As I’ve mentioned before, I spend lunchtime learning. I listen to podcasts or watch videos or do something that’s related to getting better as a writer by learning from others. I suggest it to anyone, and in any field. (When I worked in corporate America, I often listened to business history and behavioral sciences things during my lunches. They very much helped.)
Today, I want to point out that if you want to know why Raymond Carver was remarkable you could do worse than to pull up the video I’ve linked below, and listen to his prose as it’s being read from 16:35-18:20.
The whole video is interesting–to me, anyway–but if you’re a writer you really should listen to this little two-minute slice, this mini-story cut from the whole of Carver’s short story “The Bridle.” Let it flow over you. Think about its pacing, its tone, and the way its information rolls out in an absolutely perfect way to build itself up to its iconic and devastatingly sharp message. Look how it has (even enclosed within itself) a character/setting/problem, and try/fail cycles, and a resolution and validation. Listen to how it uses language and phrasing, how it uses “know what I mean,” and “you know” in such an invisible way.
I think I’ve listened to it fifty times over the last week.
So, this morning I have a lot of things to do. Yes, it’s busy being a self-employed writer, though it’s hard to explain how this is all the time. Among the things on my “To Do” list was to go through the galley proof copies of a future issue of Galaxy’s Edge, which will include my story “The Colossal Death Ray.” So, dutifully, I opened the file and went through it. I jotted down a couple things I found, and passed them back.
Very well. I’ve done this often, now. Processing galleys is … well … kid of oldish hat. Almost just work, you know?
Then, for whatever reason, before I shut the file down I took a scan of the table of contents.
Robert Silverberg is there. Right, I thought. My name is right there before Robert freaking Silverberg. And Jack McDevitt. Lawrence Person. Robert J. Sawyer, David Gerrold. Yes, him. And Jody Lyn Nye and Bill Fawcett. Gregory Benford, and Barry Malzberg are in there, too. And science fiction from Mercedes Lackey and Cody Martin. Talk about names.
As I looked at this today it suddenly strikes me that, yes, I’m in a publication with these kinds of names.
Is this cool, or what?
And that’s before we get to a talent like Elizabeth Bear, who has a story in this magazine, too.
And flashy “new writers” (Ha! I laugh at the meaning of “new” here, but you get the point) like Dantzel Cherry, J.R. Vogt, and Alex Shvartsman, or recent Writers of the Future vet Leena Likatalo.
I’ve been doing this writing thing for … well … a few years. But I can honestly say that it never, ever, gets less thrilling to see my name on a table of contents–and especially one as remarkable as this.
In my apparently never-ending endeavor to bury the blog in self-promotional fiddle-faddle, I should note that, if you’ve been waiting breathlessly for a deal on the Saga of the God-Touched Mage bundles, now’s your time. For only through Monday (5/18), you can get a special 35% discount on volumes 1-4.
I promise to get back to regular posting soon…but there’s a lot of publishing news going on right now, and it only seems proper to focus on it for just a bit longer. Please be advised, however, that I realize there are other things in life that are probably just as important as my publishing news (snork!). Anyway …
After its very fun and successful run as individual novellas, I’m happy to announce that Saga of the God-Touched Mage is going to be available in a single collection. That’s right: all eight stories, one book. Yay! Even better, this omnibus edition will be available in both electronic and (finally) trade paperback formats. (Yes, it’s a goshdarn big honking block of print … much fun to hold onto and probably capable of stopping an onrushing train. Pictures to come.)
It is available for preorder now at the usual places (linkage provided below), and will launch officially on May 26th.
@ Amazon and CreateSpace on May 26.
Of course, this means it’s time for another cover reveal!
Once again Rachel has whipped up a very nice piece of work, gathering up images we’ve used in previous installments and setting them against a backdrop that scans quite beautifully and has a very nice wrap-around effect in the full print version.
The Greatest Spectacle in Science Fiction is back with a vengeance, just in time for the Indy 500!
As promised, John C. Bodin and I have managed to get this machine out to the starting grid, so now it’s time to start the engine and put the right foot down. 5 Days in May, a collection of fun and furious short stories is available in both electronic and print versions today (what a great way to celebrate my birthday!)
As I noted above, this also happens to be my birthday! (Yay me for living so long,eh?). As a special present to Typosphere readers, here’s a deal!
Bump Day $1.99 Special at Smashwords
(33% off – Good Thru 5/17)
Use Coupon Code AN99P
As always, thank you so much for your support. Early sales are very important to the success of a new book, as is good word of mouth. If you pick this up and find our high-octane, pulpy SF take on racing is fun, please do let others know. Every little bit helps.
“But,” you say, “I already have Four Days in May!”
Since you’re a previous reader, this is an “update” from last year’s release wherein you get one more story (dare we call it a pit stop to take on more fuel and a new set of tires?). So let us help you out. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and get a free e-version upgrade to 5 Days. (Be sure to note your preferred format!)
I think I can speak for John when I say that this is one of those pure fun, “for the love of the game,” kind of projects. We hope you enjoy reading them as much as we enjoy writing them. To give you a little flavor of how we think about it, I’ve pasted our Introduction below:
Pod racing in Star Wars aside, you don’t find much science fiction focused on racing. That is a shame, of course. Racing, you see, is about all the things that make for good science fiction.
It’s about technology, of course—ask any race team in the world what they are working on and you’ll get one of two answers, either an immediate flow of excited discussion about wind tunnels or horsepower optimization, or whatnot, or you’ll get a steely eyed stare that more than suggests you’re an idiot if you think he or she is going to spill the beans on anything that might give the other guy a leg up.
Racing is about time, and time is something that science fiction people have always found fascinating. Time is the ultimate gas, gas, gas, after all. It’s compressible, extendable, twistable, and moldable. Our memories change as we move through it. Science fiction plays with time as no other literature can, while racing measures time in ways that no other sport does. Time in the pits. Time behind. Time until the next race.
Despite all the advances in safety over the past fifty years, racing is still, of course, about danger. And fire. And screeching rubber and banging side-by-side runs. Racing is about playing on the edge of capability, the edge of what is known. This is what science fiction at its best has done since the days of Jules Vern.
And, finally, racing is about people who rise above themselves, and about teams of people, the lot of which—though totally reliant on those individuals—are stronger than any one of those individuals. Racing is about that perfect moment when all the work and tears shed in preparation come together to result in victory. And racing is about finding the message inherent in the human condition for when all that work and those tears do not result in victory. In this way, racing is life. And so is science fiction. In fact, science fiction is, perhaps, the most human of literatures. It is in science fiction that one can lift a person out of the mundane existence of the real world and explore the depths of who they are.
So we say to the world that there really ought be science fiction focused on racing, and since if it is to be, it’s up to me, we’ve taken it upon ourselves to create this little nook of the world. We hope you like it. When we began this three years ago, our intention was to add a lap to this race every season—and it seems we’ve managed to keep the wheels on and the car on the road well enough that now we’ve got five good ones under our belt. And we expect to go the distance—whatever that means for us. These Indy stories are great fun for us, and we still intend to write one new one story each season, a story set sometime in the past or the future or the whenever.
Will you like it?
We hope you will.
Or will the idea crash into the wall at 200 MPH?
All we can say for sure is that it’s going to be straight-out, pedal-to-the-metal fun. And that, too, can be said about racing as well as science fiction.
I’m just the teensiest bit delinquent in reminding folks that sometime shortly (meaning sometime in May), my short story “The Grand Dangoolie” will be appearing in the anthology, Alchemy and Steam–which is part of the very cool Fiction River series. This is a subscription-based family of anthologies edited by a variety of people (hence, it comes with a diversity of tastes and in a wide array of genres). It’s delivered every other month. Subscribers get some pretty cool stories by names they know and by some “fresh faces” who can really write.
