The Big Idea: A.R. Rotruck

Do you remember what you were like when you were a kid? You think you do, of course, but do you really? After all, it’s been a while for most of us. For author A.R. Rotruck, the question had relevance: in creating her new book, Young Wizard’s Handbook, she was aiming to inform and entertain an audience of young people, so making that connection to her younger self seem to be a good way to proceed. Did she raise her younger spirit? And how did the younger self guide her? Let’s find out.


One piece of writing advice I’ve heard is that you should write a book that YOU would want to read.  When I was working on Young Wizards Handbook: How to Trap a Zombie, Track a Vampire, and Other Hands-On Activities for Monster Hunters, I decided to write the book that a ten-year-old me would not only want to read, but would treasure as my favorite book.  That became my focus, or “big idea,” when working on the book: what would the ten-year-old me and kids like her want to read?

When she wasn’t reading, the ten-year-old me (we’ll call her “Tamie”) spent a lot of time playing in the woods and making crafts.  For all the books she read, she never found one that would help with this particular hobby.  Most of Tamie’s ramblings involved imagining various fantasy scenarios; grand quests and adventures.  Tamie made a burlap sack to carry into the woods because it seemed like something the fantasy version of Tamie (maybe call her Fatamie?  No, that’s getting a bit ridiculous.) would carry.  It was bulky and scratchy, but it also, to Tamie’s ten-year-old brain, seemed authentic.  Tamie would cobble together bits and pieces of crafts from books on Native American and colonial/pioneer folk art.  Tamily only had one children’s book in this genre; the rest of the crafts were far too advanced for a ten-year-old.  With Young Wizards Handbook, I wanted to write a book for the children like Tamie: fantasy fans who want to make things to help their imagination come alive with physical tools.

I envisioned Young Wizards Handbook as a scouting guide for the fantasy world.  What would a young wizard interested in monster-hunting need to know?  What activities would prepare a wizard-in-training for a career in monster-hunting?   I researched scouting guides and modeled many of the activities in YWH after them and even got a few ideas from some guides.  The monster-hunting pack came from a line in my old Girl Scout manual that “you can make a backpack out of old jeans.”  No instructions were provided, so I developed my own.  Tamie would have really liked that one, as denim is a lot less scratchy than burlap and a backpack is easier to carry than a sack.

I wanted all the activities in the book to be something that a child in our world could either create or play with to help bring the imagination alive.  Games, crafts, recipes: all of it had to be things that a child could do.  All materials had to be readily available and, if possible, inexpensive.  This created some challenges, such as how to explain something that is typically not found in a fantasy world, like aluminum foil, that is an easy to find and easy to use craft material in our world.  I knew that Tamie would not like finding aluminum foil mentioned in a fantasy book, so I HAD to invent something that would make it palatable to fantasy sticklers like Tamie.  The challenges gave rise to some really fun ideas to write, such as how the great wizard Alum Foilbach created a spell for “thin metal.”

While there are plenty of things for kids to do in Young Wizards Handbook, the activities are only about half of the book.  This book was to also be a field guide to monsters.  As I was writing the book for Mirrorstone, I had to make the information I provided about monsters concur with other Mirrorstone books, such as Practical Guide to Monsters and even the Wizards of the Coast Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manuals.  I noticed that a lot of scouting guides use recurring symbols and bits of information, so I came up with the “Sight, smell, and sound” identifiers for each monster.  That was a fun mix of both imagination and researching the monsters as, while most of the monster books would be fairly detailed about what a monster looked like, they didn’t always mention sounds and description of odors were very rare.  I didn’t just want this to be a book of activities that one could use when pretending; I wanted the book itself to conceivably be a tool that Tamie would take to the woods and consult when pretending to hunt monsters.

Other information I thought wizards hunting monsters would need was basic survival skills.  Tamie loved camping so I added basic survival information that works in pretty much any world, such as how to construct a quick tent.  One part of the book that I admit is lacking as a scouting guide is the section on “how to keep warm.”  Normally, that section would have instructions on how to construct a fire.  However, as this book is intended for kids just out having fun for an afternoon, likely without adult supervision, I opted NOT to include instructions on how to make fire and instead encouraged wizards to use a “warming spell” (and thus encourage kids to use their imaginations).

When the book was finished and I had a chance to see the final copy, I fell in love with it.  If I ever get a time machine, I’m traveling back in time to give this to Tamie so she can make a monster-hunting pack instead of carrying a rough burlap sack, dry some fruit to take on her adventures, and construct a lantern to keep away the monsters when it’s time to sleep.


Young Wizard’s Handbook: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the author’s LiveJournal. Follow her on Twitter.

Quick Note on Confluence

My experience with Confluence this weekend can be summed up thusly: What a lovely convention. It was well-run, the people who ran it were excellent and kept me well-stocked with Coke Zero, the attendees were very cool and seemed happy to see me, my co-panelists were all smart and engaged, and overall I had just a fine time. One highlight was spending a little time with the teens of the Alpha writing workshop, who were all very smart and didn’t in fact stab me for the Teen Writing Advice article; another highlight (for me, at least), was just after the con, when my friend Sari Gruber, whom I had not seen in real life for quite some time, dropped by so we could catch up. The nice thing about old friends is how little the passing of time actually matters.

So, again: Just a lovely time. Thank you, Pittsburgh, it was grand. I’ll be back.

Why One Keeps Archives

Because seven years after I wrote it, “I Hate Your Politics” is at the moment the most visited part of the site. And in fact this does not surprise me at all; on any given day “Being Poor” or my writing advice to teens is probably in the top ten of entries visited here, and bacon cat is never far behind. Contrary to the popular opinion that everything written in a blog is evanescent, in point of fact, good material is visited constantly no matter its age, and the visitorship of Whatever’s archives have a significant effect on the site’s overall popularity. Call it Whatever’s Long Tail, if you like.

Emo: Older Than You Think

It comes as no particular surprise that my writing advice to teens occasionally irritates teenagers, many of whom do not take kindly to someone telling them their writing likely sucks and the only thing for it is to keep at it until it doesn’t suck anymore. They also occasionally get annoyed when you suggest to them (as I do in this follow-up to the original article) that the condition of being a teenager now is pretty much the same as it was 20 years ago (or 40 years ago); the trappings may change (iPods instead of Walkmans instead of transistor radios) but the basic concept is pretty much the same, so despite their feelings that ZOMG EVERYTHING IS TOTALLY DIFFERENT NOW, it’s really not so much.

This was brought to mind when a teenager, blogging on her own site (no, I’m not linking to it; I don’t think this unsuspecting teenage girl needs her site to be overrun by Whateverites, do you?) detailed the various ways she’s offended by my advice piece and how it is wrong, and in pointing out how her generation of teens is drastically different than any other, asserts (and this is an intentional paraphrase) that when people her parents’ age were in school, they didn’t have Emos skulking about in the halls.

This made me giggle. I’m old enough to be this girl’s dad (or at least her dad’s slightly younger brother) and I can assure you that 20+ years ago, we certainly did have Emos, i.e., sulky and morose teens scribbling bad poetry into notebooks and retreating into their music because no one understood them and so on. Our Emos listened British post-punk rather than American post-punk by dint of British post-punk hitting a couple decades earlier, but, otherwise, yeah, pretty much the same concept. We had Bauhaus, they have Fall Out Boy, and both bands just really want to go back in time to the Weimar Republic, what are you going to do. And I’m happy to say the emo-iest folks I knew in high school have acquitted themselves pretty well. Here’s one of them (still looking pretty emo-y, frankly); here’s another. Every picture I have of them in the 1984 yearbook is of them dramatically gazing down at their shoes through their hair. I should really dig that yearbook out. It would be instructive.

And of course, we didn’t invent the dramatically moody young person, either. If you want to take it all the way back, I submit to you that the true Godfather of Emo is not Kurt Cobain or Robert Smith or David Bowie or even Brecht/Weill, but Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who in 1774 unleashed The Sorrows of Young Werther upon the world, with its oh-so-artfully despairing young protagonist doing everything he could to make himself absolutely friggin’ miserable, because it was so much more interesting than being happy. The novel helped to kickstart the Sturm und Drang movement in German literature and music, and what was the Sturm und Drang movement — a movement devoted in wrenching every single possible emotion out of words and music — if not the very proto-est of proto-emo movements?

Sturm und Drang in its turn motivated the Romantic movement, giving us Shelley and Byron and all those other poetic shoe-gazers, and so on and so forth and blah blah blah blah blah until you get suddenly find yourself wedged up against the stage at a The Academy Is… concert with a bunch of sixteen year-old girls screaming their lungs out at William Beckett, who, I gotta admit, has got a whole adorable “Suburban Shelley” look going for him (Seriously; compare and contrast, people). To be clear, I’m not comparing The Sorrows of Young Werther with, say, Fast Times at Barrington High; one’s a landmark of world literature and the other’s a decent album of power pop. I’m just saying you can get from one to the other and recognize them as appealing to more or less the same audience, albeit 234 years apart. So, yeah, Emo’s been around, folks.

