Lightspeed Magazine: My Year One

John Joseph Adams might have released his first anthology celebrating Lightspeed Magazine‘s first 12 months of outstanding stories, but Friday marked my own Year One with Lightspeed, and man, what a year it’s been, working first as a slush reader, and now as one of the magazine’s Editorial Assistants / Social Media person. I was a bit reluctant at first when asked, worried that I might be sucked into a world of terrible stories that I’d never get over. I found the contrary: slush reading has been an outstanding lesson in and of itself on what goes into an outstanding story, and there’s a lot of good fiction that gets submitted. Over the last year, I’ve read hundreds of stories: some great, some bad. Over the last year, I’ve learned a couple of things from my work there:

First, a couple of disclaimers:

  1. This isn’t a how-to guide on how to get a story directly published in Lightspeed Magazine, other than that “write really well” is sort of the catch-all for every publication out there.
  2. This is just my viewpoint, not Lightspeed’s.

Rejections happen… a lot.

Lightspeed Magazine currently has 96 slots for fiction. Scratch that, half of those are reprints. You’re left with 48 slots of original fiction. If you only write in one genre, cut that in half again: 24 slots for new, original science fiction stories and 24 slots for new, original fantasy stories. On the other end? There’s a lot of authors submitting stories for those precious few slots every single day. That’s a large pile of stories that comes to us, far more than we could ever hope to publish. The result is a ton of letters going out saying thanks, but not this time.

Getting past the slush readers requires one thing: a story that blows us away from the first page, and holds our attention. It has to hold the attention of others at the magazine: what works for one person might not work for someone else. Ultimately, the stories run the gauntlet, and are whittled down. The intended effect here is that we come out with a stable of short fiction that we’re willing to stand behind. The result speaks for itself, I think: I’ve seen a ton of our stories on the “Best of” lists and end-of-the-year anthologies in the last couple of months. The magazine was nominated for a couple of Hugo Awards in its first year, and I’ve little doubt that we’ll be listed in the next year. (I’ve got a couple of stories that I’d love to see win a shiny rocket, personally.)

Your Best Work Matters

Personally, I’m a stickler for detail, and the slush work has improved my own stories quite a bit, and my own submissions process:

1: refer to Christie Yant’s blog post on cover letters and submitting, and follow it to a T. When I’m reading a story, it’s useful to know if you’ve attended Clarion or you’ve been published in X, Y and Z magazines, but not things like “’I’m sure this will be rejected, but you never know’”: you don’t need to give us reasons to reject your own story ahead of time.

The same diligence goes for grammatical errors, spelling mistakes, weird formatting and so forth. This is a fantastic guide to refer to when it comes to the format of a manuscript. The font doesn’t bother me (provided it’s readable), but it’s good to make sure that you’ve read it through more than once, and that it’s not overly difficult for someone to read. Spelling and grammar can be easily fixed, but broken stories are harder. Remember, you’re asking the magazine (at least, if you’re submitting to a magazine that pays money) to buy something from you, which they in turn ask people to buy in a bound package, printed or otherwise. If someone hasn’t put in the effort to carefully read over their story and put it through the ringer, what else haven’t they done their due diligence on? Characters? Dialogue? Worldbuilding? If my faith in the story is shattered early on, it’s hard to regain that as I read on.

2: After submitting, wait for a response, and then repeat. And repeat again.

Structure, characters, ideas, story

In 2008-2009, I wrote a handful of stories, and half-heartedly submitted them to a couple of markets, where they were pretty promptly rejected. I did the same thing when I was in high school, and received a couple of rejections before getting dejected myself. I’ve since written stories in 2011 that I’m much, much happier with.

Slush reading has done a couple of things for me: it’s shown me that there are stories that go out on their first submission and get bought pretty quickly. (It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, those stories are pretty amazing.) There’s other authors that dutifully submit numerous times, improving each time, before we find something that we like. There are also a lot of stories that get a read through and are rejected. There are lessons to be learned from both: a story that’s published is a great example of what it takes to be published. A story that’s rejected is a great example of where there’s something wrong with the story.

Plausibility is a big thing for me. Fiction is a window into our everyday lives, with an idea behind it that helps us better understand the world around us. The individual actions of the characters, what they say to each other and their motivations all contribute to some central point that is revealed through what happens. Often times, I come across stories where something doesn’t quite fit: the character’s motivations aren’t clear, the dialogue isn’t there or something along those lines, but underneath all of that, there’s something in the world that the author has created that doesn’t line up for me. Sometimes, it’s as simple as a plot device that, when under scrutiny, doesn’t make sense: A cyberpunk story where technology is obviously advanced, but the thinking behind the story hasn’t caught up with the technology. Thinking to myself “why is this happening” isn’t generally something that should be happening while reading it.

In other instances, I find myself asking the following question: how is this contributing to the style of story that it belongs to: does a time travel story warning of the dangers of killing one’s grandfather add anything new or different to that? If no, I have to find a way to justify recommending it. (That’s not to say that we won’t get a story like that, that’s worth publishing.)

