Universal Yums: April 2023 Review

Yes, it is in fact May, but I only just now got around to eating the April Universal Yums Box, so here is a late April review!

This month was Belgium, and here’s all the goodies:

All the snacks from the Belgium box laid out on the table. There's ten snacks total, some coming in large boxes, others coming in chip bags or small plastic bags.

Right off the bat, this looked like a very promising spread. There’s tons of chocolate, which is to be expected since it’s Belgium, but still plenty of variety.

Obviously, I needed help to rank these snacks, and my dad was happy to oblige. He picked which one we would try first, and so we started with these Andalousian Sauce Potato Chips:

A bag of Andalouse Sauce potato chips. The bag is mostly an orangish red color to mimic the color of andalouse sauce, and shows a couple of the chips on the front of the bag alongside a bottle of the sauce and some tomatoes.

A handful of the orangish reddish chips spilling out of the bag onto the table.

Our immediate thought upon eating these chips was that they tasted like animal style French fries from In-N-Out. Since we both happen to love getting everything animal style from In-N-Out, this was not a problem for us, and we agreed that whilst they were not life-changing, we could certainly eat an entire bag. We both deemed them an 8/10.

Switching to something sweeter, I chose this Cranberry Rye Cake:

A rectangular slice of rye cake.

Athena ScalziNow, I totally messed up here and didn’t get a picture of it out of its plastic, so you cannot see all the cranberries that were in the rye cake. Take my word for it, they were there. This bread was sweet, dense, chewy, and full of tart cranberries. It was very unique, nothing like what Americans have, and we totally ate it all. My dad gave it an 8/10, and I gave it a 9/10. I would love a recipe for this because I would totally make an entire loaf.

Back to savory, we’ve got these Cheddar Nibbles:

A white and orange bag of Cheddar Nibbles. The image on the front is of several of the crackers alongside a block of cheese.

A few of the Cheddar Nibblers crackers spilling out of the bag onto the table.

I really liked the shape and size of these crackers, I thought they were kind of unique, but they ended up tasting rather mid. They weren’t very strongly flavored, and honestly just tasted like a Goldfish cracker or some other standard oven baked cheese cracker. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t anything special. My dad gave it a 6.5/10, while I opted for a 6/10. I would rather have Extra Toasty Cheez-Its.

Finally, we decided to try some chocolate, starting with this Raspberry Dark Chocolate Bar:

A rectangular bar of chocolate with a red and gold wrapper.

The bar broken in half to reveal the cross section which is a lighter brown and lighter consistency than the surrounding chocolate.

love the combination of dark chocolate and raspberry, or really any chocolate and raspberry, so I was stoked for this bar. Unfortunately, the raspberry flavor was pretty subtle, and the chocolate was on the waxy side. It didn’t taste bad, but I definitely had my hopes too high and was let down a smidge. It got a 6.5/10 from my dad, and a 7/10 from me.

Onto another baked cracker, we have these Ham and Gouda Biscuits:

A pink and white bag of baked crackers.

Two of the oval-ish crackers.

Don’t get me wrong, I love ham and gouda, I think it’s a great combo! But these were so icky. These tasted like hot dog water, and were without a doubt the worst thing in the box by a landslide. I dared not eat more than one. My dad was generous and gave them a 3/10, while I was harsher and went with a 2.5/10.

Sixthly, we tried the Violet Gummies:

A small blue and white bag of violet gummy candies.

Two of the small, flower shaped violet gummy candies.

I loved that these were in the shape of flowers, and that they had a sugar coating to contrast the gummy texture. What I did not love, however, was the taste. While my dad thought they were pretty good, I thought they tasted like a medicine I used to take as a kid, and I was not about it. I have to give credit where credit is due and acknowledge that the texture on these gummy candies was pretty good. While my dad gave it a 7/10, I could only give it a 3/10.

Back to more chocolate, we tried these Creme Brulee Bonbons:

A white and gold box of creme brulee bonbons.

Four chocolate bonbons, two of which are a little mutilated.

The title alone made me excited to try these, as creme brulee is my favorite dessert ever, so putting that inside a chocolate sounded pretty great. As you can see, two of the chocolates came a little deformed, and we ended up eating those ones instead of the undamaged ones. These bonbons were so rich, definitely a one and done type of deal. They didn’t really taste like creme brulee in my opinion (I am a creme brulee connoisseur), and they were strangely gritty. Not the best but not bad either. My dad went with a 7/10 on these, and I gave them a 7.5/10.

The only non-candy food left was the Speculoos Cookies:

A rectangular orange and white box of specloos cookies

Three specloos cookies

If you recall last month’s box, it also had Speculoos cookies in it, and I gave them a 10/10 last time. I am happy to report that these Speculoos cookies were just as good! I love Speculoos cookies so much. They’re super crunchy and have the best spiced flavor ever, I can’t get enough of them. How funny they came in back-to-back boxes! My dad also likes these kinds of cookies, so he gave them a 9/10, while obviously I had to bestow upon them a 10/10.

Onto the last of the chocolates, we had these Buttercream Truffles:

A yellow and white box of chocolates.

The box for these was pretty big, but inside there was just this monstrosity:

All of the chocolates melted together into one log that literally looks like a turd.

Obviously, my dad and I had a good laugh over this turd-like log of melted chocolates. It was so horrific, but here’s what it looked like when I separated one from the rest:

One of the chocolates, removed from its cluster of melted chocolates.

Not as pretty as they look on the box, that’s for sure. As for taste, they really didn’t have any sort of flavor, they mostly just tasted overly sweet and were very unmemorable. We both decided that all laughs aside, these were a 5/10.

Last, but certainly not least, these Melon Candies:

A small bag of green and orange hard candies.

Several of the orange and green hard candies spilling out of the bag onto the table.

There were two types of melon candies, cantaloupe and honeydew. I tried the cantaloupe one first and oh my goodness, it tasted exactly like cantaloupe. Like if it weren’t for the texture I would literally feel like I was eating the fruit itself. They were sweet and just a little tart. Unlike most hard candies, they were super inoffensive, like they weren’t overwhelming at all. The honeydew one ended up tasting like Lowercase honeydew. Very subtle and nice. My dad gave them a 7.5/10, and I gave them an 8.5/10. I proceeded to eat like three back to back.

So, there you have it, another box down! Admittedly a little late, but yummy nonetheless! What did you think of this selection? Too much chocolate, or not enough chocolate? Do you like honeydew? Would you dare to eat the turd-esque chocolate log?! Let me know in the comments, and have a great day!


The Big Idea: Jules Sherred

Cooking is for everyone, and Jules Sherred is reminding everyone of that with his new book Crip Up the Kitchen: Tools, Tips and Recipes for the Disabled Cook, which aims to help make the activity more accessible to those who might have previously felt excluded from it.


If you were to ask my publisher, the “Big Idea” for Crip Up the Kitchen: Tools, Tips and Recipes for the Disabled Cook is, a comprehensive guide for disabled and neurodivergent cooks. I’m glad the great folks who packaged my book were able to distill it to a logline because to me it’s a Gordian Knot of ideas.

It is that and it is an affirming space. It is that and a deconstruction of the colonization of food. It is that and it is a big middle finger to ableism. It is that and it is a cookbook that has the word “bullshit” in it because the messaging disabled people get is just that. It is that and it is the first major change to how cookbooks, more specifically recipes, have been written in nearly 100 years. 

It is that and it is a response to being tired of and angry about being erased from spaces and being told the tools disabled people need to survive are horrible.

And I think I should start talking about this Big Idea with being tired. Also, angry. Incredibly angry. Incensed is the word I use in the introduction of the book, with emphasis. 

I’m a fan of anger. Anger is neither negative nor positive. Anger simply is. It is what we do with that anger that can be negative or positive or neutral. My anger spurs me to action that tends to lead to change for the better. In this case, it started with a website and then became a book. 

I was angry because I was in year five of being completely unable to cook for myself because of how my disabilities had progressed. In the “before times,” I was a guy who would easily cook for five hours for myself and guests. Losing the ability to cook killed part of my soul. 

It wasn’t the loss itself that angered me. What angered me is there was this tool—an electric pressure cooker—that immediately remedied one of the biggest barriers I had to cooking. All my previous experiences with it were people telling me to buy one, followed immediately by them complaining about theirs. I was angry because what little resources I could find were written by able-bodied people and none of them worked for me.

