Video for Lydia Fair

Another little project I picked up along the way is a small video contribution to what I believe will be a very cool and probably intense and moving arts festival, coming up on April 25 at the Vineyard Church in Cambridge. It’s called Lydia Fair, and it’s bringing together artists of all stripes (painters, theater people, singers, one fiction writer that I know of—me, and heaven knows who all). The theme is Rescue, and it’s a benefit fundraiser for two organizations called Love146 and Rebuild Africa. I’m really looking forward to it; there’s tremendous artistic talent in the Vineyard community.

As for my part…I’m working on a video adaptation of the prologue to Sunborn. I’ve shortened and reworked the audio so that it sounds much better than the mp3 currently up on my website, and am using a sequence of great cosmic imagery from a variety of NASA observatories including Hubble, Chandra, SOHO, and others. A fellow named Adam, who does a lot of video work for the church, is helping me shape it into a “visualization” that we hope will evoke the story of Deeaab, as he wanders the galaxy encountering sentient suns, and wondering how he might rescue them from whatever is killing them. It’ll only be about three minutes long, but I’ve gone from thinking “Hopeless!” a week ago to thinking, “This is going to be cool.”

Afterward, my goal is to put it up online so you can all see it. In the meantime, if you live anywhere near Cambridge, Mass., you might want to check out Lydia Fair.

“We are stardust, we are golden
We are billion-year-old carbon
And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.”
—Joni Mitchell, “Woodstock”

Free Sunborn Download (Multiformat)

The weather has turned promising, I’ve emerged from tax-return and financial-aid purgatory, and it’s time for a Spring Special! Things are moving more slowly than I had hoped on the Tor ebook front, so I’m taking matters into my own hands. For a limited time, I am making Sunborn available for free download in all major ebook formats! DRM-free, now and always. So come and get it. Tell your friends! Bring your girlfriend/boyfriend and your grandmother. Bring your dog.

How long is a “limited time”? I’m not sure, but when Tor gets its ebooks out the door and into the stores, I expect these will come down.

“You must write for children the same way you write for adults, only better.” —Maxim Gorky

What’s Hard About Being a Writer?

SFSignal, from time to time, asks the same question of a bunch of writers and puts their answers together in an interesting post called MindMeld. They’ve done it again this week, and the question—posed to me, among others—was What’s the most difficult part of being a writer? (That link will take you to all the answers.)

Here’s what I said (but do go look at the others, because they’re interesting):

What’s the hardest thing about being a writer? That’s easy: Writing. Doing it, not talking about it. Not thinking about it or procrastinating to avoid doing it. Not checking the email for writing-related messages (hah). Just doing it. Putting. The words. On. The page. Damn, it’s hard sometimes. A lot of the time. Most of the time. Okay, nearly all the time. Microsoft’s patented Blue Screen of Death can’t hold a candle to the dread induced by the White Screen of No Words on the Page.

I’m not talking about writing in general, but writing a work of fiction. Creating a story out of whole cloth and telling it in words that make the reader want to come back for more. Okay, I’m not even talking about that last part—that comes more in the rewriting phase, which for me is easier. I’m talking about, Who is this character, really, and why is she angry, or scared, or passionate? I’m talking about, What comes next—and why is it interesting or unexpected or inevitable? Why should anyone care?

I got some interesting insight into the different creative tensions in writing a couple of years ago, when I was asked to write a novelization of Battlestar Galactica: the Miniseries. I had just finished a first draft of my novel Sunborn, which for a variety of reasons had been a years-long struggle. The novelization had to be done quickly. But I had a DVD of the miniseries (it had already aired), and I had a shooting script (different in many respects from the final edit). The story was there. The characters were there. I couldn’t change them, and didn’t want to change them. But I had to bring them to life. I had to add dimension and depth where I could, and I had to make scenes make sense that were fine on-screen, whizzing by at the speed of TV, but that on closer examination had issues. It was a writing challenge of a particular kind, and I enjoyed it immensely. But it was a very different experience from writing my own books.

What it was, I think, was that my story-imagining lobes were given a break, while my story-crafting and writing-craft lobes did the heavy lifting for a while. I worked hard, while at the same time, part of my brain was vacationing! And afterward, I came back to the rewrite on Sunborn with better clarity and more energy. Based on feedback from readers so far, I think I did good.

Guess what I’m doing now. That’s right, I’m first-drafting a new novel. Blank White Screen of No Words on the Page. Damn, that’s hard.

By the way, for those of you who might not be regular readers of Pushing a Snake, the book I’m working on now is the fifth volume of The Chaos Chronicles: The Reefs of Time. (Will John Bandicut and Julie Stone find each other again on Shipworld?… and other questions, to be answered.)

Do Free Downloads Sell Books?

This, of course, is the question that many authors want the answer to (and also blog-reader Tim, in a comment to my last post). If you believe the Cory Doctorow and John Scalzi school, the answer is clearly yes; others remain skeptical. Publishers range from scared to enthusiastic.

For me, this is an ongoing experiment. The first part was a no-brainer: the first three Chaos Chronicles books were out of print, so it was unquestionably better to get them in front of readers and get them interested in the series. For that part of the experiment, the results are an unqualified—but also unquantified—success. There have been about 15,000 downloads of those books from my own site, with more from feedbooks, manybooks, mobileread, and now the Baen Free Library. Many people have written me, saying they tried my work for the first time with those freebies and liked what they found. Some of them said it prompted them to go out and buy a copy of Sunborn in hardcover. Hurray!

