Reader Request Week 2021 #9: Short Writery Bits

In which I quickly answer some questions of a writeresque bent. Let’s get started!


What are your views/experiences with collaborations – whether in a book, film, or television setting or other? How have you dealt with conflicts in these situations? Compromising your vision say with another writer’s vision? How flexible have you had to be? What are the challenges? And have you ever been in a situation in which you were a “hired gun” so to speak and had to write what someone else wanted you to write and how have you handled this challenge ?

I don’t typically collaborate because I find it as much work if not more than writing alone, so why not just write alone? That said, I have written things where I have had to take input from other people, and in that situation, I just make the point to myself that I’m writing for someone else and therefore the goal is to make a final product they’re happy with. When you have that as a goal, taking direction is not that difficult. Also, in the future I don’t rule out collaborating with another writer, but if I do I will be likely to be the boss in that situation, so they will write to my specification, not the other way around.

Jeffery Otterman:

What words inspire you and what words do you despise?

I like “We’ll pay what you asked for this project,” and dislike “We’d like your work, but we can’t pay for it.”


Dear John,

Since you’ve got movie critic chops…

What did you think of TOMOROWLAND?

I personally enjoyed it, although I think in a general sense it was a movie in search of an audience. I suspect the reason it got made was because Brad Bird had done very well for Disney on the Pixar side of things, and they were willing to throw him a live-action bone to keep him in the fold (it paid off, too, as Incredibles 2 did gangbusters business). I wouldn’t have greenlit it as it was (at least, not for as much as Disney paid for it), but I’m happy it exists in the world.


Do you think talent is more genetics, or does it come from being surrounded by certain influences as a child? I’m thinking in particular of sports greats who also have very talented children, but there are a great many acting dynasties, as well as writers who grew up in a family of writers.

I don’t think it’s an either/or situation; it could be either or both or neither. There were no professional writers in my immediate family nor any obvious genetic predilection toward creativity, and yet I became a creative and professional writer; Athena, of course, has a professional writer in her house with whom she share genes and who actively encourages her to develop her writing skills, but she might eventually decide to do something else with her professional life, which would be fine. I do think that if you are in an environment where a certain skill or profession is part of your everyday life, it’s easier to see yourself doing it, and also you’re likely to have “a foot in the door,” as it were, because of connections and knowledge. But I also know that for every kid of an athlete or writer (for example) who becomes an athlete or writer, there are others who pursue completely different professions.


Do you have anything in place to make sure that your works are protected in the event that you are no longer able to look after your works?

Yes; it’s called a will. The disposition of my intellectual property is dealt with there (short version: Krissy controls it if I’m dead/incapacitated, then Athena). I’m not especially precious about my work after my death; as far as I’m concerned its job will be to keep Krissy and Athena comfortable through their lives.


Why is there so much human totalitarianism and monarchy in the novels of not so right wing authors as yourself?

I can’t speak for anyone else, but for me: Because it’s fun to write about. It’s certainly not an endorsement of those political systems, however.

Brown Robin:

There are literally a bajillion books out there, most of which are never read. In a world of diminishing resources and a culture of diminishing returns, why do we need even one more?

Well, first, I disagree with the assertion of diminishing resources and diminishing returns, especially as regards books, and second, why not? Writing a book is an accomplishment independent of anyone reading it, and if it gives the author satisfaction to have written it, then that’s a good enough reason for the book to exist. I mean, I play my guitar and will probably never be a professional musician, but playing the guitar makes me happy and therefore it has value in itself. Not everything has to be about someone else.


How should book titles be printed on the spine? Vertical, so that the title is easily readable when the book is properly shelved; or horizontal, so that we can easily read it where the book lies carelessly on the side table where we tossed it 2 months ago? 

I mean, I can read both equally easily, so… either way is fine with me? I have no real preference? The only real preference I have is for consistent cover/spine design across a series. That way when they’re in a bookshelf together they look nice.


Do you consider there to be a difference between writing for reading text and spoken text? i.e. do you feel there a distinct between in medium between the two?

The two are very distinct, in part because spoken text is as much about the voice delivering the text (or, if viewed, the body language of the person) as it is the text itself. Text meant to be read has a very different dynamic, even when it’s dialogue (i.e., acting as speech). As a writer you can really mess yourself up if you forget these are separate modes.


Now that Athena is working for your blog in a non-term position, have you found any difficulties in reconciling being her dad and her boss? I totally understand if that’s more behind the curtain than you’re interested in getting, but figured it couldn’t hurt to ask.

Actually I’ve found being her boss pretty congenial. It helps I had an idea of who she was prior to hiring her, so that to some extent the job could be tailored around her as much as it was tailored around the things I wanted and needed in a staff member. To that end she’s being doing what I’ve asked of her, and she’s writing things for the site that I wouldn’t write about, either because I have differing interests, or because we’re in different life stages and have different life experiences. I have really enjoyed reading her work, and also watching her develop as a writer (and helping her do so). She’s good staff. I think I made a good decision hiring her.

— JS

17 Comments on “Reader Request Week 2021 #9: Short Writery Bits”

  1. Wow! Someone called you a “right wing author” and you let it fly by. You do write military sci fi, but you’re about as right wing as Lois McMaster Bujold. Thoughts?

  2. ‘totalitarianism and monarchy’ (and other forms of tyranny) make such great foils, don’t they? How many great stories have been told of their overthrow? And occasionally, how they might be made to work, at least for a time.

    How many writers have gotten a good series of books out of ‘the rise and fall of’ ?

    And sometimes you even get a benign monarch.

  3. I’m glad somebody asked about Tomorrowland. I enjoyed it too, and I was frustrated that it wasn’t better, but I didn’t have a clue what was wrong.

    The day after I saw it I decided: This would make a good piece for a film writing class with a discussion or assignment on how to make it better.

