Archive for September, 2013

The Writer, Back To Work

A Post In Two Parts

Part One

I’ve mentioned a few times on the blog that I’ve gone through a layoff recently. If you’ve missed my updates on Twitter, I’ve accepted an offer letter and will be back to work on Monday. I don’t like to actually talk about who I’m working for and what work I’m doing here on the blog, however it’s work similar to what I was doing before my layoff at a company I’m extremely excited to work at. Like, geeked out a little when I arrived for my interview excited. It may or may not have ultimately helped, but I got the job.

I realize I was in a very good position. My former company treated me very well, even through the layoff. I wasn’t an isolated employee thrown to the wind, I was in the third wave of a massive set of layoffs. That meant plenty of notice, roughly six months, and a severance package that I didn’t burn completely through. In some ways, this layoff might end up being one of the better things that has happened in my career.

I know there are folks out there who are having, or have had, a much tougher time on the job market. I could afford a rather leisurely layoff period, applying for every job I could find, attending every interview that would have me, but I got nowhere close to the point where we had to worry about the house, or our food bill. I even had a pretty good backup plan in place. My thoughts go out to every single person who hasn’t been as fortunate as I.

Part Two

I’m not just heading back to work in my day job career, I’ve also gotten back to work on my writing in a good and substantial way. I’ve had a few fits and starts since the baby came along, but I think I’ve found something that’s working for me.

It all started a few years ago on Lifehacker, a post passing along Jerry Seinfeld’s method for improved productivity:

[Seinfeld] said for each day that I do my task of writing, I get to put a big red X over that day. “After a few days you’ll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job next is to not break the chain.”

I’ve seen this alternatively called the Seinfeld Method and Don’t Break The Chain online. Folks have used it to learn foreign languages, get better about exercising, stop procrastinating nearly so much, and, of course, writing. I started my chain on September 15th. It was the day after my birthday, and that seemed as good a time as any to start something like this. Think of it as a New Years resolution of sorts.

My daily goals are modest. 500 words of writing, 30 minutes of outlining, or 30 minutes of editing. These are very easy goals to hit, but they are also numbers that add up over time. They’re also minimums. On the days I’ve written, I’ve gone well over every time. I’ve yet to break the chain, and I’ve done writing all but one day. Thanks to this, I’m just over 9000 words into the generation ship story that’s been running through my mind for a few months.

The momentum factor is very important. I’ve been keeping a page where I’ve checked off the days. And as the chain gets longer, the temptation to break it diminishes. Hopefully this will carry me through the rough draft, and through edits on both this book and Nickajack.

So that’s me. Back to work in two different ways. Hopefully both are for the long-term.

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Now and Then

The Hugo Awards do not honor the best science fiction book published in the previous year. Anyone who is following along on the Great Hugo Read should be disabused of that notion by The Forever Machine. Instead, they honor something much more specific. They honor the book most popular and/or best liked by those attendees of Worldcon who chose to submit a ballot, which itself is drawn from a short list.

It’s a process that’s triple self-selecting.

Selection one: Nominations and votes are open only to those who are members of Worldcon.

Selection two: The short list is drawn only from books nominated by those members who choose to nominate.

Selection three: The award itself goes to the winner of an instant runoff vote conducted by those members who choose to vote in a given category.

None of this is meant to damn the Hugo Awards. It’s only to be realistic that they represent a very specific thing. This is worth keeping in mind for the next few months as the Great Hugo Reads includes a few Retro Hugo Winners. The Retro Hugo Awards represent a slightly different very specific thing: the books that have had the greatest lasting impact among those same self selective voters.

I bring this up for a pair of reasons. First, LonCon 3 has announced they are exercising their rights to offer Retro Hugo Awards, and will be honoring those works of science fiction and fantasy that would have been eligible for awards at the inaugural Worldcon in 1939. More specifically I bring it up because this month the Great Hugo Read looked at two very different books. First, the book that won the Hugo in 1958, and second the book that the British Science Fiction Association retroactively selected as the best book of 1958…fifty years later.

To be blunt, I can understand why Non-Stop was retroactively chosen.

Don’t think for a second I didn’t enjoy The Big Time. It was an interesting novel, especially as it set a very small story in a vast and massive world. It’s very clear that there are massive things afoot just outside the door to the room where the story takes place, a war being fought across all of time as the two sides change and rechange history. However, that’s not the story. The story is a closed room mystery. The broader war is only presented in snippets and monologues.

Oh the monologues.

The major failing of the book comes from the solution to the mystery. In many ways it’s the typical problem of Sherlock Holmes stories. Holmes investigates the mystery, and comes up with a solution not based on the facts in evidence, but based on some obscure piece of knowledge he possesses. In this case, the solution to the mystery came about from a piece of technology that isn’t presented until the chapter where it’s revealed to be the solution. It’s a weak solution to the mystery, but the book isn’t about the mystery. It’s about the characters, and it’s about exploring the underlying morality of war.