In my own writing, I’ve found that I spend a lot of time planning out what’s going to happen, trying to figure out what the best intersection between the idea that I’ve had fits with a set of characters, the world and its own rules, and what the characters do to best display said idea. A lot of ideas end up in the trash, or filed away for later. I’m still working at it.

Keep at it & learn from your mistakes

I see authors submit multiple stories, and I see people who’ve submitted for the first time. What I love seeing is an author who submits a story, and soon, comes back after with another story that’s better. I hope, that once we reject a story, an author will go ahead and take a look over it again: something happened that made it a poor fit for the market, and in between my own submissions, I go re-read stories and see if there’s something that’s tripping them up somewhere. Even once a story is accepted somewhere, it goes through an editorial process that will further change the story. From my own experience with various military history projects, there’s always something to improve, depending on the day, the mindset that I’m in, and so forth.

My own efforts at fiction are long processes: I plan, write and set aside for a month or two. I go back, revise (or throw out) and repeat. The story goes to a couple of beta readers, and comes back with edits. I try and get stories that improve from story to story. Hopefully, I’ll look back on what I’ve written now at some point and find that I’ve improved from that point on, either with greater experience, different mindset or writing ability.

The key point is to continue to submit, and to realize that rejections aren’t some sort of personal vendetta, but reinforcement that nothing less than the best will cut it. With that in mind, I go back, edit and try again, until I can get to that point.

Even once a person has sold a story, there’s no guarantee that I’ll like their next story; it’s happened before.

I’ve yet to attend a writing workshop (recently – I am a very happy alum of the Champlain Young Writer’s Conference, held every year in Burlington, Vermont’s Champlain College), or writer’s group, but the best educational experience that I’ve had is by far working in the middle of a slush pile. It’s provided me with tons of examples of what not to do, what to do better, and what absolutely every story needs to have: a reason to turn to the next page. I’m looking forward to what the next year will bring.

 

(And, if I haven’t scared you away with all that, submissions have changed.)

The Battle of the Bulge

In 2007, I went overseas to France, shortly after I finished college, to help provide the Norwich University side of things for the battlefield staff ride that we took. The D-Day study (which is partially documented here in the archives) was the final paper that I had written for my undergraduate coursework. Back in May of 2007, I had realized that this was something that I found interesting, and noted that I could easily expand this sort of research to encompass other elements of the European Theater of Operations.

I’ve largely kept things under my hat lately, but now that I’ve started, it’s something that I can talk more freely about. While I’m not expanding my D-Day paper, I’ve been asked by Norwich to write another one, and to consult on an upcoming Staff Ride. This time around, I’ll be focusing on the Norwich University Students who fought at the Battle of the Bulge at the end of 1944.

The battle, largely regarded as the last credible push on the part of the Germans during the Allied advance towards Germany, was a massive coordinated pushback that trapped U.S. forces behind enemy lines, and slowed Allied efforts in their push towards ending the war. Like in Normandy, Norwich students fought and died there, and occupied a number of positions within the U.S military.

This is a project that I’m very eager to return to, and the research phase has me very excited. This project will be coming in a couple of phases. The first, which I’ve started, is the research element, and I’m going to be specifically targeting several achieves and sources here at Norwich, starting with the yearbooks (a memorial edition from 1947 was what I tackled today, with very good results), and the Norwich University Record, the alumni paper, two sources that provided an incredible amount of information, along with two archives up on campus, which should provide some additional detailed information and allow me to draw up a roster of possible participants in the battle. From there, cross-checking each soldier’s unit based on the historical record and actions of said unit will help to weed out the people who wouldn’t have possibly been there. Student X was in Unit Y, but Unit Y didn’t arrive into the area until day Z, which was after the battle, for example.

Running parallel to this will be research into the battle itself, looking for specific dates, people, unit actions and the story to which Norwich personnel will be placed. Here, the people I am looking at will be a small and unique look into how the battle went.

Once the research phase is over, the writing will begin, which I’m planning on starting around November, and finishing up by December. January through March/April is a little more fluid, but I’m guessing that I will be editing, fine-tuning and researching small details for the paper, while preparing presentations for the actual staff ride, which will take place in May of next year. Needless to say, I’m flattered and excited for this entire project.

This style of research makes a lot of sense to me, because I can work to connect the actions of the soldiers in the field to an institution that is steeped in history, and link said actions to the overall mission of the school, and provide a historical context and concrete examples of where graduates have changed the world through their actions. (And, some of these soldiers have accomplished incredible things, helping to see through the successes of various operations and actions throughout Norwich’s history.)

Opposing Viewpoints

And by we, I mean book bloggers, science fiction aficionados and other assorted freelancer writer types. Earlier today, I had an interesting talk with fellow blogger and podcaster Patrick Hester, (@atmfb) where we had an interesting debate about the role that the book blogging community plays within our little world of speculative fiction, authors, conventions and publicists. This had been sparked by several comments on another blog that equated to: I disagree with Author X because of a) politics b) personal attitude or c) religion, etc, which I think is a somewhat ridiculous attitude to have. This tangentially connects to a couple of exchanges that I’ve had with people in the recent past about the entire purpose of blogging in general, which leads back to the question: why do we do this? And more importantly, how should we do this?

