A year ago today – 3 September 2014 — I did an Ask Me Anything session for Reddit. Here’s a transcript:
For Rob Sawyer:
Your books seem very thematically strong to me. What do you try to do with your books, in terms of having a theme and a message?
And do you start out with your theme and build a book around it, or does your theme grow out organically from the story?
Thanks for the thoughtful question! My writing mentor early on, Terence M. Green, used to speak of creating “thoughtful entertainment” — something that left you pondering for days or weeks after you finished it. I’ve always strived to do work that does the same thing (and, of course, was hugely influenced by the original STAR TREK and the original PLANET OF THE APES, which likewise did that).
I definitely start with a theme — something I want to say — and then work out the plot and characters that will let me say it. Science fiction is often termed “the literature of ideas,” and I think the core of really good SF is a fresh thematic statement, a new idea about something fundamental. For my current novel, THE PHILOSOPHER’S ZOMBIE [since retitled QUANTUM NIGHT], I have a non-printing comment at the very top of the manuscript file spelling out precisely what the theme is, so that I can remind myself to test each scene to see if it’s in service of that theme.
For Rob Sawyer and any other writers on the list with Canadian roots:
Do you think that being Canadian has had either a positive or negative effect on you as a professional writer, both on the business side and on the artistic side? Thanks!
Hugely, hugely positive effect, Drakkenfyre. I get all the traditional benefits of being a genre-fiction writer in the US plus the sorts of things that rarely happen to my American SF-writing colleagues in the states. I get invited to mainstream literary festivals; my books get taught at just about every Canadian university; I’ve been interviewed over 300 times on Canadian radio and over 300 times on Canadian TV. Canada treats its writers like movie stars (because so few movie stars live here!); I can’t think of a single downside to being Canadian in terms of my writing careers, and oodles of upsides — the biggest of which, of course, was being able to go full-time as a self-employed writer when I was just 23, because I had government-supplied health insurance. ;)
Thank you! Fascinating… especially about health insurance.
For Robert, the final part of the final part of the question trilogy
Favorite Candy Bar?
Since you are a frequent DragonCon attendee, any favorite Atlanta restaurants yet?
Best hangout in Toronto?
Have you ever gotten to tour CERN?
Again, Robert…thanks. I look forward to that Nov 2015 release [QUANTUM NIGHT since moved to March 2016]. Now, how does one arrange a signed first edition in advance/on release?
On Tuesday morning (Eastern time), September 1, I will unveil the gorgeous cover for my 23rd novel, Quantum Night. That’s six months to the day in advance of publication: the book will be released in hardcover, ebook, and as an audiobook on Tuesday, March 1, 2016.
We still don’t have a cover, but we at last have a final title: my 23rd novel, coming March 1st, 2016, is now officially called:
I’ve never had a title go through so many changes, but with having two different American editors during the creation of this book, a Canadian editor, and separate marketing and sales departments on both sides of the border, there was a lot of back and forth — which was actually nice: it meant everybody was invested in the book.
Here, in chronological order, are the titles this novel has had:
* Thoughtless (but my US editor Ginjer Buchanan thought it was too soft a title, although I liked that it included both “thought” and “ought” (as in ethical behavior), two of the novel’s themes, and also evoked the notion, key to the plot, of beings who were literally thoughtless — with no inner lives)
* The Philosopher’s Zombie (suggested by my friend Nick DiChario and still my favorite title for the book; originally approved by my US editor Ginjer Buchanan, but after she retired, both my new US editor, Jessica Wade, and my Canadian one, Adrienne Kerr, expressed concerns about the z-word, so …)
* Thoughtless (again, as a working title, but my agent thought it was “a terrible title,” so …)
* Quantum Night (my coinage, from a poetic musing by the novel’s main character)
* Psychopath State (my American publisher wanted something that might bring in mainstream readers, so we tried this, then realized it sounded like a scary American university)
* Quantum Psychopath (as I wrote to my editors: “It’s a bit lurid, but it certainly covers both plot elements, and one of my definitions is that ‘science fiction is the literature of intriguing juxtapositions’ — and ‘quantum’ sparking off of ‘psychopath’ certainly is that”)
* Quantum Night (although both my US and Canadian editors, as well as myself, had signed off on Quantum Psychopath, my agent Chris Lotts felt that wasn’t classy enough for this book — a sentiment I secretly shared — and so we reverted to Quantum Night).
And it’s locked — and seven months from tomorrow, it’ll be on bookstore shelves, available in all ebook formats, and also available as an audiobook.
Speaking, as we were yesterday, of bestsellers lists, it was fifteen years ago today, July 29, 2000, that I first hit a national top-ten mainstream bestsellers list in Canada. My Calculating God hit #8 on the Globe and Mail fiction bestsellers list, and the following week, it hit #7 on the fiction list in Maclean’s, Canada’s national newsmagazine.
The wonderful folks at H.B. Fenn and Company, the Canadian distributor for Tor Books at the time, surprised me with this beautiful (and large!) commemorative poster (click for larger version). As I noted in my journal for September 7, 2000:
Today was an unexpectedly fabulous day. I had a meeting scheduled with Heidi Winter, senior publicist at H.B. Fenn and Company, the Canadian distributor for Tor Books. The meeting was supposed to be a wrap-up discussion about my recent book tour for Calculating God.
Carolyn and I drove up to Bolton, Ontario, where Fenn is headquartered. Heidi took us upstairs to the board room for our meeting …
… except it turned out it wasn’t a meeting. To my absolute shock and delight, it was a surprise party for me! They were celebrating my making the bestsellers lists in The Globe and Mail: Canada’s National Newspaper and Maclean’s: Canada’s National Newsmagazine.
Forty Fenn staff members were on hand to congratulate me. They had a big cake and lots of beverages, and the art department had made up a wonderful “Congratulations, Rob!” poster, signed by all sorts of Fenn staff members.
