10 Things I Learned About Life from Writing at Tor.com

As of today, May 31st, 2013, I am putting on my space helmet, opening the airlock and leaving the stubby rocketship of Tor.com. In pursuit of various projects, I will, after today, no longer be the staff writer at Tor.com, a position that I’ve been in since February of 2011! I also started on Tor.com as a freelance blogger in August of 2010, making my association with the site just shy of three years. In addition to the 300+ pieces I’ve written here, I’ve also frequently been the voice of Stubby the Rocket (many of us are, but I’ve done the vast majority of the Morning Roundups and several news posts) and also the curator of Genre in the Mainstream, and the organizer of a bunch of theme weeks including Holmes for the Holidays, Monster Mash, Tor.com Goes Ape, Sea Monster Week, Countdown to Prometheus, Ghost Week, and Dinosaur Week.

You’ll see me around the blog again from time to time, but as I head out into the nebulous future, here’s a list of the best stuff I learned.

10. Reviewing Doctor Who on Christmas is weird

From 2010’s “A Christmas Carol” through 2012’s “The Snowmen” I have spent some portion of Christmas day watching the Doctor Who X-mas special and then turning around a writing a review. Twice I had a collaborator, once there was whiskey involved, and this past year I was solo. It’s a strange Christmas tradition because while feeling warm and fuzzy, you’re also possibly slamming a silly sci-fi TV show for being more silly than normal. Famously, neither Chris Lough or I liked “The Doctor, The Widow, and The Wardrobe,” and then we had to say why, which sort of, I think, bummed us out. At least enough to want to destroy each other afterwards via GoldenEye. (P.S. Everyone at Tor.com always WANTS to like Doctor Who, it’s just that we get into fights about it so often!) Anyway, I think reviewing Doctor Who on Christmas is fun, but I always end up feeling a little like the Grinch, only I’m stealing my own Christmas. I give it back sometimes, but only sometimes.

9. Theme weeks are fun, especially when they’re about dinosaurs

As I mentioned, I organized a bunch of the theme weeks in the past two years, and I fucking love them. That is, I always think I love them until I realize what a huge amount of work is involved. Trust me, if you loved Ghost Week, or Sea Monster Week, you should have seen what they looked like in my brain playground. Creating giant paper maché sea monster floats and parading them in front of the Flatiron building was always on the table, in my mind. For Ghost Week, doing a séance and seeing if we could commission Mark Twain to write a new story seemed like a good idea. Tragically, we can only do what is possible on the Internet, which means we can’t track down Irene Adler’s living relatives or ask Daft Punk to remix the song “The Monster Mash.” But we did do Dinosaur Week, which really, I will always be proud of. I’ve had a lot of toy dinosaurs in my life and I was happy to learn the Internet loves dinos as much as I do.

8. Most science fiction fans don’t care about Lena Dunham or Woody Allen

If you’ve ever seen the film Free Enterprise you might remember the scene in which one of the characters defends the fact that Star Wars lost to Woody Allen’s Annie Hall for Best Picture at the 1978 Academy Awards. I agree with that character. I’ve seen the classic Star Wars more times than is remotely healthy and I know a shitload about it but, as a grown up, Annie Hall is totally my favorite movie.

I love the chatty, screwed-up neurotic protagonists who are constantly finding ways to screw up their own lives, which is also why I love Lena Dunham. A recent conversation in the Tor.com office had us sorting characters from other franchises into Hogwarts houses, which is where it became apparent that the characters from Girls and from Woody Allen films are often going to end up in Hufflepuff. In genre fiction you can’t really have main characters who are Hufflepuffs. But in other fiction, you can and often do! Is this why most science fiction fans don’t care about Lena Dunham or Woody Allen? I don’t know. Maybe I’m just insane. And a Hufflepuff. Anyway, sorry for trying to push Girls and Woody Allen onto all of you!

