Recently in Writing Category

Not too long ago, someone in the twittersphere asked, "Whatever happened to psi? It used to be all the rage in science fiction."

The answer, essentially, was that John Campbell died and nobody believes in that crap any more. And anyway, it's fantasy.

Now here's the thing. If you accept Clarke's Third Law, which boils down in the common wisdom to "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic," you kind of have to ask, "Do we believe psi is crap because it really is crap, or do we just not have the technology to detect or manipulate it?"

I'm just barely old enough that it's a miracle I survived toddlerhood, having come into existence in the era of child-strangling continuously-looped window-blind cords and child-trepanning lawn darts, guaranteed to come down point first and ever-so-much faster than they went up. This is relevant because it means that when I was in my late twenties and early thirties, and making the first serious, striving steps toward becoming a published SFF writer, the genre discourse was all about the singularity.

A lot of bad advice gets handed out to aspiring writers. One of the crappier pieces that I received at that time was the assurance that I must address the concept of the rapture of the nerds in every science fiction story, to be taken at all seriously. That uploaded brains were where it was at, and if we didn't talk about that, we weren't talking about the Real Futuristic Futureā„¢.

It was also at about that time that our esteemed host, Mr Stross, had just published his breakout story "Lobsters," which deals--among other things--with just the problem of uploading brains. And I read that story and was blown away... but I also had the privilege of hearing Charlie speak on the topic of the singularity, either at Readercon in 2002 or at TorCon in 2003--possibly both, looking back--and he said something that made much more sense to me than the idea of one major catastrophic event as singularity, after which would be Humanity v. 2.0 and nothing old would matter anymore.

Charlie presented the idea that history was a series of one-way gates; that every time we passed through one, it was a technological singularity from which there was no turning back. It was just that we adapted to these changes, and considered them commonplace: that the post-human future looked pretty human once you were in it.

At the same time, I had been noodling with some ideas of my own regarding uploaded minds or created artificial intelligences. Some of these appeared in Hammered and the associated novels; some have appeared in Dust and its associated novels.

It troubled me that this idea of a post-human future was so western, so industrial, and so absolutist. I admit to a kind of existentialist bent in my personal philosophy--I call myself an agnostic because I'm not capable of summoning the belief in my own infallibility it would take to declare myself an atheist (I could be wrong! There could be something that looks, from the outside, like a god!)--and I'm exquisitely aware that value judgments are externally exposed and culturally determined.

And the fact that the future is not equally distributed, to paraphrase Bruce Sterling, does not make the lives of the people who still live ten or twenty of fifty years ago--technologically speaking--of less value than the lives of those who--technologically speaking--are living five or ten years ahead of me. (Every time I go abroad, I am reminded of how primitive so much American infrastructure is. Why does the bus stop by my house not tell me when the next bus is arriving? Why do I need to take my credit card out of my wallet to buy groceries?)

Geoff Ryman addresses a lot of these issues brilliantly in his novel Air, set in a future Cambodia. I also think Nnedi Okorafor's Who Fears Death--while not a singularity novel, per se--makes an interesting series of counterpoints to the idea of "a" singularity. It's set in a future Sudan, and the base cultural assumption it makes are very different from those we're accustomed to seeing in western SF.

So I leave the reading of these novels as an exercise to the class, and pass on discussing my suite of issues with the Western-Civ-Centric singularity for now.

Because what I want to talk about today is another problem I have with the singularity as monolithic event. When I first started talking about it online, in 2006 or so, I identified what I was doing as a feminist critique (and to be specific here, I am talking about the uploaded-brain rapture-of-the-nerds singularity, not the augmented-meat/skinned reality brand of singularity. We have so many, these days. It makes one jealous of having just a nice neat three or five or seven branches of Urban Fantasy to fight over and lump-or-split texts into.). At the time, I wrote:

When I first moved to Las Vegas, I used to burn my mouth a lot when I wasn't thinking carefully about what I was drinking, because the air is so dry that you often can't see the steam rising from a cup of tea. After a while, I learned to hesitate, and check the temperature of the air over the fluid with my lip. This isn't something I ever decided to do. Rather, my autonomous systems figured it out for themselves. Because they're smarter than you think they are.

The meat does a lot of our thinking, in other words, when the more advanced electrical systems are busy. An MIT a-life researcher who I quoted in Hammered holds the unpopular perspective that a good deal of our thinking (our consciousness, our sentience) is emotional rather than rational. Chemical, if you will, rather than electrical.

Sarah Monette pointed out at Boskone (2006) that the idea of the singularity is at its heart a denial of the body, and it occurred to me that that could be read, from a feminist perspective, two ways. One, that sex becomes irrelevant, or--and here's the bit I twigged on--that if you squint just right, what you're left with is a very Augustinian refutation of the flesh. In this way, Stross's notorious turn of phrase, the rapture of the geeks, is exactly right. The weak/evil/flawed/excoriated flesh is scoured away, and what is left is divine, improved, elevated, incomprehensible.

Transcendent, if I may.

There's a bunch of talk about how SF has to address the idea of a singularity to be relevant, which to me is bullshit. Augmented intelligence, techshock, sure--but we've been dealing with that as a genre for the last hundred years. Which is why I like Charlie's one-way-gates (the Strossian singularity) as a more useful idea than the Vingean posthuman singularity. (I'm pretty freaking posthuman to a sixth-century Northman, yanno?)

Basically, it's a lovely idea, and there's been a lot of very good SF written about it, but I think allowing this idea of posthumanity to become The Defining Dialogue of "serious" SF is a mistake. (Of course, I'm not much for SF as predictive--we keep missing the big ones, after all, so I don't see why that should change.)

But then, there's this drive to define SF as Apollonian, in contrast to the purported Dionysian bent of modern fantasy, and to thus elevate SF, and I think is some ways that's one element of the whole posthuman thing. Because a singularity is nicely Apollonian. Augustinian. Anti-feminist, if you accept the idea that women's fiction tends to be more concerned with relationship and the negotiation of life and that women are more concerned with the messy bits of being made of meat.

Boy games are still privileged over girl games, in other words. Even when the games are intellectual.

