Archive for February, 2014

Writing Collaborations

The other day I received an email from a reader who expressed dissatisfaction with the collaborative efforts of several well-known writers and who wanted to know how I had resisted the trend of established writers entering into collaborations that produced weak or less satisfying collaborative efforts.  While it’s an interesting inquiry, upon reflection, I feel, it bears a resemblance to a question along the lines of “How did you possibly escape beating your dog when all the other writers do once they get established?”

That’s not to say that collaborative efforts are always weaker or that they should be avoided. I’ve said on more than one occasion that collaboration ideally should only be attempted when the work is something that neither author could produce alone.  And sometimes, frankly, the collaboration is far better than either could accomplish alone, as in the case of the musical works of Gilbert and Sullivan.  [I’m not about to offer a public comparison in F&SF].

I’ve only done one collaboration, the ill-fated if well-reviewed Green Progression, with Bruce Scott Levinson, and that was a book which would have been difficult for me to do without his expertise in various areas, and it was a relatively easy collaboration because we were also working at the same Washington, D.C., consulting firm at the time. The book is far, far better than its dismal sales would indicate, but it’s also an indication that, even if one of the authors is moderately well-known, the name recognition of an author doesn’t necessarily carry over to a collaboration in terms of sales.

Some “collaborations” also result from necessity.  The final books of The Wheel of Time necessitated what was essentially a collaboration between Robert Jordan, posthumously, and Brandon Sanderson.  Although Sanderson technically wrote more than 90% [if the numbers I’ve heard are correct] of the last three books, the ground work had been laid by Jordan and there was an outline, as well as some 40,000 words or more of Jordan’s prose for Brandon to work with, which, in my mind, at least, makes it a collaboration rather than a ghost-written conclusion. Years ago, Piers Anthony did something similar with a book entitled Through the Ice, in completing a book largely finished by a young author named Robert Kornwise, who suffered an untimely and early death.

In thinking about collaborations I’ve read and the books that I’ve kept, I surveyed my shelves and the volumes on my e-reader and realized that I’ve only kept one collaboration, besides my own, at least ones that I know of, since I do know a number of authors doing collaborations under a single pen name, and there well may be others of which I’m unaware.  While that can’t be mere chance, it does suggest that, for me, collaborations don’t have the feel or flavor of a single-author book.

In my own instance, part of the answer to why I don’t do collaborations any more is simple.  I don’t feel either the desire or need to, and I really enjoy working on my own ideas at my own pace, which might well be just because I’m a type A control freak so far as my writing is concerned.


Perhaps because of all the publicity over Twelve Years a Slave or because it’s Black History Month, I’ve been thinking about slavery and a number of points that I seldom see raised, if ever… and probably, by the time I’ve mentioned them, no one will be pleased, but since no one else seems to be pointing them out, most likely because each one will offend someone deeply, someone really ought to… and I appear to be the only one foolish enough to do so.

The first point is that virtually every black person enslaved in Africa was originally captured and sold into slavery by other blacks… and that virtually every slave purchased or kept in slavery in the United States was purchased or owned by a white person, usually a white male. The institution of slavery would not have been possible without both groups. I’m not excusing anyone, just noting a fact that seems to be overlooked.

The second point is that slavery existed in what we today would call a “free market,” that is, there were originally [not until the early nineteen century when Great Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807 and then slavery itself in 1833] no restrictions on the sale and purchase of slaves. Slaves had no rights and no legal protections. Sellers and buyers negotiated with complete freedom from outside interference. In that sense, slavery was the logical extension of totally free markets, where even human beings could be bought and sold, and even killed, for whatever the market would bear. So, all you free-market types, think about that when you preach about the need for “free” markets.

Third, given the diversity of the original slaves, who came from many different groups and tribes, those American blacks descended from slaves do not have a single “history/culture” predating the institution of slavery in the United States, except perhaps the shared misfortune of losing out in local African warfare, which resulted in their being enslaved in the first place. Their shared “history” is that of slavery, which is a failed and despicable culture. For this reason, I have to admit I frankly don’t understand the emphasis I see among many blacks from this background on finding their “culture,” because there isn’t a single one that all have in common prior to their ancestors landing in North America in a state of enslavement. Add to that the fact that any of the truly great African cultures had collapsed well before the beginning of the American slave trade, and a search for “history” and culture is more like poor whites seeking a history in Greek mythology than a particularly fruitful or worthwhile effort.

