Reader Request Week 2018 #9: Writing Short Bits

And now, for your delight, short answers to some of the writing-and-writing-life-related questions I got this year for Reader Request Week:

jlanstey: Having acquired a new office chair, thoughts on furniture and home interior design generally. Some classic SF writers (Heinlein, Laumer) seemed to prefer stark modern, but glimpses of your abode and one picture I’ve seen of Wil Wheaton’s computer space seem to be strictly mainstream current, slightly 70s, maybe. Is home decor a mutual decision or is it up to the wife? A generational thing?

Well, my office has bespoke furniture (I had it made by a local cabinetmaker) but it’s less about making a particular esthetic statement than it is about it being functional. I think if I were going to give my cabinetry a particular description, it would probably be “21st Century Mennonite,” as this is what the cabinetmaker is, and he did the design. I picked out the wall colors and then the rest of the furniture with Krissy. I actually do like midcentury modern design, but not enough to entirely redo my office.

Allison: How much time in a given week/month do spend reading other peoples’ work for pleasure (as opposed to reading for the purpose of writing a blurb or other publishing-industry related business)?

I try to read a book a week that I want to read for myself, emphasis on try. That said, I read less fiction when I’m writing fiction, and read far less in general when I’m on deadline, like, uh, now.

Nic: On “not writing for free”. You recently wrote about not writing for free, and I understand and appreciate the post. For people who aspire to write but cannot get their short works accepted anywhere can you offer any insight as to a good way to proceed?

One, keep sending the work out until you run out of places to send it to; two, while you’re doing that, write new stuff; three, repeat step one with the new stuff; four, repeat step two. Almost everyone starts off piling up rejections. It’s part of the process. If you’ve decided to you don’t want to send out a story anymore but still want people to see it, put up a web site for your story archive. But I wouldn’t give them to other people to exploit without benefit to you.

Pedro: What’s it like being a musically inclined writer? (And how is that new guitar working out?)

The new guitar is lovely and I’m getting ever so slightly better with my six-string chording as I go along, so that’s nice. I don’t really think much about what it’s like to be a musically-inclined writer, actually. I guess it’s nice? I did recently come to the realization that I would like to try to write songs at some point, but I don’t know if I want to make the effort to write all the terrible songs I would have to write first before I wrote some good ones. I’ll have to think about it more once the new book is done.

Meg: I am curious as to how your professional experience affects your perceptions when interacting with creative works. Does your work as a professional film critic affect your engagement with films you watch for non-work-related reasons? How does your experience as a writer inform the ways you look at books you read for pleasure, or video games you play? Can you even tell whether these factors influence your reactions?

With regard to having been a film critic, having watched so many films with a critical eye means that most times films hold very few surprises for me — I can see where most of the plot beats need to happen, and where the structure dictates certain events, long before the movie gets to them. But this doesn’t ruin movies for me; it just means I get a certain amount of pleasure seeing if and how the filmmakers pull off their remit. And in a general sense, being a storycrafter makes you aware of how well story is working — or not — in most of your entertainment. I do think that influences what I like and don’t like, but not necessarily more than other factors.

Amy: What was the book that made you love reading?

I learned to read so early that I literally don’t remember not being able to read, so I can’t say which book made me love reading. I don’t remember ever not loving it.

Bilancij: Once you have a few pitches ready, how does one go about trying to get repped?

I assume you’re talking for film/TV, since you don’t pitch novels, you just write them. I got my film/TV rep through my literary agent, so he was a package deal. Which has worked out very well for me!

Luther M. Siler: How important is the “community” aspect of Whatever to you? Related: have you ever considered implementing any sort of open thread scenario where people can talk about… well, whatever?

Well, several years back I opened a discussion site called “Whateveresque,” so that community members here could carry on discussion without my blog posts as instigation. It was very successful but I had to shutter it because my career was taking off and I couldn’t devote the time to moderate two sites. As to how important the Whatever community is: I think it’s pretty great. Some people here have been reading the site nearly as long as it’s existed. Which is wild. I’m glad people still show up.

DeborahBailey914: I watched your travel schedule unfold on Whatever and was struck by the variety of cities and venues where you appeared for Head On. I’ve wondered…are authors in charge of appearance scheduling for their latest publication or are book appearances managed by the publisher?

