Readercon!

This weekend, my favorite SF convention takes place in Burlington, Mass. Readercon is a great gathering of writers, editors, artists, and most of all, readers—people who really love to read, think, and talk about books. I’ll be there Friday and Saturday, available for a kaffeklatch on Friday, and signing books Saturday at 3 p.m. If you’re there, please say hello!

Writing Sitrep

Promises, promises. I swore I’d keep you informed how work was going on the new book, which in case you’re forgotten is called The Reefs of Time, fifth volume in the Chaos Chronicles. The answer is: slowly, but steadily. Life continues to get in the way sometimes. Especially life with kids and a mortgage. But I’m solving problems with the book one by one (story problems, I mean), and it’s getting there. This time I’m dealing with time travel—yes, in the Chaos universe, which is the same as the Starstream universe introduced in From a Changeling Star and Down the Stream of Stars. The starstream itself comes into play in this book, as well as the center of the galaxy, where the Survivors lurk. It’s my first real foray into time travel, and I’m finding that possibilities and complications pop out of the woodwork every time you turn around.

The really good news is that I realized just this week that I was enjoying working on the book a lot more than I have for quite a while. That’s the best news of all.

Meanwhile, to help pay the bills, I’m working with another author on a nonfiction project (as a paid consultant editor-writer, not as primary author). It’s taking us into some interesting areas of the law—and, as it turns out, the BP oilspill. Eeesh, what a mess!

It’s nice sometimes to retreat to my fictional pan-galactic world. 

What Drives Us?

I first came across this video on Tobias Buckell’s blog. It’s a short animation of a talk about what gives us motivation, according to psychological studies. The speaker is Dan Pink, author of the book Drive. If you’re interested in which drives us more, money or satisfaction, take a few minutes to watch this.

(EDIT: That totally broke out of my template, and I can’t seem to make the screen smaller. So I took out the embedded video. But click the link!)

There’s a longer version of his talk on Ted.com. (And enough cool talks on Ted.com to keep you from your work for hours.)

I wondered how sound the actual science was, so I asked my resident expert, my brother Chuck, who happens to be a distinguished professor of psychology. The answer? “Go to selfdeterminationtheory.org. Deci and Ryan have been studying these things for…40 years.” Sound, in other words, but hardly new.

New or not, though, it’s something people all walks of life would do well to think about.

Undersea Talk

We’ve just passed the 100th anniversary of the birth of Jacques Cousteau, the famed underwater explorer who died in 1997. It was Turner Classic Movies that turned me on to this fact, by running a series of classic Cousteau TV documentaries, including Cousteau Odyssey and the Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau.

I practically idolized Cousteau during the period that these shows aired. In fact, as a college student who had taken up scuba diving (in chilly Rhode Island waters), I wrote to Captain Cousteau, basically asking for a summer job. To my delight, he wrote back, saying that he’d like to meet me the next time he was in New York. I waited, and didn’t hear from him. I wrote again, and heard back again. But unfortunately, the meeting never happened. (This was long before email or cheap long distance telephone, so the whole thing hinged on snail mail.) Despite that disappointment, I maintained my interest in underwater exploration. I even used it in my SF—with a novelette in F&SF, and later, with my novels Seas of Ernathe and The Infinite Sea.

I was feeling nostalgic for those days tonight, poking around online—and in the process, I came across this Ted Talk by National Geographic underwater photographer Brian Skerry. It’s a great talk, and is filled with phenomenal undersea images. Give it a look. 

To Blog or Not to Blog

A little while ago, I was wondering aloud to my wife Allysen whether keeping this blog going was a smart use of my time. After all, I don’t post to it nearly as frequently as I should to keep up an audience, and it does take up writing time that arguably I should be spending on my next book. Still, it’s a connection to you folks that I might not otherwise have. (Yeah, I could post to Facebook instead—but really, what’s the diff?)

And so, with perfect timing, along comes a very funny column in today’s Boston Globe:  “Not Blogging,” by James Parker, a contributing editor to The Atlantic. After the first two lines, I knew I had to read it aloud to Allysen. Says Parker:

I should have one, of course. I mean, shouldn’t I? I’ve been urged to get one. A confused middle-aged literatus like me, trying to keep himself afloat while the old industry paradigms, the old machineries of reputation and reward, shiver into fragments around him? I need a blog. A place to consolidate my brand. A forum for my views, untrammelled, unedited. A one-stop shop for all my “stuff.”

