Monthly Archives: April 2012

The Hollywood Syndrome

In 1999, during a talk at MIT, the late, inimitable Douglas Adams quipped that “getting a movie made in Hollywood is like trying to grill a steak by having a succession of people coming into the room and breathing on it.” I’m of the strong opinion that the book publishing industry, especially in the US, has for some years now been heading in the same dubious direction, a trend exacerbated by both macro-economic factors and the present turmoil within the industry.

Let me begin with my cards on the table: I’m biased. I prefer the real over the idealized, the purity of the artist’s original vision over a heavily-massaged corporate product; similarly, I believe true beauty is better appreciated without pancake makeup and every strand of immaculately-styled hair tucked perfectly in place. In the same way that a perfect world crafted by committee would be an intolerable, saccharin Disneyland, a book produced by committee with the cynical purpose of making the most bucks is not going to appeal to me. It may—may—be a smashing success, and that’s okay if you want to live in a world of Dan Brown thrillers­­: I don’t. I want some verisimilitude in a book, and that includes protagonists that sometimes aren’t proactive, characters who might not change, and loose ends that don’t get tied up in a pretty ribbon. I’d bet my dog and lot that the warped notion that an unholy alliance of agents, editors, sales and marketing people, and (shudder!) accountants will improve an already good book rather than turn it into processed mush is about as intelligent as the dream of the Edsel. And we know where that ended up.

This isn’t to say that developmental editing doesn’t have a place: of course it does. Even the best authors can be too close to their own work and benefit from educated and intelligent input. A good agent and editor can be an invaluable asset to any author. But the process has got entirely out of hand, with more books than ever being rejected or twisted out of shape because of bizarre preoccupations over category, marketing demographics, and inherited assumptions of what readers want.

Don’t believe me? Okay, let’s take the case of Science Fiction in film. Those of us who love Science Fiction literature know very well that even the best SF stories and novels (Philip K. Dick, anyone?), in the process of being scripted and filmed, have most of their intelligent content ripped out and replaced with gunfights, explosions, chases, and slo-mo kung fu. Why? To target that all-important adolescent male demographic, of course. Now, proving this happens to manuscripts is less easy, but every one of us who works with or is a writer has seen it at first- or second-hand. While I don’t think we’re yet at the woeful state of the movie industry, I do think that the US book industry is pretty far along the road to a lockstep conformity dictated by factors that have little to do with good writing and everything to do with perception and factors unrelated to quality.

A couple of years ago at the World Fantasy Convention in San José, I asked GOH Zoran Živković why non-Anglophone SF (‘World SF’) typically has very different thematic concerns than US/UK SF, and is often far more vibrant, political, allegorical, edgy and even surrealist. His reply was both insightful and telling: “The publishing industry in the US is very powerful,” he said, “and its strength is what determines the market. In the rest of the world, writers write what they want to write, not only what is marketable.”

Aliette de Bodard, in a superb and heartfelt 2011 blog post on the prevalence of US tropes in storytelling, addresses the same issue from a slightly different angle. This pressure to conformity, originating from purely commercial concerns, is warping the literary landscape and spreading like a cancer. Again, let me qualify: there’s nothing wrong with the book industry attempting to pick winners and make a profit, but there’s a great deal wrong with marketing people and accountants dictating a book’s final shape; not only that, but—like Hollywood—they’ve proven over and over that they’re not very good at it, because otherwise every book would make a profit.

To conclude, not all artists or writers have 20-20 vision; there are plenty of bad indie books out there, just as there are plenty of bad indie movies. But, given a good cut of beef in the first place, I usually find that a steak grilled on a high heat by an experienced hand tastes a great deal better than one cooked over months by having a succession of people breathe on it.

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Ten Years On

It’s ten years since I attended Clarion West.

For those who don’t know it, Clarion West (aka, ‘Literary Boot Camp’) is an intensive, six-week writing workshop held annually in Seattle. Of the scores of applicants, only seventeen students are selected each year to work under the six resident instructors, one per week. Students come from across the nation and even from abroad, and ages vary wildly (my own class ranged from 21 to 50). The experience is exhilarating, the routine brutal.

Each day starts with a 9 a.m. class; after an hour or so of instruction, student stories are critiqued in rotation, three or four each day, with the class ending around 1 p.m. Grab some lunch and back to your room (thankfully, no sharing rooms), and start work.

