The Big Idea: Matthew Hughes

When cultures meet, is there always a “clash” — or is there a way for disparate peoples to not only get along but thrive? This was a line of inquiry that Matthew Hughes is interested in, and pursues in his new novel What the Wind Brings.


Back in 1971, when I was an English major at Simon Fraser University, I happened across a footnote in a book about cross-cultural contacts. The author was making the point that castaways arriving on foreign shores – like Japanese fishermen washed up on the coast of what was to become British Columbia – usually fared poorly. But the footnote mentioned an exceptional case: shipwrecked African slaves on the jungle coast of sixteenth-century Ecuador who allied themselves with the local indigenous people to form a mixed society – the “Zambo state” – who survived and prevailed against attempts by Spanish conquistadors to re-enslave them.

I thought: that would make a great historical novel. But it turned out to be difficult to research, because most scholarship was in Spanish-language academic journals.  Still, I kept it in mind as the decades rolled by and I eventually became a novelist. So, when the teens of this century arrived and North American scholars began writing about the Zambos, I could do the research and write the book.

Over my fiction-writing career, two themes dominated: I tended to write about outliers struggling to thrive in social environments not made for their kind; and the societies I created were often diverse, full of odd people energetically pursuing odd goals.

Writing about oddballs comes naturally to me, because I am one. Writing without judgements about diverse cultures came from observing how diversity gives a society strength and resilience. So when I came to write What the Wind Brings, it made sense to me that the Africans, many of them survivors of wars among well organized West African states, would combine with Ecuador’s Nigua people, who had spent generations fending off attempts by the expanding Inca empire to come subjugate them.

Military skills combined with an intimate knowledge of a challenging landscape offered an advantage. But the marriage of African and Nigua was not made in heaven. The Africans, as I envisioned them, came from a patriarchal culture; the Nigua, like many indigenous peoples of the Americas, I assumed to be matriarchal. Both groups had customs and ingrained habits that required rough edges to be rubbed smooth. And so they were, by mutual agreement.

The resulting mixed society outfought and out-thought the Spaniards, until finally the latter agreed to leave them alone. The Zambos endured for generations, and today their descendants are a distinct, thriving culture within the Ecuadorean social mix.

My own cultural background was originally working-class British, a typical Liverpool mongrel of English, Irish, Welsh strains, with a little Manx. I came to Canada as an immigrant child in 1954, and I was lucky we came then because Canadian immigration policies in those years discriminated strongly in favor of WASPs – even men like my father, a 40-year-old unskilled and uneducated laborer with a wife and five children.

Then, in the 1960s, those policies gave way to new thinking. Canada began to welcome newcomers from all over the world, including people who were formerly legally discriminated against, like Canadian-born Asians who had long been barred from becoming pharmacists or architects under provincial laws governing the professions.

The official Canadian term for such people, according to the census, was “visible minorities.” In 1961, when I was twelve, less than one percent of Canadians fit that bureaucratic category, some of them the descendants of American slaves who were brought to Nova Scotia after the Revolution, others the children of Chinese railroad builders who never went back to China (though they were harshly encouraged to do so).

By 1981, under the new immigration rules, the percentage had increased to 4.7, and by 1991 it had reached 9.4. By the time of the 2016 census, the number had risen to 22.3 per cent, and that did not include the more than four per cent of my fellow citizens who are aboriginal people and are not, for arcane bureaucratic reasons, classified as “visible minorities.”

By 2031, visible minorities, almost all of them first- or second-generation immigrants, will account for a third of Canadians.

But at the same time we have been taking in people of all colors and cultures, we have not imposed a “melting pot” ethos on the newcomers. We are a multicultural society. We follow Rodney King’s advice: we all just get along.

Well, not quite all. We have our racists and reactionaries, most of them in rural settings where visible minority immigrants don’t tend to settle. And our record regarding aboriginal peoples leaves a lot to be desired, though we’re now finally making real efforts toward reconciliation.

But here’s the thing: there is no established political party in Canada that opposes immigration and multiculturalism. Recently, a Conservative Member of Parliament left his party and tried to start one. His “People’s Party” ran candidates in October’s federal election – and was roundly rejected by the people, attracting a paltry 1.6 percent of the nation’s votes. Their defector/leader lost his seat.

So, in my lifetime, since washing up on Canada’s shores, I have seen my country evolve from whites-only to all-are-welcome. We have grown no ghettos; yes, first-generation immigrants tend to settle in neighborhoods where the neighbors look like them, but their children spread out and live among the rest of us. Intermarriage is too common to be remarked upon. There is no National Front in Canada, no Know-Nothing Party. No Stephen Miller would ever rise to a position of power here.

That is the one of the big lessons of my life, and it’s the idea I have sought to express in What the Wind Brings. Without beating a drum or ladling in infodumps, I wanted the reader to come away with an understanding that diversity is strength, that we succeed by finding ways to all get along and by looking out for each other.

These days, it’s a timely lesson.


What the Wind Brings: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|IndieBound|Kobo|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Facebook.

Reader Request Week 2019 #10: Short Bits

Time to close out this year’s Reader Request Week with some short takes on questions I didn’t otherwise get to:

Dean Laws:

Hey Scalzi, can you trust photographs anymore?

Could we ever? Photographs were being manipulated and altered basically as soon as they were invented, and whether that fiddling was soft focus on a movie star or a member of the Politburo being erased, it points out the fact that photographs were never a reliable medium. Like any other medium of reportage, one must evaluate who is reporting and their level of trustworthiness. Many news organizations have procedures in place to minimize doctoring of photos (and to make any doctoring evident), because they understand the “trustworthy” aspect is real and important.


How do you stay healthy, especially regarding arthritis and the like?

You and I are roughly the same age both spend a lot of time at a keyboard. My wild keyboarding days are catching up with me. :(

At the moment I have a pretty serious and persistent case of tendonitis in my left shoulder, so I’m not sure I’m always doing that great a job of staying healthy. But aside from that I am in better shape than I was a year ago, and in a larger sense and especially as one gets older, the answer is, diet and moderate exercise, to counteract or at least slow the effects of aging. I am fortunate not to have arthritis (except for a small a bit on one of my hips that I really have to to work at to tweak, so I don’t work to tweak it) and I’ve been practicing reasonably good typing habits for a while, so that specific thing isn’t much of a concern with me. But generally, and especially if one is over 50, the way to stay healthy is to work at it. Alas.


Was it psychologically challenging the first time you spent a substantial amount of money on a vacation or something similarly non-essential? How did you work through your feelings?

Since I can’t recall the first time I spent a substantial amount of money on something “non-essential,” the answer is — apparently it was not psychologically challenging otherwise I’d remember? Also as a nitpick I would argue that vacations are not “non-essential” — people need rest and relaxation and downtime in both a psychological and social sense, and a good vacation does that. That’s not frivolous, that’s an investment in one’s self. It’s not to say one can’t overspend on a vacation, of course. Oh boy one can! Just the vacation in itself is not necessarily a “non-essential.”

That said, even now, when, uhhh, I have money, when I want something I still very often do the do I really need this? dance, in which I think and fret about whether the thing I want is something I should actually get. This is rooted in my former status as someone who doesn’t have a lot a money, but I think it’s not a bad thing, since a lot the time the answer is “no.” For example, I don’t need a new fancy digital camera, even if I want one, because the one I have is still working perfectly well. I’m frequently reminding myself of that fact, so I’ve resisted getting a new one for a few years now. When the answer is “yes,” then I spend money and don’t feel bad about it.

Paul Lankheet:

This will probably be on your quick answers but I have read you complain about your slow internet for years. You are, relative to most of us, very wealthy, you could actually afford to have a T3 installed at the house. Have you considered a hardwired connection or are you waiting on moving to a new house in a few years?

I’m glad you think I can swallow the massive outlay and continuing maintenance costs of such an endeavor without blinking, but personally I don’t see that particular route as a very efficient solution to my particular problem, especially in a world where augmenting my ridiculously slow main internet connection with a 4G hotspot works just as well for my purposes, for significantly less cost. Going back to the question immediately previous, that whole do I really need this? question would be a significant one here. Also, the way to stay wealthy is not to spend more money than one needs to.


Science keeps finding breadcrumbs leading toward longevity, most recently an article about really old people possess an excess of cytotoxic CD4 T cells. As someone just a few years younger than me, how hard will you be trying to reach the centenarian mark (or higher) … and why?

Well, I had a great-grandmother who lived to 102 and probably would have lived longer if she had been in a single-floor dwelling, and several other relations who lived well into their 90s without a problem, so, it’s not entirely out of the question that I could hit 100 without any extraordinary medical or scientific intervention, so long as I keep myself reasonably healthy. Am I going to work real hard to do that? Other than keeping myself healthy so my day-to-day existence doesn’t suck, no, not really; I’m still gonna die one day, no matter what, and I tend to think quality of life is more important than just sticking around, so that’s my focus.

Susan F:

We are now in a constantly evolving social media landscape with kids interacting in ways online that we didn’t have to navigate at that age. Do you have any suggestions for parents with young children growing up in this environment?

It’s the same advice I’d give any parent in any age: Know where your kids are and who they’re hanging out with. This does require an engagement in one’s kid’s life that will be an effort, but there are ways to do that, that are manageable and also don’t make your kid feel like you’re always hovering. One key thing, and we did this with Athena, was to make it clear that ultimately we as parents were legally and morally responsible for her, even when she reached an age where she felt sufficient to handle her own self, so we would sometimes need her to accept we would be annoying about it. Being upfront about it and explaining why one is doing it goes a long way, or did for us, anyway.

Anne Brack:

Will you consider running for office in Ohio?

Probably not, since it would take a lot of time that I would be more happy to spend writing, and also, so much of our current political system isn’t about governance, it’s about running for that next election, which I find both a problem, and also very likely personally enervating. Also there’s the practical matter that where I live the large majority of people have politics different from mine, so I’d be unlikely to be elected in any event.


Do the Scamperbeasts receive fan mail?

Not really, aside from comments on their Twitter feed. They do occasionally receive unsolicited product samples from hopeful pet companies, however.


You’re a piece of furniture. What are you?

You’ve seen the pictures of Sugar draping herself across my chest as I try to type, yes? I’m a cat couch, clearly.

Morgan Hazelwood:

How do you recharge/refocus when life gets heavy?

I mean, you’re kind of looking at it.


Do you have any advice on how to apologize to people whom you have wronged on social media and have blocked you? Or, should you manage such a feat, if they doubt your sincerity?

Yes: You have to accept that your apology may not be accepted or heard, and that there’s not a lot you can or should do about that, except to live your life in a way that shows that the apology is manifesting in how you move forward from that moment. Now, it may that your question is “why apologize if the person you’re apologizing to won’t see it?” The answer is: I’ve written that an apology is directed toward other people but is something you do for yourself, and this is something that continues to be true. Put the apology somewhere out in the open, leave them to find it (or not) and then do the work of making that apology be more than words.

Justin Witt:

Are there people you’d like to know that you’ve not gotten a chance to meet yet?

There are different ways to answer this. One, there are notable people I would like to meet but I don’t know if they are people I would like to know — i.e., there’s a difference between meeting someone for five minutes, saying “I love your work” and getting the selfie, and getting to know people in more than a superficial way. There are people who I’ve been interested in meeting where I discovered that once the meeting had happened I had no interesting in knowing them further — not always in a negative way, just “oh, you’re nice and all but there’s nothing here that suggests we need to go further than this.” And that’s fine! True enough, you have to meet (in some manner of “meet”) to decide if you’d like to know. But honestly I don’t know if I’d want to know them until we meet.

Two, there are probably a lot of people I’d like to know, but they aren’t famous or notable or people who are otherwise on my radar — I just literally have no idea they exist because our paths haven’t crossed yet. When I do meet them, I will know that I will want to know them, because they will be fab people whose company I enjoy. I know this because this is how I’ve met so many people who are important to me now — No idea they were alive, and then suddenly we were in the same space at the same time, and from that encounter sprung the seeds of a lifelong friendship, or indeed something more (see: Krissy). I like the idea that there are people who will be important to my life that I still haven’t met, and have no idea they exist. It makes life interesting. There is always possibility.


Why bother?

Because for me, at least, it beats the alternative.