Of course, I don't for half a second think that the male writers playing posthuman games are intentionally setting out to devalue "female" (please note the scare quotes) values or perspectives. I know Peter Watts and Charlie Stross and Cory Doctorow and so on, and a less gender-bigoted bunch of guys would be hard to find. (Actually, one of the things I really like about Cory Doctorow, and a symptom I suspect of how giant and shiny his brain really is, is that he can manipulate "masculine" and "feminine" communication styles with equal facility.) What I'm saying is that if you come at this thing from the right angle, it looks surprisingly like the old logic-trumps-emotion, Apollo-trumps-Dionysius, male-trumps-female, SF-trumps-Fantasy, mind-trumps-meat "moral" argument.

This idea of the meat-puppet as somehow different from and inferior to the mind, rather than the two being an integrated and seamless whole: it's so pervasive in our culture that I think we forget to question it... but there are cultures that could not conceive of the mind without the body. Which is what I mean when I say that the singularity in its Rapture of the Geeks form is Augustinian... but then again, what if it's not a case of the rancid flesh and the incorruptible soul? What if it's a package deal?

It doesn't fit our Western cultural preconceptions, of course. But then, our current Western cultural preconceptions have deep roots in Thomas a Beckett's stinky hair shirt and Calvinist doctrine, the mortification of the flesh for the glorification of the soul.

And that's interesting to think about, from a perspective of regarding unquestioned assumptions.

I still think what I wrote then is broadly true, though I've refined my perspectives somewhat, and started tying it more closely into some of my broad, unified theories of what's afoot in speculative fiction.

The more research I do into human neurology--and writing Dust and the other two Jacob's Ladder books required more about brains than I ever wanted to know--the more convinced I become that we, human we, are not divorceable from our meat. In one of the Jenny Casey books, I have a artificial intelligence researcher protest to her creation that he's nothing but piezoelectrical patterns in crystal; he retorts that she is, likewise, piezoelectrical patterns in meat. And while that remains true... the shape of the circuitry, and the neurochemical baths that wash it, have a hell of a lot of influence over who we are. So I've been playing more extensively with this idea of what the actual practical results would be, if we did have the technology to "upload" a mind, or copy it in some fashion. And possibly download it into another brain.

How does this affect identity? Does identity even exist under those circumstances?

Where's your soul now, Augustus? The machine shapes the ghost as surely--probably even more strongly, given current research into neuroplasticity--as the ghost shapes the machine. Meat hacks mind and mind hacks meat: they are codependent, and cannot exist without each other in any functional form.

They are not, in fact, two separate things. Rather, one is an emergent property of the other.

And that fascinates me. Far, far more than beaming my brain across space into a new body for easy lightspeed travel.

There's a lot of effort expended on identifying The Next Big Thing in science fiction, and arguing about what it should be, and trying to make each of the cresting wavelets into the next big sweeping change. Biotech was supposed to be The Next Cyberpunk; so was quantum physics; likewise the singularity.

Which is why, I think, I felt as an arriving writer that it was being stuffed down my throat.

But Next Big Things, like minds, like singularities, are emergent properties. I don't think they can be prescribed--only identified once they are inevitable.

And I think while we've all been trying to declare one, one has shown up.

Because a thing I notice about "my" generation of science fiction and fantasy writers is that we are different in one particular significant manner from the generations before us, and I think that particular difference contributes to this lack of a unifying Next Big Thing.

The coming revolution in the English-language genre is here. And it's this: we're diverse. I've taken to calling it the Rainbow Age of science fiction, because the one thing I notice about the writers in my cohort is that we are multicolored, multicultural, multinational, multiethnic. We come from a wide range of class and religious backgrounds and life experiences. We do not conform neatly to gender binaries or established sexual identities. You cannot assume that we are male, or heterosexual, or white, or American or English or Canadian, or of protestant or Jewish background, or that we are probably professional or middle class.

The thing--the only thing--we have in common is that we are science fiction and fantasy fans.

And certainly diversity is not new to science fiction fandom, but this mass and breadth of diversity is. This sheer number of intelligent, vocal people who come from outside fandom's established demographics means that the genre club scene is suddenly, vividly alive. Fusion is happening. Creation is underway right here.

It's causing some readjustments of assumptions and it's pushing some people's comfort zones.

And I think that's glorious. I think it's healthy. I think it's blowing the boundaries of the genre wide open, throwing the windows wide, getting the dust off, and leading to some of the most creative and interesting work I've read in years. I think this diversity and multi-threadedness and the power of these arguments is exactly what science fiction needs to make it a vital and enduring and relevant literature for another fifty years.

Because if speculative fiction isn't where you go to envision a brave new world, where the hell is?

Charlie is traveling for a couple of days so I'm dropping by for a quick post. Remember me from last April? Dracula-movie guy? Vaguely familiar?

Anyway, I wanted to kick around a few ideas about ebooks; authors (and some real people) have been talking this subject to death for years--decades, even--so what's new to say?

Well, my book is new. My latest novel came out yesterday and I've been surprised by the way sales are running on It's a huge difference from last year when the early ebook and pbook sales were pretty much neck and neck.

This year it's not even close. Early orders for the Kindle edition of Circle of Enemies have been much, much higher than the physical book. The ebook cracked's Contemporary Fantasy bestseller list while sales rank for the mass market paperback barely moved out of five figures. A number of readers also told me that they ordered digital versions of the book after being unable to find it in a brick-and-mortar store on release day.

I realize this isn't anything like a complete picture of sales trends, but it is interesting in the same way Netflix is moving away from mailing DVDs. is so well positioned to sell digital files that one glance at their list of Contemporary Fantasy bestsellers shows one unsurprising fact: It's not dominated by books put out by New York publishers.

As I write this, the top three books are in the "Vampire for Hire" series, which are self-published, as are seven of the top ten.'s digital customers appear to be moving toward self-published books and away from professionally-published ones.

What does that mean for the future? Well, we're no strangers to love. You know the rules and so do I. A full commitment's what I'm thinking of. You wouldn't get this from any other guy. I just wanna tell you how I'm feeling. Gotta make you understand.

Never gonna give you up. Never gonna let you down. Never gonna run around and desert you. Never gonna make you cry. Never gonna say goodbye. Never gonna tell a lie and hurt you.

We've known each other for so long. Your heart's been aching but, you're too shy to say it...

