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
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?
(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
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
(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
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
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. :-)
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.
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
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
And (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
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!!
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
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! :-).
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
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.
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
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
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. :-)
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.
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
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. :-)
What piece of parting advice would you give to aspiring
AB - One word:
Persistence. Persistence in writing, all the time;
persistence in trying to learn and improve; persistence
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