Archive for April, 2009

Writing a novel is like going to college

Word count: 2001 | Since last entry: 586

Remember The Game of Life? (“I heartily endorse this game.” — Art Linkletter. “Who?” — Kids Today.) One of the major decisions you had to make near the beginning of the game was to take the lengthy detour to College, and earn a higher salary, or go straight into Business, ensuring a lower starting salary but you’d begin receiving it immediately. Even as a kid I always chose the College route.

Writing a novel is like going to college, in that you are investing a lot of time up front with the hope of a bigger payoff later on. Though I am pleased for friends like Greg Van Eekhout and Lisa Mantchev as they go through the throes of first novel publication, I’m also somewhat jealous… I spent most of last year working on my second novel, and now I’m waiting for a response that will probably take another six months or more. Meanwhile I didn’t publish a lot of short stories in 2008, and I won’t publish a lot this year even if I start selling soon. I feel a little sidetracked.

That’s why I’m working intensively on short stories right now. I know the competition for the major short story markets is even fiercer than it is for novels, but I’ve had good luck with my stories and, even if they don’t sell any more quickly than novels do, there are more of them out there so the odds of some kind of sale in any given month are pretty good. If nothing else, I get the thrill of completion every couple of weeks and the chance to start over with something new and interesting.

But I’m hedging my bets. I have another couple short story projects that will keep me busy through July or August, but once those are done I intend to start in on novel #3. Hopefully by alternating novels and short stories I’ll be able to keep my name in front of readers while waiting for that elusive first novel sale.

A busy day, and Dreamwidth

Word count: 1415 | Since last entry: 1415

Busy, busy day today. The cleaning lady, plumber, and appliance repair guy all came today (not the way we’d have planned it if we’d had the choice, but that’s when they could make it), and then this morning we discovered that overnight Kate’s car had been broken into and the radio stolen, so she had to take it to get the smashed window repaired. So I had to deal with all the service people, so I couldn’t leave the house and it was too distracting to get much of anything done at home. But everyone had left by 4:00, including the cops who came to take Kate’s report, so I could go to the coffee shop and write.

The Fireside Coffee Lodge, where Jay Lake and I and some others sometimes write on Tuesdays, recently changed owners, name, and decor. It’s no longer festooned with bears and tacky woodsy stuff… it now looks like, well, like a brand-new coffee shop, with hard little chairs and tables and no character whatsoever. I’m sure that will change as the new owners settle in, but though the old place was funky and weird and disturbing in a vaguely Deliverance kind of way, the new incarnation is just soulless. Even though the coffee’s better, and they have Voodoo Doughnuts (for the Amazing Race viewers in the audience, this is the place whose motto is “Where the magic’s in the hole!”), I think we’ll be looking for a new place to write on Tuesdays. Maybe Fat Straw, which is comfy and really convenient for me, but the coffee is apparently awful. (The bubble tea is great, but too calorific to make it a weekly habit.)

Anyway… at the end of the day (hmm, usually that’s a metaphor), the house is cleaner, the stove is working again, the loose faucet in the bathroom has been tightened, the broken window in Kate’s car has been repaired, and I have 1400 words of draft on a brand new story.

For a variety of reasons I would really like to get this draft done by Saturday, so I’m shooting for 1000 words per day rather than my usual 500. As it happens, the above progress is two days’ worth, so I’m well below that mark, but my brain is full so I’m stopping now.

Oh, one other thing: I was randomly selected to receive an invite code to Dreamwidth, so I’m set up there as davidlevine. I’ve imported all of my LiveJournal posts to my DW account, and if I’ve set everything up properly all my new posts will appear in both places as well. However, for now I intend to do almost all of my reading and commenting on LJ. That may change if a substantial fraction of my friends (and here I’m using the word “friends” in its ordinary, real-world sense) move from LJ to DW.

