Reader Request Week 2020 #9: Writing Short Bits

The questions you folks asked this week about writing, answered briefly:


The Last Emperox (and the rest of the series) read to me as much more in “your” voice, or at least more similar to how you write on Whatever than your other books. Asides, turns of phrase, sarcasm are all examples where I noticed similarities.

Do you agree with that? Was it intentional?

Not really? I think I’ve written in a similar tone to that before — see The Android’s Dream — and I think all my books carry aspects of my personality and tone, just at varying levels. Honestly I think the Interdependency series is probably more flippant than I’ve been here recently; the last few years have gotten me down a bit.

Esmé Cowles:

How is the SciFi and broader publishing industry doing in Covid-19? Who’s going to be OK, who’s hurting, and what’s the best way for fans to help?

Science fiction and publishing, at least the part of it I work in, is doing fine, actually — book sales have actually been steady or even up a bit, which is a bit astonishing considering how difficult it was to buy books from local bookstores recently. And, of course, on my end I got higher up on the bestseller lists than I ever had before, and I’m not the only one — Martha Wells’ latest Murderbot book placed nicely on the NYT list as well. This doesn’t mean science fiction/fantasy or publishing is out of the woods yet, because I don’t think the economy generally is out of the woods yet, but honestly it could have been much worse. The best way for fans to help: Keep buying books, and if you can buy them from your local booksellers, so much the better.

Bill Nelson:

What do you think about The Pursuit of the Pankera, that somewhat-new book published by Robert A. Heinlein?

I haven’t read it so I can’t talk about it critically. I’m not a huge fan of The Number of the Beast, the novel it is a conjoined twin of (it shares the first third with it, as I understand it), so while I was curious about it, it’s not something I was in a rush to read. As a general rule, I do tend to think that things an author intentionally left unpublished were left unpublished for a reason, but I can certainly understand why Heinlein fans/academics/completists would be excited about writing from him they had not yet seen.


Do you use any word-processing shortcuts? Like, do you type “Nohamapetan” in all its 11 letter glory every time, or do you have an auto-complete option for it and other long proper names? Like alt-shift-N fills in Nohamapetan, or something. I had to slow down so much just to type it twice here, I can’t imagine how good a typist you’d have to be to keep typing those names!

I don’t typically use shortcuts, no; I can type pretty fast, and once you type Nohamapetan a couple dozen times, it flows out of the fingers. I do cut and paste words that have accents and diacritical marks in them because I can’t be bothered to learn how to make those marks happen on the keyboard. But otherwise, nope, just typing.


Why is Science fiction and Fantasy mixed together in book stores and libraries? Or why should I enjoy fantasy when I prefer Science fiction?

I mean, Science Fiction is fantasy (as is horror), so mixing them together doesn’t offend me, in any event, and by and large is there is a large overlap between the two with respect to both readers and publishers, so lumping them into one spot is not that much of an issue. Also these days the genre boundaries lines are fluid enough that trying to separate science fiction from fantasy will mean some arbitrary choices as to where particular titles would go (this happens enough anyway, between SF/F and mainstream). As for why you should enjoy fantasy — no one says you should, just read what you want.

Michael H:

SF has evolved over the past century {& a bit}. It is likely SF authors and readers from the 1930s would find both interest and surprise in the SF of today. Where do you think SF will evolve towards in the coming 50+ years, especially since you are likely to be an influence? Since some trends might interest you, and others not so much, are there trends you might like to try as a writer, especially if you are the creator of the trend?

I don’t know that you could look at the science fiction of 1970 and necessarily derive from that the science fiction of 2020, so I I’m not in a rush to imagine what the science fiction of 2070 will be based on what’s being written and published now — except to say that I imagine science fiction will still be an active genre then. And anyway, I like not knowing where the genre is going, and being surprised when it gets there. To the extent that I’m an influence at all fifty years from now, I think it’ll be in having made humor in the genre more commercially acceptable. But again, who knows? Not me! We’ll see.


I’ve found sf in the last few years fresher and more exciting than the decade or so before. Is it just me, or are we having a wave? If so, what would you call it?

No, it’s definitely having a moment, and that moment is (very broadly) rooted in the fact that a much more diverse group of people are writing science fiction and fantasy, and a much more diverse group of people are reading it and claiming it as their own. This a real and noticeable long-term trend in the genre, and one of the major reasons we had that “sad/rabid puppy” freakout a few years back, which was essentially a “white panic” about all those other people moving into the neighborhood. But the result of the change is the neighborhood is a much cooler and interesting place to be than it was otherwise. I don’t know what I would call it; I’m just glad it’s happening.


