Website of Science Fiction Writer Ron Collins

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The good folks at Kobo are offering half-price deals on all my stuff! Here’s a pre-configured search to help you find it! Once you’re there, you’ll want to use the promo code for your location as listed below:

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The Hugos that could have been

SF writer Tobias Buckell has posted an exercise wherein he uses data from the Hugo process to develop a view of what the Hugo ballot would have looked like had the Rabid Puppy slate not been pushed.

It’s an interesting list on the whole, and one I recommend pursuing. I was particularly pleased to see Kai Ashante Wilson’s “The Devil in America” included, as I thought that was a totally kick-ass story and was slated to be my next Rongo Award winner had I taken time away from my move activities to continue the process. It is a bit of a challenging story, though. Hard to read, but not due to any lack of skill from the author—no. Just the opposite. It’s a very “dark fantasy” rather than work of science fiction, set, among other places and times, in and around post-Civil War America. It focuses on non-white characters, and it has zero ray guns. Clearly not the kind of story the Rabids would enjoy.

But if you want a story that moves, a story with a sense of dark magic to it, a story that is (yes) entertaining, and a story that will make you think about a lot of things, my guess is that you’ll find “The Devil in America” to be a very worthy read.

The other story I was pleased to see here was Eugie Foster’s “When it Ends, He Catches Her” (Podcast Version, which if you like podcasts, I highly recommend). I admit I hadn’t read this until now, but it is both quite moving and represents the community’s last opportunity to award her work. This is a touching story, one that could not exist without its science fictional conceit, but a story that owes its power, its purpose, and its value to the power of what love means.

These are both remarkable pieces of work.

We can always just kind of shake our heads at what the Puppies have done, and we can say it will all work out in the end. It will, of course. But among the real costs of their shenanigans and tomfoolery is that stories like these two (and others) lost the opportunity to be recognized. For that, it would be nice if we were all saddened.

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Picasso’s Cat
Other Kobo titles

Five Things I’ve Learned, +1

A couple days ago, I found myself reading Martin Shoemaker’s blog, wherein he discussed what he’s learned over the past few years. I got to thinking about that question. I’ve been doing this for … well … a long while, now. My bibliography says I was first published in October of 1994. You can do the math.

So, what have I learned in this time?

Of course, there are the things Martin talks about: persistence, how to stop giving up, writing often. If you’ve read my blog here, you’ve seen that stuff come up a bit. But, yeah, those are kind of givens. I mean, if you’re going to make it out of the early years as a writer, that stuff is your garden variety ticket out. And I definitely like Martin’s second item, too: “don’t stop learning.” In the past, I’ve also blogged a lot about things as I learned them—a lot of specific stuff like how to think about and use story structure, the value of grammar, how to deal with information flow at both the micro and macro levels, etc., etc.

So, yeah, there’s always something to learn. But, you know what? You can say that about almost everything that has any meaning. For example, I was always learning something when I was in my string of jobs in Corporate America ™. I actually enjoyed that aspect of things quite a bit. Dealing with people means you’re never really sure of anything, and there’s always something to learn.

But still something seemed amiss.

While I liked Martin’s discussion, I got to thinking about it more deeply than those kinds of things. What, I asked myself, beyond these “basics” (ha!) have I really learned about being a writer? Seriously. It really got to me. I’ve been thinking about it since I read Martin’s post, and I think I’ve come up with the right answers. There are five of them. Five things I have learned. I will write about them here in my inimitable free-form style, and then see if I can summarize in the end (assuming I remember to, anyway).

Perhaps the most important thing I have learned is this: When I sit down to write, I need to remember that I’m making art.

Yes. That’s it. The act of writing is making art.

Perhaps you think this is a stupid statement. Maybe you don’t think writing is an art (I know people, writers even, who don’t actually think this), or maybe you take it as such a given that writing is making art that I shouldn’t have to state it. Maybe you look at my statement and just kind of scratch your head and shrug. But for me this was an important realization, so important that I have to remind myself often.

It’s this realization, for example, that led me to completely understand my next learning, which is this: Words are not important.

That’s right. Words are not important.

All right, I hear you saying. Now I know for certain that I’ve had enough of this idiot. Words are not important? To a writer? Seriously? It’s time to put this Collins dude onto “ignore mode.”

And, you’re right. But, like Martin said, I’m a writer and writers lie for a living. So, this is a lie (except for the fact that it’s also the truth). What I mean here is that I’ve learned that the words I use as a writer are only important in that they are essential to the form. They are tools like colors or the selection of oils vs. watercolor are to a painter. Or, if I can go out on a limb, a writer’s relationship to words is like that of form and stance to a dancer.

You cannot be a writer without using words, but creating words are not the point.

The point is that you’re making art—or at least trying to. You’re working your ass off to create a series of impressions and thoughts and questions and emotions inside the people who are your audience. The words are just the things you’re using to create that series of things I just laid out. In this light, I don’t want to pick the right word just for the word’s sake. I want to pick the right word because I want to control the sense or image (or whatever) that I’m planting in a reader’s mind.

It’s a fine line of a difference, but it’s a difference—and, for me, understanding that difference has been a very important thing.

The third thing I’ve spent time fretting over is the piece of transitive logic wherein I say if writing well is the hardest thing I’ve ever done (which is something I’ve often said), and if writing is making art, then making art well is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

I am here today, of course, to say this isn’t correct.

Actually, what I’ve learned is that doing art is incredibly easy, as long as you can actually let yourself do it. Making art is a strange thing. It requires only that you be brave enough to actually touch the things that are inside you, then get out of the way and make them happen.

