Jul 112017
 

Guys, guess what?? I have made a thing (again)! A small collection of my published stories is available for purchase!

You can get Red Legacy and Other Stories as a printed book at Amazon, or as an ebook at all the major ebook sellers (including Amazon and B&N, of course). You can read most of the stories in it free here, so you can decide up front if my fiction is the kind that you enjoy. If you do, and you think the enjoyment was worth a few dollars, buying a copy would help me. And buying it comes with a bonus — the collection includes “Host,” my latest story which is otherwise only available in the March/April issue of Analog magazine.

If you can’t buy a copy, but you’ve read or listened to most/all of the stories before, leaving a review also helps a ton. :)

Jun 232017
 

I hear tell of bygone days of yore, where a writer could actually make a living and support a family by writing short stories. Apparently short-story markets paid well enough (relative to cost of living) for this to be a viable career up until the 50s or 60s. I was surprised when I first learned this, because it’s never been the case in my life.

No one writes short stories for money. You do it to learn, or to make a name for yourself, or for the love of the form. The pay for short stories is beer money, or maybe fancy new shoes. It’s not “I can pay rent and eat!” money. One must keep a day job.

So many authors, once they get a book deal and start writing professionally, basically stop writing short stories. This is saddening, because I really like short stories by my favorite authors. But I understand the need to pay rent and buy clothes.

There’s been a trend over the last decade of moving to series. More than a trend, really – nowadays every publisher wants to know if your novel could be a series, and a majority of authors (at least in genre) all aim to write a multi-book series from the start. If it’s not the default yet, it will be before the decade’s out. And the reason is the same. Series pay better. Most authors can no longer support a family writing individual novels.

I really hate this trend, because it leads to the Marvelization of everything. The Marvel Universe is one of the most annoying things to have happened to cinema. Within that “universe” of tied-together movies, there are no movies that are worth seeing for their own sake. Every movie has to string the audience along, acting as an advertisement for the next movie in the series. This degrades the quality of the story in the current movie, often by a great amount. Nothing truly interesting can happen, because it would disrupt the universe, and the production schedules of coming movies. Characters can’t grow or change very much, due to the fact that they must be re-used continuously. How many life-changing character-arcs can a human have in one lifetime? Three, maybe four, if they have a very rich life and live for quite a long time? Certainly not 1-2 every year. And yet that’s how often we’ll be seeing them on screen. So most of the time they’ll simply be going through the paces without changing.

Marvel audiences no longer go see a movie because the movie itself tells an interesting story, but rather because they fear falling behind on events, or missing an important development (ha!). They’ve become hostages to the universe, continuing to sacrifice attention and money on the alter of an emotional obligation.

This emotional obligation was probably very useful back when everyone you knew actually existed, and learning about what had happened to them recently was valuable on it’s own, and strengthened your bonds. Emotional obligations to the intellectual property of Disney simply gives them a way to get your money without having to put in the effort of telling a good story. They can reneg on their creative responsibilities and still profit.

When it was movies, I just stopped going to extended-universe-style movies. But the fact that it’s taking over genre writing as well is depressing. Yes, some stories need to be told over multiple books. And the art of “series writing” is an actual thing, which is different from novel writing. But mostly what I see is writers abandoning the art of writing a good, strong novel, in favor of stretching a story out over 3+ books in order to make it a series.

This invariably degrades the quality of the novel. And it wastes the readers time (I’m very jealous of my time nowadays). And it exploits the same emotional obligations of readers, holding them hostage to characters that have stopped developing.

On the other hand, it’s very hard to say to someone “you should write in a way that removes this as a career option for you.” Writing is time consuming, and it’s hard to write while holding a full time job. Writing a series can make the act of writing a viable career for many. If someone is willing to dilute their art in order to be able to do it for a living, I feel like an elitist asshole to speak against that. Who am I to say “You should either be independently wealthy, or condemn your children to living in squalor?”

But dammit, who are they to say “Because this is the work I would rather be doing, I will use psychological tricks to get you to support my career, instead of actually producing an amazing product?” I hate this trend. I want to shake people and say “Stop devaluing your product! You’re just writing soap operas at this point!” :(

Apr 112017
 

A few years ago a wrote a flash fic piece called “Communion” for the NPR 3-minute fiction contest. The story had to take place in the form of a voicemail message or messages, which I thought was fun. It didn’t win, and I tried a couple other venues, before forgetting about it.

