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Orphan Black’s Felix on acting (and Ron’s take on writing fast)

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.

Which makes me quite happy.

I mean, who can’t like Felix, eh?

Talking funny

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)

Cha-cha-cha Changes

Why, yes, I was listening to David Bowie this afternoon. Why do you ask?

If you’re a regular reader of this place, it should be pretty obvious that I’m in the process of revamping the place a bit. This is going to be moderately routine thing for the next few days, I would think. So, yes, I’ll be move things about here and there. Hopefully this means it will be a bit easier to find things that matter to you, but if nothing else I figure that at least I may actually enjoy putting my eyeballs on my site a bit better.

In the meantime, sorry for the mess.

Oooo … what does it mean that Radio Paradise just kicked off Heart’s “Crazy on You?”

It’s a sign, I say. It’s got to be a sign!

The girls, can rock, I say. For all you young’uns, here’s what a real performance used to look like before all the laser lights and the dance steps took over. [grin]

Entering the Home Stretch

This morning I proofed the first half of Lord of the Freeborn, which is the seventh book of the series that I might have mentioned around here a time or two. Hopefully, I’ll finish that today. Then tomorrow will be spent proofing Lords of Existence, which is the eighth and final book in the series (I suppose I should add “as envisioned now,” to that). When this is done, I’ll still have quite a bit of packaging to do. Yes, quite a bit. But this milestone will mean the true end of the creative element of this work, at least regarding the text itself.

I’m sitting here eating my lunch and thinking about that.

It feels strange. It’s a weird post-partumness that doesn’t feel like other projects. Perhaps that’s because this represents the endgame to my first run as an independent publisher rather than as a writer. I’m not sure that’s the cause, but it feels right. When volume 8 is finally finished, it will be the tenth book I’ll have finished building in the past couple months (starting with my two baseball roadtrip/fantasies).

I find the emotional aspect of doing this project myself to have been fascinating. At times I’m absolutely pumped and raging with energy toward the work, and at others it’s just seemed overwhelming and daunting. But one thing I’ll definitely say about it is that doing this myself has felt extremely intimate. I’m thinking that in particular as I go over the proofing process. Every time I read this work, I realize that someone is going to read it exactly as I leave it. This is all me, speaking directly to all you. Yes, it’s been beta-read, and yes, it’s been copy edited. But I make the decisions. It’s me and it’s you. As I’m making changes in the text, I’m feeling the eyes of the reader at every step right now.

No pressure, right?

I’m admittedly fairly pleased with the response so far. Most readers seem to really love the actual work, and the only complaints that seem to be holding water have to do with the fact that Glamour of the God-Touched was so short. I can only plead guilty, and note that it is the shorted segment of the entire series. Shrug. I’ve touched on why that is in other posts, so I’ll not rehash it here.

But these comments, too, feel different from the usual reviews I get on my short work published through other veins. Again, they feel more intimate. I suppose that’s because they come for the most part unbidden from the readership (I say for the most part, because while I never demand a glowing review, I certainly do request that people as a whole talk about the work…so I’m sure some folks will respond to that prompting).

Anyway, lunch is over now.

Time to get back to the work.

And, yeah, I still feel you there, perched on my shoulder and whispering “you’re not actually going to say it that way, are you?”

Hard Work & Opportunity

As with most everything I have to say about art and writing, this is a long and meandering piece. I think it means something though. I think it gets somewhere. We shall see. I am going to use pretentious words like “art” and “artist” and other such muck-a-muck.

If you are one of those TLDR kinda folks, you might want to wander a different direction, though.

Just sayin’.

If I can simplify her commentary a bit, my friend Amy Sterling Casil has written a particularly nice exploration of what it means to be an artist. She couches it in terms of musicians Carlos Santana and Richard Shindell (one of whom I assume you’ve heard of and is likely rich and famous, and one I assume you have not heard of and is likely of rather lesser means). She uses my Saga of the God-Touched Mage series as the spindle she wraps her ideas around, and in the process of doing so says some extremely nice things about it.

In it, she touches on how “unfair” (*) it seems that talented people—people who are artists at heart—get overlooked, or are not as commercially successful as others. It’s a conversation that comes up considerably more often than you might think among writers. Us writer-types can be a catty breed.

* I hate the word “unfair” in general, but it kinda works here

Anyway, her post stirred the pot and dredged up lots of different things from the recesses of my brain. They all combine to make a point, but I’m not sure what order they need to be put in to drive a perfect narrative. So instead, I’ll just do the whole avant-garde thing—let them rip freeform, and see how they look when I’m done. Here are things I know, or things that are at least true to me. They are a shade random, and this is a long list. Sorry about that …

  • There is a difference between commercial success and artistic success. Many artistically successful people find that artistic success to be compensated in financial fashions. I think the two correlate, but not perfectly. At least I feel pretty comfortable saying that there are very few big name artists who are just terrible at their art.
  • There is also a difference between an artistic success and a celebrity, though that line may not be as firm as some believe. The act of being a celebrity is, in itself, a form of performance art, and while I often don’t really get it, I admire it when I see it from certain angles. The first person who made me really realize this was Madonna, who I think has done remarkable things in her career. John Lennon was another performance artist. Both of those examples are/were talented at their chosen professions (musicians, in this case) AS WELL AS remarkable performance artists, but …
  • There exist people who are “merely” performance artists. In today’s world, those are the Kim Kardashians and Snookies and whoever. They are artists, just not in the way you may think of when you conceive of the idea of an artist, and perhaps not in a way you appreciate. If you react to them, however, you are, oddly, part of the art.
  • Yoko Ono was a remarkable performance artist on her own, and her art was a deeply participative form that incorporated the audience directly into it. She was, of course, not particularly well-known before she had the audacity to marry a Beatle. I figure this means she was probably not well compensated for her artistry until she had celebrity to her name. Think about that for a little.
  • I figure there’s a correlation between celebrity performance art, visibility, and financial compensation. I think it’s likely that celebrity performance art pays (as a whole) better than raw talent at any other specific form of creation—perhaps because negative reactions to their form of art serve to strengthen the bonds between them and the audience who accepts them. Just throwing that out there. This may become useful later in the conversation. Bear with me.
  • Amy and I have always been on the same wavelength about this writing gig. I met her in person for the first time in LA at our first WotF session, and we immediately started jabbering about things, and it was just one of those moments where you know there’s this bridge there. I mean, I remember that first night sitting at a restaurant dinner table with six or eight other folks and having a really intense talk about what was okay to do as a writer and what was stifling—talking about writing via rules of thumb vs. doing different things. Amy was smart in places I’m not smart, and maybe I was able to contribute thoughts in places she hadn’t been to. Dunno the full reason. As she notes in her post, the flavor of our work is different. She’s a little F&SF, I’m a little Analog. But deep in the heart of what we do, at the core level of how we approach a work as “artists” I think there has always been some kind of alignment between us. I’m sure there are a lot of things we don’t agree on in general—that there are things in general life she cares about that I don’t, and visa versa. But Amy has always understood what I was doing when I threw words on the page, and the same thing I think goes for me.
  • Lisa (my beloved wife and copyeditor, not Lisa the writer) and I talked about this at lunch today. Part of this connection I have with Amy, I think, is that Amy is a person who is always looking for meaning. She’s a person with a sense of interest about story that remains stuck “on.” I think this is important. There are very few people like this—and fewer writers and artists than you might think, really. Amy sorts through ideas for their core meaning in relation to the big things in life. I think I am very much like that, also. For me, there is no other reason to write but to express ideas about the world as a whole.
  • The downside to being like this is that it’s sometimes hard to get people to understand what you mean. Lisa (my wife) “gets” me most of the time because she’s been with me forever. But even she doesn’t really get what I’m doing with the artistic side of my work. Not all the time, at least.
  • I think some of that is because it is very hard for most people to engage in a work of art at the same level as the artist. It takes energy. It takes a commitment. I know the difference in myself, for example, when I’m really engaged in what the artist is trying to do, and when I am not…or maybe I should say I know when I’ve seen enough of someone’s work that I disengage from it. There is a difference.
  • I’ve worked with several other writers, and learned a lot from them. But Lisa Silverthorn (the writer and great friend Lisa, not the beloved wife and copy editor Lisa) is probably the only other writer who I have felt that kind of kinship with, though I think she and I are on the same wavelength in the area of dreams and passions, whereas Amy and I share a link that is more intrinsic to the work itself. I really can’t explain it better than that.
  • By that last bit, I don’t mean to say those other writers are not artists or anything else negative about any other writer.
  • I do, however, think that there’s a change in people when they begin to find their ability to comment on life through their “art” rather than seeing what they do as base entertainment or simply try to tell a good story. Something happens when they get to the point where they open their own souls up and see what they have to say. All of a sudden, that craft stuff they have been working on by rote seems to suddenly make sense, even if they don’t see it themselves. Brigid (my daughter, a new writer on her own) appears to be getting to that point, BTW. Singer had a commentary to it, but was done differently. Her last couple works have shown me new things about her “as an artist” that weren’t always there in the first couple pieces. It’s really fun to watch people change…but I digress from my digression.
  • Maybe I’m just transferring here, tough. All of that is wrong. Maybe that’s just how it was for me.
  • I write a wide array of story types. Hard SF? Cyber punk? Slipstream? Magic Realism? True Fantasy? Yes to it all. Some of what I do I think is pretty danged good, and I think other folks will think so, too. Other stuff I think is good, but I know others will be mixed about. I’m hard to classify because in the end I don’t decide what to write based on what I think will be successful (commercially) or not. I write things I care about at the moment, and I let them free to find whatever place they are going to find.
  • As random fate would have it, I’m listening to a CD by Alvin Youngblood Hart. I’m going to guess most of my readers will not recognize the name—though he’s quite successful, and a remarkable blues musician. If you haven’t heard him, pull up Mr. Google and go buy something. My guess is you’ll like it.
  • Back to the subject again … I’m not as good of a writer as I want to be. Perhaps there are those who would just say I’m not a good writer. I hope they are wrong (grin). Perhaps I would be a better pure writer if I focused on one area, one genre. But I don’t think so. My work says what I want it to say. And, not to be too morbid, I hope to die thinking that I’m not as good of a writer as I want to be. One should always be striving to get better.
  • In my opinion (and what do I know, I’m just the writer), the main thing that’s constant in my work is that I’m always quite clear in my mind what every character in every story is there for. They all mean something to me. I don’t write throw-away stories or throw away characters. At least, not on purpose (grin). This has been true since the minute I started writing, though I’m better at putting it on the page now than I was back then. I hope (grin).