This is the point behind Amanda Palmer’s quotable quote of her song “Ukulele” (Quit the bitching on your blog, and stop pretending art is hard…), which I totally love for everything strange and wonderful about it (and which I’ll embed below).

For me, “writing” becomes “making art” when I am able to let my characters say and do what they want to, regardless of whether I would ever actually say or do these things. It’s cutting into that vein of thought and existence that lets me write characters and events that might actually scare me if other people heard them coming from my mouth. It’s not letting concern for what people might say get in the way of making my points and my views filter through the work I do—letting ugliness in characters stand as they need to stand, or allowing pain to exist, or … well … whatever.

And, sure, it’s about words. Picking the right ones to create the right images, etc. But, screw it, you know? The words only matter if they create images, ideas, and other stuff that make a difference. The words are yours, of course. But, in a very real way, so are the images. In fact, in the end, you are your art’s own first audience. If your art doesn’t speak to you, then what’s the point?

The problem, of course, is your relationship to the rest of the world.

The surest way for me to get cranky and blocked up and unhappy with my work is to reach a point where I pull back merely because I’m worried someone might not like what I’ve done, or if I reach out and touch something important to me, but then decide not to include it because it’s too personal or too sensitive, or that I might somehow be embarrassed of it. This is death to me.

This learning then gets tied up with my fourth lesson, which is this: Stories that matter are about things that are important to me, and things that are important to me—even highly positive, bright and shiny things—can feel scary at their cores.

I have to constantly remind myself to be brave here. When I write about things that are important to me, I can let my fears about how the world will judge me keep me from making art that matters.

For example, these feelings of anxiety can show up all over the place when I write “the other” or write about cultural issues. As a white male I suppose it’s only natural that I can get tied up in knots when I attempt to write from the point of view of (let’s say) an African-American female (what if I get it wrong?). These feelings of fear and doubt can come out when I write characters who are not me in a billion other ways, too, of course. I have learned that I need to face these situations straight-up, and that I have to dive into them even if they don’t feel totally like me, and even if it scares me to put them out there (or especially if it scares me to put them out there).

Which leads me to my last learning, which is this: try as you might, you cannot control what reactions you’ll create in the people who consume the art you’re making.

Everyone is different. There will be, for example, those who will listen to Amanda Palmer’s “Ukulele” (which I referenced above) and absolutely hate it. But I love it. In that same light, I’ve had had stories what received both glowing reviews, and reviews where it was clear that the reader wasn’t certain if I understood what I was doing. Lois Tilton, for example, recently reviewed my story “Tumbling Dice” in Locus in a way that I really loved, even though she was clearly antsy about the work itself. “Tumbling Dice” is essentially a re-telling of the Rolling Stones’ Exile On Main Street, so it’s gritty and unflattering to its characters. They are not particularly nice people, even though they are working their way through their lives as best they know how. While other places reviewed the story quite positively, Lois wasn’t so convinced—but even as she was rubbed the wrong way, she pegged the characters well, and apparently walked away at least feeling something off-kilter about them, which was great, in an odd way. [I am, BTW, a fan of Lois’s reviews—I’m not here to say she was wrong or inappropriate in anything she said about this, or any other story of mine.]

So, yeah. That’s what I’ve learned about writing. Five lessons. Here they are again:

1. The words aren’t really what matters
2. Writing is really about making art
3. Making art is easy, as long as you let yourself do it
4. Stories that matter are about things that are important to you
5. You cannot control how anyone reacts to the impressions you create within them

Oh, and one more thing I’ve learned—which may even be the most important thing of all. When I sum it all up, I have to admit that even now (after all these years) I can rarely ever say if anything I’ve made is “good” or not (see #5 above), but I’ve finally come to the point where I always know whether I’m proud of it.

And in the end, I think that’s the whole point.

A day in the Northern Guard

Advance Notice
This is a very long post about my day with the Northern Guard—a supporter group associated with the Detroit City Football Club. Given the general tone of my blog and the readers I generally attract, I feel the need to tell you that, while it is certainly possible to write a post about the Northern Guard without the use of profanity, it strikes me (for reasons that may become more obvious as I go) as wholly inappropriate to do so. You may take this as a warning if you so desire.

The experience of a DCFC match has been described in other places as “electric.” And it truly is. If you live in Detroit, you should go see one.

As you may have been able to tell from my twitter feed, Lisa and I were in Detroit this past weekend for a football match. Or, more specifically, we were there to live a day as … uh … honorary members (if there is such a thing) of the Northern Guard Supporters, a collection of semi-hooligans (more on that word hooligans later) who cheer for their beloved Detroit City Football Club. The opposition on this day was provided by the Madison 56ers, who may as well have been wearing Washington Generals uniforms for all the chance they had.

We came across the Northern Guard because my son-in-law, Nick (who you might say is a football enthusiast in the same way that the cast of the Big Bang Theory are into comics), is deeply involved with the Northern Guard in pretty much all ways possible. He and Brigid have a great time at all the games … er … matches. [Please note: To be a proper fan is to use the proper language. The event that happens on the pitch (not field) is a match (not a game). We shall be clear on this, got it? And, yeah, for the record, it is truly “football,” and the Northern Guard are not “fans.” They are “supporters.” It’s important. Trust me on this, my American friends.]

What’s important for this post, however, is that you understand that the Northern Guard is a supporter base unlike pretty much anything else that exists in the US.