Thank you everyone who submitted questions for this year’s Reader Request Week! We’ll do this again, probably in somewhat less than a year (I’m thinking May/June) to get closer to the usual schedule of things. But this year’s edition had some excellent questions, and I’m looking forward to another round in 2020. Thank you again!

Thoughts on the Completion of The Last Emperox

Now that it’s done, and because I think it’s useful and interesting for people, let’s talk a little about the process of writing The Last Emperox, and other things about the book. The following thoughts are in no particular order because, well, my brain is still a little mushy.

* I rather famously wrote TLE’s predecessor, The Consuming Fire, in two weeks. Did I do the same with The Last Emperox? No, and also maybe a little. The writing this time went a little like this: Nine months to write the first third of the book, three weeks to write the second third, and one week to write the last third, which includes an 11,000-word final day (which was yesterday).

This breakdown of writing time, i.e., first third slow, second third faster, final third in a rush, is actually not at all unusual for me. The first third of the writing is usually less about the typing than it is about the figuring out of the story and the characters and how they all fit together — this is the time where I spend lots of days staring out windows or taking long showers or looking up at a dark ceiling when a cat’s woken me up at 3fucking AM in the morning — seemingly pointless activity, but what my brain’s doing is problem solving.

The first third is also where I write a lot of stuff I don’t end up using, either writing what I thought was going to go into the book but eventually didn’t, or occasionally writing things so I can know it for myself, even if no one else sees it (sometimes I start writing the first but then it becomes the second). Writing that stuff out also takes up time.

After the first third, things speed up because by that time I know who the characters are, what they’re doing and where the story goes. There’s still the opportunity for surprises in terms of the writing, and for me to make substantial changes if necessary, but that sort of thing becomes increasingly rare the longer I’m in this phase.

With the final third, everything is locked, and the “writing” — plotting and story building — is done, so the only thing left is the typing. And I can type pretty fast.

So that aspect of the writing wasn’t and isn’t unusual at all. When I wrote The Consuming Fire, I did it unusually in that I did almost all the plotting and story building without physically writing. So when it came to do that, I did it all in one burst (which I don’t recommend because it meant me doing 8,000 words a day, which is neither physically nor mentally comfortable). This time, I did it more like I usually do it, and was not mentally/physically exhausted at the end of it. Which is a nice thing. Exhaustion is a lot.

* Except — well. I don’t usually take ten months to write one third of a book. What was going on with me this time that it took so long? Some explanations, which are different from excuses:

  1. I tried to write two pieces of long fiction at the same time to see if I could do it — TLE and the second installment of the Dispatcher series, and found it was detrimental to both stories, which is good to know about my bandwidth but bad in terms of getting either done (Dispatcher 2 is still only halfway done, and I will wrap that up in December, I think);
  2. I did a lot of travel this year, particularly international travel, and I was busy while traveling, so that both cut into writing time and also messed up my internal clock during and after, which made writing and focusing more difficult;
  3. I developed (and still have) a pretty significant case of tendonitis in my left shoulder, which has had an effect on the arm’s mobility and my ability to use it, from things like lifting overhead baggage to, yes, typing comfortably. It’s also messed up my sleep significantly (turning in bed sometimes means waking up suddenly in a lot of pain), which has had an effect on my ability to focus… rather more than I actually anticipated, and for a too-long time, wanted to admit;
  4. And of course, the world is on fire, and 2019 has been particularly fire-y, and world’s ability to pull my focus has been even more significant than usual. I’ve written about the difficulty of focus in the current era before, so I don’t need to do it again here. I will say that in four years now, I haven’t gotten inured to it all. This is good for me as a measure of my being a decent human, but regrettably not great for my writing speed.

At the beginning of the year, the theory was that I would be finished with The Last Emperox in April or possibly May, which would leave lots of time for fine tuning, promoting and what not. Obviously, I failed at that. This frustrates me a great deal. I have been fortunate that the team at Tor, from Patrick Nielsen Hayden on down, have been uniformly great in dealing with my delays, and the book will be out when it was meant to be out. The thing is, I don’t want them to have to be uniformly great. I want for me not to be a problem child.

It also means some projects I wanted to get to this year had to be punted down the road, which is also frustrating. I’m 50 now, and there’s only so much more punting I get to take before certain things will have to fall off the schedule forever.

The short version of this is: I need to do better at focus, and also, please fucking vote against bigoted awful incompetent criminal chaos actors in 2020 if you want work from me on a regular basis, thank you and please.

(Please note that I am not looking for advice here — I get to deal with my own shit, and also, since you’re not me, your advice on one (or more) of these issues is not likely to be directly useful. Thank you for the impulse, but just don’t.)

(Also, if you’re thinking of commenting something along the lines of “hey at least you write faster than GRRM/Pat Rothfuss/Whomever hur hur hur” and I know some of you are, do me a real big favor and don’t do that shit. Because it’s not a contest, and I get sick of hearing that sort of crap and I’m not even them. Also they’re friends. Don’t dump on my friends and/or other authors here and think you’re complimenting me when you do it.)

* I am happy to say that, kvetching about lengthy gestation periods aside, I’m happy with this book. Intentionally writing a trilogy is a new thing for me — I usually just write a standalone and then put out sequels if people like it — so one of the things I was confronting with these books was pacing: not just within a single book, which is hard enough, but three of them. Patrick will let me know soon enough, but I think I pulled it off reasonably well.

I also got to have a lot of fun with the established series characters in this book. There was more than once when Krissy, who reads the book chapter by chapter as it comes out of my brain, yelled up the stairs “You did WHAT?!?!?” to me as she got to some particularly gnarly plot point or event involving the characters. And of course I would just sit here in my office and snicker when she did.

I won’t go into detail about what happens, obviously. But I will say I think it’s very much of a piece with the previous two books, and people who enjoyed those books will enjoy this one as well. And now that the trilogy is done people can enjoy the entire scope of the series. There are no cliffhangers in this one, I promise…

* … Although there are places to go if I ever come back to this universe. To be clear, this trilogy is this trilogy; it’s done and finished, and the characters in it go to their various endings. It’s not a spoiler in the least to say that the promised collapse of an empire is fulfilled. I don’t tease like that, folks. But on the principle of “waste not, want not,” there’s enough open space for me in this universe that I could return to it without disturbing the fundamental nature and character of the Interdependency trilogy.

Fun fact: This trilogy was originally sold as a two-book series, in which the empire collapsed entirely in the first book, and in the second book we come back to see what’s going on 5,000 years later. Things changed once I got into the writing, and the single book very quickly expanded into three. And that book about things five millennia later? Well. Let’s see how things go.

* TLE comes out on April 14, 2020 in North America, which means probably April 16 in the UK and territories served by UK publisher. Yes, there’s an audiobook (remember that I have a deal with Audible that mirrors the Tor deal, so if I’m publishing a novel with Tor I automatically am publishing with Audible as well, you don’t really have to ask at this point). I can’t confirm who the audiobook narrator is at this point but I would be deeply surprised if it’s anyone other than who it’s been for the other two books in the series. Obviously it will be out in ebook format as well.

(If you want to pre-order the book in your preferred format so you won’t have to worry that the crush at your local bookstore will overwhelm you, please do. You can do that at your aforementioned local bookstore, who will be happy to take your order, or you can do it with your favorite online retailer.)

I imagine there will be a book tour when it comes out in April, but I haven’t confirmed that yet, nor do I know the particular cities I will be visiting on the tour. The way to make it more likely that I visit your town is not to tell me you want me to come, but instead tell your local bookstore, because they’re the ones the Tor PR people talk to. Also, people outside the US/Canada, asking the tour to include you won’t work because Tor only publishes my books in North America, so they’re going to focus on this continent (and, honestly, mostly the US) as a matter of practicality. You’ll have to ask the local publisher of my work to bring me out and tour me (or suggest me to a book festival in your country).

* And for the people who want to know, yes, the TV adaptation of the Interdependency series is still in process, and I’m very happy with how it’s going so far, although I can’t give you any more details than that at the moment. Just remember it’s a very long process involving a whole lot of people, and there are a whole lot of opportunities for it to fall down a dark hole, because that’s Hollywood for you. The good news is, no matter what, you have the books.

* Indeed, that is the good news: You’ll have the books. Going back to the idea that this is my first intentional trilogy, there was something a little disquieting about the idea that I might get eaten by a bear or run over by a fruit cart or whatever, and because of that people would never know the fates of Emperox Grayland II or Marce Claremont or Nadashe Nohamapetan or Kiva Lagos. Now, no matter what happens to me, you will. Patrick has the manuscript, and the actual book making process has begun. So now I’m fair game for bears and/or fruit carts and/or bears pushing fruit carts. Come at me, Fruity bear merchants! I await your wheels.

The Big Idea: Wendy Nikel

If you’re a time traveler, keeping the time stream clear of possible contradictions is not your only problem. Author Wendy Nikel knows another one, and it’s at the heart of The Cassandra Complex.


In my previous Big Idea entry, I talked about The Grandmother Paradox and how the title of that second book in my Place in Time novella series just seemed to fit perfectly from the very beginning. When it came time to write the third book, though, (which follows 18 years after the events of the second book but can be read as a standalone) The Cassandra Complex wasn’t the first title I had in mind.

When looking at where the characters in the first two books had been and how I’d used the different aspects of time travel to shape their stories to this point, I had a couple “big ideas” in mind.

First, I knew that based on how book two ended, I had to send my new protagonist back in time from her home in the 22nd century to live in the early 20th century in order to keep the timeline straight. I also knew that both protagonists from the previous books had been striving to preserve the established timeline, so for this one, I wanted to do something different. The main character of this book is younger and less experienced in time travel than the previous ones, and it shows. She’s got her own ideas about what the past should look like and isn’t likely to listen to anyone else’s advice – especially that of her parents or older brother. Thus, instead of keeping her head down and keeping the timeline intact, this latest time traveler in the series sets out to make some important changes.

The working title I used for this manuscript was The Compossibility Theory. Compossibility refers to whether two things can exist or happen together, and I’d initially set out to discover whether my main character could change the past without changing so much that she’d cease to exist. Depending on which theory of time travel you subscribe to, this had the potential to create an alternate universe or could cause a reality-destroying paradox. But as I started plotting and writing and putting together her adventures in the past, my protagonist ran into a problem that I wasn’t entirely expecting – a problem which changed the story’s trajectory and, eventually, the title as well.

No one believed her.

And who could blame them? Any time traveler is going to have a hard time convincing people that they’re from the future, and in the year 1914, an 18-year-old girl wasn’t likely to be taken seriously about anything – much less the existence of time travel and warnings about the future. Thus, I had a new problem for my main character to solve – one that lands her in quite a bit of trouble.

That left only the problem of the title. The Compossibility Theory didn’t fit so well anymore now that my Big Idea had taken me in a different direction than I’d anticipated. So I turned to the past for my inspiration.

In Greek mythology, Cassandra was a Trojan princess. She was given the gift of prophecy by her admirer, Apollo, but then when she refused his advances, he cursed her so that no one would ever believe any of her prophecies – including ones regarding the destruction of Troy. Today, a “Cassandra complex” refers to when someone’s valid warnings or concerns are dismissed, which is exactly the sort of struggle my main character is up against. One quick name change, and I had the perfect title to a story all about a time traveler trying to make her voice heard.


The Cassandra Complex: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes/Apple Books | World Weaver Press

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

The Big Idea: Michael Moreci

If you’re a writer, is it better to be the proverbial tortoise or the proverbial hare? And does either matter as long as you’re still running the race? Michael Moreci considers this topic today in his Big Idea, and how it relates to his newly released novel, We Are Mayhem.


Selling books is hard.

Now, I’m certain this isn’t news to most people who read this blog, or anyone familiar with the book market in general. It’s no secret that most books are not bestsellers. In fact, most books end up losing money for their publisher. I came into the book world from comics; when my debut novel, last year’s Black Star Renegades, was published, I already had a track record writing both original and licensed comic books. And, to be certain, comics and books aren’t all that dissimilar—especially when it comes to profitability. Still, I experienced a learning curve when entering the book world, and I’m still learning today.