I’ve read the stories in Alchemy and Steam and think they’re quite yummy in that very Steampunky Kinda way that the title suggests it will be. My own offering was a total blast to write, and is informed by the idea of how one might think about power–magical or not–and the lengths people will go to to discover, steal, or even protect it. Not that this kind of thing matters today. No. Not a chance, right?
You can find a lot more about Fiction River, as well as subscribe to it, right here. In the meantime, here’s a cover-shot of Alchemy and Steam, which is edited by Kerrie L. Hughes.
I was going to post this a couple days ago when it would have been slightly more appropriate, but to be honest I didn’t want to put a bummer on everyone’s Star Warsy celebration of the May the Forth Be With You. Then comes Cinco de Mayo, and who wants to tread on the celebration of a neighboring country’s big victory, eh?
But May the fourth was an important milestone of a different type here in the US, that being the anniversary of the Kent State shootings—and, perhaps more relevant to what I’m going to talk about here, the event that created a remarkable piece of protest art that followed.
I’ve finished writing this thing, and I realize that it’s long, and that it meanders. Perhaps it’s so long and meanders so far afield that you’ll not finish it. But I hope you will. It goes somewhere in the end. I promise. Maybe. [grin]
But I’m going to start here: at a convention I once attended where a writer was talking about history and how most events don’t really change its course much. I asked him if he thought the Kent State killings had made a difference or not, and after only a very brief moment he said it was a non-event. This startled me. Kent State. A non-event. I couldn’t believe that four college kids murdered by the National Guard while they were protesting the Vietnam War could ever be considered a non-event. That it didn’t make a difference in the path of history.
Protest changes things. It does. In fact, it’s probably the only thing that actually makes real social change. Here’s an interesting post by Mary Robinette Kowal, who says essentially the same thing but in a different vein.
In the case of Neil Young, protest about Kent State came in the form of one of the most biting pieces of art ever created. I’m talking, of course, about “Ohio.”
I worry about it, though. We seem to hear it now as (at best) this marker of the past—as a piece of historical pop culture, or maybe even a quaint nod to a past where people actually thought they were making or could make a difference. I’m fairly certain most people who hear it don’t even really stop to take into account the facts of the situation, and the meaning of a government-sponsored action that took four lives. I’m definitely sure that most people don’t think about the fact that a majority of the country actually thought these killings were justified—that the kids shouldn’t have been there in the first place.
It’s just a piece of music on the radio most of the time.
But at the time … man … at the time … and given the value of the piece, it’s one of those things that can still change you if you’ll just let it.
Anyway…I was thinking about this as I pinged my way through a couple bits on Kent State a couple days ago. I was thinking about what I wrote a few days ago about short stories and collections and songs and albums and noise on the radio, and I watched a couple videos of the song, thinking about it. And then I came to this piece. Neil Young, on his own, in front of an audience.
This is what art is, to me.
It’s nothing you’ll ever see on The Voice or any of the numerous Idols or the This Place’s Got Talent things. This is one man, in front of people, doing his thing. It’s a person making a statement. And it’s about a real as you can get.
Neil Young is saying something here.
He’s making you listen.
This is what I want to be doing as I sit down to write every day. It’s what I want to be thinking about. Say something. Make it real. Make it important, if to nobody else make it important to me. I’m not, of course, saying I (or anyone else, for that matter) expect to pen an ever-lasting classic every time I sit down. No one does that—not even the people who are remembered through the years. And, let’s face it, I am no William Faulkner or no Neil Young. But, what I carry away from a piece of art like “Ohio,” is that it’s important to me to have a basic respect for what I’m doing. It’s about being a part of what I create.
I want to be changed by what I write. And, ideally, I figure if that happens, then occasionally I might be able to change the occasional someone else.
I mean, I dare you to actually spend three minutes thinking about the idea of what four dead in Ohio might mean as you watch Neil Young sing “Ohio” here. To really and seriously ponder “what if you knew her and found her dead on the ground,” to think about why these four college kids were killed, and how it came about, and not come away from it with a head full of something that just might change the way you think about the day ahead of you.
I’m thinking about short stories today, specifically individual stories, collections, and magazines. And I’m thinking about their relationships to music—or at least to the way music is absorbed today vs. how it was absorbed when I was a kid. I’m thinking about this because for the past few weeks I’ve really gotten into listening to albums while I work.
Today, for example, I queued up Chrissie Hynde and the Pretenders debut The Pretenders, and U2s debut Boy, and then Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run.
This actually started back a little while ago when I tweeted that:
In my post-corporate quest to catch up on culture, I've now found Garbage. So that means I'm only 20 or so years out of date now.
I got a little flack from Lisa about this because Garbage is on the routine playlist at Radio Paradise, which is a service we listen to a lot. But when I said I had found Garbage, I didn’t mean they were new ideas to me. I knew who garbage was, and I was quite familiar with Shirley Manson before she had her terminator gig, thank you very much.
What I meant, however, was that I was actually paying a lot of attention to them now—and what that means to me was that I was listening to their full albums, that I was digging on their sound and starting to understand the thing that they really are. Whatever that is.
The album, it turns out, is a forum of music that is important to me. As I think about it in truth I don’t think I really consume music on the basis of individual songs. Not really. I mean, of course I listen to stuff on the radio, and I can dig a good one-time groove as well as the next guy. But I don’t know if I really register a piece of music until I hear in context of everything else the musicians do.
The radio is basically noise you put on in the background.
Albums are music. Albums are the way a band speaks to their audience. Song placement, riff structure, the way pieces sound as they come together. The feeling of an album can be visceral. There are pieces today, individual songs, that don’t sound right when they aren’t followed by the right companion (as I write this, RP is playing the Stones’ “Stray Cat Blues,” and I’ll feel weird when it’s not followed up by “Factory Girl” … but that’s no hangin’ matter, I guess).
…but I digress.
Maybe this says that the group matters to me, or to be more specific, the artist. Maybe I mean the artist cannot be separate from the art.
Or maybe I’ve just come to this weirdness because when I was a kid the primary form I wanted to hear music in was an album side. You get it, right? The album side? The Stones Love You Live, side three. Lou Reed’s Rock & Roll Animal, side one. The Who Who’s Next … you get the idea. You put an album side on and you let it play. Eighteen minutes or so later, you flipped it—or, if you had a cool auto-play function on your kick-ass set, another side of another album could fall without you touching it.
An album meant something. It had a place, a time, and a story. The best ones, the ones that mattered the most, had a purpose. A statement. A reason for being here, and a reason for being made together. Sometimes they were meta-statements on the band itself (Fleetwood Mac, anyone?). Sometimes they were commentary on a piece of politics (CSNY?), or a place and time (Surrealistic Pillow?).
I was thinking about that today when I was listening to the Pretenders—a band that took me awhile to warm to because at first all I heard was “Brass in Pocket,” which was okay, but a bit eh. I forgot, however, how remarkable that whole debut album was when it just played. It’s a glorious work made by people with an interesting take on the world. It’s got a few singles on it, a few pieces that are good on their own, and that a lot of people will nod and say “hey, the Pretenders,” when they come on. But they are not the Pretenders to me. The Pretenders come alive when you hear the whole thing.
But, as I said above, what I want to talk about today is short fiction, collections, and magazines.
It’s like this. I love short fiction. I do. In my perfect world, there would be almost no long fiction. It’s hard for me to put in the hours and hours it takes to read novels, and to be honest, I personally just love the art form of the short story. A well-done short story is like a hit of wonder drug to me. It makes me think. A remarkable short story—just like a remarkable song—can make me step back and change how I feel inside.