Then not too long ago I discovered Sub-Q, a market for Interactive Fiction. And I thought “Oh, this could be neat! Since I wrote the story entirely as voice-mails, and I have a lot of experience doing audio fiction/podcast stuff, I bet I could make the entire thing audio!”

My first attempt didn’t pass, because it was a linear story, and Interactive Fiction has to be interactive. (doh!) So I expanded on it, doubling in word-count to give it multiple endings and a couple branches. Then I resubmitted.

It still didn’t pass muster. So now I’ve got this bizarre little story that is basically unpublishable in any other market, since half of it is audio and there’s clicking and stuff that needs to be done. What does one do with such a thing?

Well shit, why not self-publish?

If you’d like to read/hear a short Interactive Fiction piece by me (15 minutes-ish), here you go:

Communion, by Eneasz Brodski (Twine version. This is the official version, and looks best)

Communion in HTML, by Eneasz Brodski (HTML version. Not as pretty, but it works as a back-up for people that can’t get the Twine version to work for whatever reason. The choice options are links at the bottom.)

Apr 062017
 

Here’s two replies from a recent post, where my responses became long enough to make into their own post.

Daniel:

>But quite often the intended interpretaions will prove more important. On your Star Wars prequels example, imagine if that fan theory became widely supported before the release of episode III. Then, the creators of the films say “no, that’s not what we mean”.

I think Star Wars is a fascinating example, because the creator of the film (Lucas) did at one point say “No, that’s not what I mean” and changed one of the most iconic scenes of the movies, the one where Han shoots Greedo in the Cantina. And en masse everyone said “Screw you,” to him, and the world continues to accept that Greedo never fired, despite Lucas’s assertions (and film-doctoring) to the contrary. So, while Word of God is considered very influential, it doesn’t have the power to alter the actual work, and is often just considered a very well-reasoned opinion on the piece to be taken into consideration. The piece itself still stands on its own though.

Darius:

> How much of the text has to support an interpretation before it can be considered valid?

For you? However much you want. For others – however much is needed to convince them. This depends a lot on how convincing one is, and how friendly the audience is. :)

> If the author isn’t, in fact, dead and makes a statement that a given interpretation is incorrect, could that statement be considered a part of the work’s canon and therefore invalidate the interpretation?

Canon is a weird thing, because it is determined by a central authority. In the USA, this is generally whoever owns the copyright. The day that Disney said “The Star Wars Extended Universe is no longer canon. Now what we licence and produce is canon instead,” that became true. When the Catholic church declares which books (and which translations) are canon and which aren’t, that’s true for them as well.

But on the other hand, that’s only true insomuch as people accept it. When a protestant sect says the Book of Judith isn’t canon, that’s true for their followers. And when the entire Star Wars fan base says “We don’t care what Disney or Lucas declare, we don’t accept that Greedo shot first,” then Han Shot First is the story that lives in everyone’s mind regardless of what “official” canon may be.

My big run in with this was in Redshirts. At the end of the novella Scazli ends a chapter with:Several months later, an asteroid hit the ship and everyone died. The End. (paraphrased, I didn’t look up the exact wording). I was reading on an e-reader, and so I couldn’t see the next page. And that ending really shook me. I sat and thought about it for quite a while. And finally I said, “No. The author is wrong. That didn’t happen. The story in my head does not end that way, because fuck that ending.” And that was that. Then I turned the page and saw the next chapter started with “Just kidding.” My friends who read the physical version said that the end of the previous chapter and the start of the next chapter are both visible when the book is laid open, so they never had any such moment, they could see the “Just Kidding” right there. I am sad that they did not have as profound of an experience as I did.

Of course I can do that because Redshirts doesn’t have an entire community built around it. The Star War Extended Universe erasure was far more contentious, because it creates a bit rift between those who had their universe “taken away” by Disney, and those who don’t care because they’re too young or weren’t interested in the previous EU. Even if the traditionalists refuse to accept the erasure and continue to call the old EU canon, they will eventually be supplanted by a new generation, and their tradition will die out. It is a sad thing. :(

So yeah, canon, bleh. What is it good for?