This is not to trivialize this girl’s experience of being a teenager, mind you. Being a teenager is powerful thing, because every single damn thing that happens to you happens to you turned up to 11, which is fundamentally different experience than being an adult, in which most things have happened to you more than once, and you’ve generally found the volume knob and cranked it down a couple of notches simply to keep yourself sane. And of course her experience of her teenage years will be different from anyone else’s not in her age cohort; she’ll have different music and movies and world events and generational issues and so on. I for one would not wish late 80s hair metal on anyone else; I’m glad no other teenagers will have to take that bullet.

But at the end of the day, and when you peel away the affects of one year or another, the teenage experience — the massive highs, the crushing lows, the frustrations and irritations and alienations and deep friendships and crushes and riotously funny moments — is what it is, and remains fairly constant. Put a sixteen-year-old from 1968 in a room with one from ’78, ’88, ’98 and today, and after everyone stops laughing at everyone else’s ridiculous clothes, I think we’d find they shared a commonality of experience and outlook. And they would all know an “emo” kid, whether they called him emo or not.

Whatever Stats 2007

Just in case you were wondering, some Whatever stats for ’07:

9,016,664 total unique visits for the year, for an average of 24,703 unique visits a day. As a comparison, last year had 6,128,869 total unique visits, for an average of 16,837 unique visits daily. So overall visitorship was up just under 50% for 2007, which is not bad when you factor in that the site was down, more or less, for two months.

Of course, in the real world, I didn’t get 24.7k visitors every day; some days were rather more, others rather less. Weekend numbers are typically somewhat lower than weekday numbers (because people aren’t bored at work then), and for some reason, Tuesdays are generally the highest attendance day of the week around here. Attendance also generally trended upward for the year: January had 666,000 unique visits, while December had 878,000. The single most-visited day was November 13, the day after I filed the Creation Museum report; it got 72.8k.

Since October the average weekday has had between 30k and 35k visitors, with occasional spikes into the 40k to 50k territory.

One of the reasons the site gets so many visitors is that the archives are unusually active; the top page gets the most traffic but certain pages just keep piling up the hits. “Being Poor” is still visited hundreds of times daily, as is the BaconCat entry; the Creation Museum entry looks like it’ll be a perennial as well. Writing entries are also particularly popular, especially the “Teen advice” entry and the “Writing advice for people who don’t want to be writers” piece. And every year in December the “10 least successful holiday specials” piece gets a lot of visit; it the Whatever equivalent of the Charlie Brown Christmas Special.

Tracking individual entries is going to get a little more difficult now because WordPress generates pages dynamically, but I hope to figure out a way to track the requests as they come in so I know what’s getting hit.

Other stats: The most popular browser for Whatever visitors: Firefox 2.x, with 30% of visitors using that (IE 6 is second with 16% and IE 7 after that with 12%. Safari is barely three and a half percent. 1,705 visits were recorded by people using Lynx, which I think is kind of awesome. 65% of you are on XP, and 10% on a MacOS of some sort. Just 4.5% of you are on Vista, which should probably worry Microsoft; I get more visitors using Linux than Vista. More than 50 countries (by visitor domain) had folks providing at least 1,500 visits each, so here’s a shout out to Indonesia, Estonia and Ukraine. Howdy, y’all. Since the WordPress install on September 30, there have been 236 posts and 8,524 comments, which averages to two and a half entries and 90 comments per day, or alternately, an average of 36 comments per post.

In all, not a bad year for Whatever, even with the drama surrounding the Awful, Horrible, No-Good, Very Bad MT4 Install, which still makes me sad because I really liked Movable Type and I wish I knew why it didn’t return my affections. But WordPress is doing all right for me.

My plans for Whatever in 2008: Well, pretty much keep doing what I do. It seems to be working, you know. The only major change at the moment is that all the author interviews and features I used to do on Ficlets or By The Way I’ll be transferring over here; I’ll have more on that, for the benefit of authors, editors and publicists, probably a little later in the week. Aside from that, I’ll just keep doing what I’ve been doing for — gawd — a decade now: Whatever I feel like. It’s a good plan. I’ll stick with it.

What to Know Before You Ask Me to Read Your (Unpublished) Work

Another of those “posting here now so I can refer people to it later” posts:

Perhaps since I give out a whole bunch of largely unsolicited writing advice, I am often asked by readers if I would look at the unpublished story/novel/screenplay/poem they’re working on and give them some feedback or advice. Indeed, perhaps you yourself have been thinking of asking me this very same thing. I have two things to say to this sort of request:

1. I’m really flattered that you would think of asking me to critique your work and would trust me to give you valuable feedback. Thank you.

2. No.

And now, all the reasons why I won’t read your unpublished work, presented in no particular order.

Reason #1: I don’t have the time. As of right this very moment, here are the things I am committed to writing: One novel, a second edition of a non-fiction book (which requires substantial revision and rewriting), a novella, a novelette, several short stories, five blog entries every day of the week, several informational pieces for a book on Ohio, a magazine article on Elvis Presley and other ongoing work for corporate clients. All of this work has to be done because I’m contractually obliged to do it and it pays my bills.

On top of this I write daily for this Web site, which does not pay bills but which over time has become incredibly important to my career (and to my sanity). On top of that, I need to read at least a couple of books a week for an interview series I do with authors, occasionally read one with an eye toward giving a blurb, and check out yet a few others to discuss here on the Whatever (promoting writers! Yay!). On top of that, I have a family which would like to see me from time to time, not to mention friends who I would also enjoy socializing with. On top of all of this, I’d like a little time for my own non-work-related recreation. And on top of that, I’d like to eat and sleep.

Now, over time the details of what I’m doing will change. What is unlikely to change is the volume of what I’m doing. That has remained constant pretty much for the last decade and seems unlikely to decrease any time soon, for which I am fantastically and appropriately grateful. But it means that I don’t have time to read your work, because critically evaluating work in a way that’s going to be useful to the author takes a fair amount of time, and it’s time I don’t have. I understand that from your point of view it may seem like it should be a trivial thing to slip in a little bit of reading and evaluation. But over on this side of things, there’s no time. There’s just not.

(How do I have time to write all this, then? Well, I’m writing it once. Saves me from having to write it over and over again.)

Related to the time thing:

Reason #2: I’d rather look like a dick by saying no than look like a dick by saying yes and then not following through. Several months ago and against my better judgment I agreed to look at someone’s manuscript for them and offer them an opinion on it. And I still haven’t gotten to it. Why not? Because ultimately it’s the last priority in my day: I have paid work, I have to respond to clients and editors, I spend time with family, I write on this site, I sometimes travel on business, and so on and so forth. All of this fills up my days, and at the end of the day I’m tired and I just want to watch the goddamn Daily Show and then go to sleep. I don’t want to give this fellow a half-assed evaluation, so I keep postponing getting to the manuscript until I have time to give it the time it deserves, and that time just never manages to get here. I’m being a total dick to this guy because he’s been patiently waiting for me to deliver on what I said I would do and I’m just not doing it.

I’m telling you this for two reasons. The first is that a little self-induced public shaming is just the spur I need to actually get this manuscript read. But more relevant point here is that when I say “no” to you, at least you’re not left dangling for months and months like I’ve made this poor fellow dangle, waiting to hear back from me. Your disappointment is brief and over, not long and lingering and continual. And of course, I’d also personally prefer not to disappoint people on a daily, continuing basis.

Reason #3: You’re not paying me. This sounds like me being a snide jerk, but there’s actual truth to this. Here’s the thing: I get paid pretty well for what I do. When people ask me to read their work, they’re usually not including a consulting fee; they’re expecting I’ll read the work for free. Thing is, giving people a useful critical evaluation is work; in effect they’re asking me to work for free. And, well. Generally speaking, I don’t do that. It makes my mortgage company nervous. And since my schedule is pretty packed (as noted above), any evaluation I do takes place in time I usually allot to paying work. So not only am I not making money doing this evaluation, there’s also a reasonably good chance this evaluation is taking up time I could be using to make money. And there’s the mortgage people getting nervous again.

