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Posts from the ‘Random Thoughts’ Category

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.

This Week’s Post Will Be a Little Late


So there I was: all ready to sit down and write a post about the “crushing conservatism” of epic fantasy. But then, out of nowhere, an equally crushing headache laid me low.

As a result, I think this week’s post will be a little late. I might get to it in a couple of hours, but more likely I’ll write it early tomorrow morning. Sorry for the delay, but I really don’t think staring at a screen will help alleviate my current brain pain. Instead, my plan for the evening is to curl up with some tea and ibuprofen.

Therefore, good night!

[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

CROSSROADS: Will You Be My Undead Valentine?


Amazing Stories Logo Happy Valentine’s Day, everybody! Not only is today Thursday, nor merely even Valentine’s Day, but it’s also the day when another of my Crossroads essays goes live over at Amazing Stories.

This week, I’m taking a close look at paranormal romance and urban fantasy, how they work and the complicated ways in which they use metaphor and power dynamics. Come and take a look!

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?

Ack! Swamped! Running a Little Late


Sorry, folks. I’m a bit swamped today and so I’m running a little behind getting this week’s post revised. Hopefully I’ll have it ready to go tomorrow. ‘Til then, here’s a picture of Macduff trying to figure out how to sit down on the couch:

How do I sit down? I got my legs all tangled...

How do I sit down? I got my legs all tangled…

The Experience of Reading Diana Wynne Jones [Non-fiction] Aloud


Today’s post will be relatively short, but let me start by asking a question: when was the last time you read a book aloud to another adult?

Around Christmas time, I picked up a copy of Diana Wynne Jones’ Reflections: On the Magic of Writing, which is an excellent collection of much of her non-fiction about writing. I could (and plan to) write an entire blog post just on the subject of that book, but instead I wanted to spend a little time discussing an interesting experiment that my wife and I have engaged in.

Most of us, when we read out loud do so with children. Of course, this can be great fun (even if the kids insist on hearing the same story time and time again), but it is a completely different experience from reading to adults. A public reading is a different beast entirely, mainly due to its performance nature. But for the past several weeks, my wife and I have been reading the essays in Jones’ Reflections to each other, and this personal, private experience has been quite eye-opening on many levels.

My wife and I are both readers. I read for pleasure, and she reads for both enjoyment and work (as a children’s book editor, it goes with the territory). We both have read many of the same books, and we enjoy many of the same authors (though our tastes vary widely). Being an autodidact, I’ve learned most of what I know by having read it somewhere. So reading non-fiction, especially about writing or literature, is nothing new. Because for many years I traveled extensively, I also have listened to quite a fair share of non-fiction audiobooks. But none have been close to the sheer joy of reading and having Reflections read to me.

The first major difference between reading a book to myself and having it read to me goes to the way in which I process information. I read very quickly, and I tend to integrate and internalize what I have read quickly. As a result, I pay scant attention to the construction of an author’s rhetorical argument. Instead, I wish to focus on their point. But having Reflections read aloud to me instead focuses my attention not just on what is being said, but equally on how it is said.

Whether this is good or not, I can’t say. But it is different. It gives me a better sense of how Jones constructs her arguments, for how she frames them. The act of reading them aloud focuses my attention on the sequence of her thoughts, which is itself an important point of information. On the face of it, this experience is not so different from that of listening to an audiobook.

When I listen to an audiobook, I too focus more on the sequence and rhetoric, on the way in which sentences are constructed. But an audiobook is not interactive. It forces me to listen at the reader’s pace, and prevents interpretative digressions or discussions. The facility to pause reading and crack a joke, or stop and discuss a point that Jones just made, fundamentally deepens the meaning and insight that I can get from a book.

Being such book people, we often discuss books we have read, are reading, or will read. But when we consume a book in parallel – when one of us reads it out loud to the other – it aligns our singular reading experiences in an interesting way. And this, in turn, opens interesting avenues for discussion. If we had read her essay on the narrative structure of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings separately, I think our resulting discussion of its ideas would have been very different. Perhaps no less interesting, but qualitatively different.

From a writing standpoint, reading her non-fiction essays out loud really draws attention to the way that she constructs her sentences and paragraphs. Many of us like to think of ourselves as auditory writers. I know I think of myself that way: I love how words sound, and as I write I think about how they will sound together. Diana Wynne Jones – even in her non-fiction – clearly constructed her sentences with their assonance and rhythms in mind. Which just adds yet another dimension to the whole experience, one which I don’t think one can get from reading non-fiction silently.

This isn’t so much a critical discussion of the book (that I’ve got planned for next week), but rather this is just a couple of interesting observations about the experience of reading Diana Wynne Jones’ non-fiction aloud. It’s been an interesting and incredibly enjoyable experience, and I’m looking forward to seeing whether that experience carries through to other non-fiction authors. Have any of you tried it? If so, what has that experience been like for you?

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.

Merry Christmas!


Rather than go with one of my typical posts, since today is Christmas I thought I’d just wish everyone a wonderful holiday:

For those who celebrate it, Merry Christmas!

For those who don’t, then I still hope today was full of family and friends!

Amazing Stories Beta Test to Launch on January 2nd


When it comes to science fiction, there are few names that loom so large as Hugo Gernsback. His Amazing Stories, which hit the shelves in 1926, was the first magazine dedicated solely to the genre: every story it featured was science fiction (or “scientifiction”, as Gernsback preferred – thankfully the portmanteau didn’t catch on). For better or for worse, Gernsback single-handedly shifted the trajectory of science fiction (who do you think the Hugo Awards are named after?).

Amazing Stories

Amazing Stories

And now, with Steve Davidson at the helm, Amazing Stories is coming back. On January 2nd, 2013, Amazing Stories is opening its initial (phase 1) beta test.

This is merely the first step in the re-launch of Amazing Stories, for which Davidson has assembled a team of over fifty bloggers who will write weekly across fourteen different categories: genre literature, genre film, art, science, etc. I’ve signed on as one of those columnists, where I’ll be writing weekly under the pen name Chris Gerwel (more on that decision here on Tuesday).

While the first phase will focus on the Amazing Stories’ blog and community, it will be followed by a second phase where user-customization and interactivity features will be added to the site. Once these tests are completed, the magazine itself will re-launch – with new and reprint fiction, artwork, and articles.

Blogging for Amazing Stories is in many ways a landmark moment for me, and I am looking forward to it. I’m especially looking forward to the day when I can let you know my first columns have gone live.

In the meantime, here are some suggestions for you:

  • If you want to kick the tires on the new Amazing Stories and participate in the beta test, please e-mail Steve Davidson.
  • If you want to see what the new Amazing Stories will look like, you can see two preliminary pre-launch issues here and here.
  • If you want to read the full press release, along with the list of Amazing Stories new blog team, you can do so here.
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