Okay, yeah, that was a rickroll. Hopefully, you laughed, which is more than you would have gotten out of my predictions of the future. The truth is, I don't know if anyone is really capable of calling the score on this one. Yeah the "book stink" people (the folks who are always talking about the way books smell) are the minority most of us expected, and ebook sales are growing, but the picture is more complex than that. Ebooks seem to be hitting mass market originals (like my books) much harder than hardbacks and trade-sized paperbacks, but how much more of a bite can they take? What happened to windowing? If ebook readers buy even more self-published books, will be less of a problem for brick-and-mortar indie stores? And what about those readers who really make a book into a mega-hit, the casual, two-book-a-year, everyone-else-has-read-DaVinci-Code-so-I-should-too people?

It's fascinating (if slightly painful) and I'm curious to see if the market finds an equilibrium soon. I just wanna tell you how I'm feeling.

ObPlug: Here's a couple of links for those curious about my books: New book, which Charlie has very kindly blurbed | Sample chapter | Entire series.

Thanks for reading.

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.

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?

Being a science fiction writer means fielding a lot of questions about what the future is going to be like. It also means disappointing a lot of people when I tell them, "I don't know."

Not only do I not know, I don't even pretend to know. I mean, I can extrapolate from trends; I can guesstimate, I can figure out what cool toys I might love and give them to my made-up friends. I can research and see what the current state of technology is, and what's on the design board--but honestly, I'm not even slightly trying to predict the future.

(See? You're disappointed in me already. I can tell from here. But I am just trying to be honest.)

When I write, though, I'm not writing to an audience thirty years from now, or six hundred. I'm writing to an audience of today, with today's concerns and today's zeitgeist and today's worries in their heads.

Ahh, yes, today's worries. But many of those worries are universal--one might even say, human. And that stories that deal with those universal worries will remain fresh, or at least stand a better chance of it.

So I can't tell you what we'll be using for power technology in fifty years. I can't tell you if the Singularity will or will not happen, though I have my opinions (and I have opinions, too, about what the turn-of-the-millennium fascination with the idea reveals about our society, because projections tell you more about a person or a culture than just about anything else they do). I can't tell you whether we'll manage a credible approximation of A-life in my... er... lifetime.

But I can tell you how a human being reacts to change, and where we keep our ghosts, and how much work it is making ethical choices in an imperfect world. Because there are futurists and there are fictioneers, and we excel at different things.

...this is that post about the future of web publishing that I promised Charlie I would write.

As many of you probably already know, I am a writer. I write science fiction, fantasy, mystery, young adult, nonfiction (notably book reviews and criticism--which are actually two different things), short stories, novels, poetry--basically, anything that will sit still long enough for me to slap a keyboard on top of it.

As of the end of this month, I have published sixteen novels, a handful of novellas, and almost a hundred pieces of short fiction. It's been critically well received, garnered me some praise and a handful of awards, and has performed modestly well in terms of what the publishing industry refers to as "the numbers."

Like every other narrative-prose writer on the planet who does not have the covers pulled up over her head (and believe me, the temptation is enormous) I am trying to figure out how the heck to continue doing what I am good at--what I have spent twenty years learning how to do at a professional level--in the face of developing technology.

I do believe that books (both paper and electronic) are here to stay, for a long time to come. Paper books are a mature technology: they're a durable and inexpensive way in which to archive information. While modern books are not the thousand-year technology that a medieval or even Renaissance book was, they can still endure for many years undegraded. Ebooks, meanwhile, are tremendously portable, revisable, and information-dense in terms of bits per pound. They adapt admirably to multitasking--I often read on my laptop between IMs or emails, for example--and you can carry six hundred of them in your carryon as easily as one.

But ebooks are not optimized to the web, because the web can do all kinds of things that a print book cannot--and an ebook often can.

I'm currently engaged in a crowdfunded side project with a group of other SFF writers and visual artists (and a computer geek or two) that's attempting to explore some of the options for things a web-optimized written narrative can do. That narrative (what we're calling a "hyperfiction environment") is called Shadow Unit. While it exists in various places around the web (a wiki, some livejournals, some web pages linked to pieces of fiction), the launchpad is here.

We've been at it for three years now, and we've learned some very interesting things.

  • A hyperfiction can be nonlinear.

So that might seem self-evident, but it's one of the most interesting things for us as writers. While the main narrative of Shadow Unit (the "episodes," a serial comprised of short stories, novellas, and (so far) two short novels) is linear, it forms a kind of scaffolding on which other shorter stories are hung. Meanwhile, the characters who maintain blogs maintain them in real time, and they are interactive--as long as participants respect the fourth wall and their privileged information, and engage with the characters as if they were real people.

Which leads us to the next point:

  • A hyperfiction can be interactive

Self-evident, right? But tricky. The people playing along have to be willing to separate their in-character and out-of-character knowledge, just as they would in a roll-playing game. But if they are willing to do that, it allows ARG-like possibilities to emerge. There are several instances in Shadow Unit where the narrative (which sometimes happens in real time in the stories as well as the blogs) was significantly affected by things the fans did or information that they provided to the characters.

  • A hyperfiction can be multimedia.

Shadow Unit has not exploited this particular element particularly well. We've got some music, some web pages, some visual art (and we're working on more), but most of the people involved in the project are writers first, so we've not been as successful at broadening out into things like comics, video, and audio as we would have liked.

  • A hyperfiction can be confusing.

It's easy as heck to lose people in the corners. Hyperfiction by its nature is sprawling--it rewards curiosity, investigation, peering into corners. (Reading dozens of blog comment threads for scraps of narrative, for example, is much easier at the beginning of a five-year narrative run than the end.)

It will help, in the future, to develop protocols for mapping hyperfictions (a sort of table of contents, perhaps, graphically represented in the form of a web? Shadow Unit has done this with a "suggested reading order" page on the wiki, but experience has revealed this to be helpful but not entirely adequate.).

On the other hand, some of the fun is the discovery, and the fan community delights in sharing their discoveries with each other, so we intentionally hide stuff in inobvious places. There's a balance to be struck between the fans who adore logic puzzles and the ones who just want to read a damned story, and accommodation must be made for both.

We do this with a BBS where (a) can show off their finds to (b).

