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May 31, 2005

Whoops

It's been pointed out to me that the quote I use here was taken from an online area where the house rules forbid outside posting. I'd note I checked the house rules prior to posting and missed the part that forbade outside posting, so I didn't intentionally act maliciously. Regardless there was error and it was mine, and I naturally regret it and apologize to the posters in that online area for breaking that trust. It won't happen twice.

Posted by john at 11:42 PM | Comments (5) | TrackBack

The Honeymoon is Over

I don't want to suggest I've become displeased with my Mac, which is and remains a fine machine -- a tool for living, if you will, and somewhere Walter Gropius is smiling. Be that as it may, I've finally given up on the keyboard that came with the Mac and replaced it with one of my old Windows keyboards. Why? Because the Mac keyboard sucks for typing, that's why. The keys are mushy and the throw is too deep and I end up spending a crapload of time going back and re-inputting capitalization and special marks and developing sore wrists. Yes, the Mac keyboard is esthetically superior, but esthetically superior means little to my RSI. Off it goes, to the banishment of the closet, where it will nestle up to the gorgeous but really useless Mac mouse, and they will be the best looking pair of discarded peripherals in the closet.

As for the Logitech keyboard that replaces it (and which had been previously attached to the Windows box before I removed it and replaced it with a wireless keyboard), well, I think if it had feelings it would be like the reliable spouse who is breifly thrown aside when the other spouse has a mid-life crisis and goes for someone sexier, only to quickly find out what they really want is someone who understands them, and therefore slinks back begging forgiveness. I'm sorry, Logitech keyboard. Let's never fight again.

I suppose my Mac is appalled by all this, its clean white lines now ruined by being saddled with a black keyboard and a Microsoft five-button scroll mouse. But now I can use the Mac the way I need to. My Mac being a machine for living is all very nice. But when it comes down to it, I need a machine for working. If I have to choose between esthetics and functionality, eventually esthetics is going to get the boot. I know. That makes me a slob. What can I say. I'm a slob that now can get stuff done.

Posted by john at 09:25 AM | Comments (32) | TrackBack

All The Cool People at Wiscon

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Well, okay, not all the cool people, just the ones that happened to wander by my camera during the "Sign-Out," in which authors signed books for their adoring fans (three of them in my case, although none were tremendously adoring, although they were perfectly nice). In case you're wondering who is who in this little collage:

Top row (left to right): DJ (the guy who came by to get his book signed even though his girlfriend thought he was a geek. But he's not! He's totally wicked, so there), Justine Larbalestier (with a signed copy sticker on her head), Kelly Link (identifying her photographer), Benjamin "Pie Victim" Rosenbaum.

Second Row: Blogger and all-around nice guy Michael Rawdon, Nebula nominee Christopher Rowe, Superagent Shana Cohen, Strange Horizons EIC Susan Marie Groppi and friend whose name I know but for the life of me can't remember at the moment; I want to say Matthew Wilder but I know that's wrong, because that's the guy who had the tremendously annoying 80s hit "Break My stride," and that's certainly not this fellow, thank God. So very sorry, friend of Susan Marie Groppi! You deserve better.

Third Row: Mary Anne Mohanraj (Strange Horizons founder, and living proof that, per Scott Westerfeld, "Sri Lanka is the new black"), Bond -- Gwenda Bond, Elizabeth Bear (and her next book, Scardown), Nebula winner Elieen Gunn.

Fourth Row: Claire "I was browbeaten into buying John's book" Light (thanks for buying the book, Claire!), Naomi "She of the Fabulous Jackets" Kritzer, Kristine "I tried to assassinate Ellen Kushner with a revolving door" Scalzi and Ellen "I survived an assassination attempt by Kristine Scalzi, so HA!" Kushner, Scott "This is me imitating William Shatner on the cover of The Transformed Man" Westerfeld.

Some cool people who were at Wiscon and who I hung about/were on panels/wish to imply I developed a special bond with but who did not fall into the clutches of my camera lens, thus retaining their souls(and in no particular order): Karen Meisner, Doselle and Janine Young, Lauren McLaughlin and her totally chav husband Andrew, Ted Chiang, Helen Pilinovsky, Theodora Goss, Gavin Grant, Anne KG Murphy, Liz Gorinsky, Jim Minz, Barth Anderson, Ellen Klages, and Jed Hartman. There are people I hung out with who I am not noting, mostly because it's 1:35am and man, I'm beat. But I love you all, and it's the wet, sloppy sort of love that becomes embarrassing in public spaces.

I'll also take an additional paragraph to note the extreme supercoolosity of The Fabulous Lorraine and Jody Wurl, who drove three and a half hours to have lunch with Krissy and me, even though Lorraine was clearly in the late stages of consumption and I nearly caused her to hork up a lung on a number of occasions by telling her jokes. On the other hand I did find her some truly outstanding sunglasses that looked as if they were time-warped to us from 1983, snatched from the very face of Terry Bozzio to be flung forward to the present day. We were all very fortunate to experience them.

I'll have some more coherent thoughts on Wiscon later, including what I recognize now is my biggest science fiction convention gripe. but for now, enjoy the photos and the namechecks. Because really, that's what blogging about conventions is all about.

Posted by john at 12:56 AM | Comments (12) | TrackBack

May 27, 2005

Feeling Madisonian

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Here's the capitol building in Madison; you turn a corner and suddenly it's all, whoa, there's a big-ass dome in my face. It's very pretty. Madison, at least the parts that I've seen, are also very pretty, although if you go down to the shoreline, prepare to be accosted by wave after wave of gnats, who I strongly suspect would eat you down to the grommets if they could. I'm just saying. Aside from that I can see why many believe it's one of the most livable cities in the US.

Posted by john at 12:18 PM | Comments (14) | TrackBack

May 25, 2005

Kibbles and Bits

Couple of things:

* Justine Larbalestier has caved and has now started a blog to complement her longer-form musings. One of us! One of us! Her first entry features her ginchy cover art for her upcoming book. Swing by and say "hi" to her.

* SFSignal has an interesting bit on the criteria the proprietor uses to review science fiction, which I find relevant both as a professional critic (my own techniques are similar) and because a review of Old Man's War was recently posted on the site by the same writer. He liked the book, calling it "a fast-paced, fun, tip-of-the-hat to Heinlein that succeeds in every way it can." Excellent.

* Speaking of me and Heinlein, The New York Review of Science Fiction recently reprinted my "Lessons from Heinlein" piece, in which I discuss what tips I imagine Heinlein had to provide in the actual writing of characters in science fiction. If you don't subscribe to NYRSF, a version of it exists on my Old Man's War preview page; click on the "extras" link.

Posted by john at 09:21 AM | Comments (12) | TrackBack

May 24, 2005

A Week's Vacation

I'm heading to Wiscon this Thursday and before then I've got a truckload of articles to write for various people, places and things, so consider this official notice that between now and next tuesday, you ought not count on the Whatever being particularly busy.

Now, of course, having said that, this is my signal to write 26 entries between now and next Tuesday, each prefaced by me saying "I know, I know, I said I wasn't going to update again, but..." Well, I'm not going to play that sick and pathetic game any more. Maybe I'll update. But probably not. And if you decided not to check back until next Tuesday and the site was loaded with stuff, well, then that would be a happy surprise. I just don't want to confound expectations here, is all.

Have a great week, and if I don't blather on here before then, see you on the 31st. If you want to make this entry an open thread, by all means do so.

Posted by john at 08:55 AM | Comments (11) | TrackBack

May 23, 2005

Not Even the Doglings Were Spared!

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See? This is how Jake Lloyd should have been.

Update: Athena's lightsaber's been upgraded, courtesy of Eric Buhler. Thanks, Eric!

Posted by john at 04:21 PM | Comments (18) | TrackBack

Holy Crap

Having just spent an obnoxiously large sum of money today to travel places around this goofy globe, I would now like to say that after this August, I am never again traveling anywhere ever again. All y'all are too damned expensive to visit. Thank God it's all tax-deductible.

In other news, I am definitely going to be at Interaction in Glasgow this year. They've already contacted me about being on programming, so hopefully that will pan out. I'll be arriving early Thursday, and leaving early Monday, which means I will miss the last day of programming. However, having been to two Worldcons so far, I've noted that each of their Mondays have been primarily about people walking around groggily from the night before and squinting when the light hits them. I hope you don't mind when I say that's not worth an extra day of being away from my family or spending another 100 pounds on a hotel room. Speaking of which: Stupid weak dollar. Yes, yes. I know. All the rest of world is enjoying seeing us dealing with a crappy exchange rate, just like they have all these years. Well, quiet, you! See if we come running to help you out in the next world war. Yeah, we'll just sit here on our ADM-enlarged asses, with our weak beer, just laughing and pointing. See if we don't.

One bright note in this dark festival of profligate spending is that I was able to change my hotel reservation at Interaction to the primary party hotel (The Hilton Glasgow) and away from the previous booking, which was somewhere dank and scary, I'm sure. This will make it marginally easier to get back to my room after a long hard night of geekery (and also, drinking. Well, watching other people drink, anyway).

Mind you, I am excited to be going to the places I'll be going. I'm just having a sticker shock moment is all. I'll be better soon.

