Writer’s Desk: Don’t Worry About What Sells

Image result for The Dragon Waiting

Sometimes you can have all the talent in the world and not enough people will notice. Take the much-beloved writer John M. Ford, who published a bewildering array of fantasy and science fiction that earned him plaudits from a devoted core of fans but little popular success. From Isaac Butler in Slate, about one of Ford’s unsung classics:

The Dragon Waiting is an unfolding cabinet of wonders. Over a decade before George R.R. Martin wrote A Song of Ice and Fire, Ford created an alternate-history retelling of the Wars of the Roses, filled with palace intrigue, dark magic, and more Shakespeare references than are dreamt of in our philosophy. The Dragon Waiting provokes that rare thrill that one gets from the work of Gene Wolfe, or John Crowley, or Ursula Le Guin. A dazzling intellect ensorcells the reader, entertaining with one hand, opening new doors with another…

But Ford never stuck long enough with one genre or style to make a great success of it. He jumped around, played games (literally, he had a strong side career in role-play gaming), and was not interested in making things easy for his fans.

“He could have had a more successful career,” Patrick Nielsen Hayden [husband of Ford’s editor] and Tor’s editor in chief, said, “if he had been more disciplined about his writing” and stuck to one genre, or written a series. “But Mike wanted to write what he wanted to write.”

The argument could be made that writers like Ford (whose work, by the way, is finally being re-released in 2020) do themselves a disservice by not finding a lane and sticking to it.

But if you know what you enjoy writing, have fun writing it, can find at least a few people who enjoy it, and one person who will pay you a few bucks to write it, do that. If writing is not fun, it becomes a job.

Reader’s Corner: ‘The City in the Middle of the Night’

My review of Charlie Jane Anders’ novel The City in the Middle of the Night was published at Rain Taxi Review of Books:

The City in the Middle of the Night, is precisely the kind of novel that benefits from being called speculative fiction rather than science fiction, which can still seem pejorative to some readers. So far, “speculative fiction” seems not to scare off genre-unfriendly readers, meaning Anders may attract the kind of broad readership she deserves with this bristling and vivid book…

Writer’s Desk: Let Your Characters Talk

Occasionally some notable literary discussions take place in less-notable places. Take, for one example, the MidAmeriCon, 34th World Science Fiction Convention, which took place over a few days in 1976 at the (historic) Muehlebach Hotel in downtown Kansas City. There, the great science-fiction author Alfred Bester (The Demolished Man, The Stars My Destination) was doing the sci-fi-con circuit that kept the genre afloat and buzzing in those pre-Internet days.

Bester took some time to talk to an eager fan for the noted genre magazine The Tangent about writing:

You know, Robert [Heinlein] said to me once—we were talking shop, writing techniques and stuff like that—and Robert said I’ll tell you what I do, Al. What I do is get a bunch of characters together and I get them into difficulties, and by the time I can hear them talk they’ve solved their difficulties and I’m finished.

I was absolutely flabbergasted! I can’t even start a story until I can hear my characters talking. I’ve got to know who they are, what they are…I’ve got to identify with them completely…

“I’ll tell you what to do Al…”

It’s likely that more writers are like Heinlein than Bester. For some of us, characters are stubborn things. If you waited around for them to talk, you might never get anything written.

TV Room: ‘Altered Carbon’

Richard K. Morgan’s cyberpunk noir novels posited a future world where death is mostly a thing of the past. Everyone’s mind can be downloaded into a surgically implanted “stack” which at the point of death can then be “resleeved” into a new body of whatever gender or race one prefers. It’s a fascinating concept that Morgan mined for a hardboiled capitalist critique but is worked out for mostly action-junkie hijinks in the derivative 10-part streaming adaptation of Altered Carbon, the first novel in the series.

Altered Carbon premieres on Netflix February 2. My review is at The Playlist.

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’

Since it’s almost Christmas, that must mean time for a new Star Wars movie. The latest one is directed by Rian Johnson (Brick, Looper) and features a grab-bag of characters newer (Poe, Rey) and older (Luke, Leia, Chewie), plus the odd adorable critter (see above).

My article on The Last Jedi and the whole dang Star Wars universe is over at The Playlist:

Back when George Lucas was that oddball car enthusiast and confederate of Francis Ford Coppola’s with two of the greatest and weirdest movies of the 1970s under his belt — “THX 1138” and “American Graffiti” — he really wanted to make a movie out of “Flash Gordon.” But that didn’t work out, so he moved on to cranking out his own rollicking space opera. Forty years after the first “Star Wars” movie, Lucas’s rag-and-bone shop of cribs from Kurosawa, John Ford, and Joseph Campbell has now turned into its own self-perpetuating universe with an annual haul that probably beats the GDP of some small nations. The latest installment, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” looks likely to keep that cycle going for the foreseeable future…

Screening Room: ‘Downsizing’

In Alexander Payne’s new comedy, Downsizing, Matt Damon plays a guy who takes advantage of new technology that shrinks people in order to offset their negative impact on the environment; also, leads to a life of luxury that is not as enjoyable as he initially thinks.

Downsizing opens next Friday. My review is at PopMatters:

No, being the size of a dog’s chew toy might not be to everybody’s taste, but it’s certainly a shortcut to a kind of upper middle-class luxury unobtainable for most of humanity. Around $150k in real-world money translates into $12.5 million in the little planned communities of the downsized. That buys a lot of McMansion. As the indelibly happy Dave (Jason Sudeikis) crows to occupational therapist Paul (Matt Damon), “Cheesecake Factory? We’ve got three of ’em!”…

Writer’s Desk: See the Future

There’s a lot of would-be science-fiction writers out there, but it’s a crowded market and not enough buyers.

For those who like imagining future scenarios but don’t always have the best publication to place them in, there’s possibilities with a firm called SciFutures. According to this New Yorker profile, the company uses a network of a hundred or so writers (including Ken Liu of the Hugo Award-winning The Three-Body Problem) to craft customized stories for corporate clients, known as “corporate visioning”:

A company that monetizes literary imagination might itself seem like a dystopian scenario worthy of Philip K. Dick. “There can be a little tension,” Trina Phillips, a full-time writer and editor at SciFutures, acknowledged … She and [founder Ari] Popper have found that clients generally prefer happy endings, though unhappy ones are permissible if the author also proposes a clear business strategy for avoiding them. Rarely is there room for off-topic subplots or tangential characters. Phillips mentioned one story that initially featured a kangaroo running amok in a major North American city. The client, a carmaker, asked that the marsupial be removed.

More interestingly, some of their clients include the military, who is always looking for new ways to confront threats they haven’t conceived yet.

That’s where the writers come in.