What is Dreamwidth, you ask? DW is basically a clone of LJ with some differences. The founders are ex-LJ employees and are trying to create an online community that is more like LJ used to be, using LJ’s code base. It’s basically almost completely identical to LJ, except that they are doing some things differently, like separating the concepts “I read your journal” and “I give you access to my protected journal posts” that are unified in the LJ term “friend.” A more significant difference is that Dreamwidth is, and intends to remain, advertising-free. Also, DW is currently in closed Beta and some things are definitely not ready for prime time, like journal styles. On balance, it’s no better and no worse than LJ.

I’ve created a Dreamwidth account and copied my content to it basically as a backup, a contingency plan in case LiveJournal either becomes unusable for some reason (goes out of business, becomes technically unstable, or makes a management decision that I can’t live with) or simply becomes substantially less popular than DW among my friends. But for now LJ is where I am and where I intend to stay.

Need appliance repair in Portland

Our gas stove is on the fritz (oven won’t turn on, everything else works fine). The guy I called last time we needed appliance repair is no longer in business. Any recommendations? We’re in the Hawthorne neighborhood.

Writing update

I’ve been keeping up with my goal of at least 500 words or 1 hour of editing per day, but the last time I wrote a word of new draft prose was about a month ago. Since then it’s been all editing, outlines, notes, and proposals.

The good news is that in the last month or so I completed edits on three or four stories and sent them off to market for the first time. I also resubmitted some stories that had been languishing after being rejected, plus sent in some reprints to audio markets… all in all, I’ve more than doubled my number of stories in submission from the first of the year. More submissions will, I hope, lead to more sales. Also, now I can say that the proposals I wrote were for Wild Cards characters and stories, and that some of them were accepted (more news on that front when I can share it).

The bad news is that I haven’t sold a spec story since August. I’ve had seven acceptances since then, but four of those were audio reprints and the other three were sales to markets where I’d been invited. It’s nice to get an invite, or to sell a reprint, but a sale of a new story to a magazine or open anthology is more of a triumph. However, the recent increase in submissions has led to an increase in rejections, which does at least feel more like progress than the period from November to February during which I received no responses at all. It doesn’t help that I’ve had three stories out for over 200 days (the longest has been out for almost 400 days), which is a long time to wait for a response on a short fiction submission. None of these markets have responded to the e-queries I sent in mid-February, but for a variety of reasons I’m not ready to give up on any of them yet.

However, one of the audio reprint sales was “Babel Probe” at Drabblecast, which is a truly amazing performance of the story, and another one (just last week) was “Charlie the Purple Giraffe,” also to Drabblecast, which I am really looking forward to hearing.

I’ve also received my author copy of Nebula Awards Showcase 2009, which has a gorgeous cover and includes my Nebula nominee “Titanium Mike Saves the Day” (illustrated below by thepussinboots).

So, all in all, a pretty good writing month. Tomorrow I expect to begin work on an entirely new story… though I haven’t yet decided which one, and the first few days at least will still be notes and outline. I’m looking forward to drafting again!

Ebook branding

Kristine Kathryn Rusch pointed me to a post about ebooks at The Idea/Logical Blog: Some ebook observations.

What this post suggests to me is that publishers need to change from a “book” model of selling their products to a “software” model. Software publishers today manage to sell products very like ebooks, with the same problems of “need to be quality-checked on every platform they run on” and “retailers want to use margin to gain share,” yet they seem to be doing very well. The key is that many different strategies have been successful (for different products in different markets at different times) — publishers will have to become as nimble in selling ebooks as software publishers have been forced to become in selling software. And, as with software, the pricing will be all over the map — bestselling fiction for $4.99, technical titles for $499 — as publishers learn what the market will bear. The transition to this model will occur as it did when video tapes moved from a “priced for rental” model to a “priced for sale” model in the 1980s — same product + different market = entirely different price points.

The branding problem is an interesting one, and differs from the software model. On my computer, the user experience of the Apple-branded word processor, the Microsoft-branded word processor, and the several other brands of word processor differs enormously, but the content (the words they process and the things you can do to those words) is quite similar. But on my ebook reader, the user experience of the Tor-branded, Del Rey-branded, and DAW-branded ebooks is nearly identical although the content of each book is unique. This makes it tough for a brand to establish itself.

