On Medium: Building a Writer’s Toolkit, Part 2: My Writing Process

Over on Medium, just published the second installment of my series, “Building A Writer’s Toolkit.” In Part 2, I discuss “My Writing Process” with an emphasis on all of the non-writing tasks I have to perform as a professional writer. Being able to find tools that can help automate these non-writing processes means more time each day to spend actually writing.

You can head over to Medium to check out the post.

The Retro Hugo Awards for 1941 at MidAmeriCon II

Next summer at MidAmeriCon II–the 74th World Science Fiction Convention–among the awards given out will be the Retro Hugo awards for 1941. The award will cover stories published in 1940. I have a particular interest in this award because a few years ago, when I was taking my Vacation in the Golden Age, I read, and wrote about, every story that appeared in Astounding Science Fiction from July 1939 – November 1942. That means that I read and commented on every story that appeared in 1940 issue of Astounding.

Many of these stories are likely unfamiliar to modern audiences who will be voting for the Retro Hugos, so I wanted to call attention to my Vacation in the Golden Age, specifically for 1940, in the chance that folks would want to read what I thought of the stories published that year. And if any of them pique your interest, you might look them up in a collection or anthology.

Here are the 12 issues of Astounding that appeared in 1940. Clicking on the issues will take you to my review of that issue. I comment not only on the stories, but on everything in the magazine, letters, editorials, and sometimes even the advertisements.

Astounding 1940

photo.JPG photo.JPG photo.JPG
Episode 7: Jan ’40 Episode 8: Feb ’40 Episode 9: Mar ’40
photo.JPG photo.JPG photo.JPG
Episode 10: Apr ’40 Episode 11: May ’40 Episode 12: Jun ’40
photo.JPG photo.JPG photo.JPG
Episode 13: Jul ’40 Episode 14: Aug ’40 Episode 15: Sep ’40
photo.JPG photo.JPG photo.JPG
Episode 16: Oct ’40 Episode 17: Nov ’40 Episode 18: Dec ’40

Unlike 1939, where from July – December Astounding published stories by 3 different women, there were no stories published by women in 1940, at least not in Astounding. That’s too bad, because in 1939, one of my favorite stories was “Greater Than Gods” by C.L. Moore.

There was still some excellent fiction published in the 1940 issues of Astounding. And if you are wondering what my particular favorites were, I’ll list them for you below, along with the issue in which they appeared, in case you want to read more about them.

My favorite stories for 1940

  1. “Final Blackout” by L. Ron Hubbard1 (April, May, June 1940)
  2. “Requiem” by Robert A. Heinlein (January 1940)
  3. “Cold” by Nat Schachner (March 1940)
  4. “The Stars Look Down” by Lester Del Rey (August 1940)
  5. “The Mosaic” by J. B. Ryan (July 1940)
  6. “If This Goes On–” by Robert A. Heinlein (February 1940)
  7. “Butyl and the Breather” by Theodore Sturgeon (October 1940)
  8. “Fog” by Robert Willey2 (December 1940)
  9. “One Was Stubborn” by Rene La Fayette3 (November 1940)

Of course, A. E. van Vogt’s famous novel Slan was serialized in Astounding in 1940 and you may note that it didn’t make my list of favorite stories. I suspect this one will be high on the list for other people, primarily because it is still fairly well known today. But while the first part of Slan was extraordinary, I think it got weaker with each subsequent part. Not true for another serial, like Final Blackout. This is just my opinion.

Astounding was not the only magazine publishing science fiction in 1940. There were others, including Unknown, John Campbell’s other magazine, and Amazing Stories. But it was a time when it was still possible to read just about everything published in the year.

It will be interesting to see how the voting turns out for the Retro Hugo because it is a 2016 audience voting for stories published generations earlier. At the very least, it would be fascinating to look at the results of the Retro Hugos for 1941 and compare them to Campbell’s analytical laboratory (for those stories that came from Astounding at least) to see how much our literary judgments align with fans from generations past.

  1. This was a decade before Hubbard published his infamous “Dianetics” essay in the May 1950 issue of Astounding.
  2. A pseudonym for science writer Willy Ley
  3. A pseudonym for L. Ron Hubbard

The Lure of Long Books

When I was little and just learning how to read, I recall looking at the 10 page book that I had to tackle with dismay. It would take me forever! to get through that book. It was a slow, painstaking process, and by the time I made it through, I often felt discouraged. I remember my mother encouraging me by telling me that through books, you go could anywhere and do anything. That helped, and eventually with time and practice (lots of practice!) I got better at reading, to the point where I found it to be a delightful activity.