Mar 072017
 

My short story “Host” is in the March/April issue of Analog Magazine, available right now. I’m ridiculously happy this got published, I was worried that due to its structure it would be unpublishable. My attempt at portraying Very Alien minds probably could have been much more explicit.

This story is more autobiographical than any of the others I’ve written. That’s not necessarily saying a lot, as I’m pretty sure that it’s impossible for a writer to NOT write everything at least partially autobiographical. At least if it’s any good. Some part of you will always suffuse what your write. Your fears, your passions, your formative experiences. All fiction is a window into the writer’s mind.

But in this particular case, chunks of the story were lifted directly from my teenage years. The isolation, the dissociation, the loss of The One Friend. Obviously not the Space Zombies. :) It was a shitty period, despite the fact that by almost any objective measurement my life was peachy. Mental issues don’t give a fuck. In that time of my life I welcomed human annihilation, if it would have made things un-broken. Especially because this is what the religion I had been raised in promised as the desirable end-state for humanity anyway. The apocalypse was already ingrained as a good thing in my mind.

Which is where the real autobiographical stuff comes in. This pro-apocalypse position was one of the many things that drove me away from my religion. NOT the death-worship, mind you. Rather, the fact that no one seemed to take it as seriously as it should be taken. I’ve said this a few times before, and I still stick with it – The Spanish Inquisition was doing The Right Thing in a world where their beliefs are objectively true. It is everyone’s moral obligation to act as they did, and anyone who doesn’t is a monster. The paltry sufferings of human life are so utterly irrelevant in the face of eternal suffering/joy that absolutely any price is not only justified, but required. They were Doing The Most Good, by far. The only problem is that in the world they operate in (ie: the real world) there is no God, and they were torturing and murdering people for no reason. Objective facts fucking matter. And since we’re fallible, we should also temper our actions with some degree of uncertainty.

But my religion didn’t preach uncertainty. They knew, as did I, that God existed, and what fate awaited non-believers. And all they did was… knock on doors and try to pass out cheap pamphlets? Guys, that level of failure to actually save people is disgusting. It’s as if Singer’s Well-Dressed Man stood at the edge of the pond and shouted encouragement to The Drowning Child, rather than wading in and doing something. It’s unacceptable. And while I could understand that the Laws of the Corrupt, Fallen Government may be against us, hampering us in being really effective… we nonetheless were NOT talking about how to subvert them, or how to really SAVE people. No one gave any of this the urgency it required. It was like a casual hobby.

I’m a big fan of Ted Chiang, and his ability to take a premise and assume it’s true, and then write the world that would exist under that assumption. I tried to do the same here with my religion’s false premise (and, frankly, the premise of many fundamentalist evangelical religions). I don’t think I really worked out any of my issues, but I stand by Julian’s parting words to his father.

 

Unrelated but fun note — When I submitted “Host” for critique to my Writer’s Workshop (who made it a lot better, thanks guys!!!) they said that starting with the “In The Beginning” snippet was a mistake, and I should move it to later. So instead the first scene is Julian exiting his high school and describing the space station. Literally the week after I made those changes I came upon a satirical SF story that started out with the protagonist describing a giant piece of impressive human engineering in his daily life. The second paragraph began with (paraphrased) “Of course John Doe saw this every day on his way to work, so there was no particular reason for him to really ponder upon it today. But he knew that if he didn’t ponder right at the top, this would never get published in Analog Magazine.” I thought “Haha, maybe this’ll help me sell to Analog, lolz.” Lo and behold, I ended up getting published in Analog Magazine. :P

Feb 232017
 

This is just me collecting a few thoughts about the Grimdark genre for myself in one spot, taken from recent posts and a comment. Like any other genre Grimdark is as much about the flavor as anything else, and flavor is something that’s difficult to put into words, but these are some of my current opinions.

 

I. Bad Choices

In response to “Alasdair Stuart said: you find yourself in a position when you can do the right thing or the thing that means you will survive for another day and they are most definitely not the same thing.”

For me the important part is “being forced into terrible choices” more than “lack of power.” The lack of power often leads to the being forced part, of course.