And, I like magazines. I do.
But to be truthful, they feel like mix-tapes.
I pick ‘em up and I read them, and then I’m done. I never pick up a magazine and read it again. Oh, sure, on rare occasions I’ll be looking for a specific story from the past, and go hunting for a magazine, and then I’ll read that specific story. But I can’t ever remember picking up a magazine and re-reading it. Doesn’t happen … and that’s why I think their comparison in music is the mix-tape, only in this case, the mix-tape is curated by an editor. Maybe that makes it a playlist in today’s world. You’re reading an editor’s playlist.
Don’t get me wrong. I like reading these playlists, just like I liked making mix-tapes.
But, while I’ve made a bunch of mix-tapes in my life, I don’t know that I listened to them very many times. So, Magazines are mix-tapes. And maybe that means that review magazines and whatnot are the closest thing to “radio,” the short fiction world has. Radio being one of the ways you heard of something you might want to look at more closely.
So, yeah. Magazine = mix-tape.
Collections, though, are albums.
I made that connection today. Collections, when done well, have a purpose, they have an essence as a whole that is built off the interaction of the individuals. And, sure, I know a lot of people don’t read collections straight through (I don’t sometimes). But even then, they still speak together of the artist.
Unlike magazines, there are collections that I’ll pick up and read over and over again. Often.
I mean, works like Karen Joy Fowler’s Black Glass, Harlan Ellison’s Death Bird Stories, and Neil Gaiman’s Fragile Things to identify three you’ve maybe heard of. Amy Casil’s Without Absolution, and Lisa Silverthorne’s The Sound of Angels to name a couple you may not be as familiar with.
A collection tells you something about the writer that a story doesn’t. A story can be misleading, after all. It can be fickle. A story can lie about the author, because a story is filled with characters who work on their own agendas, and a story has a message of its own that is certainly coming from inside the writer but that one can’t tell exactly how invested the writer might be in that thing he or she has created. Stories are strange.
But a collection has a tone. If it’s well created, it has a flavor. A collection helps the reader see what parts of one story or another come from places inside the author, and which parts might be the characters speaking through that authorial veil. A collection is that writer speaking directly to his or her audience.
In a just world, the short story collection would be something people would hold up for inspection. In a just world, there would be a Hugo for such a thing (and it would not be bastardized or attacked or whatever is going on with the others today). In a just world, the collection would sell well.
Of course, in a just world, musicians and bands would still be primarily known for the album.
I have on occasion been known to say that science fiction is the most human of literatures. On nearly as many occasions, this comment is received with weird expressions and an “oh, really” kind of response. But it is. Science fiction is about what it means to be human. That’s really it, at its core.
I can hear you now, though. Ron, you say. What does all this flock-flack have to do with the Rongos?
Yes, yes, the First Annual Rongo Awards. Nearly lost track there.
And, yes, today I will announce another such recipient (I can feel you stretching to the edge of your seats now).
I admit I love gizmos and whiz-bang and techy science as much as the next guy, but for me the roots of science fiction are its characters and what they have to say about people as a whole. I like stories, you know? Setting is great, and prose is beautiful. But give me story and I’m a happy camper.
This view of story that I have is why I started as I did. It is important, because the piece I want to talk about now has bucketloads of this—or should I say it wallows in it like a fly in garbage … okay, perhaps that’s a bit too far, even given the story I’ll now name:
* * *
The second ever Rongo Award goes to …
* * *
Rongo Category: Short Story Story: “The Region of Jennifer” (Analog June 2014) Author: Tony Ballantyne
“The Regions of Jennifer” is an out-there, far future piece of science fiction that finds us humans—or at least what we have made of ourselves—having entered into a relationship with an alien culture known as Slavemakers (this may give you an idea of how this pact may eventually wind up…but we’ve not gotten to that point by the time of this telling, so perhaps there is time, eh?). It’s full of re-built people and strange, genetically altered humanity. It’s got real-life alchemy, or at least it has Jennifer, for whom so much of what she touches turns to gold.
In other words, it’s full-force SF at its deepest.
For those unaware of who Tony Ballantyne is (a problem you should quickly go rectify), let me say that he’s a British writer, and that this story is set in a world he developed in three earlier novels. It feels like it. The setting is deep and the people are well developed for a story this size. And make no mistake, it’s the people who carry the story here—not the technology, not the science of the moment, not even the mechanics of its plot. Instead it’s the heart of Randy, the leading male as he commits himself to success of the human spirit (even if the human race itself is lost somewhere in the mix of modern-day DNA hacking), and it’s calculating and comfort-loving nature of Jennifer who weighs her options.
The relationship of these two people come to its head here, and by the end of their time together we understand exactly what they are fighting for and perhaps even how that fight may end—though my guess is that what you think will happen and how you think of that message may well rely wholly on who you are rather than how the author expressly designed anything.
“Regions of Jennifer” is a sharp, biting tale with a kick. For that reason, I’m excited to award it a highly coveted “Rongo” as one of the best short stories of 2014.
RONGO AWARD OVERVIEW
Rongo Category: Novella Story:“Unlocked” Author: John Scalzi
When I left my day job, people I knew kept asking me “what does a writer do all day?” I wasn’t sure what to say, but I know I mumbled through it. I would report no that I’m still trying to figure that out.
Here’s how today went, though:
Drive Lisa into work
40 pages of rewriting on a novel
Fiddled with a fun but senseless Facebook chat
Made a blog post
Lunch and Finish watching a BBC documentary about Kurt Vonnegut (started yesterday).
Boil eggs, fold laundry, and watch a documentary about Hunter S. Thompson (with a very cool cameo with someone I’m pretty sure is a very young Bill Murray). Fascinating, of course. (See below)
I saw a Venn diagram on another writer’s feed a few weeks back. It struck me as interesting, but I stuck it into my “think about this later” pile because, while it made an impact for me, it didn’t feel quite right. Not quite full enough. Here it is:
This morning, for whatever reason, I pulled it out again. Once I started stewing over it, I realized why it didn’t work for me. It needs, I decided, a touch more complexity. In order to be useful, it needs zones for three-levels of interaction rather than just place markers for the intersections of two and four.
So I created one.
It looks like this:
I like this one quite a bit better, not for the least because it shows a bigger sweet spot for “Purpose,” and hence makes such a thing seem perhaps a bit easier to achieve. A purpose, after all, should not be a needle in a haystack for most of us.
I also like it because it becomes a better barometer for how to view oneself at the moment, and hence maybe a tool for how to view movement between jobs (or other such stuff) in one’s future. I like the additions of the classification of jobs. I like how it differentiates between a good job, a great job, and a calling. I’ve heard people say they would do something for free that they were getting paid for, and this helps me get my mind around that idea better than the original.
I’m not sure why I pulled this out today. Perhaps it’s because yesterday I went back to my old place of work to attend the retirement party of an ex-co-worker. Along the way I spoke to a few folks about their current career situations and listened to how they were viewing their jobs. I liked hearing them. I’ve always liked helping people think about what they wanted to accomplish, after all. That said, I have no idea if that was why I fiddled with this diagram today. All I know is that I did.
And I know that after I was done with my doodling, I looked at it and felt pretty good.
Perhaps you might find it valuable in your own way.
I went to lunch with a “new” writer last week. She’s very good but, being new, she’s still feeling her way around (which makes her just like everyone else, but we won’t tell her that now, will we? We’ll just let her figure out we’re all pretty much clueless on her own. Believe me, it’s just better this way).