    Incidentally, I do have a clue as to why last summers box-office hopeful Tenet was a bust, despite great original action. It had no theme.

  4. As a natural born pessimist, I’m surprised at how much I loved Tomorrowland. I got obsessed with trying to get one of those pins for awhile, even. I feel like it needs more love.

  5. Another author whose books I love, did a couple collaborations. They were so bad that I really couldn’t stand to read them.

    It makes me wonder what the purpose of this was? Maybe an experiment – that failed in my mind. Collaborations where the second writer fills in the blanks (say technical or historical) that the first writer is weak at, make a lot of sense. Just having the second writer add more words is a waste of time.

  6. Re: the nature/nurture thing:

    There are no writers in my gene pool, whether scanned up or down. My mother, as a teenage girl in Liverpool, used to get little things published in the Liverpool Echo, but that’s it. I’m the only one of my four siblings and a scattering of cousins who writes. And my three sons, all of them in the top percentiles of intelligence scales, have found other ways to express themselves.

    My explanation: I’m obviously a changeling.

  7. Thanks for answering my question! My mother tried to push me into writing, even going so far as to enroll me in multiple young writer events as a child. As a college student, I took a couple of creative writing courses and enjoyed them, and had professors who tried to encourage me, but I never felt called to the profession — my writing technique is fine, but I don’t feel like I have anything to say. I’ve since then wondered if I would have gravitated towards writing more if I hadn’t been shoved at it; as a consequence, I’ve been very cautious about how much I influence my children one way or another. They’re all much more like their father, and have gravitated towards fields in math and technology (not because of him, but as you pointed out, being exposed to these elements at a young age helps).

    On the other hand, anyone who paid any attention to me as a child/young adult would have known immediately that I’d wind up in either teaching or social work, so the fact that I had to fight my way into teaching is a pretty damning indictment of how badly our career counseling system fails students at both the high school and college level.

  8. One of my kids once told me that their career choice was to go into acting, but their fallback choice was writer.

    As gently as I could, I let them know that I’d be proud and supportive if they went into writing, but that it was by no means a fallback.

    I mean, just because dad does it doesn’t make it easy…

  9. “Do you consider there to be a difference between writing for reading text and spoken text?”

    Knowing that your books will be performed as audiobooks, do you try to do both?

  10. @Rick, Indeed that was the genesis of my question. I did phrase it rather broadly though.

  11. Nature vs nurture?

    Given the slowness of evolution and genetic drift–taking the long view, it’s not all that long since we descended from the trees to the savannah and selected, at least primarily, for successful fleeing–I don’t know that there’s a “writer” gene. Even if we later selected for things like cooperative effort, which led to “civilization,” and thence to things like agriculture and to war.

    FWIW, I had a grandparent who was a very successful fiction writer; my father, whose degree was in political science, ended up with a stint as a niche (skiing) magazine writer and editor, as did I for a similar niche (aviation) market. I have no illusions that I could ever write plausible fiction (except, I hope, tax returns). For both my father and me, writing was more a means to an end (skiing / flying) than an end in itself.

    That said, and especially now during Covid, I certainly recognize that I have a classic case of cacoethes scribendi–the itch to write–so perhaps the satisfaction in scratching that itch is genetically linked.

  12. @Sean Crawford – I too am a fan of Tomorrowland. I wear a Tomorrowland enamel pin on my work lanyard.

    The message of the movie is important, but it fails in it’s execution. There are three problems with the movie: the pacing drags in multiple scenes, George Clooney is completely unlikable for most of the movie, and there is a romantic subplot between Clooney and an eleven-year-old actress.

    The Disney+ show The Imagineering Story helped Tomorrowland make more sense. I had no idea that an audio-animatronic was a thing outside of the movie. I didn’t realize they were a big deal in the 1960’s. Brad Bird probably assumed the audience were more familiar with the history of the park than we are. John Carter had a similar problem.

  13. @Peter, what I suspect there is, is a very strong storytelling gene – for entertainment and explanation. Writing is simply today’s main medium.

  14. @Susanpeak, I think you’re on to something here. Sir Terry Pratchett said we’re not the “smart man” (Homo sapiens), but rather Pan narrans, the storytelling ape.

  15. Dear Jennifer, Sean and Chris,

    Yay! That makes five of us who bought tickets! (I would say “have seen the movie” but I’ve shown it to more friends than that (because I love this movie) and they all loved it — my friends have excellent and discerning taste (it agrees with mine)).

    I agree with John that the marketing was abysmal. My O.S.O and I only saw it because (a) we both love Clooney and (b) we were impressed by Robertson’s reaction in the police station. But the trailer gave no reason to expect anything other than brainless brand-marketing pap like Pirate of the Caribbean. It’s really a good Heinlein juvenile

    Except, it’s a complex novelistic movie with three interwoven, achronological protagonists’ stories. Talk about mistargeting.

    Chris, I agree the cutting needed some work, don’t agree at all about the romance (or even calling it a romance), but I can’t think of any way we can discuss that without major spoilers. Let’s leave it and if we meet at a con I’d love to hear your take on that.

    Sean, my big structural problem is that there’s a huge story hole which is barely thinly papered over, around the Clooney-Laurie story. The little bit of dialog Laurie gets indicates that he is a complicated character whose classic tragedy is the he is genuinely trying to do right, fails (understatement) and cannot admit his error. Not your typical villain. But we don’t learn how he got there, what really happened between him and Clloney and just how the dream collapsed.

    Which’d be fine in a book, ‘cept now it’s a 3+ hour movie with FOUR asynchronous storylines, and the audiences’ heads explode.

    So, umm, no.

    But I’d sure like to see that version.

    And more Kathryn Hahn!!!

    pax \ Ctein

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