But wait just a minute. How many extra copies of Sunborn did it sell? Three? Three hundred? How many sales did I lose because I put it up for free in PDF? Truth: I don’t know. In the first place, it’s not like I actually get detailed information about sales; this remains one of the dark sides of publishing, the dearth of actual data coming back to the writer. (Sure, eventually I’ll see totals on a royalty sheet. But that can take years.) Just as important, though, is a question that no one can answer: how many would I have sold without the free downloads. The series was out of the public eye for years. I was out of the public eye for years. I have no doubt the sales picture could have been grim. As it is, from what I’m told, Sunborn is selling at least as well as its predecessor in the stores, Eternity’s End. (BSG is a side trip, and doesn’t really count.)

So what do the publishers make of all this? Well, Tor and Baen both seem to embrace the notion of giving books away as a means to selling more. Tor has had free download promotions from time to time, and Baen has their ongoing free library. On the other hand, I recently had an email exchange with a fellow writer whose new book is on the Nebula preliminary ballot. His publisher was reluctant to let him send out an electronic reading copy or to put a PDF up even on the members only SFWA site, for fear I guess of piracy. This, to me, makes no sense. If a book is published, chances are it’ll be up on the darknet regardless. Better to get people reading it and talking about it.

Tim mentioned the music and film industries as examples of reluctance. The thing is, they’re coming around. Amazon offers free MP3 music downloads. Itunes has a free song of the week. The networks put their TV shows up on the web for free. (That’s how I’m catching up on Chuck, which I missed in favor of Sarah Connor Chronicles, back when they were on at the same time. And that’s even how I’m seeing Battlestar Galactica—on Free On Demand!) And web comics—free. What that may imply for a business model for earning an income from writing is a much bigger question—a topic for another post, maybe.

Bottom line for me: I can’t guarantee that my books will sell better because I’m offering them for free download. The truth is, I may never know. But I don’t think I’m hurting sales, and right now, the enemy with the name Obscurity written on its back is a far bigger threat to me than the chance that some people are reading my books for free.

And wasn’t the hope that people would read my books the reason I wrote them in the first place?

“You must keep sending work out; you must never let a manuscript do nothing but eat its head off in a drawer. You send that work out again and again, while you’re working on another one. If you have talent, you will receive some measure of success—but only if you persist.” —Isaac Asimov

Nice Plug on Sci Fi Wire

Sunborn got some nice exposure today on Sci Fi Wire, with an article/interview by John Joseph Adams. It came out rather more techie-sounding than I would have liked; but as it consists almost entirely of quotes from my own email response to his questions, I guess I’m the one to blame for that. Seems to have caused only a modest bump in traffic to my website, so maybe that’s why.

“We all know that only about 5% of our advertising works. The problem is, we don’t know which 5%.” —Some wise person in the publishing industry

The Page 69 Test – Sunborn

I was asked by Marshal Zeringue, the owner of a blog called “The Page 69 Test” to write an entry for Sunborn. The inspiration for the blog comes from the “page 69 test” that you can use when you’re browsing a book in a store: open to page 69, and see if you like what you read. Some people use the “page 11 test.” Some the “first and last page” test.

If you’d like to see what I wrote, check out The Page 69 Test: Sunborn.

Oh, and Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Writer, Like Dragon

Most working writers are like dragons: they know down to the nickel what’s in their hoard. Maybe not their hoard of gold on hand—because usually what they have on hand is a shortage of gold—but for sure they know when the gold is expected. They know who owes them what, and when it’s supposed to come, and (if they’re honest) how many months late it will probably actually come. It’s a survival trait. When food is scarce, you keep a watch on the supply trains.

Except this time.

Our budget has been pretty tight around here of late, and our contingency actions included borrowing some cash. (If you read the papers, you’d think that was impossible. And yet, though GM can’t get a loan, the credit card companies continue to offer no-interest balance transfers, even to people who demonstrably are unlikely to leave the debt in one place long enough for it to kick up to the higher rate.) Well, we determined to keep a trusting attitude about it all, and even decided that we needed to be more conscious about giving away a proper tithe of the money that does come in. Giving back to God, paying forward, call it what you will.

Today I opened an envelope from my agent—and what did I behold? A check. A substantial check. It seemed that, most undragonlike, I had forgotten that there was an on-publication check owed me for Sunborn! I had forgotten! (All of my other contracts have called for payment on signing and on acceptance, but this particular one was structured differently from all the others.) I had forgotten! Whoo-whoooo!

I did three things right away. I thanked God, I called my wife, and I took that sucker right to the bank.

“God only exhibits his thunder and lightning at intervals, and so they always command attention. These are God’s adjectives. You thunder and lightning too much; the reader ceases to get under the bed, by and by.” —Mark Twain

Great Success!

Both book signings were terrific successes, with lots of hardcovers leaving in people’s hands—in many cases, the hands of people I did not know before the signings. (Always a good indicator.) And the folks at Menotomy Beer & Wine were fantastic, made me feel welcome and even sent me home with a bottle of wine! This continues my experience that the best place to do book signings is not necessarily at bookstores (though I’m happy to sign at bookstores, too!), but at places where something else is going on. Indoor water park, church fair, wine tasting—what’ll be next?

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