Posted by john at 12:08 PM | Comments (16) | TrackBack

May 22, 2005

Synchronicity



My friend Norm
forwarded me one of those Amazon "If you bought this, you'll like this" marketing e-mails this morning, on which it said: "We've noticed that customers who have purchased Old Man's War by John Scalzi also purchased books by Chris Roberson. For this reason, you might like to know that Chris Roberson's Here, There & Everywhere is now available in paperback." Norm noted it's the first time he'd been marketed to for reading me. There's a first time for everything, is there not.

Well, naturally, I wanted to know more about this Chris Roberson fellow, so I Googled him and found his site, on which he has a blog. And what's on the top of his blog entry queue? This entry, about little ol' me. Yeah, it's a small world, after all.

Honestly, how many more signs from God and/or Amazon do you need? I went ahead and ordered my copy.

Posted by john at 04:01 PM | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Old Man's War: A Recruiter's Wet Dream?

Blogger Douglas Hoffman read Old Man's War and liked it, so he gave it to his wife to read. Her reaction:

She zipped through it in two days, called it entertaining, and set it aside. A day later, she came in to the office and declared that she’d been thinking things over in the shower that morning and had decided that Old Man’s War was derivative, war-mongering, simplistic, and morally bankrupt, and that all extant copies of it should be burned.

Yow!

Hoffman enumerates his wife's reasons for despising the book, which I invite you to read, because I think they're interesting, and if I weren't actually the guy who wrote the book (and therefore have inside information), I could certainly see how the complaints seem perfectly reasonable. I respond at length there (without snark, even!), so I won't get into it here, but naturally, I don't think the book is as bad as all that. But go over and read. It's a really interesting perspective on the book. Note that the discussion has some mild spoilers, so if you don't want to know certain plot details, you might want to skip.

Posted by john at 01:07 AM | Comments (12) | TrackBack

May 20, 2005

Revenge of the Sith -- The Long Form Review

George Lucas is indisputably the most important filmmaker of the last 30 years because his influence is absolutely everywhere in film. With the possible exception of Bram Stoker's Dracula, for which Francis Ford Coppola intentionally used in-camera special effects techniques dating back to the dawn of film, there's hardly a special effects film since 1977 that can't trace its lineage back to Lucas, either directly through ILM or its alumni, or esthetically, due to the standards he established.

And it's not simply visual effects. Sound design? Lucas' crews invented modern sound design and basically shoved THX sound certification down movie theaters' throats in order to make sure his efforts were rewarded. Computer animation? Pixar got its start under Lucas' wing. The Summer blockbuster? Jaws was the soft lob establishing the idea; Star Wars was the hard spike that drove it home. Let's not even talk about the concept of movie merchandising. Name me any filmmaker anywhere in the last three decades whose technical and marketing influence on the medium is even close to Lucas. You can't do it. The only one you could possibly argue is Steven Spielberg, but I don't think even Spielberg would suggest that he is more influential in the critical, below-the-line filmmaking categories. In short: as a filmmaker, George Lucas has made the medium what it is today.

As a director, he's not a patch on Michael Bay.

And you know what? As a writer and director, he's always sucked, and with Sith in the can, we can just come right out and say it. His one geniunely good film -- American Graffiti -- is looking more and more like a fluke, and even Star Wars (which, screenwriting and directing Oscar nominations aside, is neither well-written nor more than basically directed) seems entirely unrepresentative, if for no other reason than because it's fun, which this latter trilogy shows is not Lucas' strong suit.

George Lucas should not have been allowed near the business end of a script or a camera for any of these last three films, nor any other film in the future until the end of time. In Entertainment Weekly, Lucas says that he asked both Spielberg and Ron Howard to pick up the directing chores for him, and both said that he needed to do it himself. The only reason I can think of that they would have said such a damn fool thing is that they both must have seen the script of The Phantom Menace and have gotten severe stomach contractions at the mere thought of trying to navigate that crappy prose. Rumor has it that Tom Stoppard, of all people, was called in for a script polish on Sith, but let's be honest and note that not matter how much you polish a turd, at the end of the day, all you're going to get is a highly polished turd. Scriptwise, Sith is a turd which positively gleams.

Yes: Sith is substantially better than Phantom or Clones, but think about what we're saying here. Phantom was a knife in the gut of Star Wars fandom; the only Star Wars fans who like that film are the science fiction equivalent to the Michael Jackson fans who mill about outside the courtroom of his molestation trial. You literally can't ignore how bad it is, which was a first for a Star Wars installment. Mill it down to the pod race (taking care to yank out jake Lloyd's audio track) and the final Darth Maul saber battle, you'll have seen everything worth seeing there. Clones was marginally better dreck, but it's clear that even Lucas was bored with it. To say a movie is better than either of these films is to damn with faint praise; just about every major science fiction release since 2000 is better than these (except The Chronicles of Riddick, which was ridiculouly overstuffed and baroque. But even that had better dialogue).

Lucas wasn't bored with Sith, that much is clear -- the performances are livelier, the action is more coherently presented, and the story actually has a narrative drive, which is to say it gets from point A to point B without taking another damn side trip to Tatooine. It's a perfectly good and exciting film, even allowing for the crappy script, but as I was watching it the thing I was thinking was that this was the first film in the new trilogy that achieved the same baseline level of interest and excitement as the films in the first series; in other words, it's as good as Return of the Jedi, which is acknowledged to be the weakest of the first three, and not just because of the Ewoks. I understand people are falling over themselves to praise this film, but again, that's the magic of tremendously lowered expectations, isn't it? My problem is that I can't see why we needed three films to get back to Jedi-level competence. That's where we left off.

Structural problems are all over this film. General Grevious is touted as a major nemesis without proper introduction and backstory (yes, I understand the character was introduced in the Clone Wars cartoon shorts. But unless one is a fanboy, one is outside that particular loop, and film viewers ought not be penalized for lack of fervor). The Wookiees are thrown in as an obvious fan sop rather than being an integral part of the story. Lucas wants to have slapstick and tragedy in his film but can't handle the gradient between them, either as a director or a writer. The last several minutes of the film are all too obviously about going down a list and checking off details so Sith can conform to the continuity requirements of the original trilogy. None of this matters to the fans now, flushed as they are with gleeful relief that Sith doesn't actively stink. But these problems are there, and they're not going away.

Also not going away: Lucas' basic and fundamental mishandling of humans in the writing and the directing. The Sith story is grand, operatic tragedy, and only Ian McDairmid, a theater-trained actor given an inherently ham-filled role, imbues his character with the sense of scale the story needs. Ewan McGregor comes close, but is underserved by his dialogue (which is sadly pocked with fan-pleasing throwaway lines rather than the meaty stuff he needs), and poor Hayden Christiansen, who can actually act, is saddled with a director whose idea of evil is wind-blown petulance. Hell, Lucas' direction pounds flat Samuel L. Jackson -- for the third time. It's hard to imagine how that is even possible.

This film positively aches for Lawrence Kasdan and the magically exhumed Leigh Brackett to come on board and make the script what is so clearly wants to be; the film aches for even a competent journeyman director to connect the operatic dots. One of the cardinal rules of film criticism is that you don't review the film as you want it to be, you review the film that is, but it's hard to see how anyone with a sense of history of film -- or even simply of Star Wars -- can look at this preview trilogy and not see how much better they would have been with someone other than Lucas at the helm and at the keyboard. For Sith, two words for you: Ridley Scott. Yes, I know how cruel it is to put that in your mind. But now you see my point. Lucas is famously always going back into his films and changing fiddly details -- one can only hope that his next revision he redoes all the writing and acting for the prequel trilogy (or perhaps hires Peter Jackson to do it for him). It's amazing what they can do with computers these days.

But as I've said before, it's George Lucas' universe, we just get to buy the merchandise. The films are what they are. Do you know what I actually have high hopes for? The Star Wars TV series Lucas suggested is coming up. Lucas, who I think is well pleased to finally wash his hands of the Star Wars universe, is likely to have minimal involvement. That means there's an excellent chance some good writers and decent directors will creep back into the Star Wars universe and make it finally live up to its potential. A new hope, indeed.

Posted by john at 10:39 AM | Comments (49) | TrackBack

Revenge of the Sith: The Mini-Review

Here it is:

It didn't entirely suck. And it's better than Phantom and Clones. But it wasn't exactly good.

More thoughts later.

Posted by john at 02:06 AM | Comments (14) | TrackBack

May 19, 2005

Writing in the Age of Piracy

I came across the following comment from a writer recently -- which writer and where I found it I won't tell you, for reasons that will become clear shortly. It regards the nature of humans, and the business of selling books, and of piracy:

"I think that the rise of mass-market print publishing created the opportunity for many writers to earn a marginal income from their writing, and that that paradigm is now doomed. I believe that 99% of the customers are cheapskates when no one is looking, for example, and so I believe we're looking at a future where piracy will proliferate and where only a very few will make any sort of real money from writing fiction. I hope I'm wrong, but my goal for the moment is to try to preserve the old paradigm for as long as possible."

Oh, for fuck's sake.

Let's translate that metaphorically, shall we? Book publishing is a sinking ship. The former passengers on the ship have given in to their feral instincts and are dismantling the ship board by board. The remaining crew are being wedged further and further back into what little of the ship remains above the waterline. Eventually the whole ship will disappear beneath the waves and all the crew will drown. The thought of possibly jumping off the ship apparently doesn't occur to the crew; rather, their ambition is simply to be the last person to drown.