Okay, Ron. What does all that mean?

Well, as far as I’m concerned, it’s like this:

Assuming you’re any good at anything, commercial success is probably about opportunity. But being good at something, and getting proper opportunity is really complicated. You might, after all, have heard someone say that luck is what happens when hard work meets opportunity. I agree with that, but, seriously, what does that mean? Let’s take a moment and really think about it.

Let’s start with the hard work part: Hard work (in this field) is what creates both quality and “product.” When you start, you’re generally not very good, so you pay for quality with hard work. And if you’re lucky, no one reads those early stories because the quality is not good (perhaps you could consider that negative opportunity). But eventually, all that preparatory hard work results in improved craftsmanship and thereby enables better artistic success. Then the hard work of sticking to it results in good “product” to bring to market (love those business terms, eh?).

Then we get to opportunity. Opportunity is much harder to quantify. It is not what you might first think. Or, better, it’s more than you might first think.

Let me take a small step backward for a moment.

As it turns out, Amy’s post has things almost right when it comes to Glamour of the God-Touched (and the whole SGTM series) in that it had a many-twisted path to its birthing. I originally envisioned them years ago as a series of novellas, but I wrote them as novels because that’s what I thought I needed to do to be “commercial.” I wrote on them, and wrote on them, and wrote on them. For years, actually. But they didn’t breathe right, and when I would talk to publishers about them, and the editors or agents would get excited, but then kind of scratch their heads and go other directions. Truthfully, I don’t think that even I liked them in that format. But that’s what I thought they needed to be to “sell.” But, after years of setting the story aside, and then trying it out again, and setting it aside, I finally decided to do it the way I originally envisioned them. Suddenly they spoke to me again. I know what I want to say with them, you know? They pulled at things inside me. And when I put them together the way I originally envisioned them, I knew I was in the right space. I’m proud of them.

That’s a long way of saying that Amy’s commentary about them being “Ron” made me very, very happy, and perhaps stands testimony to what I mean when I say we’re on the same wavelength when it comes to the base art of what we’re each trying to do. It’s really fun to have someone get it.

Against that frame work, we come again to opportunity.

For new writers, opportunity was once thought to start (and end?) with getting someone to publish your work. It is true, of course, that being published is/was a gateway one had to go through, and as Amy noted, the traditional publication route (which I still appreciate and still pursue), is an interesting exercise in itself. I am often published traditionally in short markets. I understand how that gateway can be viewed as opportunity, or at least how the lack of access to the gateway can certainly feel like denied opportunity. But it’s not.

Not really.

The existence of a publishing stream is really just a pathway to opportunity. It’s always been just that. Just like the existence of a concert hall did not give Robert Shindell an opportunity, publishing houses to not provide opportunity. At best, these middle-men provide visibility, which I postulate is different. Perhaps you’ll think I’m parsing things too finely, but the person who gave Robert Shindell an opportunity last Friday (as related in Amy’s post) was Amy. She is the one who went to the show, despite not knowing what to expect. She is the one who “took the chance” on Shindell. The music hall was a gateway to that opportunity, certainly. But it was not the opportunity. The opportunity was Amy and Bruce deciding to give Shidell their attention, and to give it in a full fashion.

Perhaps it’s all the work I’ve been putting into Glamour for the past several months. Perhaps it’s the group of local writers I’ve been working with lately, but this is how I’ve begun to think about things. A publishing company gives a writer visibility. An art gallery gives an artist visibility. The television gives a modern-day celebrity performance artist visibility.

But it is the consumer of the art who provides opportunity. Remember that. It’s the consumer of the art who provides the opportunity. And that makes it tough. That makes it complicated.

For example, when I pitched SGTM as serial fantasy novellas to editors and agents in the traditional markets (which I did), they all just kinda grinned and said “we can’t sell novellas.” Which is marketing speak for “we don’t see sales opportunity out there.” And, for the way they market, they are probably right. Or at least, they can make more money if they spend their capital on art products that will have a better “hit rate” with the reading public.

Hence, it was either find very small press, or do it through Skyfox. Ten years ago, that wouldn’t have been an option, but now it is. And so that’s what I’ve done. But publishing—the act of creating a book and making it available—is not visibility, nor is visibility equal to opportunity.

* Aside: whenever I talk to new writers they inevitably want to talk about marketing, which I think is vital, but somewhat boring, and really not quite up there with rocket science. Don’t get me wrong. Marketing is important. Getting your work in front of as many eyeballs as you can is turning out to be a huge value (ultimately, there’s this big eCommerce vibe about indie success that I find interesting). But you can cover what you need to cover in an hour or four, and in the end most new writers need to worry more about finding their voice and their art a lot more than they need to worry about marketing.

Anyway, when you look at things this, opportunity gets really, really complex.

Opportunity is, at its root, about finding and building a core of people who are willing to be open to what you do.

For someone like me, a person who is not a name, and who still jumps categories, it’s also about finding people who will absorb what I do and look at it for what it is. For someone like me, the broad-brush approach can find those readers, but also results in finding “audience” who is not my audience. And that creates dissonance and heartache in some places.

How do you get someone to come to your work with an engaged mind if they don’t know your work to begin with (as Amy came to Robert Shindell’s work)? How can you engage a person who likes your SF work, when you are writing fantasy instead? How do you find new people who are likely to appreciate your work? How do you avoid creating the bad visibility (*) that happens when the “wrong” audience hits your work?

* Example: The first person who reviewed Glamour of the God-Touched said only that they felt “gyped” because the work was too short. Clearly, this person was not the audience for a novella (technically, the first episode is a long novelette, though the rest are all squarely novellas). Admittedly, it’s a little hard to stomach the idea that anyone would find GGT to be of less value than half a Grande Mocha at Starbucks … but I do get it. It’s okay. But again, she wasn’t my audience. She bought my work without looking at the length, and it “cost” me in the form of a two-star review that wasn’t about anything but the length.


That’s the gig. It really is fine. The audience decides what they will focus on, and the audience decides what they care about. That reader is right for that reader. The work was bad because it was short. In my mind, I’ll turn that comment around and say the story was so good she just couldn’t get enough of it, and complained when the story was done. (grin).

Amy said her post is about what people think is good, versus what is really good. And it is. But I’m sitting here thinking, and listening now to Annie Lennox, now. And I’m thinking about what I could have done to improve the experience of that reader who wanted a longer story for the money. I suppose I could have dropped the price. But would that have made a difference? Would it have changed the review to a 5-star? Would it have meant she would have read it and just not said anything? Who can tell? All I can really say is that I had an opportunity to make her happy, and I failed. For her, I was not a good enough writer to overcome what she felt was too great of a price tag.

In the end, I’m thinking the right answer is to go back to work, and make the next thing I write better. That ship has sailed, but there are more ships.

And I’m also thinking about how I engage with other artists.

When I hear music, do I really listen? When I read a story, do I see the work? Really? Am I admiring it properly? Am I seeing what they were trying to do? And can I bring myself to the work in the way they envision it? There are only so many hours in a day, and I get busy like everyone else.

But in the end, I’m sitting here thinking: Do I give the artists of the world the opportunity they deserve? What is the best way to do that? What do I get in return? And if I don’t, who will?

Anyway …

If you’ve made it this far … well, first, if you’ve made it this far, you’re probably crazy bored … but if you’ve made it this far, I would ask you to ask yourself those same questions.

I figure it’s worth thinking about.

If nothing else, maybe Robert Shindell will get a few more folks going to his music halls. (grin)

Cultural snobbery and the genres

As synchronicity would have it, I ran into two different bits today that have to do with cultural snobbery and the genres.

The first is a blog entry by Mike Dunn, who is an aspiring writer who was literally chased from his love of Analog by the culture of friends he hung around. The second is a video made by Patrick Rothfuss (one of our time’s preeminent practitioners of the fantasy genre), in response to learning that a student who attended one of his readings was not going to get credit for a creative writing assignment (that she would have otherwise) because he wrote fantasy rather than some other more appropriate form of entertainment.


I would like to say something deep about the subject. I would like to say how strange it is that us humans seem to crave the need to separate ourselves into factions that not only take glee in the things we find in common, but also that wantonly enjoy looking down our noses at those in the other camps. We all do it to some degree, don’t we? I mean, I’m a Louisville guy, therefore, if you love the Big Blue of UK, you’re insane. It fills our lives. Politics is the most natural place it comes up. And music (heaven forbid anyone actually see art in every form of music). The high school grounds are cliché for their cliques. Unfortunately, I have no grand words of wisdom here beyond the idea that all people have some degree of douchbaggery in them, and I figure the best we can do is to work hard to bring our own db level to zero.

“Okay, Ron,” I hear you say. “How do we do that?”

I postulate that a person’s individual db level is directly proportional to the basic open-mindedness they display to other people and their points of view. And in that light, I suggest you can do worse than start with the basis behind what Rothfuss says in the video. I mean, the guy hit that batting practice fastball clear out of the park. Look for the best in every idea, or every form of “X” that you’re dealing with.

Here’s the Rothfuss video.

Here’s the link on Fantasy Faction, assuming the comments will be interesting.

This is somewhat relevant to me and my work, in particular, because I go counter to a lot of the Standard Wisdom of the Day, and don’t limit myself to one genre. When all the work I have lined up to see print in Analog hits the stands, I’ll have 17 appearances there. Can anyone say Hard Science Fiction? I thought you could. Yet, Glamour of the God-Touched, the big indie project I’m sweating blood over right now, is true sword and sorcery with a certain metaphysical twist.

Some folks I know tell me this is not too brilliant.

