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Thursday, August 25, 2005

Sci-Fi Becomes History

Colin Lee mentions a study showing that fantasy-themed online RPG's outdraw SF-themed ones by some mind-boggling margin (link, please?), and suggests that the reason the fantasy market is still growing and SF continues to shrink is that sci-fi became reality and didn't live up to the demo.

Real robots are neither brilliant friends nor terrifying fiends, they're just quietly stealing our jobs. Space flight isn't as simple as strapping a surplus atomic motor onto a surplus DC-3 and hitting the accelerator, and our solar neighbors look to be notably devoid of either life or a reason to visit. Cyborg technology hasn't created a new breed of supermen, it's just keeping grandma alive in the nursing home, and the last notable new sci-fi trope -- "the Net" -- has turned out to be simply a great porn distribution system and a new way for Third Worlders to steal jobs by working even cheaper than robots.

How about it? Is the resurgence of fantasy evidence that modern science has grown too complex for mere writers and most readers to understand, or have we seen the future, and are now in full screaming retreat from it?

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Writing Critique

Thanks to Ursula for forwarding this one! Writing Critique.

Zelnorm for Writers?

Sierra is seeking validation:
What's normal? I write for an hour a day. In that hour, I only manage to scribble out about a page or two worth of prose. It demands a lot of thought. Is it normal to spend that much time on only one or two pages or am I just hopelessly slow and inept?

At risk of seeming obvious, what's normal is what's normal for you. I know of writers who claim to produce 20 pages of good copy every day, rain or shine. (Personally, I tend to find the output of these writers about as exciting as reading a telephone directory.) I do know that I have had days in which an idea has sprung forth fully grown and I've written 8 pages of publishable material in a single hour.

Then again, I've also had days when I've sweated and strained all day long to produce just one possibly salvagable paragraph, and other days when I've written 12 or 15 pages of great prose, only to throw it all out later because either, a.) it was great material but it didn't fit into the story, or b.) it only seemed like great material in the heat of the creative moment.

The key, for me at least, is to be unafraid to cut my own words mercilessly, but only after I get to "The End." If I start editing before then, I face the very real risk of falling into an infinite revision loop and never actually finishing the thing.

As for your writing demanding "a lot of thought:" thinking is good. Thinking is your friend. Outside observers always underestimate just how much thinking needs to occur before Word One ever hits the page. Spewing out a lot of words quickly is easy (as the blogosphere proves daily); writing a few well-chosen and memorable words takes time. Or as someone very famous once put it (the quote is variously attributed to Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, Winston Churchill, or Blaise Pascal), "I'm sorry this is so long. I didn't have time to make it short."

Monday, August 22, 2005

Monday Challenge

Okay, the way this works is, I spot you the opening of a story, and your challenge, should you decide to accept it, is to pick it up and run with it. Then on Friday of this week, our secret panel of Celebrity Judges will critique the entries and pick the one they like the best, and the author of the winning entry will receive a Valuable Prize! (Okay, a book. Actually, a choice of books, to avoid the possibility of winning a book you already have.)

Since Haloscan imposes a 3-kbyte limit on answers posted in comments, you may prefer to post your entry on your own web site, then provide a link to it by simply posting the full URL in the comments here. Alternately, you may email your full entry to (plain text only, please) and I will put it on my web site and provide a link to it here.

All entries remain the property of the individual entrant. However, once something is on the Internet, well...

Ready? Then here's the wind-up, and the pitch:

On August 16, 2005, scientists at the Universities of Edinburgh and Milan announced the success of efforts to grow pure human neural stem cells in the laboratory and to differentiate these stem cells into all the cell types found in the human nervous system. Now put on your thinking cap, fast-forward ten years, and...

The elevator doors hummed opened and Marckham stepped out, only to hit another security checkpoint. She stopped, sighed, and raised her arms obligingly as the guards came forward with the detection gear. "Is this really necessary?"