Screw 'em. Let them drown. Because here's the thing about that "sinking ship:" Even if we grant it is sinking (which we should not), and that the passengers are scurvy pirates (which we ought not), this ship is sinking in about five feet of water and the shore is fifty yards away. And if you haven't the wit to make it to shore, then by God, you deserve to die.

For now, let's put aside the issue of whether publishing will survive as an industry. I think it will for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that the people I've met in publishing are fairly adept capitalists who would prefer that their next gig does not involve asking people if they want fries with that. Nor do I think most people are thieving dickheads, despite the number of people recently trying to convince me otherwise. But for the sake of argument, let us posit the nuclear option: Rampant digital piracy has made it impossible to sell books. The entire publishing industry is out on the street. Editors are on the corners with signs that say "WILL EDIT YOUR 'WILL WORK FOR FOOD' SIGN FOR FOOD." Art directors sit on crates drawing wee little dune buggy caricatures of passersby. Publishers have launched themselves from the windows of their corner offices to publish themselves on the pavement in splattery limited editions of one. And where are the writers? If they have any sense at all, they're making a fair amount of money.

Listen to me now: Writers are not in the publishing industry. The publishing industry exists to handle the output of writers and distribute it in an effective and hopefully profitable way; however it does not necessarily follow that writer's only option is the publishing industry, especially not now. Congruent to this: Books aren't the only option. I write books, but you know what? I'm not a book writer, any more than a musician is an LP musician or an MP3 musician. The book is the container. It's not destiny.

And this is where the schism exists among writers: Those who get these concepts, and those who don't. Those who don't are dead meat anyway; let's thank them for their service to letters and shed a tear as their corpses rot (and not just because of the smell). As for those of us still standing, let me introduce you to what could be your next business model.

Meet Penny Arcade. Many of you already know it, of course. For those of you who don't, here's the concept: Two guys write a thrice-weekly comic strip about video games -- a strip which, as it happens, is usually damn funny (often even if you don't like video games). How much money do these guys make off the strip itself? Not a dime, as far as I can tell. But the comic strip draws hundreds of thousands of visitors to the site; the site sells advertising for a fair amount every week. They sell merchandise, from t-shirts to limited edition artwork (a recent artwork sale sold 500 art "cells" at $80 a pop in less than 12 hours: $40,000 gross for 12 hours isn't bad). They have their own convention. They even have their own charity, Child's Play, which in two years has raised half a million dollars in cash and goods for children's hospitals across the country. And most importantly for the purposes of our discussion, this is their full time gig -- it supports the two of them, their wives and families, and even a business manager to handle the stuff them creative types don't want to both with.

Yeah, you say, but that's a comic strip. I'm talking about writing, here. Well, listen up, funcakes: The point here is not the comic strip. The point here is what it's used for: As the basis of several different revenue streams, all of which flow directly to the principals. What happens if the cartoon strip is pirated? Not much -- it's distributed for free, anyway. At the very worst, it becomes free advertising, bringing people around to the site. People visit the site; they enjoy it, they come back. That allows PA to sell advertising. Some become fans; this allows PA to sell merchandise. Some make it part of their lives; this allows PA to host a convention and fund a charity. What is at the heart of this business model is pirate-proof content: You can't steal free content. And what Penny Arcade sells, it's difficult to steal.

Can writers do the same thing? Well, in a universe where piracy kills the conventional publishing model, they damn well better get used to the idea, hadn't they.

Personally, I find this formulation non-controversial because to very large extent it's what I do now. I won't get into how much of my writing income over the last four years comes directly and indirectly as a result of writing on this site, except to say it's six figures and the leftmost number is not a "1," and not nearly all of it comes from book sales. This is not bragging (or not only bragging, shall I say); the point to made here is that an ambitious writer can use a non-commercial presence to generate a non-trivial amount of income. In my case, the content here, like the content on Penny Arcade, is un-pirateable; I don't charge anything for it, and I don't care if you send it along to whomever you like. But it brings in thousands of people every day, some of whom would probably spend money on Scalzi merchandise. Like, say, a novel, however it is published.

Or not a novel, actually -- why not a novella? The market for novellas is very small right about now, because most publishers don't like them; they don't fit into the mass-market publishing paradigm very well at all. But if I don't have to worry about my publisher's production albegra, maybe I could sell one. Or not sell it at all -- maybe I'll post it up on the site with its run subsidized by an advertiser. I have eight to ten thousand visitors on a daily basis; think there's an advertiser out there who might be willing to shell out for 100,000 ad impressions over the run of the novella?

Point is, in a pirate age, I think I still stand a good chance of continuing to make a very good income from writing. Since I don't think we'll get to a pirate age, this is even better news for me, because I have the advantage of generating writer income the old-fashioned way as well as in this new way. Multiple revenue streams are a writer's friend. Now, get this: I'm not particularly clever, and I'm awfully lazy. If I can do this, pretty much any writer can. Yes, it does take time and effort to generate a readership (seven years, in the case of the Whatever). Tell me how this is different from publishing today.

What if I'm wrong? Well, what if I am? It's axiomatic that new formulations for generating writing income will arrive in our theoretical age of piracy; writers are creative people, and they also like to eat. I'm offering one potential business model here, mostly because I'm familiar with it and I know it works for me (and for Penny Arcade). If you don't like it, make one of your own. Or, you know, drown. One less writer for me to worry about.

No, these new business models are not going to work for everyone. Guess what: The publishing model now doesn't work for everyone, either. And guess what else: The group of Writers Making Money in the Pirate Age will not be the same as the group of Writers Making Money in the Age of Publishing. Why? Because some people can't do it, and some people won't do it. Furthermore, some people will make less money in this new age of piracy. But guess what again? Some people will make more, too. Will the per capita income be as great? Doubtful, since this pirate age model will encourage more people whose writing would have been laughed out the door in the publishing age to make a go at monetizing their work. But I don't know how much time you need to spend worrying about the per capita income number. You have to worry about your income number.

Should you help other writers in this not entirely likely Age of Piracy? Absolutely: Karma is a good thing. Heck, you should help other writers today. But if all a writer can do is complain about how much better it was back then, and looks at his audience as if it would stab him and eat him the first chance it got, well, how much can you do? If someone demands that he is drowning in five feet of water, all you can do is tell him to stand up and point him in the direction of the shore. You can't make him do either.

Posted by john at 09:57 AM | Comments (37) | TrackBack

May 17, 2005

The Family Assassin

My sister asked me to send this to her, and I figured, well, as long as I am sending this to her, I might as well repost it here. It's another from the long-lost Scalzi Archives.

"OTHER THAN THAT, MRS. LINCOLN..."

Thoughts on the Family Assassin

Every family should have an interesting skeleton in the family closet. In my family, it's John Wilkes Booth, assassin of Abraham Lincoln, who, of course, was the President of the United States during the American Civil War. Booth assassinated Lincoln not long after the cessation of hostilities between the Union and the Confederacy, by sneaking into the President's box at Ford's Theater (the show: Our American Cousin) and shooting him in the back of the head with a pistol. Booth then leaped from the box to the stage, shouting "Sic semper tyrannis" ("Thus it is with tyrants") and "The South is avenged." He broke his leg but managed to escape nevertheless. However, eleven days later, he was discovered in a barn, burned out, and then shot (by himself or by a soldier, it's unclear). He died shortly thereafter. Some maintain that Booth's body was never positively identified, so it's possible he actually escaped. Either way, he's dead now.

For the record, I'm not a direct descendant -- my line goes through one of his nine other siblings, making him something along the lines of a great-great-great-great-great-grand-uncle. Whenever I mention my relationship to him, though, people's eyes get wide, their jaws go momentarily slack, and some people actually back up a step, as if a long dormant assassination gene might suddenly fire up, and they'd be the unlucky recipient. I get a kick out of that. Then I go for the extra point my mentioning that John Wilkes and I have the same birthday: May 10, 131 years apart. By the time I mention I get edgy handling pennies and five dollar bills, people begin to wend their way to the nearest door.

You might infer from this page that John Wilkes Booth is my favorite ancestor, but in fact, that's not the case. There are several other ancestors who I hold in far higher esteem, or that I at least find more interesting. To begin, there's John Wilkes, the rather infamous British radical, journalist and politician who was famous for continually being expelled from the British parliament, and for being a member of notorious Hellfire Club (motto: "We were into orgies before orgies were cool"). John Wilkes Booth was named for him, which probably was an early strike against the boy.

In Booth's own time, his brother Edwin was far more notable: the first great American Shakespearean actor. Edwin did the definitive Hamlet of the mid-19th Century, playing him for 100 days straight during 1864 and 1865, stopping not long before his baby brother John put a cap in Lincoln. Lincoln's assassination wreaked havoc on Edwin's career, as you might imagine. And yet Edwin kept hitting the boards until he died in 1893. In the long run, Edwin is more interesting than his brother because he was famous for what he achieved rather than for who he killed (as I was writing up this page, I happened across an 1890 recording of Edwin Booth reading from Othello -- it's scratchy and muffled, and you can barely make out the words. But there it is, across the span of 108 years -- the voice of a stage god. Hi there, Uncle. Nice to know you).

