Convention Weekend

I’ll be at ConDFW in Fort Worth this Saturday. I’m only going to be there on Saturday because I realized last year that trying to do the whole weekend was a bit much. It’s a long drive, but because I have things going on around home in between convention events, I can’t really stay in the convention hotel. So I was driving all the way over to do a panel or so on Friday when no one was there, then back on Saturday, then had church stuff Sunday morning, so I couldn’t do panels until the afternoon, but that meant I only had a panel or so on Sunday. I have about the same amount of programming this year, but with only one drive across the Metroplex.

I’m still figuring out what I’ll read for a reading session. I also have an autograph session and a few panels. I should probably bring snacks because I won’t have much time for lunch between panels.

This is one of only two conventions I’m doing this year. Otherwise, I’m going to the Nebula Awards weekend, which is a professional event with a public booksigning, and then I’ll be speaking at a couple of book festivals in the fall. This is mostly going to be a “quiet” year as I focus on writing, and there’s a bit of leisure travel I want to do, with a couple of big trips on the list, one of which counts as research for a book I want to write.

Wimp Confession

Watching the Winter Olympics has made me rather uncomfortably aware of something about myself:

I’m a raging wimp.

I look at all those crazy things these people are doing — zooming down a mountain with boards strapped to their feet, sliding down an icy tube at high speeds on a sled, letting a person throw them in the air over ice, doing huge flips in the air — and my response is a big, huge, NOPE. About the only thing that looks like it might be fun is the cross-country skiing, and maybe some of the ice dancing — the parts that are more like ballroom dancing but not the parts where someone picks you up and spins you around.

Sometimes, it’s even hard for me to watch other people do it. I’ve never been much of a thrillseeker. I don’t like roller coasters or any kind of amusement park ride that includes a big vertical drop. I don’t like scary movies. I don’t like haunted houses. I don’t even like driving fast.

Which probably means that my occupation of sitting at home and writing about people having adventures is perfect for me, except that sometimes I even have to force myself to put my characters in jeopardy. I keep having to remind myself that a story needs tension and conflict.

Heck, even with books I’m reading, there are times when I have to flip to the end to make sure a character is going to be okay when things get a bit too tense.

I have done some scary things in my life. I’ve gone whitewater rafting (on an Olympic course!). Singing in public is actually scarier to me than that, and I do that all the time. Public speaking is supposedly the biggest fear, and that doesn’t bother me at all. I travel alone, even to foreign countries. I got into some hairy situations in my TV news days and was praised even by cops for keeping a cool head. I write down my daydreams and share them with the world.

So maybe I’m not such a wimp. I guess I just don’t go looking for thrills. I don’t court danger, but I do take other kinds of risks.

Meh on Valentine’s Day

I know I’m generally considered a “romantic” writer. There are romantic subplots in almost everything I write. Most of my fan mail is about the relationships in my books. When I surveyed readers about what stands out in my books or what sets them apart, romance was high on the list.

So, I’d be expected to make a big deal out of Valentine’s Day, maybe use it for a promotional push. Except, I don’t really “get” Valentine’s Day.

It seems so weird to designate a particular day on which you’re expected to do something romantic, to buy gifts for your romantic partner, and go on a date. Never mind if that day has nothing to do with you or your relationship. And, oh dear, what if it happens to fall on the same day as a religious holiday? What are you to do?

I’m happily single, but even if I were in a relationship, I think I’d rather avoid the crowds and celebrate a date that was meaningful to us — an anniversary of a first date, wedding anniversary, one of our birthdays. Why celebrate just because an ad says we have to? A personal celebration seems much more romantic to me. Or there’s something to be said for spontaneity, celebrating your relationship whenever you feel like it — It struck me today how happy I am to have you in my life, so here’s some chocolate.

I’m rather glad that Valentine’s Day falls on Ash Wednesday this year. Then maybe I can sound pious instead of cynical when I say I’m focusing on something else. My church kind of smooshes together Fat Tuesday and Ash Wednesday by having a pancake supper followed by the Ash Wednesday service, and that’s what I’ll be doing tonight (with children’s choir before and chancel choir after).

