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One Cobble at a Time

A Panel with Jerry Pournelle

Sandra Tayler's Journal

responsible woman

A cobble by itself is just a small stone, but when many of them lay together they create a path . My life is made up of many discrete parts. I have to find ways to fit them all into place so that I can continue to journey where I desire to go. This journal records some of the cobbles that create my path.

A Panel with Jerry Pournelle

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Thoughtful

I just got back from LTUE where Howard sat on the same panel as Jerry Pournelle.  I have pictures to prove it.  Maybe Howard will post some later.  There were a couple of really cool moments for Howard there which I'm dying to tell, but I don't want to steal his thunder.  Instead I'm going to gabble about the content of the panel's discussion.

According to Jerry Pournelle he has two jobs.  One is to be an Author, where he meets people and signs books and goes to conventions and has lunch with editors.  The other job is to be a writer, which is where he locks himself away and wrestles with words.  According to Mr. Pournelle writing is the hard part.  No one likes to write, they like to have written, but not the actual process of writing.  But the only way to become a writer is to actually sit down and do it.  Mr. Pournelle figures that somewhere around 1 million words worth of submittable material a person truly becomes a writer.  Becoming an author is dependent on an editor and a publishing house, but anyone who sticks to it can become a really good writer.

Mr. Pournelle had a couple of specific tips on tightening up writing.  He sugguests that you keep your ratio of "Bricks" to "Mortar" balanced.  "Mortar" is the 400 most commonly used words in the english language.  "Bricks" are every other word you can think of or make up.  You need a balance of both to create readable prose.  His second advice was to pay attention to the warnings of your grammar checker.  Use your wordprocessor to teach you how to write grammatically.  Grammatical writing is the easiest way to pull your readers into your story.

Mr. Pournelle was not a big fan of creative writing classes or writers groups.  According to him the only opinions which count are those of editors and publishers.  He actually seemed to advocate not showing your work to anyone else, with the possible exception of another published author.  According to him you don't want to mess around with other learning writers because you're all making the same mistakes anyway.  Mr. Pournelle seems to be a very forthright person and said all of these things repeatedly despite the fact that there was also a teacher of creative writing on the panel.  It was the cause of a little bit of tension during the discussion, but since I saw the two of them walk out together talking amicably I suspect that they agreed to disagree.

It is perhaps presumptious of me in the face of Mr. Pournelle's weight of real world experience, but I also disagree with him on that final point.  I think that fantastic gains can be made from a good writers group or creative writing class so long as the group is focused on growth rather than back-patting.  One thing he said on the subject does make a lot of sense to me.  Don't bring unfinished work to a writers group if you can avoid it.  People are much better able to judge the work if it is complete and all aspiring writers need practice with finishing their work.

Mr. Pournelle dominated the panel, not because he was like the proverbial gorilla who can sit anywhere, but because the minute he spoke up everyone else fell silent.  We all wanted to hear everything he had to say.  He told fascinating stories about Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov talking about them and their wives by first names.  These Giants were his friends.  It was fascinating to me to watch Howard in this context.  I've seen him present before when he was the headliner, it was interesting to see him do so well at a supportive role. 

The discussion ended too soon. As an audience member I didn't get to throw all my thoughts into the ring the way I wanted to, but I am so glad I was able to go.  I'm especially glad that the call from Link's school telling me he was sick would I come get him came AFTER the panel was over.  I had to Cinderella earlier than anticipated, but I didn't miss the most important bits.

  • Jerry Pournelle is a man of many opinions (just check out his blog at Chaos Manor). Not all of them are correct. Frankly, given the readability of his standalone work (as opposed to stuff he's co-authored), I'd take his comments on writing with a largish grain of salt.
    • I've got my salt right here. I usually salt just about anything any "expert" says before I swallow it.