Somewhat closer to my own time is my own great-grandfather, William Booth, who may or may not have died before I was born; In any event, I certainly have no memory of him being alive. William didn't do anything that would have gotten him noticed by humanity at large -- he wasn't a politician, an actor, or an assassin. What I find interesting about him is that the man left a paper trail of poems and writings, which -- being that I am a writer by profession -- have made me feel a strong connection to him. Here was the sort of guy who would write poems castigating FDR in his annual Christmas cards to the family, but who would also pen delicate, romantic poems to his wife, my great-grandmother. We have copies of those poems, spanning decades. I admire that -- that he stayed in love for so long, and that he realized that it was important to keep telling his wife that we loved her (you'd be surprised how many people forget about that part).

John Wilkes Booth, on the other hand, I don't especially admire. The best you could say about him, was that he wasn't a bad actor -- no Edwin Booth, mind you, but not bad (he was especially well regarded in the deep South, and did several tours as a headliner in those parts). Other than that, though, there's not much there. On a personal level, he was something of a lout -- when he died, they pulled the pictures of five different women off his body (one was of his fiancee, Lucy Hale, daughter of -- ironically -- an abolitionist senator). Booth was also big on slavery, which bugs me. It's embarrassing to have someone in your family tree who thought it was all right to own other people. And let's not forget that, when it comes right down to it, Booth was just plain nuts. Otherwise he wouldn't have been taking shots at Lincoln in the first place. It's just as well he's been dead over a century -- he's not someone I'd've wanted to meet. Sure, he might be fun at parties, but I'd worry about him trying to hit on my wife, and I couldn't introduce him to any of my black friends.

There's another thing that bothers me about John Wilkes Booth, which is that he did such a poor job of the assassination. Now, let me just say this, before we go any further: Killing the President of the United States is bad, and no one should do it, ever. So, kids, if you've been thinking of gunning down a President, stop now, before the Secret Service has to come and hurt you. Listen to your Uncle John, here. Having said that, if you are going to whack a President (and remember, you shouldn't), you really ought to have thought out your escape plan better than John Wilkes did. I mean, come on: Shoot the President, then leap out of the box, onto a stage -- 30 feet below? What sort of plan is that? He's damned lucky he only broke his leg.

The final point against John Wilkes Booth is that he shot Lincoln. Not that he shot the President of the United States, but that he shot Lincoln, a man who by any measurement stands as one of the Great Men of world history, a man who is richly admirable in so many ways it's hard to know where to start (yes, he has flaws. So what). Compared to Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth is a gnat. It's a rather morbid measure of Lincoln's greatness that anyone remembers John Wilkes Booth at all. The vast majority of Americans, after all, would be hard pressed to name the guy who drilled William McKinley, if indeed they remembered who McKinley was in the first place (by the way, it was Leon Czolgosz. Got that one? All right, smarty pants: Who shot James Garfield? Hmmm?).

Be that as it may, he's still more interesting to have swinging in the family tree than most ancestors. He and Lincoln have both been dead long enough that it's not actually unsettling for people to contemplate the fact that I'm related to a murderer. It's not like I'm related to Jeffrey Dahmer or Charlie Manson. I can make jokes about it all without having to worry about upsetting anyone. Should I ever meet up with someone who is related to Abe Lincoln, it's more likely that we'll consider the encounter as amusing, rather than a revival of an age-old family feud. Someone once idly mentioned to me that being related to John Wilkes Booth would keep me from ever become President of the United States myself. Fact is, so many other things disqualify me from that position that my tangential relation to Booth would be the least of my worries. Though I suppose if I were ever elected, and were then subsequently assassinated, people would figure that I had it coming.

You would think that not that many people would admit to being related to John Wilkes Booth, but in fact, I know of two other folks (obviously, I'm excepting my own family members): my pal Marty (who, despite the name, is a woman) in Chicago, and another pal, Helen, who is in Los Angeles. Interestingly, we all have jobs in the creative sector: I am a writer, Helen is a screenwriter (she wrote Reality Bites, one of the big moments in Gen-X cinema), and Marty is an actress. This is in keeping with the Booth theatrical and creative genes, we figure -- better that than a gene that causes us to leap from theater boxes and stalk heads of state. Helen and I, both of whom have a penchant for black humor, has formed a little club called the Booth Society; our motto (besides Sic Semper Tyrannis, and complementing it) is "Let's Hope It Doesn't Come to That."

You can probably figure out what "that" might be. So far, it hasn't.

Posted by john at 09:51 PM | Comments (63) | TrackBack

In Case You're Wondering --

At the moment I'm fiddling with fonts. Don't be surprised if the site looks slightly different.

Update: Mac users, it should look different. PC users shouldn't notice a difference at all. Of course, depending on what fonts you have on your computer, your mileage may vary.

Posted by john at 07:01 PM | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Selling Science Fiction Books in 2005

I'm finding the aftermath commentary to the Stupidity of Worrying About Online Piracy very interesting; apparently this subject is something people are thinking about, particularly for its long-term implications, much of which boils down to: Being willing to not worry about online piracy may work now, today, in 2005, when people are still lugging around those laughably obsolete objects known as "books." But what happens in a couple of years when the literary equivalent of the iPod hits the market, and physical books become a thing of the past, and the only copies of everything are digital -- and some pirate has your entire canon of work uploaded in the P2P networks? How will you make money then? You won't be so happy about all that piracy then, will you? Where is your God now, Mr. I-Don't-Worry-About-Piracy monkey boy? Huh? Huh? Huh?

You know, these are all really fascinating questions, and I'm sure at the next WorldCon or other science fiction convention I'm at I'll be on a panel discussing these things with other folks, and we'll all be very interesting and thought-provoking on the matter, and who knows, maybe something we say won't be completely full of crap. However -- and I want to be very clear on this, so allow me to use some profanity to bring the point home -- in a very real and fundamental sense, I don't fucking care. Right now, it's 2005, I've got one science fiction book published and two more coming in the next twelve months, and my primary concern is selling those books in the here and now. Today I am looking for ways to get my writing in front of people, perchance to convince these fine people to purchase that writing.

Pursuant to that, the following data points.

1. Old Man's War has been out for six months and despite what I am told are very positive sales for a first-time unknown writer, not once has it been available at my local bookstore, whose science fiction/fantasy section is jammed into a corner of the store as it is, well outside the main traffic pattern, and is confined to one and a half shelves, of which three-quarters of one shelf is reserved for Star Wars/Star Trek/Tolkien crap. This one bookstore serves its town, and the towns directly north and south of it. So effectively, my book is not physically available anywhere in a 30-mile radius from my home -- except at my local library, to which I donated a copy. Yes, I live in rural America, but not everything in that 30-mile radius is rural.

2. Anecdotally, I hear my book is hard to find in bookstores, period; this is partly a reflection of its strong sales (i.e., when it is in a bookstore, it doesn't stay long) and partly (I suspect) a reflection of Tor's printing strategy for the book, which has been of multiple small printings (the largest being the first printing of 3,800 copies), that keep Tor from having an overprint situation for a new, untested author (which is to say \you probably shouldn't count on finding the hardcover of Old Man's War on the remainder table. Sorry). I can't and don't fault Tor's logic here -- the last thing I want as a new author is my publisher having rather more copies of the book than it can sell -- but the regrettable side effect of this is that people can't browse a book that's not on the bookstore shelves.

3. The Kroger supermarket nearest me, whose (actually fairly extensive) book section functions as the bookstore for its town, not only doesn't stock my book, it doesn't stock science fiction at all, and aside from Harry Potter and Eragon (good job Christopher Paolini!), no fantasy, either. Not stocking my book is entirely not surprising (remember: first-time unknown SF writer in hardback), but not stocking any science fiction or fantasy at all? What the hell? For comparison, the store is generously stocked with romances, contemporary thillers, and westerns. Yes, westerns. You thought that genre was dead, didn't you. Surprise! The Wal-Mart and Meijer near me have remarkably similar stocking patterns.

What do these data points tell me? Clearly, that I shouldn't expect people to discover my book in the conventional ways, because the book isn't there. Now, some or all of these issues may be alleviated when the book goes to softcover; the reason Tor bought the book, as I've noted before, was that it believes that this is the sort of book that can crack the "no SF in supermarkets" barrier, because -- yes, we can admit it here among friends -- it's a Heinlein-esque adventure without all that scary edgy stuff, and maybe you can shove that next to the Clancys and the Grishams and sell it. If it were a car, it'd be a Chevy, and I see a fair amount of Cheveys in the Kroger parking lot. So we'll see. But that's tomorrow, and this is today.

In terms of promotion, well, I would love to promote Old Man's War in the Old School ways. I'm not a snob, and I'm not stupid -- there's an incredible amount of promotional power in "old media." Way back when, when I met my editor at Tor for the first time, he asked me if there were any media I thought the publicity department should approach for the book. You know the first place I suggested? AARP Magazine. Because the book's about an older American, and the magazine has a subscriber roll of 21 million. It doesn't get much more old school than AARP Magazine, and I'd be a friggin' moron not to put the book in front of that audience. I still want to, hint, hint, Tor publicity department. But again: new writer, writing science fiction. I have been absolutely blessed with reviews in the Washington Post, in the Cleveland Plain-Dealer and in Entertainment Weekly, and it's a minor miracle I got those (not withstanding AARP Magazine, Tor's publicity folks rock). Most science fiction writers, even the established ones -- and even the good established ones -- would be happy with that. Right now, this is what I have to work with in terms of the Old School presence.

