Why Authors Go Mad, Reason Number I’ve-Lost-Track-By-Now

Author Seanan McGuire (who is also Mira Grant and I think somebody else I’ve forgotten) has just received — on a tight deadline, of course — a beyond-the-copyedit-from-hell copyedit: The copyeditor did a global search and replace of “which” with “that.” Among other gross incompetencies.

And there isn’t time to scrap the copyedit and send the MS back out to somebody better.

People wonder why authors sometimes drink heavily. The amazing thing, actually, is that more of them don’t.

Why So Much Online Discourse Sucks: My Theory

It’s simply this: In order for local standards of civility (whether those be vanilla-custard bland or three-chili-pepper strong, it matters not) to be maintained, what’s required is vigorous, hands-on, and visible moderation. Simply providing users with a “flag this post if you find the content objectionable” button isn’t enough. All that does, so far as the user can see, is push the problem off onto a faceless, and possibly automated, minion someplace, for said minion to deal with, or not, according to whatever invisible algorithm may or may not be in place. This does nothing to chide the offending user, or provide immediate feedback to the offended user, or steer the discourse into a less offensive channel.

To do all that, you need a person — a name, a face (even if that face is a cartoon avatar), a consistent presence — to be on the spot and monitoring the venue for discourse that’s about to go toxic. A good moderator can defuse or shut down toxic discourse as needed; a great moderator can spot the warning signs far enough in advance to change the conversation before the toxicity gets a chance to arrive.

Done well — and it has to be done well, if it’s going to be done at all — this is a full time job, and not one to be undertaken by volunteers. If you want somebody to stare into the abyss 24/7 — or better yet, two somebodies, so that they can take enough time off to stay sane — you need to pay them for it.

And sooner than pay good moderators a regular wage, most commercial online fora will either close down comments altogether, or go to one of the now-standard automated systems that end up pleasing nobody.

Not because these sites are run for profit. But because they are run for profit by cheapskates.

A Random Election-Year Thought

Because I live in New Hampshire, and we’ve been getting pollsters and campaign phone calls at the rate of two or three a day, and four-color glossy political flyers from all of the declared candidates in every load of mail.  We haven’t seen many candidates actually visiting up here in the North Country, though; I think Hilary got as far north as Berlin, and Bernie Sanders lives over in Vermont, so he doesn’t need to do much besides stand on the other shore of the Connecticut River and wave.  The Republicans, on the other hand . . . this year, either they think they’ve got us all sewn up, or they’ve forgotten that we’re here.

Meanwhile, I can’t help thinking things.  Like this:

Most of the time, a person who’s contemplating the acquisition of a house, or a refrigerator, or a new car tends to go about the process in a relatively thoughtful manner: they consider the amount of room in their budget, and their family situation, and their projected patterns of use before making the purchase; and only sometimes fall head over heels for the expensive model with the automatic icemaker out of a pure irrational lust for cold drinks in the middle of summer. You’d think we would approach the selection of our next president with something close to the same care, but we don’t. And I’ve decided that it’s because choosing a president is less like purchasing a home appliance than it is like choosing a spouse . . . we don’t want to be reasonable about it (although we should be), we want to fall in love.

And this is why people go off and do things like eloping with the chauffeur voting for a third party candidate with a single-issue platform and no chance of actually winning:  The main candidates make them feel like they’ve been promised they can pick their own future spouse – just so long as they pick one of the two unattractive prospects their parents have already approved.

Of Books and Stew

A brief thought on the science fiction and fantasy community’s ongoing Hugo controversy (which is too depressing to have more than a brief thought about, especially before noon; for more links than you can probably stand to shake a stick at, go here):

If books I especially like are considered as analogous to chunks of beef, while books I don’t care for that much are considered as analogous to a collection of assorted vegetables, then “this beef stew has more vegetables in it than I prefer” is a not unreasonable statement. Likewise, the assertion “this isn’t a beef stew with vegetables anymore, it’s a vegetable stew with beef” – while almost certain to be productive of considerable argument about the precise definitions of “stew” and “with” (and probably the definitions of “vegetables” and “beef” as well, once people really get going) – isn’t especially unreasonable, either.

What is unreasonable, though, is if I go on from there to shouting out loud in the public street that my local diner HAS BEEN TAKEN OVER BY A VEGETARIAN CONSPIRACY!!!

And if at any point I start threatening to burn down the whole diner if the proper proportion of beef (good) to vegetables (bad) is not restored, then I have become a danger to the community and ought to be gently removed from it.

Clash of the Titans

If anybody ever wants a reason (besides brain chemistry or childhood family dynamics) for why writers can sometimes be a depressed and paranoid lot, they need only to look at the latest round of hostilities between major publisher Hachette and major online seller of damn-near everything from books to baby booties, Amazon.

The two entities are currently in the midst of negotiations over terms, and Amazon – not content with such ploys as tweaking discount policies and dragging its feet on things like delivery and restocking – has now removed the preorder button from the listings of a number of Hachette titles.

I’m not wasting my time on sympathy for Hachette; they’re big boys, and presumably knew what they were letting themselves in for when this dispute started.  Besides, they are a major publisher, which means that they’ve played plenty of hardball themselves, and presumably have built up the calluses.

