February 2011 Archives

I'm back and I'm jet-lagged, so in lieu of writing something challenging, let me give you some travel advice:

Do not leave your laptop at home when embarking on an 8-day business trip ...

In the comments to the post where Charlie introduced me, I asked if anyone had a topic they wanted me to blog about. Andrew Suffield said he would be interested in hearing how the guest-blogging gig affects sales of my books. I confessed to being somewhat interested myself and I thought I'd look at the numbers.

Amazon.com shares Bookscan numbers with authors, so I can compare sales for the week ending 2/13 (the day Charlie wrote the introductory blog post) and the week ending 2/20, which is the last one they have data for. I can also tell you that the numbers for that last week show a jump of...

::cue dramatic music::

Forty books even--22 for Child of Fire, 18 for Game of Cages.

Not that Bookscan covers every sale. Venues it doesn't report: ebook sales, sales outside the U.S.A., stores that refuse to share numbers with Bookscan, and probably a bunch of others I don't know about. Estimates are that Bookscan reports anywhere from 50%-80% of actual sales and it's impossible to judge where my books fall in that range.

To muddy things further, some other things have popped up that would have driven sales, so it's possible that not all those forty sales might have come from here.

Anyway, the point I'm making is: that's the best number I have, but it's not that accurate and it's not terribly important to me. What is important is that I've enjoyed guest-blogging here. Thanks for having me.

This won't be my last post because I've been asked to talk about how guest-blogging on Charlie's site has affected my web hits and book sales stats, so I'll try to work that up for Friday, depending on when Amazon.com adds the latest Bookscan numbers into their Author Central feature.

But today, I thought I'd offer something different: Useful information for real life problems.

First, Jill Cooper will show you how to fold a fitted sheet.

Someone should have told her not to lead with "One of the biggest challenges you'll have to face in your life is how to fold a fitted sheet" but with her sheet fu powers, I doubt anyone had the guts.

Second, I'll tell you how to relieve muscle pain.

This technique is called vaso-flushing and I learned it from my wife, who makes her living doing sports massage. It works best on injuries that happened more than 48 hours earlier, and it's also good for chronic pain (including my own.)

It's simple: First, you apply ice to the painful area for three minutes. Then, you apply heat for one minute--this is best done by immersing in a hot tub or jacuzzi if you can swing that.

After that minute of heat, you go back to three minutes of ice, then another minute of heat, then ice and heat again.
When the three rounds are done, you finish up with a minute or two of ice. That's it.

I do this at my gym to take advantage of their giant ice machine and jacuzzi, but I've used an ice pack and electric blanket at home. It works surprisingly well.

Third, this former FBI Counterintelligence Agent explains how he can tell when a person is lying.

Quick warning: this article is actually a pdf file.

Fourth, you may not be named Jonathan, but this guy will still show you how to prep a suit so it can be packed in a suitcase.

Fifth, and finally, if you feel the need to sneeze but you don't have a tissue handy (or want to delay it for another reason), tickle the roof of your mouth with your tongue. It may take five or ten seconds, but the urge to sneeze will pass. It will probably come back in a few minutes, but by then you should have had time to fetch a tissue or excuse yourself from the table.

What about you guys? Do you have any helpful tips for real life problems you'd like to offer?

I had planned a very different post for this spot but instead I'm putting it on hold and, knowing me, probably means I'll never get back to it. It was an expansion of my previous post about assuming people want to live inside the books they read, and it was supposed to cover everything from the discredited canard that romance readers are starved for love to the idea that Joe Abercrombie or George R.R. Martin's readers are nihilistic cynics with a taste for depravity--or that reading a book about a "chosen one" reveals a yearning for authoritarianism(!)

But I don't want to write about that. It's too contentious, too disjointed and, frankly, too close to the subject of my previous post. (If only I'd thought to label that other post "part 1".)

Instead I'm going to offer a short post with a video embedded. Here's the preamble: We've all noticed there has been an explosion in subgenres. It's not just science fiction, fantasy, and horror anymore. It's paranormal romance, new weird, mundane sf, urban fantasy, MilSF, space opera, fantasy of manners, psychological horror, and so on and on. Not all these labels are new (several are very much not new) but there are more than I ever remember. Our books are being marketed to us differently.