New School, I have options. I have this Web site, which pulls down some nice visitor numbers; I have the AOL Journal, which does the same. I have had good press from prominent bloggers, whose recommendations have translated into real sales with aclarity, because their readers trust their recommendations. Right now, there is no downside in letting someone go onto Amazon and reading as much of the book as Amazon lets them -- they are on Amazon, after all, and one does typically go to the Amazon site to buy things. The chances of turning a sale there are good, and inasmuch as we've already established looking at a physical copy is difficult, this is the next best thing. There is no downside in offering an entire novel's worth of writing for free on my own site; why not let people get a feel for my style? If you like Agent chances are pretty good you'll like Old Man's War; it's a different set-up and story, but, well, I'm me, and for better or worse, that's how I write.

Will these methods work in the future? Don't know. And, mostly, don't care, because they're working now, and now is the timeframe I need to sell my book in. I don't doubt that a dozen years from now, getting my books out to readers -- and making money from them -- will require different things and take on a different form than it does now, since among other things most of the ways I'm promoting my books now didn't exist a dozen years ago. But here are a couple things I expect to be true in 2017: That people will still want to be amused by creative types, and that the more enterprising members of that class will have found new and exciting ways of extracting money out of people who wish to be entertained. As so long as I'm not dead or somehow deeply mentally damaged between now and 2017, I expect to be in the latter camp. I guess we'll find out. In the meantime, I'm happy to do what works.

Posted by john at 11:59 AM | Comments (36) | TrackBack

May 15, 2005

Wireless

One of the problems with being bi(processorial) is that when you have two computers and you actually use both, you end up having two keyboards, two mice and so on -- a veritable noah's ark of computer accessories. I suppose I could get one of those boxes where you can route your keyboard and your mouse into, and thereby control two computers with it, but where's the fun in that? Also, since I can't even remember what they're called, the idea of walking into Staples and trying to describe the concept to some guy in a red shirt who barely knows where the pens are is not one I greet with a huge amount of enthusiasm. So: two of everything.

The problem becomes where to put it all, and for most of the equation I was able to make it work. I shoved the PC behind the iMac (which, being an iMac, is all sleek and thin), put the PC monitor to the side, and generally place the PC mouse so that I can use it with my left hand while I use the Mac mouse with my right (I'm ambimouse-terous!) But what to do with the PC keyboard? My desk has a little shelf where the keyboard's supposed to go, which I generally ignore, so while the Mac keyboard is on top of the desk, the PC keyboard is below.

But this proved unsuitable, since I still do frequently need my PC keyboard, and it's a pain in the ass to drag out the little shelf and sit away from the screen and squint while i type and all that, or to use the Mac keyboard (I have to reach and it aggravates my early-stage case of tendonitis). And since I had to snake the keyboard cord down through the desk to get it to sit comfortably on the shelf, dragging the keyboard up to desk level is also more complicated and annoying than it really should be.

So I gave up. No, I'm not ditching the PC, I bought myself a wireless keyboard. Now the PC keyboard can go anywhere, do anything, and then when I'm done with it i can set it anywhere and not have any more problems with it. Easy. Since I'm using the Mac for most of my serious typing now, I went ahead and got the cheap, non-ergodynamically designed keyboard -- Mi Micro Innovations, $29.95 at the dreaded Wal-Mart. I did go to Staples to try to buy it there after spotting it at Wal-Mart(where I went for some digital photo printing), but it was $20 cheaper at Wal-Mart, and while I'm all for not sweating a $5 price difference for not spending too much green at Wally World, a 66% price difference was a little hard to ignore.

The keyboard is definitely nothing fancy, but I find the tactile response perfectly good, and since I never use all those silly buttons that line the top of today's new fangled keyboards (the ones that launch your browser, e-mail, music players and trident missiles), it's all the same to me. The keyboard came with an additionally perfectly acceptable 5-button wireless mouse, so I switched the wireless mouse that I had been using on the PC over to the Mac. Now the only thing there is the Mac keyboard. I'm free. in fact, I'm writing this on the PC, with the new wireless keyboard, which is in my lap while my feet are up on the desk. Ergonomic experts, commence your screaming now (I should note that I do have a hand brace on. You know. because I'm not completely stupid).

So now the setup is: left-handed mouse, keyboard, keyboard, right-handed mouse, two monitors, and one very pasty white dude going wall-eyed in front of the two screen. Surely, the best of all possible worlds.

Posted by john at 08:49 PM | Comments (24) | TrackBack

May 14, 2005

My Wife Done Got Herself Edumacated!

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Note the happy smile, and the college degree. What you don't see is the 4.0 GPA, but trust me, it's there.

Needless to say, this just adds to Krissy's awesomeosity.

I have nothing else to say here. I leave it to you to imagine my immense pride at my wife's accomplishments. Except to say that whatever you imagine my pride to be, you're off by a factor of ten.

Posted by john at 06:57 PM | Comments (19) | TrackBack

May 13, 2005

The Stupidity of Worrying About Piracy

The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, to which I belong, recently e-mailed its members a poll about Amazon's "look within the book" feature, about how they felt about it and whether they'd want to let Amazon browsers check out their books online -- and how much of the book they'd want to let people read. It's a perfectly legitimate question, and I think that it should be up to the writers and publishers to make that decision. But whomever it is that wrote the poll (I assume Andrew Burt, as it's hosted on his site) is apparently so paranoid about piracy that they've felt it was perfectly fine to add editorial comment in the poll itself warning about the dangers of Amazon-borne piracy.

For example, one questions asking how much of a work one would want to have accessible to Amazon browsers is phrased this way: "What percent would you want blocked of your work to prevent piracy?" I'm not a professional pollster, but I know a push poll question when I see it, and I don't like it any more when it comes from SFWA than when it comes from a political party.

My response to the poll, incidentally, was that I wanted all of the book available for Amazon shoppers to browse. I want this for many reasons, not the least of which is simply parity of shopping experience to bookstores, where one can go up to the bookshelves, crack open a book, and read as much of it as one wants to see if one is interested in making a purchase. As it happens, I don't buy very many books online because I can't open the book and see the text, and with new writers especially, I'm not going to buy without checking out the book first.

Now, flip this over: I'm a new writer and I know for a fact that a rather substantial percentage of my sales have been online sales, thanks to the fact that so many purchases of Old Man's War have been driven by bloggers, and because for various reasons the book has been damned hard to find in actual bookstores (there's never been a single copy in my local bookstore, for example). Why would I shoot my sales in the foot by not letting readers browse my book, just as much as they'd like to browse, just like they would be able to do in a brick and mortar store?

The quick and obvious answer to this -- if one is paranoid about piracy -- is that in a brick and mortar store, someone can't take a screen capture of your book, run it through software and make a readable text file of your book that they then post on Kazaa, arrrrrr, for all their scurvy friends to read for free. And the answer to this is: Well, jeez, people. As if that very same would be pirate couldn't check out my book from the library and do the same damn thing with a scanner. I'm not terribly convinced that doing a screen capture of every single page of my book on Amazon is any less work than scanning in every single page of a print copy.

Banning people from reading my book on Amazon is unlikely to deter someone who is truly motivated to pirate my book, and to scan every single friggin' page -- however one does it -- you have to be pretty goddamn motivated. You'd also have to pretty motivated to read my entire book through Amazon's less-than-entirely-user-friendly text preview tool. Most people just aren't going to do that, and the ones that are, I'm not going to sell to anyway. I'm not going to punish the people who are likely to buy my book on the off chance that I might temporarily inconvenience someone who won't. That's just stupid. So: I'll let Amazon show off the entire book. I don't see how it can hurt me, and I see lots of ways it can help me.

Does this mean I run the risk of being pirated? Well, clearly it does. But let take a nice cold shower and look at this logically, shall we?

Let's ask: Who are pirates? They are people who won't pay for things (i.e., dickheads), or they're people who can't pay for things (i.e., cash-strapped college students and others). The dickheads have ever been with us; they wouldn't pay even if they had the money. I don't worry about them, I just hope they fall down an abandoned well, break their legs and die of gangrene after several excruciatingly painful days of misery and dehydration, and then I hope the rats chew the marrow from their bones and shit back down the hollows. And that's that for them.

As for the people who can't pay for things, well, look. I grew up poor and made music tapes off the radio; my entire music collection from ages 11 to 14 consisted of tapes that had songs missing their first ten seconds and whose final ten seconds had DJ chatter on them; from 14 to 18, I taped off my friends; from 18 to 22 I reviewed music so I could get it for free. And then after that, once I had money, I bought my music. Because I could. As for books, I bought secondhand paperbacks through my teen and college years. Now I buy hardbacks. Again, because I can. Now, being a writer, you can argue that I'm more self-interested in paying for creative work than others, but I have to honestly say that I don't know anyone who can pay for a book or a CD or a DVD or whatever who doesn't, far more often than not.

I don't see the people who can't pay as pirates. I see them as people who will pay, once they can. Until then, I think of it as I'm floating them a loan. Nor is it an entirely selfless act. I'm cultivating a reader -- someone who thinks of books as a legitimate form of entertainment -- and since I want to be a writer until I croak, that's a good investment for me. More specifically, I'm cultivating a reader of me, someone who will at some point in the future see a book of mine of the shelf, go "Scalzi! I love that dude!" and then take the book off the shelf and take it to the register.

Yes, there's an investment risk -- the cash-strapped reader might in fact turn out to be a full-bore dickhead, in which case we already know what I think should happen to him -- but it's a chance I'm willing to take.

