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News This Third Week of June

Hope everyone is enjoying their summer (or winter, depending on which part of the world you’re in). Lots of rain, green, and mosquitoes here.

Over on Chris Henderson’s blog, TheWriteChris, I talk about Writing Sci-Fi and Making it Real. Chris sent me a list of insightful questions, such as What’s the best advice about writing you want to pass along? Spoiler alert — I quote Neil Gaiman in the answer.


The sequel to The Far Time Incident has gone into the developmental edit and I’ve been reworking the draft based on feedback from my editor, Angela Polidoro. Angela is fantastic at her job, somehow managing to zero in on small, sentence-scale issues while simultaneously keeping her finger on the big-picture pulse of the story. This stage of things is both fun and stressful, as I’m making any last major changes to the story and watching it (hopefully!) all come together. 

Book 2 in the Incident series is slated for publication sometime in early 2014, which seems really far away, but there is a lot to be done between now and then for the book via the trusty hands of everyone at 47North. After the developmental edit, there’s the copyedit, the proofread, cover design and promo text, Advance Reader Copies to be printed and sent out, and whatever else I might have forgotten to put on the list! Rolling up sleeves and getting back to work…

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Launch Day – The Far Time Incident

It’s here! The Far Time Incident releases today in trade paperback, Kindle, and audiobook formats. Am I excited? Yes. Am I nervous? Yes. I feel I should say something deep and profound to mark the occasion, like that writing a book is like building a boat and that I’ve done the best job I could with hammer and nail, hoisted the mast and sail, carefully painted the name on the prow, and all I can hope for at this point are a calm sea and a good tailwind. 

Not for nothing is it called a book launch

The point, I think, is this — that publishing means letting the book sail where it will, releasing it into the sometimes murky, sometimes stagnant, and sometimes wonderfully blue publishing waters. Yes, the publisher and you do what you can to help it along by sending out copies to reviewers and spreading the word via social media and other means, and hope that book finds a home in readers’ hearts. But ultimately it means that the time has come to focus your efforts on building that next boat, and I have — the sequel to the Far Time Incident is well in the works, with a nice solid draft sitting in my computer.


But today I’m here to watch a boat sail away. Here’s to a great launch!

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Audio Book News – Mary Robinette Kowal

The Far Time Incident has found an awesome narrator in Mary Robinette Kowal. I cannot wait to hear the audio book — it comes out the same day as the print and Kindle editions, April 9. Here is Mary’s bio from her website:  

Mary Robinette Kowal is the author of Shades of Milk and Honey (Tor, 2010) and Glamour in Glass (Tor, 2012). In 2008 she received the Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and in 2011, her short story “For Want of a Nail” won the Hugo Award for Short Story. Her work has been nominated for the Hugo, Nebula and Locus awards. Her stories appear in Asimov’sClarkesworld, and several Year’s Best anthologies. Mary, a professional puppeteer, also performs as a voice actor, recording fiction for authors such as Elizabeth Bear, Cory Doctorow and John Scalzi. She lives in Chicago with her husband Rob and over a dozen manual typewriters. Visit www.maryrobinettekowal.com

I am so glad that the book is in such experienced hands (note that Mary is not only a Hugo Award winner but also a puppeteer — how cool is that?). Early last week we fine-tuned the pronunciation of the Latin names and words in the Pompeii section of the book, something I didn’t pay a lot of attention to in the writing stage. Mary needed to know whether to use Classical Latin or the more modern (Ecclesiastical) Latin. (As an example, Veni, vidi, vici would have been way-nee, wee-dee, wee-kee originally.) We settled on having her use Classical in the short bits of dialogue with Pompeian locals Sabina, Secundus, and others, and the more familiar modern Latin for place names and such. And yes, I’m going to be more aware of this side of things from now on, and maybe think twice before incorporating tongue-twisters like Gnaeus Alleius Nigidius Maius (who was a real person, by the way) into the manuscript. Mary seemed to take it all in stride, though.