Really good grimdark will confront a protagonist with a choice between two very important but conflicting goals. This is most apparent when it’s something like “Don’t betray your lover” vs “Continue to live.” But it doesn’t have to be. It can be between something like “Protect your hated ethnic minority” vs “Don’t become a murderous monster.” The key is that both are integral to the character, so in picking one and sacrificing the other, the character is carving out and destroying a piece of their own soul. Willfully. It’s the psychological self-mutilation that I find endlessly fascinating.

In a non-grimdark story, there are ways around this. If you pursue the righteous path, you will be rewarded in the end. In grimdark you will fail, and sometimes that failure is lethal.

It’s also fascinating to watch characters reach the breaking point where they refuse to sink any lower, and observe the consequences of that as well.

 

II. Means Can Be Justified By Ends

In heroic fantasy, there are some things you simply don’t do. In the end, this will be for the best. Even if it costs you your life, the greater good has been served. Grimdark never assumes that things will end well, and so the characters within it are often willing to employ ugly means, if they think the ends are important enough.

It should be noted that sometimes they will fail anyway. Doing bad is not a way to achieve your goals. The real question is about what ends up being effective, not what is good or bad. Sometimes bad works, sometimes it doesn’t, and the uncertainty just makes the whole world even worse. But every now and then, every one of us has a certain thing we’d be willing to mutilate ourselves to achieve, because it’s simply that important.

 

III. Power Precedes Morality

When characters come into conflict, they don’t win due to their virtue. They succeed or fail purely on their ability to impose their will on others. We want our heroes to win because they are better people. But the REASON they win is because they are better at violence then their opposition. It can be tricky to demonstrate the difference between the two, because in both cases the heroes are better people than the antagonists, and in both cases they win by prevailing in a violent conflict. But in one case the moral goodness of the goal/person is the narrative reason for their victory, and in the other it is entirely orthogonal.

 

Of course there’s plenty of bad grimdark out there, just as there’s plenty of bad everything. And this is certainly not to everyone’s taste. But I like it, and these are some of the reasons why.

Feb 212017
 

This post is FULL of spoilers. Go read The Obelisk Gate first if you were planning on it, and come back later.

.

..

I. Fantasy v SciFi

For the second half of Fifth Season and first half of Obelisk Gate I really enjoyed the tension that this might technically be Science Fiction rather than Fantasy. That’s always a very contentious issue when Fantasy is set in a future far enough out of that we may have crossed Clarke’s Line of “sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” I tend to agree with those who say the best way to distinguish Fantasy from SF is via the furniture, and in that case this is certainly Fantasy. But still, the edge-case-exploration part of my mind was very titillated and happy.

So I was a little sad when this finally tipped into full Fantasy for me. That happened when it was revealed that the Earth itself really is a Sentient Being that we’ve enslaved (via coretap) and whose child we’ve taken from it. A member of my book club tried to say “Hey, maybe it still is SF. It could be that a sufficiently advanced AI has taken responsibility for the planet, such as the EarthMinds of various SF series.” I don’t buy it though. It seems implied that the Earth has been sentient since long before humans came around, and that it feels pain and emotions.

On the plus side, holy shit, we are in a war against a freakin’ Elder God that we LIVE ON! And based on the first two books, this really does look like a truly Alien mind. So much so that we and it weren’t even aware of each other’s existence for most of our history, because we’re so different and incomprehensible to each other. It’s still almost impossible to comprehend, and negotiation certainly seems unlikely. Have I mentioned how much I love books with legit Gods in them? I’m always happy to find good Lovecraft unexpectedly in what I’m reading. :)

Also, I love that the tables are somewhat flipped. The Roggas are the exploited minority throughout the first two books, and their enslavement is a major driving force for Essun’s character. Then near the end of Book 2 it turns out that her existence (and the existence of her minority) is dependent upon the enslavement and exploitation of a vast, non-human being. What Now, Punk? :) (and to top it all off, it had it’s child ripped away from it by its enslavers, the same way Essun has had her children ripped away from her. d’oh!)