I had this experience a lot, with a lot of different tools that able-bodied people shat all over. They were tools that allowed me to reclaim the kitchen. The disabled people I knew had the same negative impressions about these tools because of this “common knowledge.”

I had created a huge knowledge base of Crip Up the Kitchen’s subtitle: tools, tips, and recipes that I developed with disability in mind. All because I was angry. Then 2020 came and we all know what that means. A whole lot of people were realizing they were neurodivergent as their lives were upended, and we were all experiencing a traumatic mass disabling event.

Then I got the lightbulb moment that there needs to be a cookbook and not just any cookbook. 

The next part of this Big Idea involves a little bit of autistic hubris. I was going to change the way cookbooks were written. 

Cookbooks are difficult enough to write, never mind sell on proposal to a publisher, when there already exists a template that has been the template for close to 100 years. I decided that it would be I who would change this. I convinced myself I could convince a publisher to allow me to throw out the style guide and let me do my thing. Wild, I know.

Who do I think I am? I spent so much time during the last three years yelling, “Who do you think you are?!” The part of me which is informed by trauma was at odds with the autistic part of me who gave myself a Nobel Prize in research in the middle of a report in Grade 4/4th Grade. Because I know when I have a great idea but having those great ideas sure did get me into a lot of trouble at home. I’m still waiting to get into that trouble for this book.

It had a massive impact on my writing.

I was breaking so many rules. My journey to publication wasn’t what is considered the “norm.” This also bothered my autistic sensibilities. It still does. I’m waiting for someone to tell me they changed their mind because they figured me out. 

I had to push against that while keeping true to the part of me who knows when I’ve got something worthwhile, who, like many autistics, also loves a good info dump when they are passionate about something. Somehow, I managed to convince a publisher to let me info dump a special interest and in a way that wasn’t done before.

It isn’t as fun as it sounds. Because as much as I would have loved to create a multi-volume encyclopedia with the most arcane knowledge and all sort of minutiae, an accessible and saleable guide that does not make. I had to spend a lot of time figuring out the five Ws plus the how. I had to figure out how to help the most people while keeping it at a page count that would be affordable to a target audience where money is often tight. 

I had to do this pretty much on my own because I did an incredible job convincing a publisher that I was the person to write this book and I knew what I was doing. The solution, if you are interested, was to focus on common symptoms of disability, identify points of failure in the kitchen, and create solutions and strategies to manage those.

I love rules. I love guidelines. I love operating manuals. And I was foolish enough to convince someone to allow me to create much of it from scratch. It isn’t something I recommend if you are a “spoonie,” like me, who also has the same autistic sensibilities. 

To complicate matters more, I have this quirk where I must write the entirety of something first in my head before I do the info dump into a Word doc. Plus, the revision process hurts my brain, real actual pain. I had to get it right the first download. I had a short window to write and submit the manuscript, create the images—because I was also the photographer and art director—and create the accessibility guide for everyone working on the book, knowing there would only be one quick round of edits.

It was a lot for the kid who gave himself a Nobel Prize on a 20-page report that was supposed to be 500 words because I was info dumping on a special interest. But who was also freaking out because, who the hell did I think I was to even propose this to begin with? My teacher loved the Nobel Prize by the way. My parent did not.

But I was the guy who got angry. I was the guy who then created a huge knowledge base of useful information. I was the guy who knew exactly how to turn that information into a lot of front matter and 50 recipes that teach skills that can be used beyond the book. I was the guy who was able to make it useful to the most people possible, while changing the way recipes are presented. And I was the guy who somehow convinced a publisher to let me do it.

Crip Up the Kitchen: Tools, Tips and Tricks for the Disabled Cook: Amazon Canada|Amazon USA|Amazon UK|Chapters Indigo|Barnes & Noble|Indie Bookstores in Canada|Bookshop|Powell’s

Author’s Socials: Website|Mastodon|Twitter|Instagram

An Appropriate Cover: “With Or Without You”

Fun fact: Bono, the lead singer of U2, has the same birthday as me: Today, May 10. So I thought it might be fun to essay one of his band’s more famous songs. It’s not going to replace the original, to be sure, but I enjoyed putting it together. Additionally, a thing I learned today: Singing like Bono is hard. But I understand even he has problems with it sometimes. I can sympathize. Happy birthday to us both, and enjoy.

— JS


Well, I’m no longer in my “early fifties,” I’m smack dab in the middle of them, and of middle age. And you know what? So far, at least, my fifties have been terrific. I’m very definitely in the part of my life where I am comfortable with who I am and what I’ve done with my life, professionally and personally. I’m very definitely a known quantity. If you like me or my work, you can reasonably be assure that you will continue to do so for a while yet. If you don’t, well, it’s not going to get better for you anytime soon.

I’m also at the point where I pass the “Bus Test,” which is “If you were hit by a bus today, would you feel like the life you lived had value?” And I do: I’m nowhere near perfect, of course, and to essay my many flaws would take up much of the day. For all that, I think overall I’ve been a good husband, father and friend, I’ve done work to make my communities, nation and world better, and I’ve worked on myself to be a mostly decent human. Plus, lots of books and other work in other media, which will likely live past me for some indeterminate amount of time. It’s been a good life, and I’m glad I’ve gotten enough life to gain the wisdom to recognize this fact.

(To be clear, not planning on being hit by a bus any time soon — indeed, living where I do, I would have to go well out of my way to be hit by one. I have lots of future plans, which require me remaining alive for at least a while longer. That is the plan, and to the best of my ability, I am sticking to it.)

I don’t love everything about being in my 50s. Most of that is physical — a twinge in my knee, my back getting sore from how I was sleeping, the steadfast refusal of my body to stop being pear-shaped, and so on — but some of it is existential, like driving down the road earlier this week, enjoy the lovely spring weather and having some part of my brain casually wonder, wow, how many more springs are you going to get? Shut up, brain, let me focus on the moment. Realistically speaking I have lots of springs left, and I plan to enjoy them all.

But overall? Again, life is good. I like, on my birthday, reflecting that it is so. I will continue to do the work of being trying to be a better person each day, and writing good work, and being a kind and useful friend and spouse and parent. And soon enough I’ll be 55.

— JS

(Photos above by Athena, by the way.)

The Big Idea: Lisa Brideau

There’s no time like the present when it comes to making positive change. That’s certainly the case for author Lisa Brideau regarding policies on climate change. Follow along in her Big Idea to see how she crafts this changed world in her new novel, Adrift.


I work all day on climate policy. I am steeped in the projections scientists have created to model what our future will likely be based on our collective actions (cutting carbon pollution slowly or quickly or not). While there’s lots of great work underway and so many opportunities to cut carbon and improve our lives, the pace of change is frighteningly slow relative to what’s needed for a habitable (for us) planet.

This is not exactly a barrel of laughs on the daily.

The Big Idea behind Adrift was me wanting to spend time in a near-future version of where I lived, but one where we had done a lot of the hard necessary things to make life better. I wanted to spend time in a hopeful version of the future, but hopeful in a realistic way that acknowledges that some climate change impacts can’t be avoided, we’ve locked those in; I’m an engineer and too much of a realist to go Full Hopeful.

It was delightful to craft that world, to zip effortlessly to a future where Canada has gotten off fossil fuels. I got to skip the messy bits, just appear on the scene and look around, much like my main character who wakes up alone on a sailboat with no memory of who she is or how she got there.

I started Adrift years ago and rewrote it several times as I honed in on the story I wanted to tell against this climate-impacted (but hopeful!) version of British Columbia in 2038.

I created amnesia refugees, sent my character on a terrible sailing journey, and had her clash with shadowy figures in a fun page-turner that follows along as she tries to figure out what happened to her. I did worry a bit about whether the extreme weather events I’d depicted were too much, too unbelievable, that people would scoff.

Then 2021 hit.

In one year, British Columbia experienced:

  • a heat dome (the deadliest weather event in Canadian history; over 600 people died), 
  • the worst flooding ever seen in the province due to an atmospheric river (at one point the City of Vancouver was cut off from the rest of Canada as all roads out were closed), and 
  • another summer of terrible wildfires that made air quality hazardous for weeks at a time

All during a pandemic and an opioid crisis.

This blew out of the water the extreme weather events I’d put in Adrift. It’s always a risk with near-future fiction that reality will catch up to you more quickly than you anticipate.