They think I shouldn’t confuse readers. They think I shouldn’t alienate readers in one genre or the other. They think it will hurt me in the end because they think readers can’t or won’t jump genres. And, you know, they may be right. There are folks inside the sub-genres that had db levels greater than 1.0 when it comes to assessing fans of other sub-genres.

But, I digress.

At the end of the day, perhaps the best thing to do is listen to Rothfuss, take it to heart, and then read what Mike Dunn says, and realize that it’s got to be okay to come out of the closet and stay out of the closet. And then, maybe, realize that there exists no human being on the face of the planet whose db level is zero, and ask yourself if the way you’re acting somewhere else in your life is robbing another person you care about of something that’s valuable to them.

The Writer as Artist

“I’ve never thought of writing as being artistic.”

I’m paraphrasing a little, but that was a friend of mine said during a conversation we were having a couple weeks ago. He’s a moderately new writer, meaning he’s been working on it for a while, but still has tons o’ questions and tons o’ worries and whatnot. When he said that, he didn’t mean that writers were not artists, but that he honestly just hadn’t thought about it. As I recall, we were talking about voice then, and about the use of vocabulary and how the voice of a piece has to come through the characters and the way the setting interacts with those characters. Or something like that.

I’m thinking about that today because I’ve just spent most of the last three days doing a deep rewrite of Lords of the Freeborn, which is the 8th, and final episode of my Saga of the God-Touched Mage serial. For me, this kind of work requires a different skillset than that of writing first drafts, or perhaps even second drafts for that matter. While it’s safe to say that in reality, no two stories happen in the exact same fashion, I’ll say that–for me–a first draft is often pure creativity. It’s also generally pure fun. A second draft is then often quite crafty, and consists of lots of basic block and tackling around character development, proper structuring of plot points, and whatnot. So by the time we get to this point things are different. At this point, I already know exactly what the story is about, so I’m turning my focus deeply back to the text itself.

This is really fun, but it’s fun in a different way than that jubilant thing that happens in first drafts. This work brings me deep into the characters, and makes me dwell on exactly what they mean. This work lets me play with the language where I want to. It’s a very granular feel. As pretentious as this sounds (and, yes, I know it can sound that way), the fun associated with these later passes is the glory of wallowing in the true art of the work.

So, draft 1 is about creativity, draft 2 is about craft, and draft 3 is about art. Can I break this process down any further? Is that my inner engineer showing? Sigh. I guess I can live with it, though.

Ideally, of course, the whole thing winds up with a piece that reads as if it was all so natural, right? As if there was no work to it at all. With luck, folks will read these stories and be happy with them—find them interesting, and purposeful, and all the other things people come to fiction to experience. We shall see

But, yeah, I’m thinking about this now because I’ve been wallowing in the art of this business for the last three days. And perhaps I’m being even more deeply influenced by this right now because I’ve been so focused on the production side of this project for the past two months. Or maybe I’m so focused on it because this is the last episode, and today I officially put “The End” down there for the last time (barring copy editing, of course).

Whatever the reason, I’m just happy to say that the stories have already done their primary job for me. I’m happy. Finally. The stories play right. They say what I want them to say–to me, anyway. And as an artist, I guess that’s the entire point.

Two Hours of Sawyer

A little while back Roberta Laurie interviewed me for On Spec magazine, which is the really rocking Canadian small press that published my short story “Operation Hercules.” It’s a great publiciation. I suggest you read it. She asked me who some of my favorite authors are, and I started with Robert J. Sawyer. I think that took her back a bit. Perhaps she thought I was pandering to the Canadian crowd (Rob is, of course, unabashedly Canadian). But I wasn’t. As I said in the interview, I can’t think of a time when I’ve read anything by Sawyer that I didn’t walk away from thinking something along the line of wow, he’s good.

The reason I like his work is that Robert Sawyer is a really bright guy who cares a lot about what he has to say, and he makes sure he says it—through his characters—in such a way that will make you think. He educates in such a way as you don’t even know you’re being educated. He chooses some tough topics to get interested in, and he doesn’t shy away from all sides of these issues. Examples? What is life? What is a soul? What is consciousness? You know, simple things like that.

Anyway, I’m thinking about him now because the last day or three I’ve enjoyed using my lunch breaks to take in videos of talks he’s given. I like his way of phrasing the questions he’s exploring, and I like the way he brings his thoughts together with his research. In other words, I think they’re fascinating. They take some time (an hour each), but if you’re interested in hearing what a sharp person who’s done a lot of thinking and researching on some intriguing subjects has to say, they’re well worth the time.

A talk given to students at Seneca College focused on Calculating God:

A visit to Google’s Waterloo office, focused on consciousness and his WWW trilogy:

You can, of course, pick through other of his videos. Lots of great stuff there. Then hop over to your favorite bookseller and pick up something (else!) he’s written.

Podcast: Here’s the Thing

As I’ve noted in the past every now and again, I listen to a lot of podcasts during the afternoons when I walk, or work out, or go to the grocery, or do whatever non-writing thing I do to break from the creative/productive side of the day. I used to listen to a lot of SF stories or books on podcast, and I admit I find that I love short work in particular in audio firm. But mostly I’ve been listening to historical things, or documentaries, or bios, or other such things about topics or people or other various stuff I think sound interesting.

I’ve listened to stories about crows, and about the building of a ski resort, and about the lives of teen-agers 15 year ago (with an update on them today). I’ve listened to stuff about a map maker, and stuff about mathematical assessments of the likelihood that God actually exists. I’ve listened to stories about people in the Middle East, and about the attempt to get help to places where people most need help. I can go on like this for hours, probably. I like doing this for a few reasons, one of them being that it give me an hour or two here on a routine basis to learn something different.

I think it’s helpful to do that, you know? I think that if I’m going to try to live a more complete life (not to mention write about things from a lot of perspectives, and make it be true…or at least interesting), I have to be able to understand more things that I understand today. It’s fun to learn things, too. It’s fun to learn about how people who live life so differently than I do think so differently than me.

Lately, I’ve come upon “Here’s the Thing,” which is an interview show with Alec Baldwin as the host. It’s produced by This may not be new information to you, but until I saw it in a list of programs and took a flier on it, I never knew it existed. It took me an episode or two to get used to Baldwin’s interview style, which is a bit aggressive in that he talks over his guest at times and uses that technique to direct the flow. This was a bit annoying at first, but after a little while I realized how effective he is at pulling out things that the speaker wants to have out there, but also keeping the flow interesting. His conversational style also reminds me a lot of my brother—who can riff along with you and make you laugh at yourself by seeing things in over-the-top ways that are obvious once he says them, but until that very moment just never would have come to mind.

But really, I’ve taken to the podcasts because of the guest, who are an interesting mix of entertainers, artists, politicians, and other folks. Folks like Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, and Chris Rock, Lena Dunham, David Letterman, Lorne Michaels, Erica Jong and her daughter Molly, Herb Alpert, Kristin Wig, and a bunch more. Perhaps the most interesting of all was Baldwin (a well-known liberal politically) interviewing conservative editorialist George Will. The basic format of these discussions is a loose recounting of the interviewee’s career—how they got to where they are now, and what they were thinking along the way. People are fascinating, and all of these people are artists in some fashion or another—they all have voices, and points of view, and things they wanted to be. People with dreams who pursue them despite life’s roadblocks are perhaps the most fascinating people in the world. To me, anyway.

It makes me want to go watch them work, really.

Hearing Rosie O’Donnell talk about her path was fascinating. Hearing Thom Yorke talk about making art made me feel like what I’m doing now is important. Hearing Dick Cavett and Michael Douglas look back on where they’ve been is intriguing in so many ways.

And there’s more, of course.

I was really surprised to get into these, actually. I started with a pairing of Andrew Luck and Dwight Gooden—mostly because I wanted to hear what Dwight Gooden had to say—and I was pretty much hooked. I’m sure I’ll listen to them all, and if you get into hearing what interesting people have to say about working through careers in the arts and entertainment, I think you’ll want to listen to them all, too.

Story Geeking

I spent yesterday giving three sessions as part of a workshop of local writers here in south-central Indiana. Since it essentially ripped the heck out of my normal Saturday, I’ve found that I’ve been reminding myself all day that this is Sunday. It was a fun workshop, though. I did a session on line editing, and another on writer’s block. Enjoyed both of them quite a bit, but the one I enjoyed the most and was the most attended was one on the seven point story plot.

I always enjoy doing that particular workshop for several reasons.

First, I’m just a story geek. I enjoy thinking about structures in stories, and working through them to decide why they worked for me (or didn’t, as the case might be). Second, I enjoy seeing people’s faces as they see things they didn’t see before. And third, I’ve taken to using The Sorcerer’s Apprentice as my example of how the structure works…and who doesn’t love watching The Sorcerer’s Apprentice?

This is a great story to use as the foundation for structure because (1) it’s well plotted, of course, because (2) at 8:53, it’s nice and short—so it fits into a 75 minute window, and because (3) it has no words to get in the way of the story. I’ve found that a lot of writers, and new writers in particular, seem to want to focus first on the words in a story. I guess that’s somewhat natural, though personally I don’t remember coming at it that way. But, while words arevital, they are not where things start. They are not really the story itself. The best that words can do is represent the story faithfully. To get the words right, I believe a writer must first actually know (or discover) the story.

So I use that piece for this discussion. I run the process by showing the story in video all the way through first, then taking 10 minutes to lay out the details of the 7-point structure. After that we go back to video, and we play the piece again, but this time I stop the film every time there’s something to talk about. As I said above, the clip is 8:53, and to give you an idea of how often we stop … well, I but up against the back end of that 75 minute block. In other words, there are a lot of stops and starts and a lot of discussion about what we all think at each point. Truthfully, I think it would benefit from 90 minutes rather than 75, but I suppose when you get a room full of writers discussing story, it will just fill up whatever time you give it.

I mentioned that I am a story geek, right?

The first time I saw story structure taught like this was in Indianapolis when Kris Rusch and Dean Smith brought their mobile Kris & Dean Show to InConJunction. They used Die Hard, and it was a great experience. I’ve also heard that Roger Ebert used to hold a week-long event where he would take a movie and deconstruct it moment-by-moment.