On top of attending morning classes, each student is expected to write a new story each week, which doesn’t seem too much… except that you also have to read and prepare critiques of three or four of your peers’ stories every day, and these can be long. Get four 9k- or 10k-word stories on a day (it happens), and you have the equivalent of half a novel to read and critique on top of your own writing. Every day. Plus you have to eat sometimes, and of course you spend time whenever you can hanging out or going for a beer with your fellow inmates, all of whom are as sleep-deprived as you. It’s not unusual to find people in the common areas still working at three in the morning.

Happily, Friday nights—following a reading by the resident instructor for that week—are reserved for parties. These are held at the homes of the many Seattle area Science Fiction fans or authors, and, believe me, after a five-day, 80+ hour week, most students are ready to let their hair down. My own class was (I’m told) one of the more spirited and rambunctious ones: we’d go back to the dorms and start our own party and keep going, sometimes going till dawn. In six weeks we managed to set off a fire alarm and get the entire dorms evacuated as well as get visited by the campus police–yeah! Happily, the weekends are free for sleeping, writing, hanging out, writing, sleeping… before it all starts up again on Monday. Week four is known for crackups, and students are advised to arrange a brief conjugal visit around this time.

Clarion West is, as you might expect, a serious bonding experience. Ten years on, I’m still in close contact with perhaps six of our group, three of whom are in my current writers’ group, Written in Blood.

What have I achieved in those ten years? Not nearly as much as I’d have liked. A few short story sales to semi-pro markets and anthologies; a full-length nonfiction work, ‘Aegean Dream’, the bittersweet memoir of the year my wife and I spent living on the tiny Greek island of Skópelos in 2007 (which, nine months after publication, is beginning to sell pretty well). I also edited and published ‘Eight Against Reality’, an anthology of short stories from the Written in Blood group, and three anthologies of original SF & F novellas (the ‘Panverse’ series, One, Two, and Three), which have enjoyed generally favourable reviews, with one story from Panverse Two winning the 2011 Sidewise Award for Alternate History and another from Panverse Three currently on the final ballot for the 2012 Hugo, Nebula, and Sturgeon Awards.

It’s not enough. Barely a beginning.

The last several months I spent writing a novel, a fairly mainstream caper-thriller about two old friends who don’t have the sense to just lie down and slip quietly into the long good night, and decide instead go on a last, insanely dangerous adventure which will most likely cost them their freedom and even their lives. I’m just starting on the rewrite and hope to be shopping it around this summer: working title is ‘Sutherland’s Rules’. Beyond that, another novel, a more fantastical one, is assembling.

Looking back, I see that I’m still integrating a lot of what I learned in those six mindblowing weeks in Seattle. I’m a late bloomer, but I’m far from done. And the rest of the class of 2002? One—Ysabeau Wilce—has written and sold several wonderful and unique novels; another, Doug Sharp, has an absolutely superb novel ready for publication; two or three others have sold a few short stories to pro markets.

Watch this space.

Dedicated to the extraordinary staff and faculty of Clarion West and to the six fantastic instructors of that luminous summer of 2002: Paul Park, Kathleen Alcalá, Pat Cadigan, Gardner Dozois, Joe and Gay Haldeman, and John Crowley.

Back row, left to right: Danny Llinas, myself, Simran Khalsa, Elizabeth Spencer, Jim Harris, Diana Sherman, James ‘Devilman’ Thomas, Adrian ‘media-ready’ Khactu, Genevieve Williams, Blunt ‘Bluejack’ Jackson, Ysabeau Wilce, Robert Brown. Front Row: John Crowley (instructor), Traci (T.L.) Morganfield, Lynette Aspey, Doug Sharp, Wendy Shaffer.

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Reality: How Much is Enough?

I’m talking about fiction, of course.

First let’s clarify the distinction between reality and realism in fiction. When someone speaks of realism in fiction or of Realist Literature, they’re typically referring to modern fiction, that is, fiction written in accessible language which concerns itself with ordinary people living in the everyday world. Prior to the nineteenth century, literature typically centered on the doings of the aristocracy and privileged classes, and before that on gods and supernatural beings; further, realist Literature, with its focus on the mundane and even banal, developed as a counterpoint to romanticism, which stressed aesthetics and sought to divert the reader from reality rather than reflecting it back at them.

But my concern here is with the depiction of reality in fiction, and specifically how much reality is required from us as writers.

Even the most realist fiction is anything but. Take dialogue, for instance. If you were to record and faithfully transcribe the average dialogue exchange between two people, it would be almost unreadable, full of uhs and you knows, hesitations and tics and clichés; so what the writer learns to put on the page is dialogue that sounds real but in fact has been carefully filtered and structured to convey the impression of realism: it is idealized reality.