And now I’m off to go write another one of my slow-build romantic relationships that isn’t technically a “romance.”

writing life

Why Your Writer Friend Gets Testy

Inspired by some posts I’ve seen some writer friends make recently and a bit of a grumpy mood, I present to you the Reasons Your Writer Friend Sometimes Gets Testy. Publishing is a strange business that doesn’t always work the way the rest of the world works, and that means it can be really stressful to be a writer. Read this, and you’ll realizes how important it is to support writers you love, whether they’re your friends/family or people whose work you enjoy.

There’s no correlation between experience level and earnings.
In the regular business world, you generally expect that when you’re entry-level, you earn a lower salary, and then as you gain experience, you get paid more. That’s not always how it works in publishing. Sometimes it does work that way, with writers gradually getting higher advances and then more promotion so their books earn more. But quite often, a brand-new writer may sign a contract with a huge advance while an established midlist writer will keep plugging away at about the same advance level over time — a level much lower than that new writer starts with. In the business world, new people get lower salaries than experienced people because the new person is an unknown quantity with a learning curve, while the more experienced person has proven their ability, and their experience means it will cost less and take less time to train them. It’s the opposite in publishing. The new person may get a higher advance because they’re an unknown quantity — they could be the next big thing — while they already know what to expect from the established person.

There’s also no correlation between quality and earnings.
I’m sure we can all think of some horribly written, unoriginal books that were smash bestsellers, and some good books that no one’s ever heard of. Sometime, that’s on the reading public, but there are certainly times when publishers pay a lot for and then heavily promote horribly written, unoriginal books while ignoring far better books.

So, authors don’t have the usual ways of improving their earnings. Sticking it out and becoming more experienced may or may not pay off. Working harder and writing better may or may not pay off.

It’s almost always considered the book’s or author’s fault if a book doesn’t do well.
There are lots of reasons why a book doesn’t find an audience. It may not be a good book or there may not be an audience for it. But it might also be because the cover is terrible, the book doesn’t get distributed well, there’s no promotion, or there’s some other, unrelated issue. I know of an author whose book was being carried from the printer to a distribution center in a train that derailed. Those copies were all destroyed in the accident and never made it to bookstore shelves in that region, which meant it didn’t sell in that region. When it came time to negotiate her next contract, the publisher held it against her that this book didn’t sell as well as her previous books. Or there have been cases in which the publicist responsible for a book left for another job a couple of weeks before publication, and no one realized until later that she hadn’t actually done any of the publicity work she was supposed to have done. Still, those poor sales were held against the author. There are a few stories of publishers who admitted that they did a terrible job of packaging and promoting a book and who then made an effort to relaunch that book or author, but it’s possible that these are urban legends.

And it’s not just publishers. Imagine if you will an author on release day, and their in-box is full of messages. You hope there will be a lot of “I’ve started reading your new book and love it” e-mails. There may be a few of those. The rest are more likely “Why didn’t your book download to my Kindle at midnight?” or “I looked for your book at my bookstore, but I didn’t find it. Why isn’t it there?” I’ve asked as politely as I could if they asked someone who actually works for the bookstore, and sometimes the response is “Oh, I didn’t think of that.” I’m not sure I understand the impulse to ask the author where to find something in a store instead of asking someone who works there. This may be why your author friend’s eyes flip to black and their neck veins stand out when you helpfully tell them you didn’t see their book at the store when you checked. You may mean well and be imparting information rather than expecting them to do something about it, but trust me, they’ve already heard all about it.

Sometimes, the author doesn’t get the credit when a book does well.
I know an author whose editor called to excitedly tell her that her book was a bestseller, and then said, “And we just had a meeting to try to figure out what it was about that cover that sold so well.” Because it couldn’t possibly have been the book itself, I guess.