Why? I'm not a publishing insider, but I think I know where it came from. In the 1970's and early 1980's, food researcher Howard Moskowitz completely changed the way food was sold to the American people, and those changes spread out into the world and into other industries.

Here. Watch this short video. It's a TED Talk in which Malcolm Gladwell tells Moskowitz's story, it's under 18 minutes, and it may change the way you think about books, food, and happiness.

If you can't see the embed, here's a link to the TED Talk page itself.

This is why we have so many kinds of mustard and tomato sauce on our supermarket shelves, and I'm convinced this is also why book marketers (who after all are in the business of getting a book you will like in front of you) have continually been creating new subgenre categories.

Now, the industries are not completely the same. You can't create a novel in a laboratory kitchen, where you can vary the ingredients to find the ratio people like. Books are works of art. However, if the incentive is there to find a more precise label, they'll do it.

Another difference between books and food is that some of the new subgenre labels have come from the audience itself. They name for some new thing--too often by putting "-punk" at the end of a word--and that becomes the new flavor, the new genre.

Another important point from the video is that consumers do not always know what they want. This isn't exactly a revelation to readers, who are always discovering unexpected pleasures inside book jackets: Did I know I wanted to read a mash up of James Bond, Office Space, and HP Lovecraft? Hell no. But I did, very much so. I mention it because it's something that should be said often. Readers don't always know what they want. We should be trying new things constantly, just in case we come across our new favorite flavor, and good writers create the niche they will occupy.

Finally, I close out with this quote from Gladwell when he was talking about upscale and downscale condiments.

"Mustard does not exist in a heirarchy." Meaning, we all have variable tastes, and none is objectively superior to the others.

What do you think? Is it a revelation? Complete BS?

Just a brief interruption from the travel zone to mention two events, utterly irrelevant unless you're in New York city:

Tonight I'll be doing a reading at Housing Works bookstore cafe, with Jo Walton and music by Ninja Sex Party, from 7pm. (Map here.)

And on a less formal note, I will be sampling the beer and hanging out in d.b.a (at 41 1st Avenue) from 7pm on Wednesday (map here); if you like beer and want to meet me in an informal setting this is your chance (note: but keep an eye on the comment thread below this entry in case of last-minute changes).

If you're wondering why I've been extra-scarce here over the past week, it's not only because I've been travelling and working, but because I managed to leave my laptop at home. The withdrawal symptoms have been terrifying1, mitigated only by the acquisition of an emergency iPad2. (Taxis to the airport at 4am? Just say no!)

In comments on previous posts I've mentioned that I have never considered myself a part of fandom. I haven't been avoiding fans, and I don't have any aversion to them (as far as I can tell so far). It's just that every time I would see a flyer advertising a convention, there would be that admission fee. I don't doubt the event is worth sixty dollars or whatever, but that doesn't mean I was prepared to part with so much cash. I imagine a BMW is worth the price, but the cost puts it out of reach.

Anyway, this meant that, as I ventured onto the internet, I stumbled upon a whole bunch of writers and readers who already knew each other, and they seemed to be having these ongoing conversations.

But there was one conversation I kept seeing that I'd been exposed to before: "Science fiction readers are smarter than fantasy readers, because, you know, science."

Here's how I came across it: Seattle used to have a big annual event called NW Bookfest. It's been defunct for a few years now, but it used to place over a chilly weekend, numerous authors of every type were invited to be interviewed or to appear on panels, and the place was filled with publishers and booksellers from all over the region.

I loved it, even if they typically only had one genre panel each day (if I was lucky). One year I dropped over a thousand dollars on books and I always went home with a T-shirt.

Anyway, there was a single sf/f panel taking place one day and it was pretty crowded. I managed to find a spot in the middle row. I'm not going to mention any authors by name (in consideration of point 5 of the moderation policy, just in case) but one of the authors began talking about how much he loved science fiction, and how much he hated fantasy.

He was kinda nasty about it, too. He thought wizards and the like were lame because they were trapped on one planet. He'd tried to write fantasy but was so annoyed with it he wanted to throw the wizard into a sun. And so on.