7. Babylon 5 fans are out there! (You just have to say hello)

As a teenager, I totally thought it was so punk to be into Babylon 5 instead of blindly following whatever Star Trek was doing. Yes, I was among those haters who believed Deep Space Nine had ripped off B5 (a notion which seems less clear to me now. Also, not important. Both shows rock!) and yes, I worried a lot about whether the show was going to get canceled from season to season. B5 introduced me to Harlan Ellison and J. Michael Straczynski and Neil Gaiman and for that alone, it’s influence on me is startling.

But, Babylon 5 also had an interesting and tender little fandom, one I was happy to learn is still out there. Last fall, I wrote a piece about how B5 fans were some of the first on the Internet and a ton of old-school Babylon 5 fans came out in support of the essay! It was great to learn people still love that show. Sure, the production values are a little embarassing now, but the epic quality and excellent charater arcs still makes B5 one of the coolest TV shows around. I’m glad I’m not all alone (in the night.)

She's been to Earth. She didn't care for it.

She’s been to Earth. She didn’t care for it.

6. People love weird mash-ups

Downton AbbeyBattlestar Galactica? Check. Owen Wilson as Khan? You got it. Bane hanging out at Hogwarts? Done. Many times have I begged the Tor.com production manager Chris to make me an amazing Photoshop image to go with a crazy article I’d written. Sometimes he did them on his own. Other times, I found amazing mash-ups done by others, on other websites. The Muppets as Doctor Who characters. Star Trek mashed-up with The Life Aquatic, the Green Ranger as some kind of Great Gatsby character and on and on. Whether they were mash-ups generated by us at Tor.com or ones we found and put up on Tor.com, the notion of colliding universes will forever be a part of me. Fun fact: I like calling mash-ups “Tuvix-ing” because in that one Star Trek: Voyager episode Neelix and Tuvok get mashed-up into a creature called Tuvix. I talk about Tuvix all the time in the office and it drives Emily and Chris nuts. Tuvix.

5. Your friends will read your articles, surprise you by quoting stuff you wrote

Though many of my friends are super interested in big geek topics like superheroes and spaceships, not all of my friends are self-identifying geeks. This makes it all the more jarring when one of them occasionally quotes something I’d written in a Tor.com article back at me. Or tell me my “insight” about Star Wars was “right on.” It’s also strange to find out which articles appeal to certain people. I was a little blown away when one particular friend, who hadn’t written me in months, suddenly sent me an e-mail calling me a “damn dirty ape” because she loved my Planet of the Apes movie rewatches. Just this week, I saw another friend on the streets of Manhattan who literally was just like “hell ya, where’s the Melville references in Star Trek Into Darkness?” This is the magic of the Internet. This is one thing I’ll miss about being a blogger here.

Actual comment from my mom. Poor Dave is actually a good friend of mine. (For real)

Actual comment from my mom. Poor Dave is actually a good friend of mine. (For real)

4. Your mom will comment on your articles

Tor.com regulars may already be aware of this, but my mother, Rebecca Britt, is a fairly frequent commenter on the site. Her handle is actually “Your Mom.” So yeah, my mom’s commenting username is basically the equivalent of a schoolyard taunt, which she’s getting away with because it happens to describe what she really is. The first time this happened, our community and editorial manager Bridget McGovern had to check with me to make sure “Your Mom” was not really an Internet troll screwing with us. Is my mom aware of this irony? There’s really no way to know.


3. Don’t fight Nyan Cat

There’s a lot of weird shit on the Internet that I just don’t understand. Or perhaps I choose not to understand, like I’m Amy Pond pressing that button in the space whale city or I’m a character in an Ursula Le Guin story who is choosing to be stupid to avoid depression. Anyway. I used to really, really, really hate Nyan Cat. Everything about it infuriated me, but the thing I disliked the most was how inexplicable it was. Why the song? Why the rainbow? Why does Nyan Cat kind of look like a bar of soap? The responses to these questions were always just, “It’s Nyan Cat,” as though just saying the creature’s name excused its idiocy.

Production manager Chris Lough knew of this dislike and as a result, would often torture me by randomly playing Nyan Cat in the background. He would start very softly—so maybe I was just hearing it in my head?—and eventually the volume would reach such a thunderous point that it felt like my entire existence was Nyan Cat. What can I say? Stockholm Syndrome is real, people. I now love Nyan Cat.