That established, he goes on to offer the opposing view:

So allow me then to dissent — to offer, if I may, a small and fading valentine to not-blogging. Or, as it used to be called, “living.”

Let’s start with the most obvious point against blogging: the labor. A blog must be fed several times a day, like a weight lifter or a Great Dane. Are you ready for that kind of commitment? Update, update, keep the posts coming… We all know the tiny electronic swat of dismay that one experiences upon checking a favorite blog and finding it unchanged or unrefreshed. Do that too often to your readers and they’ll ditch you, and your blog will die…

It’s not that I won’t blog — I just can’t. I’m a slow writer, for one thing. I write ve-ery slowly, in a soft mist of incomprehension, like a garden gnome coming to life on an English hillside. This is no good for a blogger. Bloggers write fast. They react.

I do sometimes wonder if that describes me. Though certainly there are some days when, if I didn’t write a little on my blog, I wouldn’t get any writing done at all.  Hmm…

Excuse me while I go make sure that this isn’t one of those days.

Paperback Tailspin

I haven’t quite known how to say this, so I guess I’ll just say it: the paperback sales on Sunborn have been terrible. The worst I’ve ever seen. Distribution is awful—the book isn’t even being stocked by many bookstores I would have expected to carry it, like Borders or my local Barnes and Noble superstore. Or if they carried it, they stocked one copy. Not six or eight, like in old days, but one. How can you launch a book like that?  And why is this happening?

The reasons are legion. And these are just the ones I know about.

For starters, there was a long interruption in my output, and the first three books of the Chaos Chronicles were long out of print. I tried to address this by offering free downloads—and that certainly helped stimulate interest, but clearly not enough. At the time the paperback was published, I was in a family crisis and slow off the mark in doing the usual promotion I would have done. Worse, promotion from the publisher was indifferent, and their declining to bring the first three books back into print spelled trouble.

These are the obvious reasons, but not the only ones.

According to my editor, slumping sales are bedeviling a lot of authors and a lot of mass-market paperback books. The biggest factor is that the distribution of paperbacks has gone to hell—not just in bookstores, but in places like newsstands and drugstores. There used to be hundreds of wholesalers, each knowing their own territories—the guys who drove the trucks and put books on the racks, and who knew from experience what kinds of books tended to sell where. Now it’s all consolidated, with a few huge outfits covering most of the business. And they’re doing it by computer from central locations, making decisions that literally make or break national distribution of a book. Books that once might have found a modest but respectable audience are now cut out of the loop; they simply are not carried by the wholesalers that would get them into points of sale outside the traditional bookstore. As a result, what was once a major avenue of sales—to the casual browser who came into a convenience store looking for soap or a candy bar and stopped to thumb books on a rack—is now limited to the guaranteed bestsellers. So, you can find a book like Sunborn easily enough online, but only if you’re looking for it. Your bookstore can order it, but only if you know to ask for it. But many potential new readers will never see it

Did my posting of free downloads help or hurt? It definitely helped make a lot more people aware of the books. Did it sell books or prevent sales? Will ebook sales make up some of the difference in paperback sales? Without a parallel universe to use as a control, there’s just no way to know. 

“How can I help?” I hear you saying. (Maybe I’m imagining. But let’s assume I’m hearing it.) One thing you can do, of course, is to head to your local bookshop if you haven’t already and pick up a copy—if not for yourself, then for a friend or relative. Another is simply to encourage your local bookstore to carry the book. If you special-order it, that’s one sale. If you can get them to stock a few copies, that could be several sales and a ping on their radar. And tell people. Word of mouth is the most effective single way to promote a book. And only you can do that.

I don’t intend to sit around doing nothing but complain. I’m in the process of rethinking and retooling promotion for the future. More and more these days, that job is left solely to the author (unless you’re already a bestseller and don’t actually need the help.) I have a bunch of ideas, and I’ll be writing about them from time to time and will definitely be interested in your feedback.

“The girl doesn’t, it seems to me, have a special perception or feeling which would lift that book above the “curiosity” level.” —from the rejection slip for Diary of Anne Frank

“Legacy of Light” at Boston’s Lyric Stage

We got to the theater today, a rare treat for us, and enjoyed a terrific new play at the Lyric Stage in Boston: Legacy of Light, written by Karen Zacarias and directed by Lois Roach.  Funny and thought provoking, it focused on two women scientists—one the Enlightment figure Emilie du Chatelet, friend and lover of Voltaire, who built on the work of Isaac Newton in understanding light and energy.  The other, a fictional (I think!) astrophysicist of today, tries to make sense of herself as a mother-to-be as well as she thinks she understands the formation of a new planet circling a distant star.  Light and love and energy and collision of masses—they all come together like particles in the Large Hadron Collider, splintering and showering everything around them with new particles and life. 