We talked about her work at some detail. Along the way we eventually got to the topic of writing speed and quality—which I admit is a topic I almost hate to get into with any writer, better yet a new one. That said, my pet theory is that most people who think “fast writing must be bad writing” are confusing prose and storytelling. They’re pre-judging the quality of one’s prose. That also said, I also propose that there are writers who, when they write fast, require quite a bit of editing, and others who do not. None of that matters, though. Not to me.
The main reason that I am a proponent of writing quickly is that I find I am at my most creative when I’m “blazing along.” My stories move differently. They breathe in ways they don’t when I’m plodding.
In other words, when I think of writing quickly, I think more about “art” than about prose. These are two different things. Really, they are.
Let me try it this way:
Almost every story I’ve written that I’m deeply proud of has been fundamentally written in fast bursts. Some have needed considerable editing later, others have needed considerable re-drafting (which is different). Others have been pretty much fine as is, given basic copy-editing, of course. But the reason they are “good” to me is that they have the most of me in them. Not “me” as in my personal framework, but “me” as in I have felt like I was in the moment as I wrote them. I know the characters, and in fact, the characters are (to me) very real. Sometimes maybe too real.
I’m thinking about this because I recently read an interview of Jordan Gavaris. This is the guy who plays Felix on Orphan Black. I am a very big fan of the show and think that, while Tatiana Maslany deserves every accolade she’s getting, Gavaris has an equally interesting challenge playing such an overtly gay character and playing off multiple clones. I think he does a remarkable job. But that’s not why I’m talking about this interview.
I’ve taken at times to saying that good writing probably has at its root a lot in common with good acting. Both, I think, have to get into a headspace that matches the moment. Both, I think, require being able to let someone who is not you take over your inner self—but both also require your inner self then to rise up and make a statement in some way. It’s strange. But Jordan Gervais has a couple moments in this interview in which I went: um … yeah, that’s it.
Here’s the first:
But that scene in Cal’s cabin changed everything. “That scene was the beginning. That was the ‘Oh fuck,’” Gavaris said. “That was the door. That was the entrance. That’s when I knew it wasn’t about performing, it wasn’t about mechanics; it was about having an experience and the cameras just happening to catch it. The prospect of those experiences is why we [act]. The prospect of the moments where we go, ‘Oh wow, I didn’t know I was going to do that.’ When the scene really works, you’re swept away. The scene plays you. You’re not there. You’re not in control. Half of what you’re doing doesn’t make sense. You’re telling a story with your instincts, your experiences, your impulses, your unbridled and uninhibited impulses; you’re telling a story with all those different things, and that’s what you hope for. That’s what I hope for with this show: more and more experiences that reveal something about me, to me, that I didn’t know.”
Here’s the second:
“For me, acting is not about lying. Yes, you’re playing pretend, we’re very aware that none of it is real, but it’s a series of psychology tricks to get your brain and body to believe that what’s happening is real. And when you believe it, you share a great deal of yourself in the process, because you’re sharing your own experiences, you’re sharing your own feelings, you’re sharing ugly truths about yourself — you know truths that are not always pleasant to reveal, you know something about selfishness, ego, narcissism, psychosis, anger, rage, and on the other end of the spectrum, you know something about love and joy and passion, and you get to reveal all of those things too.”
For me, this is the value of writing quickly. Writing quickly unclutters the brain of a bunch of stuff, and when I’m just plowing along, I often find myself in this weird headspace that matches the quotes above.
In this post I will reveal to you a key to considerable happiness. It is, admittedly a strange key. It costs very little, and in the end never even allows you to know if it’s successful or not. Yet I find it makes me happy in its own serendipitous fashion, so it seems only fair to share it.
Setting the scene: Now that Lisa is the corporate breadwinner in the family and I’m the slovenly stay-at-home writer, keeping the house semi-operational is my chore. Specifically for today’s purpose, this means going to the grocery store—a task I’ve just completed (though, technically this is one of those tedious chores like cutting the grass that can never really be completed, the food goes away after all—another trip to the grocery seems pretty much fated). Generally, I admit this task is not all the glory it’s cracked up to be.
I have, however, I’ve found ways to make it a happier experience.
I’ve written before about using this time to catch up on my consumption of podcasts. Among today’s fare was Paul Hecht reading Max Steel’s “The Hat of My Mother,” a remarkably engaging story of an older woman, her relationship with hats, and the foibles that relationship gets her into. I shall not spoil it further for you other than to say that if you have 30 minutes free to do some mindless listening (like if you’re going to the grocery store soon) you should listen to it It starts at about 20:00.
This is not, however, the secret I intend to share with you.
This secret I intend to share has to do with coupons. Yes, those things you snip out of papers or whatever. Lisa snipped coupons when she was in charge of the groceries, and I snip them now. It takes only a few minutes here and there, and it saves us maybe $5 a week—which is about $250 a year (or about what I can make selling a short story—how’s that for a kick in the pants, eh? A short story is coupon cash…but I digress). I am not, however, here to tell you about how your life can be made happier by saving $5.00 a week.
Instead I want to say this: If you don’t clip coupons for yourself, consider doing it for someone else.
That is the secret. I have recently taken, as I clip my coupons, to noticing the occasional coupon for something I don’t need, and cutting it anyway. Coupons for cereal I don’t like, or for shampoo, or whatever. And then I take them to the grocery. Today, for example, I had about $10.00 in coupons separated out as I walked into the store. These were coupons I had no use for—they covered products I don’t use, or others that I do but were nearing expiration. And today, like I’ve done each time I’ve gone to the grocery the past two months or so, I walked around the aisles with an empty cart, placing coupons in places where my fellow shoppers might stumble upon them. As I placed each, I imagined them picking that coupon up and smiling as they realized they were now getting $1.00 off something they needed–or just liked.
It made me happy, strolling around quietly and unobtrusively spreading my grocery cheer.
When I was done, and only when I was done, I turned my cart around and headed to the produce section to begin my own shopping, smiling and listening to the voice of Paul Hecht as he read a story about an older woman, her family, and her hat.
Over the past couple weeks I’ve been tempted at several moments to weigh in on the big brouhaha over this year’s Hugo Awards—an award which is of only vague import for the majority of the world, but is like life-blood to several people who are, perhaps, if such a thing is possible, the teensiest bit too deeply entrenched in the world of science fiction.
In the guise of preserving your sanity, I shall not link to any of it here. If, however, you have not heard of the issue, and you are interested in spending several hours of your time witnessing a community self-immolate, just go to Our Friend Google, and search on “Puppies” and “Hugo Awards.” From there on I figure you can create your own adventure.
I suggest, however, that the casual fan just stay out of the water.
There be sharks.
I, however, am not a casual fan. I am a writer working in the field, and have been for over twenty years. And on top of that, I tend to be a person who (as long as I can manage to avoid taking them too seriously) enjoys the whole concept of awards. As such, I admit that the Hugo Award does mean something to me.
So I have looked at the trench warfare going on within these waters (if I can be allowed to mix some metaphors) from a perch fairly close by, and have finally decided that while I am probably less intelligent than I look, I am not—and I repeat, not—a total sadist. Beyond that, I completely understand my place in this world. I understand I have no real mouthpiece or plank from which to give deep commentary that would have any chance of making a difference. (I am, however, also giving myself a self-serving pat on the back for thinking myself smart enough to assume there’s not a single person in this struggle who seems capable of providing any great commentary that has a chance to actually change anything. My opinion of human nature is that once a person digs a trench, it generally remains dug.) This doesn’t mean I don’t have opinions. Believe me. I’ve got plenty of ‘em. I just don’t see how me pounding the table can help in much of any way.
Still, I want to do something, and I would like that something to be pointed toward the positive.