Some publishers will try to impose a “house look-and-feel” on their ebooks to create a brand. This won’t work because the ebook experience is so malleable — devices vary in their capabilities, and users want to impose their reading preferences (e.g. font and font size) which is one of the main selling points of the ebook over the paper book — and anything the publisher does to put anything other than plain, readable text on the screen will be resisted by readers.

One thing that publishers can do to establish a brand is to make sure to nail the aspects that make one ebook better than another on the same platform. Make sure the illustrations are the best possible for the platform, make sure the table of contents works, enable any optional features, and do the right thing for every supported platform. This is a heck of a lot of work, but quality control in a multi-platform environment always is, and in the software business we have a saying that “quality doesn’t cost money… quality makes money.”

I think, though, that the bottom line for branding ebooks is identical to that for paper books. A publisher can get some aspects of a paper book right or wrong (font and font size, paper quality, binding) but fundamentally most paper books are quite similar — ultimately the thing that readers will remember about a publisher, if they remember anything at all, is whether or not they consistently provide the kind of books they want to read. That’s how to create a brand.

David D. Levine, Wild Cards author

I’ve been waiting to announce this until I had some more specific news to report (and it is coming, and it is good, but there are still x’s to be crossed and j’s to be dotted), but as George R. R. Martin has just let the cat partway out of the bag, I figure I ought to blog about it now.

I’m now a member of the Wild Cards consortium. The other members of the Wild Cards Class of 2009 are Cherie Priest, Mary Anne Mohanraj, David Anthony Durham, and Paul Cornell.

For those who don’t know, Wild Cards is a shared universe (where multiple writers all create stories in the same setting, with their characters interacting with other writers’ characters) that has been running since 1985. It’s basically a superhero comic in prose form, a world in which superpowered “aces” and deformed “jokers” live, love, and struggle.

I was a huge fan of the series in college and for me to join in this bunch is the fulfillment of a dream I didn’t think would ever have a chance of coming true.

Let’s all sing like the birdies sing

Kate is now on Twitter, as KateYule. (I’m on there too, as daviddlevine.)

I’ve compared Twitter to a whole fanzine full of linos. Many of the 140-character-or-less “tweets” in my reading list are, indeed, mundane notes on what the author had for breakfast, or some such, but the people I choose to follow are a reliable source of brief, witty bons mots. I particularly recommend MaryRobinette, whose glimpses into her work with props and puppets are like found poetry.

Library of Congress backstage tour

How could I have forgotten to mention one of the keenest parts of our trip to DC? Before my talk at the Library of Congress we got a backstage tour of the Manuscript Division.

I had envisioned musty historic documents under glass — maybe not the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution, but other important and well-known individual documents. Not so! The Manuscript Division is where ALL the papers of prominent individuals are stored. (They have the files of presidents up through Madison; later presidents have their own libraries.)

We saw table after table covered with box after box of papers from Ron Zeigler, being sorted and cataloged, and another room with papers from Hollywood director Rouben Mamoulian. The latter was more interesting to me… it included several award statuettes, including a Saturn and a Dracula, and boxes with intriguing labels like “production stills, Cleopatra.” Also boxes and boxes of Hollywood industry magazines, and a copy of the California Drivers’ Manual… everything that had been in his files at the time of his death. Our guide explained that anything that is significant to the subject is kept (for example, they might keep a magazine if it has marginal notes) and the other stuff is offered to other institutions or destroyed. Processing a new collection (which usually arrives after the subject’s death and may not be in the best of shape) can take years.

After everything’s been gone through, duplicates and dross eliminated, and the remaining interesting stuff sorted into folders and the folders placed in boxes, the library prepares “finding aids” to help researchers find the stuff afterwards. Each “finding aid” is a folder containing a brief biographical sketch of the subject and a list of the information they have on him/her. But the detail is only down to the folder level… you can learn that the library has a folder of “correspondence with Joseph P. Blow, 1959-1963” but if you want to know any more about what’s in there you have to request the folder and look in it yourself. (I don’t know if you can get them through interlibrary loan… you probably have to come down to the library in person. The reading room is quite nice.)

