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Posts tagged ‘writing’

CROSSROADS: The Techniques of “Literary” Speculative Fiction


Amazing Stories LogoSomehow, we seem to keep coming back around to Thursday. And what will we do this Thursday? The same thing we do every Thursday. Try and take over the world. Post another Crossroads essay over at Amazing Stories.

This week, I continue our discussion of the intersection between mainstream literary fiction and SF/F. Last week, I outlined a general theory suggesting that literary fiction and speculative fiction are not binary conditions, but instead that they each shade into each other depending on what narrative axis we’re considering. Continuing that exploration, this week I take a look at the techniques that speculative fiction deploys in works “closer in kind” to works of literary fiction.

I do hope you’ll stop by and take a look!

Crossroads: “Literary” Speculative Fiction and Literary Sensibilities

The Care and Feeding of Chapter Breaks


What do you get when a bunch of writers get together and start chatting? No, it’s not a joke. In this case, some of my friends and I recently got into an interesting discussion about chapters, and more specifically on their use in narrative, and on the various ways in which stories get broken up into chapters.

The Chapter as Structured Emotion

I’m a fairly big devotee of the chapter as a structural unit. They are a natural building block for story: narrower than “act” or “part” (or “book”) but wider than a scene or paragraph (let alone a sentence).

But I think the chapter is at its weakest if we consider it as merely a tool for carving the plot into bite-sized chunks. Yes, a chapter does that. But our engagement with a story is only marginally tied to its plot: our investment is really driven by our emotional engagement, which in turn is shaped by the confluence of plot, characters, language, sentence/paragraph structure, and – yes – chapter structure. To think of chapters as merely tools for managing plot misses on their greatest value. I think the real value of the chapter is as a tool for shaping/directing the story’s emotional arc.

We use more targeted structure in a similar fashion all the time. Consider how we construct our sentences or our paragraph breaks: what is the “punchy one-sentence paragraph” except a way to stress an emotional point? Chapters (and to a lesser extent scenes within those chapters) work on the same principle, only with more weight behind them. It is that weight and the emotional arc chapters take us through which shapes our perception of pace and our engagement with the story.

The All Important End

At the end of a chapter, we’re left feeling a certain way: “Holy shit! What’s going to happen now?” or “Whoa. I’ve got to get a breath of air” or “Aha! I know where this is going [but I need to keep going to make sure...].” The paragraphs in the chapter that lead up to that ending are all leading towards that one crystalline moment, that pause where the reader takes stock of their experience before turning the page and continuing to the next chapter.

At the end of each chapter, we retroactively re-assess our perception of that entire chapter. Our experience of the preceding paragraphs, sentences, and events gets overshadowed by our experience of the chapter’s conclusion. It is only with great difficulty that we can parse where we felt that the chapter dragged, or note where the tension rose. The note on which the chapter ends colors our memory of the chapter, and may even replace it entirely.

This is a structural trick that works in book length as well: consider the end of George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones. Martin’s greatest success in that book was the surprising fate of Ned Stark, and that surprise and its implications force a fundamental reshaping of our experience of the entire novel. Chapter endings do the same on a smaller scale, and furthermore bridge our emotional engagement with the chapter that follows.

The Process of Chapterizing a Book

When we write, different people approach chapter breaks in different fashions. Some of us like to outline, and build chapter breaks into our outlines from day zero. Others like to write an entire novel divided solely by scene breaks, and then cut the narrative into chapters after it’s all down on paper. There is no “right” way to do it, and I think that whether we use chapters as a plot demarcation or an emotional one, the timing for when we go in and slice the story into those chapters is entirely secondary.

Different strokes for different folks. Though my own process has changed somewhat as I’ve written increasing amounts, I find that these days I think of my books as “chaptered” before I sit down to write a word. I view chapters as my milestones in my writing process, and their emotional culmination as the “goal” I’ll be writing towards. I’ll sit down and tell myself “Okay, time to write Chapter X” and then I’ll write until I’m done with that chapter. Later on, I might go in and move stuff around, re-write the chapter from scratch, change the sequence of chapters, drop whole chapters, etc., but that’s part of the “fun” of revision.

From a process standpoint, I’m ridiculously anal retentive about doing all of this. Until I’m putting a completed draft together, I keep each chapter (and for some projects with more complicated structures, each scene) in its own folder, and in that folder I’ve got different files for different versions of that scene or chapter. I’ve got my trusty Excel spreadsheet which keeps track of chapters, scenes, sequence, and versions, and I’m sure if anyone else looked at my crazy system they’d scratch their heads and say “WTF?” but hey – it works for me.

So if your process is to slice up your story into chapters after it’s all down on paper? There is nothing wrong with that. It’s a very different process from mine (my brain honestly can’t quite wrap around its implications – it is very foreign to me), but hey, if it works for your own mental process then that is awesome.

How to Decide Where Chapter Breaks Go

Regardless of when or how we break up our chapters, the key to deciding where to put chapter breaks is the emotional ride we want to take our readers on. Our plots – with all of their twists and double-crosses and cliffhangers – are one of the many devices we use to affect our readers’ emotions. In this, using plot points to signpost chapter breaks might still yield a decent result.

But for greater control of both reader emotion, and for greater flexibility with how we shape / present our plots, I think the key is to consider the feelings we wish to evoke, and to remember that the note struck at the end is the one that our readers will remember.

CROSSROADS: The Western Hero in Speculative Fiction


Amazing Stories Logo With Thursday upon us, that means it is time for another Crossroads post over at Amazing Stories. This week, I look at the archetypal western hero, and the ways in which that hero shows up in science fiction and fantasy. Specifically, I explore the traditional usage of the western cowboy/outlaw and the ways in which SF/F dilutes that archetype, and discuss how contemporary western-themed SF/F (e.g. Weird West, steampunk, alternate history, etc.) subverts the archetypal western hero in fundamental ways.

You can find the whole essay here: CROSSROADS: The Western Hero in Speculative Fiction

When to Jump? The Art of Asking and the Economics of Writing


If you’re a writer, artist, or otherwise creative sort, I strongly recommend Amanda Palmer’s recent TED Talk:

I first watched it when it was originally released, and since then I’ve re-watched it a time or two. And like Chuck Wendig (here), Tobias Buckell (here), and Harry Connolly (here) I have somewhat mixed feelings. On the one hand, I applaud Palmer’s philosophy of art and artistry. On the other hand, I question its practicality as applied to written art (e.g. books, short stories, poetry, sequential art, etc.).

The Traditional Economics of Art

First, I’m a dyed-in-the-wool believer in the power of commerce. I do not believe – and have never thought – that the value of art is opposed (or even in tension with) the value of commercial exchange.

The price I pay to read a book is determined by the economics of the supply chain and distribution system used to produce the book and get it into my hands. Physical manufacturing (printing, warehousing, shipping, etc.) are just one component with that, and the real supply chain for books actually starts with the artist – namely the author. The author, the agent, the publisher, the printer, the distributor, the retailer all play a role in this supply chain and they are all doing so out of enlightened self-interest: to make a buck.