Publishers can’t make a book a bestseller, but it’s hard to be a bestseller if the publisher hasn’t tried to make that happen.
That’s all about print run, placement, and promotion. There are lead titles that are positioned to be potential bestsellers. Sometimes, publishers guess wrong and all their efforts are for nothing (I have to admit to enjoying seeing lead titles from the time my books were published on remainder tables while my books are still in print). For the rest of the list, it’s almost a mathematical impossibility just because not enough books are printed and distributed to make a bestseller list even if every single copy sells. In the days of e-books, that makes a bit less of a difference, so maybe there’s a bigger chance of something being a surprise bestseller, but that would really take a stroke of luck without the promo behind it. Non-writer friends think writers are being pessimistic when they don’t hope for a new release to hit a bestseller list, but the fact is that they probably already know whether or not that’s even possible.

Sometimes, the performance of other books can make a difference to your career.
Imagine if you didn’t get a raise or a promotion, or if you even didn’t get hired or lost your job because someone with a similar job at an entirely different company didn’t perform well. That happens to authors. If books in a similar category to what you write don’t sell well, your publisher might not want more books from you or might give up on books that haven’t been published yet. They don’t look at it as that one book not performing. Frequently, they decide that category has tanked. Ask anyone who got caught up in the chick lit purge, when the industry decided those books were over after sales declined, and authors found themselves without publishers — even if their books were actually performing well.

So, you can see why there are some crazy stresses that come with this job, even if it is fun work that doesn’t require going to an office and having a boss stand over you. There’s a lot of stuff you have to just let go because you can’t control it. The only thing you can do is keep writing and keep trying to be better. That’s no guarantee of success, but it might improve your odds somewhat.


Murder on the Orient Express

I know I’m late to the party, but I finally saw the new version of Murder on the Orient Express last weekend. I missed it during first run because I was so busy when it came out, but it started playing at the discount theater, so I went with a group of friends.

I read the book ages ago (I went through a massive Agatha Christie phase in junior high), and I’m pretty sure I’ve seen the earlier movie version, but I really liked this one. I got the sense that they went into it knowing that most of the audience was well aware of the big twist, so instead of focusing on surprise, they made it more about a character study, letting us see some of the psychological analysis going on.

Mostly, though, it was a chance to watch a lot of great actors doing some really nice acting while wearing fabulous costumes in a gorgeous setting, with a lovely soundtrack. I even found myself wanting to see what happens next for the various characters. They seemed to be setting up more Poirot movies, but what I’m curious about is the aftermath for the other people, who I’m pretty sure won’t appear in future movies. I’d be totally up for the continuing adventures of Daisy Ridley’s clever and logical governess character — I’m sure she’d be inspired by Poirot to start solving mysteries on her own.

And it makes me want to take a train trip, but Amtrak is nothing at all like the Orient Express. I’m not even sure the Orient Express now is anything like this Orient Express. When I took a long-distance Amtrak trip, we did have a long unplanned stop because of a death, but it was because the train hit a deer, not because a passenger was murdered.

At least, that’s what they told us, but no one came to question me, and no one gathered us into the lounge car to reveal who the killer was, so I guess I believe the story.

Anyway, I’d recommend this movie to those who like Kenneth Branagh movies, those who like old movies (it really felt like an old movie, like something that could have been made in the 1940s, only with improved technology), those who like trains, and even those who like mysteries. It’s fun to see actors get to disappear so deeply into their characters that you don’t realize who some of those people are until you see the credits.



Yesterday morning I was off returning all my cable equipment, and now for the first time in my adult life I don’t have cable TV. I also don’t have any means of recording something I want to watch later, since I’d need a digital converter box to use my VCR. I do have a DVR on order, but it won’t be shipped until April. However, things have changed since the last time I went without a VCR, which was 1990. Now there are all kinds of streaming options for watching online. We didn’t have the Internet in a consumer form in 1990, and what did exist was pretty much text-only.