It was also the first Hugo winner with a female protagonist. I expected that to take rather longer.

Non-Stop feels a little more modern, if that’s the best word to use. There were few points in The Big Time where it didn’t feel like a book written in the 1950s, a bit of a time capsule. Non-Stop felt like the more complete story, where the breadth of the story being told better matched the width of the world around it. That’s not to say it’s a perfect book, just that it’s the book that holds up better 55 years after its publication.

I don’t know how this dynamic will come forward with the Retro Hugo winners. In a way, they’re safe selections from a modern perspective. Bradbury, Asimov, and Heinlein. These are all three writers who still speak very strongly to a modern audience, and have maintained broad name recognition over the years. This isn’t to say that one, or all three, may not have won if the Hugo Awards were voted on in those years. But it’s no guarantee, either.

With all that said, we’re heading rapidly into October, which features the first of these three Retro winners as the secondary read.

Primary: A Case of Conscience by James Blish (1959)

  • Print: In print, available from Amazon or check your local independent (or at least brick-and-mortar) bookseller.
  • Electronic: Not Available. What the hell, Del Ray Impact?
  • Audio: Available from Audible, narrated by Jay Snyder.

Secondary: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (Retro Hugo winner awarded 2004 for 1954)

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Are We Doing TV Wrong?

I don’t watch Breaking Bad. I saw the pilot episode, I loved the pilot episode, but for the first two seasons of the show I didn’t have AMC on my cable package, and by the time I did it made more sense to wait for it to all wrap up so I wouldn’t have to deal with the most infamous feature of the show.

The waits.

The long long looooong waits.

Breaking Bad debuted on January 20, 2008. It’s 62nd and final episode will air on September 29, 2013. That’s 2,079 days between debut and finale, or an average wait of 34 days per episode. It aired in fits and starts, running in seven, thirteen, or eight episode chunks, with fans waiting as long as 399 days between seasons three and four.

Compare that to The X-Files. 202 episodes over 3,173 days, an average wait for 15.8 days per episode. One off season was even bridged by a movie. If Chris Carter and company had given us those 202 episodes at the same rate as Breaking Bad, the series finale would have aired sometime in November of 2012. Deep Space Nine would have run until 2009. Lost would still be running until 2015, Fringe until 2017.

It’s perhaps not fair to compare cable and network television here. Cable runs by different rules. Shorter seasons, longer off seasons, it’s the expectation. However, Breaking Bad is still an outlier. Thus far fans of The Walking Dead have waited 26 days per episode, and Mad Men fans have waited 28 days per new episode. Dexter, also ending soon, 27 days.

All of these cable dates tend to float right around a magic number. On average the fan of these major cable series have waited one month per episode. Which leads me to wonder: what if a series aired one episode a month? Reliably. Every month. No off-season. From episode one until the series finale. It means that fans would have to wait for every episode, but would never put up with waits of over one year, which both Breaking Bad and Mad Men have put their fans through.

It probably wouldn’t work with production schedules, but I’m curious about this from a theoretical point of view. Would you watch a show that gave you one hour of content, reliably, the same time every month?  Perhaps as a two hour block paired with the previous month’s episode. Perhaps a cable network that provided a genre per night of the week. Four dramas rotating on Mondays, four SFF shows rotating on Wednesdays. Is monthly television inherently more arbitrary than weekly television, especially when many cable shows are doing it on average already? Is that run of 13 straight weeks worth the long wait between seasons? Would plotlines be harder to follow? Would it be harder to get into a new series this way?

I don’t necessarily have answers for these, though I’m curious about opinions.

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Possessive Ships

Short post today, longer post tomorrow.

I’ve started the new generation ship novel, which inevitably means referring to the ship by name. Style manuals for this are very clear, the names of ships are italicized. So it’s the Sarah Constant. Though many style guides would yell at me for saying “the”. And I get that point. The name of the ship is just that. A name. You wouldn’t say “that novel is written by the DL Thurston,” you’d say “that novel is written by DL Thurston.” (Though you can choose to use the first form with italics: “that novel is written by the DL Thurston.”)

Likewise, proper style is to say “I am traveling on Sarah Constant,” not “…the Sarah Constant.” But that just feels wrong, ya know? Especially because most of us science fiction fans grew up with Star Trek, not the Navy style manual. In Star Trek it’s always “the Enterprise.” “Captain Picard is in command of the Enterprise,” instead of the proper “Captain Picard is in command of Enterprise.” Maybe Starfleet just never adopted the Navy style manual, though it certainly adopted everything else.

However, I had a deeper question. How do you use a ship’s name in the possessive? Are the apostrophe and s italicized or not? Being that I was operating on a Sudafed last night, this struck me as a Very Important Question that Needed Answering Now.

So I found two style manuals that talk about ships in the possessive. And they disagreed. According to the National Geographic style manual, the answer is Constant’s. According to the Wikipedia style manual the answer is Constant‘s.

Can you see the difference?