  • Fan engagement is key.

We have discovered that the more we gives the fans the keys to the enterprise, the more they enjoy it. There's a wiki, a BBS, interactive blogs--and a thriving and integrated fan community. We've creative-commonsed the whole endeavor, and fans have put together Kindle versions and programmed Shadow Unit Google widgets that sound the alert when new content appears.

  • Keep the content coming.

Something new every week is ideal. Two or three times a week would be better, but we are mortal and all have other work.

Also, keep clever with the content. We've run contests (an Easter-egg hunt, a vidding contest), put up websites, mailed out boxes of goodies "from the characters" to their internet friends, run episodes in real-time day by day with blog posts that reflected the narrative as it happened, and so on.

And there's room for playfulness. One of the characters wrote a short story about his alternate life as a Texas sheriff and posted it to his livejournal for "Down The Rabbit Hole" day, as an example.

This is part of what makes hyperfiction unique and wonderful--along with the nonlinearity and interactivity. It also keeps the creators scrambling to come up with ever niftier stuff.

  • Making it pay for itself?

We're donation-funded. (We decided early on not to sell advertising, but that may someday change.)

So far, we're making beer money, and the site is paying for itself, but not for our time. First season was better than second, but then, the bottom fell out of the world economy in our second year, so it's nonconclusive--and we just started our third year, which so far seems to be more on the level of the first.

Merchandise has largely been break-even so far, though we are planning dead-tree versions of the primary narrative arcs, and those should be out this year. We'll see if anybody wants them.

So we haven't cracked the number-one problem of making a living telling stories in the information era, but this was an experiment, and we're still playing with variables.

  • Have a plan.

Since we're keeping an enormous number of balls in the air, it's essential that the team have a plan, that somebody or at most two somebodies be in charge of keeping track of how the narrative is adhering to that plan, and wow, is shared-calendar software a godsend.

Also, everybody has to be prepared to work together to cover crises and pitch in when something breaks.

  • A hyperfection presents the opportunity for extraordinary richness.

It's astounding how real this world has become to me, and to others. Because I am not the only one writing the characters, because they have lives outside the story arc (they live in and around Washington, DC, and lately have been blogging up the storm of the century) they feel like friends to me rather than people I made up. I hear similar things from the fans--that it's a unique experience to be able to drop a fictional character an email and get a response, or to get a package from one in the snail mail.

That's the baseline so far: we have learned that this stuff is really cool. And that there's tons of unexplored potential for similar narratives out there.

Sometimes I feel that, to what hyperfiction will eventually become, Shadow Unit is the equivalent of very early television--shot like a stage play, not yet quite exploiting its medium, balancing between fish and fowl.

Which is one of the reasons, I suppose, that our mascot is the platypus. Because what we've got here is weird and curious and hard to classify, but hey, somehow it works, and I, at least, am finding it utterly fascinating to spend time working on.

Now that I've got my schedule for next year untangled ...

First up in print in 2010 will be "The Trade of Queens", book #6 in the Merchant Princes series — due out in April, this concludes the current story arc (the one beginning in "The Clan Corporate" and most recently continued in "The Revolution Business"). That'll be a hardcover release from Tor, at around the same time that "The Revolution Business" shows up in paperback (and hopefully in the UK).

There are more stories to tell in that universe, but I'm taking a couple of years off from writing them: I need a break.

The second novel in 2010 is a surprise substitute: rather than the previously-scheduled sequel to "Halting State", it's going to be book #3 in the Laundry files: "The Fuller Memorandum":

In the shadowy world of the Laundry, there is One True Religion. Bob Howard is about to become a true believer -- and he really wishes he wasn't.

Stressed-out and looking for a quiet life after a work-related fatal accident, Bob Howard thinks that a spell working in the Laundry's secret archives and catching up on the filing is just the ticket. But when his boss Angleton falls under suspicion and a top secret dossier goes missing, Bob is determined to get to the bottom of a puzzle: what was in the missing Fuller Memorandum, and why are the Russians so interested in it?

I've always had a secret hankering to write cold war spy thrillers; thanks to CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN, the Laundry, and a hidden nameless horror from the NKVD's files, I'm getting my opportunity ...

(Why the switch? Well, I was just settling down to work on the "Halting State" sequel last summer when the news went nonlinear. That book is meant to be near-future SF, which means it's highly dependent on the state of the world today. It was bad enough when, as I was waiting for "Halting State" to work its way into print, bits of the plot kept turning up in the news; this time around, one of last year's major news stories ate my plot! So I decided to (a) go back to the drawing board, and (b) wait for the financial crisis to settle down a bit. I'm now in the re-planning stages, and the book should see the light of day in mid-2011.)

[The scene: The Oval Office. The President is addressing the nation -- and the wider world.]

"My fellow Americans:

"I'd like to start by confessing to a minor, but necessary, deception. My published biography has up to now listed my highest academic achievement as being an MBA. I'd like to take this opportunity to correct the record by revealing that in actual fact it was a Masters' degree in social psychology. In addition, I'd like to take this opportunity to apologize for dissembling about my intelligence to you, over the past decade. Believe me, it has been hard work pretending to be stupid. However, I am sure that those of you who have spent the past six years disparaging my lack of insight will be relieved to learn that your President is in fact a former member of MENSA, and has a higher IQ than Richard Feynman.

"And now, for the key issue I'd like to talk about today. For the past six years, in addition to occupying the office of President of the United States, I have been working on my doctoral thesis — a large-scale empirical verification of the pioneering studies of Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo. After consulting with my supervisors, Professors Cheney and bin Laden, I have concluded that the control phase of the largest ever experiment in applied social psychology has achieved its intended goals. We are therefore terminating the so-called 'War on Terror' with immediate effect. Thank you for you co-operation, which has been deeply appreciated. Those of you who have found yourself assigned to the 'reality based community' for the past six years will doubtless be relieved to learn that your performance has been excellent. I'd also like to ask for a warm round of applause for your 'winger' opponents, who have given sterling service in following their thankless (albeit lucrative) script.

"Finally, I'm very pleased to announce that the next phase of the experiment will commence shortly. Good night, and sleep well."

(This is Jay Lake's fault. He's been challenging SF writers to come up with their scariest short horror story for the season ...)