Collins nodded. "I'm afraid so. Word has leaked out, and there are some people out there who aren't too happy about what we're doing. If somebody managed to smuggle something in -- well, we can't exactly run Norton on him, can we?"

Marckham raised an eyebrow. "Him?"

"Gender is determined at the cellular level. Remember, X-chromosomes? Y-chromosomes?"

Marckham frowned. "Of course, but --" She frowned again as the guard with the detector gave her a nudge in an uncomfortable place, then glanced around the room. "How did you get funding for all this, anyway?"

Collins smiled. "DARPA grants, mostly. The DoD wants to build the hands-down fastest supercomputer ever and we've pushed silicon about as far as it can go. Blue Gene/T may be the fastest pile of junk ever assembled, but it's still Tom Swift and His Giant Electric Idiot. We promised them a radical new biotech solution to the petaflop problem."

The guards made Marckham lower her arms so they could get a detector closer to the side of her head. She said, "But now you've got an entirely new problem, and that's why you called me. You never dreamed that your staff would need to include..."

Saturday, August 20, 2005

How to Get a Six-Figure Book Deal

In the latest issue of City Pages, Diablo Cody explains how easy it is to land a six-figure book deal and get Hollywood studio executives fighting for your attention. All you have to do is be a sex industry worker who blogs at length about her job.

(And the folks who live and work in Hollywood wonder why so many of the folks who live out here in flyover land seem to think the west coast is long overdue for a good downpour of flaming brimstone...)

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Some Proposed Topics

Okay folks, here are the writerly things that have been on my mind lately. What would you be most interested in discussing next?

0. ZZTop asked for a discussion of the differences between writing prose and scripts. For the last few weeks I've felt like an out of work actor, schlepping around a couple of scripts in my briefcase and working on this idea in my spare time. Is there any rush to get the results posted here or should I finish developing my thesis?

1. I just finished re-reading H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds for the umpteenth time. In terms of the things that are taught as being good writing technique, Wells does just about everything wrong in this book. Why then is it a classic that has endured for 110 years and keeps getting made and remade into movies?

2. I recently re-read Tom Clancy's Hunt for Red October. What makes this book so different from all of Clancy's subsequent work, and why does it work so well?

3. I not-so-recently read Ken Follett's big fat mainstream blockbuster, Lie Down With Lions, which I really, thoroughly, hated. Is anyone interested in why?

4. Speaking now as a lifelong hunter and the Vice-President and Operations Manager of the Oakdale Gun Club, I really hate it when people who know nothing about firearms insist on writing them into their stories. Is anyone else interested in a discussion on the order of "Guns for Writers?"

Let me know,

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

An Internet Distribution Model (continued)

There's an interesting article on the NY Times web site today. It's specifically about the emerging presence of online comics, but there's a paragraph towards the end that seems germane to us folks:
Which brings up another problem with Web comics: how to make money. Some Web artists have solved it by entering into a sort-of online syndication by which the viewer has to subscribe to the service to see the comic. Others have solved it by asking each viewer to make what Mr. McCloud called a "micropayment" of, say, 25 cents an installment. And still other artists just don't make any money at all. They're always begging for funds through PayPal.

It might be interesting for someone with more spare time than I have to go browsing about the various comic sites mentioned in this article, looking at how they're managing the subscription and syndication business.

Monday, August 15, 2005

The Really Tough Question

Bartleby asks a question that cuts to the quick:
"Are you trying to discourage people from writing, or more specifically, publishing? I've come up with a couple of decent stories lately, but get a bit nervous when I see how badly [you say] people have treated you. Is that endemic throughout the industry? Are any publishers honest? Is there anyone that makes you feel good to do business with?"

Y'know, about twenty years ago, when I was a rising hot young talent, I wound up spending an evening with Robert Silverberg, Roger Zelazny, and a third famous name who I want to say was Algis Budrys but more likely was Barry Malzberg. I remember this because I wrote about it at length in my journal -- which, luckily, is in a box in the attic, and I'm not about to go find it now -- and the thrust of my thoughts then was, "God, I hope I'm not like them when I'm 50, all cranky, bitter, and burned out from decades of just missing the brass ring."