Oh, I’m sure there are parallels in other places—local groups that feel such ownership of their team that they attempt to bend the club to its own will a bit, groups who set and enforce expectation as if they are actual coaches or owners, folks who do the background work, collectives that serve to metaphorically ground the team itself into a specific place on the Earth, and make sure that folks realize that this is not just a team or a sport we’re talking about, it’s a goddamned, motherfucking way of life and unless you want a horn blared right in the old kisser you won’t pretend any different. Got that? The general family friendly section for casual supporters is fantastic and everybody loves it, but don’t come over to the Northern Guard’s side unless you’re willing to deal with 90 minutes of singing, cheering, chanting, drumming, smoke bombing, jeering, taunting, swearing, dancing, celebrating, and the general making of much noise. And that’s just during the match.

The experience of a DCFC match has been described in other places as “electric.” And it truly is. If you live in Detroit, you should go see one. The event, the actions in the stands as it is tied to the action on the pitch, is this weird, frenzied, spectral dance between players and fans. The Northern Guard is a lifestyle, however, that extends beyond the stands. It doesn’t start when the first pass is made and does not end when the final whistle blows. After hearing Brigid and Nick discuss the group for the past couple years, I was looking forward to finally experiencing the whole thing.

What I discovered was such an interesting, amazing, at times intimidating, and dedicated collection of people that I’ve felt the need to write a bit about them. So today I’m trying to capture something more than what it’s like to attend a game. Today I’m trying to capture the essence of what this community is about. What makes the Northern Guard work, how its tie to the city itself (above and beyond the team) makes it so, so unique. If you’re already aware of this group, this may be old hat, but the intended audience of this post are those folks on the fringe who might be interested, might be wondering just what all the fuss is about, or might be willing to put a toe in the water if they can get a handle on it. We’ll see whether I can do this justice, but I’m going to try my best.

So, what follows is a long and wandering discussion of what it’s like to be an “outsider” who enters into this world for a day. It’s going to go everywhere because I’m just going to let it sprawl, which seems like the only way to really do this right. For some it’ll be TLDR (or already has been). But for others—folks who want to get a feel for what it’s really like to step into something weird and wonderful and big and bold and maybe even a little obnoxious and threatening—this will give you an idea of how I saw the pageantry of what goes on both behind the scenes and out in the open over the course of the day. The NGS, you see, is a very complex beast, and what you see is not always exactly what you get—unless, that is, you truly see.

Since I suspect this post will be seen by a few folks who are not usual Typosphere readers, and since I’m not 100% sure exactly where this day-long diary will take me, let me start by noting that I am a 54 year-old Skiffy writer who spent a lot of time in corporate America, but also has lived most of my life with one foot squarely in the geek culture of software coding, comic books, science fiction, and other such silliness. I am an extroverted introvert by nature (take that MBTI). This means I’m a little stodgy, but also love things that are often seen as being off-kilter by friends and other folks who hail from the more mainstream lanes of life. It’s fair to say some of my acquaintances don’t totally get me, but that’s okay. I am an engineer, an IT guy, and a HR wonk, but one who understands the real purpose of old-school DnD. I get paid to write sword & sorcery. I get paid to write hard SF. I attend SF conventions and love watching my geeky fan-mates do their LARPing and their masquerades, and all their cosplay-like things. I like “the other,” even though sometimes I don’t totally get it. The fact that “the other” exists will generally make me happy.

Anyway…enough about me: Let’s get to the real stuff.

After driving up to Detroit the night before, the day started by donning my first official DCFC t-shirt, provided kindly for me by Nick.

It is important to note a few key things about this shirt. First, the colors. It is vital to understand that this shirt is NOT maroon and gold, nor is it burgundy and yellow. These colors are ROUGE and GOLD. The team is sometimes known as Le Rouge, not Le Red nor Le Maroon. Rouge and Gold.

It should also be noted that I still need work on the scurvy scowl. Brigid said I fit in fine, but clearly I’m a rookie in this department. Regardless, here were some of my poor efforts at pre-game prep:

Yeah, I know. Weak-asssed. Shrug.

So, the kiddoes pick us up in the morning and we head to the event. While the match won’t start until 7:30, the festivities begin much, much earlier. Nick, being a NGS big-wig, wants to be there to help set-up, and we’re worried about traffic due to road closings, so we go pre-lunch early. Along the way we talk about football in Detroit, and the various front office shenanigans that are working in the background. DCFC plays in the NPSL (National Premier Soccer League), but the US football terrain is changing rapidly as the sport takes real hold here. As is usual, the inner core of the Northern Guard has some pretty staunch views on how the team should pursue expansion. There are warring factions in these waters, and the Guard’s leadership intends to work their tail off to make sure the squad retains its flavor. It appears, however, to be a tenuous period with money (naturally) being a key question everywhere.

It’s clear, though, that the Guard’s presence makes a real difference in the business dealings of the team and the city. DCFC and the Guard have a well-correlated track record of consistent growth over three season—and, in fact, today’s attendance, which will register in at over 3,500 people and consist of the chock-full NGS section and a considerably full family section, is a new record. I note that the attendance number was barely buoyed at all by the scant few Madison players’ parents that they brought… hehehehe … inside joke there, which I can tell, since I AM an insider for a day.

Anyway, as Nick drives us to their place I get in my first dig at the opposition, a sly “Madison Sucks” slipped into an otherwise innocuous tweet. I almost feel like one of the crew.

After only a bit of a drive, we arrive:

Harry’s is hot territory because it’s close to where the Tigers play, and near the convention center (I guess). Regardless, one of the reasons we get there early is to reduce competition for parking. It works! It’s a great place, complete with a big ground-level room, pretty good food, and a cool open-air upstairs.