And after considerable thought on the matter, I’ve decided that the best thing I can do is to spend some time highlighting pieces published in 2014 that I’ve read and enjoyed, and that were clearly “overlooked” by the slate-based approach the Puppy tandem either (depending on your point of view) rightly or wrongly employed.
So that’s what I’ll do.
My intention is, about once a week, to use my little platform here to point out a work I thought award-worthy. I plan to do this until the Hugos are actually announced, though perhaps I’ll go on longer. We shall see. I may touch on stories that are actually on the ballot, but probably will not. I assume folks who care are already exploring those works. My intention is to use my little place in the world of Science Fiction to talk about work I would not have been surprised to see on the Hugo ballot, but were not. They will be stories that should be on ballots somewhere (and maybe even be on ballots for awards not named “the Hugos”). Because I tend to be a weird reader, my selections will likely be all over the spectrum. Regardless, I hope folks will enjoy them.
This is the best way I can think of to address this ongoing strife, and to help these stories and the authors thereof—to talk about the work, to highlight it, and to hold it up for people to see and think about.
Focus on the positive.
Focus on what I think is quality.
Given this, I shall be awarding this collective of stories I highlight the High Honor of “the Ron’s Good Reading Award,” or “the Rongo,” for short. It is an award of high acclaim indeed, and sure to grow to extreme import–certain to change the very essence of the lives of those to whom my fickle finger of fate shall at point.
Perhaps I’ll even go so far as to create a logo for them in my copious spare time. Or not. Why cheapen such a thing with a brand, eh? Anyway … I digress.
With only a little further hesitation, I shall now proceed to use this post to identify the first story on the list, to bestow the first-ever “Rongo Award,” as it were. Before I go further, however, I must reiterate that this is a list of stories I think are fantastic. I am not including anything here for any purpose beyond that. I admit to feeling the need of prefacing my first selection here because I am distinctly aware of how the very first story I anoint with the title “Rongo Award Winner” will be perceived in context of the Great Battle Being Waged. I understand that John Scalzi is essentially the Anti-Beale to one side of this global battle that has become the Hugos.
These are the Rongos.
In making these selections, I don’t care about the details that are being fought over one way or the other. This should, I expect, become more obvious as the weeks go by and the Rongos get passed around, but since this is #1, it has no context. Hence the disclaimer.
All righty, then…
With that out of the way, I am excited to point potential readers to my initial Rongo selection.
* * *
The First-ever Rongo Award goes to …
* * *
Rongo Category: Novella Story:“Unlocked” Author: John Scalzi
This is why I love novellas. Just flat-out love ‘em.
Here is a piece of Science Fiction that is everything science fiction should be. It is a story, written in an oral history narrative, that brings to bear science, technology, politics, community, and fundamental human nature in ways that let us look into the near future and view who we are. Given that its basic core is built around a health crisis, I suppose it’s fitting that as I read it, my wife, my father, my mother, and my daughter were all hacking and wheezing with a flu variant that apparently wasn’t in the vaccine this year.
“Unlocked” is a prequel to Scalzi’s novel Lock in, but it clearly stands on its own. It’s deeply technological, but does not bear gizmodic burden. It’s deeply political, but represents its politics in open and straightforward fashion, and often delves into our past to support its viewpoints. With an investment of an hour or so, I walked away from reading it feeling like I had looked at the very complex issue of a country’s reaction to an immediate health crisis with a visceral sense of being there, and from a shifting series of perspectives that left me both upbeat and chilled about human nature.
In Scazi’s world, human beings are not one-note creatures. In this world, there is no one “humanity.” There is only each of us, and each of our views on how we would like to be or how we would like to live. It’s a world that matches our own—a strange collective of individuals that gather together to make a culture.
Given its structure, the story unfolds in layers and waves, its real purpose hidden underneath the surface of the report until rising up and taking you by the shoulders to shake you first this way and then that. Life is complex, it says. And choices, therefore, are no less. This is a deft piece of work, well done.
I’m really pleased to tag “Unlocked” as the first-ever Rongo Award Winner for being among the best novellas of 2014.
It’s getting close to May, which if you live in Indiana means that it’s getting on to Indy 500 time. This is special to me and John Bodin because it’s also time to release the latest edition of our anthology full of racing-related science fiction. These stories are great fun, full of pure skiffy stuff like bug-eyed aliens, time travel, neural nets, and other weirdness.
The original story we’re including this year is titled “Ghost of a Chance,” and is a powerful commentary on humanity and the value of racing. The piece sprang primarily from John’s mind–but with more than a bit of tweaking on my end. In other words, it (and the whole collection) is a great example of collaboration done right in that neither I, nor John, would have written these stories the same way all by ourselves.
The collection is in the final stages of preparation, but I’m expecting a release date in early-to-mid May.
Today, however, I’m excited to reveal the spiffy new cover we’ll be releasing it with. So, without further self-celebration, here it is …
As I’m getting my act together for the hundredth time, I think I should take a moment and note that three writer friends of mine local to the Columbus area have recently put out books that some of my readers might be interested in. Only one, Gregg Macklin’s, fits somewhere into the SF milieu, but I figure that it’s best to assume folks have as diverse of a reading interest as I do. Besides, I think it’s also good to realize there’s such a thing a gift-giving. [grin]
Anyway, here’s a little capsule on the three of them:
Albert is a guy I met in one of my roles as a corporate engineer. He was a better engineer than I, and was possessed of a sense of humor as dry as a 1950s martini–though I guess I should say he’s still possessed of that sense of humor! Regardless, he’s taken his love of motor cycles and road trips, and he’s taken his particular slant on the world, and he’s crafted an intriguing little story about murder, friends, family, and survival. Nice effort for a first novel. Can’t wait to see what he does next.
Note the nifty cover. It’s another done by the one and only Rachel J. Carpenter (who, of course, has done plenty of mine).
This is Gregg’s second book, and shows a very nice progression from his first. It’s a post-nuclear apocalypse kind of story set in the middle of Indiana. The story itself is as much commentary on personal freedom and the politics of plenty vs. scarcity as anything else, and is full of characters defined and shaped by the area. For that reason alone, folks from around southern Indiana may enjoy reading over the setting. Overall, though, I suspect the book will probably be best loved by those whose views lean a little to the right. [grin]
Having now known Gregg for a couple years, I’m really excited for him as I think he’s just now coming into his art. I love it when that happens.
Full disclosure here, I haven’t read this book–I haven’t had time to grab it, and Debi didn’t send it around before publishing it. Debi coordinates our Bartholomew County Writer’s Group (meets the second Thursday of each month, ping me if you’re local and interested), is the publisher of the independent Pen It! magazine, and has been writing for some time. I understand the book is a romance/mystery/thriller (or, as Debi describes it, “has a little bit of everything in there!”). So if that sounds like your cuppa, I say go for it. [grin]
Often, while I go about the routine portion of my days at home, I like to listen to podcasts. I have quite eclectic tastes in this area, but in general I focus on stories and people–stories in the vein of documentaries or personal narratives, stories the likes of historical studies or discussions of scientific breakthroughs or maths or whatever, and people in the form of … well … in the form of people I think are interesting.
I’ve gotten deeper and deeper into listening to podcasts, I find the pretty much everyone is interesting if I just sit back and let them be. People have viewpoints, you see? And they have backgrounds that you couldn’t begin to expect. Given those backgrounds, they put together pieces of information and pieces of society in ways that I don’t. Interesting ways. Informative ways.
Take, for instance, this podcast of Elenor Wachtel’s interview of Kazuo Ishiguro on CBC Radio’s Writers & Company. Ishiguro is a well-respected writer, of course. But I didn’t really know anything about him at all. I knew he was Japanese. I knew he writes things others would consider “literary.” This gave me a stereotyped viewpoint of who he might be. I’m interested in art and literature, though, and even though I knew nothing much else about Kazuo Ishiguro I figured I would spend an hour with him.
