About a week ago a guy called Chris e-mailed me:
Just wanted to drop you a note saying that Jennifer Government was my favorite book of 2003, and was a finalist for the Campbell Award for best SF novel of the year.
Naturally, I assumed Chris was deranged. Sure, he has excellent
taste in literature,
but the Campbell Award was presented almost two months ago. If my book
had been a finalist for one of the world’s leading science-fiction prizes,
that’d be the kind of thing I’d have heard about, don’t you think?
Well, apparently not.
I e-mailed my publisher just in case, and it turns out
Chris isn’t a mentally unstable nutjob with a
penchant for fooling people into thinking they’ve qualified for major
Jennifer Government really was a
Not a winner, alas, which means I’m feeling honored, humbled,
and a deep, burning rage toward Jack McDevitt. But still! This is
awesome. Now I just need to go apologize to Chris.
I asked the question: “Is it a good idea to sell a book to a publisher,
then extensively re-write it?” That’s what I somehow ended up doing
to my new novel, Company. I sent off the new, much-altered draft
to my editor, Bill, and waited to see whether he thought it was an
improvement or I had made a big mistake.
The answer, it turns out, is both. Bill likes my rewrite and
says: “More!” In particular, he wants me to fix a major plot-line that
centers around people in this company being unable to remember anything
about the world outside it.
This concept is slightly surreal, I
know, but I liked it so much that I hammered away until it made a
vague kind of sense. Alas, Bill observes that it isn’t quite a specific
enough kind of sense, and now that I’ve jazzed up everything else,
this stands out. Since I am so happy to rewrite big chunks of the book,
he says, how about I throw out that whole memory-loss idea and put in
At this point I have two competing thoughts. One is, “God damn you,
Bill, you’ll publish this book and you’ll like it!” The other is,
“Aaarrrgghhh, he’s right.”
When editing a novel, it’s often hard to know when to stop.
There’s no clear point at which you think, “That’s it, this book cannot
any more.” There’s always more you can do.
If you want to be published
in your own lifetime (or write more than one
book), though, you have to stop editing at some point, but that is
not, alas, a quiet, satisfying moment of realization that everything
is just exactly right. For me, at least, it’s guilty and furtive. It’s
thinking, “If I have to rewrite one more sentence of this thing, I’m going to
I enjoy editing; I love watching something I’ve written improve. But,
boy, when you’ve spent every day for the last two years immersed in
the same story, you start to hate everybody in it.
And it doesn’t get any better when the book is published.
I can’t stand to pick up my published novels because I can barely
read a page without wishing I’d done something differently. (This makes
book tours interesting.) So that’s how it is: I rewrite a novel
until the mere thought of it engages my gag reflex, then I
spend the rest of my life wishing I’d spent more time on it.
I’m going to rewrite Company again, because I think Bill is right:
it will be better without the memory loss thing. I’ve had a month away
from it, which is helpful. And above all else
I want to do everything I can to make
this novel as good as it can be, and should be.
Then one day, I know, maybe a year or two from now, I will
crack open the cover, read a sentence at random, and think, “Damn.
I should have done that differently.”
Suddenly people are writing to me about the word “internet.”
A few months ago I happened to
that I don’t think internet should be spelled with a capital I.
At the time, this passed without much comment, but now
I’m getting besieged by IT professionals telling me how
I am wrong, wrong, wrong.
Their arguments fall into three categories:
- Check a dictionary, idiot.
- An internet is any network of networks, so without capitalization
it’s not clear which internet you’re talking about.
- There’s only one Internet, so it’s a proper noun and should
Arguments #2 and #3 are actually contradictory, so what I should
really do is forward the e-mails from one side
to the other and just let them go at it. Argument #1, though, is
what annoyed me about capital-I Internet in the first place: this
idea that there is a golden tome somewhere entitled THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE
and if you follow it precisely you’re right and otherwise you’re wrong.
Or, to use an example that may be more relevant here,
that English is a language just like XML is a language,
and if your usage isn’t in the spec, it’s a non-standard proprietary
extension, doesn’t validate, and was probably invented by Microsoft.
To me, there’s no such thing as “correct” English. The purpose of
communication is not to score the maximum number of grammar points;
it’s to convey a thought from your brain into someone else’s.
You do this by following common usage. That’s my beef with
dictionaries: they still list “usward” (av. (Archaic) Moving toward
us), but have to be dragged kicking and
screaming to “blog.” Common usage beats dictionary definitions
every time, and in common usage “internet” has lost its “I”.
