Now a community service announcement. If you’re a Struggling
Writer (TM) looking for ways to improve, head straight for
Or, possibly, read the rest of this blog, then head on over.
That might make more sense.
The toughest thing about writing a novel is the loss of
perspective. For me, the process usually goes like this:
- Hey, what a great idea for a book! This will rock!
- This story is going gangbusters. Look at all these plot
- I should really start to tie some of these plot threads
- Okay, now which threads are important and which aren’t?
What is this book really about?
- What makes a good story? Why do human beings read books?
- What is the meaning of life?
- Boo boo boo boo boo boo.
The best antidote to this is feedback. Or maybe therapy,
but I’ve never tried that. Feedback allows you to view your
story through the eyes of someone reading it for the first
time, something you the author can never do. When I get
good feedback, I weep with joy, and the realization that I
need to do three months of rewrites.
But there are two big problems with feedback:
- Some people are insane. They tell you to change all the
good parts of your book, and set it in space. Since you
have no perspective, it’s difficult to tell these
people are insane; you can think they’re really insightful.
- It’s embarrassing, at least for people who haven’t done
it very much. Writers are often touchy about receiving feedback,
and readers know this so they’re careful about giving it. The
result is feedback like: “I liked everything.” Which is
nice to hear, but completely useless. Or even harmful, if
it prevents you from seeing problems that need fixing.
The Internet Writing Workshop solves both of these problems.
First, you get lots of feedback, possibly a dozen
or so quick critiques, and this makes insane opinions stand
out. When ten people tell you they love your main character
and one person says you should rewrite him as a woman, you
know you can safely ignore that person, and everything he
Second, everything is via e-mail, so you don’t have to look
any weepy-eyed writers in the face as you critically
dissect their masterpieces. And they don’t have to look at
you, so the feedback you get is honest and free of any reflex
need to soothe your feelings. This doesn’t mean you’ll always
agree with it, but it will give you that invaluable glimpse
of your own book through someone else’s eyes.
The IWW is completely free, being run by hard-working and
soft-hearted volunteers. I used it all the time
when I was starting out, and it made me a better writer.
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”.
I’ve spent most of the last three and a half days at
my first ever science-fiction/fantasy/horror convention. I didn’t
know what to expect, so my first stop was the
“So This is Your First Convention” panel. This proved to be a little alarming,
as Danny, the Chairman, talked about the “6-2-1” rule: “Each day,
have at least 6 hours
of sleep, 2 meals, and 1 shower. Please, the shower is
particularly important. I can’t stress that enough.”
But I soon discovered that sweaty nerds dressed as Darth Vader were
actually thin on the ground. Instead, there were endless ranks of
spunky young women with arresting eye shadow. What’s more, they were
friendly, thus rectifying the single flaw I’ve always found with
spunky young women with arresting eye shadow in the past. Danny
was right: the convention felt like an intimate party for a
couple hundred people. Everyone was excited to be there and ready
to party down.
The convention’s centerpiece was the Maskobalo, a big costume party.
There I learned another important lesson: nobody respects the guys who
wear tails. “Furries,”
said Sarah, a blindingly blonde punk rocker wearing a SHOW US YOUR
RIFFS T-shirt. “See, some of them love animals a little too much.”
Actually, that’s not what she said. What she said terrified me to the depths
of my soul, and I had to bang my head against the floor until I could
no longer remember specifics.
My favorite part of the Maskobalo was the most realistic
seen—when it talked, even the lights on its head flashed—doing stand-up
Yesterday I went for a job interview. The woman said, “Do you have
any EX-PER-I-ENCE?” I told her, “Daleks have ruled the galaxy for THOU-SANDS—OF—YEARS!” She wrote: Some management experience.
Just before the Maskobalo, I got talking to Ian, who had read some of
my blogs. He said, “That one you did about drool, did you make
I was shocked. “You’re not suggesting I make up blog posts for comedic effect.”
This had sounded a lot less sarcastic in my head. Ian laughed. “Riiight.”
“No, no, I mean they’re all true. I don’t make anything up.”
I could tell Ian didn’t believe me. But I didn’t have time to argue;
the Maskobalo was starting and we had to go into the main hall, along
with a Dominatrix, a Knight, and a Cyberman, to watch a Dalek perform
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:
use Linux, read
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
- 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
- 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
- Girl’s best friend hits puberty before she does; also becomes
- Six-year-old girl sees alien invasion as opportunity to get back at
- 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.
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
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
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.
I stumbled onto that TV show
the other night,
and quickly became engrossed. I never realized this was a documentary
about two pop stars; I just assumed it was some kind of reality
TV show where the recently wed compete to break up each other’s
marriages. Hmm… actually,
that’s not a bad idea. Let me just call my agent…
One of the things I loved about Newlyweds was that Jessica seems
to have a rent-a-friend: a person hanging around whose only job
is to laugh at her jokes. Next time I go on book tour, I’m
asking my publisher for one of those. (Max: “So you’re Jeremy?”
Jeremy: “Right! Ha ha ha! Very good!” Max: “You and me are going
to get along just fine, Jeremy.”) In fact, I could do with one
in everyday life.