How do you discover new books to read?

In my case, they literally show up at my door, usually unbidden. I understand this is not how it works for most people.


Creative personalities and other artistic media:

Since you also engage in music, photography, and DJ-ing, I was curious about how you view those pursuits. Are they fun hobbies with occasional professional applications, or something else? Is it relaxing to engage in them, or is there a sense of professional rigor attached to them? In your experience with other authors, is it common for them to also have other artistic pursuits?

For me they are hobbies, to be enjoyed. I already make more than enough money from writing so I’m not looking to professionalize my hobbies, although I don’t necessarily turn down money for doing those things if it is offered, and I was inclined to do the thing anyway. I don’t know if “professional” rigor is how I would describe doing things, but if for example I am going to be a DJ, I want to know what I’m doing so other people will enjoy themselves. Nearly every writer I know has other hobbies. It’s part of how we keep sane, to the extent we are sane at all.


why do so many authors (both written stories as well as screenplays) switch between A and B storylines instead of writing the story straight through? Is it so you don’t get bored writing it? Is it supposed to keep the reader hooked? Always bugs me when the A chapter ends on a cliffhanger and then you turn the page and it’s about other characters picking up after the B sections last cliffhanger. I have friends who actually skip ahead but I prefer to muddle through. It’s so pervasive I wonder if powers that be make everyone do that else the publishers threaten not to accept the work.

I can’t speak for other authors, but for me, look: 90,000 words is a long time and you got to keep things moving along. I don’t really tend to think of “A” and “B” storylines — all the storylines are part of the same story and they matter for the larger tale being told, and I switch between them because not everyone can be in the same room at the same time. It’s entirely possible to tell a story completely in a linear sequence from a single point of view (first-person novels are more likely to be that), but that doesn’t make them inherently better. You have your preference, obviously.

Raz Greenberg:

On a recent Facebook discussion, someones linked to a page which lists OMW as one of the greatest hard science fiction books (no link, can’t remember the details. Sorry). I replied that although I think OMW is a great book, I don’t think it qualifies as hard science fiction. What is your take on this?

I tend to think of it as straightforward military science fiction, but I’ve seen people also refer to it as hard sci-fi, soft sci-fi, space opera, etc. Bluntly as a writer I don’t care how you classify it as long as you read it (and hopefully enjoy it), and if people want to have arguments about what specific subgenre of SF it is, well, that’s part of the fun of being a science fiction nerd. But yeah, I usually call it MilSF and leave it at that.

George M:

Is writing with a typewriter any different than by hand or by computer?

I tend to write differently depending on the tool I use to write with, so yes, I imagine writing by typewriter will be different than writing by hand or by computer. I say “I imagine” because I’ve literally never written any fiction on a typewriter, so I can’t be 100% sure. I can say the thought of writing long-form fiction on a typewriter fills me with a bit of horror. My writing process is so tied into writing on a computer that I can’t imagine doing it otherwise.


Thoughts on artists/writers etc getting locked in to certain genres after achieving success? This question comes following a conversation I had with a writer friend who happens to be black. He has wanted to write a sci-fi book for some time, but his publisher has done a lot of pushing back. Keep in mind, this is an award-winning writer with decades of publishing. He is respected. But his publisher wants him to keep writing topical ‘black experience’ works. What are your thoughts on that, and do you feel locked in to writing sci-fi in a similar way because of your history and success in the genre?

I sympathize with both the writer and the publisher; I think writers should write whatever they want to, and also I understand why a publisher doesn’t want a writer to mess with their established writing “brand.” One of the nice things about science fiction, especially these days, is that it’s expansive enough that when I want to write a murder mystery I can do it in SF (Lock In) or if I want to write a humor book I can do that as well (Redshirts). So I don’t feel particularly constrained. It also helps that I’ve been writing non-fiction alongside the fiction for the length of my career, so people are aware I write other things to. With all that said, if I was going to write something so wildly non-representative of my career to date, I would a) probably write under an at-least-slightly-different name to make it clear to people this is something else, b) manage my expectations because moving into a new genre of any sort usually means leaving your previous sales and profile behind. Everyone should be able to write what they want; everyone should be aware what that’s likely to mean for their career.

Sheila Crosby:

Your books feature a lot of snappy dialogue. Any tips for those of us who’d like to do the same?

Reading it out loud will help a lot with that.

Matt F:

I miss the blogs of the early 2000’s eras, now more than ever (so thank you for keeping Whatever running!). I think what made them so special – and what would be important today’s strange, mad world – is that the writer’s personality came through more than even in op-ed, giving the reader a little more grounding in who was writing, what their priors are, and a bit more personal feel to connect to.