Fourth, over the past centuries and even into the present, many of those who opposed rights for blacks, almost entirely those of Caucasian backgrounds, cited the need for racial purity or opposition to “mixed races.” Come again? DNA studies show that every racial group besides “pure” African blacks [and some recent DNA testing even raises questions there about interbreeding with yet another undiscovered human species/race] has DNA confirming that their ancestors interbred with Neanderthals and Denisovians, both of whom failed to survive. That’s not exactly a hallmark of “purity”… or even good judgment on the part of one’s distant ancestors. Caucasians and Asians already had a mixed-blood background, even while some whites trumpeted their untainted blood. So let go of the damned racial purity argument. All of us are mongrels in some way or another now.

Fifth, in the end, at some point, we have to acknowledge what was, ALL of what was… and then get on with improving the future, no matter how one group denies what was and another dwells on it excessively, because we can’t change what was, only what will be.

A New High?

According to The Economist, the United States has the highest rate of credit card fraud of any developed nation, a rate far, far higher, than European Union nations, as well as far higher monetary losses. This isn’t necessarily just because we have more credit card thieves, which we apparently do, but also because the United States has far more credit cards and, equally important, has lagged behind the E.U. in adopting the so-called “pin and chip” credit card that contains a microchip with security features. The “pin and chip” system means effectively that it is far more difficult to use a stolen card or card number.

American business has lagged in employing this system, although Target, the latest and largest victim of hacking and the theft of tens of millions of credit card numbers and user names, is now looking into developing and issuing credit cards with greater security features. The reason for the delay? The new systems will cost more to install and implement, because new card readers will be required.

Or, in other words, until the losses to business make it clear that it’s “cost-effective” for them, regardless of the costs and hassles to consumers, they really don’t want to adopt a new and more secure system. These are also the men and women who, not unanimously, but overwhelmingly, try every method they can to reduce their costs. They beg their consumers to “go paperless,” claiming that doing so will benefit consumers while their real reason is to reduce their own paperwork burden. They’re the same retail executives who employ part-timers so that they won’t have to pay health benefits, who cut middle-management and overwork the survivors, and who outsource overseas anything they can to reduce costs, disregarding what it does to both their employees and the economy as a whole.

Yet when it comes to reducing the burden of fraud on their consumers, most are notably silent, or even oppose any improvement because it will increase their short-term costs. Just as cleaner environmental production and distribution systems might do… or health insurance or living wages. Fancy that.

New Ideas?

The other day I was reading reader reviews of Rex Regis , a habit that my wife disparages, and there is, I must admit, a certain validity to that disparagement, but I occasionally find useful comments and every so often those which are thought-provoking.

The comment that I found thought-provoking was one reader’s comment that because a lead-lined room for limiting the power of imagers figured in the book, I had to be running out of ideas. To me that comment revealed a certain unrealistic short-sightedness. In the world of Terahnar, the use of lead-lined rooms for imagers dates back well before the beginning of Scholar, and there’s no secret to the usefulness of lead in this regard. Those who used the lead room did so exactly because that usefulness was well known, although they did employ another device that had just been developed, a fact seemingly overlooked by the reader.

Now and again, I’ve noted similar comments about other authors’ works as well; so my observations don’t represent something limited just to my work. As I have stated more than once, human beings will employ what is useful, and they will continue to use whatever they find useful until it is no longer useful or until they find a better way or tool. If more than one person uses a gun or laser or whatever, that doesn’t mean an author is out of ideas; it means he or she understands people and tools.

Somewhere, among a certain group of fantasy readers, there seems to be a belief that each and every problem must be resolved in a new and unique way, as if the only measure of author creativity is a new and different solution to each problem, even if some of those problems are the same nature as preceding difficulties. It’s one thing to use a new technique or technology if it fits into the story, can be supported by the magic/technology in use or is a logical outgrowth of that magic or technology, and doesn’t require resources beyond the ability of the individual or culture, but to throw in “new” gimmicks merely to keep readers interested or for the sake of trying to usually ends up undermining the credibility of the story… and the author.