Now, let’s be clear, here: When people ask me to read their stuff, it’s not like I fly into a rage at their insensitivity and appalling willingness to take food from the mouth of my darling child; that’s just silly. No one who asks me to read their work is saying I ought to prioritize them over actual work; they know they’re asking me for a favor. What I’m saying is that all things being equal, whenever possible I’m going to fill up work time with paid work. If someone wanted me to read their stuff and was also willing to pay my corporate consulting fee, I might be willing to make time, and bump something lesser-paying down the work ladder. But I don’t suspect many people are willing to pay my consulting fee — nor should they, as there are lots of wonderfully competent editors who would be delighted to give feedback at far more reasonable rates — so generally it’s going to be people asking me to do work for free. I’m not likely to do that.

Reason #4: Some people don’t really want feedback, and if they do, they don’t want feedback from me. This works on two levels. First, to be blunt, there are a lot of people who, when they say, “I’d love feedback,” actually mean “I want a hug.” Yes, most people say they really do want honest feedback, but you know what? A lot of them are lying (or, alternately, don’t know themselves well enough). How do I know which of these you are? Well, in fact, I don’t, unless I actually know you in real life, which in nearly every case I do not.

This matters because, to put it mildly, I’m not a hugger when it comes to critiquing work. I’m not intentionally rude, but I’m not going to bother sparing your feelings or sugar-coating what I think you’re doing wrong. In my experience this is hard enough for people to take if they genuinely want criticism; when they don’t actually want criticism — when in fact what they want is some sort of bland positive affirmation of their work or ego validation — it’s like being whacked in the face with a shovel full of red-hot coals. I think a lot of folks ask me for critiques because generally speaking I present myself as a nice and reasonable guy, and so they feel safe asking me for feedback. For certain values of “safe,” this is wildly incorrect; I don’t think it’s either nice or reasonable to tell people their work is good when it’s not. This has surprised people in the past. Over time I’ve decided it’s usually not worth the hassle.

Reason #5: I don’t want to enable you not finishing your work. Lots of people ask me to read the first few chapters or a section of something and offer feedback on it. As a philosophical matter, I think offering critiques on incomplete work is a terrible thing to do to a writer, because what all-too-frequently happens is that writer goes back and keeps rubbing and buffing the same three chapters (or 10 pages, or scene, or whatever) for months and years, and what you end up with is a highly polished useless piece of writing — useless because it’s incomplete. Also, the critique is useless because it’s only about a part of the work, and who knows how all that fits in with the rest? It’s like giving someone a handful of cherries and asking them how they like your cherry pie.

For God’s sake, if you’re going to hand your work over for critique, finish the damn thing first. Even if it’s broke, you can fix it. But you can’t fix a fragment. All you can do is fiddle with it, and in fiddling avoid finishing it. I don’t encourage this; even with friends, I don’t read things that aren’t finished.

Reason #6: I don’t know you. Why does this matter? Well, simple. As noted in reason #4, I don’t know if you really want feedback or just a pat on the head. I don’t how you respond to criticism. I don’t know if you’re mentally balanced, and whether a less-than-stellar evaluation from me will turn you into a pet-stalking psychotic. I don’t know whether, should I ever critique something of yours and then write something vaguely similar, you’ll go and try to sue me for stealing your story idea (you’d lose the case, but it would still cost me time and court fees). There are so many things I don’t know about you, they could fill a book.

Now, I’m absolutely sure that, in fact, you’re an entirely sane, calm, reasonable person. Most everybody is. But you know what? I actually have had someone online go genuinely and certifiably crazy on me. They seemed nice and normal and sane, and then suddenly they weren’t, and then there were police involved. Don’t worry, it was a while ago, everything’s fine, and it didn’t involve a work critique in any event. However, strictly as a matter of prudence, it’s best that I don’t read your work.

Realize, of course, that the converse of this is also true: You don’t know me, and while I’m sure I come across as reasonably sane and decent, you never do know, do you? Maybe I will steal your ideas. Maybe I will be needlessly cruel toward your work because I’m a little weasel of man who needs to feel big by dumping on you. Maybe I am just that big of a twit. You just don’t know. Maybe this is my way of protecting you from me. Flee! Flee!

So, those are the reasons why I won’t read your unpublished work. I sincerely hope you understand.

Four Hours and Out

Karl, in the comment thread to the previous entry, says:

I have commonly read advice that writers should sit down and write for four hours then call it a day. Reading between the lines, this doesn’t seem to be the way that you work. I would love to hear your opinion on the four hour advice, ideally in entry form.

In fact, I don’t work by writing four hours a day and then doing something else; I tend to write for most of a standard work day (off and on; I do other things as well, like read and do business on the phone and procrastinate), and then I will sometimes write after that because writing is also what I do for fun. If I wrote for only four hours a day, it seems unlikely that I would actually get any real work done.

However, I suspect the “write for four hours” thing is a rather rigid interpretation of a set of heuristics that goes like this:

1. Write every day;
2. Write long enough to get actual work done;
3. Stop writing when you’re no longer doing useful work.

I don’t think trying to write for four hours a day is a bad thing for new writers to do, to the extent that they do so with the understanding that four hours is an initial setting, and that they should be paying attention to what their body and mind say about it; over time they may find four hours is too much or not enough for their natural writing pace. Likewise they ought not panic if they don’t fill in their four hour quota each and every day; people generally aren’t machines.

(As an aside: When writing for four hours, or five, or whatever, remember to stop every now and then and give your wrists and back a rest. Ergonomics wasn’t just invented by commies; you can really screw up your writing implements (i.e., your hands) if you’re not careful.)

The nice thing about saying “write four hours” is that it’s an achievable goal newbie writers can click off: Hey! I was in front of the computer, banging away from 10 til 2! Look at me! I’m a writer! And that may indeed be superficially beneficial. Also, of course, it gives the guy at the Learning Annex who is standing up in front of a bunch of people who just paid $45 to find out how to be writers something to say that sounds useful. I think this is all mostly harmless as long as the budding writer takes it as a guideline rather than gospel, and I would hope that most budding writers are smart enough to do that.

Having said that and as a tangent, I am sometimes thankful that I managed to get through the initial parts of my writing life largely unmolested by writing advice and those who dispense it because I’ve found over time that much of what passes for “advice” — i.e., specific and precise instructions on writing mechanics — is either not useful to me or would have been actively detrimental to my development as a writer. This is why, when I blather out my own advice to newbie writers, I tend to avoid specific instructions (i.e., how much to write, when to write, etc) and I also strenuously warn people that I’m writing from my own experience, some of what I say may not be useful to them, and anyway, I have my head up my ass most of the time. Indeed, my feeling is that if any writing “expert” won’t cheerfully admit to their own fundamentally sphinctocranial nature, he or she is best taken lightly, if at all.

Writing four hours a day wouldn’t work for me; it might work for you. Try it and see what you think. Don’t hesitate to change it if you need to. That’s what I think about that.

Now I’m off to ConFusion. See you all later.

Fiddly Bits, 10/3/06

Various things I’m kicking about my head today:

* Oh, dear. You know it’s a bad scandal for the Republicans when the Washington Times is calling for Denny Hastert’s resignation. It also suggests that Hastert’s Colonel Clink Sergeant Schultz defense of clasping his hands to his head and declaiming “I know nothink!” isn’t going to be as effective as he may have hoped it was going to be.

Along the same line, however, this tantalizing line from Brian Ross about how other former pages are coming forward with dirt on other congressional folks has some lefties just about exploding with joy; I think it’s sweet how these folks seem to be under the impression that only conservatives can get hopped up on thoughts of young and tender teenage flesh. Got news for you, folks: If indeed there are more congresscritters mashing out lust notes in IM form to their teenage pages, the chances that all of them are going to be on the same side of the aisle quickly approaches zero. Creeps come in all political orientations.

What’s relevant in this particular case, to my mind, is how long leadership knew Foley was crushing on teen pages, and why he was allowed to continue co-chairing a caucus charged with protecting kids and teens when it was clear his interest in teens was not entirely one of compassion.

* Charlie Stross is talking about book covers, and how much input an author has, by noting his own involvement in his various book covers with various publishers. My experience on this is close to Charlie’s: With my Tor books I was basically presented with artwork and allowed to comment and make suggestions, whereas with my Subterranean Books I had considerable more leeway (as, interestingly enough, I did with my Rough Guide to the Universe book, in which the picture I suggested for the cover ended up there).

I feel fortunate that I’ve been pleased with nearly all the covers of all my books, and those ones I wasn’t thrilled about are an object example of why author’s shouldn’t necessarily drive the art design: I don’t think the covers of the Book of the Dumb books are brilliant, personally, but as those books are my bestsellers so far, clearly the covers speak to their market segment. So there is that. I don’t mind being wrong in this case, incidentally, because it’s worked out well for me. But I am glad my input does seem to matter to my other publishers.

* The auction for The Last Colony seems to be coming along swimmingly; at the moment I’m writing this, it’s up to $350, which thrills me to no end. Thanks to everyone who has bid so far.