I think it varies with author and publishers but by and large my book tour travel is managed, coordinated and paid for by Tor, via its PR department. Which is great because I have absolutely no interest in doing it myself. I’m glad Tor handles it, and in all cases they do a very fine job.

Josh Needle: You consistently use “sooner than later” instead of “sooner rather than later.” I’m assuming that this is a conscious choice. When did you start this and why? I Googled the question and both are “acceptable,” but I’ll admit that it drives me nuts and, at least momentarily, diverts my attention from the story.

I’ve always used it, and it’s always been acceptable usage as far as I know, and no, it’s not a conscious choice to use it rather than the other format you note, although I know I’ve used the other one, too. I’m afraid you’ll have to accept that I use it; I don’t think it’s that unusual.

Adam L: How long of a break do you take before finishing up one novel and beginning writing in earnest on the next one?

Usually a month and sometimes more. Honestly it depends on when the next one is due.

Magda: Would you consider writing Big Idea posts about your own books? And why or why not?

I don’t write them, because I have the option of writing about my books here any time I like. The Big Idea is meant to help promote others.

James B: Do you regularly read any political writers or pundits that would broadly be considered conservative? If so, what about them do you enjoy – or at least find worthwhile?

Some of the columnists/writers I’ve enjoyed reading over the years more on the right side of the spectrum include PJ O’Rourke, James Lileks, Mona Charen, Kathleen Parker, Glenn Reynolds and these days I’ve enjoyed Jennifer Rubin and Max Boot, who are conservative but increasingly exasperated with the Trump folks. I am an established fan of HL Mencken, who today is seen as a conservative icon, although I’m not always entirely sure why this is, having read him extensively. Mostly I’ve found them both entertaining as writers and usually well able to articulate their points, even if I don’t always agree with their arguments. There are some current writers on the right who can be clever and amusing as writers who I think are fronting some odious politics, and I find it hard to get around that aspect of their writing in order to enjoy their prose. There are others currently writing on the right who just seem dim, and I wonder how they got their jobs. But as a general rule I don’t have a problem reading political writers to the right of me.

Mike: Is it reasonable to avoid work by artists you would otherwise enjoy because you disagree with their politics?

Why do you need it to be reasonable? Also, reasonable to whom? It’s your life, man. Your life on this planet is short and in terms of entertaining yourself, I don’t see a problem skipping over work from people you find problematic in one way or another. As a philosophical matter I think it’s laudable to read widely and diversely, which includes reading people who have substantially different political opinions than you do. As a practical matter, it’s your life reading time and reading for enjoyment shouldn’t feel like a chore. So if an author pains you (even if it’s me) skip ’em and read something else by someone else. Maybe you’ll come around to them later. Maybe you won’t. But I assure you, you won’t run out of other things to read.

11 Comments on “Reader Request Week 2018 #9: Writing Short Bits”

  1. Re reading work by problematic authors: This breaks down into two categories for me. First are older works that I read and enjoyed before the author was problematic (or before I knew they were). My response to that is heavily dependent on exactly what the problematic thing is. Sometimes older work that I enjoyed gets a nostalgia pass; other times (MZB, Card) it gets irrevocably tainted, and I wind up archiving it to get it off my shelves and make space for newer stuff.

    Second is reading new work by authors known to be problematic (or assholes). Which, generally, I don’t. A lot of people (including some whose opinions I respect) will say, “But you’ll miss some great stories that way.” And my answer to that is, “Yes, and?” There is, as you note, no lack of good stories to read — more than I’ll ever have time to get to in my entire lifetime. So I don’t see any reason to spend my precious reading time on an author whose behavior I can’t stand.

    Also, I consider the phrasing “work by artists you would otherwise enjoy” to be a bit of palming a card. IMO, that’s not an assumption that should be casually made when putting forth an argument, because it’s assuming facts not in evidence.

    Other people make different decisions about this, or draw the line in different places, and that’s their business. I may note in passing that my opinion about reading Author X is different, but it’s not a hill I’m going to die on.

  2. About conservative writers – Conservative does not have to equate to odious. I read a site called Volokh Conspiracy that calls itself libertarian or independent, but I would call it conservative. I get it via a RSS feed, but I think it’s also on wapo’s or reason’s site.
    It’s mostly law and not politics, but often lately, sadly, there is a fair bit of overlap.