 

 

II. Grimdark v Noblebright

The “grimdark” scene I mentioned in my review is the one where the community is voting on whether or not to expel their Rogga minority to prevent war with the intolerant much-greater force besieging them. Essun destroys the ballot box without counting it, and says that the Roggas stay because human rights are non-negotiable and she’ll kill anyone that opposes her on this, because she can kill every last motherfucker in this com and she will.

This is absolutely fucking awesome, because first of all, that is some BURNING PASSION IDEALISM that even Rorschach would be happy with. Superior force offers us a choice between betraying our ideals or complete annihilation? Take annihilation. Every single fucking time. And take down as many of those bastards with you as you can. It’s probably not the correct answer, but it’s the one that fills me with joy. Never compromise. Even in the face of Armageddon. Not about something this important.

In a noblebright fantasy, this would have been resolved differently. The hero would convince enough of their fellow villagers to stick with their ideals, and they’d unite voluntarily. Or a Rogga would sacrifice themselves in a noble display, reminding everyone how worthy of respect they are. Or a Rogga/Still Romeo & Juliette situation would unify the community. But it would be achieved via good means, that we approve of. Because in noblebright, there is never a conflict between Means and Ends. The Ends never justify the Means, because as long as you uphold pure Means, you will eventually achieve good Ends.

Grimdark doesn’t take that as a given. And so every now and then a character is presented with an End they feel is so important, they say “fuck it” and resort to violent, even “evil” Means. Like threatening to murder everyone in your community, and being ready to carry it out.

I think I like this in my fiction so much specifically because its such a terrible idea IRL. The whole point of fiction is to live out things that are terrible ideas in real life because they usually get you killed, or destroy civil society, or something. Any real-life Rorschach is a murderous psychopathic hobo. The Watchmen Rorschach is the last shining beacon of decency in a world compromised into complete corruption. Or, in Essun’s case, defending her minority, but then going on to wipe out an entire city-state and taking their stuff, not because it’s right but because it’s convenient.

I’m pretty sure Essun can’t live through this trilogy, her crimes are too great at this point. I predict Redemptive Death.

 

III. Rage v Nihilism

I’ve mentioned before I like Angry Fiction. I loved the absolute simmering rage that underlay every single sentence of The Fifth Season. I would have been OK with more of that, but Obelisk Gate changed up the emotional theme, going with Nihilism instead. Which, for a world in the midst of an apocalypse, works just fine. :) It was well-executed and it drew me in. I mainly note it because I enjoyed it, and  because it leads to my one major bone of contention…

 

IV. Essun v Nassun

IMHO, Jemisin mixed up Essun’s and Nassun’s roles.

I wrote in my spoilery post-Fifth Season post that The Fifth Season guides the reader on a journey to understanding why a person would want to destroy the world. Really desire it, as a moral good. It does that by following Essun. By the end of the novel we are all saying “Yes. Fuck them all. Burn it all down!” (if we’re me). But by the end of Obelisk Gate it’s obvious that Nassun will be the one trying to destroy the world, while Essun will be trying to save it.

To me this feels like it completely negates the point of the first book. Fifth Gate brought us to the realization why the world must be destroyed. Why would the person who took us on that journey now be thrust into the role of its savior? It feels very out of character.

Furthermore, Nassun is set up very nicely for a character arc where she struggles from nihilism into realizing there is something worth saving the world for, and fighting against her mother to preserve some scrap of humanity. That breakthrough of “There is some good in the world, and it is us” would be beautiful, fighting against her mother’s constant (and VERY in-character and relate-able) disgust and hatred of all the evil works wrought by man.

Using Essun as the savior means that a different destroyer has to be built up over the course of Book 2, which is dumb, since we already have Essun! We spent all of Book 1 getting Essun, and we only have maybe half of Book 2 to create a new Destroyer. This leads to Nassun being forced to do randomly evil things without believable motivations. She realizes that the Fulcrum is where her mother learned to break her hand and her response is… to murder everyone inside the Fulcrum? Mass murder feels like an over-reation to a broken hand. Especially since the only people there now are fellow victims.

Also, she just doesn’t have enough life experience to be realistically motivated to destroy the world. Essun had a LIFETIME of abuse, degradation, enslavement, and self-hatred. She’s experienced and/or witnessed horrific atrocities. She killed her own child. She had another child beaten to death by her husband. Nassun is 12 years old. Almost all of it has been with a doting father (who later tries to murder her) and a cold and fearsome mother. This is absolutely believable motivation for adopting Nihilism. It’s not enough for random acts of mass murder. And certainly not enough to become Destroy Of Mankind.