What do the public really think of literature?

Here are some examples, in the form of reviews culled from the reader comments on

1984 by George Orwell:

Caitlyn from Atlanta, GA, wrote: "1984 is the worst book I have ever read. I would advise anyone who is thinking about reading this book to reconcider! George Orwell is not a bad writer, however, this book he does not do evry well on, as some of his others. Prehaps he was getting old and lost his touch. Animal Farm was okay, but 1984 was horrible. It took him forever, it seemed like, to get into the accual book. If someone were to take out all of the useless part of 1984, it would be half as long. Why would he wirte so much about nothing? I havent ever meet someone who could wirte such a boring book about the goverment. I have meet many people who have loved this book, but i dispised it. I am not at all intrested in the goverment. This may be part of the reason that I didnt like it. I would advise you not to read this book."

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez:

R. Vanderhoof wrote: "I spent several weeks slogging through this book and found it to be very repetitive and tedious in the extreme. Keeping track of the family tree is a constant effort. At best, Marquez reveals an egalitarian attitude that seems to pervade the Americas south of the Rio Grande (no wonder those countries are in constant economic trouble). Marquez should study supply side economics as described by Milton Friedman, another Nobel Prize winner, in order to give his book better balance."

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley:

Ashley Lue wrote: "This was the worst book that I have ever read! The way that Huxley wrote the book was awful. He was writing about something that could never happen to our society. Back then he thought that our world would pretty much go to hell and the book portrayed the world that we should be living in today. Nothing that he said made sense. I don't understand why he would want anyone to live in that weird world that those people had to live in. People should have emotions and actual relationships. No one should be punished like that. I advise you not to read this book, unless you want to fall asleep!! :)"

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens:

goosedog 69 (New York) wrote: "if you don't like reading books with way too much detail than don't buy this book. when i was reading it i couldn't understand anything it said. if you are older maybe you wouldn't think it's boring, or if you like this author's books, but i thought it was very boring and it took me forever and a half to read."

A reader wrote: "I found this book difficult to follow and hard to hold my interest. I am an English teacher so I don't think it's me. I was revved about the book and started it immediately unpon receipt. I didn't even finish it--which is something I can say about few books..."

The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer:

[A — presumably — different] A reader wrote: "his book has potential but fails to deliver the goods. too much time is invested for the pay off. i hated the time machine sequences they were a total waste of time, eventually i just skiped them to help get the book over. this is a shame because there were some very good parts to the book a good editor could have improved it by trimming a few hundred pages."

Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare:

Son of Sammy wrote: "i just read this book. everybody like always talks about how great it is and everything. but i don't think so. like, it's been done before, right?? soooo cliched. omg."

The Quiet American by Graham Greene:

Jorge Frid (in Mexico City) wrote: "AT first you think that you are going to read about some secret agent in Vietnam that was killed, but when you see that the story of the book is not that man, is a journalist from England that doesn't want to go back to his country you will be disappointed, the book doesn't have any main story, it has the story of the journalist, his girlfriend (who was also the girlfriend of the "secret agent") and many more, but you will not be interested in one story at all, a real waste of time this book."

Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe:

Newton Ooi (in Phoenix, AZ) wrote: "If imitation is the highest form of praise, then this book must be one of the most praised books in the English canon. A man from a middle-class upbringing leaves it and ends up stuck on a tropical island. This story would inspire Swiss Family Robinson, Castaway, and probably Lord of the Flies. Mr. Crusoe is a white, Englishman with a wife and kids. After the wife dies, he leaves the kids to go on his own and to serve God. He ends up stuck on an island by himself. There he encounters cannibalistic natives, and one of their intended victims. The former scares him, and he essentially enslaves the latter, teaching him to call him Master.

"The book is not that interesting, as tales of desperation and survival are actually quite common."

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy:

A reader wrote: "I love classic novels. Some of my favorites: Gone with the wind/The catcher in the rye/Huck Finn/The Iliad..I adore Shakespeare... this book was B-O-R-I-N-G!!! I stopped reading at 400 pages. I am someone that almost never stops reading books. I couldn't stand it any longer. I don't mind the parts the were actually about Anna and human relationships. I could not stand all of the boring Russian politic talk or Levin and his boring farming or hunting talk. AHH! I do not recommend this book. If I truly hated someone, I would them to read this book."

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck:

Jef4Jesus wrote: "So, I'm only on page 478 of 619, but I've been disgusted at the amount of profanity. So far I've found more than 500 uses of profanity! On average every page (with relatively big writing, even) has more than one swear. Yikes! I'm never going to read Grapes of Wrath again, and won't be recommending it to anyone. If you don't like profanity, be careful."

M. Landis wrote: "This book was 600 pages written purly about a bunch of hicks from Oklahoma starving. Thanks, but no thanks."

I will confess at this point to feeling slightly nervous about tonight. It is now 7:20pm over here; in about eight hours the Hugo ceremony will be under way. The "best novel" Hugo is handed out last, so I won't hear the result until after 4am, win or lose.

As for the Hugos, here's my subjective assessment of the novel category (now it's too late to influence anyone):

I'm not going to win. Period. "Accelerando" is a little too bitty, episodic -- and has the bad luck to be on the shortlist the same year that Robert Charles Wilson has coughed up the best novel of his career, namely "Spin". He bloody deserves a Hugo for it, if you examine the book in isolation, i.e. without reference to the fact that this is basically a beauty show and the winner's quality is defined in terms relative, not absolute. (Personally, my big disappointment is that "Lobsters" didn't win in 2003 ... but it had the bad luck to come out the same year that Ted Chiang published "Hell is the Absence of God". So it goes.)

The other novels ... well, I haven't read the GRRM series, so I can't comment on his current book; but there's a huge bandwagon behind it. Then there's Ken's "Learning the World". It's a cracking good novel, stimulating in all the right places, and only a few whiskers behind "Spin". Finally, there's "Old Man's War". I confess: it's a light, easy read -- precisely the gateway drug John set out ot write -- and I think he'll win a Hugo eventually, but I'm somewhat surprised it's on the ballot. However, Scalzi, too, has a bandwagon rolling behind him.