You’ll notice that I put a line about the auction at the top of this entry; I’ll probably cut and paste that line into each new entry (taking it off the old entries as I do so) until the auction has run its course. I want to keep the auctino top of mind, but I’m going to try not to be obnoxious about it, especially as the bids are already at a level I consider a success.

* Do bloggers write better than high school students? Chad Orzel and Dave Munger asked bloggers to take the same writing test teenagers take on the newly updated SATs, and see how they fared. The results are fairly gruesome. I didn’t take up the challenge myself; after presuming to give teenagers writing advice, I would dread discovering I hosed the SAT essay challenge. I’d have to go back to high school and start all over. And that’s just wrong.

“Coffee Shop” and Subterranean Scalzi Sale

Hey! I have book news, and sale news, and they are magically interrelated. So let me tell you about both. Prepare for pimpage, people.

Book news first: Subterranean Press is now taking pre-orders for You’re Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to a Coffee Shop: Scalzi on Writing. As you may have guessed from the title, this is my book on the writing life, featuring many essays and entires on the subject from this very Web site: all my blatherations on the subject from my “Utterly Useless Writing Advice” entry back in 2001 through to “The Money Entry” this month, including some writing essays and entries which no longer exist on the site (which means that unless you’re willing to trawl through, the book is the only place to get them). In all, an interesting snapshot of what it’s like to be a writer, right now.

To remind folks, this book originally started out as part of Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded, the upcoming collection of Whatever entries, also from Subterranean, but there was enough interest from Whatever readers for a stand-alone collection of writing entries that we went ahead and spun it off into its own signed, limited hardcover edition. The book is about 75,000 words (pretty hefty for a book on writing) and is divided into four meaty chapters:

1. Writing Advice, or, Avoiding Real Work the John Scalzi Way
2. Yo Ho, Yo Ho, A Writer’s Life For Me
3. The Schadenfreude Needle is Buried Deep Into the Red: On Writers
4. Science Fiction, or, Don’t Skip This Chapter, You Goddamned Writing Snobs

Yeah, it’s not your average book on writing, that’s for sure. The book is currently scheduled for an August release.

To celebrate the announcement of the book and to encourage you to pre-order, Subterranean Press is running a special two-day only deal for Whatever readers: Pre-order Coffee Shop now and get 30% off. And if you feel like getting anything else from Subterranean while you’re there, you’ll get 30% off the entire order.* That’s any Subterranean release, not just the ones from me (although I’d note that Subterranean is down to the last couple dozen copies of Agent to the Stars…).

Subterranean has some truly excellent books out now and in the near future, including short story collections by Tad Williams, Robert Silverberg and Philip Jose Farmer, a limited two-volume edition of George RR Martin’s A Storm of Swords, illustrated by Charles Vess*, and limited editions from Jonathan Letham and Charlie Stross. You can also pick yourself up the Cliche issue of Subterranean Magazine.

In short, lots of really cool stuff, all 30% off* when you pre-order Coffee Shop today (March 27, 2006) and tomorrow (March 28, 2006).

(Now the details: When you check out, you must mention “WHATEVER” in the comment area. The shopping cart and automatic email confirmation won’t reflect the sale price. Subterranean will catch that when processing the order (so don’t panic!).

If you want to pay through Paypal, e-mail with your selections rather than checking out via the shopping cart. Subterranean can then email an invoice for the proper amount.

Any questions? Drop them into the comment thread)

I think you’re going to like Coffee Shop, and if you’ve never looked through Subterranean’s stuff before, I hope this encourages you to do so. Enjoy!

(* Here’s what the asterisk means — one or two things are not available as sale items, including the Storm of Swords set. You’ll be able to note what they are on the Subterranean site because the product description will mention it. But these are in the minority.)

“Coffee Shop” and Subterranean Scalzi Sale

Hey! I have book news, and sale news, and they are magically interrelated. So let me tell you about both. Prepare for pimpage, people.

Book news first: Subterranean Press is now taking pre-orders for You’re Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to a Coffee Shop: Scalzi on Writing. As you may have guessed from the title, this is my book on the writing life, featuring many essays and entires on the subject from this very Web site: all my blatherations on the subject from my “Utterly Useless Writing Advice” entry back in 2001 through to “The Money Entry” this month, including some writing essays and entries which no longer exist on the site (which means that unless you’re willing to trawl through, the book is the only place to get them). In all, an interesting snapshot of what it’s like to be a writer, right now.

To remind folks, this book originally started out as part of Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded, the upcoming collection of Whatever entries, also from Subterranean, but there was enough interest from Whatever readers for a stand-alone collection of writing entries that we went ahead and spun it off into its own signed, limited hardcover edition. The book is about 75,000 words (pretty hefty for a book on writing) and is divided into four meaty chapters:

1. Writing Advice, or, Avoiding Real Work the John Scalzi Way
2. Yo Ho, Yo Ho, A Writer’s Life For Me
3. The Schadenfreude Needle is Buried Deep Into the Red: On Writers
4. Science Fiction, or, Don’t Skip This Chapter, You Goddamned Writing Snobs

Yeah, it’s not your average book on writing, that’s for sure. The book is currently scheduled for an August release.

To celebrate the announcement of the book and to encourage you to pre-order, Subterranean Press is running a special two-day only deal for Whatever readers: Pre-order Coffee Shop now and get 30% off. And if you feel like getting anything else from Subterranean while you’re there, you’ll get 30% off the entire order.* That’s any Subterranean release, not just the ones from me (although I’d note that Subterranean is down to the last couple dozen copies of Agent to the Stars…).

Subterranean has some truly excellent books out now and in the near future, including short story collections by Tad Williams, Robert Silverberg and Philip Jose Farmer, a limited two-volume edition of George RR Martin’s A Storm of Swords, illustrated by Charles Vess*, and limited editions from Jonathan Letham and Charlie Stross. You can also pick yourself up the Cliche issue of Subterranean Magazine.

In short, lots of really cool stuff, all 30% off* when you pre-order Coffee Shop today (March 27, 2006) and tomorrow (March 28, 2006).

(Now the details: When you check out, you must mention “WHATEVER” in the comment area. The shopping cart and automatic email confirmation won’t reflect the sale price. Subterranean will catch that when processing the order (so don’t panic!).

If you want to pay through Paypal, e-mail with your selections rather than checking out via the shopping cart. Subterranean can then email an invoice for the proper amount.

Any questions? Drop them into the comment thread)

I think you’re going to like Coffee Shop, and if you’ve never looked through Subterranean’s stuff before, I hope this encourages you to do so. Enjoy!

(* Here’s what the asterisk means — one or two things are not available as sale items, including the Storm of Swords set. You’ll be able to note what they are on the Subterranean site because the product description will mention it. But these are in the minority.)

A Spin-Off

So, here’s some news: I’m no longer putting together a collection of Whatever entries. I’m putting together two. I’m spinning off the writing entries into their own book.

The details: I was compiling the chapter on writing for Hate Mail, adding various pieces just like I did with the rest of the chapters. After a little while, I thought to myself that the chapter looked a little long; I’m aiming for each chapter to be about 8,000 words, and this one seemed a bit longer than that. So I did a word count, and I was right: I had about 25,000 words. Which — I’m sure you’ll agree — is nowhere close to 8,000. And this was without actually adding my “Utterly Useless Writing Advice” entry, because it in itself was 8k words. There was no way I was going to be able to get all the writing pieces into the book that I would want or that you folks told me you wanted to see in the collection (The 120,000 word first draft estimate of Hate Mail I noted here is actually the book without the writing chapter in it).

So I thought, screw it, let’s see if I have enough good entries about writing to make an actual book. By the time I was through collecting I was up above 60,000 words, which is more than enough. So I sounded out Subterranean’s Bill Schafer about spinning off the writing entries into their own book. He liked the idea, so that’s what we’re going to do. I’m thinking of calling it Utterly Useless: Scalzi on Writing, but we’ll have to see what Bill thinks about that. It may be a little too arch for its own good. Naturally, I am open to suggestions from the peanut gallery as well.

The current plan is to release Hate Mail and Utterly Useless simultaneously over the summer, a la Use Your Illusion I & II (or, for those of you who know Axl Rose only as a creepy washed-up has-been who used to be in a band with the guys from Velvet Revolver, a la Conor Oberst/Bright Eyes’ I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning and Digital Ash in a Digital Urn). However, while the books are being released at the same time, the two will have different release philosophies. Hate Mail is a wide-release trade paperback aimed at a general book audience, with a limited-edition hardcover for collectors. Utterly Useless, on the other hand, will exist primarily as limited edition hardcover release for a select audience (Whatever readers and/or folks interested in the writing life seem like a good core audience here) but will also be released freely as an e-book for people to check out and share online. Basically, if you’re interested in one or both books, you can mix and match the formats to get a combination that fits your needs. Because I’m all about choice.