Harold Fenn (the president) gave a terrific and very moving speech about our ten-year-long association (Fenn is also the Canadian distributor for Warner Books, so they had distributed my first novel, Golden Fleece, back in 1990). I was absolutely floored; I knew making the national mainstream bestsellers lists was a thrill for me, but I hadn’t realized it had been a thrill for the Fenn folk as well. But they seemed at least as delighted as I was.
After the party, the publicity department — Heidi Winter, Marla Krisko, and Melissa Cameron — took Carolyn and me out for a lovely lunch.
I was totally surprised, very touched, and completely thrilled. It was just wonderful.
Before the Amazon/self-publishing revolution debased/democratized (take your pick) the term, “bestsellerdom” was easy to ascertain: a book was a bestseller when it appeared on a recognized published-in-print bestsellers list (the most important of which was the one in The New York Times). Such lists do appear still in newspapers and magazines (in Canada, the important ones are the national ones appearing in The Globe and Mail and Maclean’s, Canada’s weekly newsmagazine).
Unfortunately, Amazon has provided so many sub-sub-sub categories that we’re just this side of people claiming bestseller status because they’ve hit number one on a list that goes:
Amazon > All Books > Kindle > Fiction > Fiction Written By Me
(In other words, just like in Kindergarten, everyone who shows up gets a gold star; countless authors have hit top-10 in some Amazon sub-sub-sub category for an our or two, which is all it takes for some of them to forevermore tout themselves as bestselling authors.)
But the bottom line is, in general, “bestselling author” or “bestselling novel” is not something you yourself claim or assert; it’s something you document with a citation to the authority that conferred that status. The beauty of newspaper and magazine bestsellers’ lists, compiled either weekly or monthly, is that they established that you hadn’t just had a statistical blip in sales (“For one hour my ebook was the #4 bestseller in an obscure sub-sub category on Amazon!”) but that you’d made it to that stature for at least seven days or a full month, in a broad (fiction / nonfiction / YA / hardcover / paperback) category in which there are a great many books.
I’ve hit #1 on the highest-level category for my field — science fiction — on three national Amazon lists — .com, .ca, and .co.uk — and, for that matter, #1 on .com’s technothriller list — and #1 on the Audible science-fiction monthly bestsellers’ list, and I’ve been #1 on most of the regional lists in Canada (such as the one published in the Winnipeg Free Press) and even some American ones (for instance, the Palm Beach Daily News) and #1 on the bestsellers list published in Locus, the trade journal of the SF&F fields.
But just as my publishers and readers only care about awards you’ve actually won that people have actually heard of, they only care (if readers care at all) about such things when they recognize the name of the bestsellers’ list you’ve actually appeared on. First “author” fell by the wayside as a term meaning one had actually accomplished something, and generic “bestselling author” has likewise lost any cachet.
I am proud of the one illustrated above. I’ve been on the list in Maclean’s, which is Canada’s national newsmagazine, often starting in 2000, but this was the highest I’ve made it on their list: the #3 bestselling novel of any type, by authors of any nationality, across all of Canada, for the week.
The numbers to the right are the book’s ranking the previous week (I was at #6) and the total number of weeks, including this one, that the book has been on the list so far (so this was my third week).
I see lots of authors trying to fund the time to write their books via Kickstarter or Indiegogo, and I daily get requests from some of them to promote their campaigns on my Facebook wall. I haven’t figured out my stance on all this yet. Certainly, when I was writing my early books (I wrote my first three novels without contracts, and so without advances prior to their completion), I had to make sacrifices (working my ass off to earn enough money ahead of time so that I could afford to take time off from the nonfiction and corporate freelance writing I was doing then to pursue this).
I’m not saying people should have to suffer for their art, but I’m not yet convinced that this is the right alternative, either. And, of course, I come from an era (old fart that I am) in which authors were compensated on the very straightforward model that you made money when people bought your books, simple as that.
Yesterday, when yet another person asked me to promote their Kickstarter, I wrote:
Not to be a Grinch, but I get asked daily to support Kickstarters for authors, and I have very mixed feelings about the crowdfunding concept, which shifts the burden of risk from the artist to the audience (sight-unseen, with no one having reviewed the finished product, the audience is asked to fund the creation of something). I’m not passing judgment on your project — it indeed sounds worthwhile — it’s just the funding model in general that I have reservations about. Please forgive me.So, I’m still struggling with this. I’ve supported some Kickstarters for projects that clearly are not commercially viable that I’d like to see done. But early books in a writer’s career? Those have rarely been commercially viable for anyone, and have always represented a substantial degree of risk and commitment on the part of the author.
Yes, I see parallels to the granting culture that swirls around much of Canadian literature. But far from being entrepreneurial, that culture (asking for government handouts) and this one (crowdfunding) strike me as quite the opposite. As I say, I shall continue to mull over the issue.
I recently rejoined The Authors Guild because of the great work they’re doing fighting for fair ebook royalties from traditional publishers (the Guild advocates 50% of net; the big five are all holding fast 25% of net) and a return to actual advances (instead of half the money coming years after the manuscript is accepted — PRH and others are paying “advances” in four installments now).
There’s strength in numbers, so The Authors Guild is having a membership sale. If you join via this link, you get $25 off your first year’s membership (bringing it down to $100), and I get $25 off my renewal. Read more about The Authors Guild here.
Susan Oliver played Vina in Star Trek‘s first pilot “The Cage” (later incorporated into the two-parter “The Menagerie”). Last year at the Star Trek Las Vegas convention, I bought a documentary about her on DVD called The Green Girl, and finally got around to watching it. IT IS SPECTACULAR. Just wonderfully touching and moving, and filled with clips from 1950s-1980s TV, plus interviews with all sorts of behind-the-scenes personal and TV stars from that period. Seriously, I enjoyed every minute. You can get it on DVD, or streaming now.
See the website for the documentary here.
Four years ago today, on July 18, 2011, I sent this pitch to my US and Canadian editors — which eventually led to the book Red Planet Blues:
Hi, Ginjer and Adrienne.
Now that you’ve accepted Triggers, it’s time for me to get to work on my next book (which you’ve already contracted for; it’s due May 8, 2012).