*[aside – this would probably rate as one of those things that would be on my list of events I would go back in time to see … you know? “If you could go back in time and be an observer to three events in history, what would they be?” My problem is that I have too many of those. But, yeah, it would be absolutely amazing to watch Roger Ebert dissect a story/movie like that.]

So, anyway, yeah. Kris & Dean, Roger Ebert, and me. One of these things is not like the other, eh?

Regardless, the whole workshop was great fun.

Afterward Lisa and I did dinner, and though I was tired, I couldn’t get to sleep. So I stayed up and did some work on Saga of the God-Touched Mage (my soon-to-be released fantasy serial). By 2:00AM I was finally ready for bed. And, though I slept in a bit, I still managed to get a bunch done earlier today.

But, dang, did you know it’s already Sunday?

YEAG Kickstarter … uh … Kickstarts!

Well, this is pretty cool, eh?

Today I get the remarkable pleasure of reporting that a kickstarter for The 2015 Young Explorer’s Adventure Guide has gone live! This is a really remarkable project that I’m happy to be a part of. It’s a deeply inclusive work targeted to the middle grade levels. Your pledges can me made to ensure copies of the books get donated to the schools and libraries of your choice. The creators of this anthology have put a lot of their own funds behind it, and if you’ve got middle-grade kids (or just want to help them!), you could do a lot of good by chipping in.

Not to mention that you can pick up a copy of a pretty cool book that has stories by not one, but two Collins’s!

That’s right. Brigid (my daughter, of course!) appears in these same pages with me! This is the first cover ever that includes us both.

So you can read us both, and decide just how much better she is. [grin]

You can take it from here, right?

Survey Says!

A few weeks back, Myke Cole linked to a Reddit article that disclosed the results of a survey taken regarding piracy of authors’ works. Probably because I am an author, and probably because I geek out on behavioral science kinds of things, I thought the results were interesting as all get-out. Since I figure my Typosphere readership doesn’t overlap massively with the Reddit fantasy corp, yet, I thought I would talk about it a little here.

I should start by saying that my position on piracy is that you shouldn’t do it. However, I am just the tinsiest bit of a hypocrite, because I, too, as a kid, made tapes and such things so I could listen to music in my car (for example). In my mind there is piracy, and there is piracy. I did not, for example, sell my tapes. That seems like a pretty thick line to cross.

I should also say that when I personally release my work, I do not opt into DRM or other protective methods. Primarily I do this because I’m just fine with people who copy stuff for their personal use (moving things across platforms, for example), and I figure people who want to take nefarious actions will find a way anyway. This means dropping a big DRM bomb on a file only serves to tick off the folks I care about with zero impact on those I don’t.

That said…the survey asked four questions

1. What percentage of books that you read have you pirated?
2. What percentage of books that you read have you legitimately bought?
3. Why do you engage in book piracy?
4. Do you believe that piracy is fair to the authors?

First, let’s be clear that the response pool of this survey is taken from Reddit readers, and will have a slant toward that culture’s view (of course). It will not represent the whole of the world. Second, I should note that I always assume some quantity of responders to a survey are giving fake answers. I make this assumption because I am among the pool of people who will do that on occasion, depending on how I feel about the survey itself. I focus on that here because I make the assumption that this is a trait that is probably fairly prevalent among Reddit readers—and that means the survey results have some reasonable probability of not being valid at all.

All that said, the results as presented are fascinating.

Learning #1

Only about 30% of responders actually purchase every book they read. This number is reflected in the answers to both question #1 and question #2, so it’s consistent. So, roughly 70% of people “cheat” at least a little. This result is not really that surprising given other research into human behaviors around stealing and cheating—which basically says that almost everyone cheats a little in areas they feel it’s okay to do so.

Learning #2
About 1 in 5 (20%) of the responders “steal” (do not buy) the vast majority of the books they read. I use this number because 22% said they pirated 60% of the time or more, and 15% said they had purchased less than 35% of the books they read. So 20% is a fair mushing of thos numbers.

Assuming the answers are in the “correct” ballpark, putting these two questions together gives one a view that the world out there is split into three segments: 30% who pay for everything, 50% who pay for a lot, but not everything, and 20% who basically avoid paying for much at all.

Okay. That defines the “is” state.

So, let’s turn to what I think are the really interesting pieces of this conversation. The reasons people give for doing what they do. The justifications. The “why” state.

The gang that says they don’t pay for books give five primary reasons. I think two of them are understandable (though they still shouldn’t do it), one is a bit flakey, but I’m still kinda cool with, and two others just make me shake my head. I’ll go through them in that order.

Two Pretty Good Reasons (*) to Pirate

30% of people say they “steal” a book because they don’t want to buy the same product twice. 16% say they “steal” a book because it’s not available in their country. Both of these cases carry the idea that the person actually wants to pay for what they consume. In the first case, they’ve already paid for it (presumably) and just want it in a different format. In the second, they would be willing to pay, but they literally cannot do so.

(*) Sure, I wish people would pay for my work. But I call these “pretty good” reasons to steal because I really can’t blame a person for finding a way to read something they want to read but literally cannot obtain in “legitimate” channels, and, quite honestly, if you’ve already paid me something for my work, I’m not going to be among the people who punch you in the ribs for finding a way to put it on your kindle rather than have to carry it around in a brief case.

I mean, if you’ve already paid for my work someplace and liked it well enough to want it always at your fingertips, I’ll just say “thanks, and please do tell someone else!”

The Flakey reason

37% of people said they “steal” because they cannot afford to buy all the books they read.

I’m quite torn on this reason. On the one hand, I’m quite interested in helping people read more work, and I don’t like true financial constraints holding people back. I also am not one to shove a sharp stick in the eye of folks by telling them that they must “go to the library.” This is a different world. Time is money. Going to the library takes time that some of these folks just legitimately don’t have.

I get it. And on the whole, I don’t condemn the idea. In fact, if after “stealing” something you really liked, you then go on and provide advertising for it via true word of mouth, there’s every likelihood you’re doing the writer a service in the end.

On the other hand, there are a crap-ton of free books and $.99 books out there, and a lot of them are really good work—and pretty much everyone in the world can afford free. The skeptic in me also wonders how many of those folks who can’t afford books, also find their way into a movie theater every week at $20 a pop or more (depending on snacks and all that).

Anyway. This category is tough.

And Then There’s the WTF Group

21% of folks responded that they “steal” books because they wanted to try something before they buy it. Excuse me?

I get the idea. I do. And I agree with it. When I go into a book store, I often (always?) read the first part of a book before I buy it. So I agree with the foundation of this reason. However, I don’t think there’s a legitimate bookseller anywhere online wherein you cannot read the first 15-30% of a book before making a purchasing decision.

So, to this 21% of the population I would say “nice try, but man is that ever some weak sauce you’re serving up there.”

And then there’s the 14% who say they “steal” to avoid DRM hassles. Sigh.

Bottom Line on Reasons for Piracy

Given that the “reasons” section was designed to allow people to select all that applied, I’m actually happy that at best no more than 35%, and almost certainly less, of the population that self-reports pirating books is doing so for what I consider to be poor reasons.

I’m also happy that about 50% are doing it for reasons I find benign at worst.

Still, it’s a lot of folks out there “stealing.”

Which leads to the last question, that being …

Is piracy “fair” to authors?

Realize that the word “fair” is mercurial. What I mean by “fair” is different from what you mean by it. “Fair” is a tempting word to use in lots of situations, but is always problematic.

That said, I think it’s an interesting fact to say that 16% of people surveyed said that piracy is actually fair to writers. If you read the comments, you’ll find many justifications for this logic, most of which shake out into one of two camps—the “it doesn’t cost the author anything because they weren’t going to buy it anyway” camp, and the “it helps the author because word of mouth will increase sales” camp. Both of those are valid statements, though I don’t know that either address the term “fair.”

When I assess the response differently, though, I get an answer that at least makes sense. By that, I mean if I change the question from “is piracy fair to the author?” to “is piracy good for the author?” then the responses make a bit more sense. 83% would say piracy hurts an author, and 16% say piracy is good for the author due to increased readership and hence increased word of mouth.

Me personally? How do I feel about the idea of piracy being fair or good, unfair or bad? Well … really, I have no idea. There’s clearly piracy and there’s clearly piracy.

Anyone who steals work, and sells it to make a profit is pretty clearly scum, and deserves to suffer whatever pains can be brought to bear on them.

But as I said above, I don’t DRM anything I do. I also give away work for free at times. I expect I’ll do it more often as time goes on. There’s also the fact that I’m a pretty small fry. Piracy of Ron Collins could well work out positively for me regardless of whether it’s fair or not. But let’s face it, Stephen King doesn’t need much more word of mouth.

Anyway…those are my thoughts on what I thought was a particularly interesting survey. You can now return to your same Bat Channel and same Bat Station.

Have a great day, eh?

Top 10 Influences: #1 – Elric Stories, and The Eternal Champion Concept by Michael Moorcock

Ron’s Top 10 Influences

#10 – Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott
#9 – The Island of Doctor Moreau, H. G. Wells
#8 – Spider-Man, Stan Lee & Steve Ditko
#7 – Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
#6 – The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway
#5 – The Writer’s Art, James Kilpatrick
#4 – Science Fiction Writer’s Workshop I, Barry Longyear
#3 – The God’s Themselves, Isaac Asimov
#2 – Deathbird Stories, Harlan Ellison
#1 – Elric Stories/Eternal Champion, Michael Moorcock

#1 – Elric Stories, and The Eternal Champion Concept by Michael Moorcock

How can you go wrong with stories about a boy and his pet vampiric sword?

Seriously, though, I came to Michael Moorcock’s work in my very early twenties. I made my spending money back then as a life guard, and on very slow days I can remember sitting at the side of the pool and reading the stories of Elric and the rest of the Eternal Champions. Luckily, no one was swimming at those times. I don’t think (grin).

I had read Tolkien and loved it, of course. And I had started to read some other fantasy authors of the time. But Moorcock was something completely different. I didn’t know anything about Moorcock at the time. I didn’t know his politics (which are bent toward the anarchist) or what he thought of anyone or anything. And I wouldn’t have cared if I did. All I knew was that these stories felt really important. They felt more personal than other fantasy works, probably because they spoke of personal accountability and they spoke of how dangerous it is to trust power of any kind.

