Reader Request Week 2022 #10: Short Bits, Part Two

And now, as promised, the final installment of this year’s Reader Request Week, zooming through some of the remaining questions:

Michael Fuss:

How much do you think your readers from other countries (actually, in my case, other language areas) should read authors from their countries (language areas) over authors from, for example, the United States?
Another point that is related to that questions and that is hard to estimate from a perspective in Europe: How much are authors from oversea a part of the American SFF market? How much would you advice SFF fans from your country to also consider reading SFF authors from other parts of the world? 

In a general sense, I think it’s both laudable and useful to support local authors — “local” in this sense meaning writers in one’s own country and/or language — because, like any local creative scene, whether it’s in your city, state or country, if you don’t support local efforts, they go away and then you’re left with a top-down culture which doesn’t necessarily reflect one’s own circumstances and interests, and that’s boring as hell. I don’t want to get into whether you should read them over writing from the US/UK, since that’s a matter of personal taste, but they should definitely read them, too, and decide the ratio for themselves over time.

I do think it’s also worth reading outside of one’s culture/language, because it’s good and useful to see how people do things differently around the world. In the US, for the longest time it was difficult to get science fiction and fantasy in translation, but that has been (slowly) beginning to change in the last decade or so, as mainstream and smaller SF/F publishers have started looking at overseas authors — and, equally importantly, been springing for translators. Translated SF/F work in the US is still rare, to be sure, but less rare than it used to be.

For those in the US looking for a place to start with translated SF/F, here’s a handy resource: Speculative Fiction in Translation.


You mentioned Dayton in your travel post. What do you think of Dayton? What are some of your favorite things in Dayton?

I like Dayton pretty well! It’s just big enough to have interesting things to do, and just close enough that I can get there and back when I feel like doing them. I enjoy the Dayton Art Institute, going to watch the Dayton Dragons every now and then, and there’s a Peruvian restaurant I like, called Salar.


How do you feel about spoilers? There was a recent Washington Post article advocating for them. I’m personally on team No Spoilers (unless I explicitly ask for them because I won’t ever read/watch/play the thing).

I’m not a huge fan of spoilers but I don’t lose my shit when I see one, because as a general rule the success of a creative work isn’t just about a surprise twist or significant plot point, but everything that leads up to it and comes after it as well. If those are done well, you can know the “big twist” ahead of time and still enjoy it when it happens.

John Galvin:

I’ve noticed in most of your novels you very rarely give physical descriptions of characters (height, hair color, etc…). Is that intentional, or is it more like Linus not drawing hands?

I mostly don’t write description because description usually bores me to read, and to write. So unless it’s relevant to the plot, I tend to leave it out. I suspect if I started putting in description, my books would be ten to twenty percent thicker. I do understand this creative tic of mine annoys and/or frustrates some readers, and I think that’s a fair criticism for them to make. I am, however, unlikely to change my ways at this late date.


How do you find construction contractors you’re happy with and how do you maintain a good collaborative working relationship with them? Do you have a strategy to get things way you want them without micromanaging?

My strategy is to let Krissy handle almost every part of the contracting discussion, since, a) with her work she deals with contractors all the time, and is thus familiar with how they do things and what’s reasonable and what’s not, b) it better fits her temperament. When I have something specific I want I tell her, and when she needs input from me specifically, she’ll ask. Otherwise she’s in charge. She avoids micromanaging by having a very clear idea of what we want and communicating it to the contractors early enough that’s there’s no ambiguity when the work starts. Krissy is awesome.


What is your methodology (or thoughts or philosophy) on world-building for your novels? Just enough to get the story done or do you get all J.R.R Tolkien and invent languages and draw maps and so on? Do you enjoy the process or is it a necessary part of the process?

It depends from project to project, but mostly I just make things up as I go along. Sometimes I do more pre-writing worldbuilding than usual (I did that for the Lock In novels, for example, because I needed to know more about epidemiology and the then-current state of brain prostheses), but mostly I start and fill in background as needed, and adjust in the text via editing as I go.