We get lunch while other, less-rabid supporters dawdle. I have to admit I wonder about the dedication. I mean, not a single over-night camper? Tsk, tsk, tsk. On the other hand, when I think back on the gathering of folks and the raw Detroitness of the supporter base, I actually wonder if perhaps many of these people don’t actually exist in real life., but instead slip out of the multi-dimensional quantum muck of time and space at the appointed time. Could the average NGS supporter be like a soldier in one of those old WWII comics I used to steal from my uncle, like ghost brigades that appear out of the mist of Detroit’s streets to slide fully formed into their personal bar seats at Harry’s with a pint of Le Rouge already poured before them. This would explain why no one actually seems to arrive at Harry’s so much as that the gathering just begins, then over the next couple hours ramps up to a solid buzz. All I can say for sure is that it’s not too long before the place is crammed full of people clad in Rouge and Gold, beer is flowing, food is rolling out of the kitchens, and the poor wait staff is hustling like mad. (Well, I can also say that the idea of the skull-clad NGS as lingering remnants who appear out of the bowels of the city in time for a few beers before the match could make for an interesting series of comics, but that’s not the point today).

So, to sum it up: First lunch

Then beer:

Along the way, one of my twitter posts get a pitch-perfect welcome from the gang:

A moment here to talk about that twitter tag (#DCTID). It stands for Detroit City Till I Die, and is the Guard’s motto. Truthfully, this motto says everything you need to know about this group. I mean, to give an honest opinion here, after spending time with them I would say the Guard is not really a football supporter group.

Yeah, I know how asinine that might sound. Sure, the NGS’s culture is completely built around a football team. But when I watch what’s happening here, I see the Guard is about Detroit first, this specific organization second, and football as a whole third. Perhaps I’m speaking out of school, but I also think it’s fair to say that the “football as a whole” part of this includes pretty much all of international football except other teams in Detroit. To the Guard, Le Rouge is Detroit football, but the NGS is Detroit. And I may be wrong here also, but I get the idea that some percentage of the Northern Guard shows up primarily because they love being with the Northern Guard, meaning that for this sliver of the crew, the existence of a football club who happens to play in the area is secondary to the feeling of being City Till I Die.

If you want to understand the Guard, this is important.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot, perhaps because I see such similarities between the overall culture of the NGS and that of my science fiction fans. In order to truly “get” an SF convention, for example, one has to understand that Fandom embraces those who embrace Fandom, and can be quite pointed to those who do not. A writer is not always so embraced, for example, but a writer who can embrace fandom will always be included. Not to open another can of worms, but today’s whole Puppy/Hugo fiasco is deeply influenced by this behavior and the fact that assholery is a trait that is spread evenly across all denominations.

Anyway, as I was saying, though the Northern Guard is its own community with its own flavor that is different from my beloved Science Fiction Fandom, they are similar in that the Guard embraces those who embrace the Guard and will be quite content to ignore, ridicule, or completely shit on anything that rejects it. As they say, “You don’t like us. We don’t care.” Science Fiction fandom would generally not be as outwardly direct as that, but the basic concept probably matches.

So, I figure that in reality, while the NGS is crazy-passionate for their team, the Guard cares for its own before it cares about this football organization. I’m guessing that if push came to shove, and lines absolutely had to be drawn, the rank order would be (1) Detroit, (2) The Northern Guard, (3) DCFC (4) All of football (except, of course, other teams in Detroit).

Wow. I just did 450 words on a simple run-off from the #DCTID tag. You guys must be bored to tears. Sorry about that.

But the whole “#DCTID thing is, perhaps, the key to understanding this culture. For those who don’t actually pay attention or don’t completely absorb the essence of this motto, my guess is that the Northern Guard is a deeply confusing thing. The Guard (as you’ll see) is very loud. Its a rambunctious group. It is, by design, intimidating. There are big folks in this group. They are young and energetic. Like my Skiffy brotherhood, it’s tattooed and it has people with piercings and creative hair colors. People dress extravagantly. They flash colors. They bang on drums and get loud. They wear skulls.

As I was walking along in the march to the pitch (which I’ll get to later), I asked one of the founders if he got requests to help build a culture like theirs in other football communities around the league. He said, yes, but they never really worked well. This makes sense to me. The Northern Guard, you see, did not come about because of anything the DCFC organization did. It came about in the same fashion as SF Fandom did—it was built by this core of people who run it, and so it has their loves and their personality. That may change as it grows beyond their ability to “control,” but today, the Northern Guard is a strong, tight-knit group of folks who have a deeply personal flare.

In that same march, a few talked about their view of themselves. One of the guys addressed the issue of hooliganism and (I’ll paraphrase, here) basically said the Guard drew the line at physical confrontation. “We’re not hooligans like people think of when they imagine unruly supporters. No one here is going to hurt anyone.”

This completely fits them, but to stop there would be a disservice.

The Guard, in addition to being an imposing force that wills their team to victory (and helps destroy the opposition), is deeply about the community. They raise money for charities, sponsor inclusion, support the military, support schools, and champion LGBT issues. Before the match they will lead the crowd in a bellowed a Capella rendition of the National Anthem. This is a group of people who are committed to helping people—as long as you don’t wear an opponent’s kit (or, presumably, as long as you don’t get in the way of them doing whatever they want to legally do). So, yeah, I’m sure the ambiguity is hard for some to understand. But me, I’m a skiffy guy. I get nerdy, extroverted introvert, inclusionary groups of good-hearted, loud people who also defend their turf to the death.