I’m very happy that we’re spinning off the writing material into its own book. Writing about writing is a little “inside pool” for a general audience, so the Whatever writing entries weren’t necessarily a good fit for Hate Mail. On the other hand, I think folks who are interested in the writing life don’t necessarily want to have to wade through entries on politics or parenting or whatever to get to what interests them. So now there’s a general collection for a general audience, and a specific collection for a specific audience. For me, it’s not substantially more work because the compiling has already been done, and now I have a book on writing to my credit, which is something I wanted to have before I died. So it’s the best of both worlds, both for me as an author, and, I suspect, for readers as well.

As always, I’ll provide more details when I have more details to share. But those of you who were hoping there would be a lot of writing entries in the book: You’re about to get your wish.

A Link You Don’t Get Every Day But Should

Personally, I think it’s always a happy day when a professional dominatrix links to my writing advice, and suggests that much of the advice translates neatly into her of field of professional endeavor. Well, and I imagine it does. You can add your own “writing is a dominant/submissive exercise” allusions here (“Why do you think they call it submitting? Huh? Huh?!?“). But more seriously, I’ve seen a couple of other people link to the advice and say it tracks pretty well with their professions as well. Except possibly that, say, plumbers won’t get any action showing off their pipe snake at a coffee shop (on second thought, maybe they will. Pipe snake indeed!).

Now, before anyone complains, quite obviously if I’m linking to a blog of a professional dominatrix, you may run across something on her site to which you object. Or, alternately, something that excites you. Or both! Funny how that works sometimes.

Whatever Best of 2004

The next week I’m likely to be very scarce here, so allow me to compensate for my absence by providing you with this: The Best Whatevers of 2004, in my estimation. These are arranged chronologically.

Why I Breed
My So-Called Writing Life
I Am Married
Even More Long-Winded (But Practical) Writing Advice
The Meaning of Life
A Quick Note to About-To-Be Married Gays and Lesbians
A Little Advice to Indie Artists About Their Websites
The Real World Book Deal Descriptions
Why A Shitty Deal is a Shitty Deal
Ignorance is No Excuse
Voting Christian
Online Friends
Why Christmas

In case I don’t get back to y’all through the rest of 2004, have a very happy new year, and I hope your 2005 is everything you want it to be, so long as what you want it to be isn’t “The Year I and My Implacable Robot Hordes Conquer the Earth!” If that’s what you want, I sort of hope you’re disappointed.

A Little Libel

Todd Pierce, the Clemson professor I wrote about last month (here and here) who provided spectacularly bad advice to writers, has stuck his foot in it again, and in an interesting fashion. As a preface, know that Tor editor Teresa Nielsen Hayden savaged Pierce’s “advice” here, particularly his advice to new writers to lie about their professional credits on cover letters (he’s since amended it, but you can see an unredacted version here), and then in a separate entry wondered if Mr. Pierce had not taken his own advice with his professional credentials. TNH’s crowd of enthusiastic admirers ran with the ball, making fun of Mr. Pierce all down the comment thread.

The thread lay dormant for a month or so until yesterday, when Mr. Pierce showed up, read the accumulated posts, was appalled that everyone was so mean to him and then promptly threatened TNH with a libel suit. What follows from there isn’t pretty, mostly people (including myself) trying to explain to Mr. Pierce that people saying mean things about you does not actually equate to libel in the United States — it is famously tough to prove libel in the US, for reasons relating to that pesky First Amendment of ours — and suggesting to Mr. Pierce that if one does not wish to have one’s publishing credentials openly questioned, perhaps one ought not be on record advising others to lie about their credentials. After all, when I give people writing advice, I tend to base it upon what has worked for me in the past, and I suspect most other writers do the same.

I believe we may have talked Mr. Pierce down from filing a libel suit, but given his comments in the thread, I still suspect Mr. Pierce isn’t entirely clear why other people in the thread don’t seem to support his position that he’s the victim here. This is of course his own karma, and while in some respects I sympathize with the man — one suspects this is his first exposure to a comment thread pile-on, in which enthusiasts of a person’s blog form a line behind the blogger to get their kicks in, and TNH’s enthusiasts are both smarter and meaner than the average blogger’s — in other respects I really don’t sympathize at all. Fundamentally, he doesn’t seem to get why working writers and editors are offended and appalled at the suggestion that one ought to lie about one’s credentials to get work. And while I admit that it’s probably more satisfying to posit the existence of a sinister cabal bent on destroying one’s career than to actually examine the root cause of these folks’ agitation (i.e., one’s own really bad “advice” to writers), in the end Mr. Pierce would be better off doing the latter.

Also, from a purely rhetorical point of view, Mr. Pierce argues poorly: He makes easily refutable statements of some facts, does not seem in command of other facts (for example, he confuses slander with libel, which is not an encouraging thing when one is threatening a suit based on one or the other), and tries to use emotional appeals to support what he feels are facts (i.e., he feels that what TNH has done to him is wrong, therefore it should be clear that she has committed libel). He gets thrashed, and none to kindly. Again, it’s easy to feel sorry for the guy. But then again, it’s not like he’s some 15-year-old comment board geek over his head in his first flame war; he is a professor of English at a major university. He ought to be able to argue clearly and for God’s sake know the difference between slander and libel.

In any event, for people interested in how not to defend oneself in a comment thread full of smart people with little patience for rank silliness, this is good reading. Start here and just scroll on down.

Now, aside from Mr. Pierce’s beatdown, he does bring up an interesting question: When can someone say he’s been libeled? After all, Mr. Pierce does believe he’s been libeled (or slandered, which apparently to his mind is the same thing). He hasn’t been, but when could one say one is?

Bear in mind with what follows that I am not a lawyer. However, I have been a writer for newspapers and magazines for years, and as an editor I had to keep an eye out for potentially libelous material. In short, I have a reasonably good grip on what constitutes libel.

Now then: Let’s say that one day I’m wondering around the Web, like you do, and I come across the following tidbit on someone’s blog:

John Scalzi is crack-smoking cat sodomizer. It’s true. I’ve seen the pictures.

Naturally, I am outraged. How dare someone suggest I sodomize my cat while smoking crack! It’s time to lawyer up! Or is it? There are questions to ask:

1. Is it true? I mean, if I actually do sodomize my cat and smoke crack, then I have no grounds to claim libel. I probably wouldn’t want people to know about my feline-violating, drug-huffing predilections, because it will make for a lot of awkward conversational pauses at parties and would probably keep me from being confirmed by the Senate for any really interesting government posts. But if in fact I do those things, I have no recourse. But let’s say that indeed, my urine runs clean and my cat runs without sexually-originated hip dysplasia. Next question:

2. Is my accuser aware that he’s spreading untruths? If in fact I don’t sodomize my cat or smoke crack, clearly there are no actual pictures of me doing either. If my accuser hasn’t actually seen the pictures but says he has, we’ve cleared another hurdle for libel. On the other hand, if for some reason someone has gotten creative with Photoshop and ginned up fake pictures of me, my cat and a crack pipe, and then my accuser sees them and believes them to be real, then although he’s wrong he probably hasn’t committed libel (if he created the pictures and purports them to be real, then we’re back into libel country).

3. Is my accuser’s intent malicious? If my accuser is a member of PETA and has been shocked by the faked Photoshop pictures of me cornholing my cat, then one might reasonably argue that he’s accused me out of genuine concern for the poor feline who is the object of my unwanted attentions. That’s not libel. On the other hand, if the accuser hates my friggin’ guts and wants nothing more than for me to die bastard die, then libel is back in business. Clearly, it would be good for me if the URL this accusation resides at is something like

4. Have I been materially affected by the accusation? If someone says I’m an enthusiastic ravisher of animals, and yet my wife stays with me, my family and friends shrug it off and my employers chalk it up to the Web being the Web, then I don’t have much of a case. But, if I was about to sign a contract on a book on cats, and the publisher rescinded the offer on the basis of the rumor I love cats too much, and a concern that the cats I don’t penetrate I’ll sell for drugs, then yes, I have a case. I also probably have a case if my wife leaves, my kid is picked up by Child Protective Services and all my friends stop returning my phone calls.

