Thursday, December 18, 2014

2014: Looking back, looking ahead

Switchbacks; photo by Don Graham, CC BY-SA 2.0

It's funny. Every year ( 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013)  I do one of these round-up posts, and every year it amuses me how my plans tend to take a sideways turn. I suspect this is inevitable, as life continually throws curve-balls. And being flexible to what comes is a strength.

When I was looking forward toward 2014, I was optimistic that DERELICT would sell and be published by one of the 'big guys'. I had planned to publish FUTURE TENSE under my own imprint, and focus on completing TIME AND TITHE, the sequel to THE BETWEEN, also planned for my imprint, figuring that any path to traditional publication would take a year or more. (One of my mottoes is always keep moving, or as Dory says in Finding Nemo "Keep swimming! Just keep swimming!")

However, When 2014 actually showed up, it had a very different shape to it.

I did end up publishing FUTURE TENSE in February of 2014, and that was just the start of what would prove to be a chaotic and exciting time for me.

 My agent and I parted ways in late spring after it became clear to both of us that we were not a good match for one another. That left me feeling someone at loose ends and more than a little nervous. But it also left me free to publish DERELICT under Interrobang Books, the imprint I founded in 2012.

 I had no expectations on June 1 when I hit the publish buttons on all the retail platforms. I knew I had written a solid book, but that didn't guarantee anything. My experience in publishing my first 2 novels was that I could sell a few hundred copies, reach some enthusiastic readers, and get some honest and thoughtful reviews. I believed that having more work for sale would improve my chances of discoverability, and I made sure the release would be in time with Readercon (where I was on the program) and joined Broad Universe (an organization of women writing in SF&F) so I could have copies of my books for sale in the dealer's room. Beyond that? I reached out to my newsletter subscribers the week the book came out and kept my fingers crossed.

After several days of modest and steady sales, something happened. Something magical and wonderful. DERELICT started selling. And selling. And selling. In the past 6 months, I have seen nearly 8,500 copies of my books sell. That is a significant number for an indie author. My earnings from DERELICT alone are higher than I would likely have made had my former agent sold the novel. (A good ballpark figure for the advance on a debut SF novel in today's market is $7,500. Most published books never earn more than their advances.)

And so, my writing life took a series of hairpin turns and now I'm traveling in a direction I had never anticipated.

I will continue to publish my novels under Interrobang Books. TIME AND TITHE is slated for a mid-January 2015 release, two years from the publication of THE BETWEEN. I am thrilled that I was able to return to the world of the Fae and continue Lydia's story.

DERELICT will become book 1 of a new series. Book 2 is well into its draft phase. My plan is to have it ready for release in June of 2015, and then a new book in the series yearly.

I will continue to blog here and pen the occasional short story.  (Which you will have early access to if you subscribe to my very occasional newsletter.) Which reminds me of another of 2014's accomplishments: I put together a collection of my short fiction, STRANGER WORLDS THAN THESE. It's for sale as an eBook for .99, but subscribers receive it free.

 In January, I will be at Arisia, reading with Broad Universe and I'll be exhibiting my pottery at the art show! (This is a new venture for me in 2015. While I have been doing ceramics for quite some time, I'm now confident enough to show my work.) In February, I'll be on program at Boskone, as well as in the art show. If you're at either con, please find me! There will be paperback copies of each of my books for sale. 

'it's full of stars'

 My goal for 2015 is also to stay open to new possibilities and new opportunities as they arise. I have joined The Scriptors, an indie author collective, and am talking with another author friend about a project he has in the works.

The world of publishing changes in an eye-blink. Indie publishing has changed significantly in just the 2 years since I published my debut title. I have no doubt that it will continue to evolve and shift. What doesn't change is my commitment to write books that delight and surprise readers. I have always believed that creation is a journey and a partnership between the creator and the audience.

I hope you will continue to travel this road with me. 

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

What's your enjoyment worth?

No one expects the Spanish inquisition professionals to work for free

When I worked as a physical therapist, I got paid for my expertise. For the first decade of my practice, I was employed by various hospitals that paid me a living wage and no one expected me to provide PT for free, for the exposure.