It turns out that there are a lot of local stations that weren’t included in the cable service, so there seems to be plenty to watch, especially if you like Star Trek or Night Court. One of the stations seems to be running episodes of the late 90s version of The Magnificent Seven (aka Attractive Men Wearing Leather and Riding Horses — apparently one of the reasons it got canceled is that they sold it to advertisers as a good way to reach male viewers, but for reasons the network executives couldn’t fathom, it drew a large female audience instead). About the only thing I’m missing is a good way to get my documentary fix, since the PBS digital subchannel that they were using for PBS World (basically, lots of documentaries) got turned into PBS Kids, which is less interesting to me. However, they also have a Create channel, which seems to be 90 percent cooking shows with the occasional This Old House and travel show. Fortunately, my library offers a few streaming services that have documentaries, and then there are a lot of DVDs at the library. Walking over once a week or so to pick up new DVDs to watch will be good for me.

On my first cable-free night, I watched a little of the Olympics (using the antenna!) and found that the picture was actually sharper and brighter than I got with cable. Then I watched a livestream of a wind symphony concert from the University of North Texas, via the Roku. See, I’m already becoming a lot more cultured.

I really hope to spend more time reading and writing. My book count was down last year, though I did read some pretty big ones that I should have counted as two. My writing time was way up last year, but I need to get back in a groove because I haven’t been doing as well this year so far.

The strange thing that’s bothering me the most and that I’m missing the most from cable is the clock on the front of the box. It had brightly lit, tall numbers that I could see from across the room, even without my glasses, and since it was set by the system, it stayed on time. I keep glancing in that direction to see what time it is. I have an atomic clock in the living room, but it isn’t lit up and the numbers aren’t as big, and it isn’t near where the TV is for easy glancing. I guess I’ll have to set the VCR clock, which is what I used in the old days before we got the fancy cable boxes with the digital readout on the front, but those numbers are small enough that I’ll need my glasses even to see from the sofa.

It’s strange the little things you get used to. But I’m sure I’ll adapt.


RIP Once Upon a Time

It’s my last day of cable TV, and yesterday there was some news that somewhat justifies cutting the cord. They’re cancelling Once Upon a Time.

I have such a love/hate relationship with that series. It had so much potential, but most of that potential went unrealized, which was frustrating. This final season has been a real mess, with me transitioning from enjoying it but snarking about it to pretty much flat-out hate-watching. They got rid of most of the characters I liked, even including one whose actor is still on the show (playing a different character who’s a different version of his original character) and the new characters are weak. They’re not even trying to make any of the worldbuilding make sense.

For instance, the timeline. This is driving me nuts. The new central character is the kid from the first six seasons, now all grown up. There are flashbacks taking place about 9-10 years ago, in which he’s already an adult, and then in the present day he has an 8-9-year-old daughter. But the same actors as before are playing the people who were adults in his life when he was a child, and they aren’t doing anything to age them, but they haven’t explained why at least 15 or so years have passed since the end of the previous season and one character grew up but nobody else has changed at all. I’m aging weirdly so that no one believes how old I really am, but if I look at photos from 15 or 20 years ago, there is a difference. One of these characters is immortal, which explains the lack of aging, but it doesn’t explain the others.

Then there’s the new setting. The new curse moving the fairy tale characters to our world didn’t create an isolated small town like before. They’re in a neighborhood in Seattle (present-day Seattle, in spite of so much time passing, but I’m sure that will eventually be explained), where the fairy tale people are mixed in with “real world” people, and I’m not sure how that works because two of the characters are cops in their cursed identities, and that would require having a background that could be checked. Someone couldn’t just magically appear out of nowhere and become a cop, and since magic doesn’t work in our world, would it be able to alter memories so that “real world” people remembered having worked for years with someone who just arrived? That sort of thing needs to become clear for the world to work.

And the city is so blah. I do think you can make a city feel magical. Look at Neverwhere. Or Grimm. Or Enchanted, Inc. Or any urban fantasy. They just haven’t done anything to make their setting feel like a place where you might meet Cinderella or Rumpelstiltskin.