Yesterday, for the first time in a while, I walked to the local Barnes & Noble for the sole purpose of browsing. I didn’t plan to buy any book (nor do I). I just wanted to wander the shelves and peek at things. While browsing, I noticed an interesting phenomenon that I’d never really been aware of before. I paused more in front of long books than short ones. And I realized a truism for me that I’d never thought about before: I am attracted to long books.

What is a long book? It is different for everyone, but for the sake simplicity, for me, let’s call a long book anything longer than 800 pages.

Over and over again, I found myself pausing in places where thick paperbacks sat on the shelf. I’d pick them up and flip through them, wondering, what makes the book so interesting that I’d be willing to spend so much time with it? Or put another way: what story takes 800 pages to tell?

I don’t know why I like long books so much. I suspect it has to do with not wanting a good story to end. When I am reading a particularly good book, I find myself constantly checking to see how much of the book remains, and as the pages dwindle, I grow sad that the book will soon be over. The longer the book, therefore, the longer it lasts.

I suppose I think of books like vacations. Short books are like weekend getaways. Your average 300 or 400 pager might be like heading off for a week’s vacation. But the long books–those are the big vacations: 2 or 3 weeks away, no cares in the world. You never want the vacation to end.

Looking through the list of books I’ve read over the last 20 years, I see plenty of long books. But there are, perhaps, 6 look books that, as I read them, I didn’t want them to end. In the order that I read them they are:

  1. The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes
  2. Shogun by James Clavell
  3. Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 by Edwin G. Burrows
  4. It by Stephen King
  5. 11/22/63 by Stephen King
  6. Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss

Long books have been much on my mind lately because I recently finished reading James A. Michener’s memoir The World Is My Home, and having done so, have been interested in reading some of his novels. He is famous for monstrously long novels, like Hawaii, and Texas. Indeed, in casting my memory back in time, I can recall browsing bookstores, and lingering over his books because they were so big.

I have read other big books. I’ve read all of George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones books for instance, and enjoyed them, but not with quite the same passion that I enjoyed the six  books listed above. I can’t say why exactly. I’ve read many of Will Durant’s histories, and enjoyed those as well, but again, not with the same pleasure as the 6 books above. Whether the long book is fiction or nonfiction hardly matters. I think what makes for the right recipe is that the book sweeps me away, totally and completely. The book becomes that vacation from the rest of the world, a vacation that I simply don’t want to end.

Before I start reading a long book, I experience that same sense of anticipation I get before going on vacation. The mountain of pages (whether they are physical or digital) hold all of the hope and excitement of a vacation. It is a form of potential energy, and I often think to myself, “I’ve got this whole book in front of me.”

Perhaps that is why, when I finish a particularly good long book, it is so difficult to figure out what to read next.  I have immersed myself in someone else’s head for so long that I need some time to recover and gain my senses before I can actually settle on another book that I will enjoy.

Whatever the reason, there is a lure to long books. I am drawn to it like a siren’s song, and once I’m in its grasp, I am its prisoner for as long as it will hold me.

James Michener on Forming Opinions About the Arts

While reading Michener’s memoir, The World Is My Home, I came across this passage where Michener describes his feelings about the arts, criticism, and how he formed his opinions:

I had always had the habit, which I adhered to in my response to the arts, of trying to look or listen with an unprejudiced intellect. For example, whenever I entered a museum I would walk to the center of each room, from where I could see no labels, and ask myself: What is worth noting here? By taking this approach I note only discovered some excellent art but also gained confidence in my artistic judgement so that I have never had any hesitancy in relying upon my own taste. I have consistently fortified it with the opinions of others–I read a great deal of criticism–but I have never allowed critics to dissuade me from making my own evaluations. As a result my appreciation of the arts has been nothing but positive, and it has been one of the best parts of my life. I doubt I would have felt this way had I been overawed by the opinions of others.

This resonated with me because my approach to reading has been similar for many years. A quick scan through the list of books I’ve read over the last 20 years will show something of a diversity of subject matter, fiction and nonfiction. Some of the books that I have read have been panned by critics, but I only considered the criticism after first plowing through the book out of some curiosity on my part. I read P. G. Wodehouse for this reason, and while I found his writing amusing, I didn’t think it was anything extraordinary. On the other hand, I found odd books like Philip Caputo’s The Longest Road to be an unexpected joy.

With two young children, it has made me consider how they will appreciate art. Art, for them, may very well be in terms of video games. I can go on and on about what joy Richard Garriott’s Ultima IV was for me, but ultimately, I want to instill in them the idea that they need to walk to the center of the room, so that they they can’t read the labels, ask themselves, “What is worth noting here?”