I had time to make edits as we finalized the novel for publication, but in an effort to hold on to my hopeful(ish) future, I didn’t make things that much worse. So, in Adrift 2038 is an okay year, relative to 2021. Weather is variable, after all. We’re going to see a lot more extreme weather in the future, but not every year will build on the horrors of the one before, there will be some room to breathe.

I don’t know if regular people, who don’t spend all day immersed in climate change news, will find Adrift hopeful – but it has a Canada that’s mostly transitioned off fossil fuels for electricity, the vehicles on the streets are electric, steps have been taken to protect or leave areas vulnerable to sea level rise, etc. That’s an immense amount of progress to picture in such a short time. And, really, it’s the minimum we need to be on track to maintain a habitable planet.

I set my novel at a tipping point – one where there’s still a sliver of a chance to choose the right path, to avoid the worst possible outcome. But my real hope is that readers will finish and look up and realize, actually, now is the best moment we have to make big change. That’s the real Big Idea. That people will finish the book having had a good time and then get involved in real action to shift us away from fossil fuels.

Adrift: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Bookshop|Chapters Indigo|Powell’s

Author Socials: Website|Twitter|Instagram.

Visiting the Darke County Food Truck Festival

Athena ScalziI’ve never been the biggest fan of food trucks. I always thought that if I wanted to go and eat somewhere, I’d like to be inside a building, not outdoors, and be able to sit and eat comfortably. So food trucks just never really fit the bill for me. However, ever since I started working at the winery, which has different local food trucks every weekend, I realized how awesome they are!

Getting to know the people that run the trucks, listening to their journey to become a food truck owner, and hearing about all the different events and places they get to go to is really cool. I realized that food trucks are peoples’ dreams being manifested, people who love good food and want to share it with the world.

All that being said, my county had a food truck rally this past Saturday at the fairgrounds, and I knew I had to check it out. Especially because some of the food trucks that come to my work regularly were going to be there!

I asked my friend from Columbus to come check it out with me, and he obliged, so off we went to the 6th annual Darke County Food Truck Rally & Craft Show.

We did a bit of a walk-through to check everything out before deciding that what we really needed to start with was a cup of coffee. Specifically, Casey’s Coffee Co.

A small black trailer with a skull painted on it and the words

This little black trailer served up a mean cup o’ joe! I’m not a big fan of coffee so I got their drink of the day, which happened to be an iced chai for $6:

A clear plastic cup full of iced chai latte with cinnamon sprinkled on top.

As someone who loves chai, this was a grand start to our culinary adventure.

Next, we decided to grab a snack from Little Boijon Asian Cuisine:

The menu for Little Boijon Asian Cuisine. There's items such as orange chicken, pork fried rice, vegetable lo mein, etc.

They had boba tea too, but seeing as I had a whole chai in my hand I figured I shouldn’t get another sugary beverage. I wanted to try the orange chicken, but I didn’t want to get a big entree since I knew I’d be trying things from other trucks, so I opted to share some egg rolls with my friend.

Three egg rolls in a Styrofoam box accompanied by a sweet chili sauce.

These egg rolls had a super crispy outside and were packed full of filling! The sweet chili sauce was the perfect accompaniment and wasn’t too spicy at all. It was $7 for the three of them.

Moving from Asian cuisine to German, we hit up The German Corner, a food truck from Indiana. They had ruebens, schnitzel, Bavarian cream puffs, and more! We chose to go with a bratwurst with sauerkraut and an order of potato pancakes with sour cream.

A bratwurst in a hotdog bun topped with sauerkraut. Also in the box is two potato pancakes accompanied by sour cream.

Okay, this brat was seriously delicious. I can’t say I’ve had too many brats in my life, but this one was definitely yummy, especially when paired with the sauerkraut. I want to say this was around $15, but I can’t remember exactly. I would’ve loved to try a Rueben or a cream puff, but maybe next time.

At this point we were actually pretty full, so we decided to get a sweet treat and head out. Thankfully, Kona Ice was there.

The oh-so colorful Kona Ice truck, featuring their mascot (a penguin in a red button up) on the side, along with tons of colorful signage and menus.

Kona Ice is kind of a big deal around these parts. Everyone loves them, and they are the best in the biz. While they have taps for their flavors, I decided to try one of their special flavors, the lavender lemonade, and my friend got the bourbon black cherry vanilla. It was $8 for both!

Two cups of shaved ice in green cups. One is lilac colored, the other is a muted orange shade.

THESE WERE SO GOOD. Oh my lordy, I have never had a better snowcone in my life. Both were super yummy, but I liked mine better because of the pretty color.

After we finished our ice, we headed out. All in all a successful venture. I definitely want to attend more food truck rallies, and I can’t wait to see which ones come to the 7th annual one next year!


The Big Idea: Dorothy A. Winsor

Sometimes, a “big idea” is a collection of smaller ideas, which, when grouped together, are greater than the sum of their parts. Dorothy A. Winsor knows a little about this, and in this Big Idea for Glass Girl, she puts it all together for you.


Big Ideas don’t always (often? ever?) leap into a writer’s mind full-blown. Sometimes disparate bits of a book have to be assembled like the parts of a stained-glass window. The Big Idea for my new book, Glass Girl, came together in three pieces.

Piece One: A Factory Run by Women

The first inkling of this book came from a story on NPR. In a factory somewhere in Latin America, the workers (all women) protested when the owner cut their wages. In answer, he flung the key on the floor and told them they should pick it up and see if they could do better. So, they did. When they made the factory profitable, he, of course, wanted it back.

I was immediately captivated by the idea of the feminine world inside the factory, and it’s always satisfying to see the underdog triumph. It was a beginning I could work with.

But I write traditional fantasy set in a pre-industrial world. In that kind of setting, most work was done in people’s homes. So, what could I use for my factory? At that point, I remembered a long-ago trip to the island of Murano in the Venice lagoon. Murano has been known for its marvelous glass for centuries. Glass making was so important to the city that glass makers were rewarded with high social status. Less happily, they were forbidden to leave. I borrowed both those ideas for Glass Girl. More important for the first piece of my idea, glass making requires furnaces and big equipment. That is, it requires a factory. Voila!

Piece Two: A Dragon!

So, the book is set among all women crafters in a glass making factory on an island. As the island took shape in my mind, though, I realized I was picturing it as volcanic. The volcano had been dormant as long as people could remember, so what did my characters think was the source of the occasional wisps of smoke from the mountain top? Maybe I’d been watching too much “Game of Thrones,” but I decided they believe it’s a sleeping dragon. Everything should matter in a book, though, so I didn’t want to just toss in a random dragon. As I thought about that, I realized I could use dragons in a way I hadn’t seen before.

The sleeping dragon could be a visionary who worked through shared dreams. My characters could be artists in glass whose work was inspired by the dragon, meaning it was sacred. This link mattered because it gave a whole new significance to the struggle to save the factory from a feckless owner.

Piece Three: A Murder

At that point, I had a glassworks engaged in dragon-inspired art and a struggle to save it. Sadly, I concluded that wasn’t compelling enough to shape a whole book. What to do? When a story dragged, Miss Snark, a literary agent who used to give advice online, would urge: “Kill somebody! Set someone’s hair on fire!”

I chose the former option. I killed the central character’s mother, who is also the glassworks craft mistress. Well, I didn’t, but someone did, and seventeen-year-old Emlin decides to find out who it was.

Weight is given to her search by her grief, but also by the fact that since her mother was craft mistress, her murder offended the dragon. It was sacrilege.

The Pieces Assembled

So my story about women winning control of a factory had become about women making glass inspired by a dragon. Their art and their connection to the dragon are so important that the murder of the craft mistress threatens the social order. All that added up to a Big Idea for Glass Girl in which everything fit together and each piece added to the others like tessera, creating a story that was dramatically different from any of the original ideas.

Between learning about medieval glass making, writing about a dragon, and plotting a murder, I had a lot of fun writing this book. A Big Idea doesn’t always leap into the writer’s mind full blown. Sometimes the pieces have to be assembled.

Glass Girl: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Bookshop|Kobo

Author Socials: Web site|Facebook|Instagram|Twitter

Cover Reveal: Starter Villain

John Scalzi

Tor Books has a history of giving my novels some pretty terrific covers, and, hey, guess what? They’ve done it again! Please enjoy the cover of Starter Villain, featuring, as it does, a tremendous executive-level cat. And, yes, cats are integral to the plot of the novel. How? You’ll have to read the book to find out. Let me just say, however, that if you’re a fan of cats, you will not be disappointed.