For that project, I’d like to expand two short works of mine into a novel: the novella “Identity Theft” (23,200 words) and the sequel short story “Biding Time” (5,600 words). Copies of both are attached.
Both are science-fiction/mystery crossover stories with a noir flavor featuring the only private detective on Mars. The characters — including gumshoe Alex Lomax, femme fatale Cassandra Wilkins, the timid Rory Pickover, corrupt police official Dougal McCrae, and the obese black-marketeer Ernie Gargalian — might have been played, in an earlier time, by Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Peter Lorre, Claude Rains, and Sydney Greenstreet.
These stories are also homages to the Klondike Gold Rush of the 1890s. The Martian frontier town of New Klondike, and its desperate, grizzled prospectors, recall that era (and the similar greed-driven lawlessness of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre).
I spent three months in the summer of 2007 as writer-in-residence at Berton House in Dawson City, in Canada’s Yukon Territory, which was the heart of the Klondike Gold Rush. (Berton House is the family home of the late Pierre Berton, Canada’s leading writer of historical nonfiction, including Klondike, the definitive history of the gold rush.) Dawson City is filled with historical monuments and recreations from the Gold Rush, and my time there will help me evocatively capture that frontier spirit.
The two stories I’m attaching amount to 29,000 words. The novel — which I’d like to call The Great Martian Fossil Rush — would weigh in at 100,000 words, but these works give a flavor of what that book will be like.
The expansion will deal extensively with the backstory only hinted at in the two short works: the discovery of fossils on Mars, which, in an era of cheap everything, become highly sought-after collectibles, spurring the fossil rush. In addition to the two cases Alex Lomax deals with in the short works, the novel would have as its central plot Alex solving the mystery of the murders of Weingarten and O’Reilly, the two explorers who first discovered the evidence of ancient life on Mars.
The source stories have strong pedigrees: “Identity Theft” was a finalist for both the Hugo and the Nebula Awards, and won the world’s largest cash prize for science-fiction writing, Spain’s 6,000-euro Premio UPC de Ciencia Ficción. “Biding Time” won Canada’s Aurora Award and was reprinted in Penguin Canada’s The Penguin Book of Crime Stories, edited by Peter Robinson.
I hope this idea appeals to the two of you as much as it does to me!
All best wishes.
[In the end, the novel was actually called Red Planet Blues. It ran to 105,000 words, and it didn't incorporate any of "Biding Time."]On Facebook, Jon Helms, one of my readers expressed surprise at the above, writing:
Fascinating. I had no idea they contracted authors for unrelated books with delivery dates. I expected that with a series like the The Neanderthal Parallax, I didn’t have any idea it would happen with unrelated books.My reply to Jon:
My career has been mostly two-book and three-book contracts for not-yet-written books, and it’s never it made any difference to my publishers (Ace in the 1990s and again now; Tor in between) whether the books were related or not. If they’re unrelated, the contract will specify what the first one will be, and for the other one or two will say words to the effect of “a property to be agreed upon later” or simply “untitled Sawyer novel.”
I’ve never had a publisher object to whatever I later proposed to fulfill the second-book or third-book slots on a contract, and, indeed, a couple of times I’ve changed projects midstream even after the approval (neither Calculating God nor Rollback were the novels I’d originally gotten the go-ahead to write, but, as both ended up being Hugo finalists, no one complained).
Sometimes the pitch for a second or third book has been as elaborate as above; other times, it’s just been me sitting down at a convention for a meal with my editor and verbally outlining what I’m thinking of doing. That was the case, in fact, with my upcoming 23rd novel. I described it — quite vaguely, as I hadn’t worked out a lot of details yet — to Ginjer Buchanan over lunch at the Worldcon in Chicago, she asked questions, called it a “chewy” premise, and said she’d trust that I could pull it off. And, boom, off to work.
I’m the cover boy for the Spring-Summer 2015 issue of the free beautiful PDF magazine Small Print Magazine. The issue includes a meaty five-page interview with me conducted by Gene Wilburn. You can download the issue for free here.
(Cover photo by Christina Frost.)
Here’s my programming schedule for Sasquan, the 2015 World Science Fiction Convention, coming up in August in Spokane:
- “Writing for TV” (Moderator) (45 mintues)
Thursday, August 20, at 3:00 p.m.
Bays 111A (CC)
with Michael Cassutt, David Gerrold, Melinda Snodgrass, Charlie Reeves
Friday, August 21, at 11:00 a.m.
Exhibit Hall B (CC)
- Reading from forthcoming novel (20 minutes)
Friday, August 21, at 12:30 p.m.
- “Writing About Characters Who Are Smarter Than You” (45 minutes)
Friday, August 21, at 1:00 p.m.
Bays 111B (CC)
with Denise Connell, Kamila Miller, Teresa Nielsen Hayden, Steven H Silver
- Literary Beer with Robert J. Sawyer (45 mintues)
(Limited to nine people; you must sign up for this)
Friday, August 21, at 2:00 p.m.
Exhibit Hall C – Literary Beer (CC)
- “The Future of Publishing” (45 mintues)
Saturday, August 22, at 11:00 a.m.
Bays 111C (CC)
with Toni Weisskopf, Taiyo Fujii, Beth Meacham, Zaza Koshkadze
My old pal Steve Fahnestalk brought his question on Quora to my attention:
In a few months (finishing the final draft now), I’ll be looking to submit a fantasy novel to publishers. What is the best way to pursue this?”The most-popular answer on Quora was:
Whether we like it or not, most of the big publishing houses just won’t accept submissions from first-time authors without an agent. If you have some contacts, you can still get into houses like Tor, but your chances of a big launch with a big publisher aren’t good without an agent.My take is different; here’s what I sent to Steve:
I’d recommend going to every fantasy writing group and convention you can, and joining every related association you can. Get to know published fantasy authors. Ask if they’ll read your first chapter and give you feedback. If they like it, offer to let them read the whole book (you might get a blurb from them), and ask if they can introduce you to their editor or agent. That gets your foot in the door and moves your manuscript out of the slush pile and into their in-basket.