While he complained, I heard a woman behind me say quite clearly "I don't even know why they're shelved together." Immediately I thought Oh my god, I'm trapped in the middle of them! Don't turn around or draw their attention! I wasn't even completely sure who they were but I knew they weren't friendly to me or my kind.

Eventually the author really got down to it. He told the audience that he read science fiction because he wanted to live in those futuristic worlds, with the robots and space ships and so on. Not only did he not want to live in a pre-industrial agricultural setting, but he explained that he'd already tried it. He'd lived on a farm with no modern conveniences, and it was really, really hard work.

What fools these fantasy readers were for wanting to live in an environment like that!

Now, maybe it's a common fandom experience to be sitting in the audience at a panel thinking WTF is this dude going on about? I wouldn't know. But I know I was looking at him like he had decided to impress everyone by farting out soap bubbles.

Hey, if someone wants to create a Star Trek future where I get a holodeck and replicator corned beef hash for breakfast every day, I'm there. See a Martian sunrise? Love to. Robots that will keep house? I'll take two. But when I pick up a novel to read, it's usually a mystery or a fantasy.

We all know it's common for readers of adventure fiction to imagine yourself in the story. (At least I think it's common; if I'm a one-of-a-kind freak don't tell me.) I would have been quite happy to accept a teaching position at Hogwarts. Hell, I'd go there as a Muggle to teach Muggle Studies as long as I was allowed to pack a pair of Desert Eagles under my robes (First lesson: nuclear weapons and why wizarding kind should stop kidding themselves about "their rightful place").

Sometimes, when I'm reading A Song of Ice and Fire, I burn with the desire to leap into the pages and have a Very Serious Talk with the characters about what they ought to be doing (then leap out again because... yikes.) A pleasant tour of post-Sauron Middle Earth would be cool and Silver Age DC universe would make for a fun jaunt.

And as much fun as it would be to fly like Superman or ride a giant eagle, would I, myself, move to those places? Live there? Hell no. I no more want to start a farm in the Shire than I want to dress like a bat and try to terrify the criminals of downtown Seattle.

And don't forget all those mysteries I read. Does Mr. Panelist think I read police procedurals because I hear a little voice inside whispering subject header above? Or that I read detective novels because I want to go out of my house to talk to three dozen people, some of whom think I'm an interfering sleaze ball? Please. I don't like to ask my waiter if the drinks come with free refills; you know I won't be prying into some senator's extra-marital affair.

My point here is that nearly everyone in the whole world would like to live in an advanced techno-utopia. Just because you like to read about them too doesn't mean you're a clear-eyed rationalist living amongst herds of sheeple. It means you're interested in science fiction, period. It doesn't make you stand out as a lonely supporter of human progress and it's not a marker of moral virtue. Which isn't to say that you're not a perfectly wonderful person; I'm sure you are! But it's not the books you read that make you wonderful.

And just because I'm reading a mystery novel doesn't mean I'm hoping to get into a gun fight in a grimy alley. It's a story I enjoy, not a life I wish I were living.

In my next post I'm going to talk about diagnosing my mental illnesses (over the internet) based on nothing but my positive response to a book.

If I were a better blogger, I would have put this post up on Valentine's Day itself. Ah well, I'm stuck with being me.

Anyway, February 14th was the 80th anniversary of the premiere of one of the founding horror films of Western culture: Dracula.

Tod Browning's Dracula is a great movie, but not in the traditional sense. In truth, some of the performances don't work, and a few of the editing choices make no sense at all.

But it's been 80 years, and people are still doing Legosi imitations when they play at being vampires. Filmmakers dream of making a mark like that on the culture.

What many people don't know is that Universal made two versions of Dracula at the same time. The second was DrĂ¡cula, a Spanish-language film shot at the same time as the English-language version. During the day, the English-speaking actors did their scenes. At night, the Spanish-speaking actors arrived at the studio and did theirs on the same sets and often with the same blocking.

Even more interesting, the crew shooting the night scenes would often watch the day crew's dailies and, amongst themselves, they'd tell themselves they could do much better.

If I knew how to put in a cut, it would go here. Spoilers!