So it is with plot. All of us, except for the most fanatical determinists, will agree that real life is unscripted and unplotted. Stuff happens. And if it seems to us that stuff happens for a reason, it’s because our brains are so hardwired for pattern recognition that we’ll see patterns even where none exist (this is of course why it’s impossible and futile to argue with conspiracy theorists or religious extremists, but that’s a topic in itself). A truly plotless story, if it got published, would irritate readers and at best be regarded as an experimental scrap of post-modernism. Instead, the writer presents us with a carefully selected series of scenes and events in which each detail of dialogue and gesture, description and plot, is carefully chosen to fit in with the writer’s aim while maintaining the illusion of reality. The writer, as God, has created a fully deterministic world in which things do happen for a reason, in which people learn and change, in which conflicts are resolved and rewards won. Our writer achieves this by skilful characterization and plotting and by leaving out anything which would mar the illusion. (It’s worth noting in this regard that different cultures have different norms: European readers, for example, are rather more tolerant of moral ambiguity, existentialist concerns, passive protagonists, and loose ends than their US counterparts, who seem to me to demand a far more rigidly directed fiction with everything wrapped up in a nice, tidy bow at the end).

As Mark Twain famously put it, “the only difference between reality and fiction is that fiction needs to be credible.” The real world has no such concerns, but even the most permissive literary genres (say, Science Fiction), have their limits. William Gibson once said in an interview that if a few decades ago he’d pitched a novel which included a worldwide pandemic (AIDS), global warming, Middle Eastern terrorists destroying the twin towers with hijacked airplanes, and a white woman competing with a black man for the US presidency, the publisher would probably have called in security to restrain him (and this before he even got to a worldwide surveillance society and the serial overthrow of dictators across the Arab world).

Fiction, it seems, can only deal with so much reality.

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When Ink Runs Red

The unfolding debacle with regard to eBook pricing is both fascinating and, in some ways, bewildering. So for those who’ve not been following the issue, here’s a quick recap:

Ebooks have been around  for well over a decade. Although there were several—and some would say better—eBook readers on the market years before Amazon introduced the Kindle in 2007, the lure of instant eBook downloads via the Kindle’s unique, built-in wifi, added to Amazon’s vast inventory and ultra-prominent brand, quickly made Amazon the main player in the eBook business; even today, with competition from the Barnes and Noble Nook, the Sony Reader, Apple’s iPad, and numerous apps that enable one to read on a smartphone, Amazon still claims some 60% of the eBook market.

The action kicked off last summer with a class action suit filed against Apple and five big publishers, accusing them of eBook price fixing. Back in 2010, Amazon had been selling eBooks at $9.99 in a drive to grab as much market share for the Kindle as possible. With the introduction of the iPad, Apple and the publishers reacted with a covert deal to set their own eBook prices so that no bookseller could undercut Apple (déjà vu of Apple’s policy over individual song pricing, anyone?). As a result, eBook prices jumped overnight. Amazon wasn’t about to give up: in February of this year, Amazon dumped some 5,000 titles from IPG (Independent Publishers Group) because they refused to go along with Amazon’s pricing structure. And yesterday the US Department of Justice opened its own suit, simultaneously announcing that 3 of the 5 big publishing houses had agreed to settle, leaving Penguin and Macmillan to fight alone.

Although one can certainly have some sympathy for the Publishers’ and the bookselling industry’s assertion that once Amazon cements its monopoly this will quickly turn into a Pyrrhic victory for consumers, it’s very, very hard for me to have any sympathy for the book publishing industry as a whole. Not only has it clung for decades to a truly awful business model, but the industry is well-known for its historic lack of transparency over authors’ royalties and for its often onerous contract clauses; like the music industry before it, book publishers have only themselves to blame for their utter failure to adapt to a rapidly-evolving marketplace and new technologies. It’s not as if someone changed the rules overnight: the writing has been on the wall for at least a decade, and the book publishing industry simply sat on its hands and showed the same fatal complacency that the music industry did several years ago.

Like it or not, we live in a Darwinian, capitalist world, and Amazon has achieved dominance by serving the book-reading public with truly phenomenal efficiency; if they’ve sometimes done so by taking a loss on individual book sales to cement their market share, so what? It’s their money, not the taxpayer’s.

From a writer’s point of view, Amazon has also—so far—proved benign: indie authors publishing their own titles electronically get to remain in print indefinitely, have near-complete control over their work, and keep a far, far greater share of the net. Yes, they’re forgoing marketing, cover design, copyediting, and the rest… but given that traditional publishers offer most new authors just about zero marketing help and often appallingly poor covers on which they have no input, this is a debatable loss. Nor do I buy the ‘ocean of dreck’ argument which argues that  publishers have been the industry’s shining Guardians of Quality: although they may have screened out the worst—manuscripts of  third-grade level literacy—the truth is that a large percentage of published works have always been and will continue to be crap, per Sturgeon’s Law.