This is not to say that all (or even any) of these actors are merely cynical number-crunchers out to skin either the consumer or the artist. That kind of oppositional thinking is something I’ve come across pretty often in the arts, and it is the result of naive ignorance. If the actors involved in producing and distributing a work of art cannot feed themselves, they won’t produce any more art. If the investors (authors included) whose capital finances the production and distribution of art on-spec (i.e. without a guaranteed profit) are prevented from making a profit (and so feeding themselves), they will take their capital elsewhere…again, leading to less art. Such is life in the real world (in practice, a similar economic principle has also operated within every historical attempt at a communist or socialist economic system).

With these supply chains and distribution systems, it is impossible for the actors to peg the price of a given book to its “artistic value”. Asking “What is Othello worth?” is a Zen koan more troubling than the sound of one hand clapping. We – as consumers – cannot assign our own (highly subjective) value to a work of art without having first experienced it. Unless we have read a book, we lack sufficient information to value it. Which is why when people read books that they do not enjoy, a frequent lament is “Not worth the cover price.” If we have read an author’s previous work, we may be able to predict a value (e.g. “I loved So-and-So’s last twelve books, so I expect to love the new one coming out tomorrow.”) but such an evaluation is still only an approximate prediction.

But the traditional distribution systems that bring us that book aren’t telepathic (yet, and let’s not give Mr. Bezos any ideas). They don’t know how we feel about a book, nor do they know how we expect to feel about a book. So they can only determine price out of a best-guess approximation, using their costs as a baseline. This is a fundamental philosophical fact: the price we pay for a book at retail has little relationship to its artistic value.

The Economic Consequences of the Patronage System

A patronage system – such as the patronage system that Amanda Palmer relies on – tries to bridge the gap between artistic value and price. To vastly generalize, it relies on technology to flatten the distribution system:

  • It completely obviates the need for retailers to buy/warehouse/sell the product, and;
  • It largely obviates the need for publishers to select/edit/print/warehouse/ship the product.

This process is – at best – approximate. Works of art (whether music or books) still need to be written, recorded, edited, distributed, etc. and the people who work on different parts of this process need to be paid. Yet by disconnecting the “price” a consumer pays from the costs of production and distribution Palmer and those who follow her model can achieve a closer alignment between what the consumer pays and that consumer’s assessment (or prediction) of a work’s artistic value.

When we pay “what we want to” (which is different from “what we can”) all we’re really doing is translating our subjective assessment or expectation of a song/book’s value into dollars and cents.

Such a patronage model is unlikely to work (due to the costs of scale) with a traditional distribution model. No retailer and no publisher will ever buy and stock books on what they consider a wing and a prayer. The reason for that is because they would be unable to determine a breakeven point. In publishing terms, no publisher would be able to predict when a book will earn out, which in turn means they would not have the ability to assess their degree of risk.

Digital distribution – whether of music or writing – lowers the aggregate cost throughout the distribution chain. It does so to a lesser degree than the digital-only/self-publishing boosters out there would want us believe, but it does objectively lower the amount of capital at risk, which in turn increases the likelihood that some publisher might take a chance on the patronage model. However – and this is where the practical part comes into play – just because the amount of capital at risk is lower doesn’t necessarily make the probability of profit any higher.

Think of it this way (this is vastly over-simplified, yet the principle holds): a publisher invests $100 to acquire, edit, design, print, and warehouse a book. Some part of this money goes to the author (an advance), some to the editors/designers/artists, some to the printer, etc. This is the amount of capital at risk in the distribution chain. Yet with a price point set at $5.00, the publisher knows that they have to sell 20 copies to break even. Based on their experience, they know that they can expect to sell 15 copies (75% of their breakeven point) at launch. So while their overall capital at risk is $100, they know that they have a near-certainty of already covering 75% of that cost. Meaning their effective risk has dropped to $25. And based on their experience, they are able to judge the likelihood of those remaining 5 copies selling over a particular time period.

The traditional economic model allows every actor in the system to control the overall amount of capital they are putting at risk, while taking into account their expected effective risk. On the one hand, the publisher has certain (known) costs, and on the other it has expected (probable, though uncertain) revenues. Decisions can be made rationally based on facts (costs) and probabilities (expected sales).

In the patronage model, the cost side of the equation is still known. The aggregate cost may be lower due to a reliance on digital distribution, but the costs remain calculable. Yet it is far, far harder to predict the revenue side because neither the artist nor the publisher are in the consumer’s head.

And this is where my practical concerns with Amanda Palmer’s Art of Asking arise.

Pretty Speeches Oversimplify

Yes, Amanda Palmer’s $1.2 million Kickstarter campaign is impressive. Yet it did not happen overnight. It was a result of the relationships she had built with her audience throughout her impressive career. By advising creators to trust their audience, Palmer is glossing over the years of hard work she invested in cultivating an audience which both shares her ethos and values her work highly.

Throughout her career, Palmer has built a highly participative fandom. This was, as she herself admits, a conscious choice borne of her artistic philosophy. I have no problem with this, and I applaud her philosophy and the conviction with which she applies it. However, her experience cultivating this relationship with her audience serves a fundamental economic purpose: it makes it easier for her to assess the probability of her “revenue” in a patronage model.

I’m sure Palmer didn’t sit down with an Excel spreadsheet and a little green visor and model out supply/demand/value curves based on historical receipts. First, few artists are that into Excel. Second, she didn’t have to. She had a “reasonable” expectation that her fan base would contribute to her artistic endeavors because they had done so in the past when asked to.

This last point is, I think, vital. The consumer who picks up a book at B&N is not necessarily the same consumer who will go to readings, nor one who will engage on social media, nor one who will pre-order titles on Amazon, nor one who will contribute to a crowd-funding campaign. Most readers (sadly) aren’t that engaged with either the books they read or the artists who produce them. Yet Amanda Palmer had – on the basis of her experience asking fans for support large and small in the past – a reasonable way of “guessing” at the likelihood that her fans would continue to support her.

I suspect Amanda Palmer doesn’t think of it in such terms. Her experiences – starting with her days as a street performer – have all contributed to this worldview. Her experience with the “art of asking” – and the probability of the audience responding – has shaped her life (in particular her lifestyle and costs of living) throughout its course.

As others have pointed out, writers with mortgages, kids, medical bills, etc. may find it far harder to take such chances…precisely because these obligations increase our (known) costs. A young kid with few bills, no family, and no other financial obligations can afford to take greater risks. In other words, our costs are known and (by our reasoning) high. Yet if we have not carefully cultivated an appropriate relationship with our audience, we have a limited ability to accurately predict the revenue side. In other words, our effective risk approaches our capital at risk, which is a position I would hate to have to justify to my bank.

What Does All of this Mean for Working and Aspiring Writers?

As I intimated above, I personally think it depends on your particular situation. If I were fifteen years younger, I would probably adopt a different strategy than I would today. However, I think even then that difference would be one of focus rather than one of principle.