As an added bonus, Mary’s own books sound right up my alley and will make for great reading on our upcoming winter break. Other things to look forward to are seeing family and feeling that warm Florida sunshine… Bone-chilling subzero temperatures here this week.

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Cover Reveal

It’s gone up live on Amazon, so I am at liberty to reveal the cover of The Far Time Incident  — the book is coming out on April 9 (in less than three months!) Without further ado, here it is:

I think 47North did an awesome job with it. The characters spinning back in time and into Vesuvius, the concentric circles… perfect.  (On a side note, close readers of this blog might notice that we dropped the dash in “Far-Time”. It makes the title a little less Chicago-Manual-of-Style correct, but crisper, we agreed all around.)

Here’s the product description from the Amazon page:

When a professor’s time-travel lab is the scene of a deadly accident, the academic world and the future of St. Sunniva University get thrown into upheaval. As assistant to the dean of science, Julia Olsen is assigned to help Campus Security Chief Nate Kirkland examine this rare mishap…then make it quietly go away!

But when the investigation points toward murder, Julia and Chief Kirkland find themselves caught in a deadly cover-up, one that strands them in ancient Pompeii on the eve of the eruption of the world’s most infamous volcano. With the help of their companions—a Shakespearean scholar and two grad students—Julia and the chief must outwit history itself and expose the school’s saboteur before it’s too late.

The Far Time Incident is a smart, richly inventive novel that skillfully weaves together mystery, history, and science to create a mesmerizing and addictive read.

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Five Writing Truths That Should Be Obvious but Aren’t… And a Happy New Year!

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 Hope everyone had (or is having) a good holiday break. The new year is just a few days away and, as I look ahead, I realize I’ll soon cease to be a debut novelist—the publication of The Far Time Incident is just around the corner (early April, more than three months from now, isconsidered just around the corner in the world of publishing.) I’ve learned many practical things since Regarding Ducks and Universes came out, like where to order business cards (I like Moo) and how to make a pic like the one above that says 2013 and incorporate it into a blog post. But I’ve been thinking about the big things, the ones that perhaps should be obvious but aren’t. These five writing truths will probably be of interest mostly to other writers, but here they are anyway:
1. Not everyone will like your book. In fact, someone somewhere will think that it’s the worst book in the world. And say so publicly—on a forum, in a tweet, in an Amazon review, or all three. Don’t worry—yours and my book can’t both be the worst book in the world. Only one is and I’ve yet to come across it.
2. What goes up must come down. For every promotion where you excitedly watch your book climb the Amazon bestseller lists, there is an inevitable reversal that follows (how soon depends on how big your book gets) where you get to watch your pride and joy slowly sink in the ranks. Writing is a business where your sales numbers and royalties (i.e., your paycheck) can vary wildly from month to month and from year to year.
3. Reviews—you don’t have to read them. I’m not talking about reviews from Publisher’s Weekly or Kirkus, but the ones readers leave on sites like Amazon, Goodreads, and LibraryThing. I am very grateful for these and appreciate that people take the time to write them—a good reader review is almost irreplaceable in helping spread the word about a book. But if you drop everything and run off to read every new review that pops up on Amazon, only to emerge elated or crushed, you’re setting yourself up for an emotional roller coaster. I recommend staying away from the one and two stars (see point 1: Not everyone will like your book) unless you have nerves of steel. I don’t. Besides, I figure that book reviews are meant for other readers, not for me as the author.
4. No one can predict how well your book will sell. Regarding Ducks and Universeshas done better (sales-wise and review-wise) in the US than in the UK. Why? I don’t know. Maybe they just like me better over here. The just-released German translation seems to doing nicely so far on Amazon.de (Danke, German readers!), better than the English version in the Canada store. Was there any way to predict that? Not in my, uh, book. The point is that, as with reviews, tying your worth as a writer to your book’s sales numbers at any given moment is a recipe for a lot of emotional ups and downs. So don’t do it. (Easier said then done, I know.)
And, finally:
5. Writing is just like any other job. But only the people you live with know this (and that’s if you’re lucky, and I am). Friends and neighbors will wonder why your house is always messy and why you’re perpetually behind on your errands, when as a writer you are flush with free time. After all, you’re your own boss, aren’t you? Yes, but you’re also the only employee—there’s no one to pass on the job of writing to. If you take a sick day, the manuscript word count doesn’t budge. As a rule, you don’t get up in the morning and wonder when you’ll get around to doing some writing; you get up and you do it. On a side note, yes, you do have to pay taxes, as in any other job.
And that’s it. Just five things. As I write these, I realize that knowing them is not the same as keeping them in mind, which I know I need to work harder at. A New Year’s resolution, then.