The nightmare scenario that the book publishing industry and many indie authors warn of is that once Amazon has run the competition out of town and achieved a monopoly, it’ll start jacking up prices and chipping away at author royalties. While the second is a distinct possibility, the first is unlikely. Why? Because (i) the market won’t wear it; and (ii) capitalism abhors a vacuum. Even if all the big five publishers were to fall—and they won’t, because some of them show signs of ‘getting it’ and adapting—other players will appear to compete with Amazon. Who would that be? Why, Apple, Google, and maybe even Mr. Zuckerberg (Facebook Publishing, anyone? Ugh.). All these have the muscle to go head-to-head with Amazon, though it certainly won’t be easy.

The bottom line? No monopoly endures for long, and modern capitalism tends to duopolies at worst; the free market is a Darwinian arena where the blood never dries. And whenever a Goliath appears, there’s always going to be a David to challenge them.

See also WIRED magazine, DOJ Announces Terms of Stettlement

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Soulmates: Free Fiction

… because Easter seems the right time to contemplate rebirth.

SOULMATES

by

Dario Ciriello

Cobalt holds Rose close, trickling energy into her depleted form. The ambient has dimmed since her return and a mist has formed. Even the eternal, roiling river of light seems muted, its sprays of colour less brilliant than before.

Rose stirs. That this was a rough one, Cobalt has no doubt. He wishes Saffron were here.

<It’s all right, Rose. You’re safe.>

<Cobalt?>

<Yes. I’m here.>

<It was horrible, this one. I don’t know how much more…>

<Easy,> he tells her. He’s never seen her return so spent.

<It’s worse every time, Cobalt. There are so many of them, so few of us.>

So true. With an effort he mutes the wave of helplessness, preventing it from spilling back into her. He’s seen it: more empties are being born as the population explodes. Still just a fraction, but the damage and contagion they cause, their pure, unalloyed evil…

<Cobalt?>

<Yes, Rose?>

<I don’t want to go back. I can’t.>

He turns to the river. It seems brilliant again, the mist lessened. Beyond, in scattered clusters, are others of their kind.

<If only we didn’t remember,> she says. <It’s all back to front! When we go into the field, that’s when we should remember. Remember home, each other. But to return and have it all come crashing back…>

Her energy is faltering again. He reaches out, teasing light from the river and knitting it into her being.

<It’s our nature, Rose.> He says it with all the gentleness he has.  Then, <Once, I saw you there, the only time we ever met up. The street market. Lisbon, in the rain. Do you remember it?>

Comes silent assent.

<Of course, we didn’t know. But I was an old man, and even in that form I felt… something. An energy, a kinship, a pull.>

<Intimations,> she says. <The old—some of them—begin to  feel it. Just barely. But some part of them knows.>

<Yes. Some part. Even incarnate, we can sense family.>

She is brighter now, comforted, but still unstable. He hopes she will have time.

<But they don’t act on it, Cobalt! For all their faiths and philosophies and their vaunted free will—they don’t act! Their minds always fight us. It’s all we can do to keep them from completely succumbing.>

She grows agitated again, and he works to smooth her energies, make her fully whole.

A pinprick of fire floats near, grows to a shimmering ovoid. Cobalt feels the pressure, yields to it, offering no resistance to the sudden burst of light and warmth.

Rose feels it too. <Saffron!>

Saffron joins them, completing them. Cobalt savors the moment as they merge into that perfect whole. Rose is healed, intact, herself again.

No words are needed. The time is both fleeting and forever until the call, as it must, comes again to each.

<Light,> is the last thought he has as he is drawn once more into the field.

*          *          *

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Acting As If

Learning is a funny thing.

Beginner’s luck is a very real phenomenon. The very first time we attempt a thing, and this surely includes writing, we often do very well: by not having preconceptions and a head full of rules, we act spontaneously and without artifice, and in the process come up with a result which—however lacking in technical sophistication—is true, and may even be Art.

After that, things appear to go downhill. Encouraged by the first, surprising result, we want to understand more, to learn rules and skills. We buy a book on the subject. Maybe we take a class. Suddenly, it’s as though we’ve taken a bite of the forbidden apple: where before was only innocence and spontaneity is now duality, the knowledge of success and failure and the means to judge it… which we, if not others, surely will. Where before we were playing, we now have to struggle within a framework of rules and judgment. Play becomes work, and that’s the kiss of death for creativity, the point at which so many lose heart.