I should note here that I am a strange person, that I am a walking paradox in many ways.

When I was working full time, for example, I always felt I was a company kinda guy—meaning I understood what the company was trying to do and I bought into it. Yet I also achieved a reputation as someone who could dig into positions that did not always endear me to my bosses. This is because I attempt to side with the individual over the structure—or, rather, that I believe the structure wants to, should, and can accommodate the individual (and the primary reason it does not is because those in charge of the structure are unable to do it due to some personal failing on their own part…this is a subject for many other posts, however, so I’ll leave this here for now).

And, while I am no anarchist, I have always had a skeptic’s heart toward power structures and people who everyone else sees as an expert. I do not, for example, ever feel comfortable with rules of thumb being given as “what you should do.” I am not the average person. My situation is different. I am responsible to understand how the world sits for me, and I am responsible for fixing things I screw up. Or I can chose to live with them. My choice.

Given these things about me, I suppose it’s not too surprising that Elric and the Eternal Champion spoke directly to me in this way. They are full of fickle gods and aggressive politicians. Elric makes decisions, and he makes mistakes, and in the end he lives with them in his own way. Yes, they are overwrought stories at times, and yes, they have melodramatic elements that can feel almost comic-bookish at times (but, given that I loved comic books, this didn’t ever bother me at all). And, yes, they were stylistically rugged at times (*). Very different that way. But the thing that spoke to me was the character of Elric and his struggles against a world that was aligned against him in pretty much every way—a world that heightened his difference, a world that was not really good vs. evil so much as it was about self-interest over right.

(*) My earliest serious attempt at writing fiction was about 35K words of terrible stuff that was an obvious impersonation of Moorcock’s style (hey, you’ve got to start somewhere). Poor Lisa read it and read it and read it again, slowly beating it out of me. Years later, she picked up an Elric book and tried to read it, and immediately knew what I had been doing back then. It was kind of funny at the time. So, yeah, the direct path of influence to my written word was there in those early days. But this is not why I’m listing Moorcock as an influence.

Bottom line, these books changed the way I looked at books.

And what strikes me while looking back at my work in the light of this influence is that the stories of mine that resonate with me the most are those about one character’s struggle against greater powers of the world that are outside their ability to truly grasp or deal with. The stories I find myself unable to shake are those about personal liberty and self-control, and looking at my work, I find a lot of solitary people trying to make sense out of, and deal with, worlds that are too complex for them.

“Primes” (Analog 2014) is like that. “Bugs” and “Following Jules” (Analog 2013), “G-Bomb” (Men Writing SF as Women, 2003), “1 is True” (Asimov’s, 2006), “Operation Hercules” (On Spec, 2013), “The Collector” (Elemental Masters, 2012) … and there are more. Many more.

So, yeah. Given that I’ve rarely written pure fantasy over the past 10-15 years, this may seem like a strange #1. But when I looked at the Elric stuff and thought about what it meant to me, I couldn’t see doing anything else but to put Michael Moorcock and Elric into the #1 slot.

Top 10 Influences: #2 – Deathbird Stories by Harlan Ellison

Ron’s Top 10 Influences

#10 – Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott
#9 – The Island of Doctor Moreau, H. G. Wells
#8 – Spider-Man, Stan Lee & Steve Ditko
#7 – Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
#6 – The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway
#5 – The Writer’s Art, James Kilpatrick
#4 – Science Fiction Writer’s Workshop I, Barry Longyear
#3 – The God’s Themselves, Isaac Asimov
#2 – Deathbird Stories, Harlan Ellison

#2 – Deathbird Stories by Harlan Ellison

I could pick any Harlan Ellison story or collection for this list, but I’m selecting Deathbird Stories because I pick it up and read something out of it about once a year. But, really, it doesn’t matter what piece I pick up. They all do the same thing.

If Harlan Ellison were a band he would be some mixture of the Clash and Billy Idol. The man reaches out and grabs my throat when he writes, and he drags me through every story from beginning to end whether I want to go with him or not. He uses words in ways they were not designed to be used, but as soon as he does it you realize they were made for that precise moment. If you read Harlan Ellison at all, I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know.

But that use of language, and that brash voice is only the tip of the metaphorical iceberg here. The thing that makes me carry him around in my bag of influences is that Harlan Ellison always has something to say, and he never cringes away from saying it. You may think he’s an asshole for saying it, but he doesn’t care about that. He cares only to make his point and to move on. It is, to me, a very attractive trait for an artist to hold. Be true to your art. All else is secondary. (Aside: is Neil Gaiman essentially Harlan Ellison with less assholery? Discuss.)

Anyway, yes, I admire and use Ellison’s work for its dogged adherence to message.

This is probably because I, on the other hand, feel like I have lots to say, but find myself on occasion stepping away from those things. I sometimes feel a danger zone in where a story is going, and I step aside of it and allow the story to be softer than it should be—sometimes for reasons that are selfish, and sometimes because I worry about what people might say. This was especially true when I was working fulltime in a corporate job. Over the years, I’ve come to think of my returns to reading Harlan Ellison as my way of reminding myself that it’s okay to step outside of yourself, that it’s okay to make a statement about things that have some controversy or some private thing attached.

These are things that people carry away. These are things that matter.

So reading Harlan Ellison brings me back to the center of what I want to do.

This influence, however, can be a mixed bag for me. Ellison’s like a drug, because as much as I would love to be able to do what Ellison does, I am no Harlan Ellison. And every time I read his work, I fight the tendency to start dropping prose that is nothing but a milquetoast shadow of what he does. Too much Ellison and I overdoes into a flabby writer. But, if I manage that dosage right, working under his influence can make me come to a work with a different sense of freedom than perhaps I might otherwise bring. It can change entire frame of reference that I work under.

For instance, I wrote “1 is True” (Asimov’s, 2006) under the proper dose of Ellison. There are phrases and images I received while writing that story that still crawl through my brain when I think of Ellison. And I completed “The Good Luck Charm” (which will be in a future issue of Abyss and Apex sometime soon) under the Ellison mindset. I can argue, actually, that it was fear of where this story was going that caused me to set it aside for a long, long time … it contains some very powerful elements, and approaching it in a head-on Ellison-like frame of mind was perhaps the only thing that let me actually finish the piece in the way it deserved to be finished. And, finally, one of my earliest voice pieces, “Learning the Language” (Land/Space Anthology, 2003), had a lot of Ellison’s mindset woven into it. It’s wonky and a little weird, but it says what I want it to say.

And that, I suppose, is the very definition of influence.

#1 coming tomorrow …

Top 10 Influences: #3 – The Gods Themselves by Isaac Asimov

Ron’s Top 10 Influences

#10 – Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott
#9 – The Island of Doctor Moreau, H. G. Wells
#8 – Spider-Man, Stan Lee & Steve Ditko
#7 – Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
#6 – The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway
#5 – The Writer’s Art, James Kilpatrick
#4 – Science Fiction Writer’s Workshop I, Barry Longyear
#3 – The God’s Themselves, Isaac Asimov

#3 – The Gods Themselves by Isaac Asimov

I read The Gods Themselves over the period of one day while on summer break and while sitting out in my back yard. I was maybe 11 or 12 years old, or in other words at the very beginning of my own personal golden age of SF. To be honest, as I type this I barely remember the actual story told in this book. I need to read it again. What I remember about it was that it had lots of scientific-y stuff in it (which, as a pre-geek, I was definitely interested in), and that it made me think about gender and family in ways that I hadn’t considered them before. In that light, I’m pretty sure it was the first time I had really considered gender for what it is (or isn’t). I wish I could say that it totally changed how I behaved around gender, but that would be, well, incorrect. That too a lot longer, and is still basically and most probably forever a work in progress.

All I can really say for sure was that I walked around for a few days after reading it thinking about what a massively far-out thing that book was (hey, it was the early 70s, man), and that it was really pretty cool that someone could think outside the box like Asimov had. What a concept, eh? A real “grown-up book” that contained what many folks would consider ridiculous ideas but treated them as if they were serious things. Not like a comic book. Not like the twilight zone. Just a thing.

So, how did this work influence my writing? Well, perhaps this is obvious by now, but this was the first piece of literature I stumbled upon that made me realize what Science Fiction was able to do. It allowed for the idea of thinking about the “what if?” side of things. Because of that, it is almost certainly the work that was initially responsible for me turning my attention to science fiction to begin with. No The Gods Themselves, perhaps no “Stealing the Sun.” You never know.

#2 coming tomorrow …

#4 – Science Fiction Writer’s Workshop I by Barry B. Longyear

#4 – Science Fiction Writer’s Workshop I by Barry B. Longyear

Ron’s Top 10 Influences

#10 – Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott
#9 – The Island of Doctor Moreau, H. G. Wells
#8 – Spider-Man, Stan Lee & Steve Ditko
#7 – Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
#6 – The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway
#5 – The Writer’s Art, James Kilpatrick
#4 – Science Fiction Writer’s Workshop I, Barry Longyear

One of my very first conventions was in Columbus, Ohio (I think it was there, anyway). Barry Longyear was one of the guests. Through a series of events, I attended a panel at which he read a loud a story of mine, and critiqued it as he went. That story was called “The Family Tree,” and went on to be named a Cauldron Award winner by Marion Zimmer Bradley’s FANTASY Magazine readers. That was a lot of fun, but the life changing event that I’m wanting to talk about occurred immediately after the panel, when I purchased a small book directly from him that was titled (of course) Science Fiction Writer’s Workshop I.

It was as if I was Jack and had found the magic bean, only this time I did not have a mother who threw it out.

In this piece of magic, Longyear explains the fundamental concept behind the 7-point story plot, and then–using his own (bad) early work–describes exactly how to do triage on your work. To redundantly iterate (doncha love that?), he let me read early drafts of his work, presented just as they were first written, and then he freakin’ went back and pointed out what was wrong! I couldn’t believe it. Better yet, he then explained how he “fixed” it.