Only got a moment here, but I’d say that what’s in the Quora response is not quite right. First, I always recommend people start not by going to conventions (as was suggested by the person you quoted), but to large bookstores. Spend hours — days! — studying the science fiction and fantasy section. Pick up each book in turn and look at it. See what it’s about; see who published it; see how many printings it’s had (the lowest number on the list of digits at the bottom of the copyright page is the printing number; it’s a rough-and-ready estimate of how successful the book has been); if it’s a paperback, see if it had previously been a hardcover (it’ll list the previous edition on the copyright page; the books publishers consider more significant or expect better sales from tend to start out in hardcover); if it’s a Tor book — and you’ll see a lot of them — see who edited it; Tor is unique among the major publishers in listing that on the copyright page, too.
After you’ve done this, you should know what sorts of books Baen publishes; what kinds flourish at Tor; what makes a typical DAW book, and so on. You’ll also know which small presses are managing to get their books actually distributed in bookstores (few do). And, most important of all, you’ll know where your own book would most comfortably fit in, leading you to the most-appropriate publisher (and, indeed, with Tor, to the specific editor) to query.
Most big publishers do prefer agented submissions, and will only take unsolicited submissions (that is, ones they didn’t specifically ask for) from agents. But a well-presented query letter can indeed lead to an editor at many houses asking for (that is, soliciting) your manuscript, so it’s not a completely closed shop.
Most of us who have agents got them by doing short fiction, and a new writer is well-advised to start with that (think of a novel as the Major League; do you really expect to start there, rather than first paying your dues in the minors)? Biggest advantage of an agent at the submission stage is that he/she can follow up repeatedly with the editor to hopefully get a more timely response; at Tor, for instance, the response time to unagented submissions is typically three years or so; an agent, if he/she has any clout, should get your manuscript read in a matter of months (or days, if he/she thinks the property is super-hot).
You quoted someone as saying, “If they [the author you've buttonholed at a convention] like it [your opening chapters], offer to let them read the whole book (you might get a blurb from them), and ask if they can introduce you to their editor or agent.”
Ummm, well, yeah, maybe; but, y’know, editors and agents are professional gatekeepers. We authors aren’t. We might choose to take someone under our wing — I’m mentoring several writers of my own choosing currently — but never once has a stranger at a con successfully pestered me into doing any of the things that the respondent suggested. And, y’know, although once or twice when I felt my editors were dropping the ball, I’ve been importunate enough to ask a colleague for a blurb, but in general, that’s handled by the editor on behalf of the author, and occurs after the book is sold; it’s very rare for authors to issue endorsements for unsold books.
The aspirant writers I have tended to champion over the years have been my own writing students. Some of us authors teach writing (often or occasionally); taking a course by one of us, or going to Clarion or Odyssey, is a better way to cement relationships with mentors than going to SF/F conventions with the mindset of, “Oh, look! A published writer! He/she must have come here so that I could use them to advance my own career!” Puh-leeze.
Scientists dream of having their work published in either Science (the leading American scientific journal) or Nature (the great British one).
Imagine my surprise, then, when I received a commission from Dr. Henry Gee, the Senior Editor of Nature, to write an original 800-word science-fiction story for that magazine (a commission that concluded, in delightful British fashion, by proffering “apologies for this intrusion”). Nature was publishing a series of short stories, beginning with a contribution from my favorite SF writer, Sir Arthur C. Clarke, in celebration of the dawn of the new millennium.
I was thrilled to contribute the following. I deliberately touched on the theme of my twelfth novel Calculating God, since that book would be hitting the bookstore shelves just as this story saw print in the summer of 2000.
by Robert J. Sawyer
Copyright 2000 by Robert J. Sawyer
First published in Nature, July 6, 2000.
Darth Vader’s booming voice, still the network’s trademark 600 years after its founding: “This is CNN.”
And then the news anchor: “Our top story: Pope Mary III abdicated this morning. Giancarlo DiMarco, our correspondent in Vatican City, has the details. Giancarlo?”
“Thanks, Lisa. The unprecedented has indeed happened: after 312 years of service, Pope Mary III stepped down today. Traditionally, the conclave of Roman Catholic cardinals waits 18 days after the death of a pope before beginning deliberations to choose a successor, but Mary — who has returned to her birth name of Sharon Cheung — is alive and well, and so the members of the conclave have already been sealed inside the Vatican Palace, where they will remain until they’ve chosen Mary’s replacement. Although no new pope has been elected for over 300 years, the traditional voting method will be used. We are now watching the Sistine Chapel for the smoke that indicates the ballots have been burned following a round of voting. And — Lisa, Lisa, it’s happening right now! There’s smoke coming out, and — no, you can hear the disappointment of the crowd. It’s black smoke; that means no candidate has yet received the required majority of two-thirds plus one. But we’ll keep watching.”
“Thank you, Giancarlo. Let’s take a look at Pope Mary’s press conference, given earlier today.”
Tight shot on Mary, looking only a tenth of her four hundred years: “Since Vatican IV reaffirmed the principle of papal infallibility,” she said, “and since I now believe that I was indeed in error 216 years ago when I issued a bull instructing Catholics to reject the evidence of the two Benmergui experiments, I feel compelled to step down …”
“We’re joined now in studio by Joginder Singh, professor of physics at the University of Toronto. Dr. Singh, can you explain the Benmergui experiments for our viewers?”
“Certainly, Lisa,” said Singh. “The first proved that John Cramer’s transactional interpretation of quantum mechanics, proposed in the late 20th century, is in fact correct.”
“And that means …?”
“It means that the many-worlds interpretation is flat-out wrong: new parallel universes are not spawned each time a quantum event could go multiple ways. This is the one and only extant iteration of reality.”
“And Dr. Benmergui’s second experiment?”
“It proved the current cycle of creation was only the seventh such ever; just six other big-bang / big-crunch oscillations preceded our current universe. The combined effect of these two facts led directly to Pope Mary’s crisis of faith, specifically because they proved the existence of — one might as well use the word — God.”
