Writing and Other Afflictions

"If it was easy, everyone would do it." –Jimmy Dugan, "A League of Their Own"

Category Archives: books

Workshopping (plus more Tower and the Fox release info!)

In 2014, I took Kij Johnson’s Novel Workshop at KU’s CSSF, and it was a great experience. Kij offers the chance to return and brainstorm with other alumni at Repeat Offenders, and this year I was able to take part in it. So I’m trying to nail down the fantasy book I want to write next year, as well as getting words down on the sequel to Tower and the Fox (titled “The Demon and the Fox”). I’ll be here through Monday the 26th and then heading home for July 4th weekend.

And in July, I’ll be attending a retreat with some of my fellow workshop alumni to hash out the outline for the third Calatians novel (and I’m not going to tell you the title of that one yet), right before spending a week at San Diego Comic-Con. Busy writing summer.

So you can see the Calatians are very much on my mind these days. The Tower and the Fox is off to the printer, the art looks magnificent, and I’m really excited to hold it as a real thing that actually exists in the world. The print version will be released at AnthroCon over July 4th weekend (I will not be there, alas) and on Amazon soon after. IN FACT, the pre-order page is already up on Amazon, if you care to mosey on over there and take a look. The Kindle version will have a preorder page up pretty soon as well, and the Kindle version (and other ePubs) will be up at baddogbooks.com in July (I have an exclusivity agreement with them for the first month), and on all the other major sites in August. I’m working on getting an audiobook into production too, but it’ll be a few months before that happens.

Hooray!

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Top 100 SF/F books…sort of

Via many people, NPR’s list of the top 100 SF/F books is out.

My thoughts on it:

  • There are far too many books on this list I haven’t read. But several of them are on my list (thanks, Ryan! thanks, Josh! thanks Annie!), so that’s good.
  • Hard to argue too much with the top two as the most popular fantasy and SF books, respectively. A little surprised to see “Ender’s Game” at #3, but I guess when you’re famous for one book/idea rather than a body of work (as Bradbury and Asimov are), it biases the results on a poll like this. Bradbury and Asimov make it into the top ten, anyway.
  • Why are most series listed as series, but Dragonflight listed by itself? Have the “Dragonriders” books become so diluted that the original three are no longer thought of as a trilogy?
  • 8% of the list books were authored by someone whose first name is a homophone for “kneel.”
  • As other people have said, why mix SF and fantasy? Perhaps because then you could include spec-fic like “Watership Down” and “Flowers for Algernon,” which aren’t properly fantasy nor SF, respectively. Though honestly, as much as I love “Watership Down,” I don’t think of it as a genre book. I mean, why not “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” if we’re going that route? This is probably part of a longer meandering about how some more mainstream spec-fic is getting genre-y, and some genre books are getting more literary, and there are lots of people who have put a lot more thought into that than I have (though in my case it is perhaps informed by a confusion over what the hell to call much of what I gravitate toward writing–what are the New Tibet books? SF, sort of? But there’s no hard science element. Fantasy? Well, it’s too real-world grounded for that. Furry? Yeah, but…).
  • Congrats to Clarion instructor Scalzi for the inclusion of “Old Man’s War.”
  • Thomas Covenant (the first series): still popular at #58. That series was a topic of much discussion at Clarion, and most of the discussions went something like this: “<list of horrible things that happened in those books>” “Why would anyone read them?” <pause> “The worldbuilding was really pretty spectacular.”

Anyway, lists like this aren’t supposed to be definite. They’re supposed to be discussion points. I have been so far away from the genre that I can’t even properly think of books that should have been on there and weren’t except for “Cloud Atlas” and “Never Let Me Go,” and people are tired of hearing me talk about Mitchell and Isiguro already. Also interesting was that the last book on the list got just over 1,500 votes (I think). Toward the end, it looks like there are definitely a few books whose authors pushed fans to vote, because there are great books left off in favor of books I’ve never heard of. I do think it’s a crime that Kim Stanley Robinson and Connie Willis and China Mieville only appear in the 90s, but that’s better than not appearing at all.

What’s On Your Stack?

Books on my shelf this year:

Declare, Tim Powers – I love his work. 1940s-to-1960s war drama with the requisite supernatural element.

Europe Central, William Vollmann – "Through interwoven narratives that paint a composite portrait of [Germany and the USSR] and the monstrous age they defined, /Europe Central/ captures a chorus of voices both real and fictional–a young German who joins the SS to fight its crimes, two generals who collaborate with the enemy for different reasons, the Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich and the Stalinist assaults upon his work and life. With these and other unforgettable stories, Vollmann breathes life into a haunting chapter from the past and gives us a daring literary masterpiece."

2666, Roberto Bolaño – An epic story, a Christmas present from Mark, whose last such venture was "The Shadow of the Wind," which turned out pretty darn good too.

The Drawing of the Dark, Tim Powers  – More Tim Powers, but medieval.

Shakespeare: The World As Stage, Bill Bryson – A tour through Shakespeare’s world to understand the context of his plays.

Strange Itineraries, Tim Powers – Short stories. Yes, someone went through my Amazon list and got me all the Tim Powers books.

Mothers and Sons, Colm Toibin – Saw him speak at Stanford and loved his talk and the excerpt.

The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton – 1920s social drama, Pulitzer-winner. I’d heard of it but never read it.