I suspect that Essun will likewise be forced into out-of-character actions in Book 3, to wedge her into the Savior role. Which is a damned shame. I think I’ll still love Book 3, but man, it coulda been so much better if the protagonist and antagonists hadn’t gotten mixed up in Book 2. :(

Jan 222017
 

In mid-November I was laid off from my accounting job, and decided to finish my novel by year’s end. Despite a huge shock to my personal life right about that time (of which there are still all sorts of aftershocks), I managed to do so. :) I wrote the final line on Dec 30th, 2016.

I’m in my revision pass now, which looks like it’ll take a couple months in itself. But a couple things I’ve learned so far:

1. Working for yourself is far more intense than working for The Man.

I thought working for myself would be relaxing. A nice change of pace from the demands of corporate life, since I could work when and where I liked, and no uniform is required. Oh how wrong I was.

I should perhaps put “working” in quotes, because there’s no guarantee I’ll ever see any money for this. But that being said – when I’m working The Man and I’m at the office, I get paid for every hour that I’m there, period. I don’t have to be at the top of my game. If I show up Monday after a big party weekend, and I’m hungover and working at half-efficiency? No big deal. If I surf Facebook or chat with my coworkers for an hour? Still getting paid.

My posts to this blog have dropped off quite a bit over the last few months. I’m behind with most of the blogs I read, as well as not following the news as much, and I’ve abandoned several podcasts I used to listen to religiously. Because I just don’t have the time anymore. Every single minute I’m NOT working is time that I’m not getting paid, so to speak. Every hour of my life is now divided into “productive” (meaning may support my continuing to be alive) or “non-productive” (which feels like it’s wasted entirely). It’s intense. There is no such thing as “time off” or “down time” or even “slack” when you work for yourself. There’s only Doing The Thing, or Not. And getting sick is a double-whammy. It makes me more jealous of my time, and I was already fairly jealous of it.

I used to work on the Methods of Rationality podcast at the office, during my lunch hour. It was a lot like getting paid to work on my podcast. Now I have to chisel out 6-8 hours of my life every two weeks, taking time away from my writing, or my friends/family, or just rest, to do so. I used to always be a full episode ahead, now I rarely get it finished more than 3 days before it goes live. I still love it, but before it was something I used to fill my “free” time, and now it is a more dearly-felt cost.

I can honestly say I have worked far harder during my last few months of unemployment than I ever worked when I was grinding away in the last decade at the 9-5 (with the exception of some very hairy Quarter-End months.)

2. Starbucks is awesome, cuz work environment matters.

I discovered pretty quickly that working at home just wasn’t working for me. It was too easy to get distracted. There was always something to read, or to do. More than anything else, my bed was right there, and the nap times called me.

“How can I write well when I’m this tired? I can’t. I must rest my brain, and I’ll write afterwards. Whoops, it’s two days later.”

It just felt like such a hollow pursuit. I was floating in a strange limbo and nothing I did mattered. So I went to Starbucks.

At Starbucks, there are other humans. Those humans are always looking at me and judging me. If I am typing away, being productive, they smile, and judge me worthy. If I am surfing the internet or chatting on Facebook, they see how I am wasting my life, and scowl.

I know this isn’t actually true. No one gives a shit what I’m doing, they don’t look at me or my screen. But now I’m no longer in some weird dreamtime, I’m among humans. I’m grounded in the real world. And I’m reminded why I write. It’s for these people around me. To some day be seen and validated and maybe maybe even admired. So I sit, and I write, and I feel good about it. I know this isn’t psychologically healthy, but fuck it – do what works. Cuz in the end that’s all that matters.

Also, no bed nearby, so naps are not an option. :)

 

Anyway, I still need to do a full revision pass, and find an agent, and find a publisher, so I’m only like halfway through the process. And I’ll have to get a day job pretty soon to pay the bills too. But I’m happy to have discovered that if I ever get the chance to do this sort of thing for a living for real, I have the self-discipline to actually sit down and write a novel, rather than sliding into sloth and hedonism. :)

Dec 312016
 

I recently posted a negative review of a book that is, IMHO, bad. The author is well-known, especially for an earlier work that is very well regarded, and a commenter was wondering if they should bump it further back on their “to read” list based on the weakness of this latest work.

