Posts Tagged ‘j.k. rowling’

Why is it, when you go into a Starbucks (it’s not always Starbucks, but they seem to attract the species, like flytraps) in LA (I’m assuming it’s only in LA, but I could be wrong–enlighten me) that you see all these guys (and yes, it’s always guys!) writing screenplays on their laptops, an empty cup beside them like their ticket on the train? (“Look, Mr. Conductor/Barista! I paid to be here!”)

No, I’m not asking why everyone goes to Starbucks to write. I’ve written in coffee houses myself, and found it works a lot better than I expected. I guess if it was good enough for J.K. Rowling, etc., etc. It’s not the writing in coffee houses that I don’t understand, it’s writing screenplays.

Look, writing fiction is a crapshoot. Let’s take science fiction, because that’s the field I know. When I was a “kid,” there were those who (I’m sure from an overabundance of caring) made no secret of the fact that your chances of ever getting a story published were 1000-to-1. Even today, with dozens of markets available for short SF, the odds are about the same. It’s not pretty, but it’s true. (Which doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try!)

But screenplays? I have no numbers to go by (and I’m too lazy to look), but I have to figure that your chances of selling a screenplay are about 1/10th as good as selling a short story. Yes, the rewards are vastly higher, but so’s a winning lottery ticket. So why write screenplays when your chances of succeeding at straight fiction are ten times better? I made more on my last sale than most of those coffee-jockeys will make on whatever they’re writing, if they push it from now until they die. (And believe me, what I make isn’t a lot to brag about. The pro rate for magazines as defined by SFWA has about doubled since the 1960s.)

I guess it’s the same mentality that plays the lotto. And I play the lottery, too, occasionally, though I stay with the small tickets. I guess I’d rather win a little every so often rather than play for the big pay-off that may (probably will) never come.

If you’re the other kind, and you hit it big, good for you. Go back to Starbucks and buy a round for the house.



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Difficult as it may be to believe, not all writers are in it for the money. (If you’re a writer, this is not difficult to believe at all.) Some are in it because they want to be read, to make a mark on the world. When we watch our TVs and we see the daily parade of misery, when we witness a mass shooting like yesterday’s, we want to do something. As writers, we want to write a story that will shake some sense into the world. And we could, we know we could, if only we could find the right words. Sadly, the truth is that as a writer, you have more chance of making money than of making the world a better place.

Yes, you can argue that you make the world a marginally better place by providing entertainment, by brightening up someone’s existence for a few hours, and you would be perfectly correct. But if you want to make the world a better place, well, then, there’s a book you should read, Don Quixote, because you are that character.

It’s not hopeless, of course. Upton Sinclair changed America with The Jungle. J.K. Rowling has inspired people the world over to join in The Harry Potter Alliance. If you write for TV or movies, you could create Star Trek, whose inspiration of a generation of scientists is well-documented, or Star Wars, with its 501st Legion.

But those are four examples from a hundred years of books and TV/movies. Your (or my) chances of joining that elite rank are vanishingly small.

The odds of being published alone are perhaps 1 in 1,000. You can self-publish, sure–you and 100,000 others every year. The odds of having a real success are small–and the odds of “making a difference” to more than a few fans are infinitesimal.So why do it? Why bother?

Because like the hero of Don Quixote, we don’t know when we’re beaten. Who else can find his career choice rejected 500 times and still keep going? Who else could look at the odds of success and still want to do this thing? Don’t think I have a chance of making a difference? Just throw your statistic on the pile and I’ll pay attention when I have time. Which is never. Because if I did, if I rationally considered what I was doing, I’d quit and go to law school.

But I don’t. And I won’t. Because I’m a writer, and the written word has power. Ask Thomas Jefferson. Ask Thomas Paine. Ask Sinclair or Rowling. Ask the guys who wrote the Bible.

Even if we don’t achieve great fame or readership, writers are like teachers. Maybe we reach only 40 people a year. But we can do it over and over. Forty becomes 80, becomes 120, and maybe some of 120 those reach out, too, and spread the message. And maybe it grows really slowly, but we’re writers, we’re used to that. Maybe someday, somebody who was reached by somebody who was reached by one of us has the chance to blow that message up to where everyone can see it. Wouldn’t that be cool?

