Nothing cool about modest ambitions

I’m attending my first conference of writers of any sort, and it isn’t surprising I am having an eye opening experience. The Science Fiction Writers Association is about to hand out this year’s Nebula Awards, and this is something I’ve followed since I was a teenager. Let others care about country music and Broadway plays; I was interested way back when in who wrote the best science fiction.

The organization has publishing standards for membership, and I only qualify as an associate member. This conference is open to non-members, too, but given the cost and programming, you don’t attend unless you are serious about writing speculative fiction. So I really am surrounded by three hundred people all doing or trying to do what I spend my time doing. It scares and excites me.

It also brings my “why do I write” quandary front and center and forces me to confront the part of my dreams I seldom speak of openly. I already know it is admirable and interesting to not care about making money, or to pretend not to care, as the case may be. Being an artist who is driven to create for the sheer joy of it has great appeal. Greed is ugly. Creativity is cool.

Yet, we also have a cultural fascination with being rich, and everyone admires success. To be driven is admirable. To say I believe in my books and trust they will someday be best sellers is also cool. Who doesn’t like a fighter determined to make it to the big time?

Wouldn’t you know it. I’m not either of these kinds of cool.

It is my impression that most if not all of the other writers at this SFWA Nebula Conference want to be successful, and the more successful the better. Those that only care about the pure act of creating have stayed home, or not joined this organization to begin with. Panels on how to sell one’s work abound and I’ve gone to quite a few of them.

Here is my little secret. I want to make money from my books,  just not a lot of it. I want a modest amount of success. As I move into full retirement, I’d like my writing to be there for me, providing a steady stream of play money while not really changing my life. Neither starving artist nor world famous author suits me nearly as well as mediocre success. That’s what I really want. It’s not something you can tell people.

My books started out on a reasonable trajectory to do just that, by the way, but in the noisy market of ever more sparkly self-published books, sales have already fallen below the level of play money, unless one is willing to count a nice lunch out a month as sufficient play. It isn’t for me. I was hoping for something between a dinner at a really nice restaurant every couple of weeks and a couple of trips a year to somewhere exotic. Maybe both. I’m not selling myself short; I’m going for what I actually want, uncool as it is.

Here’s the problem. The last couple of days have made me aware that I am unlikely to find even this modest financial fulfillment unless I make some changes. Those wiser and more successful at this self-publishing thing have told me it can work if, and only if, I plug myself more firmly into genre sales. I need to define what I write (superhero books? urban fantasy? metaphysical fiction?). Then I need to research what other books in this genre look like and I need covers that look like my genre. Then, I need names for my books that define them as being in my genre. Then I need to reissue them.

No one, at this point, has told me I have to rewrite the books themselves, which is good news because I’m not sure I’d be willing to do so, even as I fear lovers of superheros or urban fantasy will find my books lacking in the dazzle they expect. But maybe not.

I’ll never know if I don’t try. My books have more than met my first three reasons for writing, leaving me entertained, saner and more knowledgeable. Can they also provide me with an unimpressive but noticeable amount of play money? I hope so. Guess I’m going to try to find out.

Speaking of being cool, that ties into my fifth reason for writing. Ironic, huh? How did my muse become so entangled in such contradictory desires? I’ll try to sort it out in my next post.

(Read more about why I write at The Number One Reason I Write Books,  My Eye-opening Second Reason for Writing, I write because it’s cheaper than therapy, I love to be loved and Remember My Name.)

 

 

Review: The Three-Body Problem

I received this book as a gift from someone who knows me well and shares my tastes in science fiction. He kept eagerly asking if I’d started it yet, but something about the book held me back. It’s big, it’s translated from Chinese, and has physics and geometry all over the cover. “I’ll read it next,” I kept saying.

Next finally came, and I loved this book. I loved the unexpected ideas, the unusual perspective and the way it made me think about issues large and small. I have a fond spot for stories that give me insights into other parts of the world, and for characters who plausibly behave in ways I cannot imagine myself doing. This book has all that and more.