Who would I vote for? Well, I'm not a member so I don't get a vote this year, but if I was voting, then (after drawing a polite veil over whether I'd vote for myself) I'd rank "Spin", "Learning the World", and "Old Man's War" in that order. (Although I suspect I'd have made more of an effort to re-start "A Game of Thrones" so I could honestly rate the other nominee.)

As for why I'm not in LA right now ...

Late in June, before I headed off to Australia, I tied myself down with an Edinburgh Book Festival event (last night) precisely to stop myself dashing off to LA at the last minute.

I've been home from Australia for only about 2 weeks, I -- predictably -- brought a chest bug home with me (and a nastier one than usual, it seems), and I'd be stressing myself out with thoughts of stuff I ought to be working on if I was there instead of here. (The to-do list for next week includes: working on a novel, getting my accounts done, visiting relatives, and talking to a surveyor and a lawyer. All the while lazing languidly on my lounger while scantily clad beauties drop peeled grapes in my mouth.)

While the con itself is only five days long, which doesn't sound so bad, the flight over would take another day, the flight home and immediate jet-lag would take two days, and the temptation to spend a few extra days on the ground (I've never visited LA, and I have some friends who live there) would ultimately bloat such a last-minute trip up to a two week junket. On top of the Oz trip, I'd end up spending less than two weeks at home out of a two month stretch of wall clock time. And unlike some, I don't work effectively when on the move. All of which went to make a trip to LACon IV look like a really bad idea to me at the time when I was juggling my schedule.

But I'm still missing the worldcon, dammit. And it feels wrong. The urge to be sitting in the front row at that awards ceremony -- even though I know I'm not going to win one this time round -- is to me much as the eternal search for brains must feel to a zombie.

I suspect I may be in the pub later tonight. If you catch me shambling from table to table with arms outstretched and a glassy-eyed expression, muttering "hugo ... must have hugo ..." please put a pint of beer in my hands.

Being on vacation (more or less) has given me a lot of time for reflection. It's also given me a little time to catch up on my reading — beach books, or what passes for them in my universe. I'm quite capable of immersing myself in trashy brain candy — indeed, of wallowing in it to excess — and that's pretty much what I've been doing (with a few notable exceptions).

Actually, that's a little bit unfair. "Trash" is probably the wrong word for any kind of literature; it's just a convenient (and somewhat condescending) shorthand for easy reading — stuff that is undemanding, and doesn't expect too much of the reader. Within any given genre, there's a certain body of work that conforms most closely to the expectations of the readers — the normal patterns and preoccupations of their particular field. It's not transgressive, it doesn't question the normative expectations, it shares the collective cultural outlook, etcetera. Nevertheless, it performs a vital task for those of us who aren't content to go with the flow: it tells us where the flow is.

Talking about genre ... I work in three roughly overlapping areas: science fiction, fantasy, and horror. (I also occasionally make excursions into the undergrowth of technothrillers and even romance, but those aren't my main stomping grounds — they're not how I'm perceived by readers.) Of these fields, fantasy out-sells SF by a factor of 2:1, and has done for most of my life. Horror used to sell well, but crashed and burned around 1990. There's recently been a tenuous recovery. Where you draw the dividing line between these fields is a matter of some debate, especially among the more tiresomely obsessive-compulsive fans — the rest of them (myself included) just go with the old judicial definition of pornography: "I know it when I see it".

So what can the lightweight normative exemplars of these genres tell us about the state of the reading public?

For starters, the strange rebirth of the horror field is quite illuminating. We used to know what horror was about — it was about Killer Whelks menacing a quiet English seaside town, from which a strong-jawed but quiet fellow and a not-totally-pathetic female lead might eventually hope to escape with the aid of a stout two-by-four and a lot of whelkish squelching after trials, tribulations, and gruesome scenes of seafood-induced cannibalism. Then Stephen King came along and transcended, becoming a mini-genre of his own. Attempts were made to replicate the phenomenon, but instead the bottom dropped out of the market.

The new horror isn't about whelks, killer or otherwise: it's about vampires, werewolves, and middle America. With police and detectives. Hell, you could even call it cop/vampire slash and have done with it, except that you'd be missing out on the tedious Manichean dualist drivel into which all these series eventually descend (unless they end up as soft porn instead — a very lucrative market, as Laurel Hamilton and her imitators have discovered — call it the fang-fucker subgenre). For the sad fact is, there seems to be some kind of law about contemporary American horror getting into furry sex by volume three then suffering a fit of remorse and going all god-bothering and Jesus-fondling by volume six. It must be all the crosses and holy water they need to fend off the blood sucking fiends, I suppose, but the endless re-hashing of tired old religious-sexual neuroses is getting to be a stereotype of the genre, and it's not healthy. Horror isn't about being born-again: it's about bloody screaming catharsis, not a warm security blanket of belief that blocks out all menaces. But in the new horror, if the bloodsuckers are remotely sympathetic the story turns into some kind of supernatural redemption epic, and if they're not, the protagonist eventually goes all googly-eyed and born-again. (Or the author does — I'm thinking of Anne Rice here, you understand.) It's enough to make this old-time atheist throw the book against the wall. I mean, these are meant to be horror novels! Where's the sense of dread in living in a universe where there's a cuddle and a warm glass of ambrosia waiting for us all in heaven?

(Parenthetically speaking, one of the reasons I'm so pleased with Liz Williams' recent foray into the supernatural detective field is that her two novels, The Snake Agent and The Demon in the City have nothing whatsoever to do with warmed-over Christian theology. They're straight Confucianism all the way, and when one of her demonic protagonists discovers that he has a conscience this is cause for regret rather than redemption. The result is oddly like Chow Yun Fat trying to make a supernatural kung fu action movie version of Miss Smila's Feel for Snow. If the rest of the pack would follow suit, my vacation reading pile would be a lot less predictable ... but I digress.)

Enough about the crap new horror, now for the crap new SF.

Probably the fastest-growing sub-genre in the swamp is alternate history. I've been known to dabble in it myself, I hasten to admit: it can be fun and educational, a desert topping and a floor wax. But mostly floor wax these days, I find, because a lot of authors who should know better are turning to it in a mad collective ostrich-head-burying exercise rather than engaging with the world as it is.