You can see this process at work in any class. Initial high enthusiasm, then a sudden, big die-off. A large remainder will stumble on for a little while, not enjoying the process at all, dropping out by ones and twos in the weeks and months that follow, until at the last a core of just 10%-20% of the original enrolees is left. If the teacher is a poor one, or the mix of students unfortunate, a class of twenty or thirty will dwindle to zero.

As writers, if we’re serious, we quickly start submitting work for publication, starting with the top markets in our chosen genre. We begin collecting rejections, impersonal form letters at that. And though the toughest, the tenacious few, will grit their teeth and carry on, most of us eventually lose heart and turn to something less punishing.

One thing I’ve found useful is to act as if, to pretend that we have the chops we actually don’t yet; or, as Pat Cadigan once put it, “show me what you wish you had.” Now, there’s a lot of motivational hooey out there that suggests that this technique generates some kind of cosmic vortex of opportunity, which is fine if you want to buy into that—I don’t. But what it does do is free you up, give you the space to play again, allow you to act spontaneously. It changes your line of attack from timid to confident, from negative expectations to no expectations, from fear to fun. Let go of rules and fears and hit that keyboard in the spirit of Nabokov or Cordwainer Smith, Tom Wolfe or Roger Zelazny. Go for it. Take risks.

I took guitar lessons for a while. One-on-one, with a teacher I greatly admired. As a somewhat compulsive perfectionist with high expectations of myself, I was nervous to the point of paralysis at every lesson; try as I could, I couldn’t relax, which totally stopped me feeling the rhythm or getting into any kind of groove. I was a terrible student, and eventually dropped out.

At home, away from my poor teacher’s laser gaze, I one day just let go, attacking the instrument with spirit and abandon, sacrificing technique for sheer heat; I wanted to feel what it was like; so I pretended, just for a moment, I had all the chops. The effect was a revelation. Before long, I found rhythm and beat, I started to sound good. I’d rediscovered the spirit.

Like gas in an engine, there has to be something to power our efforts, and I believe that thing is our spirit, our creative impulse. You gotta have fire.

This is a technique you can apply to writing. I’d likely be wrong if I told you you’ll turn out deathless prose on your first try, but I promise that if you do this faithfully, from your heart, hitting the page with the spirit of a samurai, the results will be both surprising and motivating. Yeah, you’re probably going to have to go to back to the rules once in a while, but if you can begin to incorporate spirit into your work, you’re more likely to both enjoy it and not hamstring yourself from the get-go. Fear and timidity are Art’s deadliest foes.

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One Cozy Fiction

Why do we maintain and allow the absurd fiction that deranged evil dictators will play nice and cave to polite requests to stop killing their own or other people, building atomic weapons, or the like? It’s absurd. Yet the UN has now extended Al-Assad’s deadline to stop butchering his own citizens to April 10. And this after even the Arabs have washed their hands of him.

Imagine, if you will, the situation in Syria as a 911 call:

911 OP:    What service do you require? Fire Police, or Ambulance?

SYRIA:     Police! There’s a pair of armed thugs beating down the door!

911 OP:    Are you sure?

SYRIA:    Of course I’m sure!

911 OP:    Have you done anything to cause this, ma’am?

SYRIA:    Erm, I once complained about crime to the local paper. Look, I need help right–

911 OP:    And how do you know they’re thugs, ma’am?

SYRIA:    Because they have stocking masks and sawn-off shotguns! [crashing, tearing noises in background]

911 OP:    Assumptions can be wrong, Ma’am. Let’s keep an open mind see what they do when they come in.

SYRIA:    [screams] Oh God! They’re in the house! One of them’s holding his shotgun to my chest!!

911 OP:   Yes, ma’am, please calm down. Try asking them to leave.

SYRIA:   [Voice off-mike, followed by coarse, mocking laughter] They won’t!! Oh god get me the police!!

911 OP:   Please let me speak to them, ma’am.

THUG:   [Deep-voiced, after pause] ‘Sup?

911 OP:   Yes sir, we’d like to appoint an inspector to visit. Will this afternoon be okay?

[Long pause] Sir?

[Another long pause; background smashing and looting noises, woman whimpering in abject terror] Sir?

THUG:   Yeah, no, s’okay. We’ll be leaving later.

911 OP:  [Brightly] Thank you sir. At what time will that be?

THUG:   Do I gotta tell ya?

911 OP:   We do require a commitment, sir.

THUG:   [Laughs] Yeah, okay. Say, midnight. [Woman screaming. Shotgun blast. Screaming stops]

911 OP:   That’ll be acceptable, sir. Have a nice day, and thank you for using 911.

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