The ranks and ranks of shelves on which the boxes and bound volumes of papers are stored are an interesting historical exhibit in themselves, showing the changes over the years in what’s considered state-of-the-art in manuscript preservation. Some of the material is self-destructive, high-acid paper and the like, and these are carefully photocopied, though the budget for preservation and conservation is finite, of course.

The thing about the Library of Congress, our guide explained, is its scale… there’s tens or hundreds of times more of everything here than anywhere else a librarian may have worked, and dealing with so much material requires different ways of thinking. And it keeps coming in, in ever-increasing amounts.

Looking over all this stuff helped me to understand why and how my own papers should be preserved for future historians (Lynne Thomas at NIU has requested mine, as she has for many other SF writers) and when I got home I started in on the process of sorting them into “keep,” “send to NIU,” “send the original and keep a copy,” “send a copy and keep the original,” and “why is this here anyway?” which I’ve been meaning to start on for almost two years. The work is going slowly, and it’s mind-numbing, but it’s kind of cool to look over my own history and realize how much progress I’ve made in the ten years or so I’ve been doing this writing thing. Finding the Writers of the Future Honorable Mention certificates, for example, was a nice surprise, and a reminder of how pleased I was to receive each one.

I’ve also been a little bit depressed at the thought that my best years may already be behind me. “Tale of the Golden Eagle” was written in 2001, after all, and I don’t think I’ve written anything quite as good since. On the other hand, the lack of major successes in the last few years may just be due to the fact that I’ve spent much of that time working on novels, and since each novel submission can take months or years it may be quite a while before that work bears fruit. And “Titanium Mike” did get a Nebula nomination just last year.

I keep plugging away.

The more friends you have, the shorter Convention gets

We’ve been back from DC for most of a week and I’m still just finding my feet, but here are a few brief observations anyway.

My talk at the Library of Congress before the convention went very well, despite the fact that they moved it to a different room at the last minute and put the sign announcing the change outside the new room, and there was another event with free food at the same time which took away many of the people who might otherwise have attended. We wound up with about 20 people all told, most of them square dancers who were also in DC for the convention.

Although I felt incredibly underprepared, that thing in my head that takes over when I have to do public speaking did its job and the presentation came off smashingly. Some of the square dancing librarians in attendance were so excited they were talking about inviting me to speak at an ALA conference. I’d love to, and I hope it really happens. I’m also going to try to sell the talk as a non-fiction article.

I’d originally planned to speak without visual aids, but at the last minute I was inspired by a talk at and decided to put together a PowerPoint slide show consisting only of images. It worked great, even though I had to clutch the projector cable in my hand all through the talk to keep the image from turning magenta. I also used PowerPoint to record the talk, but unfortunately it only recorded the first 10-20 seconds of audio per slide. Which is a real shame, because the bits that did get recorded sound fabulous.

The convention itself was superbly run and featured a lot of great dancing, including several unusual specialty tips: the Cipher tip with calls delivered as spoonerisms or riddles, a Mirror tip that swapped left for right (if your square breaks down during a Mirror tip, is that seven years bad luck?), and an hour of six-couple “rectangle dancing.” Allowing people to choose their table mates for the banquet, then placing the tables at random, was an excellent innovation. The one negative comment I have was that the Fun Badge Tour buses were given insufficient directions, which (together with a mechanical breakdown) caused us to miss an entire stop on the tour and wound up with our bus being so late for the last stop we had to dance it by ourselves. We had fun anyway.

We also visited the Newseum (highly recommended), the Spy Museum (only okay, especially because it was so crowded that day) and the Smithsonian Natural History museum (I saw so many skeletons there that for a few hours thereafter all the people looked like skeletons with skin and bones on) and ate many fabulous meals. The convention was right at the Woodley Park-Zoo/Adams Morgan subway stop (and why are the first two separated by a hyphen, but the last two by a slash?) and there were dozens of great ethnic restaurants within one block. Probably the best meal was the Afghan dinner we had on the first night, but none of them was less than good.