  3. That question about avoiding certain artists’ works feels like it’s actually a few different questions. One is, “is it reasonable to avoid works of art if they have political content or overtones you dislike?” That, for me, is an easy “yes,” noting that “dislike” isn’t the same as “disagree with.” I’m likely to stop reading things if I notice significant bigotry, perhaps especially if the author doesn’t think it’s “political” because it’s common or because they grew up thinking that way. That connects to what Lee said about palming the card.

    Another is “is it reasonable to avoid works by artists because of their politics, if you had to be told about those politics rather than noticing them in the work?” I’d say it is, but it might not be the choice I’d make, depending on how reprehensible I thought the political positions were, and whether my reading, listening to, etc. the work would in any way support the author. And that gets into questions like second-hand bookstores and whether the writer/composer/etc. is still alive and might benefit financially from having me read their books..

  4. On Meg’s question about whether being a writer affects your impression of other creative works:

    I’m involved with our local theatre, generally working the backstage side of things. When I go to the theatre as an audience member, I often feel like I’m watching it on two levels. Most of me is watching the play, the characters and the story. But another part is enjoying the skill of the artists making it happen. I know how difficult it is to pull of some of the “magic”, so I notice and appreciate when it is done well. But that doesn’t stop me from enjoying and believing the story that I’m watching. (It often makes me appreciate it even more.)

  5. This is not quite a question, but it could be an option for some entries to Whatever. I thought of it last fall, and having an “intern” now adds to its appropriateness. As you drive toward completing a book, what about having the intern/ daughter take a few days and write about the current generation of new college students. As a special possible topic, I’d be interested in how well prepared she felt as a graduate (albeit atypical) of one of Ohio’s small, rural schools attending one of the elite public universities of the nation. Other topics might include being the daughter of a “celebrity” (in some realms), being a first year student and adapting, social mores of college students today, the liberal/ conservative divide, and so forth. Descriptive, rather than prescriptive, columns would be fine. All this would take some pressure off the “old man, ” while engaging the regular readership of Whatever.

  6. Dear Meg,

    When I became a fiction writer, I discovered I could no longer turn off the editor in my head. That guy’s always been there, because — English major who loved lit-crit. But he wasn’t there all the time! Now he’s always sitting in a corner blue-penciling as I read. It doesn’t stop me from reading for enjoyment but it’s a little distracting.

    When this started, I told Pamela Dean about it and asked if it ever went away. She looked at me sympathetically and said, “No… But eventually you might be able to control it.”


    Dear Mike,

    There are some authors I read whose politics I don’t like and so long as they don’t go off on their hobbyhorses too often, it doesn’t get in the way for me. It’s like a seven course meal and maybe I don’t like one of the dishes. Still worth the overall experience. On the other hand, authors whose primary theme is a hobbyhorse I don’t like, or who can’t resist soap-boxing every chance they get… No thank you.

    What is likely to affect me more is having a direct personal dislike for the author, either because their politics have attacked me directly (e.g., Orson Scott Card), or they’ve behaved very badly in my presence (not necessarily to me). Then it is very hard to read their work, and I generally don’t, because it is difficult to read a book without having the author of that book in my mind. I just don’t want to be thinking about those people!

    – pax \ Ctein
    [ Please excuse any word-salad. Dragon Dictate in training! ]
    — Ctein’s Online Gallery. 
    — Digital Restorations. 

  7. Thank you for answering my question. I respectfully disagree somewhat that you discuss your books here. I think you discuss the publication process, and sometimes make references to your narratives in response to comments or reviews. I’d love to read your take on creating worlds or the challenge/opportunity that comes with making the unknowable into something recognizable for readers. To be honest, I wish the BI guest authors would do that too.

    I live in hope. Thanks again.

  8. Well, I was gonna talk about Card and his phobias, but ya’ll took care of that. What a piece of work!

  9. Dear J R,

    Card is not phobic. It’s religion-based prejudice and bigotry… but it ain’t a phobia.

    pax / Ctein

  10. I also don’t remember being unable to read, but I do clearly remember discovering that I could read silently. I was maybe four years old, reading a Sesame Street book out loud, which at that time was how I always read. I stopped to take a breath and noticed that the words kept going in my head and excitedly shouted “Daddy, Daddy, I can read without talking!” I’m pretty sure I switched over to silent reading then and there (undoubtedly to the relief of my parents).

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