May the New Year bring lots of good things to you and yours! 

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Pics from Pompeii

Just returned from a local-color and fact-gathering weeklong trip to Pompeii for the book I’ve been working on. I’ve been wanting to go for a while now and the stars finally aligned. It was extraordinary to walk on the ancient paving stones and to see the places I’ve spent the past year, on and off, reading and writing about. Travel time from Minneapolis was about 20 hours and the jet lag weighed me down a bit, but I returned having met some great people — Italians and co-travelers from Britain, New Zealand, Spain, and California, not to mention our trusty tour leader Tony O’Connor, who patiently answered all my questions about what life in ancient Pompeii might have been like — and with a camera full of photos and some good notes.

Here is a picture of me in the Forum, with a notepad, camera, hat, backpack, and shades:



Venus in a shell
HAVE = Welcome
Villa Oplontis

Floor mosaic with geometric design.
Vesuvius, framed between two pine trees. 

The picture below was taken from Vesuvius looking in the direction of Naples, though it’s hard to get a sense of scale. To get to the summit, you take a local bus for a somewhat hair-raising drive up a narrow two-way road with blind curve upon blind curve, followed by a walk up to the crater on a steep gravelly road. The views are well worth it. We thought we saw a bit of steam drift up from the crater and smelled sulfur at one point, after which we had to rush downhill so as not to miss our bus.

I even took an afternoon off to relax by the hotel pool, with its cliff-top views of the bay and lemon trees for shade, and sat in a lounge chair doing light edits of the manuscript. Writing is hard work.

 

View from hotel in Vico Equense. That’s Vesuvius across the bay.
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Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

So I went to my son’s school* last week and talked to the second graders about being a writer. The kids were great, engaged and interested and full of all sorts of practical questions. They squeezed into a classroom, all one hundred of them, and sat on the floor all around me. It didn’t bother them one bit that I wasn’t a writer of children’s books (which I had been somewhat concerned about). I had a book and that was all that mattered. The duck on the cover probably helped, too.

The questions ranged from Are you going to write a sequel? (not in the cards for now) to What are you working on? (a time-travel story) to What are section breaks? (which was actually a bit hard to explain.)
 
There were so many questions that the whole thing was more of a conversation than a talk on my part, which was a good thing.
 
None of the kids asked the classic Where do you get your ideas?, but one of the teachers did. The real answer is that I don’t know — ideas just seem to be there, swirling. The tricky part isn’t getting an idea, but plucking the right one from the vortex and then giving it life and shape and turning it into a story. A book isn’t a single idea, either — it’s a slew of them, small ones, medium ones, big ones, woven together into (one hopes) something new and interesting. The trickiest part for me is figuring out which ideas will work and which ones are duds or unrealistically grand or too small, and on occasion the only way to know is to try to get them onto the page and either fail or not.
 
So we talked about how they probably have lots of ideas when they daydream and such, and also about how long it takes to write a book (a year, I said, and they were duly impressed.)
 

The half an hour went by quickly and it was time to leave. On the way out I asked my son, “How was it?” He said, Fineseeyoulater, just like that, very fast. I think he was worried I’d embarrass him by giving him a hug in front of the other kids or something.


So where do I get my ideas?


I think they find me.