Science fiction and its related genres are akin to commercial art. As such, they tend to be incredibly complicated works that draw upon numerous influences and elements, hopefully in a nice, commercially friendly package that will sell in numerous units to a willing public and make the publisher just a bit wealthier. Over the course of the discussion that Patrick and I had today, we looked at the ways in which people approached books.

One example here was that reader X didn’t like Orson Scott Card, because of an opposing political viewpoint that Card has that vilifies homosexuality and equates global warming to a sort of conspiracy. I vehemently disagree with Card on a lot of political issues, but I’m generally curious as to how people associate a writer and their own personal politics with what they write. In some cases, there’s quite a bit of clear influence amongst a writer’s works. Heinlein looked towards libertarian viewpoints, for example, and so forth (I’ve just written about this recently, for other examples). While clearly, there are elements of personal belief within every book that any such author writes. However, the privilege of having an opposing viewpoint does not equate condemning the book or an author simply because of someone’s personal politics, especially if someone is acting as a reviewer or interviewer for said author. Books should be judged on their merits, not on the author’s personal habits.

In the course of our conversation, how then does one avoid reviewing a book without any sort of outside influence? Should a book be able to stand on its own, completely free from its author’s beliefs, offensive as they might be to the reviewer? There’s a considerable amount of grey area here, and I suspect that there is no good answer to this problem. As a historian, dislike the idea of judgment of past actions, simply because said ideas don’t match up completely with my own. (The same goes for music reviewing. Some bands sound amazing on concert, and recorded, but what happens when you find that in reality, they are some of the most annoying, pedantic, irritating people in the world who don’t give two seconds thought to their fans or those who care about those who essentially worship them as minor deities? Or the actor/artist/writer who does the same? Certainly, there is an amount of fanboy disappointment when one’s idols don’t meet up to one’s expectations – I’ve had that happen a lot.)

The duties of a reviewer, interviewer, and critical thinker are to examine said works. I myself tend to be a curious person, and I find myself wishing for more information about the book. What influenced this novel, or sparked this author’s imagination to set these words down on paper? This sort of process is not something that happens completely independent of any sort of outside influence, especially in the science fiction genre. It is this sort of core understanding that I believe is essential to the arts: the drive for understanding, not only of the book itself, or merely for entertainment, but because we relish stories. The earliest stories were incredible teaching tools, ones that undertook the task of teaching ethics, demonstrating to others a slightly easier path in the race to the finish. The better stories are the ones that get away with the teaching before you realized something was up, whereas the bad ones simply expound upon their morals until you throw the book away.

Interviews are another topic all together, and it was suggested that during an interview, the conventional topics such as religion and politics should be completely avoided during an interview.  I disagree with that assessment, because such things are often a major influence on a person, especially in the case of speculative fiction. What are the responsibilities of a book blogger, beyond the usual business of product placement? I firmly maintain that any form of information dissemination is a style of journalism, and as such, has the ability to influence opinion, and has a number of responsibilities therein. As Stan Lee said through Peter Parker: “With great power comes responsibility”, and as such, reviewers, interviewers and critics have the responsibility to weed out the bad and point out the notable. They should examine the influences upon the works that they look at, ask questions and consider any and all possibilities. This obviously happens to a varying level of completion and attention, but reviewers should at least consider how their actions benefit a greater audience.

Thus, I believe that ignoring the influences upon a book, no matter what the underlying values are, does a grave disservice to the author and potential readers that follow. This is not to say that there are numerous books out there that are not worth reading, but that evaluating a book based on a few, selected criteria is not an honest look at said book and story. While I disagree with the opinions of Dan Simmons or Orson Scott Card, that doesn’t mean that completely ignoring or disregarding will do much better. Reading and attempting to understand such viewpoints is far better, and does not mean that one advocates such positions.

Beyond that, books, like people, have a complicated genesis, and evaluating a book on a single issue or merit belies the complexity and background that any sort of reviewer should be judging a book on. This, I believe is the beauty of our intellect and abilities to communicate. No single person has a monopoly on what is right, and what is wrong. In the grander picture, we really know very little at all, and denying the chance to learn more or to understand is a poor action indeed.

How I Blog

I have been blogging since the spring of 2003 or 2004 (I can’t remember exactly when I started), but I really began serious writing about it for only a couple of those years, running and writing for a couple of different and diverse blogs out there. Writing online is a good thing, I’m finding, and if it is something that is incredibly easy to get started. Because of that, there are a lot of bad sites out there, from people who started doing pretty much what I started with, and I wanted to share what I have found that works.

Come up with a plan.

The first major step towards creating something that will be of public interest and a resource is knowing exactly what you are intending on writing about. This blog isn’t really devoted to anything in particular: I cover a wide range of popular culture, from books to films, but I also touch on history of several areas (Military, Space, etc), or political commentary. It’s decidedly not like my other blog, Carry You Away, which is devoted to various types of music, and while I’m not as active with it, I’ve maintained a very different sort of focus for it. I read a lot of book and music blogs over the course of a day, and the thing that some just can’t step away from is what they’re focusing on: books? Movies? Music?