Sometimes you have to sit back and say, “Damn, this internet
thing is cool.” I mean, obviously we all know it’s pretty handy. You
can send e-mails on it and steal music and read newspapers
for free. But occasionally you get reminded just how
cool it is, in the world-shaking, society-defining sense of the
word. Like when you go to
Something To Be Desired is what happens when a bunch of
people decide it’d be neat to make a TV series, only
without the TV part. Instead they put up each episode on their web site,
where you can watch it for free. A drama-comedy set around a
Pittsburgh radio station, Something To Be Desired is clearly
being made with very little money but bucket-loads of talent and enthusiasm,
and it’s totally addictive: you download one ten-minute episode
and then you have to find out whether Jack and Dierdre are
going to sleep together and before you know it two and a half hours
have passed, you’ve watched the whole thing, and you can’t believe you
have to wait two weeks for the next episode.
Before the internet, I never would have seen this. In fact,
it probably wouldn’t have been made, because why spend the time
and money producing a series that has very little chance of ever
being broadcast? But the web offers creative people a new way to
drop their work directly in front of an audience.
There’s no need for pitch meetings, for agents, for attending industry
events in the vain hope of networking with someone who can get you a meeting
with someone at a studio; instead, you just produce something,
stick it on your web site, and if it’s any good, ordinary people hear
about it and come check it out.
This is the vanguard of a major decentralization of the creative arts
industry. As the internet evolves, hundreds of thousands of
amateur artists are going to forget about trying to batter down
the closed doors in Hollywood, the networks, and the publishing
industry. Instead, they’ll just publish their work on the net.
Some of it will be brilliant. Much of it will be terrible. But
all of it will be given a real chance to find an audience,
a chance that otherwise wouldn’t have existed. And, damn,
friend Fleur has gone on a 5-week jaunt through Asia and I’m looking
after her two-year-old dog, Snow. I’ve never had a dog before, so the experience
is teaching me a lot.
So far I’ve learned that:
- There’s a sleepy dog smell.
- You don’t have to be very big to snore like a foghorn.
- Snow has no setting between OFF and MAXIMUM POWER.
- Due to some kind of biological quirk, the phrase “Come here” cannot be
detected by Snow’s ears, but she can hear the opening of a door from
the other end of the house through solid brick walls.
- If you step backwards (at any time), you will stand on Snow.
I’ve also gained some insight into her thought processes. I’m pretty
sure that her philosophy goes like this:
- The purpose of life is to locate humans and stand as close to them
- Disgusting = interesting.
- Corollary A: The fouler it smells, the more it needs to be sniffed.
- Corollary B: If it drips, if it stinks, if it does both at once,
bring it in the house.
- It is uncouth to push open a slightly ajar door in order to pass through
it; rather, one should sit in front of it and whine.
- When you gotta go, you gotta go.
- The grass is always greener on the other side of a closed door.
- The only thing more exciting than going on a walk is coming home from
a walk, unless you’re already home, in which case the most exciting
thing is going for a walk.
- If you don’t know what it is, lick it.
Clearly I didn’t think this through. I now have to write a six-volume
series chock full of appalling characters just to satisfy all the people who
wrote me annoying “Um…” e-mails. It was meant to be a deterrent, dammit!
Now stop it!
Okay, that’s enough. At first I thought this was kind of funny. Then
it wasn’t so funny, then it got irritating, and now it makes me want to hurt
someone. I’m talking about the practice of starting a post with “Um.”
This is particularly virulent on technically-inclined mailing lists
and forums. It goes
like this: a person posts something—a comment, a question, anything—and
some other guy thinks they’re wrong. But he doesn’t just come out and
say that, oh no. First he says: “Um…” Like this: “Um…
Word won’t run on Linux.”
This is meant to convey the impression that the initial post was so mind-numbingly
stupid that at first he couldn’t believe it was actually meant in earnest.
Then, as he began to phrase his reply, he had to pause to ratchet down
his intelligence a few levels so that the drooling simpleton who had
uttered such idiocy would be able to comprehend it. This created a pause
which had to be filled by “Um.”
Only that’s not what happened at all.
If you’re having an actual
conversation with someone, sure, you might say “um.” But if you’re
typing out a post, what the hell are you doing? Are your fingers
operating independently of your brain? No! You’re just being an
Maybe I could deal with this if it only happened when genuinely brilliant people
wrote messages to real morons. After all, geniuses
aren’t supposed to have social skills. But it happens all the
time. This is the exchange that finally sent me over the
#1: Happily seen that Gentoo has released 2004.2.
I’m now using 2004.0 and I wonder whether it is necessary for me to
migrate to 2004.2 from 2004.0.
#2: Uh.. if you do an “emerge -uD world” then you too will
have all the bonus’s of 2004.2…
#3: Really? I think simply doing this won’t change my
It’ll be still point to ../usr/portage/profiles/default-x86-2004.0, isn’t it?
#4: Um, its a symlink… change it to point to the new profile
No! No! Not “Um!” The first guy was right, goddamn it!
You can’t “um” him when he’s
right! What is this um doing? It’s a totally
This is a cancer of the internet, I tell you, and it’s got to be stopped.
Please. I can’t take much more.
(P.S. If anyone writes me an e-mail like “Um… Word can run on Linux
if you use an emulator,” I’m going to name a really bad character after