The theme music is Thomas Dolby’s “She Blinded Me with Science.” Perfect!

If you’re in the Boston area, I highly recommend it.  Legacy of Light shows through March 13 at the Lyric Stage.  If you’re outside Boston, maybe it’ll come your way soon. 

Spring! Rollerblading! The Future!

The weather has been fantastic here, and we’ve officially declared it rollerblading and moped weather, back at last!  Allysen and I have been out on our skates two
days in a row, and can’t wait to get back in shape.  (Aachh—my $%^back*()&!)  Plus, we went tooling on our two-wheeled steeds, Dracos and Buckbeak, the other evening.  Fantastic!  

As Spring gears up, so too do the local journeyman SF/F writers.  Craig Gardner and I are about to crank up our third annual Advanced Writing workshop for graduates of our fall Ultimate SF Writing workshops.  We’ve got a good crew of students, most from our Fall 2009 group, but a couple from earlier groups, as well.  We start next Sunday.  It’ll be fun to see what folks are working on. 

Finally, one of my old Launchpad Astronomy Workshop buddies, Tempest Bradford, invited me to contribute to the inaugural “Burning Question” feature of Laptop Magazine online: Which technology makes you feel like you’re living in the future?  Check out my thoughts along with those of John Scalzi, Tobias Bucknell, Eileen Gunn, Charlie Stross, and others. 

Interview Here, Appearance There

ScifiBookshelf.com has just posted an interview with me.

I’ll be appearing at a fundraiser at my town library, Robbins Library of Arlington, Mass., tomorrow evening from 6 – 9. They’ve got a bunch of local authors coming, all bringing books to sign. Should be a fun event.

I’ll also be at Boskone, the annual convention sponsored by the New England Science Fiction Association, on Feb. 12 -13 (but not on Sunday).

Avatar Rocks

Allysen and I finally got to see Avatar in 3D today.  We both loved it.  The 3D effects were wonderful—but it wasn’t just a matter of great special effects.  It was a good story well told (familiar, to be sure), with believable characters and—above all—fabulous world building.  The landscape and the creatures were mesmerizing.  The banshees (read: dragons) were terrific, and who could not love the hammerhead rhinos?  To some extent, it was even scientifically plausible; the world-wide nervous system, although it sounded a lot like the Force when first introduced, actually made some sense.  The floating mountains were more in the Miyazaki fantasy realm, which I suspect was not a coincidence. 

It was fun to run a mental tally of all the sources that the movie clearly owes a debt to.  Native American (and probably African) tradition, of course.  Dune.  Anne McCaffrey’s dragon books—and for that matter, a whole tradition of dragons in fantasy and SF.  Dances with WolvesPocahontas, the animation?  I won’t call it a debt, because I doubt Cameron has ever read my books, but the avatar couches reminded me of my own rigger stations, and the Tree of Souls brought to mind the Tree of Ice in my second Chaos book, Strange Attractors.  Call it a resonance.  And now there surface contentions that Cameron borrowed liberally from the books of Russian SF novelists Boris and Arkady Strugatsky.  Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t.  He clearly borrowed liberally from many worlds of literature and film.  He even borrowed from himself: I think I recognized that corporate exploitation type from Aliens, as well as the hotshot lady pilot. And of course the mechanical walkers. 

Did these connections detract from my enjoyment?  Not at all.  I felt that they were part of a great tradition of art building on art, as well as on life.  Some critics have accused the film of following the less admirable tradition of allowing big budget special effects to overwhelm any concern about good storytelling.  That’s often true—but not so much this time, I think.  The story, if not terribly deep or original, was nevertheless honest and moving. 

One of my favorite SF movies prior to this is also a Cameron film: The Abyss. It wasn’t altogether successful, but one thing it did beautifully was to create a sense of working and living beneath the sea.  It overlooked a few things for the sake of dramatic license, but it got a lot of it dead on.  (I’ve spent time underwater as a scuba diver.)  It’s that world building thing.  Some people demand scientific accuracy in world building.  I demand believability.  I want to be convinced.  And in Avatar, I was convinced. 

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