Science fiction is almost always a projection of todays hopes and fears onto the silver screen of tomorrow, and so you get such excesses as the cosy catastrophe genre in British SF, 1947-79 (in which all those annoying Other People get put away in their box — six feet under — while the protagonists have post-fall-of-civilization adventures, all with a bone china tea-set: John Wyndham was of course the master) or the sixties counterculture and lysergide fueled paranoia trips of Philip K. Dick and William Burroughs — and the deafening silence about the future that is radiating from the United States today.

Oh, there are exceptions. Vernor Vinge is swimming strongly against the flow in "Rainbows End", where he envisages a future just a couple of decades hence where the machines dance. Peter Watts is doing stuff with the genre that just shouldn't be possible (evolutionary biology, exobiology, and vampires in spaaaaaace — all done with a deft touch of plausibility and a refreshingly pleasant dose of bleakly nihilistic existential despair). And there are a few others. But for the most part, the loudest movement in the genre has been the buffalo stampede over the cliff of historical might-have-beens. Our field's strongest energies are going into tiredly re-hashing the US Civil War, the Second World War, the War of the Triple Alliance, and the Russian Revolution. And they're not even Doing It in spaaaaaaace. Well, some of them are: if I see one more novel about the US Marine Corps in the Thirty Seventh Century (with interstellar amphibious assault ships and a different name) I swear I'll up and join the Foreign Legion. Folks, the past is another country, and you can't get a visa. Ditto the future: they speak a different language and they get capitalism and the war on terror and the divine right of kings confused because they slept through history class. (Just like half the folks writing alternate history epics — and the other half ought to know better.)

This turning away from the near future is going to be remembered as one of the hallmarks of the post-9/11 decade in American science fiction, as the chill wind of change blows through the hitherto cosy drawing room of the American century. The Brits aren't drinking the Kool-Aid — well, some of them are serving it up in pint glasses, but most of them have got better things to do with their time — and this is why just about all the reviewers in the field are yammering about a British Invasion or a British New Wave or something: it's not what the British are doing, but what the American writers aren't doing that is interesting.

American SF was traditionally an optimistic forward-looking genre, the marching music of the technocrat movement (which, thankfully, withered up and blew away before it got a chance to build any mountains of skulls, thus providing us with the luxury of a modernist movement that we can remember fondly). Now the whole space exploration thing has dead-ended and the great American public have shuddered in their political sleep and realised — crivens! — that not everybody likes the way their lords and masters have been carrying on for the past five decades — the fragile optimism is lacking. So where better to flee than into the nostalgic past, to fight Nazis and communists and slave-trading aristocrats?

Finally, there is the blasted heath that is fantasy. At least the two decade long post Lord of the Rings hang-over is mostly over, and the post-movie-trilogy bean fest has faded somewhat. There's some really interesting stuff going on there (paging Paul Park, Paul Park to the white courtesy phone — or Steven Brust, at a pinch). But fantasy is, almost by definition, consolatory and escapist literature. Pure fantasy doesn't really tell us anything about the world we live in, and I fail to discern any huge new movements sweeping the field as symptoms of the cultural neuroses of one country or another.

1. Smartphones are not yet there as word-processing platforms. Tantalizingly close, but no banana.

2. Writing a novel in the second person present tense is surprisingly easy. Ditto reading it, after the first ten minutes of extreme cognitive dissonance. What you do end up with is the same set of tiresome headaches you get with omniscient third-person — only more so.

3. Because it's an "intrusive" voice, you don't want to put words into your protagonist's heads that are likely to dump the reader out of their willingness to imagine themselves thinking those thoughts. So there's a tendency to leave the interiorization out altogether, or to paint it using delicate watercolour tints rather than vibrant saturated oils.

4. If your characters are looking over here there's no way to sketch in significant details over there.

5. The near future is frustratingly like the present, only different. I'm surrounded by electronics and media today that would have been bizarre and exotic back in 1986, never mind 1976 — but I'm still basically sitting in an office chair at a desk, wearing jeans and a t-shirt, typing away with some rock'n'roll on the stereo. Difference from 1996: there's a download going, the progress bar is ticking away tens of megabytes instead of tens of kilobytes, and the music's playing via streaming MP3s rather than CDs. Difference from 1996: back then, the word processor had a green screen and a 10Mb hard disk, and the music was playing on cassette tape. But the organizing parameters were the same — this is a writer in his study writing. How do you signal that the story is set ten years in the future, without succumbing to spurious futurism?

6. History inserts itself into our lives, seamlessly. When did you last get through a day without hearing some kind of off-hand reference to 9/11 or the Iraq war? Kids these days are learning about Margaret Thatcher in history lessons at school. In ten years time there'll be some other iceberg-like intrusion of History into the zeitgeist: the question is, what? (My money's on something energy or environment related, and big.)

7. Trying to get into the head of a 28-year-old British professional circa 2016 — the people this novel is about — is an interesting exercise, even though people of this generation are easy enough to track down right now: the trouble is, if I ask them questions now, I'm asking a bunch of 18 year olds. Whereas what I'm interested in is what they'll be thinking when they're 28 ...

You were one year old when the Cold War ended. You were thirteen when the war on terror broke out, and eighteen or nineteen when Tony Blair was forced to resign as Prime Minister. You graduated university owing £35,000 in student loans, at a time when the price of entry into the housing market in the UK was over £150,000 (about 4-5 times annual income; the typical age of first time buyers was 35 and rising by more than 12 months per year). Unless you picked the right career (and a high-earning one at that) you can't expect to ever own your own home unless your parents die and leave you one. On the other hand, you can reasonably expect to work until you're 70-75, because the pension system is a broken mess. The one ray of hope was that your health and life expectancy are superior to any previous generation — you can reasonably expect to live to over a hundred years, if you manage to avoid succumbing to diseases of affluence.

For comparison, when I graduated university in 1986, I had no student loans, first homes cost £30,000— or about 2-2.5 times annual income — and the retirement age was 60-65. So it should be no surprise if the generation of 1988 has very different expectations of their future life from the generation of 1964.