But beyond the topic, the big goal is to fully understand what (or who) you are writing for. Coming up with a small strategic plan, which helps to lay out where you want the blog to go in a week, in a month, 6 months and a year, will help steer the focus of the blog, and thus approach your material in a prepared fashion, rather than off the cuff. This is especially important for sites that depend upon revenue to keep running, through ads and so forth. Growing a blog to gain a significant audience is especially good for reviewers, because A) People will respect and look to you for opinions while B) you can do a good service towards whatever community that you are writing for. Moreover, people tend to cluster based on their interests, and communities exist for science fiction, military history and music, and being able to write for these groups helps everyone by putting a good, polished opinion out there with sound reasoning.

Write well, don’t write good

Grammar and spelling is important to writers. Once you understand what you are working towards, you must be able to articulate your opinions in a clear method in which you can address the topic at hand. In the case of a reviewer, you are talking about why a product is a good one, which comes down to two parts of the equation: what are the parts that make it worth spending money on, and what is not good? In the midst of that, you begin to speak towards elements of plot and style, characters and everything like that. When looking at literary theory and analysis, you will want to have a good background in what you’re writing about: know your subject, read background material and come up with an argument that makes sense. In all cases, concrete evidence and sources are essential. In talking about a good book, I’m likely to do more than simply say that I liked the book: what specific instances make the book a good one, what element of history supports your argument. Gut feelings are good, but things to point to are even better.

Beyond writing well, it is also good to edit oneself. I have long since broken the habit of writing up a blog post in the actual window: entries and reviews are typed up in a different window, with a spell check, and with at least a read through to change things here and there. This extra effort goes a very, very long way. As someone at ReaderCon noted during a panel: “If you submit work to an editor, and they consistently find that they don’t need to change much, they’re likely to go to you again.”

Don’t be a fanboy. (Or girl)

This falls more towards the annoying sites that I’ve come across, but whether this is towards a specific subject, author, publisher or reviews in general, don’t be completely positive with everything, and try and write about more than one or two subjects: diversify. This comes in two forms: subject, and specific instances.

The blogs and sites that I like the most have a wide variety of material on them, and they can bring some of those things together over time in their arguments. I’ve largely passed on sites that shill a single type of book or film, simply because there’s only so many times that I can read about X, Y and Z. While I’m a huge Star Wars fan, there’s a lot of things wrong with the series, and a lot to nitpick. Specializing is one thing, overdoing it is another.

The same goes for any author or publisher. There are several authors that I’ve read extensively on, and reviewed, and while their material is good, it’s not perfect, and it’s better to point out these things, to be a bit critical, to avoid becoming someone who simply gives everything an A and moves. It destroys credibility, but it also weakens the review if there are things that the reviewer misses.

(This same sort of over-grading applies to graduate school and education in general, and it’s something that is very, very annoying.)

Write a lot. Then write some more.

Now that you have your direction, you have your topics, and you’re taking care to review things carefully, the final step is to keep plugging away with content. This is where I have issues with most reviewer blogs, because of the sheer volume of books that are reviewed by a single person. A variety of content is good, mixing reviews and analysis, because it demonstrates that there is a synthesis of what you are reading with commentary based on the same (or similar) subject. More content generally means more people coming in to see if you’ve written something new, and the big sites such as io9 and SF Signal upload a lot of content throughout the day.

When I blogged extensively in the music world, I saw a definite uptick of hits when I write every day for the site – the same is true for this page as well: more posts = more readers. If it’s not practical to write every single day, regularity is key. I know that I check into Post Secret like clockwork on Monday morning after the page has been updated. People fall into habits, even with things like Google Reader and RSS feeds.

The point of all this isn’t to feel magnanimous about my meager efforts writing, but because it’s something that I’ve come up with over the past seven years through a lot of trial and error. I have only come to begin writing professionally in the past year or so, and in that time, I have met a lot of people who are in the same position that I am in – people with big aspirations. Hopefully, we will all reach that point someday. In the time being, writing is like any profession: it takes a lot of work, effort and persistence.

ReaderCon Wrap Up

This last week, Tor.com has posted up eight of my panel recaps from ReaderCon. The convention was quite a bit of fun, and the panels that I attended (and the book room) was quite a bit of fun to go to.
Here’s what I wrote about over there:

ReaderCon Panel Recap: “How I Wrote The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms”

At a convention that featured so many writers, and aspiring writers, panels that helped to illustrate the workings of a book were invaluable help to all interested, but also to those who really enjoyed the books in question. Jemisin’s talk about The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms felt like a behind-the-scenes look at what I thought of as a very good book.

ReaderCon Panel Recap: “Everybody Loves Dirigibles—Science For Tomorrow’s Fiction”

Additionally, it is good to keep in mind that not all technologies last, a couple examples being talking cars and vending machines, which were noted as being highly irritating, but somewhat futuristic. At the same time, things such as the eight track tape, laserdisc and high definition discs have also gone by the wayside because of consumer demand. The same can reasonably be expected of other technologies. They might be fairly good ideas, but that in and of itself might not be an indication of longevity.