On Medium: Building a Writer’s Toolkit, Part 1: My Favorite Word Processor

Over on Medium, I have started a new series of posts called “Building a Writer’s Toolkit.” This series focuses on ways of improving the set of tools available to writers so that more time can be spent in the creative act of writing, and all other ancillary tasks can be automated as much as possible.

The first post sets a baseline by looking at my history with word processors and what my favorite word process is (and why). If you are interested, head over to Medium to check it out.

Goodbye, Yogi

There is a new player joining Shoeless Joe on the field of dreams tonight. I was saddened to learn of Yogi Berra’s passing when I woke up this morning. He is one of those few people that I feel like I’ve been aware of my whole life. I feel almost as if I was born knowing the name Yogi Berra. I can recall seeing him in commercials in the 1970s. He seemed ubiquitous in baseball, a Hall-of-Famer who clearly loved the game.

A lot has been written about Number 8 today. They write about his famous wit, his 20 year career, and 10 World Championships, but I think Derek Jeter captured the most important element of who Yogi Berra was:

He will always be remembered for his success on the field, but I believe his finest quality was how he treated everyone with sincerity and kindness.

My grandparents watched Yogi Berra play baseball. My parents watched him. Generations of fans learned to love the game by watching Yogi and seeing how much he loved it.

It’s the End of the World as We Know It, and I Feel… Proud

Both the Little Man and the Little Miss have been making a repeated request lately. I’ll be in the home office, writing, or something, and one or both will come by and ask, “Dadda, will you put on the ‘It’s the End of the World as We Know It’ song?”

I don’t remember when I first played R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World As We Know It” for the kids, but they both loved it. Sometimes, I’ll pass through the house and hear one or both singing the song. Yes, they sing all of the lyrics to the song–exactly the same way I do, which means somewhat imperfectly, but with more or less perfect rhythm. When I put the song on for them, they both dance around the room in their unique styles, singing along with the song. Their faces brighten. They love it.

I tried explaining to the Little Man that once, when I saw R.E.M. play at the Greek Theater in L.A., the did a 10 minute version of the song as an encore, and it was fantastic. “Play that one,” the Little Man said. I explained that they did it live in concert, and the only version I have is the one that comes on the Document album.

Watching the kids sing and dance to that song (sometimes I will hear them singing it to themselves) fills me with a fatherly pride. They are enjoying at least some of the music that I have enjoyed. Music, like stories, is a wonderful thing to share with kids, and I’m so glad my kids are enjoying the music that I’ve been sharing with them.

On Writing Every Day

There is an interesting post making the rounds that talks about why the one most common piece of writing advice is wrong. That advice, of course, is that you must write every day. Since I have now written every day for 786 consecutive days, I have some thoughts on this topic.

1. Arbitrarily stating that a piece of advice is wrong falls into the same trap as the advice itself. Writing every day might be wrong for the author of the post. It might be wrong for many people. But it isn’t wrong for everyone. It depends on a range of factors from how you work, to available time, the pressure that writing every day puts on a person. For me, writing is practice. Like anything worth learning, I have to practice to get better at it. And for me, I do best when I fall into the habit of practicing every day. This is certainly not true for everyone, but to say that the advice “write every day” is wrong is a bit of overkill. It is wrong for some people. It is right for others.

2. Just because I write every day doesn’t mean you should. I hope it is clear from the posts that I’ve written on this in the past that I am writing from my experience. I go out of my way to avoid saying things like “you should…” or “you must…” Instead, I say things like, “This works for me because…” Every writer works differently. I write about my experience because someone else may find that experience helpful. But it took years of trial and error for me to find a methodology that worked for me. Mine happened to be writing every day.

3. A writer’s process comes in part from their circumstance. For the last several years, my circumstances are such that I don’t have a lot of time to write. I can find somewhere between 20 minutes and 40 minutes (on average) each day. That represents a page or two of writing for me. Some people have more time, some people have less. But my desire to write and to improve compels me to take advantage of that 20-40 minutes each day. The writing isn’t always good, but I gain from the consistency, and from the practice of learning to put words on the page in all kinds of circumstances. This works for me. It works for my circumstances.

4. What defines a writer is not how much they write. Writing every day does not make you more of a writer than writing less frequently. If that were the case, think of how many bestselling authors would fail to make the definition of a writer. Writing is one of those things that does’t require the blessing of some authority. If you write, you’re a writer. Period.

Summer Wanes and Fall Approaches

This morning we took a walk to local farmer’s market. The air was cool and freshened by breeze. All traces of summer’s humidity had vanished. Just last weekend, we were sitting lakeside, enjoying the sun. Today was the first day of 2015 that felt like fall. I snapped this photo as we approached our destination. Fall might not be here quite yet, but it is approach with alarming speed.

