Join me at Boskone (February 12-14, 2021), which’ll be online and running for the low weekend price of $25 this year. It’s the science fiction and fantasy convention I grew up at, with discussions of books, science, art, games, music, and more.
Better yet, I’m on panels this year, and moderating one, so you get that many more opportunities to see me in glorious Zoom-vision. I’m getting to be with some extremely cool people, too, so I’m super excited about this.
No matter how realistic a character is, that doesn’t mean they will be relatable. So, what does it take to write a character who gels with the reader? How do you avoid friends of the protagonist being relegated to token sidekick status? What helps a reader understand and sympathize with protagonists who are far beyond their own lived experience? And how do you write them if they are beyond yours?
Christine Taylor-Butler (M), Paul Tremblay, Katherine Crighton, E. Lily Yu, Carlos Hernandez
Robots in fiction are often androids — bipedal, two arms, head on neck — people-shaped. After all, the term “robot” goes back to 1920 when Karel Čapek introduced it in his play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots). However, today’s robots have form following function e.g. robotic vacuum cleaners, pharmacy prescription-filling robots, and driverless automobiles. The panelists discuss how the image of the robot has changed and developed, both in fact and in fiction.
Suzanne Palmer, Katherine Crighton (M), S.B. Divya, Charles Stross
Cyborgs, constructed of flesh, bone, steel, and advanced technologies, are full of potential and possibility. Let’s talk about meldings of man and machine in fact and in fiction. Portrayals often focus on cyborgs’ humanity, or on their lack of it. When is which appropriate? What distinguishes cyborgs from augmented humans?
S L Huang, Katherine Crighton, Stephen P. Kelner (M)
It’s getting to be that time, and I don’t think I have anything that’ll be published before the new year (though that Apex story is coming!), so — check out the stories I wrote this year that are eligible for the Hugo Award, Nebula Award, and any other award your heart sees fit to nominate them for.
As I sometimes do, I’m doing another experiment in creating consistent content for patrons — this time, I’m creating a brief weekly zine through Patreon called The Minor Hours and Small Thoughts Magazine, in the style of the strange and random early Regency and Victorian publications previously mentioned on the blog. Mine will be filled with commonplaces, small pieces of fiction and creative nonfiction, interesting art, and specious advice.
More importantly for this day and age, this zine won’t dwell on the latest news or dire issues — there are other, better resources for that. Publishing and writing updates or thoughts are going to remain here, along with longer pieces, and my irregular (free) newsletter for publishing updates is always available for signup. But the miscellany of life is what I’d like to record, both my own and others’, and I think that has value all by itself.
The first issue is up and free here for anyone who’d like to see vaguely what I’m offering — $1 a month gets you a weekly zine of varying length and questionable wit, and $2 gets you both the subscription and an original, subscriber-only flash story per month. Depending on interest, goals and tiers may be added, but for now I’m going to stick with something simple, fun, and, hopefully, a respite from the rest of the world.
ETA 8/27/20: As I said on my twitter, fuck it, the whole thing’s free now. Tiers are still available if you’d like to get monthly fiction from me, or if you’d like to get the Minor Hours Magazine directly in your inbox, but otherwise, enjoy.
“Fragment of a Letter to an Inhabitant of a Planet, Remote from the Earth, of a Superior Race of Beings” is purported to be written by a “Eusebia”, who had the idea for it after seeing the funeral procession of Admiral Nelson. The story is from the POV of an alien from another planet who is visiting Earth, unknown to anyone except a local guide. It’s implied that the aliens know about Earth because an angel told them about us weirdo humans, who are mortal and seem to revel in death. (Apparently, despite being aliens, they believe and are affected by Christianity. Oh, 1800s England.)
Reading through the text, it appears that the aliens are immortal and live on a planet that has no death, to the point where they don’t experience seasons, are apparently vegetarian, and don’t sleep. Our unnamed alien narrator — who also has a “subtle vehicle” that lets them go through walls and observe us invisibly — comes to the conclusion that God has made it so that humans have to sleep so as to prepare us for the inevitable horror of permanent death through repetitious mini-deaths… which has unfortunate consequences for our entire understanding of life.
It’s an interesting story, though more for seeing the author do a neat bit of negative-space worldbuilding (telling us about their species/planet through what their narration chooses to highlight and/or be confused by) than for any real plot or message. But… it’s an SF story in a women’s magazine, under a female pseud, during the Regency period. It’s pretty likely that Jane Austen read The Lady’s Magazine — how great is it to imagine Jane sitting around and discussing distant planets with her sister Cassandra, making jokes about what they’d do with their own “subtle vehicles”, wondering what other things would look weird to an alien observer?