For the next 10+ years, I ran my own private practice. I was a business of one; I booked appointments, treated patients, filed documentation, sent out billing. I was never criticized for charging for my work. (And I offered sliding scale for individuals who otherwise wouldn't have had access to care. No one expected me to treat them for free.)

I had a very successful practice in which I charged reasonable rates for my time and skill, and provided high quality care that allowed hundreds of folks to recover from injuries and return to full function.

Five years ago, I shut down my practice (for various personal/family reasons) and had the opportunity to focus on my writing. Having been a successful solo entrepreneur, I treated this new enterprise as a business as well. I expected to provide quality reading experiences in return for reasonable recompense in the cost of a book.

And ran right into the disruption of publishing as enabled by the internet.

Now, disruption creates opportunities, just as it obliterates others. I don't need to rehash the way in which the eBook revolution allows writers to directly connect with their ideal readers. However, the very democratization of the internet that we laud is also responsible for the idea that creativity is a public good.

On her blog, Artist Empathy, Sarah Manning wrote a long and cogent post on the criticism the band Pomplamoose received after their breakdown of income and expenses from their most recent tour. The tl;dr version: the indie band paid for their tech crew and backup musicians, slept in a basic motel, etc, and ended up nearly 12K in the red (136K income, 148K expenses) for a 28 day tour.

Cue the hate

The comments, both on Manning's piece, Jack Conte's (one of the principals of Pomplamoose) and the Gawker article that condemned the band, are the expected: the band is scamming everyone, Conte posted his article as a publicity stunt (he's a co-founder of Patreon), they should have lived in the van, they shouldn't have paid their back up musicians or tech crew, and on and on.

Somehow, there's this expectation that artists need to create for the sheer love of their art. They should release it for 'the exposure.' That asking fair recompense for creativity is somehow crass.

The Price of Entertainment

From Manning's post:

"The reality is that we’ve reduced American culture to a system of arbitrary donations and pats on the head. That isn’t sustainable."
Music, photography, digital art, vidoes, and writing can all be distributed, shared, and downloaded virtually. And because it's so simple to find what you want and freely take it, we have devalued the creation itself. But if creators can't eat, house, or clothe themselves, then who will create the art we want?

Sure, creators understand the need for day jobs. I know very few writers, for example, who expect to make a full living from their books. Some will, but they are the outliers. Same with musicians, actors, photographers, painters, etc. But if we (and by 'we' I mean society) buy into and promulgate the myth of the starving artist and suffering for one's art, what are we saying about creativity itself? Especially when we open our wallets to blockbuster movies, tie in toys, big-venue music tours - in effect supporting corporate creativity while starving individual creativity.

I have two sons in college. One is majoring in theatre, the other in music composition. Both know the chances of 'making it' on a big scale in either discipline are slim. Both know they will need to earn income in more traditional ways while they pursue their art. (I don't have a problem with this - I spent nearly 25 years working as a physical therapist before pursuing a full time writing career. There's idealism and there's reality, especially in a tough economy. The thing is, it becomes impossible - not just difficult -  if creatives are expected to give away their work.)  I've gotten flak from friends and family for letting my sons study such 'useless' things, given the return on investment of college.

But what about a return on investment of life? Again, from Manning:
"Repressing artists by making it impossible for them to survive as valued members of the working class represses our whole society."
As humans, we are inherently creators. Look at children: they create every day in the context of their play. We know that we are hard-wired for story. Study after study tells us that creativity and original thinking enhances the productivity and success of all kinds of work. So why do we throw our creators under society's bus?

We are our own Worst Enemies

And we have bought into the fiction that art needs to be free. Case in point: I was looking through Deviant Art for an artist whose work spoke to me, so I could obtain cover art for a short story collection. I found such an artist. Her screen name is Verismaya and her work is magnificent. I contacted her for permission to license one of her images to use for my short story collection: STRANGER WORLDS THAN THESE.

Art by Verismaya. Isn't her work beautiful???

She was flattered and excited and told me to help myself.