Let us take a moment now to give proper attention to the artist behind this cover, the Chesley Award-winning Tristan Elwell. Elwell has done book covers for publishers from A(von) to at least T(or Books), as well other illustration work for newspapers, magazines, game companies and advertising firms. He did a truly spectacular job here creating the sort of hagiographic oil painting you would find in a Fortune 500 boardroom, with a cat, and I could not be happier with it.

As a reminder, Starter Villain will be out in the world on September 19, 2023 in the US/Canada and 21 September 2023 in the UK (where it will have a different but equally fabulous cover). You can pre-order the book now at your favorite bookseller (including your local bookstore, trust me, they will be very happy to take your pre-order). Options for ordering signed copies are being considered and will be announced if and when they are finalized. Otherwise, and as always, any questions you have about various iterations of the book and its availability are answered in my new book FAQ.

I’m very excited about this book and there are lots of interesting things going on with it behind the scenes. I can’t wait to share this book with you all. In the meantime: Hey, look! A cover!

— JS

Reader Request Week 2023 #10: Short Bits, Part Two

John Scalzi

More short answers to pressing questions! Let’s get right to it:

Theorboast: I would love to see you rate some unusual musical instruments for suitability in your band. Theorbo? Theremin? Hurdy-gurdy? Duduk and tar?

As it happens I do own a theremin, and also some other vaguely unusual musical instruments such as an Omnichord, a MandoTenor and a Banjolele. As a practical matter, however, I end up doing most of my stuff via a Digital Audio Workstation and a MIDI keyboard, with occasional guitar and bass.

Bradley: What are your thoughts on serialised webnovels as a genre, both for the reader and the writer?

I mean, that’s how I first presented Old Man’s War here, 21(!!) years ago. In general I think it’s a perfectly fine idea, although as a general practical issue, I would suggest writers actually have the thing done before serializing it; that way the output is not threatened by, you know, life taking a week or a month out of your schedule for non-writery things.

Carl: I assume you support the WGA strike. Are you a member? Any thoughts on the strike or how it will effect any pending film or television adaptations of your work?

I’m not a member; I don’t have enough points yet. If and when I can become a member, I will do so. As for the strike, I am a supporter of it, which should be no surprise as, aside from anything else, I am the former president of a writers organization where one of our chief concerns was adequate compensation for writers. The strike does affect at least some of the projects I have in development, which is, of course, fine. When the studios and networks want to get them back underway, there’s an easy way to do it: Treat the writers fairly.

Hugo: I’ve noticed that compared to authors of previous eras, bestselling authors these days don’t tend to write a lot of short fiction – whereas (for example) the Big 3 of the mid-20th Century SF had multiple short story collections. There is the odd author who has a lot of short stories, but they seem to be the exception, not the rule. Why do you think this is?

The short answer is that short stories don’t pay enough for someone to make a living, or a substantial part of their living, off of them, which is a thing that used to be possible. I myself tend to write short stories either for my own amusement or for a very specific strategic purpose, since the money usually isn’t there. The slightly longer answer is that some of the writing energy that used to go into short stories now goes into things like graphic novels or video games, which pay a reasonable amount for the effort.

BostonDan: Let’s admit that the output of ChatGPT currently resembles that of a clever but very lazy, plagiarizing high school student. Do you expect to be astonished by the 2030 version? Could you ever consider such a program to be “intelligent”?

I think AI is going to get very good at simulating and iterating what already exists — it’s already pretty good at that — but I don’t think it’s going to be by itself very good at original thought that will appeal to humans, because its intelligence, however one wishes to define it, is not human and never will be, even if it is trained on human intelligence. I’m curious what AI creativity would be, left to its own devices.

Icarus: I think you said that you still have a landline. What does your phone bill look like with taxes and such? how much does a phone call cost you if you do it from a landline these days?

We keep the landline these days basically because it’s bundled with our home internet access and it’s cheaper to get both than the internet alone. Don’t ask me why, that’s just how they do it. I haven’t made a phone call from it for years, and if someone calls it they get voicemail. Most humans we wish to speak to know to call us at our cell numbers these days, so what messages are left are usually political robocalls or people trying to scam us. I don’t generally respond to those.

Matt S: Where do you lean on the “nature vs nurture” spectrum for how parents raise kids? How much of a child’s successes and failures are accredible to the parents, their environment, and themselves?

I don’t think there’s a “one size fits all” answer to that, and each child and each situation is different. Also, it’s never “nature versus nurture” anyway. “Nature” is what’s in your genes; “nurture” is what’s in your environment. They are complementary, not in opposition.

Justin Bowles: If IP wasn’t an issue, what book or series would you write from another writers work?

None; I’m really not interested in playing in other people’s universes. I did it once, with Fuzzy Nation, because I had a specific curiosity about what it would be like to write a “golden age” story with a more modern sensibility, and the particular story I used was in the public domain. Otherwise, I’m fine thinking up my own stuff.

Mechtroid: As a parent, what point did you decide “One kid is enough for us, thanks”?

We didn’t, biology did. Which is to say after Athena, Krissy miscarried and it was determined that the cause of that would make more kids unlikely. Adoption would have been an option, but we never really explored that and anyway, life was busy enough.

Logophage: What are your (current) thoughts on liking problematic things, and/or learning that things you like are problematic? 

Pretty much what they were before. I think it’s okay to acknowledge that art/artists you value aren’t perfect and that time may reveal their flaws; I think it’s okay to recognize that you don’t have to defend the problematic aspects of art/artists that have value to you; I think it’s okay to set aside the art/artists whose problematic aspects are now too great for you to ignore, even if they once had value to you. I have a whole bunch of art and artists that I am done with — I took value from them before but at this point I am content to put them aside. It helps, mind you, that there is so much other art from other artists that I can explore. I’m not at a loss for good art from interesting people.

That wraps us up for another year! Thank you, folks, for asking such interesting questions yet again. Let’s do this again, say, in roughly a year?

— JS

Reader Request Week 2023 #9: Short Bits, Part One

John Scalzi

And now, short answers to some of the questions that I otherwise did not get to this year:

Karen A. Wyle: What does it mean to retire from self-employment? Is there any purpose in declaring, to oneself or others, that one is Retired?

If you stop working for a living, and don’t plan to start doing it again, then you get to consider yourself retired, regardless of whether you work for yourself or someone else. I have older friends who are writers who have largely stopped writing for income, because they no longer have to, and either don’t want to anymore or feel that they’ve said everything they need to say for public consumption. I can’t imagine that, but then I’m not anywhere near retirement age. Check in with me in fifteen years.

Hope: I really, truly need Krissy to tell me her hair secrets. Her hair is always amazing.

Krissy’s secret is Pantene Pro-V shampoo and conditioner, not washing her hair every day, and extremely good hair genetics. Many people have remarked at how great Krissy’s hair looks as it goes gray, and I think a lot of that is (again) good genes, but also attitude; Krissy is 53 now and has had gray hairs since her 20s and is perfectly fine with the idea that at this point gray is going to happen. I didn’t get a vote in that decision of hers, but personally speaking I like Krissy’s hair without dyes in it.

Brian Skinn: How many accountants, lawyers, portfolio managers, real estate agents, etc. did you work with before settling in for the long haul with the ones you have now? How hard was it? How long did it take? Words of advice? Pitfalls to watch out for?

You know, I’ve been lucky* in all of these in that by and large my first choices for these things have been the right choices for me. I put that asterisk in there because one reason that my first choices in these folks have worked is that I generally had a very clear idea of what I wanted and needed from them before I went out and got them, so there was no confusion on either side about what working together would entail. So that would be my advice: Really know what you want and need.

Dorrington Williams: Could you talk a bit about your plans for your music? Any plans to do more than dabble?

At this point, no, because a) I’m not that good at it, b) the path to making real money in music is long and requires actual commitment in time and effort, and you know, I already have a real job. Beyond that, a while back I came to the realization that I don’t need make every interest a massive profit center. My music is out to streamers and if I make money off of it, cool. But my interest in it is for my own self, first, and everyone else second, and I’m enjoying the level of commitment that I’m at right now.

David Scott Moyer: I’d like to hear your thoughts on independent publishing. Not necessarily Amazon in particular, but they are obviously the giant elephant in the room. They provide a way for authors to skip the gauntlet of agents and publishers and get their work out into the world. 