Holy crap … I just did another 450 words on #DCTID. Seriously, Ron, it’s time to move on.

Deep breath …

So, somewhere in the afternoon, another cool thing happened. Some of the DCFC players stopped by the bar to be with the Northern Guard. This does not happen everywhere, you know?

“We’re expecting a goal from you today,” one of the Northern Guard told one of the players. The player gave a light-hearted response, and the supporter made sure he knew there was no joke there. “We expect six before the day’s out. Madison’s terrible.” Nick (I think) said the team should get ten goals today. “Yeah,” the other Northern Guard member said. “Ten or we riot.”

The supporter then talked about the individual chants they had for each player, and one of the players looked over his shoulder and said “I don’t know where you get all these chants, but I fucking love mine.”

Yes, my friends. The Northern Guard loves the team, and the team, in return, loves the Northern Guard. This kind of interaction is pretty damned cool. It’s the kind of thing a sports organization would die to create, but is always at a loss as to how it happens—mostly because they don’t understand that they can’t actually do anything to create it beyond just supporting the fan base and letting them do essentially whatever they want (which is, admittedly a bit dangerous in today’s modern, litigious society … still, that’s the magic IMHO, FWIW).

As I said earlier, though, Nick and the NGS leadership work hard to truly support the team. Key word there: work. This goes way, way, way beyond showing up at the match with a couple pints in them and screaming loud obscenities. It begins … well … it begins before it begins. About three hours before match time, I went to Cass Tech (the team’s home pitch) with the crew, where we proceeded to string up various banners and whatnot.

These are invisible things, you know? When the casual fan enters the stadium and sees the banners and signs across the fences and other barriers, they don’t think about how they got there. People don’t see the thought it takes to design the experience, or the work it takes to put it in place. Rituals like this don’t just happen because someone wakes up in the morning and drops a tweet to everyone saying “let’s do something cool today.” Through the walk to the stadium and throughout the set-up, the gang talks about the event, and other activity around the league. It’s like they are in the early stages of ramping up, too. For them, this part of the process is as important as any other. Setting up the stands engages a new gear for the day.

I should note here that the field itself belongs to a high school program. Its stands, it turns out are barely big enough to hold the entire crew that will show up today. One of the items on the agenda for both the owner and the Northern Guard is working on an upgrade. Regardless of all the other business gunk going on around football, the league, and the teams in Detroit, it’s clear that DCFC will soon outgrow its confines.

Bottom line on set-up: it was a great day and I managed to help get stuff put up without embarrassing Nick too much (that’s my side of the story, anyway). Much fun.

We then made our way back to Harry’s and …

Holy crap was it crowded.

Let me point out the dude with the scarf in the picture above.

Scarves are a big deal here. Never mind that it’s June and semi-warm, everybody wears them. If you look closely, you’ll see a few more. In addition to being quite fashion-forward and spiffy, the scarf is used as this weird combination of flag, uniform, and pom pom. They come in lots of Rouge and Gold configurations, with several phrases stitched into them (including, natch, things like “City Till I Die”).

They are also, it turns out, the primary defense against smoke bombs. I happen to be borrowing a gas-mask from Nick for this event, but as the day progresses, I will come to realize that the phrase “scarfs up!” really means “light the goddamned smoke bombs!”

The March

Okay, I’m nine pages into this thing, and I’m just now getting to the actual lead-up to the actual match. At this point, it’s clear to me that what we have here in the Northern Guard are your garden variety kind of crazy people. I mean, who in the heck does this kind of stuff for what is essentially an amateur football team? Seriously? What are these folks whacked-out on?

Of course, I’m the one who drove five hours to get here, so you should probably take my opinion for what it’s worth.

Anyway, the bottom line is that the match starts at 7:30, so the entire pre-show is leading up to the pinnacle of the process—the march to the pitch—which starts thirty minutes ahead of time. It begins in the street outside Harry’s, and comes together when the ringleader stands up on a car, and begins to wail into a bullhorn.

The bullhorn guy is named Sarge, BTW. He asks the downtrodden supporters to think back moments this work week when their bosses got on their cases unfairly, or when they got screwed over by a friend, or whatever, and he suggests that all that anger and fury get built up and unleashed on poor Madison. It’s all done tongue in cheek, btw, and there is much laughter and many smiles. But the crowd is wound up, and quite honestly, at this point Madison players are already metaphorically facing a two goal deficit.

Here is a Marcher, with smoke:

The march then proceeds.

Let me explain what the March feels like.

Take a drum, pounding, and place it inside your head. Take a couple hundred voices screaming in unison and put them in a ten-wide column. Put them all in a false valley made of concrete buildings on either side of the column, and then walk it through your neighborhood. When this kind of thing happens in a full stadium, people think it’s pretty cool. When it happens in the streets, it’s like nothing else. The only comparison I can make would be how I would imagine a jazz funeral march in New Orleans, but different.

As you might figure, the whole march is loud as Fuck.

For a small clue of what this sounds like, here are a couple crappy recordings I made (along with direct links for those whose browsers don’t support the shortcode player):

Here’s one we sang while we marched:
And another when we arrived: (content/language warning)
(On Arrival)

And there’s smoke. OF COURSE there’s smoke. The Northern Guard apparently will not take a squat unless smoke is involved.