I’ll never forget what my sales rep told me, soon after Black Star Renegades was released. We’d met by happenstance—well, happenstance and some assistance from my friend and bookseller extraordinaire, Javier—and she imparted a piece of advice that has stuck with me. She said: The important thing is for your book to keep selling; so many books come out, sell for a few weeks, and vanish. They never sell again.

I thought, at the time, this had to be hyperbole. I was wrong.

Weeks later, I was at a book signing, and I was seated next to another first-time author. Unlike me, she had a tremendous amount of publishing knowledge from her time working at one of the major book houses. She gave me the same advice as my sales rep, reinforcing the idea that for books to be successful, they have to stick around. She—and I don’t want to reveal her name, for the sake of her privacy—told me a story about a book that her publisher had paid over $100K to acquire; this book had been out for two months and had sold ~two hundred copies. The math on that, as you might assume, isn’t good.

From the day Black Star Renegades was released, I was determined to make it a success; I doubled my efforts upon learning these horror stories of books that get released and, massive advance or not, disappear weeks later. Look, being candid—I knew Black Star Renegades wasn’t going to be a bestseller. The trick, I figured, was to make sure it stuck around.

I forget the exact numbers, but I did something like 40 events in 2018, ranging from bookstore signings, book festivals, comic conventions, and library appearances. Granted, I love this stuff; I love being part of book clubs, leading library workshops, and talking about writing in general. But 40 is a lot. And I’m exhausted.

The results, though, are real. Between Black Star Renegades and its sequel, We Are Mayhem (just released this week!), I’m going to earn out my advance (meaning my publisher will recoup the money they paid me to write these books). Would I consider these books to be a runaway successes? Nope. But—there’s something to be said about finding success in longevity. Because that’s what publishing is, for many writers: the ability to stick around. It’s what my writing teachers taught me, and what I teach my own students. Making it in this field is a marathon, not a sprint, and the marathon doesn’t end when your book is out.

Getting to the actual books, having the temerity to stick around is something that’s often on my mind. At the core of both Black Star Renegades and We Are Mayhem is a story that centers around what happens when the messiah figure (and we all know the prevalence of the messiah complex in fiction, and in real life) is taken off the playing field. What happens when a magical someone isn’t going to fix all the world’s problems?

I volunteered for the Obama campaign back 2008, and I’ll never forget the day after he won, when everyone saw the campaign’s success as the end goal—they figured Obama was going to fix everything, and that would be that. But that’s not that. Like finding success as a writer, the goal of bettering the world is an ongoing effort. You have to endure. You have to be dedicated to your cause and strive and sacrifice to make things work. That’s what I wanted my characters to discover once their messiah is gone and their backs are pushed against the wall. They face tremendous odds in having to topple an evil galactic empire, and without any hope for a magical solution to help see them through. But in this vacuum, they find hope in unity; hope in the will to defy the ruling order and fight for what’s right. And I think that’s a story we all need in our lives (especially these days).

So, We Are Mayhem picks up where Black Star Renegades left off. The galaxy is at war. Ace pilot Kira Sen is leading a group of resistance fighters against the Praxis empire while Cade Sura wrangles with the destiny—in the form of a powerful, mythical weapon—that was shoved in his hands. The book is a little bit of Star Wars, a touch of Arthurian legend, and a whole bunch of space adventure fun.

We Are Mayhem: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Limits of My Knowledge, Professionally (and Otherwise)

Someone asked me about “impostor syndrome” today on Twitter, so I linked over to the piece I wrote about it a couple of years back. Not surprisingly, this being Twitter, some folks had criticisms of the piece; one of the most cogent came from Lindsay Ellis, who essayed it in a multitweet thread which begins here, and which I encourage everyone to read. Among other criticisms, Lindsay says the following:

Scalzi talking about why he thinks he’s never suffered from Impostor Syndrome is a separate issue from people overcoming their own. I’m sure he gets the question “how do I overcome impostor syndrome?” a lot – but here is the thing; if he’s never had it, he doesn’t know.

This is, in fact, entirely accurate. I can say that I believe people shouldn’t have it, because (in the case of writers) if you write, you’re a writer, and that’s a thing in itself. Hopefully that’s encouraging to some people. But as Lindsay and others noted, me saying that doesn’t actually essay the issue for lots of folks, or even come close to addressing the root issues of impostor syndrome for many people. It’s not something I’ve ever experienced, and the closest I’ve come to experiencing it manifested itself in a different way: not “They’re all going to figure out that I’m fraud” but rather “Look at me I’m totally getting away with this,” and even that in a mostly transitory way.

I don’t feel bad about this. I’m not going to pretend I’ve felt something that I haven’t, and by and large I’m pretty happy not have experienced impostor syndrome. It doesn’t seem like a good time, although Lindsay notes that one can harness it for one’s benefit. But inasmuch as I’ve not experienced it, I’m probably not the right person to give advice on how to avoid it, or how to deal with it when it happens to you. The best I can do is to explain why it’s never happened to me, which mostly boils down to privilege, encouragement and ego (the last of which substantially helped by the first two). These things are what allowed me, when confronted with naysayers, to say “Oh, yeah? Watch this,” rather than to wonder whether they were right.

The conversation on impostor syndrome also dovetails for me into a larger thought I’ve been having, about the overall usefulness of writing/publishing advice I might give people, particularly newer writers. I’ve been writing professionally for almost 30 years; I’ve been a published novelist for almost fifteen. There are certain things I feel comfortable talking about these days with regard to writing composition (I can tell you how to craft reasonably good sentences, paragraphs, chapters and stories), and I can give you a reasonable birds-eye view of the publishing world, because I’m high up enough in it that I see a whole lot of what’s going on, including the things that most people don’t see. And, I’m good about talking about all the fun ancillary things that could happen when a book takes off, like TV/movie deals and other such projects. There are things I know about all of these, and it’s contemporary information.

But — when I started off as a professional writer, newspapers were still a thing, and they were hiring journalists, not laying them off by the score. The Internet existed mostly as a communication system between universities and defense department outposts. When I got my start as a novelist, eBooks were barely a thing at all, and not even covered in contracts; audiobooks were mostly an afterthought. Amazon was still mostly about books. These days, my business is novels — I don’t do a whole lot of other writing for money because, bluntly, Tor pays me a shitload of money to keep my focus on books. Oh, and, also, I’m a millionaire now, which is a pretty good thing for me, but also means that I’m well-insulated from a lot of concerns and issues that affect other writers. And of course there’s the part where I’m straight, white, male and cis, so I get that complement of societal buffs for free.

So while there a lot of things I know about writing, and publishing, and creating and so on, there’s also quite a lot of stuff that I don’t have direct experience with anymore, because where I am in my career is sufficiently removed from those issues that they don’t affect me, and I don’t have to spend any great amount of time thinking about them. If you ask me about these issues, I will tell you what my experience was, and how I understand things work today, but do keep in mind that asking me about a lot of them is like asking your dad (or grandad! I’m technically old enough now to be one!) tips on the hottest upcoming bands. If you’re lucky you’ll get “Uh, I don’t know, that Imagine Dragons group?” before he throws up his hands (note: 40-to-60-year old men reading this, this is not your cue to drop the names of hip young bands in the comments to prove that you’re not out of touch). Likewise, while I do try to keep up with trends and events in my industry and community, there are now gaps in my knowledge. Things today are not like when I was coming up, and I’m not in the same place today that I was when I was coming up.

This is not a bad thing. It’s fine for creative people to go through stages in their career, where the knowledge useful to an earlier stage falls away and knowledge useful to their current stage takes its place. Time happens, whether we prefer it to or not. Experience likewise happens. My experience is valid, and the information I have can still be useful, but all of it exists in the context of this is who I am and where I am now in my professional life. Additionally, it should be viewed in the context of survivorship bias — which is to say, I have made it to a particular place in my career, and while I can offer you information based on my experience to tell you how I got here, it might be more useful to examine the careers of people who haven’t landed where I have, despite having similar starting points and early career arcs.

I think I’ve generally been pretty good at disclosing and disclaiming who I am and what my place is in the world, and I think I’ve likewise been pretty good at reminding people that one, what worked for me might not work for them, and two, that when I opine about things (including things relating to my profession), I might occasionally be pulling things out of my ass. And to be fair I think a lot of writers and creators near, at, and above my status do the same thing. Many if not most of us are happy to tell you that our experience is our own, and that you should take it with the same grain of salt that you should take any advice, opinion or claims of experience. Successful writers are no less full of shit than anyone else.

But in case you’ve forgotten this (or this is the first time you’re seeing it), well: Here it is. I can tell you what I know. But what I know isn’t always going to be on point for you. You have to make the determination of what value my words have for your experience. If they’re useful, great! I like being useful. But if not, I won’t be offended. I don’t know everything, and what I do know may be something you can’t use. It happens. It’ll happen to you, too, one day. If you’re lucky.

First Pass Oscar Predictions, 2019

Most of you know I was a professional film critic waaaay back in the day, and one of my hobbies every year is to look at the Academy Award nomination list when it comes out and guess, based on my experience, which people/films will walk away the awards. My prediction rate: Pretty decent! Usually I get five of the six main categories (Best Picture, Director, and the lead and supporting acting categories).

This year, before I begin, I’ll note: Kind of a weird year, nomination-wise. There are some heavily expected films/filmmakers in there, but also a bunch who… really weren’t? At least, they were a surprise to me. And there were some surprise omissions as well. All of which makes this a pretty damn interesting year for the Oscars, and for guessing who will win.

So let’s check out this year’s list and see how it goes.


Black Panther
Bohemian Rhapsody
The Favourite
Green Book
A Star Is Born

Eight nominations this year out of a possible ten, and an interesting spread. For years my usual advice would be to toss out of consideration any film that doesn’t also have a Best Director nod — which this year would punt Black Panther, Bohemian Rhapsody, Green Book and A Star is Born — but this year I wouldn’t do that.

Two of these films, however, I think we can take out of contention immediately: Black Panther and Bohemian Rhapsody are the first off the boat. Black Panther gets a deserved nod in the category, but its other six nominations are in (sorry) undercard categories: No directing, acting or screenwriting nods here. Plus it’s a superhero film. It took the Academy until 2003 to honor a fantasy film, and it took another fifteen years after that to honor a science fiction film. It is correctly nominated in the category, but I don’t think the Academy can bring itself to give the nod to a superhero film (here; more on this later). Bohemian Rhapsody, on the other hand, has a Bryan Singer problem, as the director is in bad odor at the moment for being an alleged sexual harasser and predator, and also for being fired off the film essentially for being a flake. Rhapsody winning would be an embarrassment; these aren’t the Golden Globes, after all. People would actually care.

After that? It gets tricky! Honestly I feel like there are good arguments for each after this point. But let me rank them anyway. I don’t think The Favourite is actually the favorite, but 10 nominations, including director, screenplay and its domination of the actress categories, really can’t be overlooked. It could pull off a surprise. Likewise, BlacKkKlansman isn’t one I see making the final cut, mostly for subject reasons (it’s not usual winner fare), but it was well-regarded and it represents a comeback for Spike Lee, who, honorary awards aside, is fucking owed a competitive Oscar if you ask me. No one can say BlacKkKlansman isn’t of sufficient quality for a win. It could win.

Green Book is next out for me. It did well at the Golden Globes, but its awards season PR campaign has been a bit of a nightmare, what with its primary white actor tossing about the unexpurgated N-word in interviews, its screenwriter having to apologize for bigoted tweets and its director having to apologize for (checks notes) flashing his dick on previous movie sets. So all of that is a thing. Plus, you know, that whole “Driving Miss Daisy 2.0” issue, which maybe isn’t 100% fair, but when you have a Best Picture field that also includes Black Panther and BlacKkKlansman, it’s not hard to see which film in the field is targeted at white folks who want to feel good about how far we’ve all come. And, well. Here in 2019 and in the thick of the Trump Years, “how far we’ve all come” is well up for debate, isn’t it. Which brings us to Vice, which, whatever its other qualities, is a film about Dick Cheney, so, uh, yeah. Maybe I’m overestimating liberal filmmaking’s visceral disgust of the former vice president, but I don’t seeing it making it first past post out there in the Hollywoods.