I think that in today’s artistic world, it is in an artist’s best interest to cultivate a variety of distribution models. Traditional publishing with the Big Six, traditional publishing in small press, self-publishing, crowd-funding, patronage, etc. have all proven to be viable models. As artists, we can make each of them work for us. But doing so successfully means using somewhat different skills to varying degrees. If I want to be successful as a writer (regardless of what point I’m at in this career), I think it makes strategic sense to have experience in all of these distribution models.

I’m going to be better at some models than others, based on my own skills, based on my own personality, etc. But being conversant with these different approaches increases the likelihood that as the market evolves (and the balance among models shifts) I will be able to feed myself (and thus produce more art).

This principle isn’t rocket science. I kind of think of it as “writing 101″, and it has been articulated by writers far more experienced than me many times over. And yet from this principle, a simple conclusion follows:

If we want to be conversant with varying models of artistic distribution, and the patronage / crowd-funding model advocated by Amanda Palmer is one such model, then logically it makes sense to experiment with that model (Q.E.D.). So what does this mean practically?

Most writers end up with – at some point in their careers – a work that will be a hard-sell in the traditional distribution model. Some books are just like that, regardless of their artistic merit. For example, in my case, I have a script for a 128-page alternate history/western/fantasy graphic novel that I wrote about a year ago. There are good reasons why this script won’t sell any time soon:

  • It’s just a script, and I am probably the world’s absolute worst artist.
  • There is no artist currently attached to the script.
  • It works in its entirety: i.e. it is a novel in sequential art form, and does not lend itself to single-issue distribution.
  • I am an unknown – just another blogger out there on the internet with no Bookscan numbers to provide a floor.

All the factors above serve to increase both a publisher’s aggregate risk, and to diminish that publisher’s ability to predict revenue. In time, when more of my fiction sees the light of day and I have Bookscan numbers to back me up? Maybe it’ll be a different. But for the moment, the book is unlikely to sell regardless of its quality.

I knew all of this when I started writing the book, so that’s neither a surprise nor a disappointment. But it does leave me with (I think) a good product that is objectively unlikely to sell through traditional models. And that is the kind of project for which it may be worth considering either a crowd-funded/patronage model, a self-publishing model, or (most likely) a hybrid of the two.

Core Lesson from Amanda Palmer’s TED Talk

I think that the core conclusion that I draw from Amanda Palmer’s TED Talk isn’t the obvious one. Her claim that the audience will catch us if we jump is an over-simplification of a very complex process that took her years to cultivate. But she still has a point: if we do not cultivate such a relationship with our audience, and if we do not learn how to do so, we are passing up an interesting economic model that can support our art.

We can only learn so much by looking at those who were successful. Amanda Palmer’s experiences in music publishing and performance do not translate directly to the world of books. John Scalzi’s success serializing his early novels several years ago does not necessarily translate directly to the industry today. The best way for us to develop these skills (and they are skills, in the same way that speaking on a panel is a skill) is to dive in and figure it out.

It is not a question of whether to jump or not. Common sense suggests that we should all practice our high-dive, if for no other reason than career security. Yet even if we are committed to jumping into crowd-funding and the patronage model, the practical question is which cliff to jump from. Not all of us might be prepared for the high-dive acrobatics that Amanda Palmer performs. I know I’m not. And the only way to reach such spectacular heights is to train (i.e. cultivate the audience and develop the skills to do so). That, I think, is the real trick: choosing the manageable cliff, and taking that first step off its edge.

[guest post] Pride and Prejudice and Socks


My wife is a mild-mannered Children’s Book Editor by day, and a chef, knitter, puppy mom, and editor some more by night. Tonight, to my surprise and great pleasure, she wanted to post some thoughts on character idiosyncrasy, because I am lazy and didn’t get around to writing a post and she’s kind and understanding to a fault, and totally not writing this. Please, welcome her first guest post here, and enjoy!


It could be the wool fumes going to my head. It could be that this past weekend was the first time in the months since a colleague mentioned ‘The Lizzie Bennet Diaries’ that I found myself a) in front of a computer, b) not working, and c) with headphones, and thus spent much longer than I’d ever intended watching video after video of Lizzie, Lydia, and Jane Bennet (and other characters) in vlog form.

But somehow, my first thought this morning (besides the usual bemoaning the alarm clock and general desire for coffee, a shower, and a productive work day) was “I really want to wear my new socks!”

These new socks I wanted to wear were not your standard, six-pack from Target, run of the mill socks. Oh no. These were hand-knit, multicolored in the skein, mostly-wool, sized-just-for-me, made-them-myself new socks. This weekend I had finished some work. I had remembered that long-ago mention of Pride and Prejudice for the internet age. I had only half the length of my (admittedly short) foot to go on the second sock. And so, dear reader, I finished it.

Hence my first coherent thought this morning. Hence the shoes I drew forth from the slightly haphazard pile of footwear at my desk. Hence the comment from a co-worker this morning: “Wow, you planned your whole outfit just to show off your socks, didn’t you?”

But truly? Until she pointed it out – that I had on black tights and a black dress and black ankle-boots and SCREAMINGLY BRIGHT HAND KNIT WOOL SOCKS – I hadn’t even realized that I was the sort of person who would do something like pick out an outfit to showcase a particular article of clothing.

I mean, I make stuff all the time. Mittens, hats, shawls that I wear as scarves, socks, etc. I occasionally get asked whether I’ve made something, like a scarf, that I’m wearing to a meeting or on the way out to coffee with work friends. But base a morning’s wardrobe choice around my socks? Not necessarily how I would characterize myself.

And that is what’s so great about characters. Characters walking down the sidewalk in New York, characters in vlogs, characters in books. Characters are everywhere, and characters everywhere are idiosyncratic. I wonder if we’d all love (I’m a children’s book editor – trust me, we all love her) Anne of Green Gables if she wasn’t delightfully idiosyncratic – if she didn’t name plants and places, or hate her red hair, or dramatize every incident and story she read, or talk copiously and at great speed. I wonder if we’d all shudder at Roald Dahl’s witches if we didn’t know that they had squared-off feet and blue saliva and were constantly scratching their scalps underneath the very itchy wigs they must wear? I wonder if Meg Murray would be half so appealing if we didn’t know she’d like a tomato sandwich and not the liverwurst and cream cheese one Charles Wallace offers to make for their mother? Would we find Katniss Everdeen as sympathetic if she hunted for her family simply to feed them and because she needs bow-and-arrow expertise for the plot, rather than realizing how much she loves being outside the fence around District 12?

Probably not.

One of the nicest things about surrounding myself with characters all the time – in manuscripts at work, in people I spend time with, in books on the shelves at home that I stare at longingly because there are always more manuscripts that need to become books and don’t allow much reading time – lies not in realizing how they work, or in being able to designate what constitutes a good character, or what makes for an uninteresting voice (though I do that too). It’s that characters are so delightful. And though in the books I work on and the books I enjoy reading voice and world-building are the aspects of a story that attract me the most, characters are what give those fictional worlds reason to exist, and what are behind the voices I’m drawn to.