I am an engineer by degree, and a systems guy at heart, so to me this was like the greatest crack that had ever been invented. I waded into it. It’s a thin book, but I read it probably ten times in two weeks. Sometimes I read it while glancing over my own manuscripts. Sometimes I marked in it (I think). I believe I had dreams about it. And then I started writing new short stories … and … well …

Lisa has always been my last reader, and to this day, she will point to this book and testify that it was THE point of demarcation at which I started actually sending her “real” work. Not that everything I’ve done since then has been brilliant, but this was the point where I realized there were actual structures to consider when you sat down to write, that stories had patterns and rhythms and that when you didn’t set them up well, either they fell apart, or never got started, or (if you were too transparent) were too simplistic. It’s where I saw how a story that wasn’t a story, but was instead merely a gussied up idea, could be considered DOA.

In other words, this is the work that showed me the elemental particles of storytelling, and showed me the many ways they could be shifted and played with.

I then turned this tool around and started using it to critique manuscripts of other new writers, and I was astounded to find that all of a sudden I could see exactly what was wrong with a work, and even better, I had an informed and justifiable idea of how I would go about fixing it.

My, goodness.

So, yeah. This book was a mind-changer for me, and I think it accelerated my learning curve my months, if not years. I think that justifies including it in my list of top-10 influences.

#3 coming tomorrow …

Top 10 Influences: #6 & #5 – The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway/The Writer’s Art by James Kilpatrick

Top 10 Influences:
#6 – The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
#5 – The Writer’s Art by James J. Kilpatrick

Ron’s Top 10 Influences

#10 – Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott
#9 – The Island of Doctor Moreau, H. G. Wells
#8 – Spider-Man, Stan Lee & Steve Ditko
#7 – Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
#6 – The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway
#5 – The Writer’s Art, James Kilpatrick

When I first started trying to write (and well before I was first published), my style was, uh, well … let’s just say I was full of style. I was style-icious. That’s the ticket! I was, uh, not afraid to use words in new and inventive ways! Or, to put it in visual ways, let’s say that my style was like Phoebe from Friends‘s approach to running. I was all over the place. Seriously. I can still be that way, of course. It’s my natural tendency, and I fight it now and again. But along the way I got lots of coaching from Lisa, from the CompuServe IMPs, from my Fisher’s Five buddies, and from several other key readers (thanks Amy, Brian, Jim, and Lisa S.).

And along the way I read Kilpatrick’s book and about that same time, went back and actually read Hemingway for real. They paired together along with the book that will soon be named #4 on my list to make a stark and startling difference in the way I think about writing.

In this blog I have often spoken of the fact that the words in a manuscript are secondary to the actual story. I still agree with that, of course. Most stories are not good (in my perhaps overbearing opinion) because the stories are not really there. But the words you chose, and the way you put them forward, are actually quite important. This is where the art resides. Usage combines with the basic approach you take toward your content to make something that I’ll argue is the ever-elusive “Voice,” and this goes a long way toward what makes you interesting.

Some writers say that this “voice” thing cannot be taught, but has to be discovered through some mystical coming of age process. I don’t fall into that camp. I think usage and “voice” go together and can be taught, but only with a great deal of effort on the part of the writer, and only by eschewing the buzz-phrases and platitudes that come with so much of the advice you hear thrown about. This is where the goal of being a Real Writer (TM) meets the 10,000 hours of practice, and in my case, my teachers were Hemingway and Kilpatrick.

Reading these two books so close together, and reading them at the right moment (meaning where I was in my learning cycle), were a bit of a revelation for me. I remember coming to them from a different direction than I normally do when I read. I remember being very conscious of what I was reading, I remember reading both of these a sentence at a time, and really thinking about them. Kilpatrick’s book was clearly written by a man who fundamentally enjoyed the craft and wordplay of writing. I was an engineer back then, and I read The Writer’s Art like it was a tome on some newfangled coding technique. And Hemingway was, well, he was Hemingway, and The Old Man and the Sea was a Pulitzer Prize winner. I read it like I was reading the code of the world’s finest software engineer.

When I did that, a funny thing happened. I started to get ornery with my prose. I became judgmental. Did he walk through the door, or did he walk through the doorway? It makes a difference. One of them hurts, and the other doesn’t, after all. And, not to anyone’s wonder I’m sure, but this is when I think the craft of writing became truly fun.

A tiny aside here: I tend to get pretty nice reviews on my short stories. I work hard on them, and I like to think it shows. And even when a reviewer doesn’t like the story so much itself, the review often includes something along the line of “there’s some nice writing in here, but …” I like that. It says I’m paying attention to what I’m doing, and it also says that even when I “miss” on a reader, they still get something out of it. And here I need to admit that one of my absolute favorite bits of “criticism” comes from an Amazon review of Picasso’s Cat in which Lonnie Holder (open disclosure, he’s an acquaintance) wrote:

As I tend to do with most new authors, I read through the story very quickly. Speed reading was a big mistake because Collins is one of those rare authors who is economic in his use of words, which means that Collins’ words are heavily laden with content. Once I realized that I would have to read his words carefully (and come to savor them), I found myself enjoying science fiction in a way that I have not in quite a while.

On the other hand, I have to admit that being Full.Of.Style.!!! is a helluvalota fun!

#4 coming tomorrow …

Top 10 Influences: #7 – Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

Top 10 Influences: #7 – Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

Ron’s Top 10 Influences

#10 – Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott
#9 – The Island of Doctor Moreau, H. G. Wells
#8 – Spider-Man, Stan Lee & Steve Ditko
#7 – Brave New World, Aldous Huxley

There are those who say they hated reading in High School because they didn’t like what they read. Perhaps if I were to hop in H.G. Well’s time machine, I would find that I, too, had a hard time. But the book I remember reading most during that time was BraveNew World. And, as a part of it, I had to write something like a 10-page report on it—which was to be done as a critical review.

I wish I still had that. Among the reasons I wish I had it, though, is because I would love to know exactly how clueless I was back then. I’ve read it later in life, and gotten more and more out of it (and, thinking about it now, I know I should read it again).

Even taking into account my teen-aged naiveté, I find it very hard to totally capture what the book represented to me as a teen-aged kid. This is, of course, one of the earliest SF works that has at its core the root of the individual against the whole of the state. But it blew me away even back then because I knew it was commenting on pretty much everything about the social structures that we humans build around us. It is a “system engineer’s” book, and at the end of the day, that’s really what I am (I guess … < insert another long-winded diatribe here > ). The bottom line for me is that this book, when combined with another that is soon to come on the list, served to let me understand what a story set in a world of SF could really do.

I should say here that I still almost didn’t include this in my list because I struggled to find deep connections between this and my work. I think a story like “Bugs” (Analog, 2013) carries a bit of BNW in it. And maybe G-Bomb (Men Writing SF as Women, 2003). But those are short stories, and BNW is a bigger thing that I think is harder to point to in a short story. So I set it aside. But then I started looking at my novel length work, and I see parts of it in at least three books (or series of books, as they were), all of which involve characters dealing with the systematic workings of the world around them.

Sometime here in the future, we’ll see all three of those released. So I’m counting it.

Top 10 Influences: #8 – Spider-Man by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko

Top 10 Influences: #8 – Spider-Man by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko

Ron’s Top 10 Influences

#10 – Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott
#9 – The Island of Doctor Moreau, H. G. Wells
#8 – Spider-Man, Stan Lee & Steve Ditko

I know, I know. This is not a single book. Sue me.

When I was a kid (again), my uncle introduced me to comic books. He had the usual collection—Superman, Batman, Thor, The Flash (who I always thought was kinda cool), and Iron Man. Fantastic Four. The Hulk. Wonder Woman. The Green Lantern. You name it. They were all fun. But for me it was always Spider-Man that was the draw.

My brother and I made up games around Spider-Man, we played pick-up adventures. We sang his hokey cartoon theme song Spider-Man, Spider-Man, does whatever a spider can!. I can’t say I ever really cared about the stories, though. Like most of the comics, I think the stories were secondary to the feelings that the characters carried—and I loved the Peter Parker vibe, the restrained sense of the solitary, isolated hero who wanted things to be better, but was always struggling with issues inside his own head as well as with the big, ugly world around him.

Peter Parker is an introvert in an extrovert’s skin. This makes him different. I mean, Clark Kent is just superman. Bruce Wayne is kinda an extrovert millionaire gallivanting around as a mysterious introvert. Tony Stark is … well … he’s Tony Freaking Stark, is what he is.

I realize, looking back on it, that this is a key piece of a lot of my stories. Many of my characters are introverts in extrovert shells. Torrance Black, of what I’ll call my “Stealing the Sun” trilogy fits the mold. As does the lead characters in both of my Writers of the Future stories (“The Disappearance of Josie Andrew,” and “Out of the Blue”). I can point to several others. And in thinking about this ever further, I think this character type resonates with me because it probably defines me. I can remember an old version of a Myers Briggs profile I took that said it was designed to show you who you were at home vs. at work, and at work I pegged extroversion, and at home I was a gentle introvert.

Interesting, eh?

See? These kinds of things are why I’m having a good time actually thinking about books that have actually influenced me.

#7 coming tomorrow …

Top 10 Influences: #9 – The Island of Doctor Moreau

Top 10 Influences: #9 – The Island of Doctor Moreau by H. G. Wells

Ron’s Top 10 Influences

#10 – Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott
#9 – The Island of Doctor Moreau, H. G. Wells

I remember reading three books by H.G. Wells when I was a kid.

The Time Machine was a fun book. There is, of course, a lot more to it than that, but when I first read it the questions of class and the structures that humans have built in our cultures didn’t grab me. Instead, I saw it (as I see a lot of time travel stories) as my entry into thinking about time travel paradoxes. So, yeah, that’s fun. But that was about it.

And as far as the War of the Worlds goes, well … let’s just day I was let down by it, probably because I had heard all the freaky-cool stories about the radio broadcast in the 1930s and the mayhem that followed it. I’m pretty sure I came to it wanting me some of that feeling. So, while the story is actually pretty good, the aura of the whole thing paled in comparison to my lofty expectations (for what it’s worth, I still really enjoy replays of the radio broadcast itself, the few times I’ve heard them).