If you’d like to read the story yourself, here’s the direct link to the scan, here’s a downloadable PDF of the original printed story, or you can click the “Continue Reading” below for a transcription. It’s a neat bit of SF history that I haven’t seen referenced elsewhere, but let me know if you’ve seen otherwise, or if you know of other Regency SF that could use a light shined on them. Enjoy!
It’s a rotten time to be a writer. Leaving aside the creativity-crushing effects of indoor monotony, the usual mechanics of the publishing business are showing their fault lines: authors can’t go on book tours, covers can’t catch consumers’ eyes as they perambulate around shops, and while ebook and audio bundles could be a cool thing, I suspect the big houses are concerned about what will happen to all that easy-to-break DRM’d material after the crisis is over — which is what they were worrying about before, but it’s not a good look right now.
Marketing is one of those things that seemed to be broken well before all this, though, so I wanna talk about it briefly.
Creativity is not zero-sum game — ideas are a dime a dozen, every author has a different take, and even if they don’t, the audience may not care (see: stuffman’s Two Cakes comic) — but marketing is. The funds a publisher can put toward advertising creative endeavors is, generally, limited. Stuff costs money, and that money has to get allocated. Publishers make a guess as to what’s going to sell, and allocate money toward that — just like any other company.
It’s all very uncomfortable. Publishing needs content from authors to have any sort of business. Readers, however, are fickle and publishers are not infallible — they don’t actually know what’s going to sell well, regardless of the money thrown at any one project. So there’s incentive there to publish a lot and then see what the reading public likes. But that “publish all the things!” ethos rides up against the zero-sum issue of before: there’s only so much money. So… the publishers make a bet, pick what they think is going to be successful, and hope they’re right. They’ll stack the deck as much as they can — advertising and marketing and whatnot — but again: they don’t actually know how it’s going to turn out. One tent-pole book that sells well because of a heavy advertising push can support publishing dozens of other books… one or more of which may end up being equal or larger successes, because of talent or audience whim or sudden Oprah visitation.
It makes sense, when you look at it from that angle. If, however, you’re the writer on the other end of the equation… it feels a lot like being a content-producing monkey. Or, to put it a more palatable way, vastly underappreciated and overworked for the pay we receive.
A real-life example:
I’ve had one book published (co-authored, published by Tor Books, so there was a Real Publisher with Real Money and a Real Contract), and let me tell you, I was surprised by what I was asked to do. I needed to provide a list of reviewers for them to send ARCs (but why didn’t they have their own list?), and I had to set up my own interviews (but I didn’t know anybody, couldn’t they at least connect me…?).
What I didn’t realize at the time was that another book was coming out in the same genre at almost the exact same time — but it was a three-book deal as opposed to the single one we had, and they already had all three books in hand. So, where does the money go? There isn’t an infinite amount of it — and “money” here includes stuff like the literal hours in the day. Hours spent on our book were hours that couldn’t be spent on that other one.
Do all that math, and what comes out is that other book, and its associated series, was a better bet, business-wise. Gotta put your money on the horse that gives you the best chance of winning. Those books got the major marketing push, and ours didn’t.
(Note: Being able to rationalize it doesn’t actually make it feel better.)
I have no idea what the other book’s sales were like; ours weren’t great. But I had a decent advance that never earned out, so between me and the publisher, technically I walked away the winner. And the publisher didn’t collapse into financial ruins when my book didn’t take off, because that other book — and any of the other better-selling books that came out that year, and the backlist of bestsellers, and the constant promise of future bestsellers — allowed for them to take a loss on mine, and losses on many other future books that they’ll publish anyway on the off chance that one of them’ll be a winner anyway.
I don’t have a solution for any of this. Publishing houses are doing a ridiculous, constant balancing act that absolutely shouldn’t work, just like how “playing the ponies” should not constitute anybody’s idea of a career. It’s a wonder that the whole thing hasn’t collapsed before now.
The reality is, unless I plan to pull an Emily Dickinson and hide all my fiction away in a drawer somewhere — which I’m not — I have to accept that part of the whole writing gig is marketing myself, because there’s never going to be any guarantee that a publisher is going to do it for me. I have to make my own luck, stack my own deck, bet on my own horse.
I just wish that for all the math publishers are doing on their end, they’d do some on ours. Because they have a limited number of dollars and hours to put to a project… and so do I. And if they can’t find a way to pay authors to be both their content creators and their marketing team… well. That’s a gamble that might eventually cost them everything.