So we’re down to A Star is Born and Roma. For me the big surprise of the Oscars is Bradley Cooper’s omission in the Best Director category (don’t feel too bad for him, he’s nominated in three other categories), and I think that’s indicative of how much the heat behind this seeming-juggernaut of the awards season has cooled. But cooled or not, I still think it’s one of the two films that has the best chance, especially if the actors branch of the Academy is scandalized that one of their own was not honored as director and seeks retribution/compensation (See: Argo). Beyond this the story is classic Hollywood, frequently told but as it happens rarely honored with awards, so maybe this time is the charm.

But then there’s Roma, which is brilliant and distinctive and classy and everything the Academy loves to see in a Best Picture winner, has great production story to boot, and is from a director who everyone loves (who also shot and wrote the film and is nominated in those categories). It’s the closest thing this year to the front runner, buuuuuuuut there are two wrinkles: It’s also nominated for Best Foreign Language Film and it’s from Netflix. I’s fair to say the Academy hasn’t quite figured out what it thinks about, or wants from, that streaming service, and maybe there’s some residual animosity/whatever there (Disclosure: I have deals with Netflix for things in development/production. I like Netflix, personally. They give me money!).

The A Star is Born-winning scenario is Roma winning the Foreign Language award and Alfonso Cuarón winning Best Director (and/or screenplay or cinematography), leaving the field open for Bradley Cooper’s film. It seems unlikely the Academy will vote for Roma for Foreign Language and Best Picture. So who the Foreign Language winner is will be your first big clue of how the evening will go.

If you put a gun to my head about it, I’d say Best Picture will go to A Star is Born, because, aside from everything else, it wouldn’t hurt the Academy these days to honor as Best Picture a film that made more than $100 million at the domestic box office (the last one to do that: Argo, six years ago). The Academy members know their organization is reeling from PR issues and could use a hit, in more ways than one. But Roma could very definitely take it, and possibly should. If neither of them do it, who knows? The only thing I do know is that if Green Book takes it, black Twitter is going to be lit for the next week afterward.

Will Win: A Star is Born
Should Win: Roma 


Spike Lee, BlacKkKlansman
Pawel Pawlikowski, Cold War
Yorgos Lanthimos, The Favourite
Alfonso Cuarón, Roma
Adam McKay, Vice

Congratulations to Pawlikowski for (probably) punting Bradley Cooper out of the fifth Best Director slot and for raising his profile considerably. He won’t win here, but if Cold War wins in Foreign Language (which it probably will, if Roma does not), he’ll still get his moment and it will probably be good news for Roma, too. So everyone wins (except, uh, A Star is Born). I’m pretty sure Lanthimos and McCay are along for the ride here, although of the two I think Lanthimos has an outside chance, and we should all watch the next few weeks to see if The Favourite’s star rises generally. I think Spike Lee has a reasonable chance although again this might just be me projecting my come on for fuck’s sake it’s Spike Lee feelings here. For all that I’ll be mildly shocked if Cuarón doesn’t walk with this one. This is as close to a gimme as this year is giving us.

Will Win: Cuarón
Should Win: Cuarón


Yalitza Aparicio, Roma
Glenn Close, The Wife
Olivia Colman, The Favourite
Lady Gaga, A Star Is Born
Melissa McCarthy, Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Probably the most competitive category because there are good arguments for everyone here: McCarthy is stretching herself as an actor and the Academy loves that; Aparicio is literally coming out of nowhere (from the Hollywood point of view) and that’s a deeply attractive thing for voters; Colman is an actor’s actor and I suspect has a lot of admirers in the acting branch and beyond; and Lady Gaga is Lady Gaga and she basically carries A Star is Born on her surprisingly naturalistic shoulders.

In any other year, I’d put chips on Gaga and Colman, but here’s the thing: This is Glenn Close’s seventh Oscar nomination, and if anyone deserves the “career award” path to an acting Oscar win — in which the Oscar win is less about the particular performance than the recognition that the person should seriously have won by now — it’s Close. Does Close deserve the Actress Oscar for The Wife, against all the other performers in the field this year? Maaaaaaybe? Does she deserve an Oscar? Oh hell yes she does. I suspect the Academy members know it, too.

Will Win: Close
Should Win: Colman


Christian Bale, Vice
Bradley Cooper, A Star Is Born
Willem Dafoe, At Eternity’s Gate
Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody
Viggo Mortensen, Green Book

I think Mortensen is one of our most interesting actors generally and I can watch him in just about anything, but he certainly hasn’t been helping himself recently on the PR front, and I don’t really see this being the role that nets him an Oscar (I suspect Mortensen, who is quirky, is probably okay not winning, so). Aaaaand I don’t think Actor is the Oscar Vice is going to get, Bale’s method acting aside (he’s already got an Oscar, and he’ll be back, so he’ll be fine). So that leaves Cooper, Dafoe and Malek. Malek’s possible, and in fact I think this is Rhapsody’s best chance at a big award, but Cooper is in a similar(ish) role and his film is generally less problematic. On the other hand, if Star wins Best Picture, Cooper picks up an award there, and Academy members do like to spread awards around these days. But on the other other hand: Willem Dafoe, who like Close is certainly eligible for the “Career Oscar” treatment, and whose performance as Vincent Van Gogh is widely acclaimed. I am personally vaguely annoyed that a 63-year-old actor is playing “the final years” of a man who died at 37, but honestly who cares what I think about that.

This category I’m not sold on any particular person being the front runner, but for now I’ll go with Dafoe and see if it sticks in the next few weeks. If not Defoe, I’ll say Malek, with Cooper consoling himself(!) with a mere Best Picture statuette.

Will Win: Dafoe
Should Win: Bale


Mahershala Ali, Green Book
Adam Driver, BlacKkKlansman
Sam Elliott, A Star Is Born
Richard E. Grant, Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Sam Rockwell, Vice

Ali and Rockwell have won Oscars within the last couple of years and I don’t think there is a huge belief among Academy members that they absolutely must have another one right now, so I’m going to go ahead and drop them out of consideration. Adam Driver I think is happy to be here! Good for him, I think we’ll see him in this category again at least a couple more times in the future. I don’t think it’s his year (although if it is, that’s gonna be a good sign for Spike Lee). I’m delighted to see Grant in the category as I’ve been a fan of his since How to Get Ahead in Advertising, and I think there is a pretty good chance he’ll get the nod. But at the end of the day I think it’s Sam Elliot’s to lose, and I will be surprised if he does.

Will Win: Elliot
Should Win: Elliot


Amy Adams, Vice
Marina de Tavira, Roma
Regina King, If Beale Street Could Talk
Emma Stone, The Favourite
Rachel Weisz, The Favourite

Stone and Weisz already have Oscars and again there’s not a huge rush to give either another. And after that, who knows? Any of the other three could take it. My money is on Adams, who is a multiple nominee, is edging into “she should have an Oscar as some point so why not now” territory, and whose Oscar win would take care of Vice’s Oscar recognition generally. But King and de Tavira should not be counted out, particularly King, who already won a Golden Globe for this role, and otherwise has recently won an Emmy. So: We’ll see!

Will Win: Adams
Should Win: King

Other Awards: I’ve already talked about Foreign Language — if Roma wins, it’s likely to be A Star Is Born’s night; if not, then Roma is still in the running for Best Picture. If Lady Gaga doesn’t get Actress, she will be able to content herself with an Original Song Oscar, as “Shallow,” which she co-wrote, is a prohibitive favorite in the category. In the screenplay categories, I’m feeling The Favourite and also maaaaaaybe BlacKkKlansman, the latter being a place where Academy members have a chance to give Spike Lee his competitive Oscar (but I’m very soft on that prediction). If you’re wondering where Black Panther has a shot, see Costume and Production Design, with (I think) Costume being the best chance (It’s also up in the Sound categories, but I don’t have a feel for those).

I do think a superhero film will win an Oscar: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is I think the hot tip for the Animated Film Oscar. Incredibles 2 might still take it (which would not be the worst thing, it’s perfectly good!), and I have to say I have a soft spot for Ralph Breaks the Internet, because my pal Pamela Ribon co-wrote the screenplay, and it’s hilarious. But, yeah. Spider-Man was a game-changer, and if it doesn’t win, it was robbed.

I’ll check in again just before the actual ceremony to see if my feelings about the categories have changed at all. In the meantime, you may now entertain your own Oscar thoughts in the comments.

Mary Robinette Kowal is Running for SFWA President and I Endorse Her Candidacy

She announced it last night. Here is her platform, which I encourage you to read if you are a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (and even if you are not).

Some of you may recall that I was SFWA president once, from 2010 to 2013. Mary Robinette was my vice president for two of those years, 2010 through 2012, and was secretary of SFWA for two years before that. In my role as president, I got a chance to see her work for SFWA up close. She was, in a word, excellent. As my VP she gave me sound advice and counsel (up to and including telling me when I was wrong), she executed on policy and strategy in ways that were smart and effective, and she was my not-so-secret weapon in instances that required tact and delicacy. She was, in sum, the very best of vice-presidents.

I believe strongly Mary Robinette will be even better as president of the organization. She is a working writer, so she is aware of the day-to-day realities of the writing life. She’s well-known and is well-regarded in the community of science fiction and fantasy writing and publishing; doors are open to her, which will be to the benefit of the organization. Her track record of service to SFWA as an organization and to its members is both long and meritorious, and she knows the organization and its people as well as any person could. She is a genuinely great writer and communicator — with the awards to prove it — and SFWA could not ask for a better face of the organization.

Most importantly, Mary Robinette’s platform is simultaneously sensible and forward-looking: A combination of policies to strengthen what SFWA is already good at and can do now, and policies to make SFWA an even better organization for science fiction and fantasy writers in the future. She has good goals, and has the right skills to move those goals forward.

Finally, Mary Robinette is one of my best friends, and has been for a dozen years now. I can’t think of anyone I respect more as a person, or anyone whose unique combination of personal and professional qualities are as admirable. She is the whole package, the real deal, and one of the best people you could hope to meet.

For all these reasons, I endorse Mary Robinette Kowal’s candidacy for President of SFWA. I look forward to voting for her, and then, as a member of SFWA, having her be my president. There’s no one better for the job. I’m very glad she’s running.

Yes, There’s a Point to Bad Reviews in 2019

Got a request:

So I read the piece. And here are some thoughts, informed by having been both a professional critic and reviewer, and a professional creative artist. These thoughts, perhaps not surprisingly, get longer as I go along.

1. The point of a bad review is to point out when something is bad, and give relevant context for that badness.

2. Some things are bad art. It doesn’t mean that the bad art can’t be popular, or enduring, or even, in time, a “classic.” “Bad art” means very generally that the creator(s) did not achieve in their art what that art was meant to be, or at the very least, what it was advertised to be by them to others. These failures happen (in my opinion) mostly for reasons of competence, or lack thereof. There are other definitions of “bad art” but this one works the most often.

3. It’s okay to call out what in your opinion is bad art, especially when your job description is “reviewer” or “critic.” And sometimes it is even necessary; someone has to point out when the emperor has no clothes.

4. Criticism itself is an art — the ability to gestalt someone else’s art and coherently, cogently, and persuasively comment on it is a skill, and a much more difficult skill to master than people often assume. Sometimes the criticism of the art is better (and sometimes arguably more important) than the art itself — Roger Ebert’s famous pan of North is a better piece of art than the film it criticizes, for example. I saw (and reviewed) the film. There is not a line in Ebert’s review that is inaccurate or undeserved, and his ability to so memorably and compactly assess the film’s flaws and shortcomings is why the review is remembered long after the film itself has been purged from the cultural memory.

Ebert was famously the first film reviewer to get a Pulitzer for criticism; there’s a reason for that. Ebert was an artist, whose medium was the film review. Other critics are artists as well.

5. Which means that their art is equally up for criticism! There are plenty of bad reviewers and critics and commentators out there, offering bad takes because they’re incompetent, or ignorant of the field or art which they choose to review, or poorly frame the context of their criticism, or are more interested in tweetable snark than cogent commentary, or whatever. Sometimes the frame for reviewing and criticism can be simple — “Is this film/album/art worth your actual money or time?” — and sometimes it can be more complex.

Critics and reviewers do not have to be artists in the field they are commenting on, but it helps immensely if they know about that field — and also, have a reasonable grasp of rhetoric and argument. Anyone can criticize, but not everyone can create good and useful criticism, the stuff that contextualizes the art in question.