Yet, at the same time, I do understand the desire on the part of readers for something “new,” for something to inspire that sense of wonder. The problem is that “new” things don’t happen that often in any civilization, and need to be introduced sparingly… or the author ends up producing a magic funhouse (in fantasy) or technoporn (in SF), neither of which are something to which I aspire. So it’s likely you’ll only see “new” techniques and/or gadgets in my work when they fit in the societies I’m describing… as I’ve tried to do all along.

Never Too Late?

There’s a phrase that exists in the American/English language: “It’s never too late to [fill in some goal or action].” I don’t know if similar phraseology exists in other languages, but its prevalence in today’s society is indicative of a mindset that Americans can do anything, even if it seems too late. After all, late as it was, didn’t the U.S. enter World War II and turn the tide, so to speak? Didn’t we come late to rocketry, but become the first to put astronauts on the moon? And I have to admit that there are a number of other examples.

BUT… all too many people fail to realize that there are just as many examples of “too little, too late,” and I have the feeling that, as a result of a society that has become ever more one of instant gratification, just-in-time supply deliveries, and the up-and-coming 3D print-it-yourself technology, we’re losing sight of too many areas where it may well become “too late.

In some areas, we accept, if grudgingly, that “too late” exists. If a child doesn’t learn a second language young, that child will never learn to speak the language without an accent. If you don’t master the violin by age 13-14, you’ll never be a concertmaster/mistress. At some point, it is too late even for a professional athlete to continue performing at a high level. In other areas, we don’t seem to get it at all. Remedial writing instruction for college students [except for foreign students who write well in their own language] is largely useless. Those skills have to be learned close to the time of puberty, yet universities pour billions of dollars into such courses.

The idea of it never being too late is more pronounced in socio-political issues. Gun violence at American schools, now at even grade schools and middle schools, not just colleges and high schools, is continuing to increase to the point that I have to question if it is not too late to ever reduce the carnage. With close to 400 million firearms in circulation, with popular opposition over any control whatsoever of who can use weapons and under what conditions, and a growing lack of self-discipline by a growing percentage of the American public, is there really any way the violence and deaths can be reduced?

Global warming is continuing, despite recent evidence of a slight decrease in solar radiation received by the entire earth. Billions of years ago, Venus and earth were more similar, until runaway global warming turned Venus into a hothouse torrid enough that lead can melt in places on its surface. Another study just revealed that the firn ice of Greenland has either reached or is close to reaching its capability for absorbing meltwater, and further increases in meltwater could lead to the melting of the entire icecap of Greenland. How long before it’s too late to save much of Florida and U.S. coastal cities?

In the end, there is a difference between situations where “it’s never too late”; situations where it soon will be too late; and situations where it’s already too late. But because of the human tendencies to procrastinate and to demand just one position, maybe, just maybe, in cases where there’s any doubt at all we ought to take the default position that, if we don’t do something now, all too soon it will be too late.

Management ?

Recently, in response to one of my blogs about the excessive salaries paid to university administrators here in the U.S., and particularly in Utah, one of my readers sent me a link to a UK site, which, interestingly enough, contained a news story about how university administrators there had received a five figure pay increase while faculty got, as I recall, less than a one percent increase, after almost a decade of essentially no pay increases. Unfortunately, this trend isn’t confined to universities; it’s also a trend in business, and that trend is to stiff the people actually doing the work and reward the executives and managers for keeping costs down and profits up – effectively by keeping pay as low as possible and piling more and more work on those under them.

Paul Krugman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, observed just several weeks ago that the 99% versus the one percent was a highly inaccurate and deceptive depiction of income inequality, in that nine-tenths of the uppermost one percent had seen modest real gains in income, perhaps less than ten percent after inflation, accompanied by as much as a twenty-percent increase in hours worked… and that didn’t take into account that this group already worked long hours. In short, 99% of the working people in the United States have seen real wages and salaries decline, the next nine-tenths of a percent have managed modest gains in income by working much longer hours, while the income of the top tenth of one percent has skyrocketed.