I suggest you do so, also. I suggest you listen to his talk and let his existence change you.
If you do you’ll hear different takes on what love means.
You’ll hear what it’s like to grow up “other” without really realizing it (which is perhaps stranger than that sounds–Ishiguro is Japanese, but grew up British, and speaks with a full British accent, for example). You’ll hear interesting takes about Japanese history, and what it means to be from Nagasaki (a place that cannot possibly escape being deeply informed by its history with the atomic bomb). You’ll hear about how songs and lyrics relate to short stories and literature–and in between the cracks you can pick out small slices of what it means to be an artist.
And who knows what else you’ll learn, or merely think about differently. You are a different person than I am. So if you do listen to Ishiguro speak, I’m sure you’ll carry away something I’ll miss.
So, yes, I admit I like listening to podcasts. I like them because to absorb them you have to give them time. You have to concentrate. I like them because you have to listen, to actually engage with their content. And I like them because when you do that, you can find really interesting people who can teach you really interesting things.
A week ago or so, I had a long-running dream about a boy who drowned. Actually, no one really knew if he drowned or not because in actuality he had just disappeared. But everyone assumed he had drowned because he was last seen going into the waters. It was a weird, Twin Peaks-like thing that splayed out over a couple of dream rocks. You know how they go. I woke up feeling odd about it, but that went away pretty quickly. I had pretty much forgotten about it.
Then last night I dreamed of the search and recovery. I was a diver.
It was equally as strange.
Shrug. Perhaps this will sometime wind up in a story.
Lisa dropped me this link to a PBS News article about Nick Hanauer’s viewpoint on wealth, its distribution, and its use. Hanauer is well known as a left-leaning billionaire, and was one of the few of the 1% who actively urge the country to tax him more. He’s also the guy who did the TED talk that was circulating a bit ago wherein he said the rich needed to wake up before the non-rich start coming at them with pitchforks.
So you might say he’s a little controversial.
That said, whether you are a person of the left-wing or the right-wing, I think you should read this. Inside lie several very important concepts that I haven’t previously seen put as clearly as Hanauer has done here. I’m writing about this because it’s been days since I read it, and the information withing continues to pick at my brain. So I figure if it’s got me thinking this long, perhaps you might find it interesting, too.
Here are some things I’m coming to as a result of thinking about things.
Concept 1: The economy is a closed loop system. It does not start at the top and trickle down, nor does is blossom from the bottom. It is, instead, a fully integrated system—and as any system engineer can tell you, this means that it almost certainly operates best when it’s in some form of balance.
Concept 2: Rich people (big companies) do not exist to create jobs. Hanauer puts this more in a more controversial fashion by saying that the rich do not create jobs, but this is not completely true. The rich (and big companies) do invest, and those investments do create some jobs. But the proper way to look at this is that big companies (and the rich overall) are doing the best they can to create the fewest jobs possible. That’s how one controls cost, after all.
Concept 3: There is one prevalent purpose that a company exists to accomplish. “Okay, Ron,” I hear you say. “What do big companies exist for?” To be blunt here, while big companies do a lot of things, and provide many values, they exist for one reason above all others: to return value to their investors (in the short term). That’s what they exist for. This fact lies in between every word of Hanauer’s article, and it’s also obvious when you look at what companies do. In that sense, I like that he spends considerable time in the article exploring the things that big companies actually do with their profits (rather than throwing that cash directly back into the business). I’ve been in the middle of corporate America for much of my career, and you cannot live in that zone for very long before you understand exactly how deeply this concept is true.
Concept 4: To understand a company’s priorities, you have to pay attention to lots of things. Let’s face it, it can be confusing to sort out complex entities. Big companies obviously create some jobs and they obviously do great things for communities. But that’s not their purpose.
Concept 5. The primary job creation force in this world is product demand. Bottom line, when people stop buying something, jobs dry up. This should be obvious.
Concept 6: Multiple things can create demand. Yes, sometimes, companies can create so much buzz they develop their own demand. Apple, of course, comes to mind. But those are more outliers than standard examples. A vast majority of new products come as disruptive technologies that are aggressively fought by the traditional market (can anyone say traditional publishing vs. indie?). Also, realize that when a big company puts everything on a truly new product, it’s often considered a “bet your company” kind of thing. When companies lose that bet, jobs erode. Anyway, the bottom line is that several things can create demand. This is essentially another way of saying that the economy is a complex system (see #1 above).
Concept 7: The laws of the land modify how big companies use people. (I use the term “use” there in both the positive and negative). We hear a lot about minimum wage, but the fact is that you can increase minimum wage by increasing employment…and I absolutely love the point he makes that the strongest thing that the government could do to help is not to raise the minimum wage, but instead to increase the limit for when companies need to pay overtime. No one really talks about that. But this dynamic of being on salary has lots and lots of baggage, and resonates strongly with the fact that people are working longer and longer hours (this is a problem that I was working on for the last year of my career in my corporate role…it’s a fascinating system unto itself).
I could go on, I suppose. But I figure this is enough to get you started. Read the article. Think about it. Ask yourself if it changes the way you see things.
Two months ago I was in Detroit and sitting on a panel at ConFusion when someone had just asked the question. “Can you see a time when writers can make their living on short fiction?” I replied (paraphrasing here) that yes, I could envision that time, and that is now.
I don’t think any of the other panelists agreed with me, but that makes sense because they were reviewers and publishers of small press magazines. The fact is that there will probably never be a way you can make a living selling stories to magazines and whatnot in the classic way, but that is the environment they knew. It’s what they understood to be true, and so for them it was the truth. There is no way that short fiction could sustain them, nor would there ever be.
But I came into the room after going straight to the reader, and after marketing a very successful series of eight novellas. A novella, being considerably less in size than a novel, is certainly considered short fiction (and if you don’t believe me go read almost all my most negative reviews on Amazon—most of which say great story, well written, but I’m giving it 1-star because it’s too danged short … sigh). Anyway, given that, I came into that conference room with a balanced position—I sell several short stories a year into the traditional markets, and I’m publishing serial short fiction out of Skyfox, my own house.
This is important, because until I actually did it myself I’m not sure how I would have answered the question. But given the results that I HAVE SEEN MYSELF, I can say that yes, verily, I can envision a period where writers could live off short fiction, and that this period is right now. All you have to do is become a publisher. Take your time, write a good story, and publish it well (meaning invest in professional covers, editing, etc). This is a lot of work. And it’s actually quite complex.
But the fact is that the novella (or novelette, or whatever) can certainly bring in money to writers who are willing to do the work it takes to do it well. However, I think it’s fair to say that many, many, many writers do not want to actually be a publisher.
I’m thinking about this right now because a little while back io9 interviewed editors at TOR about their view that the novella was the future of the genre. This, they said, was specifically because the once mighty, but now over-looked novella, was perfect for today’s busy reader who may not have the time (or attention span) to dedicate to a novel. This created quite a stir, and caused many writers to weigh in on both the idea itself and the flavor in which the idea was presented.
Personally, I love the idea of the novella making a return. I’ve always liked novella length work. Not because it’s short enough to fit my time available, but because I just love the form. Its dimensions (17-40,000 words) are big enough to allow for complexity, but constrained enough to drive the writer to just get on with telling the danged story. Novellas are, for me, the movies of the book world. Give a novella two or three hours, and it will return to you a grand old time.