6. There’s a difference between a “bad review” — a negative review of a work — and a poor review, which is a review that is poorly done. Bad reviews can be brilliantly done and useful to their audience; poor reviews can be negative or positive about the work in question but add no useful context or argument regarding the work. Poor reviews are bad art.

7. This is important: The critic does not work for the artist. The critic’s audience is (as examples) the readership/viewership of whatever media outlet they work for, a particular group with a specific aesthetic interest, future scholars of whatever medium the criticism focuses on, and so on. When I was a film reviewer, I was working for a newspaper and my audience was the readership of that paper. I was not writing for the filmmakers, or their studios, or their PR people (and most of the time filmmakers/studios/PR people understood this very well). I literally did not care what the filmmakers thought of the review; the review wasn’t for them. It was for the people looking for how to amuse themselves on a Friday night. I owed it to those people to say whether a movie was (in my opinion) worth their time and money.

8. This doesn’t mean that artist can’t or shouldn’t read reviews of their work — or have opinions about the particular reviews, or the particular reviewers — but I think it would be helpful to them to remember that reviews are almost never for them, and that a reviewer/critic/commentator has a specific fiduciary duty that is not in any way about them. And also: Sometimes a bad review can be good for you as an artist! Yes, it sucks to have someone review your work negatively, but it’s also useful to remember that a bad review isn’t always a poor review, and sometimes a negative review can cogently identify a bothersome issue that you yourself have not been able to put a finger on — and having identified it for you, you can now work to fix it in later work.

9. In the piece linked to above, there’s a bit where John Krasinski talks about mentioning to Paul Thomas Anderson that he didn’t think a new film (from a third director) was very good. Anderson tells him, basically, to keep it that to himself, realize that not everything is for him, and to support the other artist anyway, because it’s a tough field and all their compatriots need support.

And you know what? I don’t think that’s bad advice for artists generally. It’s very rare you will see me, as a science fiction author, write or otherwise publicly offer a negative review of work from other writers in the genre — I’ll tell you what I liked in the field, but I don’t go out of my way to tell you what I didn’t like. Because it’s a tough field, not everything is for me, and generally speaking I’m for helping out other people in my field even if their work isn’t something I’m personally excited about. I do this on the principles of paying it forward, and of a rising tide.

Can and should every artist do this? That’s for them to decide, and I’ll be the first to say that my position on the matter is more than a little informed by my position in my particular field, and the repercussions to me and others if I’m perceived to be “punching down” (note that both Krasinski and Anderson would be vulnerable to the same repercussions in their rather higher-profile field). It’s more to the point to say that there is a difference between the role of the artist in their community of peers, and the role of the critic, acting as a commentator and contextualizer of the field those artists inhabit.

10. Do bad reviews still have a point in 2019? Yes, obviously they do — there is still bad art out there, and it’s within the remit of reviewers and critics to comment on it, both for the sake of their direct audiences, and to help identify and explain the larger cultural context within which the work resides. The bad review runs the risk of hurting the artists’ feelings and/or enraging the admirers of that artist, but that’s their problem, not a problem for the critic.

What does the critic owe anyone? Competence, basically — the promise that a “bad review” is not a poor review. If the critic can’t manage that, then they’re as vulnerable as any other artist to justified criticism.

And that’s what I think about it.

Author Incomes: Not Great, Now or Then

What’s being passed around among authors in the last few days: The latest Authors Guild survey, which shows that the median income for all authors (from their books) is $6,080, while the median income for full-time authors is $20,300. That $6k median figure is down significantly from previous years. So if you made more than $6k from book earnings last year, congratulations, you made more than half of your authorial compatriots.

Before everyone panics about the declines too much, please note: “The Authors Guild’s prior surveys were focused on Authors Guild members. For our 2018 survey, we greatly expanded the number of published authors we surveyed to provide a much larger, highly diverse pool and wider perspective,” i.e., the comparing the results this year to previous years isn’t apples to oranges, but might be comparing a Honeycrisp to a Red Delicious.

Interestingly to me, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America does not appear to have participated in this survey, and I’d be curious to know how its participation would have nudged figures one way or another (I suspect not much either way). Also, these are self-reported numbers from about 5,000 North American authors, which is a) only a small slice of those writing books, either full-time or part-time, b) represents those who knew about the survey and were motivated to answer it. I’ll note I was not aware of the survey and (thus) did not participate.

It’s not to say the survey is inaccurate or especially alarmist, rather that it’s a snapshot of these 5,000 specific authors, with income noted from specific places, and conclusions made from that specific data. As a contrast, the Bureau of Labor Statistics notes that in the United States, the 2017 median income for its category of “writers and authors” was $61,820 annually, with 131,200 jobs in the category (which excludes PR specialists and technical writers, but does include people who write PR and offer technical consulting, so go figure).

The Author Guild and the BLS data sets overlap (the full-time authors) but aren’t the same, but that’s the point I’m making. The BLS would tell you it’s not a horrible time to be in the category of “writers and authors” — it estimates the field will expand 8% in the next decade! — while the Author’s Guild is sending up red flags all over the place. Who’s right and who’s wrong? Well, neither is wrong. But perhaps the immediate lesson one should take from this is that if you’re hoping to be an author, you should probably keep your day job as you do it.

Which, it should be noted, is not new advice, either. I’ve been giving people that suggestion for literally decades now, and kept that advice myself well into my authoring career. For the first decade of my book publishing career, the majority of my income came from my “day job” of freelance writing and corporate consulting. As an overall percentage of my 28-year professional writing career, “full time author” accurately describes only about a third of that time. I kept my “day job” until it didn’t make economic sense to do so anymore. For some people it will always make sense to keep one’s day job. It doesn’t mean they won’t write excellent books in the meantime, or that the day job will be a hindrance rather than a solid economic foundation.

The Authors Guild’s survey points out some things that authors should rightly be concerned about, including the economic domination of Amazon over their particular commercial sphere (particularly if they self-publish, as Amazon has something like 85% of that market, and Amazon’s terms for participation there are non-negotiable). But it also has Authors Guild higher-ups saying things like this in the New York Times:

“In the 20th century, a good literary writer could earn a middle-class living just writing,” said Mary Rasenberger, executive director of the Authors Guild, citing William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway and John Cheever.

I mean, okay, first, Faulkner, Hemingway and Cheever maybe aren’t the best examples of the writing middle-class, since by the height of their careers they were festooned with bestsellers, awards, film adaptations and general fame; I mean, two-thirds of them have friggin’ Nobel Prizes, which also suggests they are seen as better than just “good” in their field. But second, it’s also worth noting that even these celebrated authors didn’t see a uniformly comfortable existence from “just writing.” Faulkner memorably decamped to Hollywood in the 30s because he wasn’t earning enough “just writing” to support his growing family. Hemingway equally famously expatriated himself to Paris in the 20s because it was cheap to live there on a writer’s income. Cheever, who for a time made a living writing summaries of novels for MGM, got a Guggenheim fellowship at the right time, which was nice for him, since it allowed him to focus on “just writing.”

The Authors Guild’s problem here appears to be one of survivorship bias, namely, that the authors its execs can name off the top of their head as being writers making a living “just writing” in the 20th Century are the ones that are the literary equivalent of the one tenth of the one percent. When you’re reaching for a name of a “middle-class living” writer and you pick a Nobel Prize winner, you’re not exactly bolstering your argument. And you’re also eliding years of impecunious anonymity and/or economic volatility writers often suffer before they got to the place where they would be at the top of mind when you’re reaching for an example of 20th Century authorial “middle-class living.” I’m more curious how the jobbing authors of the mid-century fared; the ones who didn’t win Nobel Prizes or hit the bestseller lists or got film adaptations of their works. I’d like to know more about whether they managed a middle-class living, and whether that middle-class living was consistent, or more about being in the right place in with a particular economic phenomenon that supported their specific type of writing.

Which brings me to this interesting curio, in which the mid-20th Century English science fiction author John Brunner offers up an account of what it was like to be a jobbing author in the UK in the 1960s — a period of time in which one major income stream for SF writers (short story magazines) was declining whilst another (novel publication) was ascendant, and it was possible to generate income from both. This piece was published in 1967, a couple of years before Brunner would capture his share of fame with the Hugo-winning Stand on Zanzibar, and release his most notable novels, culminating with The Shockwave Rider in 1975.

What’s interesting to me about Brunner’s depiction of what it’s like to write SF in the 1960s is how similar it is to what it’s like to write it today — how much of it depends on volume and hustle to counteract the general low advances and pay, how variable the pay can be depending on factors that have little to do with the author themself, and how Brunner himself acknowledges that his own “middle-class living” relies on location, in his case the less-than-glamorous-at-the-time UK, rather than what he saw as the rather more expensive United States.

Did his string of novels from Zanzibar to Shockwave solve his economic worries? As the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction notes, not really: “Unsurprisingly (with hindsight), though these novels received considerable critical attention, they in no way made Brunner’s fortune. He was always extremely open about his finances and his hopes for the future, and made no secret of the let-down he felt on discovering himself, after these culminating efforts, still in the position of being forced to produce commercially to survive. This naivete was humanly touching, but fatal to his career.”

Brunner’s tale here is anecdotal, and as with all anecdotes one should be careful not to make more of it than it is. But at the same time, as an anecdote, Brunner’s tale has more to tell us about middle-class author jobbing in the 20th Century than the tale of Ernest Hemingway or William Faulkner. And to bring it around to where we started with this piece, it does suggest that at all times, it’s a hard time to make a living — middle-class or otherwise — solely as an author.

Is it harder now? It might be. It’s different than it was fifty years ago, with different players and challenges, but also with different opportunities — it’s the best time in decades to be writing novellas, for example, and the best time ever for writing work meant for the audiobook format. And if the BLS has anything to tell us, it’s not the worst time ever to be a writer in a general sense, at least in the US.

Just, you know. Maybe keep your day job. Still.

The Big Idea: Dan Koboldt

Science Fiction writers love science, but we don’t always get the science we already know 100% correct. Fortunately, Dan Koboldt is on the case, with his book Putting the Science in Fiction.


A few years ago, I wrote an article for Apex Magazine called “Eye-based Paternity Testing and Other Human Genetics Myths,” mostly because I was irritated at how frequently I encountered misconceptions about genetic inheritance in books, television, movies, and other media. I’ve worked as a genetics researcher for fifteen years, and it surprises me at how often people get this stuff wrong.

One frequent myth is the idea that physical traits like (like eye color) are inherited in classic Mendelian (i.e. dominant and recessive) fashion and can predict family relationships. The rock song “All I Wanna Do” by Heart is a great example. A woman has a one-night stand with a young man who apparently is hitchhiking. Years later, they run into each other and she’s got a child. “You can imagine his surprise,” the song goes, “when he saw his own eyes.”

It’s a great song but also not very realistic. Having similar eyes doesn’t make two people related. While it’s true that blood relatives often resemble one another, most physical traits that we think of as “genetic” are influenced by multiple genes and environmental factors. Eye color is a spectrum, and appears to be influenced by at least 15 different genes. It doesn’t always follow predictable inheritance patterns, either. People with blue eyes can have brown-eyed children and vice-versa.

In other words, eye color, like most physical traits, is not a good paternity test.

Another common myth is the idea of a “advantageous” mutation that changes an ordinary person into a superhero. It’s true that exposure things like radiation, carcinogens, and some classes of viruses can cause genetic mutations. However, a mutation occurs in the DNA of a single cell. Our bodies have millions of cells by the time we’re adults. Most mutations have no effect. Some may be deleterious, causing the cell to die. Even fewer mutations confer some kind of advantage to the cell, allowing it to grow and divide. If this happens, you don’t become a superhero; you’ve got cancer. Sorry, Spiderman.

After I wrote the article, I thought it might be fun to have an ongoing blog series to educate authors about scientific and technical aspects of science fiction. The problem was that many of the relevant topics were outside my area of expertise. We may not like to admit it, but scientists don’t know everything. We tend to specialize in a given field, and outside of it we may not have any more knowledge than the average person.

I wanted my blog articles to be written by true experts. After all, someone who works in a relevant field on a day-to-day basis can provide depth and nuance that you won’t find on Wikipedia. Also, their information tends to be more up-to-date, because not all of us get around to writing books or updating the relevant wiki page.