To make matters worse, at least here in the United States, wealthy business types, such as the DeVos and Koch families, have embarked on what amounts to political crusade to reduce the bargaining power of “labor” at all levels – except very upper management – while also pressuring politicians at all levels to keep taxes low and to reduce support services to the poor and working poor, as well as the unemployed…and, of course, to provide a wider range of “business” tax subsidies. The result is, of course, more of what we’re already experiencing – increasing income inequality as the real income of the top tenth of one percent goes up and the real [after taxes and inflation] income of everyone else goes down, or perhaps holds steady or rises slightly for a “fortunate” few; slow, almost non-existent job growth; and an anemic economy at best.

I’m as incensed as anyone about the comparative handful of the “professional poor,” and the grifters, especially huge agribusiness combines and special interest loophole users, who employ every angle to con money from the federal government, and I’m not exactly pleased by couples who have far more offspring than they can support, and knowing that, who continue to have more children. BUT… statistics show that the majority of those receiving unemployment assistance are still looking for work… and the vast majority of working Americans are getting screwed.

Meantime, the top one tenth of one percent, such as hedge fund managers, and the DeVos and Koch families, are doing just fine, and all too many of them are trying to find ways to lower their taxes and keep down labor costs, regardless of the devastating impact on most working Americans.


For all the reputed values, enthusiasm, and idealism reported as embodied in today’s college students and younger professionals, there’s one value far too many are lacking and whose value these young adults totally fail to grasp.

That’s the necessity of practicing certain skills until they are letter-perfect, even when such practice is boring and seems to be drudgery. A few weeks ago, I attended a professional opera convention [as a guest.  You’d never want to hear me sing.].  One of the comments that came up time and time again from professional directors in the field was the necessity for young singers to not only have a fine and trained voice, but to have mastered basic musicianship – to have the ability to play the piano well enough to accompany themselves in practice, to be able to work out the most complex rhythms, to have mastered perfect intonation and diction [and that means working to eliminate regionalisms and mispronunciations in everyday speech].  These are not the exciting aspects of opera, singing the grand arias, perfecting stage presence, and the like.  They’re fundamentals, and mastering them takes long and hard work.  Year after year, my wife sees students with great natural voices who she knows will go absolutely nowhere, simply because they’ve gotten where they are on pure natural talent, but they’ll never get any better, because, to get to the truly professional level, their fundamental musicianship has to be outstanding, and that takes work they aren’t willing to undertake, and in some cases, those skills are so lacking that it’s literally too late for such students to develop them, even if they were willing to work that hard on those basics.

This principle applies in all fields. One of my daughters is a doctor, surgeon, and senior professor at an excellent medical school.  Several years ago, more than a few would-be doctors were absolutely appalled at their additional weekend assignment – if necessary, hours of repetition in practicing stitches until these doctors-to-be could meet her standards, simply because their stitches were sloppy, uneven, and didn’t meet professional standards.  Boring?  Yes.  Drudgery?  Absolutely!  But if you’re the one they might be operating on, wouldn’t you want those stitches to be as perfect as possible? And despite surgical staples and modern adhesives, there are times and places where old-fashioned stitches are indeed necessary.

I’ve seen the same thing in writing, especially in science fiction and fantasy.  Too many young would-be writers immediately embark upon writing the great fantasy novel.  Some do not even understand, on a technical level, what a sentence is.  Nor do most understand that, to write a truly original work of SF or fantasy, a writer must actually know far more than a “mainstream” writer does. When writing mainstream fiction, a writer doesn’t have to think in any great depth about the economic or political structure of our society, but only about how it works or doesn’t. I still remember a comment Ben Bova made on one of my early stories.  He pointed out that a gadget I mentioned in the second paragraph invalidated the entire culture and setting. When you write F&SF, if you want it to be good, the magic/technology has to fit with the culture, the people, the economics, the geography, the political structure… and a lot more… and learning all that isn’t easy. Neither is applying it.  Both take work, intellectual drudgery, if you will.

The problem is that, today, everything’s supposed to be interesting, even fun. I’m sorry, but being successful in anything is going to take a whole lot of drudgery, and those who skip it may succeed for a while… before the roof – and the world – fall on them and crush them.