ReaderCon Panel Recap: “The New And Improved Future of Magazines”

…good magazines required good editorial oversight regarding its selection of stories and authors in order to bring about a certain level of quality for the magazine or anthology as a whole. This, rather than the specific format in which the stories are released, is the more important factor in gaining readers and retaining them.

ReaderCon Panel Recap: “Citizens of the World, Citizens of the Universe”

One of her main assertions was that science fiction had become formulaic. Going back as far as the classics of the 1970s—with works by notable authors such as Arthur C. Clarke—she found that there was a predominantly American outlook on the world. This did not make sense simply because the world is far too diverse and different between cultures.

ReaderCon Panel Recap: “Interstitial Then, Genre Now”

Genre, according to Michael Dirda, is really a creation of the marketplace, an artificial wall that helps publishers and marketers push towards dedicated audiences. This is a topic that I’ve covered a couple of times in my own writing, and the concept of a genre not an unfamiliar one – it is a term that is really tacked on afterwards, based on the story elements that are put together in the story.

ReaderCon Panel Recap: “Folklore and its Discontents”

…folklore, as a definition in a form of nostalgia, is a way of looking into the past to undocumented claims or stories—things people believed to be true as opposed to something that was empirical and well documented. Someone on the panel probably said it best when they said: “A folk song is something that nobody ever wrote.”

ReaderCon Panel Recap: “Global Warming and Science Fiction”

nuclear warfare was generally regarded as an event that was outside of the general population’s control, removed by several levels of authority, while the nature of global warming is something that is really the cumulative result of the general population. Where one is a wholly dramatic, singular (or limited) event with massive consequences at the onset, global warming is something that has arisen slowly, with little attention paid to it and with the general population not likely to take any major steps to change until there are catastrophic results.

ReaderCon Panel Recap: “New England, At Home to the Unheimlich”

A lifelong New England resident, I can attest that there is something that certainly adds to the feeling of horror and gothic wonder that seems to have been a major influence for some of the seminal works in the genre, and ever since taking a class offered by Brett Cox, I have felt very differently about my state of Vermont, with a sense of wonder for the mountains, small towns, rivers, and the weather here.

So, the iPad?

 

It’s pretty damn cool.
I’ve largely already known that I’ve wanted to get one, and this past week, the opportunity to purchase one came up, from a coworker of my father’s. The asking price was more than reasonable, and with a paycheck coming, bills under control, I figured it was time as any to get one. My verdict? I like it, although there are some drawbacks to it. Still, it is literally something out of science fiction, when you consider just how short of a time ago computers first came about, and just what they were.
I’ve used my iPhone for over a year now, and have owned several different iPods over the years (and unfortunately, breaking them at points) and this feels like a very good, solid Apple product, even for the first generation line. Originally, I had held off, wanting to wait for an upgraded version of the computer, for A) improvements in the new line, of B) a dirt cheap one when they had to get rid of inventory. Price notwithstanding, The first day or so of playing with it has left me very impressed with what it can do. Moreover, because of my own situation, there are significant differences in how I’m going to be using it, as opposed to my iPhone.
Currently, I don’t have internet or cable at home. (And, to answer a lot of friends who’ve asked how can I live like that: I read. And I use my phone to check twitter/facebook/e-mail). This division between the two devices has limited what I can put onto the iPad (for now – I’ll likely get internet at some point), leaving me to use it for a couple of tasks that I’ve used my desktop or work laptop for. Certainly, as I begin to write more for other places, such as io9, SF Signal and Tor, I’ll probably just begin to write more on this, simply because it’s very easy to cart around the house, prop up and type something somewhere. I’ve pulled over some of my music from the music library for my phone, although different playlists, such as most of my classical and soundtrack songs, because it helps me focus when I’m writing.
I’ve also placed a couple of television episodes from one of my favorite shows on it, and I’m impressed with the quality of the screen, and that I can watch it in several different ways. I do a lot of my television watching based on what I’ve downloaded from iTunes, and while laptops are portable, this is far easier to carry around and to watch something somewhere, and represents a far better alternative than watching things on my iPhone. As a result, TV is off the phone, and onto something that’s far more superior.
What really sold me on this though, was the word processor, Pages, and the keyboard that the seller threw in with my purchase (which made this a really good deal, in my eyes).  The dock keyboard is really cool, and almost the size of a proper one, which makes typing on this for longer things very good, although I’m still not sold on the on-screen keyboard. I’m used to writing on the phone with its own keyboard, and while I’ve adapted to that, I have yet to adapt to the larger keyboard using all of my fingers. The regular keyboard is nice because I actually feel the key depressing under the weight of my fingers, whereas the onscreen one is just tapping the same surface over and over again. It largely works, but with more errors. Still, it works pretty well. Pages itself is something that I like, because I can upload regular Word files to the program, but also export documents that I type up, or eventually, upload them to the internet without the middleman.
What’s surprised me the most is iBooks, which I’m really growing to like. I’ve acquired various eBooks over the past year, but without anything to really read them on. The phone is too small, and I dislike reading things on the computer screen for page after page. During graduate school, I just printed things out. The bookstore has a number of free classics that have interested me quite a bit, and I’ve built a small library of books that I’ve wanted to read, and a couple that I have, for the times that I’ve found myself looking for something to do, but without a book, which does happen on occasion. Reading on a screen is really something that doesn’t interest me, but the convenience factor is a boost, and it’s not as strange as I thought it might be. Still, I prefer the ink and paper publication over the digital one.
At the end of the day, it’s a sleek, science fictiony computer, one that comes a very long way from the first computers that I learned on when I was in elementary school – the one piece Macintosh 128ks that still look very cool to me, with their grey screens, keyboards and clunky mice. It’s interesting to see the progression, and I suspect that this style of computing is here to stay. On any given day, I don’t need to open my work laptop – it’s docked, and hooked up to a monitor, and within the next decade, I wouldn’t be surprised if the laptop itself is killed off, in favor of something that’s much smaller, and with fewer moving parts, with the ability to hook into a much larger network and external keyboards and monitors.
The first time that I saw something like this was in a science fiction film, and it’s interesting to be living in the future.

