot of writers in the ‘canon’ that I’ve found very un-relatable to unreadable. I don’t think that’s uncommon.

I think canons can change depending on who the readership is, and also over time. I also think that readers make their own canon and share those with other readers. This is why for example Octavia Butler has become canonical in science fiction over the last decade; she was never not a great writer, but the number of readers and writers for whom she was formative has increased and they haven’t been shy about sharing their love of her work. So anyone who tells you a literary or genre canon is immutable is wrong. It’s not. And also, I’m happy Butler is canonical.

Ceciia: Currently Paramount has a copyright infringement lawsuit against a fan film Star Trek project Anaxar. I know that you want to be paid for your work.  Where do you think the payment line or quality control line or flatly ban is on an author’s stories presented in another author’s universe? A story created for profit is certainly different than a self published work and the original author should be paid accordingly, but non profit work?

In point of fact, if I own a copyright on a work, it doesn’t matter whether someone infringing on my copyright (i.e., beyond the bounds of fair use) is doing it for love or for money; it’s still an infringement and as copyright holder, it’s my option to tell them to quit it. My own line for this stuff is well-established: If you’re making fan work in my universes but not making any money off of it (nor allowing anyone else to do so), then groovy; the moment you or anyone else starts making money off my universes, you’ve crossed the line I care about. While I don’t care to go into detail about the Anaxar project, I suspect that the makers asking for a couple million in crowdfunding was what made Paramount say hold the phone.

Floored by Scalzi’s Awesomeness: Any chance we can see a collaboration between you and Brandon Sanderson?

Probably not. He’s busy, I’m busy, and while I did recently co-write a short story with my friend Dave Klecha, and that was fun, collaboration isn’t something I see myself doing a lot of. I’m frankly not of the temperament to do it, and I worry that I’d end up being an asshole to my collaborator. Certainly Brandon, with his slate of successful projects, wouldn’t have to put up with that; I’m not sure I’d want to make anyone else live through it either.

Daniel: Do you have any plans to continue Shadow War of The Night Dragons? Perhaps with an epilogue?

No plans at the moment, but you never know. If I did it, I wouldn’t tell people about it. It would just… show up.

MarkO: What do you make of Robert A. Heinlein?

I’m a fan! Will be all the rest of my life, too. I also recognize he’s in the process of slipping out of the day-to-day conversation of the genre, and becoming someone we discuss like we discuss Jules Verne and H.G. Welles. All things considered, this is not a bad thing for Heinlein, although I suspect it distresses some of his fans.

Araj: Do you plan on writing a full book based on The God Engines?

No. It’s already the right length.

Jordan Gray: What science fiction have you enjoyed recently? As a Person of Notoriety in science fiction, is that something you can answer?

I don’t have a problem telling people about the things I enjoy in the genre. I’m generally more circumspect about talking publicly about the things I don’t like because, yes, me slagging someone’s work could be seen as bigfooting them. I don’t need to do that.

JSto: John, I’d simply like to hear you expound on the often romanticized condition of a writer writing while falling in love, and what your experiences have been.

I’m not sure I wrote anything of note while falling in love, personally. I have three incidences of falling in love: I fell in love with my high school crush; I fell in love with my college girlfriend; I fell in love with my wife. In none of those cases is there any notable writing attached to it. As a pro writer, the fact of being in love with my life and being married is an obvious influence — it’s in Old Man’s War and Redshirts very clearly. But I think that’s different than what you’re asking. I’d have to fall in love again in order to answer your question. I’m not sure that would be great for my marriage.

Gray Othic: Would you ever consider writing a self-consciously ‘literary’ work?

Probably not, because I imagine I would get bored with it. Now, would I try writing in a style notably different than my usual one? Sure; I did it with The God Engines and “The Sagan Diary.” I think both of them are probably more “literary” than my usual output. The other possible answer to your question is whether I would write a novel or story set in contemporary time without genre themes, and the answer is, sure, if there was a story in that setting I wanted to tell. Right now there’s not.

David Karger: Do you believe that your writing can influence society for the better? Does the possibility of doing that influence your writing?