8. Agatha Christie once said, "when I was young I never expected to be so poor that I couldn't afford a servant, or so rich that I could afford a motor car." Yet these were the prevailing parameters from 1945 to the present. I might equally well say that when I was eighteen I never expected to be so poor I couldn't afford a four bedroom house, or so rich that I could afford a computer. What terms of reference will these people use to define their relative affluence and poverty? Motor cars and domestic robots? (Too facile.) Children and immortality treatment? (Too crudely obvious.) Privacy and ubiquity? (Too abstract.)

To be continued ...

It's a hot Saturday afternoon in Edinburgh — I'm not betting against an evening thunderstorm — and I've got a blog, so I'm going to ramble on.

One of the curses of writing for a living is that life doesn't stop while you're trying to wrestle a story into submission. In fact, I could probably work a regular 40 hour week as a writer without actually writing any fiction. Where does the time go?

First of all, I get email. If you write me a note and (a) you appear to expect a reply, (b) you don't scare me, and (c) it's not one of those days when I don't want to get out of bed, you can usually expect a response. But I don't get that much mail; unless I'm up for a major award (or worse, have just won one) it doesn't take more than half an hour to deal with it.

Then there's the business admin side of things. Being a full-time writer means being self-employed. There's keep track of expenses, doing the accounts, and the usual stuff that goes with running a one-man business. Also wrapped up in this: keeping all the computers going. There's the colocated server I lease, which runs this blog (and a whole bunch of other stuff including the email server and the spam filter that keeps the 500 spams a day I get from washing out the reader emails). There's the laptop I work on. There's my smartphone, and the old laptop I keep as an emergency spare in case the work machine dies on me (as it did last month ... and again, last week, albeit for less serious values of "died"). Unfortunately for me, I'm an inveterate tinkerer and I can't hide behind my own ignorance and leave tinkering with the computers to someone else. Some guys do DIY, others do gardening, and more do car stuff. I don't do any of that. I do computer stuff, and it's even more annoying because if I don't keep an eye on my time I can mistake it for paying working hours.

Next, there are those odd demands on my time that come from the business of writing but aren't strictly writing per se. When you sell a book, and deliver the manuscript to your editor, that's not the end of the job. I reckon that it takes me somewhere between 3 and 6 weeks of extra work before a novel I've delivered goes into print — time spent checking copy edits, poring over galley proofs, writing up outlines and marketing pitches for the editor to point at their sales staff where necessary, and (this bit goes first) writing the original proposal for the book that gets sent to the editor before they buy it. If you write more than one book a year, this peripheral activity mounts up. And if there's a scheduling crunch such that three books I wrote some time ago end up coming out in the same 12 month period, that's up to a third of the current productive year gone before I start writing. Note that this doesn't mean I'm writing three books a year — just that they end up coming out in the same year.

And then there's marketing and promotion.

If you're a midlist author (one with maybe five or more books in print, but not a best-seller: you make a living, but you're probably driving a ten year old banger unless your car is your main recreational expenditure) then your publisher probably allocates a marketing budget to your books consisting of five tulip bulbs and a coat button. That's an exaggeration, but not by much. They'll probably purchase a few targeted ads in some of the trade and enthusiast magazines (like Locus or Asimovs), and they'll send out review copies and talk to the book chains, but you're not getting any signing tours or stretch limos with buckets of champagne. You're not even getting dump bins in the chain stores. (Those are expensive.) If you want your books to do well, you need to promote them: not necessarily by getting out in public and hectoring people to buy them, but at the very least you need to practice being friendly and helpful to reviewers and members of the press, however obscure their publications are. Sometimes it's hard: if you tried to contact me this week I'd like to apologize for being a little short. (Excessively hot weather, computers breaking, and being behind schedule on a deadline job, combine to have that effect on me.)

Science fiction conventions and fandom are a whole other kettle of fish; I'll talk about them some other time. Suffice to say that they suck up about another month per year, if not more. While SF/F has this subculture and other genres don't, you can easily spend plenty of time rushing from one book festival to the next.

Anyway. In combination, these activities can turn into such a sucking vortex of administrative inactivity that you can be horribly busy and not realize that you're not actually doing anything productive — the stuff they pay you for. I had a patch like that from February through late April; four SF conventions (three of them overseas — in two cases, on other continents), the Clarke awards, copy edits on three novels, galley proofs to check on two. It's a miracle and a wonder I got anything written at all over that period, although I did manage to fit the back half of a novel in somewhere along the line.

Now I'm running late on the next book — due on my editor's desk on September 1st, Or Else — with the first draft about 40% complete. There is, in principle, enough time to do a competent job of finishing it. Things look a bit more fraught if you factor in two weeks against an unscheduled illness (this is not the kind of job where you can outsource the heavy lifting to a temping agency), and another three and a half weeks booked long in advance for a vacation (and an SF convention appearance) on another continent. I suspect I'm going to be taking the laptop on holiday and working in the hotel room, if I don't want to blow the deadline (with a knock-on effect on the two novels that are due in next year).

So: business as usual. Why am I wasting time blogging? Because ... it's not a waste of time. It's time spent getting myself into a working frame of mind, and it's time spent communicating with you, the reading public. Some folks read my blog because they liked the books, and some folks read my books because they liked the blog. Blogging is, in fact, a vital marketing tool for midlist writers these days (as other authors, like Neal Asher — a few entries down from here — have figured out). There is no longer any pretense at there being a fourth wall between the show that is the writer's life and the audience who read their work. I wouldn't go so far as to say that writing books has become a performance art, but it's getting close.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got to go write some more of "Halting State" ...

Today's thought: when is a law of writing not a law?

Anton Chekhov (paraphrased): if you put a gun on the mantlepiece in Act 1, it must be fired no later than the end of Act 3. (Of a three act play).

This is pretty much a rule to live by, at least when you're starting out writing fiction: if there are lots of dangling loose threads in your story, diverticulae that don't go anywhere, then you're wasting words and misleading your readers.

However. It's not a rule to be taken as an absolute requirement.

Consider the crime novel. Your classic murder-mystery-whodunnit is almost by definition a maze of dangling threads, for the detective's overt task is to navigate among them and determine which of them are actually connected to the crime.

But not every gun has to be fired to serve a purpose within a story. Sometimes just the fact that there is a gun on the mantlepiece conveys a message. And not all guns are guns: sometimes a gun is just a signifier. There's an example in my latest novel to see print, GLASSHOUSE — click below to see the gory spoiler.



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