No, my sympathy is all for the authors, whose books – which is to say, their livelihoods – are currently being stomped on and tossed about in this battle between two giants.  Because in the end, Amazon will continue to make money, and Hachette will continue to make money – and a whole bunch of authors will have lost potential sales (and money) that they’ll never get back.

Writers: Even Their Dreams are Weird

So there’s the standard poor-preparation anxiety dream, the one where you find yourself suddenly required to take a final exam in a course you don’t remember having signed up for, or required to give a classroom lecture for a course you don’t remember having agreed to teach, or one of any number of uncomfortable variations on that general unhappy theme.

What they don’t tell you is that when you’re a writer, those variations can get surprisingly elaborate.

Take last night, for example, when I dreamed that I was at a Worldcon somewhere unspecified (it was in the US, but not in any of the places where I’ve ever been to Worldcons in actual fact), where I was scheduled to be on two or three panels.  The first night at the con was the usual good cheer and meet-and-greet and dinner-with-friends, and the next morning for some reason we had to change hotels, and what with one thing and another it wasn’t until midafternoon that I remembered I had programming obligations, and I couldn’t remember when my next panel was – and worse, whether or not I’d forgotten a panel the night before.

At that point the traditional anxiety-dream rabbit-chase kicked in, as I tried in vain to find a copy of the pocket program to check on my obligations, and likewise tried in vain to download the Guidebook app and search for them.  I could have looked on the back of my badge for my list of panels, but my badge was back in the room at the new hotel.

Finally, some kind soul loaned me a pocket program, where I discovered that I had, indeed, missed a panel I was supposed to be on.  (Children’s writer Bruce Coville wandered through the dream at that point, and paused to assure me that I wasn’t the first or the only person to ever forget a panel.)  Further perusal of the schedule revealed that I had a second panel in only a few minutes.

Cue dream-panic, and the hasty solicitation of a ride back to the main programming venue with another con-goer – who was, as it turned out, anther person on the same panel.  She said, cheerfully, that since we were both present in the car, we might as well go ahead and have the panel right there, because the audience didn’t seem to mind.  And indeed, the car was filling up even as she spoke, with far more people than one would think a small sedan would be able to hold . . . .

And at that point I’m awakened by a household member bearing the glad news that the flush mechanism in the downstairs toilet has ceased to function, and on that note, my day begins.

(I wish I could have gone on dreaming long enough to finish that panel, though.  It sounded like it was going to be interesting.)

In Which I Confess to Being Puzzled

So apparently one of the things people whose cell phones have cameras in them do is take pictures of themselves. Which utterly fails to surprise me, because it strikes me that, given the ability to do so, it’s a very human thing to do. And they refer to these cell phone self-portraits as “selfies,” which again fails to surprise me, because a new phenomenon (or a new variation on an old phenomenon) needs a word to call it by, and word-making is another very human thing to do.

But apparently all sorts of other people have been getting all sorts of put out by the practice, or by the word for the practice, or both. And I’m perplexed as to why on earth it bothers them so much — surely it can’t be because a lot of the producers of selfies are young and a lot of them are female? Or is it because now the ability to produce a self-portrait is available to anyone with a cell phone camera, instead of being limited to the likes of Albrecht Dürer or Vincent Van Gogh?

Really, sometimes the things other people choose to view with alarm confuses me.

Structural and Cosmetic Renovations

There are two kinds of writers, the ones who like cats and the ones who don’t   the ones who prefer music while they’re writing and the ones who need absolute silence the ones who find revision to be at best a painful but necessary chore and the ones who think that it’s the best part of the writing process.  What there aren’t, though, are successful writers who never revise at all.  Those rare writers whose first drafts come out submission-ready usually turn out to have gone through the whole process in detail inside their own heads before they ever start putting down words on screen or paper.  But even the writers who enjoy the revision stage of the process have parts of it they like better than others.

There are, as it happens, at least two different kinds or stages of revision.  One is major structural revision, the sort of work that involves disassembling large chunks of the manuscript and putting them back together in a different configuration, often with new material added in.  This can be a tough job, because it requires holding in your head both the story as it currently exists and the story you want to morph it into, all the while doing the cutting and pasting of the old stuff and the creating of new stuff.  The advent of word processing has made this part a lot easier — time was when “cut and paste” was not just a metaphor, it was the literal way the job was done.

I was around for the tail end of that era, when the “paste” part had been replaced by “transparent tape”, and if you did the work carefully enough and had access to a good Xerox machine, you didn’t have to retype the whole thing all over again.  But within a year of my finishing my dissertation, we had our first household computer-and-printer lashup, and I was happy to bid the old ways goodbye.

The other main type of revision is the line-by-line and word-by-word tweaking of the piece in question, with the goal of making it run as clearly and effectively and, well, tunefully as possible.  This is the part that I’ve always liked best, playing with the words and the sentence rhythms and the paragraph beats, getting the sounds of the piece to fall into line.  (Other people, it’s only fair to say, find this part to be not much better than drudgery.  It takes all kinds.)