And characters, whether they’re real or online or in books, are idiosyncratic. I am hardly through the existing videos of the Lizzie Bennet Diaries, but just a little way in, it’s already clear that people playing along with the vlog feel strongly about particular characters (and not just that the man playing Bing Lee is adorable). The creators seem a little apologetic that certain viewers don’t like Lydia’s character very much, or even Lizzie’s. But guess what? The fact that viewers are able to like or dislike them, or find them annoying (for the record, I find the whole thing to be a lot of fun, and Lydia’s character in particular, like, totes adorbs) means that the writers and actors have done a good job in creating believable characters.

Because we all know what’s going to happen! I imagine that relatively few viewers of the LBD vlog haven’t read Pride and Prejudice, or seen the movie with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth (or even the Kiera Knightley version, if they’re willing to make life choices different from mine). We know that Darcy and Lizzie will end up together, his pride and her prejudice notwithstanding. We know that Lydia and Wickham are going to run off together (though I can’t imagine Lydia being ruined a good impetus for the Bennet family to panic if it’s set in the present day, so I’m looking forward to seeing how the show handles it). We know that Jane and Bing Lee, the two nicest people in literature, are going to reconcile despite Lizzie’s prejudice and Darcy’s pride. So why keep watching?

For some? Because we are (read: I am) total suckers for retellings of Shakespeare, fairy tales, and Jane Austen novels. I am there in the acknowledgements of Elizabeth Eulberg’s delicious Prom and Prejudice for a reason, and not just because we have been known to occasionally geek out over movie versions of Jane Austen together. But for anyone who’s not already a fan, or doesn’t know the plot inside out and backwards? It’s because the characters are so well done. For the LBD viewers complaining that Lydia is annoying and skipping over the videos that she posts – isn’t that degree of engagement with the character the point? She’s always inserting herself into Lizzie’s videos, so it makes complete sense for her character to take over Lizzie’s vlog when her big sister is away, or to post her own videos when she’s off staying with her cousin, because she loooves the attention. She goes so far as to create a twitter account for her cat! And Jane? Who always apologizes when she comes to talk to Lizzie and the camera’s on, and has to be dragged into participating with the re-enactments, even though most of the actual content being discussed on Lizzie’s vlog is about Jane’s life? Her character’s participation on the site is mostly pictures of outfits that she’s worn or wearing or planning to wear for a specific occasion. Silent, posed, unobtrusive photos. Because that’s in line with the character as written for the site.

So in a way, it stands out that Lydia would post videos on a site that’s supposed to be her sister’s vlog – yet it’s completely in line with her character’s personality. Or it’s interesting that when two of three Bennet sisters post videos, the eldest posts photos instead of vlogging. Also totally what that Jane Bennet would do.

Because characters, when done correctly, when written so that readers or viewers believe in them enough to root for them or complain about them, when they come alive, are idiosyncratic. They do or say or think things that don’t move along the plot but do underline the way they are. Other characters they encounter might be surprised by certain small traits they possess – but they’re believable in no small part because of those small practices and habits and private traditions and actions and thoughts that don’t mean anything except to them.

Sometimes characters surprise themselves with their own idiosyncrasies as much as they do their authors or readers. Sometimes they wake up and commute in to work and get halfway through their morning before a friend points out that they’ve dressed themselves with the single goal of showcasing their new, hand knit socks.


And here are those hand knit socks she mentioned:
Hermione's Everyday Socks

On the Interbook Indecision


Right now, I’m in that horrible place between WIPs. I’ve put two (very different) WIPs to bed, wrapped up both beta reader feedback and revisions on one, and am now awaiting the final pass on another. This means the two books are far off in the back of my mind, no longer front-and-center. Theoretically, this should free me up to focus on a new book. But I’ve once again run into what I call the Interbook Indecision, and it’s driving me batty. I wonder, do others run into this?

What is the Interbook Indecision?

It’s a heady feeling to finish a book. Finishing that first draft and typing “The End” is awesome. Of course, that is never the end: revisions, beta reads, more revisions, sometimes more beta reads, etc. all await until the project is judged “good enough” to go out to agents and editors (which itself prefigures yet more passes).

For me, doing revisions and awaiting beta reads translates into lots of waiting: either I’m waiting for a WIP to “settle” in my brain so that I can approach it fresh, or I’m waiting for beta readers to get back to me. Since the WIP is done – or at least paused while I wait – I find my writing time idle. And that’s no way to run a railroad.

At this stage, I usually start working on a new concept. At first, it’s easy going: I’m excited by the idea, interested by the voice and the characters I’m creating, and I’m having fun with it. Coming off of the book-finishing routine of writing one to two thousand words a day, I find it’s pretty easy to make a sizable dent in a new project. But then something comes up.

Usually at the 10 – 15 thousand word mark, I run into one of those typical writerly problems: I realize the pacing is broken, character motivation needs re-working, plot sequence is out of whack. Whatever it is, it’s a relatively minor problem. I’ve faced – and solved – similar problems before, so I think…no big deal! I’ll just give it a little thought, figure out the solution, fix it, and be back on the road in no time.

Only it never works out that way.

I give it a little thought, sure. But it’s always at this point that I get distracted by a shiny new idea like some sort of creative jackdaw. So I’ll write a chapter or three of the new idea – just to test the waters, of course, to clear the creative palate – and see if it feels like a story with legs. And of course, I’ll forget that when you’ve only written several thousand words, every story seems to have real legs. And here arises the Interbook Indecision.

I’ll have two stories (or sometimes more) which are all interesting, exciting, and fun (for me, which I think is a prerequisite for readers eventually feeling the same). I’m not (at least not yet – maybe some day!) one of those writers who can produce two decent books at the same time. I find that writing a book takes a great deal of concentration, but having two projects that (to me) seem equally viable is naturally inimical to that focus.

So what to do?

My Favorite Solution: Phone-a-Friend

Whenever the Interbook Indecision strikes, I know that I’ve lost perspective. Having written four book-length projects in the last three years (and two in the last year alone), I know that I have the ability to finish either of the projects open before me. But determining which I should finish – or the order in which I should tackle them – may simply be beyond me. So that’s when I seek an outside opinion.

At some point, I’ll have an agent and an editor who might provide feedback and help me choose between warring concepts. Until then, however, I rely on The Professor’s editorial insight. Having her unvarnished opinion helps me to prioritize my projects, keeps me on-target, and focused enough to finish the next book. (full disclosure: the fact that each time I finish a book, she knits me a pair of awesome socks helps, too.)

Yet even with her sharp editorial eye, this process isn’t without its challenges. She (thankfully) has no qualms about telling me when a concept falls flat. But she draws an intelligent distinction between “I don’t like this concept” and “This concept isn’t for me, so I can’t really judge.” And when I hear that, it just means the judgment call has been bounced back to me…when, as I’ve already stated, I’ve lost perspective on the choice.