Nelson Lamourex:

I often read or hear about “American Exceptionalism” and as a Canadian, I’m always perplexed by such a statement. What do you think of it?

I think less of it the older I get and the more it becomes evident to me that the US is not particularly exceptional, it’s just powerful. It might be more useful for the planet if the strain of “American Exceptionalism” that was predominant was the one that models Peter Parker (“with great power comes great responsibility”) than Veruca Salt (“I want it NOW,” for whatever value of “it” applies at the moment). Perhaps it would be even more useful if the US just got over itself. But I do suppose a hallmark of super powerful nations, to which the US is ironically not an exception, is that they believe certain rules don’t have to apply to it.


When you, as a reader, are reading a series you are attached to (perhaps the characters are having their own adventures in your imagination) and the author does something completely out of left field and out of character with the characters and story how do you go about detaching from that series and moving on? (For example 8 books in swerving wildly)

I’ve never had too much of a problem with this, because as a reader I am quickly and easily bored, so if a series starts going in a direction that does not interest me, for whatever reason, I can put it down and go on to the next thing. I don’t owe anything to the writer, and the characters are, well, fictional, so they’re not hurt by my lack of readership. I understand that other people do not have the same sanguine approach to dropping series (I understand a fair amount of fan fiction comes from readers wanting the story to go differently than the canonical version), and that is of course fine; we all process this sort of stuff differently. My way is: Oh, look, here are literally hundreds of thousands of other things I could read, I think I’ll try them out.


Have you ever acted in a Shakespeare play? If so, which one, and if not, which one would you want to be in?

I was in Hamlet once (as an emissary from the King of Norway), and then for a class where I was required to do a monologue from Shakespeare I played Puck (and peroxided my hair to look more punk, which went terribly). I also played Guildenstern in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead in college, which is not Shakespeare, but is heavily Shakespeare adjacent. My acting skills are probably best described as “unimpressive but takes direction adequately,” and I’m not especially magnetic to look at, so it seems unlikely I will be essaying the Bard on stage or screen anytime soon. That said, if I were 20 years younger I would be happy to play either Benedict or Henry V in a deeply mediocre but enthusiastically-mounted community theater presentation.

Just Good Sense:

Given the thousands of movies you’ve seen—and having written a book on them and whatnot—is there a “big one” that’s eluded you? What great, classic movie have you never seen, whether because you and it have never been together in the same place at the same time, or because you just know it’s not for you? For me, I’m a middle-aged American man who’s never seen any part of The Godfather, nor have I ever seen a Martin Scorsese movie except for Hugo.

As a former professional film critic there are not many “Big Ones” that have eluded me, especially since I went out of my way to watch a lot of them, so that I could speak about them from a place of knowledge rather than ignorance. But now that you mention it, while I have seen large segments of it over the years, probably enough to have seen the whole thing in aggregate, I don’t believe I’ve ever sat down to watch Gone With the Wind from start to finish, and at this late date it seems unlikely that I will.

M. H. Lee:

Why do publishers seem to hate mass market paperbacks so much? For me as a reader if I have the choice between trying out a new-to-me author in a $7.99 paperback or a $16.99 paperback, I’m going to choose the $7.99 paperback every single time. There are multiple authors I would have tried in a mass market edition but just can’t get excited enough to try at a trade paperback cost. And I don’t read ebook because my e-reader always seems to be dead when I want to read. Why don’t publishers understand that they’re missing a whole group of readers by not having mass market paperback editions?

The short answer is that while you may love it, by and large readers have abandoned the mass market paperback medium for ebooks; ebooks have not really cannibalized hardcover or trade paperback sales, but they absolutely did so for mass market. So publishers have gone to where the money is, which is trade paperback, with ebooks mostly filling the mass market niche.