The other thing I loved was the dialogue. If this thing was
scripted, I’d be campaigning for them to hand over the Emmy
right now. See, I have something of an addiction to throwaway dialogue.
This is an exchange between characters that
has no bearing whatsoever on the plot, but is fun anyway. Or, at
least, fun for the writer. (It’s very liberating to write a scene
that doesn’t have to do anything.) But it’s not so much fun to
read, which is why my throwaway dialogue tends to get deleted
between drafts one and two. It’s basically just me being
tricksy, and I don’t think anyone wants to pay money to see that.
You can just visit my web site.
Anyway, there was a tiny scene in Newlyweds that was so perfect
that it sent me running for pen and paper. This is classic
throwaway dialogue. It may well do nothing for you, but for me…
goosebumps, dude. Goosebumps.
Jessica and Nick are walking down a hotel corridor. Suddenly
Jessica lets loose an enormous sneeze.
Nick: Bless you.
Jessica: Is that true, that if you sneeze, your heart stops?
Long pause. Nick turns around to look at her.
Nick: Why would your heart stop?
Jessica (defensive): That’s what I heard… just… what I heard.
Nick: From who?
Jessica: I don’t know.
Nick: Never heard that.
I’m working up a new draft of Company, so the last few days
I’ve walked down to my local café and scribbled away there. I’ve always
hated writers who do this, because I reckon they’re concerned not so
much with writing as with being seen to be writing, and
those people are even more pretentious than actual writers. Whenever
I see someone sipping a coffee over their laptop, I want to say to them,
“Oh, you’re so important with your fancy computer,
thank you so much for sharing this mystical act of creation
with the world.” Of course, that’s a personal problem
and I should probably see someone about it.
When I’m writing I like to be home by myself and play
really loud music.
But with edits, I’ve found it useful
to get away from the study, the phone, and the urge to see if I have
any new e-mail. So it’s off to the café.
After I turned up three days in a row with 200 pages under my
arm, the waitress got curious enough to ask what I was doing.
“Editing,” I said. “I’m working on a novel.”
“Oh,” she said, not very enthusiastically. Some people get very
excited when they hear you write novels; others react like you
said you work in the tax office. “What kind?”
“Um… a comedy with social comment.”
“Oh, okay,” she said. “So do you want another coffee?”
I did, but mainly I was impressed with myself for coming up
with such a good definition. It’s not often that I come up with
clever things like that. I usually need to go away and do
a few drafts first. That’s why I’m a writer and not a stand-up
comedian. But dammit, that’s a great definition.
That’s what satire should be.
Satire has a bad rep. When
Syrup was published, my agent warned me, “Don’t call it
satire. Say it’s a comedy. Nobody likes satire.” My editor
advised me against writing any more of it. And
for good reason: most satire is boring as all fuck. It tries
to sell you a moral first and tell you a story second; then,
if you’re lucky, it might get around to being funny. I don’t
want to read novels like that. I sure don’t want to write
novels like that. I want to write the good kind of satire,
the kind that has engrossing stories and characters you care
about and are scary and piss-funny both at once. These are out there,
too, but there aren’t piles of them.
So I often describe my novels as something other than satire.
But because authors are terrible at describing their
own books, I end up saying things like, “Well,
Syrup is a kind of comedy-romance-corporate-thriller… and
Jennifer Government’s more of a
science-fiction-comedy-action-thriller… or… something.”
It’d be a lot easier if I could say I write satire and know
that people weren’t thinking, “Oh, dull, unfunny, pretentious crap.”
Maybe if I use my new definition a lot, that’ll help. Maybe
I can change people’s minds one waitress at a time.
People often e-mail me to point out that some scary-ass marketing
technique I dreamt up for Syrup or Jennifer Government
has actually come true. No matter how shameless, ludicrous, or extreme I get, some
novelty-tie-wearing marketer eventually gets the same idea. Notable
examples so far include
people to take its name
Donuts convincing people to tattoo its logo on their foreheads.
The latter is really something; follow the link for a pic of
grinning, tattooed college students. I want to call them corporate prostitutes,
but not all of them were paid: some apparently got tattoos just for the
sheer joy of turning their faces into billboards. Which raises the
question: which is less moral,
taking money from a corporation to rent your face, or letting them do it
for free? It’s a toughie.
Now I’ve got an e-mail from Nathan who says my
Why Copyright is Doomed essay
is coming true, too. Just in case you don’t feel like digesting 1,800 words
right now, the short version is that I think advertising is going to creep into
novels. Not just in relatively subtle
Bulgari Connection ways, but big, bright, honking, dancing,
in-your-face-just-the-way-you-don’t-like-it ways. Real advertising.
And here it is. Matthew Reilly, a fellow Aussie, has a new novel out
next week, Hover Car Racer. And it’s to be
on the web alongside ads for United Pictures films and Canon products.
I’ve met Matt a few times. He’s a terrific guy, even though his books
sell better than mine. If you like big blockbuster action novels, he’s your
man, and if
Station in particular never makes it to the screen, it’s a crime.
I don’t blame him for letting ads snuggle up to his fiction. I think it’s
inevitable; eventually, all novels will be like this. But can’t help
but cringe. I wish I could have
stayed ahead of the marketers a little longer this time.