Feels Like Fall

My Feedly Collections Are Now Available to Anyone

This morning, I purged a ton of feeds from Feedly that I was no longer keeping up with. At the same time, I took advantage of the new Feedly Collections feature that allows one to share their various collections with anyone who is interested. So if you are interesting in seeing what blogs I read on a regular basis, check out my Feedly collections.

I am always on the lookout for good blogs. In particular, I enjoy reading blogs on technology, life-hacking, quantified self, and writing (especially by writers). I also enjoy more general blogs like John Scalzi’s Whatever, or Anil Dash’s blog. I am also particularly interested in blogs by coders which talk about process–like some of the stuff that occasionally appears on GitHub’s blog. If you have recommendations for good blogs in these categories, drop them in the comments.

Where You Can Find Me Online, September 2015 Edition

This blog hasn’t been quite as active as it once was, although I am doing my best to change that. But just because the blog has not been as active, that does not been I haven’t been active online. Let me take this opportunity to point out the various places you can find me online for those who might be interested.

And I really am working to return things to normal here in the meantime.

Awards Reflect the Society We Live In

One of my favorite classes in college was an elective class I took on History and Film taught by Carlos Cortés. The essence of the class was that films reflect the times in which they were made. As one example, we watched Henry V starring Lawrence Olivier, and followed that film with Henry V starring Kenneth Branagh. Olivier’s portrayal of Henry in the former film was strikingly different to Branagh’s “Harry the King” in the latter. Each film told the same story, using the same dialog, but the pictures we get of the two Henrys were very different. Those films tell us a lot about the times in which they were made.

When I read earlier today of a proposal for yet another genre award that, in part would allow judges to

Disqualify any work they find to have an emphasis on other than telling a good SF/F story.

I kind of rolled my eyes. Aside from the mechanics of ensuring that judges based their decision solely on an unmeasurable criterion (“The Judging Committee will use the quality of SF/F storytelling as their sole criterion.”) it ignores the fact that most awards reflect the society at the time the award is given.

Fiction, like film, reflects the society we live in

How many genre readers today bemoan the fact that Mark Clifton and Frank Riley’s novel They’d Rather Be Right actually won a Hugo award (in 1955). It might not meet our standards for a Hugo today, but it reflects the standards for the award that was given in 1955.

Had the Hugo existed in the mid-to-late 1930s, I have no doubt that E. E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensman stories would have one more of the awards to their name. We can discount the fact that “Galactic Patrol” lost the retro-Hugo for 1939 because it was a 2014 audience that voted.

Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan novels feel dated today because the Cold War is thing of the past. You can’t get away from the fact that an award reflects the society in which we live, because the definition of “good story telling” changes as society changes.

I have a feeling that most genre readers today would not consider Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series as the Best All-Time Series. But in 1966, Asimov was given a special Hugo for Best All-Time Series, beating out Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert Heinlein, E. E. “Doc” Smith, and J. R. R. Tolkien. In 1966 that was how fans felt. Today, feelings have evolved, and not just because there is a half-century more fiction to consider. Fiction reflects the society we live in.

Genre awards are not unique in this respect

Derek Jeter never won an MVP award, but he is considered to be one of the greats of the game of baseball. Put together the number Jeter put in his career, with the intangibles he brought to the game, and its hard to believe he never won an MVP. Compare him to past winners, and it is even more remarkable.

But awards reflect the society we live in. Maybe Jeter would have won an MVP if he’d played for the Yankees in the 1960s. The criteria for Most Valuable Player changes with time. The same is true for most awards. Science fiction and fantasy films have been among the most popular and successful films for decades, but it wasn’t until 2004 that a fantasy film, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, took home an Oscar for Best Picture.

No award system is perfect. But one of the things I have always enjoyed about our genre awards is that they are a good reflection of the times at which the award was given. Look at the awards given in the late 1960 and compare them to the awards given in the late 1970s. They encapsulate a sea-change within the genre. It is good to see change. It means our genre is evolving along with the rest of society. As much as I enjoy Golden Age stories, I don’t want to see us mired in a nostalgia for the past. I want to see our genre moving forward toward bigger and better things.

What I have seen is that we are slowly, but steadily moving toward a place where our best stories reflect the diversity of the genre as it is made up today. We still have a lot of ground to cover. A new award that tries to filter out anything that isn’t good storytelling is a nonstarter. Such an award won’t give us better stories. It will simply provide another window into how our culture thinks about stories, how it classifies them, and ultimately, how part of that culture is desperate to cling to the past.