What I liked best (besides all of the above):

  1. I’m not so big on historical fiction, but the window into China’s cultural revolution of the 60’s was fascinating, and it shows some chilling parallels to the wave of populism currently sweeping the west.
  2. The author allows this tale to develop at it’s own pace. He tells it in a non-linear fashion, going back and forth in time more than once, letting the reader learn more with each visit. This worked well for me and I appreciated the lack of gimmicks often used by other authors to grab and hold the attention of a reader. Cixin Liu has a tale worth telling and he knows it.
  3. The science is amazing, and to the best of my limited knowledge, accurate.
  4. The number of women scientists in this story is unusual and refreshing. I wonder: does this reflect reality in China, or the needs of the story, or the  desire of the author? Why-ever, it was a pleasant plus for me.
  5. I had little appreciation for the challenges of translating such a story, bridging not only the gulf between vastly different languages, but between different perspectives, backgrounds and knowledge of history. The translator, Ken Liu, does an excellent job with subtle, short footnotes intended to provide just enough context to the western reader.
  6. Most significantly, just when I thought there could not possibly be a significantly new variation on a first contact story, this came along. I feel like blurbs on this book already give away too much of the story, so I will only say I’m impressed with the originality of Liu’s approach. It will leave you thinking.

What I didn’t like so much:

  1. Liu doesn’t spend a lot of time inside his character’s heads, showing the reader the emotional motivation for their behavior. This sparseness works, for the most part, but a little more would have been nice.
  2. I said the science is amazing, and it is, but some narrative devices used at the very end pushed my limits of credibility.

I recommend this book to anyone who likes stories that inform while they entertain, and/or books that encourage them to think.

Two personal notes:

  1. Having written d4, a book of my own about the survival of the human race and how our behavior now could impact our fate in a few hundred years, I felt something of a connection with this tale and it probably resulted in my liking this book even more.
  2. I was impressed by both the author and the translator’s postscripts for the American edition at the end of the book. Both were insightful, but this particular passage from the author sticks with me:

But I cannot escape and leave behind reality, just like I cannot leave behind my shadow. Reality brands each of us with its indelible mark. Every era puts invisible shackles on those who have lived through it, and I can only dance in my chains.

Yeah. What he said.

After I read the passage above, I would have liked any book the man had written.

If I’d only known then …

I’m making an effort to get out more. Specifically, I’m working to engage with other writers, both in person and online. I want to broaden my base of knowledge before I start on my next writing project, one I hope will keep me happily making up stories for many years.

It occurred to me today, while listening to a woman describe to us how she sold her first novel to HarperCollins, that much of what writers crave to know is “what do you know now, that you wish you’d known then.” We give this advice, and we ask it of others, almost endlessly.

I found myself visiting with the woman next to me, who is on chapter one of her first book. “Who is it you are writing for?” I asked her. It’s a question I wish I’d spent more time pondering, back when I was in her shoes. If I’d only known then how helpful that question is. I tell her so, and she nods in appreciation. She is doing what we are all doing at this meeting –  gathering little grains of information from others to soften our learning curves.

Our speaker is Heather Newton, author of Under the Mercy Trees, a book about a southern family. She lives nearby, and published Under the Mercy Trees in 2011 after spending years writing it. She is now sending her second novel to an agent to market.

Yikes. I started writing in 2011 and have written six books since them. I’m certain mine are not of the same literary quality, but I wince when I hear her best nugget of what she wishes she’d known back then. That’s right, she thinks she rushed too much, and sent her first book out before it was the best it could be, squandering opportunities to impress. There is a wisdom in that, of course.

One of the oddities of self-publishing, especially electronic books, is that it can be a never ending process. Hidden typos that reveal themselves can be fixed at any time, and all recipients point forward get the improved manuscript. The first time I made such a fix I felt guilty, like I was cheating by correcting something supposedly etched in stone.

I’ve long since gotten over that. Why penalize myself and my readers for having missed something initially? It serves no purpose.

In my case, my books were born with links to supplemental material, such as music and photography that tied into the story. I thought it was clever and fun, but it gummed up the works for some readers and turned out to be almost impossible to maintain. So, over the last couple of years, I’ve been going back and eliminating the links and the references to them. In the process, I clean other things up too, as I find them, because why not.

I am almost done with this process on d4, the last of the books to contain links. I’m pleased with the result, and will probably do some advertising and giveaways to celebrate this new and improved manuscript. What a shame I couldn’t have gotten this final version in front of my initial readers. Wouldn’t those reviews be better? More copies have been sold?

I can’t go back in time, any more than I can see the future, no matter how often I write about characters who can. Would I have written better books if I’d only known then what I know now? Of course I would. Hell, I’d have lived a whole better life with that kind of knowledge.

Or, at least I like to think I would have.

 

 

A better word than loyalty?

I know exactly what the theme of my fifth novel is, but I can’t find a word for it and I’m even having trouble finding a phrase to describe it. In my mind, it sits across the circle, and the color wheel, from the bright orange joy of being yourself and doing your thing and enjoying your life. That’s a wonderful concept, but we all know that there is another side.