Me and Lev Grossman last spring at Word Bookstore

Me and Lev Grossman last spring at Word Bookstore

2. Interviewing amazing people is its own reward

In writing about science fiction and literature, some of the folks I’ve interviewed over the years have become bona-fide friends (Victor Lavalle, Lev Grossman and Karen Russell, I’m talking to you!) while others were just amazing people to speak to (like Nicholas Meyer.)

At Tor.com I got to chat with an amazing array of authors and personalities. From my main man Lev Grossman, to John Landis, to Harlan Ellison, to Joseph Caldwell, to Jeff and Ann Vandermeer with Walter Mosley and on and on. Whether these conversations occurred live on a panel, or over the phone, or over e-mail or in person and transcribed later, the experiences always reminded me of one specific thing: this is why I do this. Connecting with other writers and creators in the weird formal setting of an interview or panel discussion might be contrived, but these were the moments when my mind was most open to new possibilities. Last year at New York Comic Con I got to talk to folks from Blastr, Bleeding Cool, io9, The Mary Sue, and Boing Boing all about the things we all do day-to-day. (Craig, Rich, Cyriaque, Jill, and Jamie. We had the best time!)

NYCC 2012 Panel. Jamie Frevele, Craig Engler,Cyriaque Lamar, Rich Johnston. Not pictured: Me and Jill Pantozi

NYCC 2012 Panel. Jamie Frevele, Craig Engler,Cyriaque Lamar, Rich Johnston. Not pictured: Me and Jill Pantozi

This might be the most fun I’ve ever had as the staff writer at Tor.com; the Internet got together and talked about all the stuff we like talking about. Again, moments like this can make you feel like the universe might not suck as much as people try to tell you it does.

Tor.com command staff as of summer 2012: Carl Engle-Laird, Chris Lough, Emmet Asher-Perrin (front), Bridget McGovern (back), Ryan Britt, Irene Gallo, Nicole Macajoux

Tor.com command staff as of summer 2012: Carl Engle-Laird, Chris Lough, Emmet Asher-Perrin (front), Bridget McGovern (back), Ryan Britt, Irene Gallo, Nicole Macajoux

1. Listen to other people, especially the crazy voices in your head

Working on staff at a publication is not the same as writing articles on commission and sending them in. Here, there’s a boiler room of crazy insanity where Emmet Asher-Perrin is doing Ewok noises, Chris is quoting super-obscure Ghostbusters lines, while Bridget McGovern sends e-mails out with references to Zardoz. Every once and awhile, our awesome boss Irene Gallo will send an e-mail to everyone containing only punctuations marks. This is a madhouse.

And yet. I’ve learned so much about the collaborative process here that it’s nearly terrifying to think about being on my own again. In the first year, I was far more resistant to changes to my pieces than was probably reasonable. (If Harlan Ellison were Tuvix-ed with Oasis, that’s how I see myself. I’m defiant often for the sake of it.) But, over time, being forced to clarify, or fix my articles and essays made me better. Admitting we’re wrong is hard, but admitting your wrong about Star Trek is even harder. It’s a gift I got from this rocket I’ll not soon forget.

Paradoxically, my personal brand of wackiness was nurtured here. While we can predict what people on the Internet will often like, someone has to create the idea to write the piece in the first place. In my case that meant saying, “What if no one in Star Wars can actually read?” and then being encouraged to write about it. (Also Star Trek People Drinking Coffee.)

Those voices in my head are often ghosts of my childhood, and though Tor.com claims to be about Life, the Universe and Related Subjects, for me the most related subject of all is fulfilling one’s childhood dreams. I always wanted my imagination to pay the bills. And for a while, aboard this space ship, it did.

Thank you.

Me with Kelsey Ann Barrett (The Doctor) and Emmet Asher-Perrin (River Song) at NYC Comic Con 2011

Me with Kelsey Ann Barrett (The Doctor) and Emmet Asher-Perrin (River Song) at NYC Comic Con 2011

Ryan Britt has been the Staff Writer for Tor.com and is so, so sorry that he has to go.


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