So, I’m curious to see how they wrap it up, but the series going away means I won’t have to find a better antenna that will bring in ABC for next season (unless ABC comes up with a new series that sounds good).

And, meanwhile, I may have come up with a way to play with some of the ideas and concepts I liked from the show that I felt like the show didn’t explore without it being super obvious where I got the ideas. That was a challenge because the concept was so unique that there wasn’t much of a way to file off the serial numbers.

My Books

The World of Rebel Mechanics

Since I’m losing my cable on Thursday, I’ve been frantically trying to watch all the stuff I’ve recorded on my DVR. When something came on that I thought might make good reference material for a book I might work on, I recorded it, and I was planning to watch those things when time came around to work on that book. But now I’m having to watch all of it and take notes, and hope I can still remember it all when it comes time to write that book (or hope I can get some of those programs through other means, like through the library or some streaming service).

And, wouldn’t you know, tonight something that would make an excellent reference for a Rebels book is going to be on PBS, and recording it would do me no good since I have to get rid of the recorder in a couple of days. So I guess I’ll be watching and taking notes.

The program is an American Experience episode about the Gilded Age, which is the period in which the Rebels books are set. I chose that period to base my steampunk world on because of all the things that it looks like this program will highlight. There was a massive inequality of resources, with a few extremely rich people, a small middle class, and a vast number of people barely getting by and pretty much being held back by the extremely rich people who owned most of the factories and other means of employment and who kept wages so ridiculously low that their employees didn’t stand a chance. Poor people lived in terrible slums that were breeding grounds for diseases while rich people owned mansions on Fifth Avenue and spent millions of dollars throwing parties. It’s actually kind of a miracle that there wasn’t a revolution during that time, since the number of poor people vastly outnumbered the wealthy.

I thought that made it a good setting for a book that moved the American Revolution to a later time. In my world, it’s magic that gives the upper class a monopoly on power and production, and the revolution is as much against the British Empire as it is against the economic inequality, but all of it comes into play.

I don’t know if I’ll learn that much from watching this show, since I did a ton of research before writing these books, but if you want some good visuals to go with the books and some broader info about the world that inspired the books — or if you’re a teacher or librarian wanting to work these books into your curriculum — this would be worth a watch tonight (and they usually have these episodes available on the PBS web site for a week or two).

writing life

Writing and Financial Security

Yesterday’s post turned out to be oddly prescient. Not long after I posted it, I got an e-mail from the HOA reminding us that they’d let us know our cable contract was running out, and saying it ended Feb. 8. So, I figured I needed to go out and get an antenna.

The one I got picks up 69 stations, but not the ABC affiliate, which is annoying because that’s the one I watch the most. However, I only watch one program on it. Otherwise, it’s the news, which I can stream live via their app.

And then I realized I was being very all or nothing about the whole thing, resisting any kind of monthly fee. I think that’s one of the bits of emotional fallout from those lean years between the time I was laid off and the time I started selling novels again. I survived those years by being frugal and not spending additional money on things that weren’t absolutely necessary, and it seems that mindset has held over. Even though I’ve been making more money than I did with my old day job, my mind approaches everything as though I might not make any money at all this year. That’s unlikely, but big ups and downs are possible, so I could earn less than I need to live on if things go badly for me. I’ll probably earn most of this year’s income in the latter half of the year, which makes me feel a bit stressed earlier in the year. I’m not sure if I’ll ever feel totally secure and like the next year won’t rip everything away from me. Maybe if I’ve got a five-book contract for six figures for each book and a TV series in development, but otherwise, I’ll probably worry and be afraid to spend money.

But I figured out that there are other possible solutions. I’m going to look into something like Sling TV that will allow me to watch ABC programming in real time, as well as giving me the cable channels for shows I’m currently watching, along with a DVR-like service, and I can drop it after the TV season ends. Then I can figure out what to do next season, depending on what’s going to be on TV. I may be able to bring in that additional channel with an external tuner, by finding a way to place the antenna higher in my house, or by getting a more powerful antenna that I can put on the second floor. Or it may not matter to me then.