I think it’s possible that what I write can have influence, sure — I think my personal harassment policy for conventions played a significant role in getting conventions to develop and air those policies. But note that when I wrote about my personal policy, I wasn’t doing it to influence society, or even to force conventions to change their policies. I was just letting people know what my own standards were, and what I needed in order to attend a convention. I’m not ignorant that my words can have influence, but I also don’t sit down and say and now to mold the world in my image, either. Basically, I say what I want to say. If people want to sign on to that, great. If they don’t, that’s fine, too.

14 Comments on “Reader Request Week 2016 #9: Short Bits on Writing”

  1. “MarkO: What do you make of Robert A. Heinlein?

    I’m a fan! Will be all the rest of my life, too. I also recognize he’s in the process of slipping out of the day-to-day conversation of the genre, and becoming someone we discuss like we discuss Jules Verne and H.G. Welles. All things considered, this is not a bad thing for Heinlein, although I suspect it distresses some of his fans.”

    I think you’re right, and yes, it’s distressing.

    I can’t agree with some of his more libertarian perspectives — for the simple reason that I find them utterly impractical in a world absent any frontiers. We drive on public roads, listen to radio on the public airways, benefit from public fire and police protection, take advantage of a work-force largely educated by public schools, eat food judged safe by public agencies, and so forth. And unless we want to grow all our own food, never drive anywhere, not listen to radio, not call 911 in an emergency, never hire anyone or make purchases from companies that do, and so on, we have to accept that taxes are the means by which we pay for such services. So I can’t get onboard with some of his views.

    But I love his writing, all the same. I love his worlds. I love his breadth of imagination. I love his energy, and his supremely competent characters — especially his women, who are strong, brilliant, and fearless. I love his views on how miserably we’ve twisted sex in our society, into something shameful and fearful — and his vision of what society could be like if we let that nonsense go. I love his irreverence.

    I found Heinlein when I was nine years old, in 1974; there was a battered library copy of the first library edition of Have Space Suit, Will Travel in my grade school library. I had recently discovered and devour Tolkein, but Space Suit was my first science fiction. I read it in one night, went back and checked out other few of his novels the school had the next day. That weekend I rode my bike to the public library and checked out everything they had. And thus was born my love of science fiction, which has led me to many reading delights — one of the chiefest being every new work by the gifted John Scalzi!

    I shall ever be indebted to GrandMaster Heinlein for that.

  2. Floored: If you’re floored by both Scalzi and Sanderson, then the thing to do is read books by both of them, perhaps in alternation. I’m sure they’re each doing their best effort to entertain you.

  3. What I’ve observed – and this isn’t a value judgment of the work itself – is that at present, Philip K. Dick is proving to be as influential since his death as Robert Heinlein was during his lifetime, in terms of mentions in the mainstream press, academic analyses, and other evidence that can be found online. As for fandom, I’ve only ever observed it from outside – but it seems to me that, to the extent that there once was a specific Heinlein fandom, it’s vanishing fast, having peaked at the Heinlein Centennial convention held in Kansas City in 2007. I wonder how many copies of volume 2 of Tor’s Heinlein biography by the late William Patterson (the volume that wasn’t nominated for a 2015 Hugo) have sold versus volume 1.

    I’m also finding Dick more rereadable than Heinlein; although I have complete collections of both (with the exception of a few lesser PKD Ace novels of the late ’50s, but including nearly all his non-SF novels), the only Heinlein I ever seem to reread these days is Citizen of the Galaxy, which I first read in 1969. Writing a few years earlier, Alexei Panshin had already correctly identified Citizen and some of the other so-called juveniles as the ones that would be most likely to endure.

    Heinlein, of course, was a big commercial success especially during his last 15 or 20 years, whereas Dick remained little-known except toward the very end of his life. If it turns out that Dick’s work survives and Heinlein’s (except for a “greatest hit” or two) doesn’t, perhaps it has to do with the fact that Dick kept approaching the same questions again and again in different fictional contexts, whereas Heinlein tended to tackle new ones each time (which is why it was so distressing to me that of his last six novels, four of them were from the outset, or revealed themselves to be, part of the Lazarus Long-iverse).