“How? I’m sure our viewers are scratching their heads …”
“Well, you see, the observation, dating back to the 20th century, that the fundamental parameters of the universe seem fine-tuned to an almost infinite degree specifically to give rise to life, could previously be dismissed as a statistical artifact caused by the existence of many contemporaneous parallel universes or a multitude of previous ones. In all of that, every possible combination would crop up by chance, and so it wouldn’t be remarkable that there was a universe like this one — one in which the force of gravity is just strong enough to allow stars and planets to coalesce but not just a little bit stronger, causing the universe to collapse long before life could have developed. Likewise the value of the strong nuclear force, which holds atoms together, seems finely tuned, as do the thermal properties of water, and on and on.”
“So our universe is a very special place?”
“Exactly. And since, as Kathryn Benmergui proved, this is the only current universe, and one of just a handful that have ever existed, then the life-generating properties of the very specific fundamental constants that define reality are virtually impossible to explain except as the results of deliberate design.”
“But then why would Pope Mary resign? Surely if science has proven the existence of a creator …?”
Singh smiled. “Ah, but that creator is clearly not the God of the Bible or the Torah or the Qur’an. Rather, the creator is a physicist, and we are one of his or her experiments. Science hasn’t reconciled itself with religion; it has superseded it, and —”
“I’m sorry to interrupt, Dr. Singh, but our reporter in Vatican City has some breaking news. Giancarlo, over to you …”
“Lisa, Lisa — the incredible is happening. At first I thought they were just tourists coming out of the Sistine Chapel, but they’re not — I recognize Fontecchio and Leopardi and several of the others. But none of them are wearing robes; they’re in street clothes. I haven’t taken my eyes off the chapel: there’s been no plume of white smoke, meaning they haven’t elected a new leader of the church. But the cardinals are coming out. They’re coming outside, heading into St. Peter’s Square. The crowd is stunned, Lisa — it can only mean one thing …”
I say this in gentle good humour — I am extraordinarily grateful to my beta readers — but I always find it amusing that, without fail, some will say, “I get this joke, but will your readers?,” or “I know this word, but will your readers?” Now, of course, I have jokes that fall flat in early drafts and I sometimes use words that very few people know (or that I’ve misspelled so badly that no one recognizes them), or employ abbreviations (such as NDA or IMDb) without spelling them out.
But never do the “I don’t get it” or “huh?” remarks I do get on jokes or words coincide with the ones that other people think others won’t know or get. And, you know what? It’s good to have things that seem obscure but really aren’t: people are thrilled to find something in a book that makes them think they’re the only one in the world who will get it. It’s part of what we mean when we say a particular book “speaks to me.”
Over on my Facebook wall, Matthew B. Tepper of the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society asked me, “Do you also create life histories for your characters (at least the principal ones) that contain details that might not make it into the final text of the novel?” My reply:
I do not. I know others do, but I build the details of my characters’ lives brick by brick as needed to support the narrative I want to tell. For instance, a turning point in my forthcoming novel (minor, but mentioned) is that in a schoolyard fight, when he was eight, the protagonist almost killed a bully. That feeds into his future actions and is referenced a couple of times in the text. But the fact that — arbitrarily — his family went to Disneyland when he was 12, and he got lost, and blah blah blah? Nah; I construct stuff like that when I need it, and when it helps. Sure, characters have a few arbitrary traits that don’t pay off — in my new novel, the protagonists loves bananas — but that’s mentioned. Whether he loves, or hates, peaches, I have no idea; it was never relevant to decide that.
Another example: in an early draft of the novel, a character had a tattoo covering a scar; in a later draft, I changed what the tattoo was of to something that made way more symbolic sense — but if I’d written a “bible” for that character, would I have been nimble enough to realize that something more appropriate for the actual story could be used instead?
For more on this, see my column on constructing characters.
A good day for Shoshana and Max, two characters from my 2010 novel Watch. Sho is a primatologist, working with a chimpanzee-bonobo hybrid named Hobo who paints representational art. This scene about marriage equality is from Chapter 30:
Shoshana spent the next couple of hours with Hobo; he did seem to be back to his old self.
Her cell phone rang. Her ringtone was the “William Tell Overture,” which Hobo liked. The caller ID was MARCUSE INST. She flipped it open. “Hello?”
“Hey, Sho, it’s Dillon. Just got in, and I’m watching on the cameras. Wow!”
Hobo tried to tickle her. “Yeah,” she said. “It’s great!”
“Do you — you think it’s safe for me to come out there?”
She considered this. “Let’s give him some time,” she said. “But I’m going to come in; I’ve got to pee.”
She did just that, promising Hobo that she’d return in a bit. After she was finished in the washroom, Dillon said, “It’s quite the turnaround.”
“I’ll say,” Sho said. She sat on the swivel chair in front of her computer and rotated it so she faced out into the room.
Dillon was leaning against the wall, thin arms crossed in front of his black T-shirt. “What do you suppose caused it?”
She shook her head. “I have no idea.”
“Pretty amazing,” he said. “Like he just sort of decided to give up being violent.”
“It’s terrific,” Sho agreed.
“So, um, maybe this calls for a drink.”
Shoshana could see where this was going. “Well, I can ask Dr. Marcuse to pick up some champagne on his way back …” she replied, looking away.
“I mean,” Dillon said, and he paused, then tried again: “I mean maybe we should go out for a drink … you know, um, to celebrate.”
“Dillon …” she said softly.
He unfolded his arms and raised his right hand, palm out. “I mean, I know you sometimes go out with a guy named Max, but …”
“Dillon, I live with Max.”
“And Max isn’t a guy; she’s a girl. Maxine.”
He looked relieved. “Ah, well, if she’s just your roommate, then …”
“Max is my girlfriend.”
“Your girl friend, or your, um, girlfriend?”
“My girlfriend; my lover.”