And perhaps all we’ll ever do is earn a couple of bucks by making one person’s rainy afternoon a little sunnier. That would be good, too.


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As authors age, and pass away, sometimes they leave behind a body of work that their families and publishers and fans want to see continue. The most famous example is probably Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, who is as busy now as he was a hundred years ago. (Ironic, of course, since Doyle “killed” Holmes and only reluctantly brought him back.) Star Trek, originally the brainchild of Gene Roddenberry, has continued and evolved well after his death.

Which brings us to today’s topic: the evolution of characters and concepts by other authors subsequent to the author’s passing. Who safeguards the author’s intent (if anyone)? How important is that intent? Does anyone have the right to make fundamental changes to an iconic character other than the author?

Some authors, like J.K. Rowling, take steps to make sure their intent is not thwarted; she purposely added a coda to her last book so that it would be harder for others to take her characters into unwanted directions. And some media, such as TV and film, assume that control will never lie with one creator. But let’s stick to books where the author has simply “left off,” for whatever reason.

Getting back to Holmes, because besides being famous, he allows for an obvious example. There have been spoofs and homages postulating different ideas on Holmes and Watson, but none of those were intended to be canonical, and no one took them for such. But what if an “official” continuation were undertaken under the authority of his estate? (Ignoring the fact that some of the earlier works have passed out of copyright.) What if (taking the obvious example and making no value judgements), a new, canonical, novel set forth the idea that Holmes and Watson were lovers? Does the new author (or the estate) have the right to make such a drastic change?

Yes, social mores have evolved (even Victorians were certainly aware of homosexuality (see Oscar Wilde)), and our understanding of such a relationship would be far different from the understanding of Doyle’s original reader. But would it be right? It’s unlikely that Doyle intended it, but Watson’s notebooks were sufficiently incomplete that you could probably interpolate practically anything you liked. Still, left to his own devices, the author (we can safely assume) never would have gone down that road. And you can extend this idea to most any famous book or series. (Jane Austen: “You tell them, sir!”)

It’s natural to want to continue profitable and popular series. And it’s natural to want them to evolve to fit current tastes. But as Victor Frankenstein’s example posits: Just because we can do something, does that make it a good idea?


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There was a discussion in my peer group concerning the passing of Leonard Nimoy, and whether it qualified as “untimely.” It was pointed out that he lived to be 83 years old, well past the American average, and that he had, not ironically, “lived long” (as well as “prospered”). Given that fact, although we were not prepared to see him go, we should consider that he had lived well and fully.

Not surprisingly, this lead to more thoughts about death, specifically about those I have known who did not have a chance to “live long.” I have lost three friends from college now, bright people who were never able to fulfill their promise because they left this life too soon. I wondered what they might have accomplished given more time, and the thought reflected back: You have the time they didn’t. You’ve been given the chance they weren’t. What are you doing?

I like to say, “Don’t ask yourself where the time has gone. Ask yourself where it’s going.” And with me, as with most of us, it’s going toward working, commuting, catching up with “Downton Abbey”–and writing the occasional piece of fiction. I haven’t done anything great with my life, and odds are I will never make the difference in people’s lives that Leonard Nimoy made. Few of us ever have that opportunity, and fewer take it.

But that’s no reason to despair, or to panic, because as long as I’m alive, I may have that opportunity still. We look at famous people now and we recognize them, but who on that train knew the name J.K. Rowling the day she dreamed up Harry Potter? Did you know who Leonard Nimoy was before “Star Trek”?

I’ve seen it happen time and again: one day you’re in the dumps because it’s all going nowhere, and the next day you’re in a TV series, or you’re nominated for a Hugo, or maybe you just sell a story, and suddenly life is all about possibilities, and people know your name.

Some gain success early. It may build, it may peak and die away, leaving one to wonder what he’s going to do for the rest of a life that may already have seen its apex. The thing I’ve noticed about success, though, is that it’s never really in your grasp. The success I’ve gained in the last few years would look really impressive to the seventeen-year-old who first started writing sword-and-sorcery stories on a manual typewriter in his bedroom, but it’s not enough for me. I dream of being a full-time writer, but I know enough full-time writers to know that even that is only a step, not a culmination. So we keep at it. You have to; resting on your laurels is comfortable, but it never gets any better.