It's a chance I'm willing to take because I believe that fundamentally, most people aren't thieving dickheads; they're people who if they like your writing will want to support your career, so long as you don't treat them like you're a mall security guard, and they're Winona Ryder. Treat readers like they can't be trusted and there's no reason for them not to live down to your expectations. Make it clear to them that they're integral to your continued success, and they will help you succeed. Treat them like human beings, for God's sake.

Here's another reason I don't worry about piracy. As most of you who read here regularly know, I recently announced that I and Tor would give free electronic copies of Old Man's War to service people stationed in Afghanistan and Iraq. I took the very minimal precaution of asking that deployed soldiers make their request from the ".mil" e-mail addresses, but other than that, I simply asked people who are not "over there" not to request a book.

It worked: I haven't gotten people misrepresenting themselves for a free book, and I haven't found one of those "over there" editions floating around aimlessly on the Web. I treated people like they were honorable adults, and so far it's worked. Until it becomes clear to me that it's not working anymore, I'll keep doing what I'm doing. If SFWA persists in wasting its time fighting an overblown battle with piracy on Amazon, it'll do it without me. It's not a battle I see worth fighting.

Posted by john at 08:02 PM | Comments (108) | TrackBack

Scott Westerfeld's New Blog

Scott Westerfeld, who has several fine books out, has finally succumbed to the insidious, pod people-like drive to put up a blog. Naturally, I think you should go over there right now and say hello.

Right now. Look, you're already slacking off by being here.

Posted by john at 09:24 AM | Comments (12) | TrackBack

May 12, 2005

Newspaper Writing

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I'm doing a series of articles on Star Wars for the Dayton Daily News; the first one is here (there's registration required; I suggest bugmenot), and there will be a couple more leading up to the release of Revenge of the Sith next Thursday. This one talks about the various Star Wars controversies, from Ewoks to Jar-Jar, and I'm pleased with the results, although I'm sad my reference to the Endor Holocaust didn't make it through the editing for space. That's life in the newspaper biz. The art for the story takes up the top two thirds of the front page of the Life section. Groovy.

As much as I'm now pretty much barnacled into the online writing lifestyle, I have to say that I still really enjoy seeing my writing in the local newspaper. I'm not one of those people who thinks local newspapers are going the way of the dodo; I think online news will kill off a lot of bad newspapers -- the pointless ones that just run wire copy and don't serve as anything more than a carrier for the local supermarket ads -- and since bad newspapering offends me, I'm not exactly going to shed a tear about that. But I think smart, locally-engaged newspapers will always remain in one form or another because they quite simply fill a need for their community, and speaking as a writer I like to keep a hand in that.

And I'd still love to have another newspaper column, too; much of that urge has been subsumed or obviated my the Whatever, but I still love the idea of raising a ruckus on a local, concentrated level. If the Daily News ever asked me to write one, I wouldn't think twice about it before saying yes; some part of my brain still sees that as the symbol of arriving as a writer. I think I'll drop a hint to them the next time I'm down there.

Whether or not that ever happens, it's still a kick to open the paper and see my byline. Once a newspaperman, always a newspaperman.

Posted by john at 12:56 PM | Comments (18) | TrackBack

May 11, 2005

Portraiture Before the Storm

I was going to post something longer, but a very nasty thunderstorm is bearing down and we have a severe thunderstorm alert until 10pm, and I'll be powering down the computers as a precaution. Instead, I present two pictures just I took as we were on the porch, watching the storm roll on in. See you on the other side of it.

Posted by john at 06:19 PM | Comments (10) | TrackBack

May 10, 2005

Old Man's War and Ghost Brigades Cover Art

I know, for a guy who says he's taking the day off, I sure keep updating a lot. But I thought you'd like to see the new cover art of the trade paperback edition of Old Man's War and the cover art for The Ghost Brigades, both of which were sent to me by Tor, I can only surmise, as a birthday present. Yay! The new artist is John Harris, who has previously done covers for folks like Orson Scott Card and Ben Bova. There is worse company to be in. Anyway, here they are.

Posted by john at 03:42 PM | Comments (31) | TrackBack

Picture Pairing: A Meme

Actually, before I take the day off for my birthday, let me suggest a meme to propogate while I'm gone:

Pair up a picture with a song that best describes the picture (or vice versa). "Best decribes" being open to interpretation -- it could literally describe what's going on in the picture, or it could be a piece of music that invokes a feeling you associate with the picture, or whatever. Also, you can just name the song, if you think it's something most people will recognize.

Here is my picture, and the song that goes with it:


"Over the Hillside" by The Blue Nile, from their album Hats.

Your turn.

Posted by john at 01:39 AM | Comments (14) | TrackBack

36

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36 today. 35 was largely a good year; I thank it for its service. 36 will hopefully carry on the tradition. Also, now that I am past the midpoint of my 30s, I have to say that it's shaping up to be a damn fine decade. As with last year, I check to see if I have any deep insight into the world to share with you all, and once again the answer is: Well, no, not really. Be nice to each other. Floss. Don't eat that fifth donut. Aside from that, I got nothin'.

I'm taking the rest of the day off; if you want to do the same, that's your call.

Posted by john at 01:04 AM | Comments (24) | TrackBack

May 07, 2005

Why One Does Not Ask Rhetorical Questions in the Scalzi Household

This just happened.

ENTER ATHENA, amused with herself.

ATHENA
Hey daddy!

ME
Yes, sweetheart?

ATHENA
(mischeviously)
How much wood would a woodchuck chuck, if a woodchuck could chuck wood?

ME
You know, I actually wrote an article about that.

(goes to bookshelf, pulls down the book for which I wrote the article, goes to the page the article is on)

ME
Says here that woodchucks do chuck wood, if you give them wood to chuck, which researchers at Cornell have in fact done. Also, naturalist Richard Thomas estimated that if woodchucks chucked as much wood as they chuck dirt while making their homes, it would be 35 cubic meters, or about 700 pounds. So there you are.

ATHENA
(silent for a moment, then)
You're really no fun, daddy.
(stomps out)

Posted by john at 02:35 PM | Comments (28) | TrackBack

May 06, 2005

What My Jesus Would Do

Occasionally I am asked if I believe in Jesus. My standard answer to this is "as much as I believe in evolution," which serves the dual purpose of both answering in the affirmative and usually annoying the person who asks the question. There is no doubt that Jesus lived; I have no doubt Jesus died, and did so with the belief he was doing so for the sins of the world. Whatever one feels about the divinity of Jesus, this is a staggering assumption of moral responsibility, in the face of which one must feel humbled. I've read the words of Jesus, to benefit from his wisdom and also to try to understand this most influential of men.

I also read his words to understand the actions of some of those who claim to be his followers, and who are, at the moment and alas, trying to jam a certain suspect iteration of "Christianity" down the throats of all the rest of us -- "all the rest of us" being non-believers, believers in other faiths and those Christians whose understanding of the teaching of Jesus does not appear to require such militant intolerance as is being practiced by this evanescently powerful minority.

As far as I can tell, the primary source of power for this group lies not in the teachings of Jesus, since what they do has little to do with that, but the simple fact that they feel they own Jesus, and have been reasonably successful in propagating the idea that their particular perspective on his teachings is both predominant and correct, neither of which is necessarily true. Nevertheless, by implicitly and explicitly claiming ownership of Jesus, these folks have made any attack on their agenda or their practices an attack on Jesus, using Him as a flak guard for policies and practices that would, frankly, appall this shepherd of all men.

Well, of course, these people don't own Jesus. He died for the sins of the whole world. Nor do they have a corner on the understanding of his words or his work. The Jesus I know and whose words I have read and striven to understand would not sign off on a much of the agenda of those who now parade Him around like a fetish, and in doing so have created this other Jesus, a vacuous, empty vessel for an uncharitable worldview.

But this implicitly asks a question: What would the Jesus I know do, confronted by this Fetish Jesus? Would he fight him? Argue with him? Denounce him? Engage in a mystical battle of miracles?

The answer is: None of the above, of course. The Jesus I know would do the hardest thing imaginable: He would forgive.

He would forgive this Jesus, who inspires His followers to persecute those they fear.

He would forgive this Jesus, who would demand His followers declare some people unfit to love, to care for children, to serve their nation, or to be full members of their society.

He would forgive this Jesus, who appears happy not only to let His followers be blind to the natural miracles around them -- the subtle handiwork of God that took billions of years to achieve -- but also to force their blindness on everyone, in His name.

He would forgive this Jesus, whose followers reflect His high opinion of His own righteousness without the appropriate reflection or doubt, and who aren't shy about letting others know that fact.

He would forgive this Jesus the overweening pride He feels in saving His followers, and the pride His followers feel in being saved, a pride they believe sets them above all others, even though pride famously goes before the fall.

He would forgive this Jesus the idea that all of His flock must act, think, and vote a certain way at all times, without exception, or they are not one of His flock.

He would forgive this Jesus the small ways He tries, though His followers, to denigrate, isolate and diminish those who do not conform to His whims.

He would forgive this Jesus all large ways he tries, through His followers, to hurt, humiliate and destroy those who fight to keep their own point of view.

He would forgive this Jesus the fact that He has stood by while His followers have lost the view of the Kingdom of Heaven, in a drive to gain treasure in this world -- even as the least among them suffered.