So, my question is, why do you think blogs died, and do you think something like it will ever come back?

Blogs died because Twitter/Facebook/Instagram/etc are easier to use and maintain, and they do a better job of connecting people with the people they care about. All at the cost of people being data mined and not really owning their own words and works, but honestly most people don’t care about that. The people who (still) keep blogs are the ones willing to put in the time/effort because they want to have a level of control (and permanence) other social media don’t provide, and generally speaking that’s a very specific group of people, like, say, writers. So, no, I don’t think blogs are coming back for the general population of people; they were a poor fit for those folks anyway. But I think it would be nice if more creative people kept their own spaces and encouraged people to visit them away from the social media monoliths. I think that’s possible, with some effort.

20 Comments on “Reader Request Week 2020 #9: Writing Short Bits”

  1. re typing…if you look at 1980s era writing books (e.g., Writing Down the Bones), they’re filled with angst about whether to/how to transition to a computer. I think it must have been a hard transition for many, and I also suspect the cognitive processes are different. Writing by hand is slower, and I think it’s also more intimate, but nowadays when I try to write anything by hand, even a note, it’s uncomfortable. My hand muscles are out of shape!

    I wonder where everyone learned to type. When I was in 5th grade in NYC we all had to take typing, for some reason. The class was pleasant, but seemed kind of pointless at the time – but, really, probably had the biggest ROI of any class I’ve ever taken.

  2. On the evolution of SF over the next 50 years – SF is so often a conversation about what’s happening in society, as well as about what’s happening in other SF books and the nature of reality and humanity in general.
    What are people excited about, or afraid of, or puzzled about? That’s going to drive what SF writes about. We know climate change and the effects of increasing levels of communication between people will happen, but beyond that? Who knows.

    On typing: I learned to hunt and peck on my mom’s manual typewriter (which had accent mark keys for doing French and Spanish!), and to hunt and peck better on a Model 33 Teletype, and then how to have good intentions of touchtyping in a 2-week class in high school, and back to more computer keyboards, mostly with CRTs so backspaces actually fixed stuff instead of XXXing over it. My friend Hugh Daniel taught me how to actually touch type – “You know where the keys are, so stop looking at them – look at the screen!”, so while I still usually type with 4-6 fingers instead of 10, it’s touch-typing and I only have to look when I’m hitting weird keys, or now when I use an iPad that wants to predictively auto cow wreck everything.

  3. Does Wil Wheaton every gripe about the names of your characters? Do you occasionally do it on purpose to annoy him?

    Robin Praytor

  4. I concur with RussDK. I am a SF fan but not so much a fantasy fan. When the Hugos started nearly 75 years ago there weren’t that many authors of either so it made sense to combine them. Now I wish they would split the Hugos into SF and Fantasy awards.

  5. Whether a book is hard MilSF or soft MilSF boils down to degrees of military, scientific, and technological plausibility. As long as my willing suspension of disbelief isn’t pushed to the breaking point, as long as the story and its characters remain interesting from start to finish, the distinction between hard MIlSF and soft MilSF is beside the point.

  6. I try to keep my blog running, but it gets so little traffic that I frequently end up drafting entries that never get finalized–which I recognize is part of the problem of why I’m not getting traffic (among other things). I should really figure out how to devote more energy to that.

  7. A black experience SF book sounds great, though! I’m disappointed that the publisher didn’t suggest this obvious solution to the problem…

    For me, SF and fantasy are different genres, and horros is different too. You can combine them of course, just as you can combine detective stories and SF, but somehow you don’t see SF and detective stories on the same shelf. Instead they combine detective stories with thrillers, which make a lot less sense. It’s good to hear that the shelfing works for some people, but I’m not one of them.

    Thanks for running the Whatever blog!

  8. In my case, they literally show up at my door, usually unbidden. I understand this is not how it works for most people.

    Kind of like story ideas coming from a PO Box in Schenectady.

  9. About blogs, as a professional fine artist I agree. I use FB and Instagram constantly, but I do maintain my blog which I started in 2007. It’s become kind of a public archive and reference source for my art and travels and whatever else I feel driven to write a blog post for. I refer people to posts and revisit them myself as needed to jog my memorh. I felt a compulsion to, and am currently, blogging our experience of sheltering in place as a kind of diary that also covers what’s going on in the studio and the garden and my community. I or anyone else will be able to look back at those posts in the future and see my “as it happened” account.

