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    Interview with Andrew Burt
Interview by Lee Masterson


Andrew Burt Ph.D. is a man with a lot going on in his life. The founder and moderator of Critters -- the amazingly successful online critique group -- Dr. Burt is also a published author, a teacher, an active member in almost all facets of the writing community, CEO of a company, general e-guru and not afraid to share his opinions on all of the above! You can check out Andrew's personal website here:
http://www.aburt.com or visit Critters at http://www.critters.org

Fiction Factor - You seem to be involved in so many activities at once, that one has to wonder how you find time to write anything at all! Amid the work on Critters, the Northern Colorado Writer's Workshop, writing computer programs, contributing to the SFWA, and much more besides, how do you find time to keep the creative spark alive?

Andrew Burt - (And I'm CEO of a company I founded, and do assorted other things too! :-)

So -- Good question! I guess what makes me happiest is when I'm juggling lots of balls. Then my brain can choose which to work on and still make progress on something useful while it recharges for the others. Writing helps me keep a good balance of right & left brain activities.

The second part of the answer is that I love to ponder the Big Questions, the "what is it to be human?" and "what is intelligence?". Art is one of the elements I don't see much of in other animal species (though I think it -is- present, but we either can't recognize it or choose not to look too hard; but if not a matter of kind, then at least of degree, humans spend a lot more time on world-altering art than is noticeable of other creatures). Thus, I think a lot about how art works, the process behind it, etc.

There are other factors than art that are in the same boat, and while I think about them all, I don't necessarily practice them as hobbies, so I suppose a third answer is needed. That would be that I like to think about the future, solving problems, improving things, etc. And thus science fiction had a natural attraction for me since childhood. I can't remember a time when I *wasn't* into SF of one form or another. When I was an early teenager there's this silly newspaper article about me where I said I wanted to get a Ph.D. and be a science fiction writer. (I've accomplished that, but fortunately the latter is a wide landscape, leaving lots more yet to do!) So part of it is that I just love science fiction. I write SF because I genuinely enjoy it and want to be a science fiction writer.

And the final part of the answer is that most of the non writing but writing related work, like workshops, articles on craft, etc., stem mostly from my own desire to understand what makes the best SF work, coupled with my "anal"ly analytic style of logically dissecting how things work, like, Art. Despite a friend who dismisses it with, "It's just Art, man" -- and with whom I agree that the effectiveness of art on the viewer can't be built in parts -- I do believe art can be understood, and the artist can create the impact with deliberation, and knowledge of cause and effect of artistic tools. So, I study those, which thus leads to workshops and so forth.

Then there's the whole social aspect, since art is a largely solo activity, yet humanity is a social creature, so artists need watering holes, etc. Me as much as anyone else.

(And for those looking for more, I also run the Black Holes response time tracker,
http://www.critters.org/blackholes , a resources page for writers & critiquing, http://www.critters.org/lib.html , and the CritFinder, a page for folks to find or announce in-person critique groups, http://www.critters.org/critfinder .)

FF - For those readers who are not so familiar with your work, could you tell us a little about your fiction writing?

AB - I've one published novel, Noontide Night, a "what if" cyber-warfare sort of book, and several dozen short stories here and about. The stories are all over the map on content and style, but being a computer science professor I guess a lot of them have to do with various aspects of artificial intelligence, human enhancement, etc. But I also love humor, and galactic empires, and... well, all the trappings of SF. :-)

And while I'm a complete SF nut, I also love well written "non-genre" fiction, and I try to incorporate what works there into my work. The whole split is unfortunate between speculative fiction and "ordinary" aka "literary" aka "mainstream" (which are really all different things in my mind, but, you know what I mean) that stems from, well, Henry James and his disputes with folks like H.G. Wells. I like to see that chasm narrowed and bridged, and thus I personally study how to meld the two, and search for works that do meld them.