So I started to collect experts in other subject areas. The SFF community, as it turns out, is full of them. Most writers have day jobs, after all, and a lot of them work in science, engineering, medicine, and other technical fields. This was the genesis of my Science in Sci-fi, Fact in Fantasy blog series. Each week, I invite an expert to discuss their real world expertise as it applies to science fiction. Most of the contributors are SFF fans themselves, so they offer some lovely examples of works that get things wrong (or right).

Fast forward a few years, and the blog series had collected something like 150 articles representing a wide range of disciplines. Eventually, someone smarter than me had the idea to collect this useful information into a book. I thought that Writer’s Digest books would be the ideal publisher for such a reference. Luckily, they agreed.

Putting the Science in Fiction includes 59 chapters from a wide range of technical experts who collectively have endured more than 200 years of graduate school. Two thirds of the book’s contributors identify as female, by the way, so we’ve kept the “mansplaining” to a minimum. There’s also a hilarious foreword by bestselling author Chuck Wendig.

Our goal is simple: to help writers add a dose of realism to their science fiction stories. Every chapter is short and to the point; we address common pitfalls and misconceptions, and then offer some tips for getting the details right. With a bit of expert guidance, anyone can write stories that are realistic and compelling (even to readers who know a lot about the underlying science). And that, my friends, is the big idea.


Putting the Science in Fiction: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site.

1998/2018: Whatever 20/20, Day Ten: Spouse

This one is easy: I’ve had the same spouse the last 20 years, and if I’m lucky I’ll have the same one twenty years from now, and if I’m really lucky I’ll the same one 20 years after that, too. If I have the same one 20 years after that, there’s probably been some amazing breakthrough in the aging process, since then I would be 109. But if I am, and there is, I hope that I would have the same one, too.

That said, 1998 was a very significant year in our spousedom, because this was the year that Krissy was pregnant with Athena, and the year we stopped being only spouses and became parents as well. No matter what your relationship is as a married couple, adding a kid to the mix changes things, and it was a reasonable question about how a child would change how we related to each other.

It turns out we did pretty well with it (I mean, so far; Athena turns 20 this December). Part of that was because we did what we already always did with each other, which was to talk about it — what our fears and concerns and expectations and hopes were for this whole “we’ll be parents” thing. After all, we had several months to prepare and be ready to support each other.

As a result, I think parenthood made us better spouses. We better understood each other because of our expectations about child rearing, we trusted each other to take the lead when one of us needed a break, and we relied on each other to otherwise share the load of helping another person make their way into the world. Whether we were great parents is something you’ll need to ask Athena about, but in the matter of being husband and wife, it worked out pretty great, and gave us a deeper appreciation for the other. I’m not saying it works that way for every set of spouses (or that every set of spouses should have kids). But in 1998, a new child was a thing was going to change our relationship to each other. In 2018 I can say it absolutely did, and for the better.

Parenthood is of course not the only event that made its mark on us as spouses over the last twenty years. Moving to Ohio in 2001 was another — when we moved, Krissy didn’t have a job lined up and I was not entirely sure that I would be able to sustain my freelance relationships when I didn’t live in DC or have relatively easy access to NYC, which were the two hubs of my freelance work. Krissy had her family in the area but I didn’t have any of my own set of friends. It could have been a stressful switch in our life. But again we did what we always do: talk and plan and rely on each other and find ways to have each other’s backs. We got some breaks in there, to be sure (like my freelance clients not caring where I lived, and Krissy getting a job that promoted her seven hours into her first day because they immediately realized her worth to them). But knowing we are there for each other matters, then and now.

I can give you more specific examples, but at this point I think you probably get it. The John and Kristine show runs on communication and trust and love, always has and hopefully always will. I realize that there are very few couples who wouldn’t say that they trust their spouse and tell them everything and hold nothing back, quite obviously; it’s what you’re supposed to do. And hopefully people do! Because it has worked for us. And also, yes: in fact, I trust Krissy and tell her everything and hold nothing back from her.

Because why would I? It turns out (and anyone who has met Krissy will confirm this for you) that Krissy is smarter, wiser and better grounded than I ever was and have ever been, and having someone like that in your life is huge if you’re someone like me. Aside from being someone I can rely on for advice and grounding, she’s also been someone I have learned from, and to model some of my own behavior on. Many of the things people have said they admire about me, I got from watching her do them first, and then taking the time to incorporate them into my own personality and outlook. I give Krissy a lot of credit for helping me to become a functional grown-up, basically.

Krissy, is, bluntly, the person I admire the most in the world. She is the person who I think of when I wonder what action to take, not only in the sense of “what would Krissy do” but in the sense of “is this something I would be proud to tell her that I did.” I may or may not ever do something based on the first of these (she is not me and I am not her), but I can always rely on the second as a guide. Moreover, she the basis and foundation of any success I have had since I met her. There is not a day I do not acknowledge and appreciate all the ways, small and large, that her presence in my life and her partnership with me has made my life materially and existentially better.

And what does she get out of me? Well, she’s the best person to answer that question, of course. But with that said, and with full acknowledgement that usually this is the place where someone like me writing something like this says “I don’t know what she sees in me,” I think there are a few things I do bring to the table. Krissy is good with what’s directly in front of her; I am good at thinking several steps out. I think fast and I am good in a crisis. I am deeply loyal. Weirdly for someone both creative and lacking in a real job, I have always made good money and have never been stupid about having it or keeping it. Finally, I have a moral center. This is not to suggest that she doesn’t (oh, she does), but to suggest that she doesn’t have to spend a lot of time worrying about whether I do.

Also, I see her: she has never had cause to doubt that I value her, and that I know her value, not just for me, or for our relationship, but in and for herself. Krissy is easy to look at — she is, without exaggeration, one of the most physically beautiful people I’ve seen in my life — but there is a difference between being looked at and being seen. I’ve seen her since our first date in 1993, when we had our first real talk and I realized there was a whole lot more to this person sitting across from me than the fact that she was visually stunning. I still see her, and continue to find more to see in her, every day.

Plus! I make her laugh and am also her lifetime designated driver, which are not small things, either.

Ultimately I think a major aspect of our success as spouses is simply that we are complementary on many process things and in agreement on many moral and philosophical things. There are things I can’t do she can do (or that I can do, it’s just she does them better), and vice versa, and on a day to day basis, that makes things work. Deep down she and I have similar a similar outlook on what defines A Good Life, and on existential basis, that also makes things work. I think this a useful combination for spouses to have in a general sense. I think most people are better off with someone who sees the world similarly and have skills that make them a good team.

I don’t think it’s a secret to anyone, either who reads me online or who knows me in real life, that I’m besotted with my wife; if upon meeting you for the first time in real life I haven’t shown you a picture of her within five minutes, I’m off my game. I get moony and giddy when I’m out with her in public, too, as again anyone who’s seen me with her in public will tell you. What you don’t know is that I kind of do that when we’re by ourselves too. I tell her on a better than daily basis that I love her and that my life is better with her in it.

Part of the reason I do that is, because, well, it’s true: I do love her and my life is better with her in it. I’m not exactly a taciturn man; I’m not one of those people who thinks that just saying that sort of thing once, or every once in a while, is sufficient. I think people like to be reminded of something like that on a regular basis. I’m happy to say it. And of course, not just say it: I try to do both the little and big things that make it clear that the words are not just words.

And then there’s the other part. One day it’s very likely that one of us is going to have to leave the other, and that actuarially speaking, that person is likely to be me. What I believe about the nature of life and the universe leads me to conclude that the time I have with Krissy now is all the time I will ever have with her. If I’m wrong, I plan to tell her and show her how much I love her for the rest of eternity. But if I’m right, this time together is what we have. There is no point, then, in not loving her flat out, full volume, as much as I possibly can, right now. There is never a time while we live together that I want her to feel or believe that I love her any less than entirely, fully and completely. I don’t want her ever to doubt it, or to lack it, or to miss it while we’re both alive. I want to love her so much that if I do have to leave her, the echoes of that love will sustain through the rest of her life. That she knows she was loved, and seen, and that she made my life, and the life we had together, worth the living.

That’s what I do, and have done these last twenty years, and before then too, and intend to keep on doing, for the next twenty years, and the twenty after that, and for as long as it lasts. Our lives have changed, and will change again. But this one thing, I’m happy to keep the same.


The Anxiety of a Non-Writer Surrounded By Writers

Hey, everyone, hope you’re having an awesome Friday! One thing some of you might possibly know about me is that my dad is a writer. A successful one, at that! And as such, he knows a lot of other successful writers. Because of that, I’ve had the amazing chance to meet so many super cool, fantastic authors and be immersed in a book-filled, writing-intensive world. A world where words on a page are basically blood in your veins, where hardcovers are the air you breathe and paperbacks the water you drink. I’ve lived in this world for as long as I can remember.

And, honestly, it’s pretty daunting. It makes you think, how can I ever amount to what all these amazing people have? Will I ever be at their level, going on book tours and having signing lines hundreds of people long? How can I become as great as them, have my writing be as loved as theirs?

So, I started writing, determined to get to that point, hellbent on having a best-seller out by the time I was eighteen, having my book translated into twenty different languages and tour the world by the time I graduated high school. Obviously, that didn’t happen.

I don’t have anything to show for all my time spent writing. Because I can never finish anything. And I know writer’s block is a thing and that a lot of professional authors struggle with completing a book, but eventually, they do complete it! And I have never been able to do that. I keep thinking, this will be the story I finish, and it never is. I can’t make it past a certain page number in any of my stories.

So I contemplate why I can’t just crank something out, why I can’t just sit down and finish any number of things I’ve started and abandoned in my Google Drive cemetery. I think the main reason is because I love all my concepts and ideas, but as soon as I start putting those thoughts onto the page, they’re not what they were when they were still in my head. Trying to write them out seems to almost ruin them. I can’t seem to convey the things in my head well enough to be satisfied with the thousands of words I’ve written.

And the whole thing of being a writer is conveying your ideas to others through the written word, but I just can’t seem to do that. How can I ever be a writer? I’ve got the support, the connections, everything anyone who wants to be a writer could wish for, and I just can’t write. It’s not even like I’m trying to write a whole novel, I’m just trying to get something finished, and it seems impossible.

My whole life I’ve been around successful people who are doing exactly what I want to do, who are living the life I want to live, and I don’t think I’ll ever catch up.

Anyways, this is my second to last post on here, so I wanted to share that with y’all. I know a lot of you like to write, too, and it probably seems like an impossible task sometimes. Well, you’re definitely not alone. Keep at it, though. That’s the best advice I have for you.

And have a great weekend!

The Big Idea: Jason Denzel

Someone once said that life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans. Jason Denzel can relate to that — life certainly happened to him between writing his previous book on his new one, Mystic Dragon. Here’s how he incorporated what was going in his life into the writing.


There’s that old saying writers hear all the time, “write what you know”, and I never really bought into it until I wrote my second novel, Mystic Dragon. To understand the Big Idea behind this book, you have to first go back to Mystic, the first book in the series.

I wrote Mystic during a secure, happy, and prosperous time of my life, and for the most part, the book reflected that. It showcased a young, bright-eyed protagonist named Pomella who, despite being dealt a rough hand in her culture’s caste system, uses her unrelenting tenacity, talent,  and enthusiasm to achieve her goals. (Sort of).

Before 2015, I could relate to Pomella’s youthful spirit. As a debut author, having an opportunity to be published with Tor was a dream come true. I’d been connected to them, and the entire fantasy community for a long time due to my work on Dragonmount, the ginormous Wheel of Time website, and for a while everything went beautifully. My publisher was excited for the book, there was positive buzz, a tour was planned, and early reviews were positive. Life was good, man.

Then a life-sized mystical dragon, breathing red-hot-fuck-it-all fire, burned my life down.

Mystic Dragon was written during a period in my life in which I went through a painful divorce after 15 years of marriage, was laid off from my tech job I’d been at for the same length, and unexpectedly lost my father to a heart condition. I had to sell my house, rebuild my life, find a new job, deal with a multitude of relationship issues, keep it together for my kids, and still find time to write the next book. A book which had to, in my mind, surpass the first one and also not buckle under the weight of being a middle book in a trilogy.