But, I also admit that I struggle with the idea of crowning the novella as the king of the hill. The novella is the future of SF, perhaps as Bruce Springsteen was once the future of Rock and Roll. For all the hype and heraldry of that iconic statement, and for all that Springsteen is and has been to the world of music, there’s still been lot of Rock and Roll that isn’t the Boss. Still, to my way of thinking, it’s good and fun to see the novella making a name for itself again.
So, anyway, back to the convention, and TOR, and the question at hand.
The issue, you see, is that to me what’s different today is not the novella, nor is it the question of time on hand for readers (though that may well help to some degree). I say this, though, because more readers read more things today than ever, including novels. So, no, it’s not time. The thing that is different is that the market is now direct to readers. It’s that the market is now not constrained to Analog or Asimov’s one novella per issue, or even TOR.com’s novella program (which I note is now already closed to submissions because it can only afford to pay for so much, right?).
You see, I posit that readers like me have always loved novellas. We’ve always loved those short 40-50K word novels. There has always been a readership (hence a market) for these writers to hit, but until the technology that enables today’s explosion of independent publishing became available, the only reasonable pathway to get to those readers was through the artificially constrained market of the magazines. Now, assuming you can write well, and assuming you publish well, you can make a reasonable cash flow with this short fiction because you can use the Amazons and other online venues to reach that readership directly. At that point, the market itself makes its decisions.
And if you can write enough of it quickly enough, you can “easily” make a living doing it.
To this, I will of course say, Yay! I love it as a writer, and I love it as a reader.
The thing I find most interesting about this whole situation, though, is the fact that so few people in the industry itself seem to actually see what’s happening. No one else on the panel did, for example. And the audience at that panel (which was mostly newbie writers), were surprised at my point of view. In fact, they pretty much discounted my position. This, of course, did not surprise me. Realize I said, after all, that I find the viewpoint of the industry today interesting, not surprising.
The reason for my lack of surprise is because I spent 30 or so years working in corporate America, and one of the most important lessons I took away from that experience is that unless something “destructive” happens, people do not change their thinking much. This idea seems so ubiquitous and so simple, but it slips away from me so easily that I find myself having to remind myself of it so often it’s embarrassing. But, the fact is this: people don’t give up their preconceived biases and opinions lightly, or easily, or perhaps ever.
No matter what is true, whatever you believe will always be foremost in your mind and will almost always crowd out what is real.
Think about that last statement. Think about it hard. Then go apply it to something important to you today. Tell yourself that something you believe in fully about the world is wrong. I bet you can get something useful out of it, because (and here’s the kicker, eh?) if no one else around you sees the world as it truly is, you have a great competitive advantage.
Yes, this is an incredibly exciting day for me. It’s Friday, of course–which is always good. But mostly, it’s the day that Lords of Existence, the eighth and final volume of Saga of the God-Touched Mage, has finally seen publication.
Here are the particulars on where you can find it:
The story is now done. The work is out there, and on the whole it’s being well-received, and well bought despite the occasional dust up over the fact that they are novellas rather than novels (shrug). Sometime I’ll probably write up a “lessons learned” thing, and maybe even post a few bits of it here. But for now I’m just kind of sitting here and soaking in the whole project. I feel pretty danged good. Tired, but good. The whole thing has been considerably more fun, more work, more … well … everything … than I thought it would be at the beginning. [Note to self: remember that setting two-week deadlines is crazy silly]
Mostly, however, I admit to feeling pretty smug.
I’m immensely pleased with the outcome. I’m happy that this story is in the world. I’m giddy with the idea that people in India and Germany and Australia, and the UK, and a few other places (of course) are reading the story of Garrick and his struggles against a world that is not aligned exactly to his needs and desires.
There are several people I need to thank for their special help. My friend and sometime collaborator, John Bodin, for being a most-excellent first reader. Rachel Carpenter, of course, for her super work on the entire series of covers. David Coe and Amy Sterling Casil for their very kind commentary on the work itself and allowing me to use it on my covers. My daughter, Brigid, for great work as a copy editor (with quick turn around, too). And of course, Lisa, for her always being here and the intense work she did while reading this story over and over again for a … uh … considerable time. Then there are others who provided so much guidance … I know I’ll miss some, but let’s start with Vera Nazarian, JC Andrijeski, Tom Carpenter, Anthea Sharp, Michele Lang, Annie Bellet, who each gave me considerable chunks of their time to answer a boatload of dumb questions.
Anyway. I’m blathering along here, and I think I hear the music starting, so I’ll just shut up here.
So, yeah. Today’s the day.
Tomorrow I’ll hop on a plane and head west to a writers’ workshop, where I’ll work at becoming better and where’s I’ll talk to a whole bunch of more writers about all my future projects.
This is real life, you know? Not a book. And in real life things never really end, do they?
I’m so excited to reveal the cover to Lords of Existence, which is the the eighth (and final) volume of my Saga of the God-Touched Mage series.
If you’re interested in pre-ordering the book, you can find the links down below.
As a finale, this episode has some unique and intriguing aspects that I wasn’t sure Rachel was going to be able to pull off, but I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised at her work. It is, of course, fantastic once again.
I’ve mentioned before the my daughter, Brigid is a writer. I know you’ll get tired of that as a lead-in, but hey … it works for this post, so I figure you’ll just have to deal with it.
What I haven’t talked about here is that, as luck would have it, her husband (hence my son-in-law) Nick is also afflicted with this thing that compels one to tell stories. I’ve avoided talking about his work here because he’s just now finishing up his first book targeted for publication, and who the heck needs that kind of pressure, eh?
However, Nick recently posted quite an interesting discussion on the use of the Damsel in Distress trope—a topic that is getting some play in certain circles these days. As background, he provides a good bit of history regarding the use of hostages, and goes on from there. If you’re interested in the topic, it’s worth a read.
I admit to two feelings about the issue. First and foremost is that, yeah, the root of the argument—the root of the pushback—against the weak and defenseless damsel being held by the dastardly bad guy while our heroic golden boy charges forward to save the day is one-hundred percent bang on. The history of this trope is crammed to the brim by lazy writers at best, something Nick captures in this snippet:
Often times the sexualization of damsels in distress isn’t intended but rather the by-product of lazy, half-assed, mindless writing.
I would add, however, that the key words in this part of Nick’s commentary are “often times,” and that we should not read “often times” to always mean a majority of times. Often times may mean most times, but does not have to. In addition, I think it’s equally important to note that often times (and in my opinion most times) the sexualization (or genderization?) of the damsel in distress is indeed on purpose, or is at least the case of a writer dutifully and knowingly playing along with gender stereotypes (they casually, but purposefully, decide to use shorthand they think the audience will understand)—which can be argued to be equivalent to doing it on purpose.
In the case where it’s being done on purpose, it’s tantamount to the writer being a bit of an ass.
And in the case of the writer being lazy, well … there is no real excuse for being lazy at any craft that matters to you. If you are lazy, then you’re saying you don’t care enough to do better work, and, really now, isn’t that pretty close to “being an ass” of a different kind? Just throwing that out there.
I suppose there are exceptions to this rule, exceptions where the story carries value from the fact that the damsel is passive, but I’m sure they are quite rare. I can’t really think of any off the top of my head. In general, if you are writing a female (or male, for that matter, but those are considerably rarer) with nothing much to do in the story except to be rescued and then carted away as a trophy, then you will almost certainly be lumped in with the writers who are doing it on purpose, even if you’re just being lazy. Consider it a writer’s equivalency with the old adage that you should never argue with an idiot because the bystander may not be able to tell the difference.
I also, however, admit to a bit of angst whenever folks shout “thou shalt not have such a [insert favorite issue here] in thy work or else thee shalt face the wrath of the gods of taste.”
