Sometimes, just sometimes, you gotta let a professional deal with things. Case in point: flaky internet service.
Some personal news, to take your mind off the News™: After much consternation, my flaky in-home internet is finally on a more even keel. The whole experience served as a reminder that sometimes, just sometimes, you gotta let a professional deal with things. Here's what happened.
No matter how much I try to avoid it, I see more similarities than differences in everything I write. But is that a problem?
Maybe this is an inevitability for any author, but the more I look at my work, the more I see only the similarities and the redundancies. My last four books — including the one I'm now writing — have followed many of the same lines, at least conceptually. But would anyone else notice it? And if so, would they care? Would that to them just seem like me fulfilling the kinds of promises I fulfill best?
"When everyone in the community reads the same books, you can an inward-looking, intellectually impoverished community that can only contemplate its own navel."
"How to progress" [in programming]
1. Read books other people aren't reading
The computer programming community tends to follow fads in which everyone reads the same books at the same time. For example, books on extreme programming or design patterns. I think this is unfortunate. If you read books that other people are not reading, then you will know different things from the things they know, and when they come to you with a problem they can't solved, you might be able to solve it with your different equipment.
When everyone in the community reads the same books, you can an inward-looking, intellectually impoverished community that can only contemplate its own navel. When we read all different books, we all have more to learn from each other.
Of the many things I think can make a better creator of SF&F, this I rank at the top as well. Most everyone I know who wants to write SF&F reads a lot of SF&F, maybe some other kinds of fiction (if they're lucky), and not much if any nonfiction. The end result as I see it, is a lot of folks writing more or less the same kinds of things, because they feed off each other's works, and almost no one is pushing the input envelope.
On the sociology of impostor syndrome.
Something else to think about (you've probably had your fill of News™ this week):
Maybe there weren’t any grown-ups, only people who had worked hard and also got lucky and were slightly out of their depth, all of us doing the best job we could, which is all we can really hope for.
The subject of the above post is impostor syndrome, and it's short enough that you should read it in full (it has a great punchline). But this sentence caught my eye most.
Most projects don't end up anywhere near where they start out, and for good reasons.
For fun, I took all the major projects I've completed, and split them into two columns. In the left-hand one, I wrote "where it started"; in the right-hand one, I wrote "where it went". (The joke should be obvious.) The right-hand column just contained an image of the finished book's cover. But the left-hand column contained the earliest recognizable version of the idea, which often had so little to do with the finished product I might as well have not bothered listing it. Was that a problem? Not really; in fact, it's a good thing.
We put things into genres to make them sellable, and the best way to do that is after the fact.
Any game – or media – genre can be made interesting. My game library has many a fantasy RPG and I delighted in the fantasy-isekai take of the anime The Faraway Paladin. But these games and media are things that had an edge, a break, something unique. Just like the razor-raw edges of punk caught the souls of people, I want something to catch me and you can’t do that with blandness.
Reading this made me think about why indie creators sometimes seem to refuse to take risks — why they settle for just creating off-brand versions of the same things that are available in more upscale forms. For lack of a better term, I'll call it the paradox of labeling: what we call something ends up dictating what it should be.
"All entertainment is art whether we like it or not" holds up better with every passing year, and for many reasons.
"All entertainment is art whether we like it or not" is a line I came up with more or less in the spur of the moment, some years back. I have since then found so much credence to put into it I fear it has become merely a dogma instead of an astute and useful observation. But it holds up better with every passing year, and for many reasons.
What do you do when you find yourself writing the kind of book you might take issue with if someone else wrote it?
I'm a little more than halfway through the first draft of Shunga-Satori, and experiencing one of the difficulties I expected would come up in this project: what happens when you find yourself writing the kind of book that, if it came from anyone else, you could criticize on grounds you've used before. I'm specifically thinking of a problem common to fantasy stories, especially those not in a conventional heroic/epic mold: the problem of there being either no rules, and therefore no stakes; or rules that are too complex and fluid for the audience to grasp intuitively, with the same net effect. Nobody can invest in a story that runs through their fingers the minute they close their hands around it. So what's to be done?
"When you’ve got a million movies to pick from, picking a safe, familiar option seems more sensible than gambling on an original." Discuss.
From a piece that caught my eye earlier:
As options multiply, choosing gets harder. You can’t possibly evaluate everything, so you start relying on cues like “this movie has Tom Hanks in it” or “I liked Red Dead Redemption, so I’ll probably like Red Dead Redemption II,” which makes you less and less likely to pick something unfamiliar.
