Monday, August 24, 2015

Hugos, Goosebumps, and me

DISCLAIMER: This post is NOT about the recent Hugo Awards kerfuffle, nor this weekend's results of said awards. There are plenty of people out there doing an admirable job at covering and commenting on that. Cool? Cool.


Last month a dear colleague of mine, someone I hold in extremely high esteem as both a person and a writing industry professional, said to me ever-so-slightly slyly, "You're going to the first Hugo winner to write a Goosebumps book."

That person was gently chiding me. But on all counts, they were right.

I won a Hugo for Best Semiprozine in 2013 as part of the editing team of Clarkesworld Magazine, for which I served as Nonfiction Editor. During my time at Clarkesworld, I expanded the nonfiction section, including the addition of a monthly column titled Another Word. I brought the great Daniel Abraham aboard as the regular author of Another Word, who rotated in every other month; on alternating months, a guest author would take the reins, using that space to speak personally and intimately about the process of reading and/or writing. I also did my best to help expand Clarkesworld's pool of nonfiction writers and to do my own small part in solidfying the section as a worthy complement to the magazine's award-winning, world-class fiction. My successor, Kate Baker (a multiple Hugo winner), has done great things with Clarkesworld's nonfiction since I left, and she's even been generous enough to accept multiple articles from me over the past couple years, including a piece I wrote about the late punk legend Poly Styrene and her relationship to science fiction, of which I'm particularly proud.

In addition, I've written a Goosebumps book. Tomorrow, August 25, the world will bear witness to the birth of Slappy's Revenge: Twisted Tricks from the World's Smartest Dummy. Okay, so now I'm chiding myself a little. No one, me included, will ever mistake Slappy's Revenge for a wondrous work of literature, any more than the Goosebumps movie that my book ties into, which will hit theaters out later this year, will likely go down as some cinematic milestone. (That said, I've read the script and seen tons of stills, and it looks like a hell of a lot of fun.) But you know what? I'm still proud of it. Scholastic Books asked me to write it, thanks in part to some ongoing conversations I've been having with them about a separate project--not to mention the fact that I have experience writing this kind of media tie-in. A few years back I wrote The Captain Jack Sparrow Handbook for Quirk Books/Disney, an official tie-in to the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean film. And I was happy to do it. Thrilled even.

Why thrilled? I mean, I've written my own, original novel, the alt-history political satire Taft 2012, for which I was interviewed by NPR's Morning Edition, and which snagged a starred review in Publisher's Weekly. And I've been consistently working on other original novels--I'm revising two complete novel drafts, one middle-grade, one for adults, even as I procrastinate by writing this blog post--which is the path I've always wanted my writing career to take. I have a ton of ideas, and I want to write my own novels about those ideas. And as my esteemed and beloved colleague so chidingly yet good-naturedly pointed out, I am a Hugo winner. Why not use that as a platform? Doesn't having a Hugo open some doors for you in the writing world? Doesn't that launch you up to some higher tier, or at least a tiny step up, where you don't have to rely on writing media tie-ins any longer?

Well, no. Actually, of course not. I am but one of many, many Hugo winners who aren't big names. Many people with Hugos have win them the way I did--as part of a team, be it editing, writing, or podcasting. The glory is shared. It's not like I won a Hugo for Taft 2012 (it never threatened that ballot with its presence). I'm proud of my shiny rocketship statue, sure, but I hold no illusions about it. If this year's Sad/Rabid Puppy controversy showed us in the SFF community anything, it's that we shouldn't take for granted what our awards mean and stand for--or overestimate what they signify to the populace at large, most of whom could not have cared less about what must have seemed from the outside to be just another case of online insider squabbling.

Oops, sorry. This post wasn't supposed to be about this year's Hugo kerfuffle. Ahem.

Anyway. Yes, I have a Hugo. And yes, I'm still writing media tie-in books. In case my base humanity wasn't painfully apparent by now, I did it for the money. But here's the thing: In both cases, I actually enjoy the piece of media that my tie-in book ties into. Do I love every Pirates of the Caribbean movie? No. Do I enjoy the series overall? Absolutely. Same goes for Goosebumps. Both of these properties are squarely in my wheelhouse, seeing as how I also write my own original fantasy and horror. I didn't seek out these tie-in assignments, but when they fell on my lap, I grabbed them. They were both fun to write. And the money they made helped me buy some more time to work on my original fiction, novels included. 