What she didn't understand was that I was looking to pay her for the use of her art. She had never had anyone offer to pay her before. She had bought into the 'work for exposure' myth. I live in the north east where winter is fierce. I know that 'exposure' can kill. (Yes, I'm being flippant, but it's also a serious matter.) We negotiated a fair price and I paid her for the ability to use the art.

We Value what we Pay For

In addition to my writing work, I'm also a potter. I create functional ware in clay, both on the wheel and handbuilding. It takes time, patience, practice, and skill to make pottery. Hand made work is more expensive than buying a mass produced cup or bowl from a store like Pottery Barn. But the set of dishes we use are not pieces of art. The serving pieces and coffee mugs I have collected over the years (buying from other artists) and have made for myself are functional art. They are worth a few dollars more, not only because of the skill and artistry of the maker, but because they bring beauty and enjoyment to my every day life.

This is what I value. It is what I am willing to pay for.

I also buy books and music. I am paying for my enjoyment and recognizing the skill of the creator.

We value what we pay for and we pay for what we value. What do you value? What are you willing to pay for it?

Monday, December 08, 2014

My books' bad reviews

"Sour face" photo by Sam DeLong,  used with attribution, CC BY-SA 2.0 

Not everyone will love what you create.

Some people love spicy food; others hate it. Still others won't go out of their way to eat something hot, but won't mind it if they get served something with a little bite to it.

Our tastes are highly subjective. Just because someone doesn't enjoy something, doesn't mean it's bad. 

For example, I'm not a huge fan of country music. I won't go out of my way to find a country station, but I won't turn off the radio if they play something by Reba McEntire. However, I probably would never buy a country music album, nor review one if it came my way.  

Subjectivity rules in the land of our enjoyment, which is why I am always puzzled when creative folks go off the deep end when they get reviews they don't agree with.

I thought I'd share with you snippets of some of my negative reviews. Why? Because they are a matter of public record, since they have been posted on Amazon and the like. And also because I think it's important to cultivate a personal distance from critical commentary, but not to pretend it doesn't exist. I don't write for everyone on the planet; I write for the readers who are moved by my work. Not everyone will be. That's okay.

Disappointed in a tale about a spoiled teen. (DERELICT, 1 star review)
not well developed, poor plot line, simplistic.  (DERELICT, 2 star review)
After slugging [sic] thru about 120 pages, I found no action, Just young adults (described as geniuses) doing stupid things trying to enstrange [sic] themselves from their parents. (DERELICT, 1 star review)
Rambling convoluted story line of Ro, the main character. Too boring and kept loosing interest. Didn't finish the book. (DERELICT, 2 star review)
Teens are already involved in way too much sexual immorality; they for sure don't need to be enticed and encourage to pursue perverted sexual immorality.* (DERELICT, 2 star review)
This book is about a group of young adults who behave like children, have an experience set commensurate with their being children, and in general are presented as if they were children. That’s really all you need to know about the book. And about the author, now that I say it. (FUTURE TENSE, 2 star review)
And it was an okay story. To be honest, I almost put it down part way through chapter 1. Everything felt too familiar. The character in the story made several references to The Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland, aiding in the overly familiar themes. (THE BETWEEN, 3 star review)
What you must remember when you are putting your work out into the world and into the hands of a paying audience is that it no longer fully belongs to you. And that your audience has the right to not enjoy it. 

Look at your most favorite story/album/movie's Amazon page. There will be one and two star reviews that basically wonder what drugs the creator was on, or how anyone with two brain cells to rub together could like it. :shrug: Subjectivity at play.

My favorite book from childhood (and beyond) is A WRINKLE IN TIME. This is from a 1 star review of it:

I am having a hard time understanding how this book was even considered for a Newbery. the best words I can come up with to describe this pile are: Awful, boring, tedious, ridiculous, predictable. I couldn't read more than 2 pages without falling asleep. I hated the characters and actually wished for them to die.
Clearly this reviewer and I read different books. Or we exist in different, parallel realities. They loathed what is a beloved part of my life and a book I have re-read as an adult many, many times. This review doesn't negate my love of this book.