I’m pretty sure that I haven’t peaked already. I don’t know if I ever will. But I know that I will die trying. And that’s the way I want it.

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Interesting facts about the Hugo Awards that you probably didn’t know (or much care about):

Stephen King has never won a Hugo for fiction.

J.K. Rowling has not won a Hugo for fiction since 2001, and only two of the Harry Potter books were nominated for Best Novel.

George R.R. Martin’s “Song of Ice and Fire” novels are still awaiting a Hugo.

If you could name three better-selling SF/fantasy authors…well, you can’t. These people have literally hundreds of millions of fans. If the Hugos were a popularity contest, these folks would need to build extra wings on their houses to hold them all. So why do they have only one Best Novel Hugo between them? Probably because Hugos are voted on by members of the Worldcon, and 99.999% of those millions of fans aren’t Worldcon members.

About now, you’re asking yourself: Is there a point to all this?

Sadly, yes.

And I use the word “sadly” advisedly, because for the third consecutive year, there has been published a slate of proposed Hugo nominees dubbed the “Sad Puppies” slate (hereinafter “SP”). SP started as an effort by self-proclaimed conservative authors to combat what they perceived to be a liberal bias in Hugo voting. (I am short-cutting a lot of background here. If you want, google “Sad Puppies.” I haven’t the space to supply a representative sample of links.) This year, the political thrust seems less apparent, a welcome development. Works should be nominated on their own merits, regardless of their authors’ personal choices. And presenting your recommendations for nominations, whether individually or as a group, no problem! Go for it! However, the slate still presents for me an occasion for head-shaking puzzlement.

You see, the Sad Puppies represent themselves as promoting “entirely deserving works, writers, and editors — all of whom would not otherwise find themselves on the Hugo ballot without some extra oomph received from beyond the rarefied, insular halls of 21st century Worldcon ‘fandom.'” They say, to those Worldcon members who are evidently disenfranchised, “this is YOUR chance to make sure YOUR voice is heard.”

Yeah, well, if you’re a member of the Worldcon, then your voice is already as loud as anyone’s. You have the same right to nominate and vote as anyone else.

The problem seems to be that there just aren’t as many of them voting for Hugos as the SP would like. Or else they aren’t voting the way the Sad Puppies want them to. They can’t understand why popular books don’t get awards. Well, ask Mr. King, or Mr. Martin, or Ms. Rowling. The best candidate isn’t always elected President, the best movie doesn’t always win the Oscar, and the best novel doesn’t always win the Hugo. You take your electorates as you find them.

The SP slate, though, isn’t satisfied with that. Members are on record soliciting people to buy Worldcon supporting memberships just so they can vote SP. Now I realize $40 isn’t a lot of money these days to some of us, but a lot of us have a better use for $40 than supporting a political agenda in what amounts to a small, private club. Put your money where your mouth is, SP; set your books out on the net for free and I’ll bet you’ll get a lot more fans, some of whom might even vote for the Hugos.

But hitting up your supporters to shell out $40 to help you win a trophy because otherwise they wouldn’t vote for you on their own? That’s sad, puppies.

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A small controversy landed serendipitously in the news this week, serendipitously because it follows neatly my last post, about a program that would allow anyone to change a published work to his taste. But this time, the tempest in a teapot concerns an author revisiting her own work, to wit, J. K. Rowling and Harry Potter.

Ms. Rowling has expressed regrets that Hermione ended up with Ron. Apparently she made that choice early on and felt obligated to stay with it, regardless of how she thought things should develop further down the line. Fans, of course, are up in arms–some in favor of the idea, some aghast.

Color me leaning toward the latter camp. Not so much because I am a Hermione-Ron champion (although I thought it worked out well as a sub-plot), but because a book (or series) is not the Pyramids–once it’s done, it’s done. The big thing in comics for some years has been “retconning,” rewriting earlier events, like a hero’s origins, to accommodate newer, edgier ideas that might resonate with a younger audience. Nowadays, the thing is re-booting; the entire DC universe, in fact, has been re-booted (a subject for another day).

I don’t like this trend, and I don’t want to see it come to books. Once a work of art is made public, it should stay put. It doesn’t matter if it’s the author or a reader, an art student or an Old Master. If van Gogh had decided later to add that ear, would he have been allowed to add it?


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