See, I'm a full-time writer. I have no other source of income. I don't have a nest egg or a trust fund. I was born poor--not kinda poor, not lower-middle-class, but dirt poor, at least by United States standards. It's something I wrote about candidly in, aptly enough, an Another Word column for Clarkesworld--and coming from that background made me realize a few things. First of all, there's no shame in making a living at what you do best, even if some of those jobs might seem beneath you to someone who's never known what it's like to go hungry or not know where they're going sleep that night. But it's more than that. I grew up poor, but I also came of age in the punk scene. And in the punk scene, integrity is a big concern. Integrity can also be a hangup, and an albatross around one's neck--but in my case, I felt no qualms whatsoever about writing Pirates of the Caribbean or Goosebumps books. I have always wanted to write for big publishers, and I've always loved swashbuckling fantasy, and I've always loved things that scare kids in the best possible way. Nothing about writing my two media tie-ins scribbled outside the lines of my integrity. Which is still something I take seriously, as much as I still take the music and message of, say, The Clash seriously.

Again, these two properties for which I've written tie-ins, these two cool universes I got paid to play around in, are things I like. If someone asked me to write a media tie-in for a property I knew and/or cared nothing about, I would turn it down. In a heartbeat. Trust me. But now, having done this kind of tie-in work, I feel even more prepared to march forward with my own original fiction. Tie-ins were basically on-the-job training for me. And a way to keep out of working another temporary warehouse job, which I've had to do in the past when the writing thing wasn't making ends meet. If the punk ethic values one thing above all else, it's scrappy resourcefulness--which is its own kind of integrity.

Both times I've written a media tie-in book, I've been asked by my respective editor if I wanted my own name to appear on the book, or if I wanted to write it under a pseudonym. In both cases, I didn't blink. HELL YES I wanted my name on it. If I was okay with writing the book, I damn sure was taking credit for it. I've written under a pseudonym before--specifically, I ghost-wrote a middle-grade horror novel for a big publisher a couple years ago--but I used a pen-name because it was part of the concept of the book itself, as conceived by the editor who hired me to write it. Even then, it hurt not to have my name on it. Not because it's an amazing book or anything, but because I poured my sweat and tears and brains all over it, and it felt criminal not to be able to own it. But even then, I learned a lot--and again, it bought me more time to write my own novels, and with the added lessons about craft and business I'd learned along the way.

It's been said, often and wisely, that every author finds their own path to publication. Writing movie tie-ins has opened doors for me that I thought would take years to even find. It's helped me sharpen my chops, tighten my ability to meet deadlines, and figure out how to work with editors on book-length projects. It's gotten my name out there, even if just a little. And hell, I have a nine-year-old niece who couldn't be more stoked that her uncle writes Pirates of the Caribbean and Goosebumps books. She couldn't give a rat's ass about my Hugo, bless her heart.

And after all, it’s not like I’m the only Hugo winner who ever worked in media tie-ins. Fritz Leiber wrote an official tie-in to the film Tarzan and the Valley of Gold—eight years following his win of a Best Novel Hugo for The Big Time. After winning the Best Novel Hugo in 1959 for A Case of Conscience, James Blish famously went on to write novelizations of Star Trek episodes. Best Novel Hugo winner Neil Gaiman, long before taking home that award for American Gods in 2002, wrote Don’t Panic: The Official Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Companion, back when he was just launching his illustrious career. I’m not saying I’m in their class, or that I ever will be. What I am saying, though, is that this kind of practice isn’t all that strange among Hugo winners--even the upper echelon of Leiber, Blish, and Gaiman, regardless of how increasingly august the Hugos have grown in our eyes over the course of decades. (Assuming this year's kerfuffle hasn't forever downgraded that estimation. Again, ahem.)

As writers, we're told these days to be obsessed with our brands. Honestly, I don't think that way at all. If other people want to look at my "brand," fine--although I'd be surprised and probably a little creeped out if anyone actually cared. But even if they did, that so-called brand of mine is going to be a mosaic of all the kinds of writing I have done, and can do, and will continue to do, even if some of those things don't seem particularly worthy of a Hugo winner--even one who was just a member of a great team. If that makes for a bit of cognitive dissonance--and maybe even a little chiding--well, I'm fine with that too. At the end of the day, I’m writing for a living. That’s its own reward, and its own humility.