Note that for a really good libel case, all of these have to be in effect. And that’s for private individuals — which is to say, normal people with normal lives. If for some reason I’m judged to be a public figure (say, due to my extremely low-bore celebrity via the Web and my published work), then I have fewer libel protections. Note also that if the information is expressed as opinion (i.e., “I believe John Scalzi sodomizes cats and smokes crack. I’ve heard rumors of photos that show this”), I’m out of luck. I’m also out of luck if the language used is “heated” (“Goddamn motherfucking John Scalzi likes to poke his fucking cat with his tiny little meat and then shove a crack rock the size of a fuckin’ rat into his crappy tinfoil pipe and suck on it like a Hoover on the overload setting”) or if the work is satire (“Scalzi the Crack Smoking Cat Violator: A Musical Play in Three Acts”).

And what do I get for it being so hard to prove I was wronged? Well, here in the US we have really excellent freedom to say what we want without worrying that opening our mouths to express an opinion will get us hauled into court — or into jail. Let’s also note, by the way, that stricter libel laws don’t actually mean that less libel happens; the United Kingdom has far stricter libel laws than the US but the UK press is just vile when it comes to rumors. Given a choice, I’ll personally take a little less protection against libel for a little more protection of free speech.

For the record: I don’t smoke crack and I don’t violate my cat, and no pictures exist of me doing either. Although if someone whomps up something in Photoshop, be sure to send me a copy. I could use a laugh.

Update, 3:47pm: Well, that didn’t take long. Note this link is so not safe for work. And yes, I laughed. A lot. Blame this guy.

Rant: Collected Ventings 1999 – 2004

I’ve been muttering for some time about collecting up some of my most memorable rant-like Whatever entries into convenient book form, and since I won’t have another book out this year until at least September, now seems an excellent time to do it.

So behold! Rant: Collected Ventings 1999 – 2004 — Five years and 284 pages of lightly-edited online bile, now on sale through my CafePress shop, for the outrageous vanity press cost of $16.95 ($15.28 of which goes directly to CafePress. This is the peril of the Publish-on-Demand cost structure).

The book is loaded with most of my most famous rantings, including the following classics:

* I Hate Your Politics
* How to Write Hate Mail
* Leviticans
* Even More Long-Winded (But Practical) Writing Advice

As well as my various bashings of creationists, Confederates, the childfree, conservatives, squishy Salon-reading liberals and anyone else who has aroused my wrath and ire over the last half decade. What it doesn’t feature are my various nice and light Whatevers — no, this is all about outgassing. Which is what I titled it Rant. I figure truth in advertising counts for something.

Why go the CafePress vanity publishing route? Well, because — and not to put too fine a point on it — it’s not a very commercial book. The people who are going to be interested in owning it are the people who know me and/or the people who already read the site. There are several thousand of the latter, which is nice, but it’s probably not enough to convince a publishing house to bother. My non-fiction agent informs me that basically the only books of columns and essays that actually make any money are written by Dave Barry, so a collection of entries by a mostly-unknown fellow venting on the Web is likely to do dramatically less business.

Fair enough. As I’m fond of saying, I’m in the fortunate position of not having to do everything strictly for the money. And in any event, I’ve sold six books already, so I don’t have to worry about whether it’s a “real” book or not. This is entirely a vanity sort of thing — low-volume but also low-risk, since I’m not required to lay out any cash to make it happen. I’ve not violated the holiest dictum of professional writing, which is “money flows to the writer.” Should any money flow here, it’ll flow in my direction. And that’s the important thing.

I should note that putting these Whatevers into book form doesn’t mean I’m taking them down off the site. No, everything in the book is on the site and will likely remain so. As I said, this isn’t a fantastically commerical endeavor — it’s mostly a way to let interested folk read me away from their computer screens.

So if you’ve ever wanted my rantings in book form, here you go. Enjoy! It also makes a lovely gift for dads and grads (or if you go the one-day shipping route, for moms, too). I’ll be interested to see how it does.

The Gripes of the Unpublished

Here’s an interesting comment to my writing advice from a couple of days ago, from someone who chose to identify himself as “anonymous unpublished nobody”:

I do appreciate the candor, however self-satisfyingly it was worded. I further appreciate the inspiration to never attempt to be published, if your view of the publishing industry rings true. If it is the frustrating job that you describe, it has lost its purpose in our society. I hate to sound like the hopeless romantic (okay, so I don’t hate to…), but what good is the writing industry if all young dreamers with infinite and ultimately wasted potential have their pretty little illusions shattered by jaded workaholic laborers in what sounds like an occupational environment in a certain Fritz Lang film? We can include all the clever phrases and cultural name-dropping in our posts as we like, but what this seems to amount to is one self-important and bitter veteran’s vitriolic rant against what he once was. The young and the unpublished may be silly and self-important and full of arrogant little illusions, but is it not better to fight for idealistic lost causes than to throw effort into a meaningless rat race under the guise of an artistic industry? Your publishing industry is just a mind-numbing entertainment industry. The publishing industry I see is a personal battlefield. The same questions you ask can be asked of you. You see the truth of what it takes to be “a writer.” Why should I care? Someone is making more money than me as a writer because they publish photocopies of the same old novel. Why should I care? I may never get published. Why should I care? If an art becomes an industry, it has lost its purpose. And if a writer loses his illusions, however silly they are, then he has lost his ability to dream.

My response: Uh, okay.

I’ll deal with the personal stuff first. As to the charge of self-importance: well, yeah. This is not news. As to the charge of bitterness: unlikely, since while there are people who could find the dark side of being able to do everything they ever wanted to do with their professional career, I’m personally not one of them. As to the charge of being angry at my younger self: also unlikely, as my younger self had basically the same approach to writing as my current self, which is, after all, a large part of why I am in the fortuitous writing position I am in at the moment. I would imagine if the me of today could talk to me when I was 21, the conversation would go something like this:

Me Now: Hey, just so you know, by the time you’re thirty-five you’ll have written six books, have been a nationally syndicated newspaper columnist, you’ll review movies, music, and video games and get paid to spout off on whatever you feel like. And you’ll be married to a superhot babe and have a supercute kid, and they’ll both be smarter than you are.

Me Then: Rock!

Me Now: Yes, exactly. Now give me your hair.

As to why this fellow should care what I think: Beats me. As I’ve noted before, I readily admit to having my head up my ass. If someone readily admits to that, clearly the idea of caveat emptor is strongly implied.

So that’s the easy part. Now let’s talk about this thing about idealistic young writers being crushed by the unfeeling publishing world and needing their illusions, which, frankly, I’m not exactly sure I follow in the manner the writer intended. But let’s give it the college try.

“Is it not better to fight for idealistic lost causes than to throw effort into a meaningless rat race under the guise of an artistic industry?”

Possibly, but even better to write what you want and then find an appropriate place to get it published. There are 1,600 magazines and 1,000 book publishers listed in my 2004 Writer’s Market. Provided you can actually string together sentences into paragraphs that don’t demonstrably suck, there’s a pretty good chance you can get published more or less on your own terms, particularly if you’re not fussy about being paid a whole lot. Short of writing gay slash porn about the hot, moist love between Transformers and prehistoric trilobites (“Kekk the trilobite positioned himself on his back and opened his multiple legs welcomingly to Megatron, who began his erotic transformation. ‘My God,’ Kekk said, breathlessly. ‘There really is more than meets the eye!'”) most good writing can get sold.

“If an art becomes an industry, it has lost its purpose.”

This makes a fabulous maxim to spout at your college coffeeshop to that hot young black-clad Marxist you really want to sleep with, but what does it actually mean? One could easily argue that when art becomes an industry, it’s an example of the democratization of aesthetics — bringing art to the people at affordable prices and thereby enriching the national discourse. In this scenario, if an art becomes an industry, it gains a purpose, does it not? I mean, come on — enriching the common man! That’ll get you sex from your Marxist for sure.

My anonymous friend clearly has a bugaboo about “industry,” but industry isn’t inherently evil — industry merely implies systematized production and/or distribution of a particular good or service. Personally, I’m pretty happy about the idea of systematized production since that system gets what I write in front of more people than I could ever do myself; I’m lazy and I also don’t have the time to handcraft distribution deals with thousands of bookstores across the country.

The obvious rejoinder here is that industry also inevitably compresses choice — in a rush to get into the stores, publishers must anticipate and publish what sells as opposed to what’s good. But aside from not being news at all (I imagine Gutenberg made Bibles because they sell well), I refer you again to the stat I quote above: 1,600 magazines and 1,000 book publishers. Your difficult but brilliant book may be an awful fit for a publisher who needs to sell 40,000 copies to break even but a perfect fit for an academic publisher who considers 1,000 copies sold to be a massive hit. Your trashy romance novel won’t get past the gate at one publisher but might be madly embraced at another.

“And if a writer loses his illusions, however silly they are, then he has lost his ability to dream.”

Oh, please. Get a grip. I can’t even begin to count all the ways this line doesn’t make the slightest bit of sense.