Military Science Fiction is Soldier Science Fiction

Author Michael Williamson recently came across my article on io9, and posted up his own response. He makes some good points, but I wanted to address some of the areas where I disagree.

I have a couple of counterpoints to this that I’d like to address. I haven’t had a change to read through all of the comments and address them individually, but I’ll try and point out a couple of things that I think need corrected from the article above and my own on io9.

The first, major point is that no, I don’t want Clausewitz to write science fiction. After reading his works for my Military Thought and Theory course (I’ve received an M.A. in Military History from Norwich University. For my own disclosure, I work for the school and that specific program as an administrator for the students, but the Masters degree really pushed me in terms of what I knew and how I understood the military), I think he’s one of the more dry reads that I’ve yet to come across, and that while there is a lot of outdated information in the book, given the advances and changes in how militaries operate, there are some elements that I feel work well, conceptually.

The main point in the article wasn’t written to say that military science fiction had to be more like a Warfare 101 course in how future wars should be fought – far from it – but that military science fiction could certainly benefit from a larger understanding of warfare. As you note, there’s a lot of military themed SF stories about the people caught up in warfare, ones that examine how they perceive warfare, and how warfare impacts the individual in any number of ways. This comes in a couple of ways, one story related, the other more superficial.

There are very few  (I can’t recall any that specifically look to this) military SF novels that look at warfare in the same context. While I agree that stories are about characters, it’s also the challenges and the subsequent themes that embody their struggle that makes a story relevant and interesting to the reader. This, to me, as a reviewer and reader, is the element that will set up a book for success or for failure. Characters, the story/themes/plot, and the challenges that face him all work together to form the narrative. What the characters often learn from their challenges is what the reader should also be learning, and this, to me, is a missed opportunity for some elements of military science fiction. A majority of the Military SF/F stories out there have the characters impacted, but warfare is generally painted as a element of the narrative, not something in and of itself that can be learned from.

Superficially, wars are incredibly complicated events, and often, I don’t feel that they’re really given their due in fiction. There are a couple of points that I want to make in advance of this – this doesn’t mean that I want or require more detail on every element of warfare, from how the logistical setup for an interstellar war might be put into place, or how the X-35 Pulse rifle is put together to best minimize weight requirements in order to be effectively shipped through lightspeed. Those sorts of details aren’t important to the character’s journey in this, and they add up to extra fluff, in my opinion. Weapons and systems put into place for warfare are great, they sound great, and the same arguments are put into place in politics today. What makes the better story, in my opinion, is a better understanding of the mind behind the sights, from that individual soldier’s motivations to his commanding officer’s orders and training, and how war is understood on their terms. In a way, world-building for any story should firmly understand just what warfare is, or at least come to a consensus within the author’s mind as to how it will be approached.

Oftentimes, generals are accused of fighting the wars gone by. That’s certainly true in the ongoing conflict in Iraq/Afghanistan, and why there was quite a bit of resistance in shifting the military’s focus over to a counter-insurgency war, rather than one of armored columns and maneuvers: generals fight with what they have, and what they’ve trained for, and changes come afterwards. Starship Troopers, The Forever War and Old Man’s War all do the same thing, and that’s not really what I’m arguing against – the authors wrote what they knew – Heinlein, undoubtedly from his experience with the Second World War, Halderman from his own experiences in Vietnam, and Scalzi from observation and research. Science fiction looks to the future, but unless you’re a dedicated expert in a think tank, there’s really no expectation that these books will be predictors of the future, but also aren’t necessarily going to be good at the military thought and theory behind the battles on the pages. Will the individual soldier know anything about logistics and engineering solutions? Probably not, but those things certainly will influence how that soldier is operational on the battlefield, which will undoubtedly affect his view and outcome on the battlefield. While these elements might not surface in the text, they should be understood.

Art is formed within the context of its formation.  I don’t believe that a book written in the Post-WWII world should be really in depth on theoretical warfare on the character level, nor should it look beyond what the audience and writer really understands. However, as times change, context changes, and books are understood differently. There is no doubt in my mind that we will see science and speculative fiction stories in the next decade that are directly impacted by our understanding of the world since 9-11 and the warfare that has come as a result, because the current and budding writers are also changing their views on the world.