The Backup Solution: Finding the Core of the Story

So lacking the perspective to judge between two options, and with my Phone-a-Friend option coming up flat, the decision comes back to me. In this situation, what I find helpful is to take each of the stories and try to identify the core nugget within that initially caught my interest.

This is – at least for me – a more difficult process than one might think. When I write a story, there are layers to my own motivation and those layers are ever-shifting based on a wide variety of factors (e.g. my mood, stress outside of writing, what I had for lunch that day, etc.). Yet underlying those layers is a solid foundation, the core of what made me excited to sit down and write the book in the first place. Once I’ve figured out what that core is, I’ll often find that one foundation is more exciting than the other. I’ll also often find that one foundation is otherwise more stable than the other (for example, I’m often prey to fascination with a particular voice, and so might want to play with that voice even when the underlying story is relatively weak).

It’s really a question of figuring out which core concept makes me rub my hands together in child-like glee the most. And once I’ve done that, it’s a question of committing to that project with the conscious acceptance that I’ll see it through to The End.

I wish that this process were easier, or that it were faster. This Interbook Indecision has hit me after each finished WIP, so it’s part of the writing process that I must learn to work through. With four finished projects, I think I’m building a way to do it. Between outside opinion, introspection, and examination, I’ve built a method that (so far) works for me, even if it’s not fast. The consideration and weighing of choices takes time, and it is annoying in that when I’m considering I find myself not writing. If I don’t write, the story doesn’t get finished, and that is incredibly frustrating. But this Interbook Indecision may be part of my mental composition as a writer: something I need to accept and deal with, as a natural consequence of finishing a book.

Thankfully, I’ve already started to refine my method. And if neither outside help or careful consideration helps? I guess I can always flip a coin. But it hasn’t come to that yet.

Does anyone else run into this Interbook Indecision? I know others get distracted by shiny new book ideas when they’re about three quarters done with a WIP, but does anyone else get distracted when they’re 10 – 15% into one? If so, how do you deal with it and settle on a project to finish?

In Defense of Complexity


Hi, my name is Chris, and I like complex stories (this is the point where a chorus of “Hi, Chris!” wouldn’t go amiss ;)).

For the last century, we’ve been trained by television and cinema – much more constrained narrative mediums than prose – to laud the straightforward. And while there are good reasons for simplicity’s commercial popularity, I think it’s a shame that it has become our default mode of storytelling.

I think it is odd that in our culture, I find myself defensive of my appreciation for complicated storytelling. I like intricate plots, multiple perspective characters, rich language, and complex narrative structures. When I read, such complexities mark the difference between breakfast and dinner. Both are important meals, and both can and should be enjoyed. But one begs to be fast and the other lingered over.

Embodying Perfection through Culinary Excellence by DangerDragon

Embodying Perfection through Culinary Excellence by DangerDragon (via deviantArt)

Simple stories can be incredibly satisfying, but they are constructed to be swiftly captivating and directly processed. They are my literary breakfast. But more complicated stories are structurally incapable of such swift ingestion. They take more time to prepare, to enjoy, and to digest. Neither is inherently better than the other, just as pancakes and bacon aren’t inherently better than spaghetti carbonara. But each can achieve certain artistic effects that the other cannot.

Why Simplicity is King: Accessibility

Spaghetti Carbonara

Spaghetti Carbonara

First, I want to make it clear that I love simple stories. They are elegant, efficient, and enjoyable. Arthur Conan Doyle, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Raymond Chandler, Ray Bradbury – all wrote simple, straightforward stories. Yet those simple stories remain incredibly powerful works of art.

Simple doesn’t mean bad, nor does it mean easy. It means uncomplicated, straightforward. A story is simple if it follows one perspective, if it features a single core plot with one or more sub-plots tracked alongside the core story. Simple stories use language that is utilitarian (serving to forward plot, setting, and characterization), as opposed to artistic (where the language and rhetorical structure serve to forward theme independently or in opposition to the plot, characters, or setting).

By this definition, most commercial stories are simple. Pick up just about any commercial thriller, or any best-selling SF/F novel, and you’ll find a simple story within its covers. Most popular mainstream literary novels are likewise simple, however beautiful their prose or highlighted their characters. There is (however much I might grumble about it) a correlation between a story’s simplicity and its sales potential. And I think a story’s accessibility lies at the heart of that relationship.

Simple stories are a narrative train: the author’s job is to put our wheels on the tracks, and then to let us go. They have their one primary line, and the story sticks to it. Their settings, language, characters, and sub-plots are only useful inasmuch as they push the train forward or slow it down. As a result, the reader doesn’t need to expend a large amount of work to get into a story or to follow it through to its conclusion. This speed of captivation is the primary strength of simple stories: their directness heightens their narrative momentum.

Contemporary YA and romance are probably the genres which have sharpened this method to a razor’s edge. Accessibility, and in particular the speed with which the reader is locked onto the narrative track, are paramount for both genres. I’ve heard proponents of this type of storytelling (the Professor in particular) argue that such simple stories work because they get out of their own way.

There’s a lot to be said for such an approach, as it has given us such enjoyable (and meaningful) rides as The Hunger Games (the first novel in the trilogy – the latter two got more complicated), the Harry Potter series, any of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, most of John Scalzi’s novels, Saladin Ahmed’s wonderful Throne of the Crescent Moon, Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, etc.

To understand them – at least at the superficial level – requires literacy and little consideration outside of the text itself. While some simple stories can be very deep and powerful (think The Great Gatsby or Dandelion Wine), they don’t require us to hold a great many characters, settings, or relationships in our heads when we read them. In other words, they ask less (often much less) effort of us than a book by Umberto Eco, William Faulkner, Victor Hugo, Tim Powers, Ursula K. Le Guin, Christopher Priest, or John Crowley.

Their accessibility grants them a significant commercial advantage, of course, because a great many readers don’t want to work that hard at the reading experience (if I had to read Proust every day, I’d go mad). From an artistic standpoint, their straightforward structures allow them to apply a finely-tuned focus to the themes and issues they wish to explore. By focusing on a simple, core story, its themes are brought into sharper relief. Sometimes, that’s what we want.

But there’s a trade-off inherent to this simplicity. Some artistic endeavors demand more work of the audience. Their accessibility (and so their sales) may suffer as a result, but artistically they can manage certain tricks that simpler fare cannot.

Being Content to Seem What You Are: Complexity and Theme

Marcus Aurelius once wrote “Be content to seem what you really are,” and I think that’s damn fine advice for the written word. It is incredibly difficult to communicate true complexity or philosophical ambiguity in a simple story. Simple stories can communicate depth, emotions, philosophical meaning, morality – almost the entire spectrum of thought and emotion. But complexity is not depth, and uncertainty is not ambiguity. Effectively exploring either complexity or ambiguity as themes in a work perforce complicates its structure.