“Oh, um — ah, I didn’t … you never …”
Dillon had come to the Marcuse Institute in May; he’d missed the Christmas party, which, now that she thought about it, was the last time she’d brought Maxine around. “So,” said Shoshana, “thanks for the interest, but …”
Dillon smiled. “Can’t blame a guy for trying.”
“Thanks,” she said again. “You’re sweet.”
He crossed his arms again. “So, how long have you been with Maxine?”
“Couple of years. She’s an engineering student at UCSD.”
“Heh. Good that one of you is eventually going to make some money.”
Sho leaned back in her chair and laughed. Neither she nor Dillon was ever likely to get rich.
“And, ah, I take it it’s serious?” Dillon said tentatively.
She suppressed a grin; hope springs eternal. “Very much so. I’d marry Max, if I could.”
“You know I’m from South Carolina, right?”
“I do declare!” he said, in a really bad Southern accent.
“But Max is from L.A. — South Central. Her family’s all there, and, well, it’s not like they can afford to travel to Boston or up to Canada. She wants to get married here in California, but …” She lifted her shoulders a bit.
“It used to be legal here, didn’t it?”
Sho nodded. “Got overturned the same day Obama was elected. A bittersweet night, I can tell you, for a lot of us. I was simultaneously elated and crushed.”
“It should be legal here,” Shoshana said. “It should be legal everywhere.”
“I guess it’s against some people’s religions,” Dillon said.
“So what?” Sho snapped. But she put a hand to her mouth. “Oh, I’m sorry, Dillon. But I just get so tired of arguing this. If your beliefs tell you that you shouldn’t marry someone of the same sex, then you shouldn’t do it — but you shouldn’t have the right to impose your views on me.”
“Hey, Sho. Chill. I’m cool with it. But, um, there are those who say marriage is a sacrament.”
“There’s nothing sacred about marriage. You can go to city hall and get married without God once being mentioned. That issue was settled long ago.”
“I guess,” said Dillon.
But Sho had worked up a head of steam. “And gay people getting married doesn’t take anything away from anyone else’s marriage, any more than, say, the addition of Alaska and Hawaii made the people who were already Americans any less American. What we do doesn’t affect anyone else.”
“And you’re a primatologist,” she said. “You know that homosexuality is perfectly natural. Homo sapiens practice it in all cultures, and bonobos practice it, too — which means the common ancestor probably practiced it, as well; it’s natural.”
“No doubt,” said Dillon. “But — playing devil’s advocate here — a lot of people who accept that it’s natural still don’t think that a union between two people of the same sex should be called a marriage. They’re leery of redefining words, you know, lest they lose their meaning.”
“But we have already redefined marriage in this country!” Sho said. “We’ve done it over and over again. If we hadn’t done that, black people couldn’t get married — they weren’t allowed to when they were slaves. And as recently as 1967, there were still sixteen states in which it was illegal for a white person to marry a black person. Max is black, by the way, and if we hadn’t redefined marriage, I couldn’t marry her even if she were a guy. We also long ago gave up the traditional definition of marriage as being `until death do us part.’ Nobody says you have to stay in a bad marriage anymore; if you want out, you can get divorced. The definition of marriage has been a work-in-progress for centuries.”
“Okay, okay,” said Dillon. “But …”
“Oh, nothing …”
She tried to make her tone light. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to take your head off. What is it?”
“Well, if they do repeal the ban here, so you and Maxine can get married, um, how does that work? Do you, you know, have two maids of honor …?”
“People do it different ways. But I’ve already decided I’m going to have a best man.”
“Oh? Anybody I know?”
“Yep.” She glanced at the monitors that showed the feeds from the cameras on the island. “Oh, and look — he’s painting another picture!”
A parable for today. I went to what was then called Ryerson Polytechnical Institute, an unusual institution. Although granting bachelor’s degrees in many programs via the authority of the Ontario government, it was not a traditional university, and most of its instructors were recruited from industry.
Very few of the instructors back then held doctorates (precisely one of mine in all my time there). Some had master’s degrees. Some actually had no post-secondary education at all but were teaching in technical areas in which they were expert (my degree is in broadcasting).
But, in a bid to upgrade its perceived status, Ryerson had taken to calling its instructors “Professors.” My father — then a full professor at the University of Toronto, with a Ph.D. in economics — was pissed off whenever I happened to refer to “Professor Kufluk” or “Professor Desourdy” (two fine gentlemen who taught me at Ryerson, both of whom have since passed).
He was upset because the application of the word “Professor” to people who (a) hadn’t obtained the highest academic degree in their discipline and (b) had done no original research he felt debased the term: it cheapened what he’d achieved by robbing it of its original, intended meaning, a distinction for a teacher with the highest academic credential and who had produced a quality, defended, original dissertation and who had risen through the academic ranks to the top level. It was taking something away from him.
And you know what? That was a valid point of view. Agree or not, there was an underlying coherent argument against what Ryerson had done to the term “professor.”
Fast-forward a quarter-century. Today, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that the US Constitution guarantees the right to same-sex marriage, reaffirming what was already the reality in many states, in all of Canada, and in many other jurisdictions: marriage is the union of two people who, in a commitment of love to each other, intend to build a life together.
Today’s ruling doesn’t cheapen, diminish, or reduce anyone’s marriage. There is nothing about it that is comparable to the widening of the definition of professor (spearheaded by Ryerson but so often seen now across North America to mean anyone who teaches at a college or university). Today’s wondrous SCOTUS decision takes nothing away from anyone else.
I’m celebrating it — I literally am crying tears of joy — but, even if it doesn’t affect you or anyone you know personally, you have no grounds to condemn it; it has taken nothing from you.
If you still don’t get it, Keith Olbermann said it very, very well a few years ago in this video.
Fifteen years ago today, the Sawyermobile first started sporting this puppy: a vanity licence plate reading SFWRITER. Carolyn Clink got it for me for my 40th birthday.
Ontario had only just started allowing eight characters on a vanity plate, and was charging a premium then if you wanted that many; it cost $500 — but it makes me smile every time I see it; it’s been on three different cars now (and appears on the bottom of every one of the 673 pages on my website at SFWRITER.COM), and we’ve gotten a lot of publicity mileage (ha ha) out of it.