You will still find mass market books: Most of my books in a series are in mass market, for example, and mass market is still a thing in other genre fields, particularly mysteries and thrillers, which are the sort of thing that move in the airport “news shops.” And it will continue to fill that niche. But it is definitely a niche, and publishers will send things to trade paperback when they can, so: Maybe charge your ebook reader more often (or download the ebook reader of your choice onto your phone, which you probably do charge regularly).

William Pepper:

I just finished reading Katie Mack’s book “The End of Everything”, which delves into the cosmology and astrophysics theories of how the universe – all of it, not just humans – will end. Scientists agree it will happen, just not necessarily how. Does knowing this end of all things is a certainty bother you?

Nah. One, my end will come a lot sooner than that (probably in the next thirty years! Get ready!) and after I’m gone it’ll all officially be Someone Else’s Problem. Two, the Earth and Sun will both be long gone by then, the Earth likely swallowed by the sun in its red giant phase and the sun itself a slowly cooling cinder of its former self, so again, locally, we’ll have more immediate problems. Third, all of these things (except my death, probably) are on timescales so incomprehensively vast that worrying about something that happens trillions of years from now (or alternately will happen suddenly, instantaneously and undetectably so I won’t even know) seems like a waste of brain cycles.

So: Yes! Everything will end! But between now and then we’re most likely to have lots of time, and can probably have a lot of fun. Or figure a way out. As ee cummings once said: “listen: there’s a hell of a good universe next door; let’s go”.

And on that note, here’s the end of Reader Request Week 2022. Thank you everyone who sent in questions. Let’s do it again! More or less a year from now!

— JS

21 Comments on “Reader Request Week 2022 #10: Short Bits, Part Two”

  1. I am amused by the fact that my browser happened to be of a width that the ee cummings quote had a line break in the right place!

  2. It seemed to me that much of the non-bookstore outlet (grocery stores, drugstores, etc.) rack space for mass market paperbacks was shrinking and disappearing even before ebooks became so hugely popular. As rack space shrunk, the remaining slots were only filled by the most popular genres (mysteries & thrillers, as you noted, plus occasional romances and self-help/Christian books).

    I didn’t start buying ebooks on a regular basis because I preferred them. It was because I couldn’t find the paperbacks stocked in my usual outlets, or that a mass market paperback wasn’t produced at all.

    It may be a “chicken or the egg?” question. But in my memory, ebooks only became popular after mass market editions and rack space had already started shrinking.

  3. I for one have to say thank you for not bothering with descriptions. My brain tends to headcast pretty quickly as I’m reading, and it’s always jarring when later descriptions mean I need to recast the role.

    An example: In The Collapsing Empire it’s pretty clear eventually from context that Naffa is supposed to be one of Cardenia’s similarly-aged schoolmates, but I didn’t pick up on that initially, and the role got headcast as David Hyde-Pierce, because clearly Cardenia was “the emperor’s daughter” and was ostracized at school, and her only friend ended up being the neighbor who had been similarly ostracized for not fitting into societal norms. So if you actually gave a real description, it would take away what ended up being an interesting twist for me. If that makes any sense.

  4. I’m fine with authors who go light on physical descriptions of their characters because I prefer to cast the fiction I read. That said, I have no objection to authors who do provide those descriptions. The thing I have no patience for is the author who mentions for the first time on page 180 that character X is blond. Sorry, author, that ship has sailed.

  5. What I wondered when it comes to descriptions I wondered if there could be more drawings in SciFi or fantasy novels. Some of those things are really quite hard to imagine and I always doubt that my imagination of them matches the imagination of the author.

    In one of the “Dune” novel it had some pretty nice classic drawings. Why don’t they do those anymore.

  6. Re: Gone With the Wind… you are not missing out on anything. Your time would be better spent with less boring and less rasist things. Or at least more talented directors and/or actors.

  7. I lament the decline of mass market paperbacks. Decades ago I sized up trade paperbacks as the worst of hardcovers combined with the worst of paperbacks, and I avoid them when I can. A fiction book that never makes it into hardcover or mass market is a book I likely will never buy or read. (There are a few exceptions.)