When life sucked the most, I channeled my pain and sadness into my story. I’d decided years before that I would set Mystic Dragon seven years after the events of the first book. This decision didn’t necessarily follow the standard advice given to writers in this genre, but it felt even more right when I began drafting the manuscript in earnest. Pomella and her childhood friend Sim aren’t teeangers anymore. In this second book, each of them have their own version of a mystical dragon breathing red-hot-fuck-it-all fire onto their lives. While they don’t deal with divorce and unemployment, they deal with their own versions of their worlds burning down around them. (Literally, at some points). And there’s a new character, Shevia, who’s centrally featured on the cover, who coalesced into existence during those inevitable days where I wanted to scream and smash and cry. If Pomella represented my last loss of innocence, then Sim was my sadness and perseverance, and Shevia was my anger at having to deal with it all.

Simply put, all of the characters in Mystic Dragon had to grow with me. We had to find our way out of the smoldering ashes of our old lives in order to find a new sun.

Now, several years removed from that difficult time of my life, and with the book finally complete and on shelves, I’m glad I had it as an outlet for my emotions. For better or worse, Mystic Dragon echoes what I went through during that time in my life. And as I write the concluding volume in the trilogy, Mystic Skies, I can already see that the events of the second book will stay with the characters in a similar way. The wounds might mostly heal, but the experience of it stays with you forever.


Mystic Dragon: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indiebound | Powell’s

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


Reader Request Week 2018 #8: Public Speaking

Gregory asks:

I’m curious about your ‘public speaking’ role. I know you have representation and are available for events. I would like to know things like what advice do you have for other folk who don’t do much public speaking? Do you have any formal training? Why should somebody pay to hear you speak? What’s the difference between writing your own speech and hiring a speechwriter? Have you ever written somebody else’s speech? Do you write out your entire presentation or just have an outline?

So, let’s go through some of this quickly and some of it less so.

Yes, I do have representation for public speaking; I’m represented by the Macmillan Speaker’s Bureau (which makes a little bit of sense as Tor, my primary publisher, is a Macmillan imprint) and indeed I am available for events. I don’t have any formal training, I’ve just ended up talking in public a lot and now have been doing it in a professional sense for coming on two decades. The difference between writing one’s own speech and hiring a speechwriter is that I don’t charge myself when I write something for me to say. I’ve written presentations and speeches for other people, sure, but not enough that I would put it on my resume. At events I will occasionally read prepared work, and occasionally work from an outline, and occasionally just get up on a stage and start talking.

As for why someone should pay to hear me speak, well, there are two ways to answer this question.

The first is, hey, when I speak, I’m fairly entertaining. People pay for other forms of entertainment, including books, movies, concerts and other live events. So, why not speaking as well? And certainly authors have done very well with speaking tours over the years, and not just recently. Dickens made a tidy sum on his speaking tours, which was good for him because in the US at the time his books were rampantly pirated. Twain would go on speaking tours when his investments tanked and he needed money. They were by all accounts quite entertaining evenings.

Indeed, there are some authors for whom the books aren’t their major profit center; the speaking tours and events are. The books are their calling cards and the way to help keep their live acts current. Political commentators and downtime politicians are especially likely to punt out a book and then take their act on the rubber chicken circuit, with the speeches and appearances earning them more over a year than they got for the book advance (also, many of these folks have as a rider that a certain number of books must be bought by the organization fronting the event, so it’s a handy way of clearing inventory as well). Sports figures, tech gurus, business wizards and lifestyle advisors also pull this trick — and it’s a pretty nice trick if you can manage it, and either like or at least can tolerate blathering at a hotel lectern for your living.

Note that who pays to have you speak will vary. Most of my paid speaking engagements are for organizations who pay my asking fee; the individuals who come to see me speak generally don’t have to pay (or don’t have to pay extra, if they are at an event that had an entrance fee). Other authors I know set a fee with an organization, which will then turn around and sell individual tickets to an event in the hopes of making a profit over the appearance fee, but generally speaking you have to be a pretty well-known and/or beloved author to pull that one off, and at least for the moment I don’t appear to be that well-known, or (alas) that beloved.

The second reason for why someone should pay to hear me speak is somewhat more transactional, and that is: Because I should be paid for my time. A speaking event isn’t just about the hour (or so) I’m on stage and then the hour to two hours (or so) that I’m signing books. It’s also about the time to the airport, the time on the plane, the time in car from the airport, the time in the hotel, the time meeting with the event organizers and/or the time spent socializing at the pre-event gathering, and back to the hotel, car, plane and the return home. It’s also time I’m not at home, with my wife and child and pets. It’s also time I’m not with friends, or elsewise doing another thing with my time. It’s also generally time taken away from writing, which is, you may, remember, my main gig and the reason people want to see me live in the first place.

As this is all the case, the question is: How much is all that time, and time away, worth to me? The answer is: a fair amount, actually, and that amount is reflected in my speaking and appearance fee. I don’t feel guilty about making that determination of the value of my time, since as I’ve noted before that this is all the time I will ever have in this universe and therefore I should in fact have a good grasp on what my time is worth and expect people to understand that. Also, you know. If you don’t want to pay my fee, then don’t; I’ll stay at home, and happily so.

So, you may ask, is every appearance I do paid for in this manner? Not all of them. Book tour events are handled differently, as are most conventions I attend. I’m on staff for the JoCo Cruise. At this point, however, I don’t do events that end up costing me money to be at, and I don’t do events where I don’t think there’s a blunt transactional benefit to my being there. The only exceptions to this are events I’m attending like a fan, i.e., I’m going to hang out with friends and see people I like. In those cases I pay to show up like anyone else. But if I’m on the clock? Yeah, it has to be worth my time, and also, I’m the one who decides what is worth my time and what is not.

(Also, yes: High-class problems to have! On the other hand, high-class problems are still problems. And also, if you’re a fan of my books, ask yourself whether you want me to spend more time talking, or more time writing. If it’s the latter, then I suspect you might appreciate me making it clear to people who want me to show up to places that my time is valuable.)

In terms of advice for public speaking, the first thing I would say is that if it’s something you don’t enjoy, don’t do it — you won’t be happy, which means that no one else will be happy, either. There are other ways to promote yourself. Find one you like. Beyond that, just prepare: know how much time you have to fill, know what the expectations are for your presentation, do a few run-throughs of your material before you get up on the stage. And then after that, don’t panic — it will work or not. If it works, great! If not, you’ll know better for next time. If you want more details than this, here you go.

I personally like speaking in public and also I don’t get nervous in front of crowds, so most of the time it’s fun for me, which is pretty great, considering how much of it I do. Hopefully I’ll keep getting paid to do it. But if that ever stops happening, well. I still have my day job, I suppose.

No, In Fact, You Should Not Write For Free

The blog Lifehacker just posted a piece entitled “Why You Should Write For Free,” in which writer Nick Douglas (on staff, note) explains when he believes writing for free is appropriate — and when it is not. The headline alone is enough to fluff me up with righteous fury, as my own, consistent refusal to write for free is a matter of public record. But I’m also aware that headlines are meant to elicit a response (hopefully, to read the article) and are sometimes not entirely representative of the article.

So I read the article. It’s still wrong, but I can see where Douglas has gone wrong, and some of it boils down to a matter of definition of what constitutes “free” writing and what does not.

So what does constitute “writing for free”? Douglas’ definition is pretty simple, and wide: Writing for which one is not paid. This would include personal blog posts, tweets, Facebook posts and comments on all of the above (basically, all social media for most people), school papers, diary entries, emails and letters to friends and family, graffiti, resumes and job applications as well as material written for editorial entities, for which one’s work is not compensated — newspapers, weekly papers, non-personal/commercial blogs, magazines and so on.

My definition, probably because I am a professional writer, is rather more narrow and is focused on intent. My definition of “writing for free” is “writing work that is aimed at the stream of commerce but for which one is not compensated for its production.” More simply, work where someone is trying to make money off it, but none of that money gets to me. By that definition, no personal blog post, tweet, Facebook posting, email, etc constitutes “free” writing, since none of it was ever intended in itself to make money. But things I write for others are almost always in the stream of commerce — and somewhere along the way, someone is getting paid because of it, or at least trying to.

And that’s where Yog’s Law applies: Money flows toward the writer. If my work is being used to extract monetary value from someone, somewhere, then I need to be paid. I don’t work for free, especially when someone else is attempting to gain a financial benefit from it.

(“Yeah but Twitter and Facebook serve ads so technically they’re making money and you’re not” — correct but I am being offered use of the platform without having to pay for it because it’s supported by ads, and that would be the case even if I never posted, i.e., social media’s financial model is not contingent on my content, but rather on my use. Eyeballs, not words. That’s a different thing, believe it or not.)

Let me put it another way. I play guitar (poorly). When I play my guitar at home, am I playing “for free”? In the sense that no one’s paying me for it, sure. But I’m also not intending to make money from playing it, and that matters. I’m a literal amateur. I’m doing it because I enjoy playing, and the benefit of it to me is not financially-oriented. On the other hand, if (highly improbably) someone heard me playing and said “Wow, that’s awesome, can I record you and release your music to the world?” then my immediate response would be “I think you’re probably high” followed by “Also, how much are you paying me?” Because what’s being said here is “your product has a value I would like to exploit” and my response in those cases, for all media, is “then I need to participate in that value exploitation.”

Douglas’ definition of “free” is more expansive than mine, and for people who are not primarily or professionally writers (or who want to be) it’s probably fine. For people who do want to be professionally or primarily writers, it’s muddy, and can be used as a way for people who won’t want to pay you for your work, for whatever reason, to smudge lines which should not be smudged. Intent matters.

So, let’s apply my definition of “free” to Douglas’ advice. Should you write on a blog or on social media for your own personal interest and benefit? Sure! It’s fun, it passes the time, and occasionally you might able to leverage that writing into economic benefit. I certainly have done that — I’ve published four books (so far!) of essay writing that originated here on this blog, and two novels which I originally published here have been published conventionally and are still in print. Go me. Work here has also served as a calling card for paid work elsewhere; I’ve gotten a number of gigs because people have read something here and said, essentially, “Hey, can you do that, but for me, and for money?” To which I answered, “Oh, probably.”

Should you write for others without being paid? Oh, I don’t think so. I don’t care how tiny or noble the site/magazine/whatever is, if they want to use what you write to help them make money, then go ahead and make it your policy to get paid. If they don’t have the money to pay your asking price, then, oh, well. “Exposure” means shit (and “exposure” in the sort of venue that can’t/won’t pay means even less than shit). What matters in these cases is that you make money from the people who want to make money from you. So, you know. Don’t write for “free.” Get paid.

Let’s also recognize a third category here, which is writing you do for yourself, that you intend to exploit financially by yourself — basically, by operating a small business specializing in the distribution of your writing (and/or other creative product). This is a thing that is much easier to do now than in times past, and certainly writers do it through things like Patreon, Kickstarter, self-publishing, placing advertising on their own blogs and so on. Here in 2018, you don’t need someone else to pay you to get paid, although if you do want to get paid by running your own little writing business, you have to do what any small business does and work your ass off on it. Which is why I personally like publishing through other entities — it’s ever so slightly less work.

(And obviously, you don’t have to pick just one of these avenues. You can do them all! Wheeee!)

So, Nick Douglas is right that you should write some things that without intending to be paid for them, for the fun of it and to try different sorts of writing and to grow your skills. He’s incorrect that much of that writing — the stuff you do by yourself, for yourself — should be considered as being done for “free.” And when he suggests that you write for others for “free,” I think he’s incorrect there as well. If your work has value to anyone, then it should have value for you, and you should be at the front of the line to receive that value, because you’re doing the work.

That’s how you become a professional writer: By expecting to be treated as a professional.

The 2018 Awards Consideration Post

Another year, another quick post to let you know what work I have for you to consider for awards and such. Ready? Here we go:

Best Novel:

The Collapsing Empire (3/21/17; Tor Books; Patrick Nielsen Hayden, editor)

Best Related Work/Non-fiction/Collection:

Don’t Live For Your Obituary: Advice, Commentary and Personal Observations on Writing, 2008-2017 (12/31/17; Subterranean Press)

“The Dispatcher” was published in print in 2017, but first appeared in audio in 2016, which generally counts as first publication. It’s definitely ineligible for the Hugo and the Nebula and the Locus (which it was a finalist for last year in any event).