Another way to think about it: more opportunities means higher opportunity costs, which could lead to lower risk tolerance. When the only way to watch a movie is to go pick one of the seven playing at your local AMC, you might take a chance on something new. But when you’ve got a million movies to pick from, picking a safe, familiar option seems more sensible than gambling on an original.
This could be happening across all of culture at once. Movies don’t just compete with other movies. They compete with every other way of spending your time, and those ways are both infinite and increasing. There are now 60,000 free books on Project Gutenberg, Spotify says it has 78 million songs and 4 million podcast episodes, and humanity uploads 500 hours of video to YouTube every minute. So uh, yeah, the Tom Hanks movie sounds good.
Exercise for the reader: what does this mean for independent artists who don't have money to throw at aggressive promotion, the better to commandeer that ever-diminishing slice of human attention out there?
People can get the anger of the current moment from anywhere. See what else you have to give.
With so many of us glued to the TV right now, I'm going to do my best not to repeat what you're likely to get about all that here. Instead I'm going to revisit something I've talked about on and off in the last several posts: Whatever kinds of work I'm being driven to write, the chaos of the moment is shaping me to do it, but not in a way that might be obvious.
On using Zen Buddhist notions of time in writing SF&F.
One of the single weirdest things about Zen Buddhism is its idea of time. Past and future are speculation of different sorts, and the only thing we can say really exists is action in the present moment. Doubly weird if you call yourself an SF author, because a big part of SF is making guesses about what the future could be like and writing interesting stories about those guesses. Is there a contradiction here, then? I don't think so.
Some healthy tension is needed between keeping the wheel of production turning and leaning on myself for being a lazy slob.
We make schedules for many reasons, but not out of some deep motivation, need or reason. This is why so many self-created schedules can be frustrating because we think they’re important but don’t care about them. I’m all for scheduling, but not a schedule as self-abuse.
With regard to my own work schedule, I try to get a book finished about once every 12-18 months. The main reason for this is simple: life's short, and even as finicky as I am with ideas, I suspect I have a great many different kinds of stories to tell before I crumble to dust.
What Zen taught me about writing SF&F, part 1.
Stop me if I'm wrong, but from what I can tell, there aren't a whole lot of people writing SF&F who are also practitioners of Zen Buddhism. At least, that's the impression I've received. Most of the other peers I've encountered in this space are either atheist/agnostics, nominally Christian or Jewish, some Muslim. But I think in the entire time I've been doing this I've run across exactly one other person who wrote SF&F and also identified to some degree as Zen Buddhist. And he was one of the guys who actually got me into this stuff in a serious way in the first place!
With every story set in a strange new world, give yourself as many individual elements of wonderful strangeness to draw on.
Earlier today I was helping someone with a novel they're working on, one with a certain amount of worldbuilding, and out popped a piece of advice gleaned from a few go-rounds on that particular wheel. When you create a world with some basic rules about how it behaves, one of the first things to do is write down as many "tidbits" as you can think of. Things like, how elements of the setting might manifest; how the rules can be bent or broken; things that might happen in that world because of things being the way they are, etc. You're not obliged to include any of them, you're just going to dump out as many as you can. Then, when you start working on the story in earnest, you have a pool of devices you can reach into and drawn from to make your story happen and to enrich it on a scene-by-scene basis.
We might as well have narratives that make sense of the universe in constructive and nurturing ways.
This week I received the latest book from Brad Warner, The Other Side Of Nothing (subtitle: The Zen Ethics Of Time, Space, and Being), and to say it was timely and what I needed is an understatement.
For those who don't know: Brad Warner is the guy who got me to take Zen and Buddhism seriously as a practice, instead of just an intellectual occupation. I bumped into his first book Hardcore Zen in a library sale, and it remains to this day the best $1 I've spent on a book. Warner was the last person you'd expect to become a Zen teacher: he played bass in a punk band and worked for the company that makes Ultraman, but over a period of years his interest in Zen as a ... what would be the right term? ... spiritual technology, I guess? ... deepened. He realized this Zen stuff was a better answer to all the Big Questions he had about life, and ended up devoting himself to it in a freewheeling but totally serious way.
The Other Side Of Nothing is a more structured introduction to Zen and what it means than Hardcore Zen — not quite as much fun, maybe, but meatier, a little more elegantly written, and far more systematic. If you're new to Zen, it might not be the first book you read, but it could very easily be the second. It's also a good book to sink into, and I sunk pretty deeply into it, as readers here can tell I've had a fairly chaotic couple of days, and I needed something to tell me there are ways to make sense of the universe.