My short answer is No.

The longer answer is that for artistic (I) and business (II) reasons, (as well as some fears of my own (III)) it’s very hard to estimate how good one piece of art will be simply based on the fact that it was made by the same creator as a different piece of art.

I.

The artistic reason is because no one really knows what makes something resonate with people at the object level. There are a lot of hints and guidelines (“bleed onto the page”), but there is no way to evaluate a work and say “This will be known as a work of genius” short of releasing it into the wild and watching the results.

This is infuriating to artists (especially to those of us who equate love of our work with self-worth. It sucks to have your value as a human fluctuate based on criteria that are unknowable and spooky and seemingly random!) There is a famous story about Harlan Ellison that really demonstrates this. (I don’t have a cite, so consider it apocryphal until confirmed) He poured his soul into a story. It drew on everything that made him tick, so it’s hard to say how long he spent “writing” it, but in terms of working with ink and paper he spent weeks creating, revising, and polishing it, until it was perfect. It would be his masterwork, and he sent it to his publisher in the knowledge that soon his name would be cemented in SF history. That same night, he jotted off a quick story on a lark, to take a break from the serious writing, and sent that off the next day to a different market. The first story never gained any acclaim, no one remembers it, I don’t even know what it was called. The second story is “I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream,” which is one of the best-known and most-reprinted SF short stories in the genre’s history.

And this sort of thing happens all the time. Every single writer in my Top 5 post has put out work that I considered sub-par, and in some cases just plain shitty. Even Vellum, which I can say probably makes up a portion of my soul, was followed-up by a sequel that was…. well, I basically just ignore that it exists. The same director that gave us Blade Runner (one of the best films to grace the screen) also gave us Prometheus (which I can’t bring myself to link).

Artists have an extremely difficult time seeing what works and what doesn’t when it comes to their own work. The fear is that this can result in great things being lost. My current go-to example is “The Fifth Season“, which is fucking amazing, and one of the best things I’ve read in at least two years. OMG it’s so good. The author, NK Jemisin, said in an interview (which I read myself, so True Fact) that she nearly threw out the entire manuscript because it was such a foaming pile of shit in her eyes that she couldn’t face putting her name on it. Her friends convinced her otherwise, and it made my year, and (perhaps more importantly) won the 2016 Best Novel Hugo. For this reason artists are told not to “self-reject.” The tragedy of a Fifth Season being lost is much worse than if a CrossTalk makes it into publication. Artists to encouraged to simply keep putting things out and let the public judge.

 

II.

The business reason is pretty straightforward. Once an artist does produce something truly amazing, they gain a fan base. Before this time, an artist is a financial risk. Editors and publishers look critically at all work from unknowns, and in theory only things of a certain minimum quality get through. There is a check on the worst stuff. Upcoming artists know this as well, and they often put a ton of effort and angst into making their work as good as it can possibly be. The Jinni And The Golem took the author seven years to write, which is a ridiculously long time. But it paid off.

Once a writer is an award-winning, best-selling author, these checks basically disappear. A publisher knows that the author’s next work will sell, period. An editor may still try their best to force improvements and changes, but the editor is employed by the publisher, and the publisher wants the next book without too much hassle, so they can make a profit. They certainly won’t accept a flat rejection from the editor. And the editor is under psychological pressure as well… they’re altering the work of an award-winning, best-selling artist. That likely causes them to overlook things simply because “maybe this is the new zeitgeist the author is tapping into,” or similar. Of course everyone involved wants the book to be GOOD! They have brands and reputations to maintain, and a good work sells better than a poor one. But the knowledge that this isn’t a major financial risk anymore, combined with the fact that no one really knows what’s good or not (as per Section I), means more mediocre stuff will get through.

 

III.

I also have a couple personal fears about causes behind this.

