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Tue 18
May
2004

Hand me my Chewbacca costume

Writing In a few weeks I’m going to my first ever science-fiction convention: Continuum (Melbourne, Australia, 11-14 June). They asked me to write a piece for the program book, so here it is:

I admit it: I am a conference virgin. I’ve never done this before, just about everything I know I got from movies, and I’m hoping it’ll be fun but worried it will be painful. I don’t really know what I’m supposed to do but will be desperately covering this up and pretending I’ve done it loads of times.

At first I wasn’t sure I was qualified to speak about science fiction. Only one of my novels is sci-fi, and even that masquerades as mainstream fiction. But then I thought about it:

  • I use Linux, read Slashdot, and program web games, and yes, yes, there’s no proven link between tech geekery and science-fiction, but we all know the correlation is there
  • I think Neal Stephenson is a god
  • Jennifer Government is being developed as a sci-fi movie by Steve Soderbergh and George Clooney, and I think this is the coolest thing ever
  • I once met Chris Carter and got to hang out with the X-Files people
  • My agent went to college with Joss Whedon, and this deeply impresses me
  • I believe that the Star Wars prequels are not just bad but desecrations
  • I have trouble finding purpose in a world without Buffy

So dammit, I am qualified. I also thought about some of the short stories I’ve written over the years:

  • Plucky crew dock with what appears to be a deserted spacecraft but isn’t
  • Girl’s best friend hits puberty before she does; also becomes werewolf
  • Six-year-old girl sees alien invasion as opportunity to get back at her brother
  • Teenagers hang out on the beach and tell scary stories until they all get eaten by weird bugs
  • Small group of post-Earth survivors defend their homeworld against what is ostensibly alien attack but turns out to be other human survivors
  • High school girl has sex with exchange student, goes nuts, gets hit by a train

Admittedly, most of these were written in high school, and featured my classmates as characters. The last one, for example, was called Jenny, and was very popular with everyone in my year except for Jenny. (I ended up marrying her, though, so she must have forgiven me.) Still, I’ve written my share of SF and H.

Not that you’d know, though, because none of these has ever been published. It is, I’ve discovered, very tough to sell fiction in Australia. The only way I managed it was to get an American publisher, which was not only easier than landing a local one, but made me abruptly more attractive to Aussie publishers. There is something bizarre about having to go to America to impress an Australian publisher, but the fact is new writers require heroic measures to get noticed. I have some experience with this, which I’ll be sharing in my Shameless Self-Promotion panel on Monday.

So if you’re interested, come along. Just remember, it’s my first time. Be gentle.

Tue 04
May
2004

Lost in the Amazon

Writing The average rating of any book on Amazon.com is four stars. No matter how brilliant or terrible: four stars. The only exceptions are:

  • If the book is brand new, its rating is five stars because the only reviews have been secretly written by the author.
  • If the book is widely unknown, it has four and a half stars because the only people who have bothered to post reviews are devoted fans.
  • If the book gets lots of publicity and everyone says it’s great, it gets three and a half stars because people complain it’s overhyped.

Before the UK launch of Jennifer Government, I had a chat over lunch with my British editor about the despicable things publishers do. It was a long and wide-ranging discussion, as you can imagine. But the part that’s relevant here is that he said, “It seems that if you post a truly awful review on Amazon, a completely over-the-top bashing, it’ll generate four or five very positive reviews in response.” Then he added, “Not that we would do that,” which was just as well, because I was getting nervous about their marketing plan. But he’s right: Amazon is not so much a collection of reader reviews as a forum for people to argue about books.

I find it tough to read Amazon’s user reviews of my own novels, partly because they can be incredibly scathing and partly because many are written by obvious lunatics and their fevered scratchings bear little resemblance to English. Bada-boom! Oh yeah, that felt good. Anyway, bad user reviews range from the vicious (“Much better than William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition! But that’s not saying much”) to the really vicious (“If you must read this book, do some good and support your local library. Sales will only encourage mediocrity”). It’s difficult to restrain the urge to track these people down, follow them to their work, and stand behind them all day yelling, “Hey, everyone! Carl’s doing a crappy job! His work is lazy and uninspired, and if you ask me, he should be unemployed! Frankly, even I could flip burgers better!” But that would be churlish.

Even the good user reviews can be a little frustrating. Take this review of Jennifer Government from hutsutraw in New Jersey:

This book has a lot of characters, blazing story - you really have to focus on what is going on where and with who. It is a fast paced, entertaining story. The only fault I have with this book is the lack of character description. Other than that, it’s definatly worth reading.

Great! Me, I dislike physical description (but that’s a subject for another blog), but I understand that not everybody feels that way. Thanks, hutsutraw. Only… wait a minute… what’s the rating? Three frickin’ stars! Three! Because I didn’t tell you what color shirt everyone was wearing? I get three out of five for writing a novel that is allegedly flawless in every way except that!?

I tell you, it’s not good for the blood pressure. I’m not one of those writers who refuses to read reviews of his stuff, but I can definitely see where they’re coming from. Matthew Reilly, an Aussie author, once told me, “If you believe good reviews, you have to believe bad ones, too.” My view is a little different. It seems to me that people who write good reviews about my books are intelligent, discerning, witty, and extremely good-looking. Bad reviews, on the other hand, are written by escaped asylum patients. I know, what are the odds? But experience really does seem to bear this out.

P.S. Humble apologies to everyone on the mailing list who got two copies of my latest few posts. I think the problem has been fixed now.