  10. Dear Dreaming…,

    Dunno if you consider steampunk acceptable science fiction, but if you do, you’ve gotta read Pimp My Airship, by Maurice Broaddus. He calls it “…. steamfunk (think steampunk through a black cultural lens)”

    It started as a joke on the Internet, with Maurice complaining about how steampunk was so lily-white, he was going to have to write a novel called “Pimp My Airship.” Then he started hearing from editors who wanted to buy it.


    Dear John,

    Type-writing is soooo different from computer writing. I don’t think it would make you as crazy as it would most writers, because you’ve said you don’t rewrite. But for the 99% of us who do… imagine having to retype in full any revisions and changes. And correcting small errors and typos with at worst White-Out (augghh) and at best a Correcting Selectric.

    The horror, the horror.

    The computer turned my live-in partner Paula into a professional writer (she started as a petroleum geologist). She hated typing on a typewriter. Typing stuff into a computer was so much easier that she became a VERY well-paid technical writer for the second half of her working life (she’s retired now).

    She still made her notes and very-rough draft in longhand on yellow legal pads. Said it organized her thoughts for her. But after that it was all keyboard.

    pax / Ctein

  11. “In my case, they literally show up at my door, usually unbidden. I understand this is not how it works for most people.”
    This made me laugh out loud — I would love if this happened! That said I am already so far behind on my reading that finding even more authors to not have enough time to read won’t help!

  12. Reading it out loud will help a lot with that.

    Yes, yes, and yes. There’s a reason why William Shakespeare is considered one of the greatest writers of all time, y’know? People actually say his words out loud.

  13. I actually still blog but nobody reads them any more, unless something I wrote about shows up on a Google search. I am actually quite fine with this. I do it to entertain myself/find where I wrote things before, I don’t care about whether or not I have an audience. And also, these days you do NOT want to get popular, especially as a woman, because then the psychos come for you and dox you and stalk you for the rest of your life. I did get someone who tried to dox me after finding one blog anyway, though, so I had to disappear that one even harder. And now I can never do Facebook even if i wanted to because this woman has been stalking her husband’s last ex for like 20 years on guess where.

    Thankfully, as long as you don’t post anything on social media, it literally doesn’t exist any more for the rest of the world, so nobody finds anything you do and I stay out of trouble!

    I’m amused that I’ve been told a lot lately that “the guy you like is following you on social media” and I am all, bullshit he ain’t, I’m not on it and he doesn’t know my websites and he lives in the boonies with no internet anyway. I think it’s just a thing hippies on the Internet are saying lately :P

  14. Thanks for the answer! You have a broader view of the field than I do, so your confirmation of the moment is great to have. Seems likely that someone will eventually want to name this wave, but no obvious title comes to mind.

    I blog. My blog is obscure. My posts arrive irregularly and on scattered topics, so the blog is likely to stay obscure. That all seems fair enough.

  15. Yeah, I agree that unpublished stuff is not so good. I like Michael Crichton’s stuff, but not his posthumous stuff.

    A variation on fans wanting unpublished is fans wanting the original uncut. I once educated myself by doing a page by page comparison of the original and the uncut version of The Puppet Masters. The cut version flowed faster. I think the stories that Heinlein only did one draft are true, but I think he would in effect make a second draft by cutting (editing) the draft he wrote.

    My favourite cut, foolishly restored, IMHO, was when he dropped the comma after “he said” when the boss is being curt with an agent who had misheard ‘little men’: “He said creatures!”

  16. I read The Pursuit of the Pankera, having read The Number of the Beast back in the day. I enjoyed it tremendously and I then re-read Number of the Beast to remind myself why it got so much non-love. I think Number would have made a better “trunk novel” than Pursuit, but obviously Heinlein and/or his publisher(s) thought differently.

  17. Oh, I forgot to say why. Number was quite a bit more squicky in its sexuality.

  18. Thank you for answering my question. I just get tired of seeing Spells and Swords mixed in with my Space ships and Laser pistols. I forgot how hard it would be to separate some, and it is easier to put them together. That is why I started looking for bodies of works of authors I like (or they recommend) instead of having the shopping mall experience when looking for books

  19. “How do you discover new books to read?” Is it just me or that a non-answer? I have to assume you don’t read every book that hits your mailbox or door step. How do you choose from that pile? I don’t know how many times I have gone to the book store, wandered the aisles looking at stuff and walked out empty handed.

  20. if I was going to write something so wildly non-representative of my career to date, I would a) probably write under an at-least-slightly-different name to make it clear to people this is something else

    Lot of precedent for that. Iain Banks/Iain M. Banks, Jack Vance/John Holbrook Vance, Harry Turtledove/H. N. Turteltaub.

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