Let me make it bigger.

Constant’s vs Constant‘s

There. Maybe you can see it. Probably you can’t. I know the difference, and I have a hard time seeing it. The official National Geographic style is to italicize the apostrophe. The Wikipedia style is to not italicize the apostrophe. Both say not to italicize the s.

In the light of day, it really doesn’t much matter right now. I just need to be consistent, and when it’s published one day (hopefully) it’ll be up to the style manual of the publisher.

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State of the Writer: September 2013

I’m a few days late, I know. I mentioned a month ago that I didn’t know what would happen to my posting schedule during my unemployment. The answer appears to be that it’s going to go down a little. Since we’re starting on a personal note, the job hunt is going well, but has not yet wrapped up. I’ve had some good interviews, hoping one results in an offer. Be a nice birthday present. Oddly, last time I was unemployed (coming out of college) I also landed a job right around my birthday.

Speaking of birthdays, today is my daughter’s first. It’s an oddly surreal feeling. It feels like it can’t have been that long, also feels like it’s been much longer. My daughter is a time p̴ar̷ad̸òx, apparently. But I still love her. Tonight’s plans involve putting a cupcake in front of her, and seeing what happens.

Alright, writing. I’ve tucked into my new generation ship novel project a little earlier than planned. I’m working my way through a few drafts of the first chapter, looking to get a tone I’m happy with and get some characterization going. After that I’m going to back out again and get some outlining done. Probably going to work similarly to Nickajack with outlining and writing happening at the same time, with the one only a few chapters ahead of the other. Right now the book is just over 1800 words long, but that represents several evenings of toiling on that first chapter to get it as good as I can. It’s not something I’d normally obsess over so much at the start of the book, but I do want to get it at least a little right.

In general I’m trying to find a little time each night to write. And there is a little more time in the evening with a one year old than there was with a six month or nine month old. Some nights will be Nickajack s͙͇͉̅ome nights will be Back Half.

Great Hugo Read: We’re back to the past read, picking up again in 1958 with Fritz Leiber’s The Big Time. It’s the last novel awarded a Hugo without a nomination stage. I’ve paired it up with Brian Aldiss’s novel Non-Stop, which beat The Big Time when, in 2007, the British Science Fiction Association selected their Best Novel of 1958. So it’s one novel that was thought better at the time, and one novel that was thought better with a half century’s hindsight. This is something I’ll end up talking about more in October when the Hugo Read looks at its first Retro Hugo winner.

Buying options for both books:

The Big Time by Fritz Leiber

I got a 1972 copy published by Ace, but that was before I realized The Big Time was originally published as Ace Double D-491. I bring this up not because of my love of Ace Doubles, but because it is paired with a collection of Leiber short stories from the same universe as The Big Time.

Non-Stop by Brian Aldiss

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Hugo Lessons

The Hugos are over and awarded, which means LoneStarCon has posted the numbers behind the nominating and voting processes. Looking through them, a few things stand out to me:

1) I don’t get Hugo voters, or they don’t get me

I had my picks in three categories: novel, dramatic long, and dramatic short. My #1 picks in all three of those categories ended up in last place, either fifth or tied for fourth. Further, in both categories where I sorted the entire field, my #5 pick came in second. So clearly my taste in science fiction differs significantly from the broader Hugo electorate.

2) People vote for the movies they’ve seen

Here are the five Hugo nominees for dramatic presentation long form sorted by box office take:

  1. The Avengers
  2. The Hobbit
  3. Hunger Games
  4. Looper
  5. Cabin in the Woods

Here are the results of the voting:

  1. The Avengers
  2. The Hobbit
  3. Hunger Games
  4. Looper
  5. Cabin in the Woods

I’m not surprised that people vote for the movies that they see, but I was a little surprised to see that the two lists matched exactly. I guess I expected that Hugo voters were more likely than the general public to have seen all five.

3) People submitting nominations don’t know what to do with short movies

Chronicle ended up causing some problems with those filling out nominating ballots. The movie is 85 minutes long, thus it is eligible in the Short Form category. However, people think of the categories not as long and short, but movies and everything else. Thus Chronicle ended up on 35 nominating ballots as a long form, 22 short form. Now, add those together (which you can’t do) and it doesn’t even come close to the ballot cutoff, but I think it drives home the need for more clarification in these categories. I understand some attempt was made to change the dramatic presentation categories, but by adding “super short form” for presentations under 15 minutes.

4) It’s VorPAtril, not VORpətril

I’ve been saying it wrong this whole time.

5) Kill your darlings

Alright, look, the dramatic presentations went to Joss Whedon and George RR Martin. I don’t know what other lesson to take away from that other than…kill everyone.

6) I want a ballot

It doesn’t take much to get one. Now that Worldcon 2015 has been awarded to Spokane, I’m going to keep an eye out for when supporting memberships go on sale, which should get me Hugo nominating and voting rights for the next three Worldcons. Including the 1939 Retro Hugos announced for next year.

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