    I’ve started reading Steven Brust’s Taltos series, and have been collecting used mass market paperback copies for that purpose. It’ll be a while before I get to the end of those and have to decide whether to go to ebooks or not.

    Anyway, strong opinions on minor things, I has them. Most books I read these days are hardcovers, since I can afford it.

  8. In general I don’t even noticed the lack of descriptions in your novels, which I think says something good about your ability to write without them.

    But in Kaiju I did realize partway through that I was having a hard time visualizing the Kaiju, and thumbed back to see if I could find a description. I ended up imagining them as huge shambling mountains, sometimes with jet engines in their butts.

  9. The Shakespearean part to play would have to be either Richard III or Iago from Othello. One could just be as nasty and scene chewing as one wanted to be. Saw Iago break the fourth wall in Medford, OR and it was awesome!

  10. Regarding American Exceptionalism: my father was a history professor, and often talked about what he called “big power behaviors,” which nearly all major powers through history have done.

    He also noted that major wars often happen when either (a) a country that used to be more powerful feels disrespected by others or (b) when a country that has become significantly more powerful feels disrespected.

    Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is in the first category. If China were to start a war that would be an example of the second category.

  11. I agree with your assessment that a big twist or surprise in a movie isn’t the only thing that holds the movie together. While a properly hidden surprise can land with a major impact (I think back to the first time I saw the Sixth Sense unspoiled), proper direction and writing will still have you on the edge of your seat even if you know how the movie turns out ahead of time (Apollo 13, Captain Philips).

  12. “I for one have to say thank you for not bothering with descriptions.”

    Seconded. Clunky description writing/insertion tends to jar me out of the narrative, and it’s surprising how many writers (even otherwise excellent ones) suck at this.

    @ Aaron Doukas:

    “proper direction and writing will still have you on the edge of your seat even if you know how the movie turns out ahead of time”

    Every time I watch “Valkyrie”, there’s at least one or two moments in which I’m 100% certain that von Stauffenberg and crew are going to pull it off. Every time.

  13. I would definitely go see your community theater performance in my community. I’m not sure how much of an endorsement that is, since I buy a season ticket for the nearest community theater without ever bothering to find out who’s in it.
    But I think you may be mistaken about the possible mediocrity of your community performance, since people who’ve seen you at events seem to think you’re GREAT, and you’ve told us that’s a performance. :)

  14. I took to trade paperbacks over mass market as soon as that was an option. Just more comfortable to hold and read. But I must admit that now I read most books on the Kindle.

    Not that I don’t still have thousands of “real” books on the shelves, because I do.

  15. I’ve adopted the same contractor practice as you, as my wife is a professional architect, but we often run into issues where the contractors are often (sometimes inadvertently) demeaning to her because she is a woman and go out of their way to try to deal directly with me despite the fact that we’ve made it clear numerous times that she’s a professional architect and I have no clue what they’re talking about. Do you and Krissy run into this, and if so how do you deal with it?

  16. I don’t know about American Exceptionalism. I’m British, and we seem to do a good line in UK exceptionalism ourselves – especially given that we’ve just done Brexit, and we still have our cheap Trump knock-off Johnson in charge over here (or perhaps I should say “in charge”). It strikes me that ALL countries have a tendency for “the rules don’t apply to us, because we’re different”. Though I guess it’s the case that mid-range countries like, for example, Denmark and Switzerland, get cured of their hubris sooner then countries that fancy themselves the big noise in the world.

  17. @OldBob
    You must despise RAH. He doesn’t mention that Manny is black (can’t be “Afro American” since he’s a Loonie!) until halfway through the book. I think he does this in a couple of other books as well.

    Spoilers come with a time limit. The day the book or movie is released? Yeah, Wheaton’s Law applies. A year later? I’m not going to hold back discussion of plot points because someone else hasn’t gotten there yet.

  18. Pet peeve: E. E. Cummings never lowercased his name, and he absolutely hated it when other people did so on his behalf.

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