You can tell this is a spectacle in itself because there are people lined up just to watch it unfold, and when the column makes it to the stadium, people line the top of the bleachers to look down and take it all in. This is apparently not unusual. The Northern Guard is a draw unto itself. By that I mean that there exist people who come to the match in order to watch the supporters as much as they do to watch the match. Interesting how that works out, eh?

Thinking about it a little, I suppose one could call this thing a funeral march, though, because after the ten minute march and a bit more dancing and stomping, the Northern Guard makes its entrance, drums drumming and voices screaming, and all there is to be making noise making noise. Madison’s team is on the pitch, warming up as this occurs. And as I look out over them, it seems to me they are wilting on the spot. This is, after all, Madison’s first time at CassTech. These players are young, college aged at best. It’s clear they are a bit shaken as the mass of Rouge and Gold settles in.

This is when the full truth dawns on them (and me, for that matter) as to what this event is going to be like.

It starts with number 2. At the beginning, he actually thinks he can just kind of joke around with the folks here. By the program, one can find that #2’s first name is Callum. This is the only name that he will NOT be known by for the rest of the night. Someone calls him Calcium. Then (I think) Crissy or Clarisse. And it spirals down (or up, depending on your view) from there. There are funny moments, but it’s clear to me that, were she here, poor Callum’s mother would be pretty peeved the rest of the night. It also becomes clear to poor Callum that when you wear an opponent’s kit, there really is no way to joke around with the Northern Guard.

Seriously, just don’t go there.

Just suck it up, take it on the chin, and get out of earshot. That is the only way to “win” against the Northern Guard. Of course, there is no place on the pitch out of earshot of either the guards’ voices or the piercing horns they will blow into opponents’ ears all night long. I suspect broken eardrums are the norm in the Madison clubhouse. But I am getting ahead of myself. The game has yet to start, and at this point the Northern Guard is kind of just warming up.

A very brief moment later, the players are announced. Keeping with the theme, when Madison’s players are being introduced, the Guard turns their back, and provides them with a special double-fisted salute of, uh, welcome. This is about as kind as they will be to the opposition, who probably don’t realize they should consider this a respite from the storm.

We are, of course, quite vocal when our own lads are brought forward, resplendent in their new black kits.

At this point the Northern Guard sings the national anthem (with complete and appropriate reverence). This is actually a pretty moving moment if you step back and really look at it. Here are the young people of Detroit, scarfed up and ready to pounce on Madison, without accompaniment, all signing loud and proud, and on-key and off-key in whatever way they can. They don’t miss a beat. It’s a beautiful thing, really. Hopeful in its own way. For me, the mere fact of the existence of this moment is somehow artistic in itself. It means something.

Give me this over some American Idol winner any day.

Then the match begins, and from this point forward there is noise.

The noise comes in the form of drums, and horns, and screams, and chants. The Northern Guard has an established playbook of chants that they title “Hell’s Hymnal.” Everyone on my side of the pitch knows them (except me, of course … I’m not that quick of a study).

For the record (and if it’s not already obvious), let me be clear that sitting with the Northern Guard is not going to be for everyone. It’s not for the delicate, nor for the faint of heart. It is not for the kinds of folks who are expecting to experience any kind of gentlemanly sportsmanship. If you’re looking for calm, rational rah-rah that exhorts your upstanding players to their well-deserved victory over a hardy and capable foe, this is not your place. Please feel free to go enjoy the family friendly side. If, however, you’re ready for a party that consists of glorifying your side over the other in every fashion, and that takes great glee in two hours of heckling, drubbing, and otherwise mocking the dastardly scum-buckets who dared to even show up at your home pitch, then this is the place to be. When the match begins, civility ends.

There are chants about the incestuous habits of the opposition (sung to the tune of the Addams Family), and there are chants about burning the opponents up in a bonfire. Chants about the city (which when placed in proper context are truly love ballads in their own right, eh?). Chants for the boys on the pitch. There are call and respond chants, chants that include the family-friendly side (but that take a few rounds to get going).

The man on the bullhorn (or woman on the bullhorn, as the device is passed around during the match) is the conductor, and in the micro-seconds between chants he’s exhorting his compatriots on the air horns and sirens to keep the fever pitch up. When Madison boys get too close, they get an earful of horn, and if they can still hear at that point all they’ll be able to make out are screams about his parentage, comparisons between himself and certain female sexual organs, and a hundred other such things you might imagine.

It is of interest, however, to note that while invectives thrown are quite personal and quite graphic, there is a wall around certain areas. I can remember no racial commentary, for example. No homophobic slurs, no group based ism generalizations that I can recall (unless you count Madisonism as such, in which case, all guns were blasting at all times).

Despite this mayhem, on the pitch itself today the first ten minutes pass fairly “gently.” No scores. The DFCF players are a bit tentative, and Madison actually controls the play a bit. But this breaks down quickly. The fans are singing:

Come on City score a goal, it’s really very simple
Put the ball into the net
And we’ll go fucking mental!

Indeed, the score comes. Indeed the crowd goes mental. There is smoke. There is celebration on the field. The players run to the NGS side, and receive their admiration.

Aside: I have an understanding that at one point a couple years back, a DCFC player scored a goal and did not come to the NGS to celebrate. After the game, the NGS leaders went to the team and told them this would not do, that when the team scores a goal, the players will come to the NGS to celebrate. I note that with each goal the team will score (and there will be many), the players come immediately to the stands. Since I am on the fence at the edge of the pitch, I will get personal high-fives from three goal scorers on this day, and high fives from several other players at the end of the game. Do not mistake my earlier comment on priorities as exclusionary. While the NGS is about Detroit first, the gap between its love for Detroit and its love of the DCFC football team is razor thin.