The United States of Arugula, David Kamp – A history of food snobbery in America.

Seven Ages of Paris, Alistair Horne – A history of my favorite city.

Out of the Kitchen, Jeanette Ferrary – A book by our food writing teacher from last year’s class.

The View From The Upper Deck, D.J. Gallo – Sports humor from one of my favorite sports humorists.

Can I Keep My Jersey, Paul Shirley – The story of an NBA journeyman. Paul Shirley blogged on ESPN.com for a while and is always entertaining.

Jane Goodall, Dale Peterson – A biography by an author. I met him during his research at the U of M’s Center and read the book he co-authored with Jane, "Visions of Caliban." Haven’t gotten to this imposing volume yet.

Hopefully I can get through all of these in 2009! I’m looking forward to them.

The E-Book Revolution Will Not Be Kindled

Amazon’s new e-book reader, Kindle, is the talk of the blogosphere this week. The Oxford University Press blog dramatically states that the fate of Kindle will determine the fate of all e-books for ALL TIME (the comments in that post are worth reading, especially the ones bringing up the generation issue, which I think is a critical one–more below). Guy Kawasaki rhapsodizes about it, as you might expect from the eternal tech-optimist. On the other side, we have Bethanne Patrick at Publisher’s Weekly, who comments on the OUP blog and rhapsodizes about paper books.

Speaking only from the position of someone who grew up reading books and now works and lives in the heart of Silicon Valley, I don’t think this is “the last gasp” of e-books. I don’t think it’s the perfect solution. Even Guy Kawasaki admits that reading novels isn’t the best use of the Kindle–he likes that it can pull down blogs, news, and other ephemera from the net. But more reading is probably done electronically than on paper, at least in the U.S., and so this is the way things are headed. If the Kindle fails, someone else will come up with a better solution, and eventually, there will be one that is sufficiently usable that making the switch from paper won’t be an issue.

The most frequent comparison is to the iPod, but that’s not really a valid comparison for a lot of reasons. Namely:

* Type of consumable: music vs. books. I might listen to three albums in a day. I might listen to fifty songs from fifty different albums, if I made a couple mix CDs. Rarely will I read more than one book in a day, and almost never more than two. The iPod allowed me to vary my music in three-to-five minute intervals. The Kindle will replace a single book. Why would I just not carry around the one book I’m reading? Even on vacation, I usually don’t bring a stack of books, and it’s an expensive toy to be just a “vacation reader.”

* Backwards compatibility. I was able to load my entire CD collection onto my iPod. Can I get my whole library onto a Kindle? Even if it had the room to store several hundred books, there’s no exchange program available to load electronic copies. I go back and re-read from time to time, and actually, I would love to be able to just call up passages from my favorite books. I may be unusual in that sense, but I think that people who love books and love to read rarely finish a book and leave it behind forever.

* Availability of material. Here, at least, Amazon has good inroads, and I could see them building up their title library to the point where most new stuff is available for the Kindle. The problem, again, is that there’s no easy conversion process, so they have to do the conversion on their end before a title can be available.

One of my friends is thrilled, because he hates lugging books around and having them all over his apartment. I admit, I hate moving books, but I love having them. I think this is what bothered some audiophiles when they had to give up their LPs for CDs, and eventually for iPods: the thing itself is a link to your memory of reading it.

I can see why people loved albums: the smell of cardboard and vinyl, holding onto the sleeve as you listened to the record play, burning the cover image into your mind, reading the liner notes. But I own no albums with which I’ve spent as much time as the shortest book in my library (not true of the music, but we’re distinguishing packaging from content here). CDs overtook LPs in a matter of years, accomplishing what eight-tracks and cassettes could not, because they were such a markedly superior format and took so little away from the essential experience. Can we say that about the Kindle?

I know certain books by the shape and color of their spine. I love the variations in cover art between different editions, some of the amazing paintings that were done to promote books. In creating our own books, we’ve tried to re-create that feel of a book you can really love (at the recent convention, I saw people carrying around some well-worn copies of our books, and it made me happy).

I think that I am on the cusp, though, of a generation that loves books. My parents brought me up to love books, and I still have a strong memory of just the spines of some of the books in their library, though I never read them. Recent surveys continue to show reading on the decline (one showed that 25% of adults in the U.S. did not read a single book in 2006). The “new reading” is quick hits: blogs, web pages, ten-minute digestible doses of words. Harry Potter is remarkable because it is the exception rather than the rule; it is remarkable not so much because it is popular with children, who after all are being forced to read books in school every day, but because it is also popular with adults, who cannot be forced to read anything besides the occasional 1040 form.

And so we come to the generational issue. The tech-savvy generation doesn’t read; the generation that loves to read clings to paper-tech. How does the Kindle bridge the gap? It tries to make the e-reading experience as close as possible to the paper-reading experience. But without some of the conveniences the iPod offers, that’s a losing strategy. If you make it similar, you remove people’s incentive to switch. Yes, it allows you to look up things on the online dictionary while you’re reading; yes, it has a built-in link to Wikipedia. These are steps forward. They don’t make me want to stop reading paper, and they won’t be enough to get a twenty-something to sit down with Tolstoy, or even Ishiguro. There are, I think, many more steps to go, some leap of insight that someone has yet to make.

[EDITED to add: when it comes to leaps of insight, you can always look over in Seth Godin’s corner.]