I'm going to say that again because I think it's important: This review doesn't negate my love of this book.

Nor will I get anywhere engaging in a fruitless argument to convince them of how wonderful I believe "WRINKLE" to be. 

Remember: Subjectivity. Spicy food? Love it. White chocolate? One of the most vile substances on the planet.

 * Author's note:  Some readers will make comments that make no sense to you, or seem to be utterly unrelated to the story. Again, subjectivity. In DERELICT, there is the start of a relationship between two female characters, that is essentially an emotional one. I think the characters hug at one point in the story. To me, this reviewer's intense objections shows how much one's experience of a story depends on what one brings to it.

Friday, November 28, 2014

More thoughts on the privilege and responsibility of being a writer

Because even in 1966, we knew representation was important. (Art by Makintosh, used with attribution )

I participate in blogging for a writer's collective called The Scriptors, and my most recent blogpost there was on the writer's privilege and responsibility to reflect the diversity of the world around them. Here is the beginning of the post and I invite you to read its entirety on The Scriptors site.

I was planning on writing an amusing post about the subjectivity of reviews and why you don’t ever want to be *that* writer. And then the Ferguson Grand Jury decision came out. My husband and I watched the live feed of the official statement, and then of the protests, the police response, and the violent aftermath.

I am heartsick.

We have so far to go to achieve a fair and just society and I am just one small voice; a writer with little platform and less power. What can I do to change what is so broken in our world?

I am under no illusion that I have the ability to persuade those who believe differently than I do. I vote in every election, but the reality is, our choices are often between less bad and more bad. If I gave away every dollar I had to fund social justice causes, I would be destitute and nothing would change.

And yet. . . and yet I cannot do nothing.

I know there is a lot of discussion and controversy around issues of diversity, especially with white writers writing about characters of color. Daniel Jose Older wrote a cogent piece on "12 Fundamentals of Writing the Other" that is a great starting point for all writers trying to get it right. I urge you to read it.

Another excellent resource is this blogpost by Jim C. Hines, complete with a list of links for further examination. In the post, this line jumped out at me"

"It’s the difference between “I want to include you in my stories” and “I want to tell your stories.”"
He's speaking about the distinction between diversity and appropriation, issues that writers with societal privilege and power need to grapple with in writing characters that reflect the cultural composition of the wider world we all inhabit.

I strongly believe in the philosophy behind the "We Need Diverse Books" campaign: that representation is important. It is crucial. We learn about the world through the characters we inhabit in our reading and viewing, especially when we are young. I remember wondering why none of the heroes in the SF books I devoured as a kid were girls. I wonder what other messages I absorbed while I was reading that I'm not so acutely aware of.

And as important is seeing oneself in fiction is for people in the minority, it is also important for people in the majority to see the 'other'. We know that reading enhances empathy. What messages get transmitted when either we see only one kind of person in our fiction, or see the 'other' as token, or stereotype, or fetish? I believe that these implicit messages are very powerful and shape our society in ways we haven't yet fully appreciated.

Look at the impact of the original Star Trek series. Nichelle Nichols, the actress who played Uhura, talks about how she had been planning on leaving the show after the first season, until she met Martin Luther King, Jr, who told her how vital her role was in inspiring a generation. She recounts that he told her: "I [couldn't] leave the show. We talked a long time about what it all meant and what images on television tell us about ourselves."

Whoopie Goldberg also credits Nichols' Uhura with inspiring her to believe she could be anything she wanted to be. And astronaut Mae Jemison, the first African American astronaut to go into space credits seeing Nichols as Uhura as her inspiration. (Cool trivia: Jemison also appeared in Star Trek: The Next Generation.)

And this was due to a supporting role on a show that only saw three seasons on TV, yet went on to have an enormous cultural impact.

I am conscious, every time I sit at the computer to write, that what I write carries a message. Even if I set out to simply write entertaining stories about fantasy worlds or the future, everything has a message. If I people my universes only with reflections of myself and my life experiences, then I send a message that anything else is trivial.

That cannot be further from the truth.