I mean, you’re looking at independent publishing right now: This site is has been up and running for a quarter century, and every once in a while I take things from it and put them into book form. So naturally I’m fine with it as a concept. That said, while it offers freedom, the road out of obscurity for those who self/indie-publish is generally even longer and harder than the road out of it for people who are traditionally published, and the same power laws in terms of exposure and income apply to both: A few people are up at top, most everyone else is scraping by at best. In both cases it helps to be lucky.

Demetrios X: Now that you have a few mysteries under your belt, how do you think your career arc might have gone if the coin toss had fallen the other way, and you’d set out to write a mystery? Also, what sort of mystery would you have set out to write? 

I think I would have eventually found my way to publication if I had started in crime/mystery/thriller, although whether I would have been as successful there as in SF/F is an open question. I suspect not, since my debut book in SF/F had the luck of being in the right place at the right time, and you can’t time luck like that. What would have been drastically different is many other aspects of my life, since so many of my current friendships have come out of the science fiction community. As for what kind of books I would have written: Like the books I write now, without aliens and robots.

PHM: Would like to get your perspective on how screwed we (as Democrats or non- Rs) are with Joe Biden running again? Actually like him (or rather like NOT having a fascist in office) but very concerned about 2024.

I don’t think we’re screwed at all, and I suspect Biden will win a second term. As with his 2020 campaign, he’s not someone anyone is hugely excited about, but he’s competent and not a hot mess, and the likely alternative, in 2024 as it was in 2020, is a criminal fascist. Give then choice between “boring but competent” and “criminal fascist,” I think people will vote as they did in 2020. So, yeah, we’ll be fine (knocks on all the wood).

George McKinney: I’d like to read your thoughts on how useful ( if at all ) it would be for there to be a sane centre-right political party in the US, and if it could be successful.

Our government was (probably not intentionally) set up to privilege a two-party system, and it does the right (or what passes for a left here in the US) no good to dilute their political power by splitting it into two parties. So no, it would not be successful, if the terms of success are “electable,” and therefore it’s not going to get done. Personally, I would love it if there was a split! Then what passes for the left would have an easier time of it! But “making John Scalzi happy” is definitely not the definition of success in this case.

More short bits tomorrow —

— JS

Reader Request Week 2023 #8: The British Head of State

Just in time for tomorrow’s coronation, this question from Miles B:

I’m British, and I’m curious what you (Americans in general, but obviously you in particular) make of the way we determine our head of state?

For those of you who might be unclear about this, the head of state of the United Kingdom is the reigning monarch, who as of this moment is Charles III. The monarch’s political responsibilities as the head of state are real but at this point (and for a while now, really) rather circumscribed; rare is it when the UK’s monarch has directly inserted themselves into the political machinery of that nation. Their duties are more ceremonial and, dare we say it, promotional; the monarchy is a boost for tourism in the UK and (mostly white) people (not formerly or at least recently part of the British Empire) see it as a quaint and mostly harmless thing for the UK to have. Awww, look, you have a King! That’s fun!

My own opinion about the UK monarchy is: Well, I wouldn’t have one, and from a democratic point of view the general idea of royalty and nobility is absolute nonsense, and I certainly wouldn’t choose my head of state on the basis of heredity; ask the Hapsburgs why. It’s just as easy to elect some largely harmless older person to be your head of state and be genially colorful but otherwise unobtrusive; lots of other European countries seem to do that just fine without promising that person’s oldest kid that they’ve got the gig when mom or dad kicks off.

But it’s not my country and not my business, and if the UK wants to keep trundling on with this sort of nonsense, and it seems clear that they do, and equally seems likely they will do through the current Prince George of Wales at the very least, then far be it from me to keep them from doing it. Go ahead and waste millions of pounds carting a 74-year-old man around in a buggy and then piling him in a church with a bunch of old robes and headgear featuring jewels pilfered from other countries, and then carting him back to his palace if it makes you feel good. You do you, UK. It’s your thing. You’ll probably be doing it again soonish in any event.

I can’t say how most Americans feel about this whole thing, but if I had to guess, I’d say we mostly consider the British monarchy as entertainment, and have done for years now. Every generation we get a new set of royals to enjoy, complete with their scandals and nonsense, and it’s mostly benign and pointless fun. Before there’s a rush to the comments, let me note that the Royal Family is not, in fact, just benign and pointless in the UK and elsewhere; they’re billionaires sucking down revenues from some of the choicest plots of land on the planet (for starters) and the family has a history of bad political and social positions and choices. But that’s not our problem here in the US! Here in the US, they’re kicky fun!

So, yeah. Not how I would do it, but it’s not up me, so you do your bad self, UK. Enjoy your new king, for as long as you have him.

— JS

Reader Request Week 2023 #7: Money Among the Generations

John Scalzi

David Goldfarb asks:

Something that occurred to me to wonder about, a while ago: as someone who grew up poor, how do you feel about your daughter’s attitude towards money? I’ve seen posts from her where she talks in a fairly casual way about spending what to me (also upper middle class! pretty close to your age!) seem like eye-watering amounts.

I wouldn’t characterize them as eye-watering amounts, personally. Eye-watering to me would be something purchasing a new automobile, deciding after a month you don’t like it anymore, and then buying a new one. That would water my eyes, guaranteed. Athena, on the other hand, buys things like stickers and stuffed animals and monthly food box subscriptions, and while those can add up over time, like anything (please don’t ask me about my guitar purchases and subscriptions to music production stuff), they’re really not in the same league. Also, we’re not upper middle class, we’re rich. We try not to be dicks about that fact! But, you know. In conversations like this, that matters.

As for my daughter’s attitude about money, let me approach that sideways by talking about the movie Crazy Rich Asians. I remember watching that movie and something about it striking me, and that thing was that some of the characters in that movie reminded me, in a very specific way, of the kids I went to high school with. Many of you will recall that I went to private boarding school in Southern California. It was a very good experience for me, and also, as a scholarship student who in his senior year was living in a trailer park when he wasn’t at school, I was also aware that my perspective on money was very different than the perspective a lot of my classmates had. I thought about it a lot; they didn’t think about it at all.

Which was the same as the characters in Crazy Rich Asians. They had their various problems and concerns and issues, and none of them had to do with finances — or if they did, were about the use and daily maintenance of money, not the acquisition and rationing of it, and even then it was not much remarked on (except by Constance Wu’s middle class character, who was the audience’s way into the story). Now, very few of the kids I went to high school with had the same level of wealth as the characters in the movie, and I certainly don’t today, but that attitude about money — it’s there, and will be there, and thus, not something to worry about on a daily basis — was certainly similar. To be very clear, Crazy Rich Asians is a movie and everything in it is heightened for dramatic and comedic effect. But the money vibe in the movie is based in a reality, and I experienced it in high school.

Athena has the same money vibe as those kids I went to school with. Not snobby, not “I have money therefore I am better than you,” which is a vibe when it comes to money, but is a different vibe, which is important to note. Rather, simply, “the money is there and I don’t have to think about it.” Material and financial security was and is a baseline assumption for her. She has absolutely none of my (frankly) PTSD about money and the lack of it at various times in my early life, or about the utter unreliability of the money when we did have it. Even now, I look at what I have and think, well, this could all go away tomorrow, even though intellectually I know that’s not going to be the case. We have enough money now that I could probably never make another dime and yet still feed myself until I roll off this mortal coil. That doesn’t matter. At the core of me, the feeling of financial instability never goes away. Athena doesn’t have that, and never has.

Which feels like a win to me, you know? Look, I’m not going to pretend I was 100% The Best Dad Ever — I am human, watch me fumble even basic things — but getting my child into adulthood without her worrying even once if she was going to have a place to live, or dinner, or shoes, well. I’m going to take that and mark it on my ledger as a plus. I and her mother did that for her, and I feel pretty great about that. I wish every kid could feel that level of security, and we all know that it’s not what every kid gets to feel, and that, in this new gilded age of ours, it’s something fewer kids get to have as we go along.

Athena’s financial privilege was not something she was ignorant of growing up. We don’t live in an enclave of well-off people; we live in rural Ohio, with farmers and blue collar workers. At one point in elementary school her classmates, because kids are blunt this way, flat out asked her if she was rich. She didn’t know, so she asked us. We told her the truth about it, which was, yes, and also, if we ever heard of her using the fact to try to make herself feel she was somehow better than her classmates (or, really, anyone), we would very unhappy, and then she would be very unhappy about that. Athena, so far as I know, took that to heart. She understood that she had essentially lucked into financial security, and that as a child, none of it was due to her. She kept, within the bounds of her age and life experience, a reasonably good grip on the situation.