Anyway, you'll sometimes hear that the Spanish version, directed by George Melford, is superior. I don't really agree, but I understand why people say that. Melford makes a number of choices that improve on the scene Browning shot. For instance, in the scene where Lucia's body is being examined by the doctors, Melford takes the trouble of shooting a close up of the bite wounds on her neck. When Renfield sees a spider on the wall, Melford actually shoots it over the actor's shoulder. When Dracula uses his hypnotic stare, they don't just shoot the actor's face (with the misaligned lights), they get a terrific close up of his eyes. Also, the scene where Van Helsing shows the mirror to Dracula was played much more dramatically.

What's more, there's a major screwup in the Browning movie that never made sense until I saw Melford's. In the English version: Seward's maid faints dead away on the floor and all the heroic menfolk rush off to take care of the plot, leaving Renfield alone with her. He gets a mad, manic smile on his face, gets down on his hands and knees and crawls to her, and it looks as though he's finally given in to his bloodlust.

The film cuts away just as he gets near her, but a couple of scenes later that same unconscious maid is shown standing in the yard, chatting away. What happened to her? Wasn't she just attacked?

In Melford's version, they don't cut away. They hold the camera on Renfield long enough show him snatching up a bug beside her body and eating it. Yeah, it's not as scary, but at least it makes sense.

And both films suffer from having cast a stiff in the part of Jonathan/Juan Harker. In the scenes where Mina/Eva breaks off their engagement (because she's becoming a bloodthirsty killer, hello) both actors are stuck in the weird body language of early cinema adoration--hips back, body leaning way forward, head craned back to stare blankly at the woman he's supposed to love. Bleh. It's more pose than performance.

As for Browning, he has a much better sense of space, which really works for the castle scenes and Dracula's attempt to mind control Van Helsing. Not to mention that the English-language version had much better actors. The Spanish version of Van Helsing is truly awful (truly, truly awful) and let me ask you: is this the face that will come to mind whenever someone thinks of vampires?


Not with those ears, baby.

I'm told the dialog in the Spanish version is nothing to marvel over, but I wouldn't know because I don't speak Spanish. I'm fully ready to believe it, though, because Melford didn't speak Spanish either(!). One thing that didn't happen is that Lucia never delivers this infamous line: "The next morning, I felt very weak, as if I had lost my virginity."

I understand that she actually says "vitality" and the subtitler misheard. By accident, I'm sure.

My main point is that, when I write a book, I can fuss over a scene several times over months. My agent might offer tips for improving things, and my editor certainly will. A novel is written several times (at least mine are).

With film, it's all preparation and collaboration. They only time filmmakers do reshoots is if there's an error that will utterly break the film. When you hear a movie is doing reshoots, you know there's a big, big problem.

But with these two films, I can watch the revision process as it was happening. I like to imagine Melford as a guy who had something to prove and I'm glad for the chance to see his creative process at work.

I thought I'd lead off here by talking about something I occasionally bring up on my own blog: Thrillers.

I grew up reading fantasy, thanks to my older sister. Sure, I dabbled in horror and science fiction, but most of the books on my shelves were about dudes with swords taking a long trip. And even though I was completely unconnected with fandom, I managed to pick up a few genre-specific terms anyway, and while I'm sure I don't have to explain "high fantasy" and "low fantasy" to readers here, I'll skim over them for completeness' sake.

High Fantasy: fictional settings, kings, empires, armies, generals, palace wizards, GvE, big magic, monsters and non-human species are commonplace parts of the setting, plots with an epic scope.

Low Fantasy: real/historical settings, common citizens as characters--especially criminals, shopkeepers, beggars and police, small amounts of magic (usually), monsters or non-human species regarded as unusual elements in the setting if they exist at all, plots that may include the fate of the world (just like high fantasy) but which have a much smaller scope.

Now, fantasy novels aren't lag bolts. They're works of art (we can argue whether they're good or bad art, but stories = art), so these aren't strict categories. A book can be comfortably placed in "high fantasy" without checking every box on the list. I say this to forestall discussions of edge cases and "Well, what about [X]?" where [X] is a book that matches every low fantasy indicator except that it has a prince in it or something. Pointing out works of art don't neatly fall into a category doesn't refute the category or demonstrate that the category isn't useful. These are descriptive labels, and we don't have to be strict about them.

Back to thrillers: Wikipedia is nice enough to provide a list of subgenres, but for my own purposes I split them into high thrillers and low thrillers.