To roll with the train metaphor from earlier, content (plot, characters, setting, etc.) is one of the story’s two rails. Of the two, it is the easiest to notice because it’s what we consume when we read the story. But the second rail – theme – runs alongside the content, and so long as they run parallel the story can roll ahead. Should their relationship diverge, should the theme veer off at a tangent, the story comes off the rails and we end up with a big mess.

If complexity and its kissing cousin ambiguity are some of the themes we wish to explore, then the content must in some fashion convey that complexity or ambiguity. If it fails in this, then the theme’s exploration becomes stillborn and our artistic endeavor falls along with it.

Consider Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen (which I discuss at greater length here). Judged solely by the length of the series, or by the page count of each volume, one might judge it similar to Robert Jordan/Brandon Sanderson’s Wheel of Time epic. But it is absolutely different, and it is its exploration of historical, individual, and cultural complexity which set it apart.

The series is an artistic success because its content is so aligned with its themes. Where most door-stopper fantasies stick to a limited number of perspective characters with complex histories and relationships, Erikson’s number in the tens (if not hundreds ultimately – I lost count after the first several books). As each of these perspective characters has their own individual motivations, their own personal histories, their own personality traits, the resulting epic balloons into a messy, complicated, glorious work of imagination.

This is both its greatest strength, and its greatest weakness. Because its content (its characters, its plot, its settings, etc.) personify its theme of complexity, the story itself becomes incredibly complex. For its exploration of theme? Mission accomplished. But this raises the fence of accessibility quite high: it takes a significant effort to follow the complex weave of characters, plots, motivations, and betrayals, and many readers just won’t be willing to make that investment.

A similar marriage of content and theme can be found in Gene Wolfe’s writing. If we look at his works that focus on ambiguity, in particular his novels Peace, There Are Doors, and Latro in the Mist, we find that the thematic ambiguity Wolfe explores is likewise expressed in the content, and in particular in the perspective character’s own relationship to truth and reality.

In the case of Peace (which – perhaps appropriately – on some days is my favorite Wolfe novel, and others days is not), the complexity of the content and ambiguity of the entire novel is further developed through the non-linear presentation of events as recounted by the story’s narrator. In this, Wolfe plainly took a page out of Dostoyevsky’s playbook (and perhaps unsurprisingly, Notes From Underground is my favorite Dostoyevsky novel), but the consequence of Wolfe’s artistic choice is to make the story even more difficult to follow.

I think that both Erikson and Wolfe made the right choices in their respective (and extremely different) works. By unifying the content of their stories with the themes they were exploring, they were able to construct more cohesive, and more satisfying stories. It would have been impossible, I believe, to explore their themes of complexity and ambiguity without the corresponding complexity in content.

Structure and Language as Sources of Complexity

Of course, not all stories – and not all complex stories – explore themes of complexity or ambiguity. Consider J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings or Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange. Both are complex stories: Tolkien features an extensive cast of characters, and expects the reader to follow multiple parallel storylines through the series. Burgess, on the other hand, writes a simple story in terms of plot and characters, but plays with language in a very interesting way. Could the same have been done without such complexity? Absolutely not.

In Tolkien’s case, the foundation of his epic’s artistic success lies in its narrative structure. Diana Wynne Jones puts it far better than I ever could in her essay “The Shape of the Narrative in The Lord of the Rings” (recently collected in Reflections: On the Magic of Writing), but the balancing of disparate movements within LOTR is one of the reasons why the entire story resonates with readers so strongly. Had Tolkien only followed Frodo’s journey, or had he chosen to present Frodo’s story and Aragorn’s story sequentially rather than interspersed, the result would have been far simpler and far less effective.

Burgess’ story is much simpler, in terms of its narrative perspective, its plot structure, and its characters. But it is far more complicated in terms of how language is used, and in particular in the ways that Burgess employs neology. Burgess’ nadsat – an amalgamated argot of Russian and English – introduces complexity into the otherwise simple novel. Doing so in 1962 – at the height of the Cold War – explicitly focused contemporary readers’ attention on the cultural implications of this choice. Similarly, this use of language enables Burgess to surreptitiously slip the slang and its values into the reader’s mind – particularly when the reader is intended (per the author’s own declarations) to reject the violence and pornographic content of the book. Such a dichotomy would have been impossible to create without such complex linguistic play.

The Risks in Complex, Challenging Fiction

As I said, I love complicated stories. But sometimes I feel like they are a dying breed. Commercial considerations being what they are, I understand why. There are few complicated stories on the bestseller lists (although thankfully they still show up on award rosters often enough). Editors are pressured to acquire commercial titles, and that usually translates into easily-accessible titles.

The failure mode for complex works is far worse than the failure mode for simple fare. Even mediocre simple fare is likely to at least satisfy some of its less discerning readers. Complicated fiction, however, becomes indecipherable or (worse) uninteresting when it fails to live up to its ambition.

Thankfully, there are plenty of authors out there who still strive for complexity and the creative opportunities it affords them. Authors like Lavie Tidhar, Terry Bisson, Madeline Ashby, Ian McDonald (in his non-YA fiction), and Samuel Delany are all creating ambitious, complex, multi-layered novels. And even where I might not care for a particular story, I applaud their ambition in their writing and their editors’ courage in acquiring their complex stories.

Amazing Stories and Crossroads: A Year of Exploring SF/F Mashups


As of this morning, Amazing Stories is officially out of its beta test. If you enjoy reading this blog, then I strongly encourage you to stop by www.amazingstoriesmag.com and check out the insightful, fascinating discussions that are happening over on the Amazing Stories blog.

Amazing Stories Logo

One of the reasons why I’m really excited about Amazing Stories is that I’ve committed to writing a weekly Crossroads column exploring the relationship between speculative fiction and other genres. Here’s how it’ll work: every month, I’ll pick a different genre. And then every Thursday throughout that month, I’ll explore how that genre interacts with speculative fiction, how they feed off of each other and inform each other.

As of right now, the first two of my Crossroads posts are already available. The third will be out this Thursday. In January, I’m exploring the relationship between noir and speculative fiction, and so far this months’ posts are:

Crossroads: Where Genres Meet in the Night My inaugural post at Amazing Stories, where I explain what Crossroads is all about and what the year’s schedule will look like.
Crossroads: What Is Noir, Anyway? This post takes a close look at what characteristics make a story noir, and introduces some of the tensions that exist between the noir aesthetic and speculative fiction.
Crossroads: A Genre Darkly (available: January 24th, 2013) Coming up this Thursday, I take a deep dive into the close relationship between science fiction and noir, exploring how science fiction incorporates noir plot structures and style into its toolkit.

Next week, I’ll be taking a similar deep dive into the even greater challenge of unifying noir and fantasy. I hope you stop by Amazing Stories, and I hope that you enjoy my Crossroads column! I’d love it if you could swing by and join in the conversation.

Pacing and Narrative Structure: How The Hobbit and Django Unchained Screwed Up


At first glance, Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained are fairly dissimilar. One is the tale of a beleaguered young man who is put on the path to a quest by an older, bearded wise man. The other has a dragon.