With each score comes smoke.

Something Special Comes

By the halftime break, DCFC is up 2-nil. The whistle blows, and the stands take a step back. The noise level recedes. People go to get refreshments or use the facilities or whatever. The stands are probably only 50-60% full as kids from the local Detroit football kids’ league take to the pitch to play an exhibition. The kids are maybe 9 or 10. One team wears yellow, the other red.

The NGS folks who remain actually watch the kids.

They cheer for them. I mean, seriously cheer. They root for goals, and they applaud good passes. Nick tells me that the Northern Guard is considering trying to sponsor a youth team in the near future (assuming they can manage it). This is all pretty cool.

Then a kid scores a goal. It’s a beautiful little play he pulls off to do it, too, and the NGS goes … uh .. mental. The cheering is robust, and includes smoke and everything else that such an event would include. Again, pretty danged cool.

Second verse, same as the first

Then halftime is over, and the utter mayhem starts again. It is as if the Norther Guard merely picks up directly where they left off. Madison keeps a stiff upper lip early, and actually gets a couple good runs on the DCFC goal, but they come up short.

The primary target for the second half NGS vitriol is a bleach-blond striker who is immediately tagged as Miley Cyrus (among, naturally, other things). The play gets a little ragged, and it turns out that the referees are not immune from the Guard’s calm and gentle methods of questioning. The drum beats, the chants rain down. The team will pick up three more goals, and then in the last five minutes of the match the Northern Guard will dump a cloud of rouge and gold smoke that will probably make outside observers wonder if the terrorists have struck CassTech.

The match ends with a 5-nil victory, and with the DCFC players parading by the stands to get their proper admiration from the Guard.

The end

The stands begin to empty as the Man of the Match is announced. Various pictures are taken. I help Nick and the rest of the Guard clean-up. “We always leave the place cleaner than it was when we got here,” Nick said earlier, and now he’s sweeping debris, and others are taking down banners. I wander around and pick up larger bits of trash. The night grows colder now that the sun’s been down for a while and I’m not surrounded by the body heat generated by the Northern Guard. Lisa and Brigid come over, and we hear how the match looked to them—Brigid in particular had an interesting perspective, seeing as she’s usually where I was. It was the first time she watched the Guard from the outside.

I look around and realize the reverse process of arrival has happened for departure—that, while I haven’t really seen anyone leave, the place is now growing empty. Again, like they are those ghost soldiers of my uncle’s old comics, the denizens of Detroit have slipped away back into the multi-dimensional rifts of darkness they came from. The whole thing gets a Twilight Zone sheen. It’s like the match is not really ended so much as if it has been a wave that passed up the beach and receded, and now the Northern Guard is already beginning to design the next wave. There are kits to be bought, situations to be discussed, adjustments to be made.

We walk to the car, and drive home. I can feel my throat tightening as it always does when I go to Louisville basketball or football games and scream too much and too loud. I didn’t sing the songs today because I really didn’t know them, but I cheered my DCFC guys on the pitch as well as the next NGS guy, and I screamed for the goals and I directed the play as I saw fit. That’s my right, you know? As an honorary member of the NGS, I get to tell the DCFC guys what they ought to be doing (though they listened to me about as well as the Louisville guys do when I direct them … shrug).

And that was it. The kids drove us home, and my day in the Northern Guard was done.

The next day, as I was talking to Lisa, I said that there is every chance that the Northern Guard is actually at their golden moment, their apex. By this I meant that they are still small enough to be really tight knit, and really able to define their brand of controlled chaos, which is the lightning in the bottle that makes this experience so “electric.”

As the world around them gets bigger, this will be harder to manage. And who can tell if the team will even exist in a few years? The football world is churning big-time right now as business models rise and fall. But regardless of all that, today is today. And today, the Northern Guard’s leadership does this remarkable job of setting expectation and defining a line of behavior that is so extremely hard to define. The flavor of the Guard is bold, aggressive, and firm. To some it’s probably too aggressive or abrasive in places. But at its root the NGS are about Detroit and about belonging. They are about fun, inclusion, and letting people be who they are (unless you wear an opponent’s colors and it’s match time, in which case it’s beyond fine to be loud, taunting, and obnoxious—in fact, that’s kinda the point of the match when it gets down to it). There are lines that should not be crossed, however—lines that are about respect of people type that are not always obvious in the heat of the moment. At the end of the day, the NGS gets this right.

As I sit here now, reflecting, I wonder about my comments to Lisa. I’m probably wrong. I suspect that the Golden Age for the Northern Guard is in the future, perhaps a few years away. But, then again, you never know. So I want to leave this piece with a little commentary and maybe even a bit of advice to the entirety of the Northern Guard Supporters—its leadership and its followers and its fringe.

I want you to realize you’ve got something unique. Something you love.

Work hard, of course. Keep charging ahead. You already know that nothing good happens if you don’t do it yourself, so you don’t need me or anyone else to tell you that. But while you’re working, look at what you’re doing. Pay real attention. Revel in it. As often as you can, take a step back from the day-to-day stuff, and feel the pulse of what you’re creating. Because, while there’s every likelihood you’re growing toward something bigger, it’s important to remember at these times that life is short. There is a very real chance that what you are part of may never again happen in your life.

Golden moment or not, you’re making something remarkable. So this is your time.

Enjoy every minute.

Photo by @TheDukeNGS

Clarke’s Data, Part II

A few days ago, Neil Clarke released demographic information from a survey he took (which I then used to create this little discussion, along with a few comments). He’s now released the first wave of results. It’s interesting to see what he’s doing–I’m especially intrigued by the break-out of authors’ influences. You should look at it.