(“Licence” is the Canadian spelling; Americans would call this a “license” plate.)
I have a nice sideline as a keynote speaker, talking about futurism at all sorts of conferences and meetings. It all started fifteen years ago today, on May 30, 2000, with my first real keynote, given to National Life of Canada‘s Group Insurance Brokers Conference, held at the Hockley Valley Resort.
That talk came about because Pete McGarvey, who was the Director of Communications for National Life then and knew of me from the Toronto science-fiction scene, thought of me for the gig.
That first keynote went quite well. David Kent, vice-president of National Life, sent me this afterwards:
Just a short note to express my thanks to you for your superb presentation at Hockley Valley. You focused precisely on those areas that were of most interest to the audience. Your delivery was exciting and challenging. A number of our insurance-broker guests spoke to me later about your presentation and there were several discussion later at dinner and the next day.Pete McGarvey was also responsible for getting me my second major (and first US) speaking gig: on September 25, 2001, thanks to Pete, I spoke to the Life Communicators Association, an insurance-industry group, in Reno, Nevada.
Since then, I’ve done over 100 keynotes worldwide (Tokyo, Beijing, Istanbul, Barcelona, etc., plus all over the US and Canada) for organizations including the Canadian Space Agency, the Federation of State Medical Boards, Gartner, Lockheed Martin, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, and the New York Library Association.
I love putting on my futurism hat and giving keynotes (next up is one in Aspen, Colorado), and I owe this part of my career, which began fifteen years ago today, to Pete McGarvey. Thanks, Pete!
My great friend Michael Lennick, who passed away November 7, 2014, was a special-effects supervisor for the 1988 War of the Worlds television series — a direct sequel to the George Pal film. For the series, this Martian War Machine was built, exactly copying the move version.
This original screen-used fiberglass miniature — 45 inches wide — is now in my collection, thanks to Michael’s widow, Shirley Gulliford. It will soon be hanging in my office (just as it used to hang in Michael’s own office, as you can see in the picture), with a plaque honouring Michael on the wall near it.
Below is a screen capture of the miniature being used in the TV series (one miniature, optically composited to represent three Martian War Machines).
I am so, so thrilled, and so very honoured, to have this spectacular piece of TV history in my home as a daily reminder of my dear, dear friend. Below are Michael and Shirley — with the love.
On Facebook, someone asked why there don’t seem to be as many female fans of Star Trek: The Motion Picture as there are male ones. My response:
Well, think about it. In ST:TMP, the female lead is, quite literally, an object: a replicant probe wearing high heels and an ultra-mini to show off her legs (and, in the scenes prior to that, still a completely sexualized male-fantasy figure who has taken an oath of celibacy). Uhura, Chapel, and Rand have very small parts in TMP.
Now, think about Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan: the female leads (plural) are the incredibly competent and nuanced Dr. Carol Marcus, played with great range by Bibi Besch, and Saavik, wonderfully portrayed by Kirstie Alley: a female Vulcan (or Vulcan-Romulan hybrid), who is complex and intriguing.
TMP had many strengths, and I prefer it to TWOK, but its portrayal of women was not one of them: all the engineers we linger on are male, except Rand in the transporter room, and she presides over the death of two characters; Commander Branch is, of course, a man, and his subordinate is a woman; and instead of celebrating that Chapel is now an M.D., McCoy decries it, saying that he’s going to need a nurse instead of someone who’ll “argue every little diagnosis with me.”
Over on Facebook, I was asked if I keep word counts in mind when writing a novel. The answer is yes — and for several reasons.
First, I find daily word-count targets motivate me. When I’m writing first draft, I do 2,000 words a day. If I’m focused (and not wasting time on Facebook!), I can often get that done in four hours — and that means I can knock off for the rest of the day (although “knocking off” usually means doing something else related to my work, like research reading). I’m constantly checking my word count to see how much more I have to get done until I call it quits.
(I love doing research. I love doing revisions. The only part of the process that feels like work to me is getting that first draft out. As I often say, a sculptor can buy a hunk of clay and immediately get to work shaping a piece; a writer has to create his or her clay out of nothing before he or she can start the fun part of shaping it.)
Second, I have a contractual obligation: my publisher wants 100,000 words (give or take, oh, say, 10%). Much less than that, and they’re afraid readers will think the hardcover isn’t enough bang for the buck. Substantially more than that, and they’ve got to up the price of the hardcover to cover the extra costs — and that can hurt, especially for Canadian authors.
I have a friend in Canada whose first novel — quite a good book — was published some time ago by Tor (a New York house) in hardcover. But it was (I’m guessing looking at it) 150,000 words long, and it came out at a time when (as now) the Canadian dollar was low against the greenback, and that meant Tor had to put a substantially higher price on the book in Canada: it came out at $40 (yes, $40; not $39.95) — and, holy crap, was that a hard sell: first novel by an unknown author, and with a first digit in the price almost never seen on a work of hardcover fiction.
Third, novels are usually divided into chapters. My own style is lots of short chapters (my new novel has 52 chapters). My typical chapter is 1,800 words; I allow a few as short as 1,250 words and some as long as 3,200 (a typeset book has 350 or 400 words per page). Each chapter usually consists of two or three scenes (although most of those 1,250-word chapters are a single scene — as are some of the 3,200-worders). On a structural level, I’m conscious of where the chapter breaks (which require a cliffhanger of some sort) are going to fall.
Indeed, structuring into chapters is a core skill for a novelist. That’s the reason editors will often ask beginning writers for a submission of the first three chapters, rather than a set number of words or pages: among all the other skills they’re looking for, they want to see if you’ve mastered chaptering — the art of structuring a book so that as soon as the reader reaches the end of a chapter he or she will say, “Okay, just one more!” rather than putting the book down and possibly never picking it up again.
Ten years ago today, on 21 May 2005, Pat York — SF-writing colleague and friend — was killed in a car crash at the age of 57. She was a mainstay of SF conventions in this part of the world, a Nebula Award finalist, and twice a Writers of the Future Award finalist.