If you go through it, you’ll see that they end up talking about planning your meals holistically, rather than planning single meals at a time. Specifically, they talk about “tailor[ing] most of your day-to-day cooking to your lifestyle and means, rather than the other way around.” So I imagine that must mean that most of you must go around just picking up the food you need to cook one meal in particular (or a series of meals), and then… do that ad infinitum.
I grew up with not a lot of food security — sometimes there was food, and sometimes there wasn’t. What that means for me now is that sometimes I’m good about eating consistently, and sometimes I’m not so great at it. I live a life where I tailor my cooking to what I’m capable of that day, and I’m never certain what kind of day I’m going to have until I’m in it. On the upside, this means that I keep a wide variety of food around, which is proving itself useful (hey, it’s almost like everyone is food insecure at the moment! At last my time has come).
So here’s a breakdown of how I think about food, and then how I use that thinking to cook around my pantry — I hope they’re useful.
The Food Hierarchy
Sometimes I get into a spot where I can’t figure out what to eat, even though I rationally know that I have a fridge, several cupboards, and a pantry full of food. In those cases, I taught my Alexa bot to ask me a series of questions, which essentially just prioritizes the food I have at hand.
Are there any leftovers? (If I have leftover, I try and eat them first, since they’ll likely go bad before everything else and I already spent time or money on them.)
Is there any fresh or perishable food? (Things like fresh fruit/veg and fresh meat go in here, as well as fresh bread — I prioritize these foods over canned or dried goods, since these will spoil before the shelf-stable stuff.)
If none of the above, check the recipe box. (And this brings me to the pantry items, or stuff that can be mixed/matched in a variety of ways and be good pretty much whenever.)
On any given day, I start with the leftovers, work my way through to fresh food, and then on to shelf-stable items. This way, I keep perishable foods circulating promptly out of my fridge, and my pantry stays pretty well stocked.
Let’s say I get through steps one and two, though, and I’m on to step three. My recipe box is filled with both individual recipes and what I call ingredient indexes — basically cards with a single ingredient listed at the top, and then a list of the recipes I like that can be made with that ingredient underneath. Those recipes can then be referenced on their own individual cards, if necessary.
Here’s an example of one of mine:
This is my peanut butter card. I usually have peanut butter in my cupboard, but I rarely remember that I actually like it on a lot of things. This card allows me to look in my cupboard, see that I have peanut butter, and then figure out what I can do with it. Moreover, I can use my food hierarchy again: Do I have any leftovers that could get turned into one of the above recipes with the addition of peanut butter? If not, do I have any perishables that could be eaten with the addition of peanut butter? And if not, do I have any other shelf-stable foods that could be combined with the peanut butter to make something good?
It’s a small thing, but going through your pantry and writing up a collection of ingredient indexes will help you in the long run (with meal planning) and in the short run (with figuring out what your food situation actually is). And then you can start doing really wild stuff, like remembering the food hierarchy when it comes to whether you really should takeout (do you already have leftovers? do you have anything perishable? or do you have a can of beans and a deep aversion to doing anything with them?)…
I’m in the middle of outlining a romance novel that has a lot of potential endings — and several of those possible ending are polyamorous in nature. It’s making me realize one of the weird ways fiction doesn’t necessarily mirror reality.
Romance fiction tends to be, largely, monosexual — one person meets one person, they fall in love, happily ever after (HEA). On some rare occasions, though — and this appears in both original romance novels and in romantic fanfiction — you get a polyamorous solution to everyone’s will-they-won’t-they.
When an author chooses the polyamorous option, they’re trying to demonstrate how it works for an audience that may not necessarily have any experience of it in real life. And in fiction, it looks great. There’s support, there’s a lot of love, there’s frequently really inventive sex scenes. Two things I’ve noticed, though:
The kind of poly that tends to show up as the HEA is polyfidelity, or maybe “kitchen-table poly“. In polyfidelity, everyone’s in a relationship with everyone else, like a closed triangle (or whatever shape the polycule is). In kitchen-table poly, everyone might not be in a relationship with everyone else, but they’re all involved in one another’s lives to the degree that they could sit around the kitchen table in their pajamas.
You don’t see a lot of parallel or solo poly — at least, not being practiced by the main character. In parallel poly, multiple relationships are being maintained separately; in solo, the poly person maintains multiple relationships but is “settling down” with no one person in particular.
I don’t think kitchen-table or polyfidelity or any of those big group styles of poly are the default of poly — and I don’t think they’re necessarily better than parallel or solo poly, just because we see it in fiction more often. Rather, I think that it’s difficult to write parallel or solo poly sympathetically, in the manner that we’re used to writing about mono relationships.