The New Wave of the 60s took a swing at it from the style point of view, but the biggest rift now that I see is in the realm of characterization. SF generally featuring <ta da!> Generic Man! I've done a couple studies on what makes for enduring fiction, both in the SFnal genres and the "mainstream." I've found (with quantitative evidence :-) that enduring fiction, both SFnal and not, favors depth of characterization (though by different margins, so there's no argument that SF needs go as far as the typical "Oprah" book :-). This argues against the use of Generic Man! as the protagonist in SF. Yet he's easy to create (or rather, not create, since he's mostly a product of omission). Another similar conclusion I've documented is that interpersonal relationships are another pillar of enduring fiction. (Though I'd classify much "non-genre" fiction as actually a genre, which I'd propose calling "interpersonal fiction"! It's as specific as any genre, it just got lucky and got the title "fiction" instead of being qualified like the others. :-)

FF - Can you offer our readers a sneak-peek of what work of fiction will be released next?

AB - Actually, the above rambling about what it is to be human is the core of a short story I sold to Sherwood Smith's anthology for SFF.Net, "Beyond the Last Star."

I'm working on an Asimovian robot story this week, and on a novel about some of the hard choices I see humanity facing in the near future, with an underlying theme of what it is to be human.

FF - What pros and cons can you see that surround the e-publishing industry, and how do you envision the future of e-publishing?

AB - As much of a champion of e-everything that I am (I was proselytizing the net back in the early 80s(!) and am the founder of the world's first free Internet service provider), ultimately, alas, I don't see e-publishing gaining mass-market popularity until the readers are fully equivalent to books. By that I mean, with thin pages you can physically turn and flip rapidly through, in a package that's the size & weight of a book. Books have come to be the shape and way they are after a thousand plus years not just by accident, and not just because other methods weren't practical -- the size of a book could be anything, but we've pretty well settled on the general sizes we have now because they're comfortable and usable. The idea of many sheets bound at one edge idea (vs. say, a scroll, even a scroll in a box, or bound at the bottom, or triangular, tiny print on fewer number of sheets) is probably as close to the "ideal" form factor for a human to read as we can get.

The ideal I see is e-paper, bound in book form. While using control-F to search is great, so is thumbing through a book by chunks of pages looking at random headings as they flip by. Pressing buttons doesn't have the same utility (nice as an extra, but not as a replacement). Being able to stick your finger, or a physical thing like a paperclip or sticky note on a page to make it physically easy to return to a place just isn't as ergonomic as a sticky-note icon and pressing a button (though those are nice additions). Having several books open at once spread across a desk is much nicer than trying to share one reader, or one small screen with a bunch of windows. And of course there's the usual issues of font clarity, resolution, contrast, etc. But those are easier to solve than providing the physicality of flipping pages.

I see e-paper being viable within ten years (versions of it already exist in labs). Then I imagine blank e-books will be sold of various shapes & number of pages so you can fill them with what you want.

At *that* point, I see e-publishing really taking off, and replacing tree-paper books like CDs replaced LPs and as DVDs are now replacing video tape. In fact, "taking off" is probably the wrong word -- since the "e-" will simply fall off and that will be "publishing."

I see big changes for publishers at that point, since the production and distribution costs drop dramatically. And you'll have the Noise problem -- how to tell the small amount of quality from the oceans of dreck. When everybody can self-publish, from Aunt Minnie's musings on watching paint dry to Stephen King, the role of the publisher changes rather a bit. They'll have to become:
(a) brand names [Ooh, a book from Tor, that means it'll be good], not just using authors as brand names and relying on sheer existence of the books to "sell" new authors (i.e., selling a first novel to Tor today means you won't get any real marketing push, but the fact that your book will indeed be on the shelf at Barnes & Noble for a while means somebody might see it; when the playing field is leveled, cost-wise, and everybody is just as accessible, new authors will get lost if nobody active markets them).
(b) they'll have to become purveyors of quality -- if the stuff they put out isn't significantly better than what Aunt Minnie puts out herself, then nobody will pay much attention to Tor as a brand name.
(c), they'll have to spend money marketing their product. This is the real crunch: Advertising space is a limited commodity (only so many seconds of time during the super bowl, etc.), so the price goes up as there's more demand. If you want to sell a new author's book and there's a sea of dreck, you have to wave it in front of a lot of people's faces, which will thus cost money -- and only the "real" publishers (the ones with lots of money compared to Aunt Minnie) will be able to afford that.