And finally, He would forgive this Christ the loss of His divine self that comes from allowing His name to devolve into a shibboleth for grasping opportunists, a bludgeon to cow those who are doubtful of the wisdom of His followers' agenda, and a mask to hide unethical practices that have nothing to do with the Gospel and promises of the next world, and everything to do with mere, banal power in this one. He would forgive that this Jesus had diminished Their mutual name, the beauty of Their message, and the astonishing power of Their sacrifice, two millennia in the past, a sacrifice for all people, not just this small and frightened tribe who demands that they and only they know Jesus and what He wants.

What an act of forgiveness this would be! And what an act of forgiveness for the rest of us to attempt to emulate.

This is what I will try to do from now on. When someone confronts me with the proposition that their faith in Jesus demands intolerance, ignorance or fear, I will simply say "My Jesus forgives your Jesus these things." And when they become indignant and retort that there is only one Jesus, I'll probably say "you don't say," and let it hang there in the air a good long time. And when they come back at me with more intolerance, ignorance and fear, I'll just remind them again that my Jesus forgives their Jesus these things.

At no point will I cede ownership of Jesus to these people, or the idea that the Jesus I know supports the intolerance, ignorance or fear they claim He does. They don't own Jesus, and I strongly believe He doesn't support their intolerance, ignorance or fear. And I think it's perfectly reasonable to let these folks know this, in a way that explicitly undercuts the proposition that they hold the monopoly on understanding Jesus.

If you feel the same way, then you might consider doing the same thing. Proudly proclaim your relationship with Jesus, in whatever form that may take, and let everyone know the Jesus you know is not who they claim Him to be; He's someone better. Reclaim Jesus for yourself. He's not private property, His words aren't copyrighted, and He's not the exclusive trademark of religious conservatives. He's yours if you want Him.

And when they get angry at you for doing it, the solution is simple: Forgive them. That's what the Jesus I know would do.

(Like the "bumperstickers" with this entry? Here, have them -- use them however you want. My gift to you.)

Posted by john at 12:45 AM | Comments (78) | TrackBack

May 05, 2005

Early Tiger Thoughts

tiger0505.jpg

Some first impressions on Tiger for the Mac:

Overall I like Tiger, but it's not life-changer, and I certainly don't feel the paroxysms of joy over it that other people seem to have felt. I was on the phone with Krissy yesterday after I had installed Tiger and she asked me how it was. I assured her that once I installed it, it optimized my Mac, paid my taxes, resolved my long-standing parental issues and whipped up a light and tasty cheese soufflé. She was skeptical. Well, and who can blame her.

Some more detailed thoughts:

* Clearly, if I've managed to download and install the Creatures in My Head widget, I've figured out how to play with Tiger's most-hyped-yet-fundamentally-pointless feature, which is the dashboard. It's a fun little thing, to be sure, but as others have noted, it doesn't seem fully baked to me; it basically seems like a way for people to feel clever and arch with their computer, the best example of this being the hula girl widget. Look! A hula girl! Aren't I wacky and non-conformist! Now excuse me, but I have to get back to writing this ad copy for this here mutual fund. No, I don't have the hula girl widget on my computer. That's just silly. I mean, I like the dashboard, but I'm not necessarily convinced it should be a cornerstone achievement of a new operating system.

* Spotlight is rather more useful -- useful enough that I'm already frustrated with it because I want it to be able to index files on the network as well, since most of my files are still on my PC although accessible through my Mac. Last night while compiling some information for the Science Fiction film book, I ended up dragging the book's folder onto the Mac, so Spotlight could index it and I could use it and I could use it track down particular movies. If you're doing something like that within a few hours of installing an application, that tells you the application is useful. There do seem to be some limitations to Spotlight, but I need to play with it some more to see if those limitations are inherent in the application or inherent in me not knowing how to use the application. But in the short term, at least, thumbs up.

* Other improvements that Tiger brings to the Mac OS are less obvious to me, in part because I've only had my Mac for a couple of weeks and the OS's flaws and problems were not made apparent to me in that time. Most of my "heavy lifting" applications reside on my PC -- for example, all of my Photoshopping is done on the Windows Box -- with the Mac being used for e-mail, some Web browsing and writing, and it seems to handle those tasks well enough. I also like Safari's implementation of RSS support, although Firefox is still my browser of choice on the Mac. Other features of the OS, such as the support for video conferencing, mean little to me at the moment since I don't have the Apple video cam, and it's unlikely I'm going to shell out $129 or whatever an iSight costs for the purpose of jabbering online.

Overall: B. It's nice, but at the moment, only Spotlight is doing much for me. I suppose if I were a hardened MacHead, I'd be more impressed with the overall package, but since I'm not, and I had my moment of initial Mac joy a couple of weeks ago, this update is merely an incremental boost. I'm still very happy with my Mac, mind you -- it's quickly become my primary computer (although, ironically, I'm currently writing this on the PC because I still don't have any useful photo software installed on the Mac). But if I could simply have gotten Spotlight a la carte, I'd probably have done that.

Posted by john at 08:28 AM | Comments (24) | TrackBack

May 04, 2005

Upgrading

Tiger here. Me upgrade now. Ungh.

Posted by john at 01:42 PM | Comments (9) | TrackBack

Overwriting

The bulk of The Rough Guide to Science Fiction was finished last month, but I shipped off the last of the "canon" pieces last night -- meaning the 50 reviews of the science fiction films every human should see, and which are the centerpiece of the book (the last one I wrote up: Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which I feel is significant but also vastly overrated). in the book proposal, these 50 reviews were supposed to clock in at 20,000 words; I ended up writing 32,000 words, and probably could have written more had I not forced myself to keep some of the reviews as short as possible. But no matter how you slice it, I overwrote this section by about 50%.

Which is actually the case with the entire book: It was originally envisioned at about 80,000 words and I ended up sending along about 120,000. My editors are doing their thing now, trimming the book down, but no matter what it's likely to be 20% to 30% longer than we envisioned. Why? Simple: There's so damn much to write about in science fiction film, and even at 120,000 words, I feel like there are still gaps in the text. In the next few days I'll be going through the book's "thumbnail" reviews (most under 100 words) and looking to see which science fiction films I've missed that I'd look like a fool for not including ("You idiot! How could you forget The Forbin Project?!??!?"), and I expect I'll probably want to add at least another 50 or so before my poor editors grab them from me, kicking and screaming, and tell me to go away so they can do the layout of the book, already. At some point sufficiency is the order of the day. I'll just hope that any big gaping holes I see will be invisible to the rest of you. Hey, it worked for the Universe book. I do know that the very last day I'll add something to the book will be May 19th, when I have to dash off a couple of paragraphs about Revenge of the Sith, since it would be stupid not to include it in the book. After that, it's out of my hands.

It helps that I actually think this is a good book. As I've noted before, this book was supposed to jammed out in three months but it ended up taking close to nine because there was so much research to do; we not only hit science fiction film but have bracketing chapters to cover the entire history of science fiction as well as the current reach of science fiction in fields other than film. We cover a lot of ground. If nothing else, it'll give a really value for the money and for the form factor: The books in Rough Guides movie have a small, square appearance -- they're kind of the MiniMac shape -- and I think people who assume that a small book will mean a surfacey treatment of the subject may be surprised. There are worse things.

For this reason, I don't really think I overwrote the book; I have many flaws as a writer but writing more than I absolutely have to has not been one of them. I wrote more than I thought I would, but I wrote as much as I think the subject needed in the time I had to do it. Hopefully, it'll be enough.

Update: Before I forget: The Rough Guide to Science Fiction Film has a tentative release date of September 29, 2005. In the UK, anyway. I don't know what the US release date is, but since my other Rough Guide books were released simultaneously in both countries, I can't imagine it would be substantially different this time.

Posted by john at 01:04 PM | Comments (11) | TrackBack

May 03, 2005

Writing On Spec

Got an e-mail today from a reader who asked me what I thought about writing "on spec," and being the helpful sort of person I am, I thought I'd address it.

For those of you who don't know what "on spec" means, it simply means that you are writing something for a publication without the promise, implied or explicit, that the publication is going to buy it from you after you've finished it. Basically, as a writer, you're taking a shot in the dark and hoping the editor says "nice aim."

The fact that this person is asking about writing "on spec" at all suggests they are coming from the world of non-fiction writing, since writing on spec is so much the standard in fiction that as far as I know very few writers even think about the fact that is what they're doing. It's utterly non-controversial. For example, later on this year I'll be acting as an editor for Subterranean Magazine and opening the doors for fiction submissions. All of those submissions will be "on spec" -- which is to say that their writers hope I buy their submission but haven't been guaranteed anything. If I don't buy the piece, it'll be a bummer, but then the writers will do what fiction writers have done since the beginning of time: Stuff that story in another envelope and send the story to the next editor in the line, and repeat the process until either the story gets bought or the writer runs out of editors. It's relatively rare that a fiction story is so specific to a market that it couldn't be sold somewhere else, especially if the writer is willing to do a little touch-up work.

Non-fiction is a different kettle of fish because in fact the writing is often specific to the market. If you're writing a piece for (extreme case) Bug Crush Quarterly, the magazine by and for erotic bug crushing enthusiasts, there's a somewhat reduced secondary market for the piece you might produce. Therefore writing on spec is a rather riskier proposition. This is why the submission process for most non-fiction markets is designed to reduce risk for both writers and editors: Non-fiction writers query with a story idea and previously-published story clips (if any) that are on point to the proposed story. The editor looks at the story idea and the clips and tries to determine whether this particular writer is a good fit for the story. If he or she is, usually (but not always) the writer is contracted to write the story for an agr)eed-upon fee, with something called a "kill fee" (i.e., a smaller sum if the piece is found unacceptable or is not run for whatever reason. If he or she is not a good fit, then the writer is out only the effort of writing a query, not of writing an entire piece.