The SFWA obituary is here and, back then, in my Yahoo Groups newsgroup, Herb Kauderer wrote this tribute:
I got the phone call last night that Pat York died in a car crash. She was 57.Continue to R.I.P., Pat. We miss you.
Her science fiction appeared here and there over the last decade, including one of the Full Spectrum anthologies, and Realms of Fantasy Magazine. Two of her stories, “Cool Zone” and “Lustman” barely missed the final ballot for the Nebula Award.
Last Saturday some area professionals were at a gathering at fantasy author Will McDermott’s and Pat was there full of energy. She spoke of enjoying her early retirement last year from her teaching job. She had been doing more critical writing in the last year.
The group had a deep conversation about the nature of love and romantic love, and Pat’s natural curiosity came shining through. She was especially interested in the emotional details of starting over, partly because she had never had her butterflies fluttered by anyone but her husband, and she couldn’t imagine being without him.
And now Pat is gone while her husband remains.
Tonight, after the shock has subsided a little, I will turn down another glass for an absent friend, and make her live in memory again.
If you actually read what Simon Pegg says in this Radio Times article — not just react in a knee-jerk fashion as you might when you think someone’s dissing your favorite things — there’s much truth in it.
In 1968, we had two great science-fiction films, 2001: A Space Odyssey, which terrifically captured the sense of wonder and was groundbreaking aesthetically, and Planet of the Apes, which was trenchant satire and social commentary about the two major front-page issues of its day, race relations and the threat of nuclear holocaust.
We didn’t get another truly big box-office smash SF film for eight years, when the first Star Wars film came out — and everything changed.
Yes, you — and I — can point to examples of thoughtful, intelligent, socially relevant SF films and TV shows scattered here and there amongst the spectacles that followed (FlashForward, based on my novel of the same name, included), and try to claim they’re the norm, but what Pegg says is worth reflecting on.
And, the bottom line, when the public says “science fiction,” they don’t mean those outlier examples: they mean mindless spectacle, pretty much with no science or anything in the way of sophisticated — subtle, emotionally truthful — fiction. (Indeed, the ABC press office barred us from referring to FlashForward as science fiction, because that would confuse the public.)
When Words Collide is my favourite convention, bar none; there’s simply no better networking opportunity for professional fiction writers in Canada. Conference chair Randy McCharles — himself an award-winning writer — has taken the best elements of the World Fantasy Convention and Boston’s Readercon, stripped out the stuffiness and pretension, and inserted a healthy does of fun.
NOTE: When Words Collide in Calgary has a membership cap — they sell a finite number of admissions — and they’re 78% full already for the August 2015 convention.
The programming is always first rate, but the conference organizers pay a lot of attention to the social aspects, too, making sure that writers and readers have many opportunities to mingle and chat one-on-one.
The actual conference is excellent, but so are the seminars and workshops held just before or after it; the 2014 day-long seminars with Penguin Canada’s Adrienne Kerr and Kobo’s Mark Lefebvre were among the best publishing-related talks I’ve ever attended.
I go to lots of conventions as an invited guest — I was one of the guests of honour at the first When Words Collide — but WWC is the only one I fly back to year after year at my own expense.
I’m very pleased to have my story “Come All Ye Faithful” reprinted in Wrestling with Gods: Tesseracts Eighteen, edited by Liana Kerzner and Jerome Stueart, just out from EDGE Publications
During an online event for the launch of this book, I observed:
Science fiction is the branch of literature that deals with big questions: where did we come from, where are we going, why are we here, how will it all end, is there a next phase of our existence? Religion — well, my goodness, look at that: the same questions! So, it’s natural for science fiction to explore religion.And in response to the question “Can people without faith properly write about those with faith?,” I replied:
That’s a specific case of the general appropriation-of-voice discussion that raged long and loud among members of The Writers Union of Canada decades ago. Can a man truly write from a woman’s point of view; can you write characters of another ethnicity/culture/nationality/time period? A different age? A different sexual orientation? A different, or no, disability?
The answer, of course, is yes; hell, much of science fiction would grind to a halt if we said you couldn’t write about nonhumans without actually being one. Goodbye, Wintermute. So long, Spock. Adiós, aliens.
The reason I write about people different from myself is the same reason I read about them: to, in some small measure, become them, so that I can feel what they feel and know what they know; writing is an empathic process, just as reading is.
Of course, as with anything, research is essential: in “Come All Ye Faithful,” I’m writing (as I have before, in other works) about Roman Catholicism; obviously, one has to get the facts straight.
One area I’ve bumped up against with some of my friends who are professional theologians or clergy is that they often view their religion and its tenets with a more sophisticated — and, often, more skeptical — eye than the rank-and-file adherents; the higher-ups will say, “No Catholic is against evolution anymore” — when in fact many of those in the pews emphatically are. So, you can’t just write about Catholicism — or any religion — as if the term meant the same thing to all who supposedly belong to that faith.
One of my favourite moments in the seminal Canadian SF novel Barking Dogs, by Terence M. Green of Toronto, occurs when the first American Pope, Pope Martin, is interviewed on The Phil Donahue Show — and an audience member (the viewpoint character, Toronto cop Mitch Helwig), using an infallible portable lie detector, realizes that the Pope himself is unsure in his faith. Writing about people with faith and those without sometimes amounts to the same thing — writing about people who are asking questions.
One of the greatest honours of my career was being one of the nine initial inductees last year into the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame.
Each year, a jury will add two more inductees. The jury doesn’t propose the names to be considered, though — other people (like you!) do that. I’ve already submitted my nominee for this year, but you can, too! General information is here and the specific procedure for making a nomination is in this PDF.
Among those eligible for nominations are writers, editors, illustrators, fanzine publishers, convention organizers, media personalities, and more. Please don’t just post a “well, what about so-and-so” comment here; that accomplishes nothing. Take the time to submit a nomination for someone you think is truly worthy. Nominating deadline this year is July 1. Thanks!