——–

*Name withheld for privacy reasons. Because how embarrassing would it be if one of your parents blogged about you publicly and even mentioned you and your school by NAME.

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I wait.

I’m not good at waiting. As it happens, a large part of the business side of the writing life seems to involve waiting. This is merely an observation, not a complaint.

At first, depending on your circumstances, you probably have to wait to chisel out the free time to write at all.

Then there’s the writing itself, which takes a while, but that part is fun.

Next you’re querying agents and waiting to hear back. This involves a LOT of waiting. More likely than not, you may not hear back at all (again, merely an observation, not a criticism), and after a month or a few, you cross that agent off your list. (It used to be that this part of the process might stretch out to the point where you simply give up and stash your manuscript in a drawer forever, but these days you can put your book directly on the Kindle, Nook, etc., and bypass the agent-publisher route. Options are a nice thing to have.)

If you find an agent and a publisher, things suddenly enter a strange zone where time moves both slow AND fast. Slow, because the publication date seems so far away, but fast because there is a lot going on—the editorial process to get through, the choosing of the cover, the proof-reading of the Advance Reader copies (these get sent out to old media and new media reviewers), the wait for the reviews themselves, publicity interviews and appearances to be arranged, book giveaways organized, your website updated, bookmarks or postcards to be designed and ordered, and so on.
Still, before you know it, that publication date that seemed so far in the future is here and your book is out—and now you’re waiting for readers to find it, doing your best to help spread the word. Your Facebook page is slowly acquiring followers, your Klout score is rising, reviews are starting to trickle in to your Amazon product page. Life is good.

Then you write the next one—and perhaps, as it happens, it might just have 92,000 words and be called THE FAR-TIME INCIDENT. One day last week, you send it to your editor… and now you wait, biting your nails, to hear back.
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Don’t Be a Hog and Other Rules for Coffeehouse Writers

True story. The other day I went to my out-of-home “office”, the neighborhood coffeehouse (henceforth known as Coffeehouse). Usually I come mid-morning, when there are plenty of free spots — Coffeehouse serves pastries and sandwiches, so at lunch time it can get pretty crowded. This day I was a bit late, so I was happy to get the last free table next to an electrical outlet, by the Coffeehouse fireplace. I put my stuff down, my jacket, research materials, mango smoothie, bagel, and laptop… and reached to plug in my laptop cord. Only to discover that the person at the neighboring table had taken both sockets, top and bottom.

I live in the Twin Cities, so trust me when I say that people usually go out of their way to be nice and act un-hoglike (when grocery checkers ask, “Morning, how are you?”, they really want to know.)  The socket-taker had a laptop and an e-reader — hence the two cords — and also a long-drained cup of coffee and a thick anatomy textbook. A pre-med student? She must have noticed me arrive, I think, but didn’t look up from the textbook or offer to unplug one of her devices. My battery was low, so what could I do? Uncomfortably (as I kinda try to be, as much as I can, one of those nice and un-hoglike people) I interrupted her studying and mumbled a polite inquiry as to whether she really needed both things plugged in. She proceeded to unplug one of the cables, grudgingly, and I was able to get some work done.

The incident (yes, in Minnesota, this counts as an incident) got me thinking about how there should be a set of guidelines for writers and others using public spaces as offices on a regular basis. So this is what I’ve come up with:

A Coffeehouse Writer’s Guidelines:

1. Don’t take a 4-person table if there are 2-person tables available. Yes, you need room for your laptop, e-reader and/or books, cellphone, coffee mug, etc., but the coffeehouse has to stay in business (see Rule 2). It’s enough that you’re using their physical space, their electricity, and their Wi-Fi.

2. Help keep the coffeehouse in business. Don’t assume the staff is okay with you buying a lone cup of coffee and staying for four hours. Buy a pastry, a fruit salad, lunch. Don’t sneak in your own food. Really.

3. Don’t be a hog. Electrical outlets are there for everyone to share. Don’t take more than one socket. Invest in a dual outlet adapter. Don’t block outlets with your backpack or briefcase or winter coat.