But I want to pull out one piece of information that shows up in his charts, but that he hasn’t addressed yet. It’s about gender and age, and I think it speaks to some of the conversations that are inherent in the cultural conversations rolling through the SF community today. It doesn’t cover everything, of course. But I think it’s interesting, and if real, relevant.

Here’s the chart in question. In particular, focus on the Published Writer “Gender by Age” break-out

While the overall split of male/female population (as we learned last week) is 54/44, this chart says this skew is very different in the world of published writers depending on what side of Age 40 you look at. If you look at writers over 40 years old, it’s man’s world. But if you look at the “next gen” you see females are the predominant gender. Again, this is published writers we’re talking about. (though the data is self-reported).

What does this mean?

I dunno.

One could say several things about it—including the idea that this is just one piece of data, and may not mean squat (though, again, 944 responders is pretty solid). But two things go through my mind:

First, the overall male skew in this data set happens because of the overpowering numbers of 40+ year-old writers. Did the 40+ skew roll through the ages, or did 40+ males just start their writing careers late? Like most of this, all I’ve got as an answer here is one big shrug. It would be interesting to see how this changes over time, though.

And second, I think it’s a truism that often (certainly not always) ground-breaking work (danger, danger, Will Robinson!) happens in the earlier years of life. If true (even more danger here, Will Robinson!), one could then take another tenuous step and suggest that Award Quality Work (and even more danger here, Will Robinson!) might skew a little younger. And if that’s the case, then it would be expected that award rosters should skew female.

As a rule, though, they don’t. Especially in the Hugo numbers this year.

Of course, you get to pick your own reason as to why that happens. The main thing I get through thinking about this is that I would love to see more break-downs like this. Data rules, doncha you know?

Neil Clarke’s SF/F writer demographics

I am one of the 944 writers who voluntarily participated in a survey Neil Clarke (editor of Clarkesworld) is in the process of taking. He won’t release the full information for another week or so (which I can’t wait to see), but a few days back he gave some demographic numbers.

These are spare bits, but interesting nonetheless.

Interesting because it’s answering questions like: How many people write SF/F? Like: what is their gender? And like: how old are these folks?

Here’s the simple raw data.

And here’s my overview …

How many?

First, the fact that the survey included 944 writers–a boggling number, perhaps. And that 81% of those 944 writers responded that they were traditionally published. That means there were something in the range of 750 writers in this pool who self-report having been published in a traditional market someplace. If we take this at face value, and also assume this 944 total writers is (1) not the complete set of SF/F writers, and (2) these 944 writers are a representative sample of the whole of SF/F writers … well … it seems like this is a very productive era as far as creating folks who write speculative kinds of stuff.

What gender are these folks?

Bottom line: 53.8% male, 43.5% female, and 2.6% who identify as other.

First things first, the question still remains about whether this is a representative sample. My raw guess is that given the total number of respondents, it probably is. But one never really knows–especially given my little perch on the world. But a few things strike me when I see these numbers.

(1) The gap has probably closed considerably since the day I started seriously writing. I would have purely guessed it was more like 60/40, but the purely biological break-down is more in the area of 55/45. If I’m right, this represents what I consider positive progress. (I would put the numbers 25 years back to be more like 70/30).
(2) In a homogeneous world, the biological numbers “should” be more like 48/52. But the world is not homogeneous. I’m wondering if the discrepancy in STEM fields is bleeding over into these numbers a bit, and if the factors that combine to create that imbalance are working to do the same thing here. If that is the case, then these numbers could well mean that the environment that the SF/F world is built around is actually doing even better than the numbers might show.
(3) If these numbers are truly representative of the actual population of writers out there, then the various Puppy slates that created a ballot with so few female writers has come about with some form of very clear intervention that makes the distribution non-random. This is a question I started thinking about because of a post I read on Jim Hines’ Facebook page.
(4) Clearly, there is more progress to make, regardless.

All, right, how old are these writers?

The answer (64% are 30-50 years old, with the majority over 40) is unsurprising to me, but could perhaps be a shock to outsiders who consider SF/F to be the free range of the ultra-young. I often run into “adults” who consider the genre to be for the immature. Sigh. Anyway, I find the tails to be interesting, too, since they swing to the elder side, with 23% being over 50, and only about half that number having lived less than 30 years.

My personal thoughts here are:

(1) Yes, my daughter Brigid (who sold stories at barely 25) is pretty far ahead of the curve.
(2) Yes, being now 54, I’m getting perilously close to the 85th percentile. Crap.
(3) I’m struck here how ageism is the more silent “ism” of them all. It was rarely discussed in the corporate world I was involved in, and it’s not heavily discussed in the circles I’ve been around as far as SF/F writers are concerned. This data curve, however, is very different from those I saw in the corporate world–which skewed quite a bit younger. I think I like that (though maybe it’s because I’m moving more and more rapidly each day along the axis [grin]).

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?

Gabble Ratchet

It’s been awhile since I mentioned that I’m the brother of Gabble Rachet’s lead guitar player. Now I get to show you. This is a clip from their reunion gig of a week ago or so.

Pretty danged cool.

I present Jeff Collins on lead guitar…

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)

Me and a Wall Fish

Current Series

Saga of the God-Touched Mage
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Glamour of the God-Touched
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(Volumes 5-8)

Pawn of the Planewalker
Changing of the Guard
Lord of the Freeborn
Lords of Existence
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