At this point, though, I have to fess up to the fact that I’m in the process of casting a bit of a magic trick here. I’m going to spend some time discussing the Damsel in Distress storyline as a plot device, and laying out what I think is a reasonable argument for allowing the use of the concept. Then I’m going to make that argument disappear before your very eyes. We’ll see if I can pull that off. Feel free to tell me I didn’t. I’m open to discussion. [grin]
So, let me start by equating the use of the Damsel in Distress storyline to my view on the use of profanity. I live squarely in the middle of the mid-West. I personally know many writers who refuse to use profanity in their work on moral grounds. This is completely fine. But what that says to me is that those writers are committing themselves to never being able to write certain characters the way they need to be written. And when you decide you will not write a certain character (or, as is more relevant to the discussion, a certain storyline), you are limiting yourself in ways I think are unnecessary.
In his post, Nick spends time discussing historical uses of hostages and the behavior of those hostages. These are all completely correct, and should be used by writers whenever the situation calls for. And he brushes on the motivations of both the hostage takers and the hostages during these events.
In that light, here is probably a key point in this “Damsel in Distress” conversation as Nick makes it—and it is, to my mind, the most important thing to walk away with if you’re attempting to write something worthwhile, regardless of the storyline you’re following.
The main issue with sticking to the “damsel in distress” trope is that too often people forget that the damsel is a character too, regardless if the damsel is in fact even a damsel…
Let’s not, after all, throw the damsel (or dude) out with the bathwater. It’s important to realize that in the case of the Damsel (or Dude) in Distress situation, as Nick’s post touches on, it’s not fundamentally the hostage (or assault, or whatever) storyline that is at fault. People do actually take hostages, and stronger people do actually assault weaker people. Hence it must be okay for writers to make such plot lines. No, as Nick suggests, the problem lies in the fact that the writer in question has not written the hostage/victim or the hero to be believable characters. I completely agree with this thinking.
Ideally, of course, your damsel or dude in distress is going to actually try to do something to get out of distress. Show me what they are doing. It’s okay if it doesn’t work. Not everyone can be Sarah Connor, after all. It’s okay if a hostage can’t get out of their situation on their own if you show me why. Or, if a damsel/dude in distress is going to sit passively around and wait to be rescued (as Nick’s post suggests they sometimes did), show me why they do that, and show me in a believable fashion. Make it real. Give them something to do, and something they care about. And, If the hero (or heroine) is risking everything to rescue the dude/damsel, please, please, please, make it for some reason more complex and valuable than the desire to boost his own identity by taking home the fairest maiden in the land. Living happily forever is fine, I suppose, if it’s all consensual and you can make it make sense to me. (grin)
If you can do those things, then the Damsel in Distress storyline can, will, and should work just fine.
Of course … (he says, cuing up the magic trick finale) … this argument is more than a bit disingenuous.
This is because the phrase “Damsel in Distress plot” is misnamed. The discussion around this topic is not really about the plot at all. Oh, of course there are discussions about the specific plot line, but plot is a symptom. I can say this because plot stems from character, character (or lack thereof) is the root cause of plot. So, while the heated nature of the modern day discourse around this subject feels like it’s centered on a plot line, it’s not really so. The conversation is, instead, actually about the lack of characterization or the utter reliance upon worn-out gender stereotypes to substitute for true characterization that writers use to create their characters. People who argue against the Social Justice Warrior-ness side of the discussion seem often to attempt muddying the water by inserting this storyline question into the mix, but the fact is this: If you have written real characters actively pursing goals through all means at their disposal, you have not written a “Damsel/Dude in Distress” story.
So, Nick’s point about character is well made. The entire point here is that writers need to stretch themselves to write robust characters. The “acceptable plot line” argument is therefore just an illusion, a diversion that can catch on because (for whatever reason) folks aren’t thinking about “story” from the right perspective.
But this is an important differentiation for writers to understand. When you understand that plot springs from character, you must then see that character is spoken to by plot. An example as an aside: If you replace Sleeping Beauty with a shiny red corvette, does it make a difference to Prince Charming? Possibly. Possibly not. If you’ve read this far, I hope you get the point I’m making here.
If a writer is obviously trying to write a good, strong characters in a hostage/assault/victim situation, but doesn’t do them well, then I’ll probably give that writer a point or two for the effort but will view them as still learning how to write. But if that same writer doesn’t even attempt to do those things, or if they just hand-wave, then I’ll likely assume that writer is either completely out of touch or is being an ass on purpose.
I know I’ve mentioned before and before and before that my daughter, Brigid, is a writer—and a danged good one, at that. As more proof of this, you can now see (in the form of a terrible mash-up I’ve done) that authors’ copies of the 2015 Young Explorer’s Adventure Guide have arrived.
For my Facebook and Twitter followers, I only partially apologize for the redundant use of that photo. Let me just say that if/when you have a daughter, you’ll understand.
Lately I’ve taken to watching videos during lunch. Interviews of people I think are interesting, or other things I think I want to learn about. Today, I stumbled upon an HBO thing titled “Talking Funny,” which has Ricky Gervais, Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, and Louis CK sitting around and talking about how they view comedy under the hood.
It’s incredibly entertaining from moment to moment, of course. How could it not be? But I’m writing about it today because at its core because it’s a group of four very intelligent artists who know exactly what they’re doing, talking about how they do it and what they think about as they’re doing it. I’ll probably go back and watch it again next week some time.
Embedded in its conversational flow are things about what quality means to each of them (which is different), and how they judge their work. You’ll find thoughts on how they think about and develop their material, and how they each bring something unique and different to certain types of material that makes it fresh again. You’ll hear them discussing hack-work (though they won’t call it that). You’ll hear them talk about what it means to use controversial topics or words in their art. Jerry Seinfeld’s discussion of the use of the word “fuck” is fascinating … actually, hearing them all discuss it makes me think a lot about the use of language in my own work.
You’ll hear them talk about the relationship of the artist, his content, and whether their audience is there for the content or the artist–which is a particularly deep subject in itself.
You’ll hear discussion about when work is “done,” if it ever is. You’ll see them discuss composition of a bit, and even compare notes about the construction of an entire show.
These kinds of things fascinate me. It’s 50 minutes long, but I suggest that anyone interested in the idea of constructing art, and especially constructing performance art (of which writing is one type), will walk away thinking a lot about what they do themselves.
Here it is: (along with a bit of a language warning…expect to hear anything)
The calendar marches toward the end of January and that means we’re nearing the launch of Changing of the Guard, which is volume six in my Saga of the God-Touched Mage series. As is my practice, though, today I get to reveal the cover of the next volume–Lord of the Freeborn. Definitely exciting. If you’re interested in pre-ordering the book, you can find the links down below.
As usual, Rachel J. Carpenter has done a spectacular job capturing one of the key characters in the storyline. I particularly enjoy the wicked little expression she’s carrying around with her–definitely fitting.
Enough of my jibber-jabber, though. Here’s the goods!
It’s that time of year again–Analog and Asimov’s have now released their annual readers’ polls, and I’m terribly excited to be able to remind you that that I’ve got stories on both polls.
First, you might be interested in considering “Primes,” for best novelette in the Asimov’s poll. This is a tale that’s been reviewed quite positively, specifically including nice commentary in Tangent and a “Recommended” notice from Lois Tilton at Locus. I must also admit to having a particularly warm place in my heart for this one. [grin]
Then you might mosey on over to Analog’s poll, where you can consider my short stories “Survivors” and “Unfolding the Multi-Cloud,” of which, I must admit to a personal preference for “Survivors,” but of course your mileage can vary.
Whether you select one of my works or not, I sincerely hope you’ll wander over there and make your voice heard.