But, The Island of Dr. Moreau.

Now here’s a story that grabbed me by the gut. I remember reading it at night while sitting in bed. I remember feeling the cautionary element of the tale clearly—perhaps it was my first truly cautionary tale, or at least the first one that I really fell into. But, looking back on it, my reaction to this book defines a lot about who I am, because what others would consider as the cautionary aspect of the story are not what I see as the cautionary element. For most it seems the cautionary aspect of the story is about the use of science. But I see the cautionary aspect of the story as being about human nature. It’s the book I can look back on that first did the job of describing the mindset that exists around human atrocities, and the essence of what it might mean to be fighting against something that is unrelenting, and is staunchly evil.

So, instead of seeing it as a cautionary diatribe against science, I saw it as a story about what man will do to man, and in the end I saw it as the story of one many fighting a world that he can not control, and that he will not let control him.

As I get … uh … more experienced, I see this is still the case. Scientific progress is inevitable, humanity’s ability to change itself is going to happen. But what will define us is how we treat each other, how we view each other as human beings whether we can truly understand them or not. While I would never be so bold as to say that any of my work fits on the shelf with The Island of Doctor Moreau, I can say that this feeling has painted itself into several of my pieces. Stories like “Echoes in the Shattering Silence” (Artemis, 2001), “Operation Hercules” (2013), and a comedic “Barnstorming” (Leading Edge, 2001) come to mind, as all of them deal with the clashing of humans and other creatures or other cultures.

As a post-note, I thought it was particularly cool that the TV series Orhpan Black used the book as an integral part of their plot. It made me smile. That is one smart series.

#8 coming tomorrow …

Top 10 Influences: #10

Amy Sterling Casil recently pointed the “give us the top 10 books that influenced you” finger at me. I’m really glad she did, because until then I had seen the meme running around but hadn’t really thought about it in any great detail, and when you really take a minute to think about it the question “who are your top 10 influences” is interesting. The word “influence” means something different from “favorite,” after all. There is probably an overlap, of course, but they are two very, very different things.

So, in my overly analytical fashion, I thought about it.


The first thing I had to do was to define “influence.” Just what is it that these books are meant to be influencing? How I think? How I look at the world? What is it?

In the end, I used the lens of my writing as the primary context to answer the question through–mostly because that’s what I was interested in, and partially because I assume that was the context the question intended. This meant that in order to qualify for the list, the book had to have either made me want to write in some fashion or another, or had to have reached out and changed something about the way I look at the craft or the “art” of things that I actually produce. And finally, I decided I wanted to limit the list only to things that in my heart of hearts I could tangibly quantify. In other words, it had to be something I could point to and say more than “Dude! That book totally rocks!”

With this definition in mind, I started to list works. This was really quite hard. I mean … it’s easy to list things I love, but to outline a list of things that have a definable connection with my writing is really quite difficult.

I had to go past some books that I absolutely love–including golden age faves done by Heinlein and Clarke and Pohl and Silverberg, and even Bradbury. I had to pass up work that were absolute favorites. I had to pass up some that totally blew my mind when I first came to them because I couldn’t point at anything in their pages and quantify how they made me want to write or changed my work in some direct way. I skipped past Robert Sawyer’s The Terminal Experiment, which I love, and Mike Resnick’s whole Kirinyaga series, which I think is just exquisite. I chose neither Card’s Ender’s Game nor LeGuin’s Left Hand of Darkness. I bypassed Tolkien, and Kris Rusch, and Greg Bear’s Blood Music, which is just so way cool. I left Tim Powers by the wayside. And I ignored all the cyberpunk players that made my head spin. I could go on.

But I thought about it all night, and came up with a total of eight. Only eight.

I needed two more.

So I set it aside and came back to it tonight, whereupon I settled on my last two.

What did I learn? Well, lots. First, my list of ten are not all works of fiction. I wouldn’t have considered that idea before. And second, not all of the works are stand-alone books. Perhaps this breaks the rules, but hey, that’s freaking life. It’s my damned list.

I then tried to rank them 1-10. Admittedly, the best I got was grouping them into three gatherings of roughly equal weights. But I’ve decided I’ll release them one or two at a time, starting tonight with what I’ll call…

#10 – Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

During a recent conversation, a friend of mine asked why I recommended she read Anne Lamott’s work. She had come across other people who recommended Lamott as a spiritual writer, and I think my mention of her created a bit of a dissonance. I’m not the most religious of people (perhaps I’m reading a bit too much into her question, though, who knows?), and much of Lamott’s spiritual nature comes through her writing in the form of discussions that have their foundations in her Christian faith. I said something along the lines of the fact that I appreciate her for her ability to open herself up and write directly from the heart, and for her sense of humanity. She is not afraid to say what’s on her mind, no matter how it might leave someone to think of her. I don’t see her as a Christian writer, but as a writer who happens to be Christian.

I like her ability to examine her efforts to rise above her gritty dark side. This may not be to everyone’s taste, but for me she hits the right notes.

For the counter-example, however, I once suggested my mom read Operating Instructions, which is a bit of a raw, honest, and therefore sometimes cynical look at child rearing. In retrospect, my recommendation was probably misplaced. You see, I think my mom truly loved her “job” as a full-time mother. I think she found a particular (and justified) honor in that role, and I don’t think Lamott’s open-gut style was to her taste.

But this is not about my mother, nor is it about Operating Instructions. This is about Bird by Bird.

At its root, BbB is a “how to” book that dispenses advice to people who want to learn how to write. In that vein, the advice is all pretty good. Shitty Drafts; Perfectionism; School Lunches. All the specific advice is important. It’s all good. But I’ve read a gazillion “how-to” books. They all say similar things. So, what sets BbB apart? What makes me say that BbB was an influence?

Well …

I select it as a major influence because reading it makes my fingers need a keyboard. It makes me see what the pure act of writing is about, regardless of whether or not the result is very good on any given day. At its apex, writing is art, and art is what lets your insides be what your insides are born to be. Every page of the book beats with the heart and soul of what that means to Anne Lamott, and in the process of reading it, a little bit of that magic never fails to rub off on me.

#9 coming tomorrow …

“a sort of aesthetic trilogy”

When I talk to newer writers in particular, but sometimes even more experienced ones, the idea of writing seems to always focus on the words. By that I mean that they worry about their grammar and punctuation, or whether they have the right vocabulary, or have meticulously chosen the exact perfect word in the exact right moment.

All of these things are fine to think about, and they are important in their own self-contained kind of way.

But they are not the heart of what makes a good writer. Not to me, anyway.

These things are elements mostly of language craft, and (assuming the new writer has at least a base competence ) we’re really talking at best about the essence of a writer’s style. But I think writing is not really about style. Of course, it’s great if you have it. Generally. Or, maybe it’s better said that anyone who writes for any real time is going to wind up with one. Your voice comes partially out of whatever style you can manage to incorporate into your work (he says, admittedly knowing he’s probably wrong there–I’ve yet to meet the person who can really tell me what “voice” is beyond the idea that we know it when we see/hear it).

But, again, these, to me, are not writing. Style is style. It is not writing. And, yet, new writers tend not to ask about anything beyond these things. I suppose it’s because the act of writing is so … well … language-centric. And established writers often focus on them because when you try to focus on the other stuff that makes writers become writers, the conversation starts to get really hard and somewhat metaphysical.

But writing, beyond that base competence, is not really about the specific words you use. It is not about being grammatically correct. It’s not about being stylistically brilliant. Writing, at its base, is about story. Writing is about purpose, and about connection. At the end of the day, the words are not meaningful except as a base media by which to convey images and ideas that create story.

I’m thinking about this tonight as a result of watching some stories recently passed to me in an e-mail from a one-time co-worker (hi, Suki!). They each moved me deeply. You should watch them. I received the third first, and then went back and watched the other two. Though the storyteller, Carlos Lascano, writes that they are “a sort of aesthetic trilogy,” I don’t think it matters which order you watch them in. So I will post them here in the order I saw them.

But watch them. See story play out. If you are like me you will love each of them because they are beautifully crafted, because they say something. They have protagonists with hopes and dreams and personal goals who are struggling against antagonists. They have try/fail cycles, and they have successes and failures. And not a one uses a single word.

Story 1: Lila (2014)
Story 2: A Short Love Story in Stop Motion (2008)
Story 3: A Shadow of Blue (2011)


Some of you more adroit folks may have noticed that I haven’t been talking much about progress of my fantasy serial since I finished episode 8. This was the last and final episode and my “workplan” said I was then to begin production on its publication. So, Ron, where’s the beef?

The truth is that I apparently want to avoid production work so much that I’ve fallen into writing something that was, well, NOWHERE on said workplan. The fact is that words are coming along quite nicely, and I’m some 22K words into what will be either a novel or very long novella (we shall see). It’s another baseball piece, a companion to my earlier book See the PEBA on $25 a Day, only this time set in its a sibling league in Japan.

Yeah, strange.

Anyway. It’s fun. But what you also don’t know for sure is that for the past week I’ve been letting my scraggly beard grow out. You can tell, of course in the few pictures I’ve posted. But I haven’t said anything. I did it mostly as a result of having some dental surgery earlier, but I felt comfortable enough to shave the past few days, and haven’t done so. Lisa had said to let it go (I figure she just wants to see the gray). So today I came to the decision that I would not shave until at least finishing this story.

I should note that I tend to shave in the shower. And so, of course, this afternoon I reminded myself that I wasn’t shaving until the book was done as I got into the shower. I then proceeded to wash my hair, and get so involved in thinking about the plot that I went on auto-pilot and realized three swipes into it that I was shaving. I guess that’s good news, overall. To be so distracted by your book that you forget something like that. At least that’s my story.

Anyway, I kept shaving, of course.

I didn’t want to look stupid, after all.

Editors, writers, and responsibility … or “Oh, the profanity!”