4. Invest in a pair of headphones. It’s a coffeehouse, not an office or a library. Don’t throw mean looks at the loud party chit-chatting about holiday travel plans or the stay-at-home dad who came in with the boisterous toddler just to get out of the house. They have as much right to be there as you do.

5. Be nice. By now the staff probably knows you by sight, so get to know their names. Ami, the manager of Coffeehouse, took the trouble to learn how to pronounce my name, and the rest of the staff, Carol 1, Carol 2, and Tracey always ask me how I’m doing. This is their workplace. You are, after all, a guest.

6. Don’t base characters in your screenplay or novel on the people who work at the coffeehouse. It just seems rude for some reason. Also, if you ever hit it big, they might recognize themselves. Customers, on the other hand, are okay to use for inspiration. Some of them are probably doing it to you in return.

7. Know when to leave. If the coffeehouse gets really busy and your latte or cappuccino is long gone except for a thin, cold puddle on the bottom of the cup, it’s time to pack up your stuff and leave. Again, you’re a guest. Guests should know when to leave.

8. Finally, the miscellaneous stuff: Don’t leave a mess behind, Don’t talk loudly on your cellphone, and No, the coffeehouse might not be the best place to play that violent video game you’re addicted to. These seem like common sense (though you’d be surprised).

One more thing. Though the above guidelines are meant for writers, most apply to other coffeehouse regulars — like students, website designers, etc. As to the premed student so wrapped up in her studying that she was oblivious to the needs of others? Well, who can blame her? I’ll be the first to admit that the rules can be hard to stick to. Lunchtime crowds and empty coffee cups be damned, who wants to pack up and leave if their creative/academic/entrepreneurial juices are flowing? Been there myself. 

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I’m a Writer, not a Critic

Some people give out book ratings like they’re candy. I’m not one of them. A hundred or so books sit on my virtual shelves on Goodreads. I’ve written a handful of one-sentence reviews, but so far I’ve only given a single rating — for an audio book. Stephen Fry reading the Harry Potter books. Phenomenal. Five stars. Easy-peasy to give it a rating. Same with movies — I’ve rated dozens and dozens of movies on Netflix, four stars, two stars, five stars, not interested, whatever. No problem.

Books not so much. It’s worked for me so far.

But the other morning I awoke to this on my Goodreads author dashboard:

It’s the new recommendations feature. In the large gray square it points out that I’ve rated only one book (the Stephen Fry reading Harry Potter audio set; Goodreads treats books and audio books the same), and to the right it tells me that I need to rate at least 19 more (twenty being apparently the minimum threshold) to get personalized recommendations from the site.

Maybe it would be different if I’d grown up with the everyone’s-opinion-counts-equally-and-should-be-heard system, but I didn’t. The hundred books on my virtual shelf are only a sample, a sliver of my reading life, the books I happened to catch sight of on my (real-life) bookcases in the past few months and thought, that’s a good book, I should it to my Goodreads shelf. If I added all my P.G. Wodehouses, that be, like, another hundred books right there.

Besides, how do you rate a book you read years ago and remember fondly but suspect that rereading it now that you’re an (ahem) older, wiser adult might change your view of it?

How do you rate books by fellow authors?

For that matter, how do you rate a book in the first place? I think I’m too close to them. I rate movies easily because I’m not in the movie industry. Does anyone expect George Lucas to rate films? (Actually, I have no idea. For all I know, he might.)

By the way, I like all the books on my Goodreads shelf. Why go to the effort of adding them otherwise?

Goodreads recommendations are a welcome feature, but I don’t think that in itself will nudge me into assigning ratings. One thing might, however. It’s not that “1” that sits in the large gray square above. It’s the unintended grammar gaffe in it: “You’ve rated 1 books so far.” That will drive me nuts in about a week, and I’ll have to rate at least one book to change the “1” into a “2”. Once I’ve done that, well…