I think it helped that as soon as she understood the concept that we had money, and that I and Krissy worked for it, we kept her up to date on how that money was made and what use it was being put to. Athena was told early about how much we made, the ins and outs of the publishing business, how taxes work, what we spent and how and why, so that money was not merely an abstract concept to her, nor was how it came and went in the household. I also made sure she understood how much luck was involved with that money — on my side, not Krissy’s — and what my position was relative to most writers and creatives. And I made sure she understood how lucky both of us were to have Krissy in our lives, as she has an eagle-sharp eye both for managing money and making sure we know where every penny of it is.

For all that, if your baseline is financial security and solvency, you approach the world with a different perspective than someone whose baseline is not that. Athena has spent and spends more at her age than I would have at those same ages, goes out to eat more, travels more and otherwise makes financial decisions differently than I would. I don’t generally feel these choices are especially extravagant, especially the ones that she then uses as fodder for writing (hello restaurant, food and travel pieces here at Whatever!). But they are still different choices, and I find those different choices interesting.

There’s another aspect of this understanding about money which is not as obvious to other folks, because it’s nothing something that she or we discuss much, nor will I go into detail about it now, which is that Athena has more than once used her financial privilege to help friends and others, and did so even when younger than she is now. She understood early on that a thing that was a baseline for her wasn’t so for others, and strove to be helpful with what she had. Which makes me immensely proud of her as a parent. She is a good person, and to the extent that I at all helped with that, I am grateful.

Now that Athena is an adult, she is more enmeshed with the family finances, not less; she’s going to be an active part of both Scalzi Enterprises and the Scalzi Family Foundation, not just because she’s going to inherit, but because there are things she can and will contribute to both. What’s going to be interesting to me is if and how participating in the making and formal distribution of family money is going to change her relationship to that money. We’ll find out! And I’m very much looking forward to that.

(Disclosure: As this piece is about Athena, I showed it to her and invited her to make any edits or comments she wanted before it was posted. She made none. It is as I first wrote it.)

— JS

The Big Idea: Jarrett Lerner

In A Work in Progress, author Jarrett Lerner’s character is wrestling with a monster of a problem. It’s the same problem that Lerner himself had to wrestle with in his time — a monster of a problem that is, alas, all too common.


I’ve always loved monster stories.

I can’t remember a specific moment that my love for them began, but I couldn’t have been more than five or six years old when I officially broke off my long-term relationship with Cookie Monster and leapt into a lifetime romance with his slimier, scarier cousins. I sought them out wherever I could: in my older brother’s comic book collection, which I borrowed from as if it were my own personal library (though only, of course, when he was out of the house); in movies I knew I was way too young to be watching, but watched anyway; and in the fright-filled worlds of authors like R.L. Stine and Stephen King. I became utterly addicted to the ultimately safe but terror-tinged excitement of vicariously meeting, then defeating, one fearful creature after another.

And then, toward the end of my time in middle school, I met a completely different kind of monster – one that I couldn’t put on pause or close within the covers of a book. This monster was, in fact, inescapable. This monster was me.

Let me explain . . .

I was a big kid. Always tall for my age – and then, eventually, both tall and wide. One day – a day I remember with hyper-clarity – I was publicly body-shamed, ridiculed for my size and shape in front of a large group of onlookers. And that one moment marked a turning point in my life. Looking back, there is a clear line: Before . . . and After. And the days and weeks and then the months and years of the After were not very good. I grew deeply ashamed of my body. I did my best to hide it away in baggy pants and big sweatshirts – but that only helped so much. So I went to war with my body, doing everything I could think to do to force it into a more pleasing, acceptable shape. I adopted all kinds of behaviors that I now understand to be disordered eating, and also developed body dysmorphia. When I looked in the mirror, I no longer saw myself – I saw a monster.

It took me years, but finally, I learned that this particular monster – the monster that was me – couldn’t be slayed. I had to, instead, sit down with it. Listen to it. Learn from it. I had to figure out how to offer it both understanding and love, even on days when that seemed way past impossible. I had to do this, and had to keep doing it, until I could look in the mirror and, instead of seeing a monster, see me again.

Studies have shown that the majority of human beings are insecure, in some way or another, about their bodies. We also know that these insecurities often first crop up when those human beings are young. And now, with the advent of social media, kids’ relationships with their bodies have only become more fraught and complex.

My new book, A Work in Progress, seeks to give kids and teens a safe space to explore all this, to ask themselves tough questions and, hopefully, come out the other side more equipped to form a healthy, positive relationship with their bodies. But actually making that space – it proved to be the biggest creative challenge of my life.

A Work in Progress – the actual, final book that you can now hold in your hands – represents probably my tenth or eleventh earnest attempt to tell this story. Over the course of more than a decade, I tried everything to get the story out of my head and down onto paper in a way that felt authentic and complete. It wasn’t until I had exhausted every other formal possibility I could think of that I landed on the idea of sharing the story as if it were being written in real time in my protagonist’s private notebook – and it was only then that things began to feel “right.”

What followed was three years of painstakingly putting together approximately 18,000 words and 150 drawings that coherently and responsibly told this story, and all in a manner that appeared to be loose and haphazard, just as a kid would put it down in a notebook that they never expected anyone else to see. (By the way: if books were crafted linearly – and anyone who’s stayed with one long enough to begin the revision process certainly knows they are not – that would mean I averaged a mere 16 words a day, plus one drawing a week.)

On top of all these “professional” challenges, of course, there were the personal ones. Because I spent those three years diving in and out of the most painful period of my life. And that dredged up all the old feelings I thought I’d worked through, that brought back all the unhealthy tendencies I thought I’d put behind me. There were moments while working on the book when I not only worried that I’d never actually finish the damn thing, but worried that I’d find myself right back where I was all those years ago: looking at myself in the mirror and seeing a monster. I frequently asked myself why I was putting myself through it all.

But recently, I’ve begun sharing the book when I visit schools. I read passages aloud, and talk to kids about my own troubled relationship with my body. And every time I do, both kids and adults come up to me afterwards or contact me privately on social media or through my website. They tell me that they recognize themselves in my story, and in the fictionalized version of it that is A Work in Progress. They thank me, and tell me that I’ve helped them. And that has made the whole thing feel worth it. And I doubt they realize it, but they’re all helping me right back. Because if you’re out in the world helping others, it’s a lot harder to look in the mirror and see a monster.

A Work In Progress: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Bookshop|Powell’s

Author Socials:  Personal Site|Instagram |Twitter

Reader Request Week 2023 #6: An Update On the Church

Several folks in the request thread have asked for an update on the church, with some additional information about what it takes to renew and refurb an old building like this into something useable. As it happens, today we got another milestone in its refurbishment under our belts, so it’s a fine time to catch people up.

1. The refurbishment of the church has gone well, but it’s gone slowly. There are reasons for that: one, we have seasons here in Ohio, and not a whole lot of stuff, particularly outside stuff, gets done in winter. We were fortunate in that winter was mild enough that we could get some things tended to — we got the house just north of the church torn down in January and cleared away quickly thereafter — but in general weather still drew things out.

Two, we are at the mercy of contractor schedules. Our contractors have generally been very good and we don’t get the feeling any of them have strung us along, but at the same time they have other jobs and things they need to get to, and the nature of our refurb is such that we have to do a lot of things in a sequence. For example, to put up bookshelves in the balcony, where I will have a library, we need to have the painter done with the walls. For the painter to paint, we have to have the plaster done for the parts of the walls that need patching (a non-trivial amount, as it happens). And before we could get the plastering done, we had to cap a chimney and close up a part of the church exterior that was letting in moisture.

Today, the plastering is done (that’s the milestone). Next comes the painting. Then comes the bookshelves. We’ll probably get all of that done (knocks on my now rather substantial amount of wood) mid-summer. Keep in mind we’ve been having refurbishment of one sort or another going on since early 2022. So, yeah. It’s going well! And also, not quickly.