The first fear is that no one has more than one truly genius work inside of them. This is the terror that keeps me up at night. That everything that makes someone who they are can be best expressed in one ground-shaking work. Most people will never make their ground-shaking work. But some of them are lucky enough to make their Neuromancer or their Catcher In The Rye. And everything after that is simply chasing the dragon. It is riding on the glory of that first success. For some people this artistic climax doesn’t come until midway through their career, or maybe at the very end of it. For others it comes right at the start. I don’t know which is worse. If it comes near the start, then you can live off your art for the rest of your life, as your fans continue to buy the rest of your works. On the other hand, you will forever be striving to match that first incredible piece, and you will always fall short, for as long as you live. Oh god. :(

This is basically a “regression to the mean” effect, and one shouldn’t miss out on an artist’s fantastic outlier at their peak simply because later/earlier works have regressed to the mean.

The other fear is that art comes from pain. Once an artist puts out that big hit, they get acceptance, and love, and money, all of which make life suck less. Also they can often use that money to get therapy and become more complete and less-broken humans. Which also means they can’t put out work as good as they did when they were in pain. So, horrifyingly, the choice is between a good life or good art. :( Naturally, most people choose a good life.

 

IV.

So in summary, no, don’t bump something down a list just because other works by the same artist are kinda crappy. There isn’t much relation. You can certainly judge some things based on author… I’ve read a few things by Mira Grant, and despite her popularity, I really hate all of them. I will never read something she’s written again, unless I get a LOT of assurance from sources I really trust that this work is a break from the past, and actually is in-freaking-credible. And likewise, I’ll probably read everything Yudkowsky and Chiang ever put out.

But if you’ve heard a work is genuinely great, like The Doomsday Book is said to be, and it’s well-regarded by the community and/or people you trust, and it’s won awards… well, then it is very likely good, and don’t let future works affect your ordering.

 

Oct 262016
 

palace-of-solitudeFirst of all – thank you to everyone who replied to my last post. It helps. :)

 

Recently I received an email about my flash fiction piece, wherein a reader expressed appreciation for it. In addition to making me feel happy, it reminded me of something Seth Dickinson said the first time I wrote him, years ago now, about his piece “A Plant (Whose Name is Destroyed)“. He thanked me for writing, because no one ever engages with short fiction. I didn’t know what he meant by that at the time. But now I do.

It’s very hard to gauge reader reactions to stories that are published in more “traditional” venues. There normally aren’t comments/likes to give feedback, and even in venues that DO provide a comment section, the vast majority of people never post any comments at all.

The artists I know feed on validation. It could be a general artistic thing, or a general human thing, or maybe I’m just stuck in a very weird social bubble. /shrug. I almost wish I’d gone into one of the performance arts… When you act, or play music, or do stand-up comedy, you have immediate feedback from the audience. That doesn’t happen with the written word. Which means that those of us that feed on validation but don’t perform are starving.

There is some recourse. I go to WorldCon regularly now, and as Robin Hanson noted, it’s a long party to celebrate the authors we admire. But even there, interaction is a bit limited. If I had to guess, I would say this is exactly why serialized fiction has become so popular again. People actually leave feedback on serial fiction. Scott Alexander could publish Unsong as a single completed novel. But he’d never see more than the smallest fraction of the community interaction that comes from telling a story to a collective audience over time.

Fanfiction is the same, I previously quoted a friend who observed “I wrote one short little fic after I saw Thor: The Dark World and in the time since I put it online I have literally received more feedback on it than I have in total for every piece of original work I’ve ever published. It’s like pure black tar heroin for the sad little twitching addict that is a writer’s ego.”

I am also guilty of this. I’ve read stories that really moved me, and then never said a thing. Like, almost moved me to tears, and the author has no clue.

This is unfortunate, and I want to do my part to help change it. From now on, if a work takes my breath away, I will leave a comment on it, even if to say nothing more than that. If commenting isn’t an option, I’ll spend five minutes trying to find an email, website, or twitter of the author instead, and send them thanks. Reading something like that is rare, and it’s not fair for someone to not know they’re appreciated. In fact, I’m going to go back and do that right now, for several works I’ve read in the past year that I left uncommented. They deserve no less.

 

(That being said, this is not the thread to say good things about anything of mine that you’ve liked. If you agree with any of this, please find something you’ve loved by someone else, and comment/tell them instead! Spread it outward. :) Thanks!)