I have a friend here in Columbus who runs a local writer’s collective and publishes a small-press magazine, and occasionally organizes a collection of shorts and poems to publish local writers. Very much a “for the love” kind of thing. She’s doing such a collection now, and this morning she sent me an email asking for an opinion. After we finished, she gave me permission to post the flow here. I wanted to do that because I think it’s an interesting case and it displays the role of editor/publisher and writer in the whole process, and therefore it also can be used to help clarify the whole concept of editorial decision vs. free speech thing that occasionally comes up.

Anyway, here are the relevant point to the note she sent:

There is one … who used a lot of curse words. I bleeped some of them [would you] read it and let me know if you feel I should leave them or not. I’m a bit hesitant to leave them

I knew why she was hesitant to leave them. I’ve touched on it before to some degree.

I read the story in question. It was written by a younger person, and poses an interesting, if not totally unique question about what happens to computer game characters when the person playing the game has put everything on pause. The piece was concise, and not overly deep, but was a pretty fair work. It used the term “fucking” twice, and had been altered to obscure it a little.

After reading the piece, here was my response:


As editor/publisher, you get to say what you will publish. As a writer, though, I get to say what my story will include. The matter of profanity is a line of demarcation for some. I’ve heard people in the workshop say “it’s a poor writer who needs to resort to profanity.” I get their point of view, but I think that as an artist, profanity is a very important thing. A character’s relationship to profanity says much about them. If you will NEVER use profanity, then you are saying you will never write certain characters with proper depth. But I digress.

In this case, [ writer ] is a new adult person writing about something that is deeply ingrained in her culture–that being video games. Us old fogies tend to think of video games as lighthearted fare that people can while their time away with, but to the younger crowd (such as my daughter), video games today are really not seen as much different from books in that they tell stories…and have characters…and…

When I read [ writer ]’s work, it’s about her sense that these characters she interacts with are different people under the surface than they are as you see them in their programmed roles. They relax and wind-down like the rest of us do, and they have their own relationships to deal with. In other words, they are young people, too. I can even think of them as having a relationship with them similar to one she might have with her parents. She’s away from home now, the parents can’t see her. What is she like? How does she use profanity when they are there or not there? Or I can see them as I would see cohorts at work. You share certain parts of yourself at work, but not everything. People certainly stifle their use of profanity at work vs. at home. How does that relate to the idea of personal freedom? Blah, blah, blah…

Anyway, I think it would be natural for those characters in the world [ writer ] is creating to have a relationship to profanity that perhaps some of your readers would not like them to have. Such is “art” for the lack of a better word. So, personally, while you are completely within your rights to not publish the work, I would not edit those words out unilaterally. (If I were the writer and you cut my words in that fashion without my input I would be unhappy, for example). I believe she has used those words on purpose, and she has used them in ways that are in line with the characters she’s created would use it. I think those words are part of the purpose and soul of the piece. Yes, she could write it without those words, but the words carry meaning in this context beyond what you’ll find in a dictionary.

I think this leaves you with two options.

1) If you as a publisher just flat-out do not want to include profanity in your book, you go back to [ writer ] and tell her you’ll be happy to accept the work if she will redo it to remove the profanity. If she does not want to do this, you thank her for her time and move on. This way, you are not making a unilateral decision, and the writer still holds the final decision of what that writer will publish.

2) You think about it and decide you can support the work for what it is and the statement it makes, and then you run it as she submitted it. If people complain about it, they complain about it. So be it. Depending on the situation, you could chose to explain why it works in this case, or can chose not to. :)

That’s my two cents, anyway.

I would have been happy if my friend took either direction, but I admit I was more proud of her when she replied a bit later with:

… that is how I have always felt, but I know I have received flack for it in my magazine.

I think I’ll put it back in and they can deal with it!

See how that works? Ideally the two sides meet and all is well…as the case will be here. But at the end of the day, the writer is responsible that the work is what he or she wants it to be. And the editor/publisher is responsible for deciding what they will publish–a right they can exercise whether the writer likes their reason or not.

100 Happy Days – Day 1

Indicators have come to me recently from several directions that I may not be happy. This may sound strange. I know it does to me, because on the whole I feel happy enough to me. Yet, I retain an attitude of self-reflection, and I’m willing to admit I may be wrong on most things (ha!) and maybe this is one of most things.

So I have decided to remedy my issue by taking the #100HappyDays challenge. What can it hurt, eh?

To kick it all off, today I posted a picture of myself taking a power walk in the afternoon. I am lucky enough to live a life that lets me take advantage of such a great afternoon as this to go walk in it. That makes me happy. I chose this item as the thing that makes me happy, because it was the easiest one to take a photo of between several things that made me happy today (and the day is yet to be over). Other things include:

  • The fact that Friday the 13th is, like, the coolest day ever (as I said before, 13 is my favorite number, afterall
  • Going back to bed in the morning for the first time in ever because I decided I was just flat-out tired.
  • Waking up, getting lunch, and then throwing down 2700 words of new fiction in two hours.

If you missed it, here’s the pic:

So, yeah, today was a successful day 1 of the challenge. Here’s my suggestion to you. Join me. What do you have to lose, eh? And, if you do, drop me a line and I’ll find a way to link to you so I can follow along.

Pulse Pounders antho cover released

All right, I’m a little late to the party–the cover to Fiction River’s Pulse Pounders anthology was released a week or two ago. But for posterity’s sake (and for those who missed it), here’s the beef! I’m doing some particularly cool happy dances about this one for several reasons:

  1. 1) The BIG ONE! I get to share a back cover with my absolute favorite new writer of all time, Brigid (of course)
  2. 2) I somehow find myself on a cover with Dave Farland, Frank Herbert, Phaedra Weldon, and Dalye Dermatis
  3. * please excuse this “so-cooler-than-cool” fanboy squee moment … *

  4. 3) The whole thing is done up in red-which happens to be my favorite color (grin)

Click here for a bigger (easier to read) version

The value of short fiction

A friend of mine recently posted a discussion (presumably between her and other writers) about the value of short fiction. I read it with some interest, and I wouldn’t argue with anything she said. But I’ve been thinking about this post and its question ever since reading it. The problem I’m having is that, for me, the discussion in that post doesn’t go nearly far enough. The conversation sticks to the value of short fiction in the context of a writer’s mechanics more than anything else. They do not, however, come close to defining the value of a short story as I think of it.

You see, over the past twenty or so years I’ve come to absolutely adore short fiction. A properly conceived and executed piece of short fiction can totally take your breath away like no other form really can. At best, my line of thinking falls under point #5 in the link above, but the conversation there misses so much of what I think about that it feels like mere hand-waving to me.

I mean, would the world better off without “Flowers for Algernon” (which began life as a Hugo winning short story)? Would the world of Science Fiction be the same without Harlan Ellison’s “‘Repent Harlequin!,’ said the Ticktockman,” or “I have no Mouth and I Must Scream?” Would James Tiptree, Jr. have left the same legacy without her remarkable body of short work?

The answer to these questions is an obvious and resounding “no.” And, of course, I can go on like this for a very, very long time, and, of course, I’ve only touched on the work of a few “lowly” science fiction writers–we can move freely across all genres here and find remarkable pieces of art in the short form everywhere we look. If you are so inclined, you might start with NPR’s Selected Shorts.

I suggest that the purpose of writing is to express, and the purpose of reading is to experience.

The short form provides the greatest platform there is to explore specific situations and specific elements of human nature, to focus lenses on things that matter in condensed, yet (hopefully) nuanced ways. Do we not understand life better when we pick up Neil Gaiman’s “Fragile Things?” Are we not so often moved to different ways of thinking when we pick up something by writers like Ted Chiang, Kat Howard, and Ken Liu (to name just three of what could be hundreds)? Do we not see the depths of the social positionings of those within the field of science fiction revealed (in all fashions) from their reactions to the mere existence of the recent “Women Destroy Science Fiction” issue from LightSpeed Magazine?

The short story is an art form in and of itself. As writers (above all) should value it as such. As readers we should revel in its existence. We should never for a moment doubt it for anything but the marvelous creature it can be. Would you not, after all, weep to discover a world where a vast majority of Ray Bradbury’s work had never existed?

The question itself: what is the value of a short story? is, itself specious. It is one of those dangerously faulty assertions that come from a position that suggests one actually needs to make a case for the defense, as if the burden of proof is on the short story itself rather than being self-evident for all but the close-minded to see.

The real value of short fiction, like all art I suppose, is perhaps best able to be judged through the concept of removal, by asking the questions as I’ve asked above–how would the world be different without it?

So, if you ask me “What is the value of short fiction?”

I answer this way: I thank the powers that be that we do not know, and I hope it is a value we will never have to discover.

Genre, definitions, and Margaret Atwood

This morning a friend of mine sent me a link to a Goodreads question and answer session held with Margaret Atwood interview, along with the comment that I might find it interesting because Atwood is often considered a writer of SF. I read it, and, yes, it was interesting.

Here’s the link.

I sent my friend a note back, thanking her for sending it along and added this little bit. I decided to post it here because the whole thing has been resonating with me

I think Margaret Atwood is a remarkable writer because she’s a person for whom boundaries exist but do not matter. I like to think I am that way to some degree, but I’m sure I fail often. [grin]. She is often considered SF, and I think it’s kind of interesting that many in the SF community get upset at her because she doesn’t embrace that label fully. When she does that, they feel she’s giving the genre a forearm shiver–that she doesn’t want to be involved in it. But really, she just doesn’t care about labels (which tend to be arbitrary and also generally tend to cause more trouble than they resolve, even when they are given for the best reasons…but I digress).

I’ve been thinking about this at various times throughout the day–about the clique of SF fandom that tweaks her nose for her position, about the factions inside the SF community who are often more at odds with winning arguments than they are settling problems, and about how that translates to pretty much every element of society. I’ve had several conversations lately with folks who are so firmly in one camp or the other about an issue because of some (arbitrary) definition of “whose side are you on” that they can’t seem to actually talk about the other side with even a bit of civility.

I like Atwood’s perspective, though.

She loves SF. She’s been an SF reader since longer than I’ve been alive. She fully recognizes SF as a genre–in every way that word “genre” is defined. But she doesn’t let it define her.

I’m still thinking about that.

Perhaps you might want to, also.

Or not.

Probably not. [grin]