Thu 25

Get feedback

Writing Now a community service announcement. If you’re a Struggling Writer (TM) looking for ways to improve, head straight for the recently-revamped Internet Writing Workshop. 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:

  1. Hey, what a great idea for a book! This will rock!
  2. This story is going gangbusters. Look at all these plot threads unfolding!
  3. I should really start to tie some of these plot threads together.
  4. Okay, now which threads are important and which aren’t? What is this book really about?
  5. What makes a good story? Why do human beings read books?
  6. What is the meaning of life?
  7. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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 ever says.

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.

Sun 22

The Great [Ii]nternet Debate

Writing Suddenly people are writing to me about the word “internet.” A few months ago I happened to mention 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:

  1. Check a dictionary, idiot.
  2. An internet is any network of networks, so without capitalization it’s not clear which internet you’re talking about.
  3. There’s only one Internet, so it’s a proper noun and should be capitalized.

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”.



Mon 14

Points on a Continuum

Writing A Dalek doing stand-up comedyI’ve spent most of the last three and a half days at Continuum, 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 Dalek I’ve ever seen—when it talked, even the lights on its head flashed—doing stand-up comedy:

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 that up?”

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 stand-up comedy.

Tue 18

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

Lost in the Amazon

Writing The average rating of any book on 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.

Wed 28

Throwaway dialogue as art form

Writing I stumbled onto that TV show Newlyweds 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.

Loooooooooong pause.

Nick: Never heard that.

Fri 02

Café satire

Writing 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?”


“What’s that?”

“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.

Tue 30

Do marketers dream of branded sheep?

Writing 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 Dunlop-Tire paying people to take its name and Dunkin’ 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 The 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 published 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 Ice 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.