This likely means "real" publishers will advertise their brand name in addition to specific authors, though I doubt they'll put much push behind each new author as a name. But they will have to spend more on marketing than they do now, since there will be a lot more competition.

The upside for a new author is that they can publish their own work and use word of mouth to generate sales, which will be much easier than now (no shipping or printing costs, instant reader gratification by downloading something right away, etc.)

It also means anyone who has built a following, if they don't like the marketing they're getting (say, Stephen King), they can be their own engines of marketing, and go solo. Publishers will have to be a little nicer to the authors that make them money :-) but may also decide that franchises (Battle-tech, Star Trek, etc.) are less finicky brand names than authors. I.e., there is a market segment that'll eat up the same shlock, as long as it's the same taste, regardless who writes it.

Amazon.com's future is interesting in this light. Their best bet is to be a referral service -- the "if you liked X, then you'll like Y" shtick. When there's no barrier to entry, and everybody's publishing material that's as easy to read as a book today, the ones making the money will be those who can actively gain interest in their produce on a large scale. That'll be tough.

Even so, I can't wait for it!!

FF - Your critique/workshop site, Critters (http://www.critters.org), is an increasingly impressive, well-organized mini-community all to itself. It offers an amazingly professional, free critiquing service for beginners and established writers alike. What prompted you to create the site?

AB - I wanted critiques. :-) I'd just returned to writing, and though I never considered the existence of such an idea as workshops before, I heard Connie Willis talk at a convention about the one she was part of. I ultimately joined and ran that one (the abovementioned NCWW), but at the time, they weren't taking members (certainly not seriously unpublished ones :-).

Some of us at the panel tried to start one, but only three people showed for the first meeting, as I recall, and there was no second one. I thought aha! there must be one on the net somewhere (this was when the web was just barely starting (though of course the Internet was well established), so I hunted around -- found one! -- and it collapsed during the first set of stories. So I thought, gosh darn it, I can create one of these on the baby-web, done via email so nobody is excluded, and up it went. I figured it wouldn't be terribly popular, so I started labeling stories A, B, C..., figuring they'd loop around. But I could within a few months it was going to grow a wee bit bigger, so I started numbering manuscripts, and automating as much as I could. We just passed 6,000 recently, and are nearing 100,000 critiques processed, something like 50,000,000 words of critique (say, 500 books worth).

I'm a sort of software wizardy guy, so I just keep automating things as they get to be a drudge. I'd say Critters takes less than an hour of week of my time, and I keep it running since I'm a strong believer in community service, and Critters seems to help people (some rough statistical analysis I did showed Critters are about ten times more likely to make sales than non-critters, but that doesn't prove cause and effect! :-).

FF - Currently boasting more than 3000 members, Critters is one of the largest critiquing groups in the world. Has its growth and popularity surprised you?

AB - Well, yeah. I was figuring less than a hundred members when I started out!

I'm not sure how many people out there are actually writing SF (complete stories, not just dabbling), but some rough guesses I've made (and they're purely that) are that around 15% of all serious SF writers have tried Critters. (And counting. :-) The retention rate seems fairly high too, if you count members who drift back after a hiatus.

In retrospect, I can see how a critique group can be popular, since it's great to get reader feedback before the readers (and editors) see your work.

FF - You have said that you believe the act of critiquing someone else's manuscript can be as valuable to a writer as having their own manuscript critiqued by others. Can you elaborate on this concept?