And that’s what on tap this go around.

Today in I Need a Better Class of Detractor

Well, specifically this silly person said I would never earn out [x] amount of money I got as an advance, and also that I would in fact never see [x] amount of money, because of reasons they left unspecified but which I assume were to suggest that my contracts would be cancelled long before I got the payout. As [x] amount of money seems to suggest this silly person is talking about my multi-book multi-year contracts, let me say:

1. lol, no;

2. [x] was not the sum for any of my contracts (either for individual works or in aggregate) so that’s wrong to begin with;

3. It’s pretty clear that this silly person has very little idea how advances work in general, or how they are paid out;

4. It’s also pretty clear this silly person has very little idea how advances work with long-term, multi-project contracts in particular, or how they are paid out;

5. Either this silly person has never signed a book contract, or they appear to have done a very poor job of negotiating their contracts;

6. In any event, it’s very clear this silly person has no idea about the particulars of my business.

Which makes sense as I don’t go into great detail about them in public. But it does mean that people asserting knowledge of my business are likely to be flummoxed by the actual facts. Like, for example, the fact that I’m already earning royalties on work tied into those celebrated-yet-apparently-actually-cursed contracts. Royalties, I’ll note for those of you not in the publishing industry, are paid out after you earn back an advance.

How am I getting royalties on a work tied to contracts that this silly person has assured all and sundry I will never earn out? The short answer is because I’ve earned out, obviously. The slightly longer answer is that my business deals are interesting and complex and designed to roll money to me on a steady basis over a long period of time, but when you are a silly person who apparently knows nothing about how book contracts work (either my specific ones, or by all indications book contracts in general) and you have an animus against me because, say, you’re an asshole, or because of group identification politics that require that I must actually be a raging failure, for reasons, you are prone to assert things that are stupid about my business and show your complete ignorance of it. And then I might be inclined to point and laugh about it.

In any event, this is a fine time to remind people of two things. The first thing is that I have detractors, and it’s very very important to them that I’m seen as a failure. There’s nothing I can ever do or say to dissuade them against this idea, so the least I can do is offer them advice, which is to make their assertions of my failure as non-specific as possible, because specificity is not their friend. I would also note to them that regardless, my failures, real or imagined, will not make them any more successful in their own careers. So perhaps they should focus on the things they can materially effect, i.e., their own writing and career, and worry less about what I’m doing.

Second, if someone other than me, my wife, my agent or my business partners (in the context of their own contracts with me) attempts to assert knowledge of my business, you may reliably assume they are talking out of their ass. This particularly goes for my various detractors, most of whom don’t appear to have any useful understanding of how the publishing industry works outside of their (and this is a non-judgmental statement) self-pub and micro-pub worlds, which are different beasts than the part I work in, and also just generally dislike me and want me to be a miserable failure and are annoyed when I persist in not being either. Wishing won’t make it so, guys.

Bear in mind speculating about my business is perfectly fine, and even if it wasn’t I couldn’t stop it anyway. Speculate away! People have done it for years, both positively and negatively, and most of the time it’s fun to watch people guess about it. Even this silly person’s speculation is kind of fun, in the sense it’s interesting to see all the ways it’s wrong. But to the extent that the unwary may believe this silly person (or other such silly people among my detractors, and as a spoiler they are all fairly silly on this topic) knows what they are talking about with regard to my business: Honey, no. They really don’t. They have their heads well up their asses.

Or, as I said on Twitter:

And actually the dog has been in the same room as my contracts, so in fact she might know more. Keep that in mind the next time a detractor opines on my business.

The Big Idea: A. J. Hartley

In today’s Big Idea for Firebrand, author A. J. Hartley explains that when it comes to worldbuilding, like Ringo in the Beatles, he gets by with a little help from his friends.


The core of the Steeplejack series, the idea at its heart, came out of the collision of two smaller ideas that I had assumed would be separate books. One was a fantasy adventure set in a world which looked like Africa. The other was a Victorian steam punk mystery centering on a character who worked on the city’s tall factory chimneys. When I realized that the two stories might be combined, creating a unique, 19th-century metropolis within an African context, the series came together. The result was not just a world that had all the smoggy trappings of a Sherlock Holmes mystery surrounded by a wilderness full of strange and potentially dangerous creatures, the story was also necessarily defined by the racial dynamics of the population.

Bar-Selehm, the city which is the home for the books, is based very loosely on Durban in South Africa, a city with a substantial Indian population in addition to the minority white and indigenous blacks. Since I imagined a conquest of the region which took place several centuries earlier than did the British subjugation of South Africa, however, the imaginary city is a steam-driven industrial power house living according to a political system resembling apartheid.

The protagonist of the series is Anglet Sutonga, a brown skinned Lani steeplejack who, in book one was recruited by a powerful local politician to investigate the events surrounding the murder of her apprentice. In book 2, Firebrand, she has acquired greater autonomy and agency, and is now attempting to unravel the theft of some secret government plans against a backdrop of rising political tension. This latter is driven by the rise of a right wing populist politician who is seeking to return the city to older ideas of racial segregation in response to the recent immigration of foreign refugees fleeing their war-torn homeland.

I should say here that I’m a white guy, and that with the best will in the world, there are certain things I’m never going to be able to evoke as well as a someone who has actually lived the experience. That’s worrying for a writer. We’re told to write what we know, and limited though that injunction might be, it’s solid advice if only because when readers can tell you don’t know what you’re talking about, you’re screwed. At best they are momentarily knocked out of the story. At worst you lose them completely and you look like an imposter.

That said, the world is full of books about white people and I didn’t want to merely add to the pile. I’ll go further and say that I think I have a moral obligation to at least try to write stories which reflect the diversity I see around me.

But the road to hell is paved with good intentions and it’s not enough to mean well. Now, I’m on safer ground with fantasy. The world of the Steeplejack books is made up. It’s a place and time that has never existed, so I’m as well qualified to write it as anyone else, but to do it well requires me to draw on other people’s experience. I’ve been to places, for instance, where I knew I could not trust the police, that if anything happened to me—or even if it didn’t—they would be as likely to treat me criminally as they were to help. But I haven’t lived the bulk of my life in such a condition, so to imagine it I needed to listen to those who had. I shared my work as it developed with friends of color and asked them to flag any moment, any idea, any assumption which felt wrong, off, or stereotypical.

Because one of the hardest things about writing people who aren’t you is the tendency—usually one you can’t see—to rely on what you think you know but which is actually coming from impressions shaped by your own difference. This is especially true when you are representing minorities who, perhaps, you don’t have much close personal contact with, so that your impressions of them are absorbed largely through, say, TV and film.

Writers live by their voice; the sound they make in a reader’s head through the arrangement of words. I like words and I like to use them to build stories. What I learned from this series, however, was that I was likely to be most successful if I shut up and listened. I’m not talking about writing dialect (a nightmarish trap for white people trying to write people of color), I’m talking about story. I’m talking about events and situations and how characters other than me might perceive them. And it’s hard, because you really do have to pay attention when people call you out for an assumption or something that looks prejudicial. You can’t say ‘But that’s not what I meant!’ Intent doesn’t matter. Effect does. So for all my writerly scribbling there comes a point (or points, plural) where I have to share my stuff and ask other people how it reads to them.

Does it work? I’m not certain. The result is better than me working alone, that’s for sure, and I think there’s value in any good faith attempt to talk across racial lines because we, as a culture, seem to be so bad at it. I know I can’t please everyone—from either end of the political spectrum—but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t do everything in my power to get it as close to right as I can.

It’s probably self-evident that I wanted to use the fantasy frame to explore current social and political issues, mixing adventure, mystery and wonder with some fairly hard truths from our own world, but I don’t think I had realized just how topical it would feel. The novel was completed long before the last presidential election, and though there are flashes of campaign rhetoric in the mouth of Anglet’s principal political antagonist, Nathan Richter, the extent to which the book now seems to reflect our own country is a little unnerving.

In fact, in spite of the unfamiliarity of the world and its occasional deviations from conventional reality, it barely feels to me like fantasy at all. All of which makes me wonder if the real ‘big idea’ has to do with the book’s generic hybridity; it’s a mystery, a thriller, and a fantasy adventure, but it’s also a kind of alternate history with an edge of social commentary. I like to think that it’s both fun and serious, both a diversion from reality, and a story about political resistance in a world which seems rather more familiar than I would like.


Firebrand: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

Reader Request Week 2017 #8: The Path to Publication

Teresa asks:

From the moment that you wrote the first draft, how long it did it take you to see your first work of fiction published?

Heh. Well, it depends on what one means by my first work of fiction.

If, for example, my first work of fiction is thought to be the very first complete story I ever wrote, which is a story called “Best Friends: Or, another reason not to get sick,” then the answer is thirty-three years and counting, since I wrote it in 1984 for Mr. Heyes’ freshman English composition class, and aside from a few copies I ran off for friends (mostly the ones on whom the story was based), no one’s ever seen it, or is likely to. It was written by 14-year me and while it was good enough for the class — I was the only person in three sections of the class to get an “A” — I suspect it is of very limited interest to anyone else.

(With that said, I think the story’s opening graph makes it clear that my general advice of “have good opening lines” is something I knew early on. “Well, if this has taught me anything, it’s not to get sick. I get sick for three days, and the world changed” is pretty solid, even if it has a problem with tenses.)

(And yes, I do still have the complete story, along with just about every other story I wrote as a teen. No, I won’t show them to you. I’m doing you a favor.)

If one discounts juvenilia, then my next actual complete work of fiction might be considered to be a poem I wrote, “Penelope,” which I wrote in 1991. It’s written from the point of view of the wife of Odysseus, waiting for her husband to return and delaying having to pick a suitor by weaving and then unraveling a burial shroud. I don’t usually consider it to be fiction — my brain generally sections out poetry and prose fiction — but inasmuch as it does have a point of view character, and that point of view character is not meant to be me (spoiler: but it kind of was, inasmuch as I was writing it for a girl I pined for and wanted close to me and hey, look, allegory and metaphor), it could be called fiction. As it happens, “Penelope” was published in Miniatures, my book of very short stories, which was published last year (literally on the last day of the year). So that would be 25 years. I’d note I didn’t try to publish it prior to Miniatures; it was written for a specific person in mind.

If we toss out that poem and stick to prose, the next piece of completed fiction I wrote was Agent to the Stars, which I wrote in the summer of 1997 as my “practice novel,” i.e., the novel I wrote to see if I could write a novel (turns out I could). Inasmuch as it was my practice novel, I didn’t write it with the intent to sell it, but when I created my web site at, I decided to put it up here and let people download it if they liked, and if they wanted, to send me money for it. So it was self-published, and that was in 1999. If you want to count self-publishing on one’s Web site as actual publication (back in 1999, I would note, it would generally not have been considered so), then it took two years. If you don’t count that as publishing, then you’d have to wait until 2005, when the hardcover version was published by Subterranean Press. In which case: eight years.

But it’s important to note that Agent got published (by someone else) because that publisher asked to publish it; I didn’t shop it. If you’re curious about what piece of fiction of mine was the first that I wrote with the intent to try to have it published, and which was then in fact actually published by someone else, then that would be “Alien Animal Encounters.” I wrote it in 2001 and immediately submitted it to Strange Horizons magazine, on the basis that I liked the magazine, and also because it would accept electronic submissions, and I didn’t own a printer. For the life of me I can’t remember exactly when I wrote it, but I did submit it almost immediately after I wrote it, and it was published pretty quickly after that. That was October 2001, so I suspect I wrote it a couple months before that. Let’s say three months to be safe. So: Three months, from writing it to it being published.

(Also, all of these were first drafts, in the sense that I edit as I write, so when I type “The End” I just do a quick copyedit run through. I don’t edit less than people who write drafts, I just do it as I go along. Works for me; your mileage my vary.)

So: Depending on how one chooses to define what was my first work of fiction, and what constitutes publishing, the answer to the gap between first draft and the pub date is three months, or two years, or eight years, or 25 years, or 33 years and counting.

And you know what? I think that’s about average, as far as writers are concerned. There are lots of places one could count as the starting point for one’s career, and lots of different opinions as to what constitutes being published.

The important thing here is: I did start writing. And I did start getting published.

Everything progressed from there. And here we are.