      I agree that Mr. Pournelle's collaborative work is much stronger than his work alone. This only underlines the value of collaboration in various forms. I know that input from others has helped me tremendously when I write.
      • Dr. Pournelle has apparently become MUCH more mellow and mild-mannered and less opinionated than when I met him twenty years ago. ];-)

        I really do enjoy his collaborations, but have not read any fiction by him solo. I have read his regular column in Byte magazine for years, and he was a potent force in the popularization of microcomputers.

        But I have actual autographed works by Larry Niven -- and Howard Tayler -- that I'm quite proud of. ];-)

        ===|==============/ Level Head
        • Hmm.

          No offense to Mr. Tayler, but I think I like my portraits of you better. :D
          • Re: Hmm.

            Well, at the risk of some social faux pas here, I will tell you that I do too.

            Mr. Tayler had just met me, whereas you've known me for quite a long time. He didn't know much about me as a person, and was focused on the famous Unusual Features.

            So, it is flattering ... but it is not quite "essential". I'm happier than that, though I've been accused of concealing my visible emotions somewhat. Nevertheless, I like it, I was and am honored by it, and there is a limit to how much significance one should ascribe to a fast jot done at their happy dining table for entertainment's sake.

            And I have Sandra Tayler's autograph too! And I am richer for having met them, and hope to do so again soon. This get-together that Mrs. Tayler is describing sounds like a great deal of fun, for attendees and participants alike.

            ===|==============/ Level Head
  • "It is perhaps presumptious of me in the face of Mr. Pournelle's weight of real world experience..."

    Pournelle, like all of us, has his opinions. Having a Ph.D. and being a published author does not mean his opinions are always right, anymore than not meeting those criteria means that someone else's opinions are always wrong.

    "He told fascinating stories about Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov talking about them and their wives by first names. These Giants were his friends."

    I get that a lot from my in-laws. They knew (and know) a lot of those old-time authors, as well as a few newer ones.
    One of my favorite stories involved a picture my wife showed of Heinlein. He's sitting on a sofa, wearing a bathrobe, I think with a cigarette in one hand and a drink in the other. It's an old black and white, so you can't tell, of course, but according to my wife, the bathrobe was an obnoxious yellow.
    It seems that Ginny [his wife] was a flaming redhead, and wouldn't wear the yellow bathrobe because it clashed so badly with her hair and looked horrible on her. She would take all of "Bob's" other ones.
  • Thank you...

    The one downside to not living in Utah anymore is that I can't go to LTUE. Thanks for the overview, it was insightful and interesting. Any more reviews I can get my hands on would be great.
    • Re: Thank you...

      Not a problem. I've figured out how to ditch my kids for some of this evening. If I make it to any more presentations I'll share thoughts about them.
      • Re: Thank you...

        I second the request for more LTUE ramblings. It's the next-best thing to being there.
  • According to Mr. Pournelle writing is the hard part. No one likes to write, they like to have written, but not the actual process of writing.

    You know, this isn't true. I'll agree that writing is hard. And I've certainly written things that I didn't enjoy writing -- writing Prophecy is the hardest thing I've ever done, and I didn't enjoy doing large portions of it.

    But the book I'm writing now -- I really enjoy writing it. Some of the parts have been a bit of a slog, true. But for most of it, I've enjoyed writing it. I grin with delight at the notion that I can go home from work and write the next bit. I giggle over the dialogue I've just written, and daydream about the parts that are yet to come. I know a man who was a midlist author in the 1970s, and he had the same experience doing Nanowrimo one year: he loved writing his latest novel. He wanted to get up early to work on it, and stay up late to write more, and thought about during his breaks at work.

    Writing can be like that, too: something that's just plain fun.
    • Actually, what Jerry said was that he's only ever known ONE author who LIKED to write, and that was Isaac Asimov. Everybody else liked to HAVE WRITTEN.

      I agree with him, in that I think folks who write well, and like to have written are more common by far than folks who write well and like to write.

      --Howard
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