And after that, of course, you come to the kind of revision that isn’t really revision at all, it’s stalling.  When you get to the point where you’re putting commas in during the morning and taking them out again in the afternoon, and then going back the next day and rewriting half of the same sentences with semicolons and then reverting them to commas again — at that point, my friend, you’re mostly working to put off the day when you’re going to have to rename your “NameOfStory working draft” to “NameOfStory final version” and get the thing out of the house and into somebody’s submissions queue.

Fun and Games with Software

Or, today I upgraded from Windows 8.0 to Windows 8.1, which was just as much fun as it ever is.  In the process, I’ve learned that everything is an app now, and not just the small handy things that come from the app store . . . when they say “you’ll have to reinstall your apps,” they’re talking about everything.

Fortunately, I had backups.  I did have one moment of near-panic when I couldn’t find my installation files for Quicken 4.  The newer versions of the program use a different file format than the older ones, probably because the nice people (and I use the term loosely) at Intuit want their users to keep buying new versions of their software, instead of sticking with the one that’s been doing just fine for a decade or so now, and I wouldn’t even mind it so much if there were a conversion utility or something like that available — but there isn’t.  You need, so far as I can figure out, to convert your Quicken 4 files into Quicken 6 files in order to convert the Quicken 6 files into the latest format.

Fortunately, I found the files.  And my backup Quicken data files are on a separate drive.  So that’s all right.

And I’d like to take this opportunity to plug MozBackup, a freeware utility for backing up Firefox and Thunderbird. It has saved me a great deal of sorrow and tears.

Pop-Up Targets, Unexploded Land Mines, and Snakes in Cans

These are things that can disrupt your day, ranked in order of ascending troublesomeness.

A Pop-Up Target is something unexpected that requires immediate action, but which you have the resources and ability to deal with promptly. A suddenly necessary payment at a time when the bank account is flush, for example, or an unanticipated piece of time-critical paperwork. The target jumps up, you deal with it, and you move on, slightly more adrenaline-charged than you were before.

Adventures in the Writing Life Version:  The FedEx delivery man shows up on your doorstep Thursday afternoon with a package containing a stack of unpleasantly familiar paper and a cover letter:  Dear Author–here’s the copyedited MS for your next novel.  Please go over the copyedits and get them back to us by this coming Monday.

What you do:  Cancel your social engagements for the next 48 hours.  After a few seconds’ more thought, cancel the rest of your life for the next 48 hours.  Check your local FedEx pickup to see what’s the absolute latest you can hand over the MS and still expect it to show up in New York on Monday.  Check your bank account to see if you can afford that much money.  (If both your budget and the publisher’s schedule really are that tight, phone your editor.  Ask if you can FedEx the MS back to them on their dime, because otherwise it’s coming back to them by Priority Mail.)  Buckle down and get to work on going over the copyedits, and be grateful that you aren’t having to deal with a Copyedit From Hell.

An Unexploded Land Mine is something that you thought that you’d already dealt with, or that you were supposed to deal with and forgot, or that somebody else completely neglected to inform you about back when it should have been dealt with. Some land mines are relatively mild; others can blow you sky-high. What they have in common is that “I should have known about this one, dammit!” quality that adds a touch of frustration and outrage to the whole deal.

Adventures in the Writing Life version:  “What do you mean, I didn’t send you back the signed contracts!” Or, “No, you didn’t tell me you wanted a map for the front of the book and a glossary in the back!” Or, “I thought you were going to handle asking for blurbs, and now you’re telling me that I have to do it?”

What you do:  Send back the signed contracts with a profuse apology for your absent-mindedness, and promise never to be so flaky again.  Grit your teeth and draw the damned map and make up the damned glossary.  Take a deep breath and make a list of writers you know who might be willing to come up with a back-cover blurb for you, then start writing letters.

And then there’s the Snake in a Can. Like the trick jar labeled “peanuts” with the spring-loaded snake inside, these show up completely unexpectedly and leap right out into your face. Also, sometimes the snake is real. A heavy-duty snake has the ability to disrupt your whole life for days, if not weeks, if you can’t manage to stuff it back into the can.

Adventures in the Writing Life Version:  Your publisher goes bankrupt without warning.  Your agent, with whom you have a warm personal relationship and who has been a prime force in building your career, gets hit by a truck while crossing the street in midtown Manhattan.  The company for which you’ve happily written three potboiler tie-in novels and with whom you’re under contract for a fourth suddenly lets go all their in-house publishing staff (including the editor of your novel in progress, with whom you’ve had an excellent relationship) and replaces them with people you’ve never even heard of.

What you do:  Don’t keep all your writing eggs in one basket.  Maintain good relationships with everyone in your field, to the extent that it’s possible, so that if you’re suddenly swimming for your life in a rising flood you have people who might throw you a lifeline from the shore.  Resign yourself to the fact that sometimes bad stuff is going to happen that isn’t your fault, and that you can’t do anything about, and that is going to mess up your life more than it messes up the lives of the people actually responsible — but don’t let yourself dwell on it for too long, because dwelling on it only uses up time and energy that you could be spending on writing something better for people who will respect you more.