I see most military science fiction like I see some types of military non-fiction. Stories like Starship Troopers are like Band of Brothers. They’re fun and good character stories, but anything by Stephen Ambrose is certainly not serious military nonfiction, and isn’t something that I would use to better understand the nature of the Second World War. Looking at a similar book, The First Men In, by Ed Ruggereo, is a better example, (one that I recommend highly, as a counterpoint), but that tells a good character story AND looks at the strategic nature of Airborne operations during Operation Overlord.

Military Science Fiction can best be summed up as soldier science fiction, with the characters learning much about themselves and society – that’s never been in dispute from me. What I would like to see someday added to a field is a novel that better understands the nature of warfare, and extrapolates some of the lessons that can be learned from it.

On Reviewing

Over the past year or so, I’ve begun to read and write more critically about various books, television series and films, which alternatively gets people interested in some of the things that I am reading, but also drives my friends nuts by picking apart everything that is supposed to simply entertain. The bottom line is, my brain likes to see how things work, how they fit together and what makes things work. I view literature, music, motion pictures, photography and so forth; as art, and accordingly, they are often a series of fairly complicated elements that come together to create the final product that evokes emotion and thought. This is what makes things interesting, and looking alternatively at the flaws and perfections within each piece is what I find interesting.

Reviewing is far more than just writing down what you like about any given book, television episode or movie. While a lot of reviews are made up of what the reviewer likes, it’s often a lost cause because everyone has their own individual tastes and appreciates things in their own way. The real trick comes in looking at the characters, the world building, the problems that cause the story in the first place, and the characters’ reaction to said problems. The second level often comes when a reviewer looks to the overarching themes and tone of the story that they are looking at.

When I read a book, there are a couple of things that I tend to keep in mind as I read. The first is that I’m not a teacher, reading a homework assignment that the author has turned into me. This is largely because I don’t have a good eye for what really constitutes good writing, so often, an author’s writing style doesn’t figure into things, unless there is something really strange about it. Grammar, spelling, and other technical things just don’t come onto my radar, because when I’m reading, I typically focus on the thing that will make the book really stand out for me: the story.

The story governs everything. A story, simply, is a challenge that arrives to confront the protagonist, disrupting their life and causing them to reevaluate their life or examine things differently as a result. This is a pretty basic element of reviewing, and the evaluation here is looking at where the character reacts to the problem in a way that might be somewhat realistic, based on their environment.

While I tend to review a lot of science, fantasy and other speculative fiction, realism is the thing that I look for. While elements of the story might be fantastic, the book or motion picture is written for an audience who live in the real world, and are typically looking for realistic actions on the parts of the characters. Art is created within the contexts of its surroundings. Thus, I find it harder to excuse a book that really acts illogically or unrealistically, whether it’s in the reactions that the characters have towards each other or their own surroundings. The mark of a good book is whether an author can properly balance the fantastic with the real, all the while creating something that the audience can relate to.

The actions of the characters and the problems that they face are elements that the audience can likewise relate to. The best works of science fiction and fantasy are ones that can connect to a large audience over numerous generations, either because there is a common connection between generations, exhibited in the themes of the stories, or the story is basic enough for a large number of people to really relate to it. Fiction is a way to look at the world through a different context. Stories take the problems that people face, and place their characters in similar instances. Science fiction and fantasy are especially good at this sort of thing, because they can take modern problems and really twist them out of context for a reader to see things differently.

Once the story is finished, the next step is to write down a sort of analysis of the piece – how did the story, characters and themes interact with one another, and do they work in a way that entertains, interests and provokes thought from the reader? There are a number of brilliant books out there, but often, the writer misses the entertainment point of the book. Ultimately, a good book is something that will be all of the above, and will make you want to re-read it, and buy copies for all of your friends. Precision is needed for a review, and throwing out terms like ‘Great’ and ‘Brilliant’ are things that are done far too often – the great books are few and far between, the rare gems that come rarely, but really make an impact. The really good books are far more numerous, and in all cases of reviewing, a reviewer must be accurate and precise with his/her words.

But, in the end, it does come down to one simple point: is this a book that you liked enough to read again, and something that your friends would like?

Changing The Name

Last night, I clicked a button, and transfered Worlds In A Grain of Sand to a new address, where you’re reading now. I did this for a couple of reasons, and while it will likely take a little while to get the traffic that I enjoyed on the prior site to get back to normal, I think this change will be a positive one.

A little while ago, I wrote an article/commentary for io9, which generated a number of e-mail and comments. While I was thrilled at the response, good and bad, what bothered me the most was two people, one who wrote to me directly and another on another website who made a couple of judgements of my argument simply on the basis of my email alone, with the screen name JediTrilobite.

JediTrilobite is a screen name that I’ve used for over a decade at this point: it started off in 1999 on the TheForce.net forums, combining a couple of my favorite interests. As I got more into Star Wars fandom and other places in the Internet, I continued the usage- I started up a blog and generally used it as a sort of online persona. That worked fine within the massive Star Wars community on the Internet, but over the past year, I’ve begun far more serious work online, writing for io9 and SF Signal, where my real name is far more important. Plus, my interest in Star Wars has largely waned from my fanboy days back in high school. I still like it, but not unadbashably so. These days, I’m far more interested in history and popular culture, and when writing about these things, I found that it’ll be harder for people to take my arguments seriously if they can’t get past a silly email/ online handle.