Jokes aside, both movies have come in for some criticism, though Django Unchained has gotten far less criticism than I think it deserves. Fans of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (myself included) were fairly incensed by the liberties The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey took with its source material. And some folks have been grumbling about Django Unchained on grounds of race, representation, and its indulgent depiction of violence (though why anyone would have expected anything else from Tarantino, I have no idea). But these criticisms (deserved or not) are not what I took away from the two films. Instead, I think that both movies – especially when taken together – can show us something interesting about the way that pacing stems from the story’s narrative structure and its presentation.

Where Jackson’s The Hobbit Fails

Tolkien purposefully kept The Hobbit short, simple, and very focused. This choice is exceedingly clear when we compare it to The Lord of the Rings, which features an epic scope and scale. The Hobbit – thematically and artistically – was never designed to be a big story, and its narrative structure is therefore constrained.

When Tolkien first wrote the book, and when his editor first edited it, they determined how best to communicate the narrative and its themes to the reader. They had to decide which information to include, what sequences to portray and which to leave “off-camera”. These are not – as Jackson’s The Hobbit would suggest – idle choices. They are the foundational choices any decent creator makes, sometimes intuitively and sometimes painstakingly, but always integral to the narrative.

Tolkien’s book focuses on a simple man hobbit, one Bilbo Baggins. Yes, on his adventures, Bilbo stumbles into other characters’ epic (Thorin Oakenshield) and tragic (Gollum and Thorin both) journeys. But Bilbo’s narrative is neither epic nor tragic. Tolkien chose to focus on the narrow, pastoral concerns of an anachronistic, pastoral character. Through Bilbo’s perspective, Tolkien looks in on Thorin’s epic journey and Gollum’s tragedy. But – like Bilbo – we remain outside looking in. The Hobbit as a result reads like an anti-epic, specifically presenting the futility of a traditional epic structure.

This fact – apparent, I should think, to most of The Hobbit’s readers – apparently escaped Peter Jackson et al. Whether out of nostalgia for Tolkien’s (actually epic) Lord of the Rings, or a desire to stretch a short book into three movies, or simply the belief that Tolkien and his editors got it wrong, the film makers chose to reverse what may be Tolkien’s most important creative choice.

When we read The Hobbit, we are invested first in Bilbo, and only secondarily in the other characters. Jackson tries to simultaneously earn an equal investment in both Bilbo (who Martin Freeman plays amazingly), and in Thorin Oakenshield (who Richard Armitage plays woodenly). These two characters’ narrative arcs are thematically and structurally incompatible.

By cramming his “white orc” plot line into the movie, Jackson weakens the narrative structure of Bilbo’s story. It makes the film painfully schizophrenic: one half is a version of The Hobbit which stays (relatively) true to the book’s themes and structure. But the other half is taken up by a story which contributes nothing to those themes. Because the events are largely constrained by Tolkien’s original plot, there is no opportunity for either a more complex exploration nor for a subversion of Tolkien’s original themes. If that were Jackson’s conscious intent, then an adaptation is not the place for it.

Jackson has successfully developed split narrative arcs before. The Lord of the Rings – which is an epic story – features this kind of split narrative. We have plot A (Frodo/Sam/Gollum) and plot B (Aragorn et al.). But as Diana Wynne Jones discusses beautifully in “The Shape of the Narrative in The Lord of the Rings” (recently collected in the fantastic Reflections: On the Magic of Writing), that “split narrative” is actually a complex weave, where each strand supports, relies on, and contravenes the other. And both of those strands are epic in nature. They are compatible, and the narrative structure relies equally on their compatibility and differences.

It would be impossible to develop a deeper narrative structure around Thorin Oakenshield without rejecting either the structure or the themes of Bilbo Baggins’ arc. This puts the audience in a difficult situation: We must choose which narrative we will actually invest in. This choice plays havoc with the movie’s pacing. If I’m only invested in one half of the film, that means I spend the other half waiting to get to the good bits. One half of Peter Jackson’s movie contributes nothing to its narrative, and so tries the audience’s patience.

Django Unchained and the Pacing Impact of Self-indulgence

Tarantino’s Django Unchained has a different lineage. It doesn’t stem from a book, and so its plot is unconstrained by outside factors. An unabashed homage to the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Corbucci and Sergio Leone, as evidenced in the main character’s name (i.e. Django is a nod towards Sergio Corbucci’s excellent classic Django), offhand references (e.g. a character “Eskimo Joe” gets mentioned, probably a nod towards an often-forgotten spaghetti western Navajo Joe), and actor cameos (e.g. Franco Nero, who played the titular character in Corbucci’s classic Django).

From a narrative standpoint, spaghetti westerns tend to explore themes of moral ambiguity and the interplay between justice and vengeance. Tarantino’s Django Unchained plainly follows in this thematic tradition, with its heroes relying on both deception and nigh-superhuman gun-slinging skills to free Django’s wife and exert justice on a rich southern slave-owner.

In general, the narrative itself is satisfying enough. It absolutely lacks the moral ambiguity or character complexity characteristic of the best spaghetti westerns, and in essence is little more than a classically-structured heroic quest (as the movie itself acknowledges). But that’s fine, and I would be happy to experience that kind of story. Unlike Jackson’s The Hobbit, Django Unchained picks one narrative and thematic structure and sticks to it. Where it ran into problems for me, however, lay in quite a few self-indulgent directorial choices that diverted attention from that narrative and easily added an unnecessary forty-five minutes to the movie.

Here are two examples:

Through vivid experiential flashback and spoken dialog, Django establishes his desire to free his wife Hildy (Brünnhilde, more properly). We understand what he wants, and we identify with it. We want him to succeed. The story has us invested. Great. But from this point forward, Tarantino chooses to throw in scenes where Django imagines (hallucinates?) his wife. The action slows down for each of these moments, giving us a drawn out pause that grinds the story’s movement to a halt. No dialogue is exchanged, and Django never remarks on these moments.

How do they help the narrative?

They don’t. Django’s motivation – and his character – are sufficiently established through other moments in the film. The story has only one narrative arc, and it’s pretty straightforward. We’re not likely to forget what Django wants. So these hallucinatory interludes only distract from the narrative, bringing its forward momentum to a grinding halt.

There is a similar, though much longer sequence, lampooning the KKK (to be fair, it’s really a “proto-KKK” since the movie is set pre-Civil War) which adds little to the narrative. Taken on its own, the sequence is actually quite funny, and from a moral/ethical standpoint I am strongly favor of portraying prejudiced bigots as the idiots they are. But what does it add to the story? It is a momentary side-adventure, which does nothing to move the main narrative arc (Django’s quest for his wife) forward. And it fails to deepen our understanding of either Django or Doctor Schultz: we already know where both characters stand on slavery and race relations long before this scene. While it is a very well-composed sequence, it is didactic directorial self-indulgence. And it slows the narrative arc substantially.