A high thriller concerns people in power--not kings, but Presidents, CIA officials, FBI investigators, DEA agents, etc. It's unlikely to be set somewhere fictional the way high fantasy is, but it's very likely to take place in settings that the average reader doesn't/can't visit: Ten Downing Street, A cell in Guantanamo Bay, etc. It has big stakes, recognizable good and bad guys, lots of scope and a major part of the appeal is that it gives a peek into the way the very powerful operate.

Want to know how the president stays in touch while on Airforce One? Want to know how a Mossad agent files reports securely? Want to know how your government secures fissionable material? A high thriller makes an implicit promise to the reader that the writer has researched the book to the degree that, while the characters and the dangers are fictional, the depiction of these people and agencies is as accurate as possible. In fact, that research is at the foundation of the genre's appeal.

In addition, I'd suggest that the resources and authority high thriller characters employ is equivalent to magic in high fantasy: it's how they exert their agency. It's often the source of their problems (especially when it doesn't function correctly or is co-opted from within). It's often arcane in its operation. Finally, it offers readers a sort of wish-fulfillment depiction of the exertion of power.

By contrast, a low thriller avoids powerful people in favor of low-level criminals or regular citizens in danger. While a high thriller might involve an international terrorist plotting an attack on U.S. soil, a low thriller would be an insurance actuary's black sheep brother turning up after 15 years with some pissed off criminals on his trail. Or a low-level mobster who discovers he's been betrayed. Or some oddball criminal types try to pull off one last job, with comically disastrous results.

David Morrell and Donald Westlake wrote these sorts of books, along with many, many others. They can be noirish or comic, the characters are rarely wholly good or bad (although the villains are often Genuinely Awful) and the final confrontation is more likely to take place in a motel or boiler room than the Oval Office or Aswan Dam.

Which isn't to suggest that low thrillers aren't carefully researched, or that the research isn't part of the appeal. But typically, the research isn't there to give the reader a glimpse at the tools and methods of power--you're more likely to find out how an insurance actuary does their job.

Charlie writes high thrillers, by my measure. Halting State deals with high-powered corporate types, law enforcement [spoiler], [spoiler], and [spoiler], too. The way these, er, let's call them something generic like "story elements" operate is extrapolated from his research rather than straight-up researched because it's an sf book, but the effect is similar. The Laundry is, of course, explicitly set within a made-up government agency, and you don't get more high thriller than that.

Me, I write low thrillers. The setting is generally commonplace and localized, most of the characters are regular folks, and the plot is played out through the exercise of personal agency rather than cultural or organizational power. In fact, one of the most persistent criticisms of my books has been that they don't have a high thriller insider's view of the Twenty Palace Society.

What can I say? I have preferences.

Obviously, this model could cover all sorts of thrillers. Is the lawyer protagonist of this courtroom thriller making his case before the Supreme Court or working out of an understaffed public defender's office? Is the hapless schmo ensnared in this erotic thriller the Prime Minister or a beach bum drop out?

I guess it takes a lifelong reader of fantasy--a genre obsessed with questions of power and the political exercise of it--to separate thrillers this way, but that's what I do.

What do you think? Is this a sensible way to examine thrillers? Is it a useful tool for looking at other genres?

As already noted, I'm going to be away from keyboard for a week and a half, starting Thursday. So to keep you all amused, I'm handing over the mike to another guest blogger: Harry Connolly.

Besides blogging, Harry is the author of a couple of novels: Child of Fire
and Game of Cages (a third novel, "Circle of Enemies", is due out this summer). Without saying too much, if you like my Laundry stories there is a good chance you'll find Harry's Twenty Palaces yarns agreeable. (Rumours that discovering them is the reason I was nearly late with the copy edits for "Rule 34" are ... regrettable.)

Anyway: I'm not signing out just yet, but don't be surprised if you see a new name under some of the next few blog entries!

I'm guest of honor at Boskone 48 from February 18-20, at the Boston Westin Waterfront. That's next weekend. Read below the cut for a detailed list of what I'll be doing there.