In the meantime, I should be thinking more about writing books or I’ll never reach that point of a five-book contract for six figures a book (it’s very unlikely that I’ll ever be at that level, but I can’t get to that level without actually writing the book). But first, I guess this weekend I’ll be watching everything I have saved up on the DVR before I have to return it. Most of it is reference material for books, so it kind of counts as work. I’ll be taking notes.


Television Options

I’ve spent the last couple of months learning way too much about television service and the various ways of getting it. I’ve pretty much always had cable during my adult life because it was provided as part of every apartment I had, and then when I bought a house, it was provided as part of the HOA fees. I did finally break down and get a DVR, which cost extra, a couple of years ago, but otherwise, I didn’t think much about it. I just watched it.

Then in December, buried in the HOA board meeting minutes that were e-mailed, it was mentioned that our contract with the cable company was expiring in February, and they had voted not to renew it. They listed what it would cost for each homeowner to get the same service — and they weren’t lowering the HOA fees. I was a bit astonished at the cost. I’m lucky that I could afford it, if I wanted it, but then I started thinking about how much (or little) I watch TV. I did a calculation of the things I regularly watch on cable that I would actually miss, and it would come to more than $10 an hour. I don’t want to watch more to make it worthwhile. I could take a lower-tier package, but the cable networks I watch most are only on the high-level tier, and it’s not that there are any particular shows I’m invested in there. That’s just my best sources of history documentaries that I tend to use as background noise or something to watch when there’s nothing else on. Almost everything else I watch is on regular broadcast TV.

So I started researching antennas. It seems I’m in a tricky area where I’m not too terribly far from the transmission towers, but I’m under a hill, so I don’t get line of sight. That means I’ll need a more powerful antenna. I tried a cheap “rabbit ears” and managed to get in the PBS stations fine, and a couple more, depending on the angle, but I didn’t get the station I watch most, especially for local news. Apparently, that station is more difficult to get.

My first real cord-cutting purchase was a Roku stick, and that may solve a lot of my dilemmas, as my local station has an app that allows you to stream the news live. Since a decent antenna should give me all the other local stations, that just leaves my ability to snark about Once Upon a Time in real time up in the air. ABC is weird about allowing streaming of their shows. Even though it’s a broadcast network, you have to have an account with certain cable companies to stream new episodes for the first week. Almost everything else, I should be able to either bring in with an antenna or stream. I’ll miss some of the stuff I watch on SyFy and the various Disney channels, but my library gets the DVDs when they come out, or there’s Amazon Instant Video, where it’s cheaper to buy a full season of a show than to get one month of cable service. I may eventually get Amazon Prime, which has a lot of video available in addition to the shipping, and they get Doctor Who, plus you can add an HBO subscription.

The other thing I’m looking at is what to do about a DVR. For a truly cheap option, I can get a digital converter box and hook it to the antenna and to a VCR, but you can also apparently hook a hard drive up to one and use it as a DVR. You just have to program it like a VCR in the old days rather than clicking on a program guide. There’s a fancier thing that’s supposed to be available a little later this year that seems to be a midpoint between the Tivo and this thing. And there’s an over-the-air Tivo, which might be overkill for me. I can’t imagine needing to record four things at once. I mostly use the DVR for time shifting when something is on late, recording something that will be on while I’m out, or for archiving a series that I’d like to binge watch or rewatch. My local PBS station often shows interesting things in odd time periods, and it’s nice to be able to record it. I’m not sure the Tivo is worth that. Then again, it costs what about a year of the DVR and DVR service from the cable company costs.

And I’ve probably more time to researching all this than I spent actually watching TV in the last couple of months. I don’t watch that much these days, and I’d like to either watch less or focus on watching things that are worthwhile, that I choose to watch rather than just looking for something that’s on. I’d rather spend the time reading or writing or doing other things.

Then I need to come up with ways to force myself not to waste so much time online goofing off or obsessively researching things that aren’t immediately critical.