There is the runner in a race who pauses to help another up. There are the first responders charging into a burning building and the social worker who stays after hours to see that a few more will get what they need. There are the soldiers who serve, and the elderly who look out for the others in a retirement facility. There is anyone who stops their own pursuit of happiness long enough to tend to the greater good.

I’m not talking about compassion or empathy. Those are important and wonderful, but they are a one-on-one phenomena. I’m trying to describe a sense of duty or honor that transcends a single interaction or one other person.  At various times I’ve called it concern, responsibility, duty, honor and loyalty. I know that it involves ministering to, caring for, serving and protecting all who need it. It’s about doing what needs to be done.

I realize that what I’m trying to describe is not a fun concept, but it is one that matters. We all know in our hearts that there is a time to do what’s right for everyone, not just you.

When I  came up with the word loyalty, I was sure that I did not mean loyalty to ones nation or family or hometown. That got me thinking. Loyalty to what? I finally realized that what I was trying to describe was a sense of commitment to humanity in general. That really is what d4 is about. Commitment to our mutual survival as a species.

No. We don’t seem to have a word for that, or even a good phrase for it. At least not yet. Given how things are going, I think we really need one.

(For more thoughts on words we need, see A better word than peace?, A better word than joy?, A better word than hope? and A better word than courage?)

 

Seeking the Heart of the Song

I’m getting d4 ready for publication at Smashwords.com. This always takes longer than I think it will. The formatting requirements are more rigorous than those at Amazon.com and with my first three books I gave up and had a very nice people at Stunning Books handle the formatting for me. It was money well spent, to be honest, but I’m a stubborn sort and I was determined to learn to do it myself eventually.

Ellie GouldingThe other issue with Smashwords is checking the links, and removing any that Smashwords affiliates will not allow. Usually forbidden links involve direct connections to other booksellers such as Amazon. This is a problem for me because the electronic versions of all of my novels contain references to nine songs, intended to be a sort of soundtrack featuring some of the favorite music of the main character in the novel.  When I publish the books on Kindle, I insert a link to the Amazon.com location where my readers can listen to the music. At Smashwords, this link has to go.

I’ve experimented with other solutions. I want my readers to appreciate and possibly buy music from these artists and I am mentioning the songs in my book because I really like them. For my first novels, I had the Smashwords link take the reader to a webpage or at least a good fan page for that musician. When I ran into problems finding suitable links for some, I tried connecting to a performance of the song on You Tube.

With d4 I’ve taken this a step further. For each of the songs, I’ve tried to find a live performance that I think shows a little of a the personality of the singer and the band. I’ve had a lot of fun seeking these out. Often the quality isn’t as good as the more glossy clips, but I’ve picked each video for a reason. I just love Ellie Goulding’s very human introduction to her song “Lights” at Coachella 2014. Hopefully you will too. An excerpt from the book follows.

The work portion of the trip would all be at the end, so Ariel tried to enjoy the beginning of her little vacation. She packed a few good books and her warmest clothes, and delighted in a window seat as she watched the late afternoon sun set on her way into Iceland. She found a favorite song on her mp3 player and listened to the pretty shimmer of Ellie Goulding’s voice singing “Lights” as the giant Vatnajökull glacier gleamed beneath her when the plane dipped below the clouds. Ariel thought that perhaps she had never seen anything so beautiful as the various shades of blues that glistened off of the ice in the light of a sun moving low in the winter sky while the song played softly in her mind.

She joined her group at the Reykjavik airport for the evening flight on to Nuuk. The small band of mostly Icelandic travelers was quiet, but friendly, and she felt thankful to live in both a time and place where a woman could easily travel alone. Nuuk was just a quick stopover, and the next morning they boarded the pint-sized plane for Ilulissat, the main tourist destination in Greenland.

Ariel stepped off the plane to her first view of the barren rocks mottled with bright colored lichens that make up the tundra. She had never set foot inside of the Arctic Circle before. Tiny flickers and flashes erupted as her boot touched the ground.

My premonitions are stronger here, she noticed with surprise. The cold dry air? The earth’s magnetic field? There had to be a reason. She added it to her list of things to try to figure out later.

The fact is that I started each of my novels off with a special song. Click to read about x0’s “Time After Time“, y1’s “A Whole New World“, z2’s “Fame“, and c3’s “A Texas Kind of Way“.