2. Also, as you might expect, all that refurbishment hasn’t exactly been cheap. A new 50-year roof? Not cheap! Replacing a nearly 80-year-old knob-and-tube electrical system with something that’s not likely to burn the whole place down? Not cheap! Redoing a concrete retaining wall that was on the verge of falling apart and toppling over? Not cheap! Tearing out an old church kitchen and replacing appliances from the 60s with modern counterparts? Not cheap! Pulling out decades-old industrial carpet and refinishing the hardwood floor underneath? Not cheap! Completely redoing the balcony area so that it is structurally sound and not easy to tumble right the hell off of? You guessed it, also not cheap!

In addition to the church proper, we bought two additional buildings: the parsonage associated with the church (purchased so we wouldn’t have to have the church land sliced into two separate lots, which would cause all sorts of headaches as we refurbished), and the house directly north of the church, which we bought for the land underneath and tore down because it was in poor repair. That was more money into the kitty.

And on top of that, hey, you know that inflation thing that’s been going on? It’s hit building materials and contracting costs as well. We’re paying objectively more for all the materials and work than we would have if we had gotten the church prior to the pandemic and every bit of economic upheaval that’s happened since. But we didn’t, it wasn’t for sale yet, so here we are, shelling out more.

Be aware, I am not expecting sympathy! One does not purchase a nearly 90-year-old building with the expectation that everything is hunky dory and will require no investment at all. When we first looked at the place, Krissy, whose job it is to evaluate structures, said that the bones of the building were good but everything else needed work, and she wasn’t wrong about any of that.

Also, as I noted elsewhere this week, we’re doing okay financially, and are able to handle these costs without a substantial amount of pain. Yes, we had to drop some other purchasing choices, but they were ones that we were likely to drop anyway for unrelated reasons. And if there’s a silver lining on all of this, it’s that as the church and all the costs associated with it are in the service of creating office and content development space for our business, pretty much all of these expenses are tax deductible.

But still, whooooo. Not cheap! And we still have some very not cheap things to get through. Remember those bookshelves I mentioned? Well, they ain’t gonna be particleboard slats bought from Walmart; they’re going to be done by the same local cabinetmaker who made my office bookshelves. They’re going to be solid and terrific and worth every penny… and a whole lot of pennies it will be.

3. The refurbishment is still ongoing but we’re already using the space for its intended purpose. Krissy’s office is set up and she uses it regularly for her various business needs, and to tend to both Scalzi Enterprises (she’s the CEO) and The Scalzi Family Foundation, which has already begun its philanthropic mission. Right now, I camp out in Krissy’s office when I’m there, but my own office (which will be in the alcove that you can see center right in the above photo) will be set up soon as well. On a day-to-day basis, the church will be our business space.

With that said, and as I have noted before, it would be a shame for a building with so much history in the community to be closed off from the community all the time. So there are plans, through the Scalzi Family Foundation, for community-focused events. How those will be managed and the practical aspects of using the building for them are still things we are working on, but we’re pretty optimistic about making them happen. And when we’re finally at a point when all the renovations are done and we’ve furnished and decorated the place to our liking, we’re looking forward to having an open house for the folks in town so they can come in and see what we’ve done with the place.

4. On that score, one of the things we’ve been very happy about is the support we’ve gotten from the folks in Bradford for our purchase and renovation of the church. This building was a cornerstone of the community for decades; people went to church here, got married here, said goodbye to loved ones here, had chicken noodle dinners and Christmas pageants here. When it went up for sale, it would have been anyone’s guess who would buy it and for what purpose. So when people found out we had bought the church and the parsonage, as I understand it there was a bit of relief. They knew us because we’ve lived here for two decades, our kid went to school with their kids, and we’ve contributed to the daily life of the town. We’re a known quantity, basically.

On our side it’s been nice to have people check in with us about the progress, and tell us stories of their own relationship with the church, and be supportive of what we’re doing. We get that we’re now stewards of a building with a history that extends beyond our ownership, and we appreciate that so far, at least, people here seem happy about that. We’re looking forward to keeping the building part of the community for a long time to come. Not as a church anymore — excepting that it’s official name is now “The Old Church” — but still a place that is good for our town and valued in our community. I’m looking forward to that.

Once we get the painting and bookshelves and furnishing and everything else done, that is. It’s going well! There’s more to do.

— JS

The Big Idea: Mick Ryan

There are many people who have written about war in the future, including the proprietor of this particular site. But Major General Mick Ryan (ret.) may have, by profession and inclination, a unique insight into the matter. In this Big Idea for White Sun War, he explains how his insight is married to a now-classic speculative vehicle for imagining conflict.


War is the worst invention of humans.

That might sound strange coming from a retired soldier, but there it is. War is the most terrible, complex, bloody endeavour that we have – so far – managed to think up during the short existence of homo sapiens on this planet. Despite our knowledge of how awful war is, we have managed to engage in warfare for at least 5000 years. While our conflicts have taken many different shapes and forms, and have been conducted on nearly every continent in all forms of natural and human terrain, we have yet to rid ourselves of this scourge.

Most recently, the Russian invasion of Ukraine – replete city destruction, murder, rape, torture and large scale killing on the battlefield – reminds us that war is not yet done with the human race. And in the western Pacific, the re-emergence of China as a global power has been accompanied by the greatest military peacetime buildup in recorded history. Accompanied by bellicose statements about Taiwan being part of China, and the Chinese coercion of its neighbors, it is this environment in which “White Sun War” is set.

The military techno-thriller genre has a long history. Books such as Shute’s “On the Beach”, Hackett’s “Third World War” and Clancy’s “Red Storm Rising” were notable Cold War explorations of what future war might look like. While technology played a crucial role in these stories, these remained books about how people responded in the ambiguity and horror of war.

But long before these novels, the military fiction genre emerged in response to the technological developments of the 2nd Industrial Revolution in the last decades of the 19th century. The first great military thriller about future war had the odd title of “The Battle of Dorking”. Written by a British Army officer who had become exasperated with his nation’s under-funding of the military, it described an invasion of England. The invaders, whose nationality is never confirmed, just happened however to speak German. Serialized in 1871 before being published as a novel, it was a massive hit and could perhaps be described as the first military thriller best seller. Other authors soon followed suit in France, Germany and the United States. A new genre was born, and it helped citizens and military leaders to explore the possibilities of new technologies – radio, internal combustion engines, flight – and their applications in peace and war.

The dawn of new technologies such as robotic systems (in the air but on the ground and at sea), artificial intelligence, quantum computing, competition in space, and hypersonic weapons means that once again, advanced new technologies must be explored for their application and impact in war. It is part of the reason why I wrote White Sun War. There are many new technologies that will change the character of warfare, and thinking about their impacts before conflict is always better than finding out about them when the enemy uses them against you. The dual revolutions in robotics and artificial intelligence suggests a near future of algorithmic warfare, and an environment where parts of the the battlefield become too deadly for anything but autonomous systems.

But, the heart of this story is not technology. It is people. Drawn from a variety of occupations and nations, “White Sun War” explores normal, everyday Americans, Taiwanese and Chinese characters who find themselves in a bitter struggle for the island of Taiwan, and how they deal with the terrors and opportunities of war. Each has different motivations, as well as character strengths and weaknesses.

Because ultimately, war is a human endeavour. It can only be understood when viewed through the eyes of the human belligerents, whether they be politicians in capitals, citizens on the home front or military personnel serving on the front line. It is humans who decide to war, who fight them on the ground, air, sea and cyberspace, and it is ultimately humans who decide when it is time to terminate a conflict.

My hope is that all who read “White Sun War” will find an old soldier’s description of future war too catastrophic to contemplate. That is a good thing. Because in understanding just how ruinous such a future war could be for all of us, we plant the seeds for exploring creative ways that we might use to prevent it.

White Sun War: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Bookshop|Powell’s

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Reader Request Week 2023 #5: That Big Damn Contract, Revisited

John Scalzi

Will Glass wants to know:

How’s the Big Damn Contract going? Hard to believe it’s been 8 years.

Not that any of this is our business of course, but since you’ve talked about it a fair amount, your avid readers are curious.

Are you satisfied with the deal you got? From Tor’s perspective are they satisfied with what they are getting? How is the schedule for the 13 books?

I can’t imagine anyone here doesn’t know what Will is talking about, but just to be safe: In May of 2015, I signed a 13-book, $3.4 million dollar contract with Tor. We noted at the time that we expected the contract to last for about a decade; eight years on, it looks like we underestimated the length of time it would take to fulfill that contract. Starter Villain, out in September, will be the sixth book in the contract, after the three Interdependency books, Head On, and The Kaiju Preservation Society. That’s six books in eight years, with one year skipped at the beginning of the contract to help plan a push for The Collapsing Empire, the first book covered by it, and then 2021 skipped because COVID messed with book publishing and Tor thought — correctly! — that Kaiju would have a better chance in early 2022.