But here’s one: Illusions, by definition, are false — and therefore not at all useful for a writer to have. Writers with illusions about their talent, or about the state of publishing, or about life in general are bound to be continually disappointed, because the real world doesn’t care about your illusions. On the other hand, if you know what you’re good at, know how things get published and have a good grip on your general situation, you’re in an excellent position to make your writing dreams come true, inasmuch as they involve actually being professionally published.

I’ll tell you one true thing, which is that I spend a lot of my time recently thinking about what I’m going to write next — the next batch of book ideas I’m going to send to my agents to make the rounds, as well as some book ideas that I’m fairly sure my agents won’t see as salable but which I suspect I’ll probably fiddle with anyway because I want to, and who cares if they can sell them or not (there’s always the Web site). Point is, I don’t have much in the way of illusions regarding the business of writing. Yet strangely enough, that doesn’t stop me from having quite a few dreams.

I think the fundamental problem that this anonymous dude might have is simply that he seems to think writing is too dear for the predations of the real world. Well, whatever. I really don’t know what to tell people who sort of airily go off about how writing is this great, honest pure thing that been subjugated to the banal ravishments of the soulless machine known as “publishing,” but I suppose that’s because my relationship with the muse has always been, shall we say, a pragmatic one. People often ask me when it was I knew I wanted to be a writer, and I usually tell them it was when I was in my first year of high school, when I realized that for me writing was really easy and most other things (math, languages, getting dates) were kind of hard. And so I — and I remember this very clearly — made the conscious decision that what I was going to do was focus on being a writer because writing well meant I could avoid real work.

So I can say that from the very beginning of my desire to write was intensely practical: Being a good writer meant I might make a living being a writer, which meant I could avoid doing the things I didn’t want to do (i.e., damn near everything else). That’s what I did. So far, it’s worked pretty well. I’m hardly bitter about where it’s taken me. Most of the time, I’m having fun.

Cafe Society

Hee hee hee hee. I have to say I find it very amusing that the thing being most discussed about my recent spate of writing advice is the part where I mention that writers sitting in coffeeshops with their laptops aren’t fooling anyone. The response here generally seems to be: “But… but… I do go to my coffee shop to get writing done! Honest!” Well, okay. If you say so.

Update 3/25/04: The comment on the coffeeshop thing I’m most amused by, from here:

Oh, Christ! I was reading this on my laptop in the coffeeshop. Don’t let that redhead link to the page before I leave.

Thank you and good night!

Palm Pilot; Criticism

One rather unexpected side benefit from my whole recent computer meltdown fracas is that I’ve found myself in possession of a Palm Pilot — an m125 Palm Pilot, which if I follow the Palm Pilot nomenclature correctly is sort of their “Accord” model: Not exactly a Kia, but not as full-featured as a Beemer. I got it for free, so what do I care — for free, the Accord model suits me just fine.

I got it because my mother-in-law won it in a sweepstakes sponsored by Philip Morris (now called Altria, presumably on the theory that it’s okay to blacken the lungs of your customers if your company’s name sounds like that of an affordable import sedan) and sent it along to me to see if I could make heads or tails out of it. Then Krissy let slip that I had gotten a new computer, and mom-in-law started angling for the old one (as soon as it’s been fixed, of course). That had in fact been my plan, and mom-in-law was so excited to hear that that she gave me the Palm Pilot in exchange. And there it is: The one verifiable story in the history of the world of smoking having a positive benefit for a non-smoker.

I have to say that I don’t see too much point in Palm Pilots or most other PDAs, which by and large are a $400 solution to an 89-cent problem, which is — “give me something to write this note on.” Functionally speaking there’s very little a Palm Pilot is good for that pocket-sized spiral notebook can’t do. PDAs are beginning to correct this by getting more and more tricked out — the latest Sony PDA basically has the same processing power as the desktop computer I owned in 1998 — but again the functionality for this $600 beauty (it takes notes! It plays music! It takes pictures!) can be replicated with a spiral notepad, a portable CD player and cheap camera for a total outlay of $50, tops. No, you won’t look as cool, but you’d have an extra $550, which you could use to buy some Manolo Blahnik pumps. And then you would look as cool. Odd how looking cool ultimately requires a stupid expenditure of money.

Which is not to say I won’t use the Palm Pilot. I’m going to New York in a couple of days to meet with clients and publishers; I might as well use the Palm Pilot to stash my notes and directions and phone numbers. Normally I’d use a little notebook, but seeing as one of those would set me back 89 cents (not counting the pen) and the Palm Pilot was free, the Palm Pilot is surprisingly the economical answer in this case.

I have found one entirely useful activity for the Palm Pilot, which is as a storage device for e-texts. In addition to my own book (which I figure it would be useful to have a copy of on hand, seeing as I’m meeting with my publisher), I’ve also downloaded The Innocents Abroad and Mont Saint Michele and Chartres from Project Gutenberg, which is devoted to publishing public domain works online — not that they’ll be getting any new public domain material anytime soon, thank you very much Bono Act (note to self: Make sure that after I die, all works enter the public domain sometime before my grandchildren are in danger of physical decrepitude).

There’s some nicely delicious irony in the fact that the most useful activity I can think of for this bit of 21st Century technology is for it to hold 19th Century works of literature. But then again, why not? There really are worse things than for a pixellated Henry Adams to get a new life on a Palm Pilot. Free literature on a free PDA! It doesn’t get any better than that.


On the subject of writing (and, very loosely, literature) a reader sent me an e-mail yesterday letting me know that while he enjoyed Old Man’s War, he had a couple of suggestions about the story that he thought would make it even better, which he then proceeded to provide to me. It was basically all I could do to keep from chewing off the inside of my cheek.

It’s not this guy’s fault, mind you. I understand that he was genuinely trying to be helpful, and I appreciate that he liked the story enough to offer suggestions on how it could be improved. The intentions are good and I wouldn’t want this guy to think I thought he was out of line for making suggestions, or that he should be stomped to death by 40-foot fighting robots for having the temerity to question my prose.

But having said that, “constructive criticism” drives me up a freakin’ wall. To be entirely honest, I like criticism of my work to be generally unconstructive. I don’t mind if, say, you you tell me my dialogue stinks and is unrealistic, but I do mind if you tell me my dialogue stinks and the way to fix it is to do A or B or C. When I had Old Man’s War out to beta testers, I asked them to catch grammar, spelling and continuity errors, and to tell me what they liked and didn’t liked about the story. But I also specifically told them not to offer suggestions on how to fix things. Why? Because I didn’t want to hear them. It’s enough for me to know if you think something’s not working in the writing. It’s my job as a writer to figure out how to fix these problems — or not, since something you might see as a bug in the writing is something that I might see as a feature.

Of course, this little quirk of my writing character comes across as arrogance, and I cop to that. I’ve always been arrogant when it comes to writing; I remember back as a first year student in college getting into trouble with my Art History TA when I refused to participate in classroom peer review of other students’ papers. I refused on the grounds that inasmuch as the other students weren’t actually qualified either as English or Art instructors, any comments they might have would be of questionable utility to me and therefore a waste of my time, and because if I was going to have review other people’s work and basically do the TA’s job, I wanted to get paid. This position assured me of getting reamed by the TA when it came time to get papers graded (I think I ended up getting a C- in the class), but I didn’t care about that. And, irony of ironies, as soon as I’m done with this Whatever, I’ll be starting an article on the Dada movement and getting paid nicely for it. So we can see how the battle of the C-minus-giving-TA vs. my youthful arrogance eventually panned out.

But aside from the question of my arrogance (or at least only tangentially related to it) comes the question of the critic’s competence. Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion, and speaking as a professional critic, I’m all for people expressing their point of view. You don’t need to be a professional musician to know you like a particular piece of music, or a professional writer to know what you like and don’t like about an article or story. Lots of creative people seem to think that that only their peers are qualified to criticize, but that’s just a stupid defensive measure creative types pull out of their ass when they don’t want to admit that being criticized simultaneously stings and deflates the ego.

While everyone’s competent to express an opinion about whether something works, it doesn’t stand to reason that everyone is in a position to suggest how the piece might be improved. Independent of the specific critic, there’s no reason to believe that the piece would be improved if, say, different plot branches were utilized, or if certain motivations were explored, or whatever. The end result of these changes could be worse piece, or better one, or simply one that is equally bad in a completely different way. Changing something is not implicitly equivalent to improving something. Back around the Murmur era of things for REM, people complained that they couldn’t understand Michael Stipe’s lyrics. But if they could would the music have been better? Not necessarily; Stipe’s maddening mumble was part of early REM’s allure. Murmur might have been better if you could hear what Stipe was saying; but then again, it might have been worse.