AB - I do indeed believe that. It's a corollary to the standard advice of "read everything" in the sense that both suggestions are geared at getting you thinking about what works and what doesn't in other people's work. When you start analyzing why you didn't think Pat's story is The Best Story You Ever Read, a Hugo and Nebula shoo-in, and you start finding out "why not?" (for your own opinion as a reader), then you start getting a habit of seeing what's working and not in your own writing.

I especially like analyzing the enduring classics, to see what they do right (and maybe wrong) to gain an understanding of my own craft. Wasn't it T.S. Eliot who said, "Good writers borrow, great writers steal"? :-) (Steal technique in this case, not words.)

But that habit of looking critically at work is a terrific one, sort of an inner eye making suggestions as you write.

FF - Critters is currently open only to Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror writers as far as submissions are concerned. Is there any reason you choose to concentrate on these three genres?

AB - Mostly because they're so similar; they're all "speculative fiction." And because that's what I like to write, ok, guilty as charged.

I probably will expand Critters to all genres (though I will most definitely call the one category "interpersonal fiction" rather than "mainstream"! :-) but it'll be a few years until I think I'm ready to modify all the software and handle the deluge of new members (triple in size maybe?), and also decide how much integration there should be. Right now with SF, F, and H being generally similar, folks don't gripe much about getting a random "other" story -- e.g., if someone likes SF and they get a random Horror story emailed to them, they don't sweat it. But if everything is three times larger... it's tricky. The usual comment from genre writers who are/were members of "general" workshops is that they felt the non-genre reader didn't "get" SF, so it didn't work as well. Critters might be optimally focused as SF/F/H, and maybe there should be a sibling workshop for the others... but either way, it's more work than I can handle right now.

(I definitely do think writers should -read- all the other genres, and learn to critique them, that this helps their writing. Like I said above, I think SF, for instance, can greatly benefit from associating with the interpersonal genre, the dreaded Oprah books. :-)

FF - Are there any firm taboos for manuscripts submitted to the group -- any subject or style that isn't allowed?

AB - Not in the end. Since there are minors in the group, I do ask that anything "for mature audiences" be sent only to adults rather than made available to the whole group (using the same "mini group" concept that novels get, the "RFDR" or "Request for Dedicated Reader" idea, where the author sends out a request for readers instead of sending out their actual manuscript; then they all sort of spin off into a temporary dedicated critique group for that one piece).

But there're no guidelines on form or content (okay, other than being SF, Fantasy, or Horror). We've had poetry, screenplays, etc.

FF - Throughout the Critters site, you seem to promote a real sense of community. How important do you think this sense of community spirit is, both to Critters and to writers in general?

AB - Very important to me, personally. I feel writers benefit from association with lots of people, and their craft and marketing can benefit from association with lots of other writers. Since writers are often the more solitary types, it's great to let steam off, have a (virtual) pizza, chat about whatever. Many writers are sharp in other areas, and you can learn a lot hanging around them. Becomes a sort of extended family. I know when Ed Bryant went in for an emergency heart procedure, and a close friend asked me to notify a few friends of his, his mailbox was buried under an avalanche of well-wishing replies from other writers and editors. (He came through fine.) A workshop shouldn't be -just- a support group, but it's great if it can offer that.

I've met a bunch of Critters in person, at cons and such, and I hope never to have the following statement disproved, but, so far, I can honestly say that of all the many kinds of groups I've been associated with, hundreds, including untold thousands of people, I have never met a nicer bunch of folks than the ones in Critters. They get full credit for making Critters what it is. I just try not to mung it up. :-)

FF - What piece of parting advice would you give to aspiring authors?

AB - One word: Persistence. Persistence in writing, all the time; persistence in trying to learn and improve; persistence in marketing.

FF - Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to answer our questions.

AB - My pleasure! Now to everyone reading this: Get back to writing! :-)

Copyright 2002 Lee Masterson. All rights reserved


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