Of those five books published so far under the Big Damn Contract, four were New York Times bestsellers and all were bestsellers on other charts, three (Empire, Last Emperox, Kaiju) have been nominated for awards, with Empire winning the Locus and Emperox winning the Dragon, and the Interdependency series as a whole nominated for Best Series at the Hugo Awards. All of them, either individually or as part of a series, have been optioned for film or television. All of them are also sold into multiple languages, including Starter Villain, which isn’t out yet. It’s too early to know how Villain will do, but so far early signs have been encouraging.

Financially, because of all of the above plus backlist sales of previous titles, since 2015, and counting all my sources of income related to publishing, I’ve already earned to this point a multiple of the baseline figure quoted above. Be assured that Tor has done the same, just on the sales of the books in the contract; here at Scalzi HQ we’ve run the numbers. In short, everyone is already ahead on this deal and will continue to be so as we go through the remainder of it.

Which is great! It’s nice when things are working more or less the way they should. It should be noted that none of this comes as much of a surprise to me, because one of the great advantages of this deal is the flexibility it allows us to work with every part of my catalogue to maximize sales and, thus, income for both me and Tor. All of my novels are with one house, which means we never have to worry, for example, if that one novel that pairs really well with a novel that’s coming out is available to us to put on sale to prime the interest pump. It absolutely is, and we have a bunch of options open to us. It’s fantastic to be able to do whatever we need to, in order to stay on the reader radar.

The flexibility also applies to upcoming work. I’ve swapped out titles on the contract (most famously when the book I was working on in 2020 crashed and burned and I switched over to writing Kaiju instead), and we have the ability to move things around on the fly. Kaiju did great, so I wrote another book with that same kind of vibe to ride the wave it created. The contract has three YA books included in it but the YA market has cooled since 2015, so if we decide we want to swap some or all of those with general titles, we can do that. If something that’s been optioned for film/TV goes into production, we can work to have another book in the series ready for when the adaptation hits screens. It’s all baked in.

(And also, Tor has generally been great as a partner. I like the people and we work well together, and they’ve given me the support on both the editorial and marketing fronts that my books have needed to do well. Have they been perfect? No, but neither have I — see the thing up there about blowing up my 2020 novel. But that’s the other thing about having a Big Damn Contract: We both have time to course correct when we have to.)

If I had to do it over again, would I still sign up for the Big Damn Contract? I think so, yes. Eight years on, Tor’s place in the publishing universe is still very solid and possibly better than it was when I signed on; bookstores, both indie and chain, are generally doing better than they were eight years ago, and the wisdom of the deal both for me and Tor is at this point self-evident. There are still people who probably think I could have made more self-publishing and/or bumping up from book-to-book, but a) I know myself well enough to know I don’t want to self-publish unless there is no other option, b) there are no guarantees in publishing and it’s just as likely my advances might go down rather than up. Also, c) at least for me, at some point you say “that’s enough money for now.” I’m at “enough money for now,” and the rest can come in when it comes in, if it comes in at all. There are far more benefits to this contract than just the upfront money.

So, yes! It’s doing great, thanks for asking. And there are more books to come.

— JS

(Have a question for Reader Request Week? Leave in the comment thread at this link.)

I’m the Guest of Honor at the 2023 Budapest International Book Festival

For those of you who can’t read Hungarian, which admittedly includes me, this is what the article screenshot above says, via Google Translate:

John Scalzi will be the guest of honor at this year’s Book Festival
The Budapest International Book Festival, which is now being held for the 28th time, is a noted event of the international book world, the defining professional and cultural forum of the region. This year’s book meeting will take place between September 28 and October 1 at the Millenár, and we can welcome the Netherlands as the country of honor of the event.

The article also notes that in addition to being the guest of honor at the Budapest International Book Festival, I will also be receiving the Budapest Grand Prix from the mayor of Budapest.

How do I feel about all of this? Hugely honored and delightfully befuddled. Last year’s guest of honor was a Nobel Prize winner, Svetlana Alexandrovna, and some previous guests of honor have included Salman Rushdie, Umberto Eco, Mario Vargas Llosa, Jonathan Franzen and Paulo Coelho. That’s a heady group with which to keep company.

I have been to Budapest before, in 2019, to appear at a different book festival, and had just a tremendous time. The people at the book fair were lovely, and the city is one of the most beautiful I’ve ever been to. I’m very much looking forward to returning and seeing friends and book lovers there once again.

Budapest, see you soon!

— JS

The Big Idea: L.R. Lam

Dragons! Everybody loves them and they wing their way into all sorts of places in the fantasy genre. Author L.R. Lam was determined to find a fresh spin on the familiar creatures, however, and in Dragonfall, they may just have found one.


For years, I’d really wanted to write myself a Big Ol’ Dragon Book. Like many fantasy fans, a dragon on a cover was my kryptonite as a teenager. The Dragonriders of Pern even “tricked” me into reading my first science fiction (technically, since the dragons are aliens on an alien planet) when I was about ten. But it felt like there were so many dragons, and so many approaches had already been taken. How could I find my own unique spin on dragons? Or, if not unique, at least a little different than what we’d seen before. So I kept writing other things, but a little corner of my mind held space for my eventual dragon book.

Sometimes you get a big, clear Eureka moment for a book, and sometimes you get little details where you’re like “well that’s a cool for worldbuilding, but that’s not a story.” I was wandering around a museum in Berlin in 2011 and there was a collection of ancient Assyrian cylinder seals. The placard mentioned they were sometimes considered magical amulets. For the rest of the museum visit I zoned out, daydreaming about a fantasy society where everyone wore seals and they were carved with symbols of indelible identity, and signing a contract with them was magically binding.

A year or two later, everything clicked when I started thinking about how the seals could work in relation to dragons: humans use them because their ancestors stole magic from dragons, but in the intervening centuries, they forgot what they’d done and now worshipped them as gods. So what if a human character really needed to change the seal and forge a new identity? The big idea of Dragonfall is: “what if your gods hated you? And what if the ‘gods’ were dragons?” Then, just for fun: what if I made my dragons sexy? I love to read romance when I’m stressed out, and I wrote most of Dragonfall during the UK COVID lockdowns, so I was permanently stressed. I now had angry, sexy dragon gods, and my dragon character had elements of being a fallen angel. Star-crossed lovers. There we go. I had the germ of a story. Now I had to build a world, flesh out the characters, and write it. Easy.

(insert hollow laughter here)

I went very nerdy when creating my dragons, looking up various myths around the world and researching lizards, snakes, and dinosaurs for physiology inspiration. I gave my dragons some feathers, like dinosaurs, because why not. I spent a long time deciding whether my dragons should have bat wings or bird wings, and eventually split the difference: bat wings but the top part has some pretty feathers for aesthetics more than flight. I went down a truly wild tangent on lizard reproduction during one evening of procrastination, but it ended up paying dividends.

Several facts ended up proving useful for my dragons: for some lizard species, the outside temperature can affect the eventual sex of the eggs. So, because my dragons were banished to a dying world with rising temperatures, all dragons are female, save Everen, my co-protagonist. He’s the last male dragon and foretold to save his kind. I took inspiration from whiptail lizards, who give birth via parthenogenesis and are all female (they still get it on together to prepare for cloning themselves, though, interestingly. Good on ya, lesbian whiptail lizards). There were some lizard anatomy facts I did not give my dragons: I quite delight telling people that many snakes and lizards technically have two penises (hemipenes). I decided this would be a step too far, so I regret to inform you that Everen only has one. If Dragonfall ever catches on enough to have fanfic, fanfic writers have my blessing to do what they like, though.

Anyway. All that came together into this weird book I love quite a lot. I think, in some ways, it’s the most “me” book so far, full of what my friend P.M. Freestone calls “bulletproof queens,” or the things that say “shut up and take my money.” Thieves, assassins, heists, excruciatingly slow burn romance, lots of worldbuilding lore, playing around with craft (I’m a little experimental with narrative positions in this one). And, of course: Big Ol’ Dragons. And it’s even got one on the cover.

Dragonfall: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Bookshop|Powell’s

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