    (Speaking of which: When do we get to revisit the Android’s Dream-iverse?)

  4. Ah, PKD and RAH …..

    “Several years ago, when I was ill, Heinlein offered his help, anything he could do, and we had never met; he would phone me to cheer me up and see how I was doing. He wanted to buy me an electric typewriter, God bless him—one of the few true gentlemen in this world. I don’t agree with any ideas he puts forth in his writing, but that is neither here nor there. One time when I owed the IRS a lot of money and couldn’t raise it, Heinlein loaned the money to me. I think a great deal of him and his wife; I dedicated a book to them in appreciation. Robert Heinlein is a fine-looking man, very impressive and very military in stance; you can tell he has a military background, even to the haircut. He knows I’m a flipped-out freak and still he helped me and my wife when we were in trouble. That is the best in humanity, there; that is who and what I love.”

  5. Michael: So happens I’m the one who fixed the quote so that it was accurate, back in 2006 according to the Wikipedia revision history: “Various minor corrections were made in the passage from the introduction to “The Golden Man” (verified in hardcover original, Berkley, 1980, page xvi)”. It’s nice to know they admired each other, at least for a time.

  6. Regarding a collaboration between you and Sanderson, I’d love to see it, but I know there is no way it would happen in the next few decades. Just the shear output of the two of you stuns me. I really don’t see how either of you find time to even breathe.

    Re Heinlein: I’m a long time fan of him. Also Wells and Verne and Burroughs. I do believe he’s stand the test of time and that some of his work will always be adapted for other media, taught in class, be a symbol of having read a bit. I think he’s important enough that you will not be the only author who emulates him to some extent. To me, that is the ultimate compliment. Hell, I wish I could write like you.. or Walter Gibson. I can see the pictures in my head… it’s jus the words…………………………

  7. Re being in love, I think you probably meant to say “in love with my wife and being married” rather than “in love with my life” though perhaps that’s true too. And you did write your marriage proposal as a newspaper column, which I would imagine is personally notable if not literarily notable.

  8. Regarding Heinlein, he had a long life. So I think there is more than one of him.

    My favourite decade is the 1950’s (my childhood) and my favourite decade of Heinlein is the 50’s. That is the golden age I judge him by, regardless of any later lapses. Like how the decadent Roman empire cannot tarnish the Roman republic.

    In the 50’s his writing showed no libertarianism; it did show Athens/Rome republicanism.

    Such republics, according to the three 1930’s high school history textbooks I grew up on, were the best. Each textbook mentioned how citizenship was good, and how Saint Paul, due to being a Roman citizen, had to be transported all the way to Rome for his trial. In those days admirals and generals were lowly paid, like the clergy, and, as Harry Truman said, no U.S. president ever got rich.

    Times change. I think today people feel less agency, more irony. I think citizen is no longer an honorific and “wars” are fought by civil servants, without much oversight or citizen engagement. I don’t think people today realize, as my textbooks stressed, that the early Roman legions were unpaid, with the army supplying the rations and so forth. Such citizenship does not fit the modern narrative. But Heinlein fit into his society of the 1950’s quite well.

  9. Thanks for the response for my, slightly garbled, question; the second interpretation you offered was more along the lines I was going for :)

  10. Growing up, I loved Heinlein. He was particularly influential with my college crowd. I’ve tried to re-read his work now and I keep hitting the sexism and it just pisses me off. I’m sad that I can’t enjoy his work like I used to.

  11. On book covers: there seems to be a point in an author’s successful career where they start getting name recognition as an author, and it seems like a couple of things happen at around the same time: any works that aren’t part of an existing series get to have art that fits the book more than the genre (Our Host got to this point just after Zoe’s Tale, I think, except Fuzzy Nation lends itself much better to a painting with space trees and aliens in it than something like Lock In), and the author gets more say on what their covers look like. If they’re very lucky, they start to see phrases like “The New Book From” on the cover.