Writing (for me) is all about having a toolbox of ideas and hacks and methods to convey particular ideas, tools that allow me to translate the messy story in my head to something that looks relatively similar in a complete stranger’s head. If I try to convey one character’s love and desire for multiple other characters, and those characters are all separate or otherwise don’t interact… that sort of writing exists, but generally it’s used to denote a cheater. Even if the author explicitly states that that’s not the case, the author has to contend with their reading audience’s years’ worth of experience decoding and interpreting monosexual fiction — and their own experience writing it. It’s just… easier to write polyamory as if it’s just very complex monogamy.
The truth is, though, that it’s a different bird. And that can land some readers in trouble, particularly those who use fiction to game-test ideas in a sandbox before playing them in the real world. If they’re presented with a type of relationship that looks like it solves their own problems, and then don’t do any research outside of fiction… well, let us consider the example of 50 Shades of Grey and BDSM, and move on from there.
So in working on the ending to my romance, I’m stuck trying to come up with the HEA while at the same time maintaining what I’d like to think is reality for a large subset of the polyamorous community (and shouldn’t they get to see themselves in fiction too?). It’s frustrating work — but, I suppose, that’s why authors do it. Maybe I’ll be the one to crack the code.
I’ve recently joined one of those movie theatre loyalty programs, where you get to watch multiple movies over the course of a week for the cost of essentially two movies a month (which I would do anyway, so this works well for me). Because of it, I end up seeing a lot of films I wouldn’t otherwise, which is useful to expand my basic collection of storylines.
Recently I saw both Knives Out (a cozy murder mystery comedy with attractive sweaters) and Ford vFerrari (a historical bio-pic Fast and Furious with more engineering porn). I enjoyed both very much, though only Knives Out had really been on my radar. But getting the opportunity to see both let me make some connections I don’t think I would’ve otherwise– specifically, how the two movies frame owning one’s own business.
Without going into spoilers, Knives Out features the patriarch of a family that has become vastly wealthy because he is a best-selling mystery writer. His millions allow for a giant weird mansion and supporting two generations of wastrel children — all without (SOMEHOW) film, audio, or any other adaptations of his work. This is a depressingly popular trope — when I was a kid, I used to think very dark thoughts about anything that depicted writers as effete artists wandering around sipping martinis in their Manhattan penthouses while lushly dropping marabou feathers from under layer after layer of silk robes.
“Maryanne!” they’d faintly screech, staring at the distance, cradling their own elbow while sipping an artisanally cheap whiskey. “Fetch the typewriter.” They’d take a drag from their cigarette. (There’s a cigarette now.) “And call Mr. Spielberg.” Exhale. “I’m ready to talk.”
In contrast, Ford v Ferrari features not one but two small car-related businesses — one of which is even fairly successful, all things considered — and both are constantly cutting corners with sales, flirting with bankruptcy, and willing to put up with a considerable amount of bullshit to make ends meet. This I’m familiar with– talk to any working writer (or read Kameron Hurley’s breakdowns of what a successful writing life actually pays, or listen to piles of excellent Ditch Digger podcast episodes) and it’s basically the same scenario. There are very few (very few) authors who can survive without a regular day job and/or a support network that subsidizes their work. There are several terrible true-life stories of authors who try to have the marabou feather life and discover that it is wildly impossible.
And yet, Knives Out showcases that trope again, and the regular public nod sagely and take it as a given.
The closest I’ve come to figuring out the difference here is a double-punch of:
(1) Writing is still a Vast Mystery, unlike blue-collar and mundane car repair businesses. There are a sufficient number of people who either know or are blue-collar workers that it’s not a real question how and where money goes. Cash and accrual businesses, with hourly/shift work, are basically the options at play — as opposed to the labyrinthine nonsense of incremental portions of leased rights across multiple companies and languages, etc etc, that makes up a typical writing career.
(2) Writing produces Art, which is a luxury, and luxuries cost money, and therefore… artists are rich? (This goes back to the Mystery aspect of how money works in publishing.) Whereas cars are, for many, a basic life necessity. Someone’s getting rich, but it’s probably Companies run by rotund men in glass-windowed offices, laughing over stock reports while burning Kobe steaks to light their bespoke cigarillos. In fact, it would seem that the popular trope of the martini-drinking artist frames writers as essentially being on par with capitalist fat cats.
I don’t have a particular solution to this, aside from more writers accurately portraying themselves in fiction (which is also my solution for accurate robots, accurate children, and accurate dark gods of New Hampshire). But it’s still very fascinating to see the exact same lifestyle appear at the exact same time in the exact same media– and have those expressed in their stories and to their audiences completely differently.