(Kill fees in themselves are controverisal -- not unreasonably writers feel that if they've done their job competently, their efforts should be rewarded no matter what happens to the piece. My personal opinion is that kill fees are acceptable if the piece is unsatisfactory or if the piece is still in the early stages, but otherwise you should get paid for what you write. When I'm an editor, this is how I structure my kill fees, and if you ever get a kill fee from me it's not going to be a good thing for any future writer/editor relationship between us.)

By and large I think non-fiction should proceed as above, which is generally why I don't do non-fiction on spec. Having said that, I'm not violently opposed to non-fiction markets saying that material written for them is on-spec through purchase, as long as such is made clear as possible. The Uncle John Bathroom Reader people, for example, buy all their material on spec from all their writers, even people like me who have been working with them for a reasonably long time (the exception being the Book of the Dumb books, for which I am the sole author, and for which, quite naturally, a contract was in place detailing conditions of acceptance of the work). The Uncle John folks have a contract which spells out their process, so as long as you read the contract, there are no surprises. So, you know, always read your contract (certainly no one should assume a "no on-spec" default in any event).

The Uncle John books are actually a good test case for writers as to whether writing non-fiction on spec makes sense for them. On one hand, there's no guarantee that one's work will sell to the Uncle John's people. On the other hand, they pay well (better than some well-established magazines) and are willing to look at work from new writers, which some non-fiction markets are reluctant to do because the editors use clips to gauge the writer's competence, and without clips they're at a loss. So for a new writer needing to generate some experience, the Uncle John books (and other markets like them) might make sense. Likewise, for a writer who reliably bangs out competent work that makes editors happy, writing on spec my be a non-issue. I write on spec for Uncle John's, but on the other hand I've been writing for them for several years now, know the editors and their expectations, and usually can hit the target. I've had pieces I've written for them go unbought, but as a percentage it's low and so for me on average it's a good deal.

But they are an exception to the rule for me, because I have the experience of working with them. I will say that with new markets I am rather less willing to write non-fiction on spec, because I'm at a point in my career that I know what I'm capable of writing, and I have enough of a track record with my work that an editor should feel reasonably assured I can do the writing. If an editor still feels that after nine books and fifteen years of supporting myself as a writer they still need to hedge their bets with me by requiring me to write on spec, I'm apt to see this as a warning flag about the editor instead of as an opportunity. As they say, your mileage may vary, depending on who you are and where you are in your writing career.

As I said, with fiction, by and large this isn't an issue: Until you get to a certain point in your career where editors are pre-emptively asking you for work, everything (short fiction-wise, at least) is assumed to be on spec. With non-fiction, it's a matter of judging the risks and rewards. If the rewards make sense for you as a writer, it might be worth the risk of putting together a piece that you might not be able to sell elsewhere. Whatever you do, make sure you understand clearly what you are doing and why, and what the upsides and downsides are for you and time you are spending (and possibly wasting). Of course, this is good advice in every situation in which you're writing something.

Posted by john at 05:02 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

May 02, 2005

FriendBrowsing

So, I really enjoy reading other people's friend lists on LiveJournal; it's like being able being able to spectate in other cliques' conversations without them even knowing you're there. Also, it's interesting to find out who your friends' friends are when they're not hanging around with you. I've even gone so far to bookmark Patrick Nielsen Hayden's friends page because he's already gone through all the trouble of "friending" interesting people, and by reading his feed, I don't have to make the effort myself. I even get irritated with PNH when he "friends" a feed I'm not interested in -- damn it, Patrick, you're diluting my reading experience!

(I suppose I could simply replicate PNH's feed on my own friend feed, minus the occasional feed I find pointless, but there's something profoundly creepy about replicating someone's feed nearly in toto, and anyway, PNH's feed and mine already have a high enough incidence of repeatage as it is.)

So, my question for those of you with LiveJournal accounts: is this sort of "FriendBrowsing" that I'm doing at all the usual thing? I mean, it should be -- all those friends pages are just there waiting to be read, all the better to help you form an opinion of the people whose friend pages they are -- but maybe I'm just a freak or something (in this particular instance; let's leave the issue of my general freakishness for another time). Also, to feed my pathology, if you do read other people's friends pages, are there ones you recommend? I can always use another pile of reading material.

Posted by john at 01:19 PM | Comments (20) | TrackBack

The Missus

Mrs. Scalzi rocking out in my office yesterday:

You know, if any of you ever hear me kvetching about my wife in any way, I hope you will do me the favor of immediately pummeling me with an athletic sock filled with hard, unripened oranges. I will deserve no less.

The coolest thing about my wife? The fact that she's unspeakably hot is the absolute least interesting thing about her. Yes, I know I don't deserve her. But then, who does?

Posted by john at 02:37 AM | Comments (18) | TrackBack

May 01, 2005

Poetry

Michelle Sagara West wrote up a very nice review of Old Man's War in Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine this last month (you can find the review here), which includes an apt but somewhat surprising observation of the Whatever. She writes:

I always read "The Whatever," a blog of longstanding in which Scalzi airs his somewhat direct opinions, some of which clash with mine, and many of which don’t. He has a very down-to-earth sense of humor, an endearing hubris, an adorable daughter, and a way with words that is almost entirely without poetry, and never without both humor and truth.

The phrase which got my attention is "almost entirely without poetry." I know pretty much what she means -- we don't much cotton to any fru-fru talk 'round these here parts when a direct statement will do -- and it is true that I don't personally write much poetry, or at the very least don't write much poetry that is of sufficient quality that I feel comfortable inflicting it upon others.

Be that as it may, I don't want to give the impression that I can't or won't appreciate a poetic phrase or two when it comes around. To prove this assertion, and to up the percentage of poetry on the site an infinitesimally small amount, allow me to present the one poem I've ever written that's worthy of public presentation (or re-present it, actually, as I put in on the site many years ago, but took it down in one of the site re-orgs). It combines classical literature and fractals, and really, you can't beat that.

Yes, there's a personal story behind it. No, I won't tell you what it is. A guy should have some secrets.

Penelope

I.

There is no difference between far and near.
Perspective is all
A mountain and a rock that falls from its incline
Are shaped by the same forces
Separated only by scale
And the attentions of the observer.

I keep this in mind as I unravel my work
And tear it down to its component thread.
Today's design was a masterpiece
Hours of planning and execution
Done in by a casual pull at the end of the day.
It is no matter.
The action is lost in the larger picture of things
Today's destruction a building block
For a greater work.

Down the hall voices call to me
Insistent suitors demand my presence.
Soon enough I will join them
Some honest enough, others something less
They will ask about the progress of my work
And I will tell them that it remains unfinished.
We will not be talking of the same work
But it is no matter.
There is no difference between far and near.
Perspective is all.

II.

I don't know whether to blame you or your stupid war.
It is easiest to blame the war
The insistent beating drum
The pretense of noble purpose
Masking a banality so insipid
As to stagger the observer.
But you were always one of the best
Not the strongest, but the smartest
Not forceful, but with a craft
That became its own definition.
You, who upstaged ten years of anguish
With one night and a gift.
You are magnificent
A prize for poets.

It's hard to understand how one of your talents
Has managed to stay from me for so long.
I imagined your return so soon after your victory
A homecoming which would shine to the heavens
Pure in emotion and joy.
Yet now you are as far away as when you began
Your arrival a distant dream
Your homecoming unfulfilled.
Your war is over
But you are not home
If there is blame
It is yours.

But it is no matter.
It makes no sense to talk of blame
When circumstances rule the day
No sense for anger
When chance plots your course
Whatever mysteries you hide from me
I know your heart.
Your homecoming lives there
Waiting to come true.
It lives in my heart too
Two views of the same moment
Two dreams with the same end.

III.

My suitors engage me in idle banter.
I am sometimes painted as a noble sufferer
enduring unwanted attentions
But in truth, I enjoy the diversions
My suitors entertain me, amuse me
And no few arouse me
Their endless chatter every now and then
Showing promise of something greater
Of depths that dare to be plumbed.

They appear worthy suitors
And indeed some of them are
But there is not one
Who shines so bright as to dim your memory.
The curves of their arms and legs
Call to mind your own sweet body
Their lips and eyes
Bring your own gentle face
Your voice
Calls distantly from their throats.
Every one that comes to me
To cajole, whisper or impress
Becomes a window
Through which I see you.

I smile frequently when I am with my suitors
And they smile back, convinced that the pleasure in my eyes
Is brought by their form.
But it is not them I see.
Perspective is all.

IV.

My work is now unraveled
And my intentions secure for another day.
Tomorrow I will create another
And unravel it, each tomorrow
Until you return to my shore.

It is a difficult task
Building a creation from which
All that is seen is its daily destruction.
It is a work that only I can see
Its completion something only I desire.

It is no matter.
There is no difference between far and near
Perspective is all.
Perhaps from the distance where you are
You can see my larger work.
Use it as your beacon
And have your homecoming at last.

Posted by john at 03:40 PM | Comments (6) | TrackBack