The week after Boskone I'll be in New York. Tor are organizing a fund-raiser for Housing Works (an HIV/AIDS charity helping homeless and low income New Yorkers with HIV/AIDS), and I'll be reading there, along with Jo Walton. There'll be music, too, by Ninja Sex Party. if you happen to be in Manhattan on the evening of Tuesday 22nd here's how to get there.

... And while I am away, there will be a surprise guest blogger!

If James hadn't linked to it in his blog I wouldn't have stumbled upon it. And I wouldn't be regretting my own inability to un-read texts. So, James, this is all YOUR fault!:

It is a fact that the large majority of boys acquire the habit of self-abuse at some time ...

Most boys acquire this habit from other boys, but as we have intimated it is possible to acquire it in what are termed innocent ways. Sometimes the sensation which leads to it is discovered by sliding down banisters; or it may be that climbing trees or poles first awakens the feeling. Very young children are sometimes taught the vice by depraved nurses. Local irritation, as has been stated, may necessitate itching and handling the parts and in this way the vice is begun. The results are the same ...

If the habit is persisted in, the muscular system suffers, — the muscles become weak and flabby; the patient develops weariness and languor and loses his mental and physical vigor. He is no longer forceful or energetic, his efficiency is impaired and as a consequence his nervous system begins to show signs of depleted strength. He cannot concentrate his thoughts, he falls behind in his studies, his mental effort is sluggish, he becomes diffident and shy, shuns society, loses confidence in himself, is morbid and emotional and may even think of suicide.

... He becomes shifty and suspicious and will not look you squarely in the face. A boy cannot become a slave to this habit without it affecting his mind. He invites debasing thoughts,—the old pure and clean method of thought and living no longer satisfy. His imagination even becomes corrupt and his moral nature and moral sense is perverted until he no longer seems to be able to tell the difference between right and wrong. ... In the end his will power is lost— even the effort to save himself is too feeble to succeed — he is a slave to the habit, his health and strength ruined.

(From part two of "The Eugenic Marriage".)

I am posting this here because I feel the need to share the pain or point and mock or something. (Maybe it's time to re-read "Portnoy's Complaint"?)

Afterthought: clearly the author of this text believes that GURLS!!!1!! are immune to this practice. Except, one supposes, for the DEPRAVED NURSES.

Another afterthought: the language here reminds me of some of the more frenzied rhetoric around drug use in subsequent decades.

What current cultural ... practices ... are going to look this bizarre and/or quaint in a century's time? Leaving aside obvious political candidates (the war on drugs, the conservative obsession with tax cuts, American exceptionalism, etc), I hasten to add.

In recent news the Pope gets to tear up his donor card because his body belongs to the Church and, hey, if he was beatified all his organs would turn into holy relics. (Never mind that he's 87 and not exactly a desirable source of young, healthy donor organs.)

This got me thinking ...

Spam: we hates it. And we (meaning me and my blog moderators) try to keep it out of the comments here.

Sometimes it's a little hard to spot ...

I am watching the current developments in the middle east with a sense of deja vu — it strongly reminds me of the autumn and winter of 1989, a period during which the formidable barbed-wire-and-concrete studded dominoes of Eastern Europe came crashing down in one revolution after another. First Tunisia, then riots in Algeria, crisis in Egypt, a new Prime Minister in Jordan with urgent orders from the King, a president standing down in Yemen ... where's it going to end?

On a hopeful note, Juan Cole explains precisely why Egypt in 2011 is not like Iran in 1979 — the balance between various social groups makes an Islamic revolution highly unlikely.

Looking for second-order effects, John Quiggin of Crooked Timber explains that the basic premises of US policy towards the region have been rendered invalid. Specifically:

The bigger casualty is the 'Arab exception': the idea that the concept of democracy is not really applicable in Arab countries and that foreign policy therefore amounts to a choice of which dictator to support.
Just as Eastern Europe in the 1980s and South America in the 1990s succumbed to a rising tide of democratization, it is possible that the Arab world in the 2010s will similarly see the overthrow or retirement of dictators and the rise of a civil society typified by representative democracies.

Who's left? China? And what do we have when we reach an end state in which representative parliamentary democracy of one strain or another is the default system of government (subject to minor disagreements over how to run the economy, from the total-capitalism no-safety-net Hong Kong model to Scandinavian-style social welfare)?



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