Only two people really commented on it. But, out of the 35,000 or so people who read that article, I can’t help but wonder what others might have thought, either other fans or other people who might have otherwise looked at my article differently. Plus, I always operated under the assumption that in some circles, JediTrilobite generally was associated with Andrew Liptak. I don’t know if that’s as much of a healthy association professionally, and I’ve begun to take a bit more of a professional stance with how I appear online.

Thus, Worlds In A Grain of Sand now has the slightly less fun handle, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing either. As I begin to write more and more, and hopefully more professionally, it’s essential to tie my writing to me, as a sort of brand (god, that sounds horribly pretentious), rather than some random online persona.

Structures in History

I’m continually astounded at just how few people really know how to put together a decent argument and work to convince someone of some basic fact or side of any sort of story, especially at a graduate school. I’ve always loved school, learning and writing, and when as part of my job, I was to take a graduate program; I jumped at the chance, entering a writing-heavy course that emphasized scholarly knowledge and being able to write a point down in a way that is designed to teach someone something new. History is so much more than merely an order of dates strung together; it is the interpretation of the events that happened at a specific point in time, designed to explain how said events occurred within a specific context.

Much of what I have learned at Norwich and elsewhere makes a lot of sense to me, in all manners of writing, from historical essays to fiction, and more and more, I’ve become far more aware of just how the structure of making a good argument can make or break the information that you’re trying to convey. Frequently, I’ve been paying far more attention to the books that I read, people I hear and television that I watch, and find that structure is everywhere in how we are trying to do things, and I’m beginning to realize just how this has impacted how I view things far beyond writing.

Most crucial is the intent behind a piece of interpretation. History is never a clear cut set of events, and often, the actions of people long dead are used to prove a theory or point in how they relate to the present day, the event itself or some other element that relates to a historical point. Numerous times, I’ve seen proposals for thesis papers that don’t set out to prove anything, but just examine a larger set of events in narrative form. When it comes to history, especially critical history, a straight up account of the events that transpired is the last thing that needs to be written about: it has no place, unless it’s a primary source of some sort, as history, because it does not examine: it shows, but doesn’t explain.

History is a way to interpret, and through that, explain what has transpired in the past. At a number of points, I’ve largely given up reading soldier biographies from the Second World War, not because their stories aren’t important, but because they do not do more than cover that soldier’s individual experiences and relate it to a larger picture. This is a general argument, and there are plenty of books that fall on both sides, but when it comes to critical history, the works of someone like Peter Paret are far more important and useful than those of Stephen Ambrose.

When it comes to the execution of the history, or any form of writing, one of the biggest issues that I’ve seen with my writing and others is that the argument is under supported by the evidence that the writer puts together. The basic structure of any argument is an introduction, where the writer puts forth their argument, and exactly what they are trying to prove. That introduction is then used to bring out the arguments that ultimately prove the point that the author is arguing, using evidence to support that basic argument. The conclusion is then used to tie everything together, utilizing the argument, what was found in the evidence. For some reason, this sort of format isn’t used very much, either in schools, or in stories, movies, television shows, and it undermines what the author or creator is trying to do. Ideas and intentions are good, but when they fail in their execution, it doesn’t matter how good the idea is; the entire effort fails.

I’ve found that I like minimalism, as an art subject, but also when it comes to writing. While there are plenty of writers out there who utilize a lot of words to get their point across, there is generally a purpose to that: they better explain what is going on, and help to create an environment that ultimately helps the book. When it comes to writing, of any sort, the main intent of any form of writing is to get the information across to the reader, whether it be fictional or coming out of real life. In that, every bit of historical evidence, from examples harvested from primary sources to other author’s words and analysis, must go towards proving that article, without extra stops along the way for an extra tidbit of information. In critical history, the main point is often a very small, dedicated idea that seeks to prove a specific point within a larger context.

If I was to select one lesson that I learned in high school as the most important, I would point to something that my Three Democracies (and later American Studies) teacher, Tom Dean, taught me: Microcosm vs. Macrocosm, i.e., how a small event can be taken out and applied to a larger context. The experiences of three men in the Philippines during the Second World War highlight some of the atrocities on the part of the Japanese, or the career of a race horse in the Great Depression as a way to look at the changing lives of people during the 1930s are two examples of this sort of thinking, and it goes hand in hand with how stories should be structured. Every chapter should work to prove the point of the introduction, while every paragraph should be used as a way to prove the point of the chapter, and so on. Books, in and of themselves, should follow this sort of microcosm / macrocosm effect, to the end. to prove the point of the author.

Stories are important, for the information that they contain, but also for what they teach us at the same time. Amongst the years of history are countless events, occurrences and actions that all have reactions and continued impact on each other and indeed, the present day. The execution of how stories are told is how history is remembered and thus learned.