And whadaya know: here I am, 50 years old, and looking back at the last few months of this blog, I certainly do have a certain cranky and bitter streak going, don't I?

Perhaps I need to change my ways.

Understand, I still love reading. And I certainly do enjoy writing, although not as much as I did before it became my means of making a living. And it was never my intent to make this blog another outpost of simple mindless boosterism for would-be writers; there are enough of those already. But...

But this is where it all gets really sticky and personal. Looking at the writing life as a semi-successful writer, and as a husband, and as a father, and most of all as the son of a frustrated novelist who spent years beating his head against it, I've come to realize that the writing life is profoundly toxic to marriages and families.

There's this Bohemian vision that the arts boosters sell, and it's not limited to writing, it also applies to acting, painting, music and pretty much any other artistic endeavor. The vision is that it's somehow metaphysically worth it. It's worth the long hours, the sacrifices, and giving short shrift to everything and everyone else in your life in order to chase your private muse, because if you just keep at it long enough, one day you will create that perfect work of art that will change the world, and it will make you immortal.

Unfortunately there are three painful realities hiding just beneath the surface of this beautiful vision. One is that, as with theatre, music, or art galleries, the economics of the publishing business are predicated on the assumption that there is an infinite supply of bright young talents who are willing to sell their souls in order to break into the business. The second is that once you "break in," that's just the start of the real work. And the third is, even if you do manage to write that one perfect short story that changes the world, careerwise, you're still only as good as your most recent publication.

So, to answer Bartleby's questions: am I trying to discourage people from writing? Certainly not. I love reading, and by extension, I love the people who write that which I read. So keep writing! Write new and great stuff! I want to see more! More! Am I trying to discourage people from publishing? I don't think so, but I think I am trying to get a few of you to take off those rose-colored glasses. Publishing ain't art; it's a business, and one with really ugly supply and demand curves. Are there any honest publishers? Yes, lots of them. I've dealt with a lot of people on the editing and publishing side of the business who were a pleasure to work with, and while most of them worked for tragically undercapitalized small press or regional publishers, a very few of them still do have jobs with major national publishing houses.

But here's the question that Bartleby didn't ask, and I wish he had: do I know of any successful writers with intact marriages and functional families? And the answer to that one is: far too few.

So there, I guess and at last, is the core belief that underlies much of what I have to say about this strange business of writing. I don't believe in human sacrifice.

So don't sacrifice your family for the sake of your writing career...


Friday, August 12, 2005

Friday Challenge

Okay, the way this works is, I spot you the opening of a story, and your challenge, should you decide to accept it, is to pick it up and run with it. Ready? Then here's the wind-up, and the pitch:
We closed in the morning and started moving in that afternoon. Our new next-door neighbor, a tall, rangy, gray-haired man, watched us intently from his front porch, but didn't come over to introduce himself until after we'd gotten the piano up the steps and through the front door.

Then he came over, offered me a big grin and a handshake, and said, "Howdy! I'm your new neighbor, Jim Meyers. Welcome to the neighborhood. It's a nice place; I think you'll like it a lot here. But in fairness, I should warn you that my son, Matthew, well..."

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Dispatches from the Edge of Nowhere

Blogging will be a bit light this week, as I'm actually off on vacation in Outer Cedar Bog, Wisconsin. The place isn't quite as I remember: there's now an Internet cafe right across the street from the Tacky Little Shop That Sells Faux Indian Crafts (hence this blogbit), the local grocery now carries a good assortment of sushi and Pad Thai noodles, and Northwoods Bait & Tackle has been replaced by Darling's Lingerie, Sex Toys, and XXX DVDs.

I did bring along my laptop, and the most determined of intentions to get some writing in. Re ZZTop's question about scriptwriting, I actually have two complete scripts with me, and re Bartleby's question about just what I'm trying to do here, I have been giving it serious intentions to think seriously about it.