Window-dressing and Economic Storytelling

Whereas Peter Jackson’s choices in The Hobbit actively broke the story’s narrative structure, Tarantino’s choices in Django Unchained merely distracted from it. But while the scope of their poor judgment may differ, their mistakes were of a kind: both confused the presentation of story with the story’s narrative.

Presentation is a technical concern. It might be prose structure, language style, camera angles, or shot composition. It is the technique – any technique – through which the narrative gets communicated. When we tell a story, regardless of medium, we have to choose how to present that story. We choose our words, our sentences, our shots. But if we lose sight of what that technique is meant to communicate, if – like Peter Jackson – we choose to present thematically and structurally incompatible components, or if – like Quentin Tarantino – we choose to present self-indulgent sequences which fail to deepen the narrative arc/themes, then we’ll be damaging our story’s pacing (and possibly breaking the story beyond repair).

In short, Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit and Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained just reinforced for me that presentation should always be in service to the story. That’s what people are there to read/see/experience.

A Question of Identity


Happy new year! The kooks who made stuff up about the Mayans were wrong, the world didn’t end, and we have now rolled into 2013. I for one am happy that 2012 is over, since it was in many ways a tough year for my family, and I am looking forward to a far better 2013.

One of the developments I face in 2013 is the fact that I’ll be publishing a weekly column/blog over at Amazing Stories. With that, comes the necessity of choosing the name under which those posts will be published. Identity has always been a fraught choice for writers: whether they adopted a pen name to appeal to their audience’s higher ideals (Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay writing as Publius), to prevent confusion (Winston Churchill writing as Winston S. Churchill), to increase the prospective audience of their works (Alice Sheldon writing as James Tiptree, Jr.), or to keep different facets of their life compartmentalized (Charles Dodgson writing as Lewis Carroll), each of us who picks a pen name does so for personal, often idiosyncratic reasons.

The Modern Identity Crisis

We have our professional lives, the part of our day when most of us put on respectable clothes, harden our professional smiles, and step out of our doors to interact with the world within the boundaries of our chosen profession. Then we come home, shut the door, turn the lock, put on our fluffy slippers, and reveal our private, personal selves.

We perform our daily life, both in our public roles and in private. If you think this is duplicitous, then I’m sorry, but would you go to a job interview dressed in your PJs? Of course not. We are part of a society, and that society accepts certain behaviors in certain contexts and condemns others. For most of us, our private, personal passions are reserved for exactly that: for the private spheres of our lives, to be shared with those closest to us.

The more roles we play – husband, father, friend, child, boss, volunteer, employee – the more varied our presentation. That’s only natural, only human. But today, identity has become a difficult, mutable beast. Where twenty years ago, we could leave work at the office and have our private passions at home, now social media and the 24/7 work culture has eroded those once-firm borders. The compartmentalization we all take for granted, that we all rely on, has become fluid.

Navigating these waters can be exhausting. And when a personal passion begins to shade into a professional presentation (like when, oh, I don’t know, one starts getting one’s personal, passion-driven work published) the way in which we construct our identity begins to have consequences.

Who Am I?

When I first started writing about speculative fiction, I chose to do so semi-anonymously. I didn’t reveal my full name, and instead just opted to go by my first name of Chris. As I wrote in my first post here, I did this to keep my day job separate from my writing. My professional career, and the circles I move in to maintain and develop that career, would neither understand nor accept my creative passions. People would – out of ignorance or small-mindedness – question my professionalism, my maturity, my seriousness. Never mind that I’ve been building multinational businesses since my late teens. Too many people have difficulty accepting that many of us are complex creatures, built of myriad and wonderful parts.

This fact is tragic and painful.

But it remains a fact, and one which must be faced. I could choose to say screw it, and to wear my love of speculative fiction proudly. At this point in my professional career, and with my creative work now starting to show up in more places, I am tempted to do exactly that. But before I start publishing my work (non-fiction or fiction) under my real name, there is another factor to consider: the commercial implications of that name.

Supposedly, when Harry Turtledove first started publishing novels, his publisher told him that no one would believe a name like Turtledove (despite the fact that it is his real name). He initially adopted the pen name Turtletaub as a result.

When Jo Rowling published the first Harry Potter book, her publisher in the UK demanded that she merely use two initials to better appeal to middle-grade boys.

When Julie Woodcock publishes her romance novels, she does so under the name Angela Knight because otherwise the double entendre of her surname might harm her sales.

Pearl Zane Gray chose to publish his classic westerns as “Zane Grey” because many of his readers wouldn’t have bought a western written by a man named Pearl.

The quality of our work, the genres we publish in, and the names we publish under are the brand we develop as writers. Yes, that sounds marketing-ese, but it remains true. And in today’s writing world, we have to shoulder so much of the burden of our own marketing, our own publicity, that if we want to actually write professionally, I think it behooves us to think strategically about how we do so.

My full name is a fine name. It’s a long, Polish name, with all of the consonants, syllables and difficulties that comes with it. My mother, who came to this country as an adult in the late ’60s, insists that if she had to learn to pronounce “Smith” then everyone else should learn how to pronounce “Modzelewski”. I think she has a point.

But as a writer hoping to build a name for myself, and as a writer hoping to one day sell books, I need to consider more than just the Honor of the Family Name (for the record, I think that would be a great mainstream literary title). Here are some of the questions I’ve been asking myself:

How will a difficult-to-pronounce name affect word-of-mouth recommendations? How will a hard-to-spell name affect search-driven sales on Amazon? How will a tough name affect the likelihood of bloggers and online reviewers writing up my books? Will a tough name diminish booksellers’ propensity to hand-sell my titles? Will signing my super-long name on stock give me carpal tunnel syndrome?

A difficult name is not, of course, a deal-breaker for any of these concerns. An editor friend once laughed and told me “We know how to deal with those kinds of issues.” That is no doubt true, and of course these are all absolutely manageable. But there’s a way to forestall any and all of these concerns, and that is to adopt a pen name.

That’s why, to ring in the new year, I’ve decided to drop my half-maintained veneer of anonymity. Instead, I’m going to actively try to promote and develop a new identity for myself. It might be a silly strategic choice on my part, and maybe in the future it might change, but for the time being I’ve chosen to write under the name Chris Gerwel (That’s my first and middle name, in case anyone was wondering. Gerwel is my late grandfather’s name, and I’m sure my mom’ll be thrilled that I’m using it.).

The way I see it, the name is shorter and easier to spell than my “proper” surname. It remains a little unusual, which hopefully helps make it memorable. And it won’t get confused with my professional day-job world, letting me maintain – at least to some degree – a little compartmentalization between the spheres of my life.

Others might have made a different choice, and I might yet reconsider this one (I expect that either an agent or an editor might want to weigh in on such matters at some point). But as I wrap up a difficult 2012, I’m looking forward to starting 2013 with a name.

With that, I am off to celebrate the holiday with my family. Happy New Year, everybody! May your 2013 be better than all the years that came before.

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