Then there’s the matter of personal competence as it relates to making suggestions about writing. No offense, people, but most of you aren’t professional writers or editors, and that does make a difference. When Patrick Nielsen Hayden comes to me with specific suggestions about what needs to be done to punch up Old Man’s War (as he’s already told me he will), you’re damn right I’ll listen; he’s Senior Editor of Tor and in that capacity knows how to shape text so that it’s both successful creatively and has a shot in the marketplace, and those are two things I want the book to be. Were another working novelist to offer unsolicited advice on a plot point, I would likewise listen attentively. These people have the real world experience that convinces me they know what they’re talking about.

Short of those categories, however, I’m liable to ask myself how much you know about the dynamics of writing professionally, and if the answer I get is “not much,” I will then ask myself why I should be listening to your specific writing suggestions. Doctors don’t listen to suggestions from their baker on how to perform surgery (or if they do to be polite, they don’t usually take them very seriously). They listen to doctors. Likewise, it it comes to the nuts and bolts of writing, I go to writers and editors first. Yes, I realize this goes back to the whole “arrogance” thing. But, you know, look — I’ve been writing professionally for well over a decade now. This is what I do. Financially speaking, this is all I do. This is my day job. When it comes to writing, I’m pretty confident I know what I’m doing (most of the time).

I do try not to be stupid in my arrogance. When I was writing my astronomy book, I had a couple of friends with PhDs in astronomy look over some early chapters, on the principle that they, being doctors of astronomy, were eminently qualified to tell me if and when I had my head up my rectum (it wasn’t, mostly). And I’m not saying that non-writers can’t have excellent suggestions about the craft of writing; they can and do, both in a general sense and specifically relating to my work. I’m not even saying that I don’t sometimes ask for advice from non-writers, or writers who are not yet professional writers; I’ve done both, and my writing is better for it.

What I am saying is that if you’re not a writer or editor, and you offer me specific writing advice without prompting, you should know I’m going to consider the source in evaluating how useful the advice is to me. Please don’t be too offended if my estimation of its utility ultimately differs from yours. I do appreciate the thought, honestly. But this isn’t one of those situations where it’s only the thought that counts.

The Big Idea: Kameron Hurley

For this Big Idea, Kameron Hurley looks at what it takes to get a book right — and how her latest novel, The Broken Heavens, had to look beyond binary expectations to get there.


Two choices: Left or right. This or that.

Choose one or the other. There’s no in-between. No other choices.

From the time we are small we learn that we have choices: yes, or no. Good, or bad. The idea that there are only two choices has become pervasive in our media, our politics, our relationships, and it’s divided us deeply here in the U.S.

When I began writing my Worldbreaker Saga back in 2012, which begins with the novel The Mirror Empire, I too was obsessed with this idea of two choices: the light and the dark. I was writing fantasy, after all! While my protagonists might be morally messy early on, I always knew I was headed for a showdown where they had two choices: good or evil. Genocidal or self-sacrificing.

But it was a false choice.

And it literally took me years to realize this.

At some level I must have understood I was setting up a false choice as I finished the second volume, Empire Ascendant, and began the grueling process of tying everything up in the third and final book, The Broken Heavens. Emotionally, I was rebelling against my own embrace of these false choices, because no matter how many times I tried to get myself to write the ending I had in mind at the beginning of the series, it just never felt… right.

It took writing 90,000 words of… something for my agent to finally call me out. “Frankly, this isn’t very good,” she said. “Let’s take this out of the schedule and have you work on something else.”

I was incredibly angry with her, at first. Angry because she had identified in the writing the fact that I was deeply unhappy with the choices I had waiting for my protagonists, and I had absolutely no idea how to fix it.

Fixing issues this big, things that are so deeply ingrained in you that you have trouble thinking outside of the false paradigm, can take time.

I needed the time.

After the US election, I took a fresh look at the book and wondered if my work was contributing to this narrative of two choices; this idea that all we ever got to choose from were a range of bad alternatives forced on us by powers far larger than ourselves. How was that inspiring? Impactful? Hopeful?

The idea that we only have two choices is a very western, and honestly fairly recent, phenomenon. It’s a fallacy promoted by media for clicks, by political parties for votes, by foreign and domestic forces who want to ensure we remain angry and divided and nihilistic.

The truth is we have an infinite number of choices. Tradition, politicians, friends, family, social mores, will tell you it’s not true, but that’s because thinking outside of those choices is dangerous to the status quo. It upends assumptions about the way the world could and should be.

And in this series, I absolutely wanted to upend the world.

It took a lot of angry writing on my part. Long, long email back-and-forths with my agent, until she suggested I start thinking in another way. What if I stopped focusing on breaking things apart, and instead focused on bringing things together?

And there it was.

It all clicked.

While the rest of the book writing process was not smooth – I still did a tremendous amount of revision of the first third of the book, even after turning it over to my editor – the ending finally worked.  It was true to the world, the characters, the lore, the journey, from The Mirror Empire through Empire Ascendant and now, here, at the end: The Broken Heavens.

I am immensely proud of finishing this book. More so, I am proud that I took the time and didn’t do the lazy, expected thing with how I finished it up.

A fellow writer, Tobias Buckell, once paraphrased some advice from Tim Powers, which went something like this:

No one will remember if a good book was late. And a good book will only be late once. But a bad book? A bad book is bad forever.

I took the time to make The Broken Heavens a good, satisfying story. And it’s made all the difference.


The Broken Heavens: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.

Mike Resnick, RIP

Photo of Mike Resnick and me at Chicon 7 the 2012 Worldcon, taken from the MidAmeriCon photo archive. Click on the photo to be taken to the original.

Laura Resnick has posted that her father Mike Resnick has died, which means that it’s a very sad day for his friends and fans in the science fiction community. Give the length of his remarkable career, and the honors that were given to him (including five Hugo Awards as well as a Nebula and a Locus Award, and being the Guest of Honor at Chicon 7, the 2012 Worldcon), this is indeed a considerable percentage of that large and fractious community.

The picture above, of me stroking Mike’s leg, is from that Worldcon; I was the toastmaster of the Worldcon and the opening ceremonies of that convention were in the form of a talk show, for which I was the host. Mike came out for his interview segment and told a story about being on the same stage for an earlier Worldcon:

Mike (pointing up): I remember those lights from 1991. I was toastmaster of the masquerade, and I had notes and I couldn’t read them. I had a guy in the front row who was going to give me hand signals on whether to go faster or slower based on what was happening backstage, and I couldn’t see him with those lights. And I was standing with my back to a curtain, and somebody reached out from under the curtain and began stroking my leg. I decided that meant either he was in love with me, or I should go faster. And then he went like that (makes a hand sign that looks like clutching a leg), and I assumed that meant go slower. We did that for an hour and a half. (Points up again) And they haven’t changed those bulbs!

Me (getting up from behind the desk, going over to Mike, stroking his leg): Go on.

You can see that particular moment (and the rest of his interview) in this video of the opening ceremony, taken by Lisa Hayes; our conversation starts at the 20:20 mark in the video.

Mike was a very fine writer and a gregarious person, but what I think you will see most in the tributes that will be coming out about in the next few days is the fact he was a teacher and mentor to a great number of writers in the science fiction community, sharing advice about writing and the writing life over decades. There are working writers today who unironically think of themselves as “Mike’s children,” which is a testament to his influence. And of course Mike’s actual daughter Laura is a very fine writer as well. This is an excellent legacy to have, and Mike should be proud of it.

My own relationship with Mike had its ups and downs, the most notable down involving a blow-up about the SFWA magazine while I was president, where a column he wrote with Barry Malzberg incited controversy. I took responsibility for its publication as the publisher; I had been asleep at the wheel and let something get through that I’m sure if I had noted to Mike (or more accurately noted it to the editor at the time, who would then note it to Mike), he as a consummate professional would have found another way to make his point. I did appreciate that aspect of his, and I think he appreciated that I appreciated it. In these later years we saw each other at occasional conventions and chatted along agreeably on Facebook about life and business. Stay in a community long enough and there’s always water under the bridge.

Laura noted that Mike passed due to lymphoma that had come on unusually aggressively, and his doctors decided last month there was not much else to be done and recommended hospice. He passed quietly in his sleep. The family has a GoFundMe up to help Carol Resnick, Mike’s widow, manage the medical costs they’ve accrued over the course of his treatment. If you were a fan or friend of Mike’s over the years, I hope you’ll consider contributing.

My condolences to Carol, and to Laura, and to all those who were friends to Mike or considered him a teacher and mentor. A very grand presence is gone. And while the lights Mike was pointing to on that Chicago stage might still be there, they’ll never have the honor of illuminating him again. Their loss, and ours.