But right now we're off on a week-long exploration of the mysteries of Boys and Dogs; of Fathers and Sons and Fish and Frogs; and somehow it just wound up seeming more important to spend yesterday afternoon swimming with The Kid and Pyropuppy, and yesterday evening sitting out on the dock with my wife, watching the Perseids. (See the Perseid Meteor Shower! Playing all this week in a sky near you!)

So, more comments to come soon.

But not today.

Friday, August 05, 2005

Friday Challenge

Okay, the way this works is, I spot you the opening of a story, and your challenge, should you decide to accept it, is to pick it up and run with it. Ready? Then here's the wind-up, and the pitch:
The writing was as usual going nowhere, so Kevin decided to take a break from his latest attempted story and check his email. He felt the briefest surge of pulse-pounding excitement when he saw that there was something in his Inbox claiming to be a personal message from Glen Price, the editor-in-chief of Stupefying Stories magazine --

But then he opened the message, and once again felt the familiar cold and soggy splat of disappointment, as he read those all-too-familiar words: "Dear Contributor, We regret to inform you that your submission does not meet..."

"Damn!" Kevin slammed a fist down on his desk with a violence that sent his mouse bouncing and nearly spilled Diet Coke all over his keyboard. "Just what does it take to make your first sale? I mean, I swear, I would sell my soul, if I really believed I had one!"

That's when the voice behind him spoke up, in a timbre like long fingernails on a chalkboard. "As a matter of fact, you don't. You're a white Republican from the Midwest. You have no soul, and no sense of rhythm, either.

"But what else might you have to bargain with?"

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

"A Realistic Distribution Model?"

WaterBoy proposes a topic:
Given the recent discussions at Vox Popoli concerning distribution of literature in the Information Age, would it be asking too much for discussion about a realistic distribution model that adequately rewards the author without resorting to the feelings or kind-heartedness of his/her readers?

Ten years ago, the editors of The Ethical Spectacle asked me to write an article on ethics and the future of the Internet, and the result was The Ethical Implications of Online Content. This article, while it missed a few points that are now obvious in hindsight, was not an altogether bad bit of futurecasting, and it was spot-on in its central prognostication.

Seven months ago I revisited the subject, and wrote a follow-up article, Copyright, Copywrong.

To be honest, at this point I am now talked-out on this subject, and I really don't see how a new distribution model can evolve that does *not* depend on the kindliness of readers. I expect that the future of literature looks an awful lot like the pre-20th Century past, in which literature is the domain of the dilletantes, the tenured professors, the independently wealthy, and those lucky enough to have corporate, ecclesiastical, or governmental sponsors. But I reserve the right to be wrong and to be surprised.

Surprise me. Please.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

The Proper Care and Feeding of Writers

Sailor Kenshin suggests: "Let's talk about FOOD!"

There's a wonderful old New Yorker cartoon that I've been having no luck finding online. It shows a man sitting at a typewriter, with a most remarkable look on his face, while a woman is standing next to him, holding a plate, on which sits a sandwich. The woman is speaking and the caption goes something like this:
"Here's an idea for a story. Dick and Linda live on Long Island, on the sound. Dick works 14 hours a day writing fiction. Linda never goes anywhere, never does anything except make Dick sandwiches, and in the end she becomes a nympho-lesbo-killer whore. Here's your sandwich."

Writers are widely known as being an unhealthy, generally overweight lot, and in large share this is because we have a tendancy to munch junk food while writing. I, for example, have the habit of guzzling Dr. Pepper and stuffing my face with Nacho Cheese Doritos while writing, and have destroyed many a keyboard with spilled pop or coffee. (Real cheese nachos, of course, should kept as far as humanly possible from your computer, as should greasy anchovy pizza. Trust me on these points.)

What's your favorite comfort food to eat while you're writing? Alternately, what's your best food-in-the-keyboard horror story?