I was chatting with my publisher, talking about organizing writing events, and I had an idea. I said, “Maybe I should do a twitch stream of me writing!” I was totally joking, imagining people watching me stare at a computer screen with a look of focused concentration. (Or, you know, look at Twitter.) But he said, “It might actually be fun to do something like this for everyone one afternoon. ‘Watch our Authors at Work.'”

I thought a little more and said, “Maybe we could make up a stream that has cameras watching the authors like Hollywood Squares with word counts visible while we do sprints.”

At first, I speculated that it might be complicated enough to do this that I should look for a student or someone to do it but, upon reflection, it proved to be relatively simple to set up. Maybe there are easier ways, but here’s how I did it:

First, it assumes the writing will be in a text file called “obs_sprint.txt” in your home directory. To write the file, I use atom.io with the autosave-onchange plugin turned on. But other editors would be possible.

To do the word counts, I wrote a bash script: “obswc.sh”

#! /bin/bash
while [ : ]
	echo Words: `cat ~/obs_sprint.txt | wc -w` | tee ~/obs_word_count.txt
	sleep 30

Every 30 seconds, this script outputs the word count to the shell (so you can see it) and saves it to a second text file called “obs_word_count.txt”. The script runs until you kill it with control-C. (Note, we could easily change the delay if 30 seconds isn’t frequent enough.)

Next, I configured OBS Studio to have a Text “source” reading from the word count text file. Then I made the text big (200pt) and placed it up a bit from the bottom (so it won’t be covered by the Zoom controls). Finally, I used “Start Virtual Camera” and selected the virtual camera in Zoom. (Note that in Zoom, the preview it shows you of yourself is flipped horizontally, but other people will see the correct view).

Now I can start the script, empty out the obs_sprint.txt text file, and start writing. Every 30 seconds, my word count will be updated on screen.

Now if we can just get John Scalzi and Chuck Wendig to go head-to-head!

Years ago, I read about the idea of guerrilla marketing: a low cost way to try to attract interest. The core was to post something mysterious, funny, or inexplicable that would get people to notice something and that you could use to tie to what you wanted people to buy.

With my new book For the Favor of a Lady coming out on March 25 (via Water Dragon Publishing) I thought perhaps I could attract some interest doing something other than just plugging the books.

I figured out one way to avoid just plugging by attaching my announcements to the story fragments I write for #vss365. Every day there is a new prompt and I usually write a one tweet story fragment. Periodically, I write a fragment that references characters and situations from my existing stories and, as a second tweet in the thread, I add a pitch for my stories. I don’t have metrics that indicate it “works”, but it makes me feel better than posting and reposting the same plug. But I wanted to try something new.

On the book covers, we’ve begun to develop some motifs. One is that each cover has a dirigible on it. And we’ve also added some framing around the edges. So I wondered if I could take some photographs that had framing like that and then photoshop in a dirigible.

I went through all my old pictures and found that I basically didn’t have any pictures that that kind of framing. So I gave up on the part.

I went to Flickr and found three pictures of dirigibles that were by themselves in the sky (easily photoshoppable) and were not restricted against remixing or commercial use. In some cases, I had to make some adjustments (erasing text on the dirigible). And then I inserted them into some pictures.

“Good Year Blimp” flickr photo by tequilamike https://flickr.com/photos/hyttinen/2273716687 shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license
“Goodyear Blimp” flickr photo by Phil_Parker https://flickr.com/photos/45131642@N00/6996190987 shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license
“German Zeppelin NT” flickr photo by Kecko https://flickr.com/photos/kecko/4080605473 shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

It worked about as well as I could have hoped. (OK — I could always hope that it would go viral and get millions of views). But a friend was only too happy to play tsukomi to my boke:

I couldn’t have asked for a better straight line.

I can keep doing it for a while to see if I can fish anybody else in.

A couple of months ago, I volunteered to read submissions (aka “slush”) for Water Dragon Publishing when I had some time. After picking his jaw up off the floor, the editor welcomed my offer and said he would send me some manuscripts when I was ready. With the beginning of spring break, I finally had time and was provided with 16 manuscripts to start with. It’s been a fascinating experience for me.

When my brother Philip Brewer attended Clarion, he mentioned that he’d been expecting that getting his own manuscripts critiqued was what would be the most useful thing. But it turned out that critiquing other manuscripts and seeing what other people made of them was actually more useful. Reflecting on the experience he wrote a blog post about how to critique a manuscript. In my case, I was writing something far short of a full critique, but I found these principles helpful to structure my thinking.

I’ve come to realize that most of what is published in science fiction falls into a rather narrow slice of what gets written. And so studying what’s been published is not particularly useful for learning. What gets submitted, however, is a much richer source of data for learning to recognize problems. It’s hard to look at my own writing and recognize problems with exposition or pacing. But the slush pile has a lot of manuscripts where these problems are manifest. It’s been really helpful for giving me a better sense for how to recognize and address these problems with my own writing.

I’ve finished a first slug of manuscripts and requested another set to look at before spring break is over. It’s not something I’m going to want to do forever, but it’s been a fascinating adventure. What I really should do is join a writing group. But I haven’t found one yet where I feel comfortable. I’ll keep looking.

When I attended Boskone several years ago, I had a brief interaction with Walter Jon Williams. He wrote many stories that I loved, but I particularly enjoyed a trilogy he wrote about a character named Drake Maijstral, Gentleman Thief. In these science-fiction stories, humans had been incorporated into a galactic empire and one of the customs was a role for people to be an “Allowed Burglar” provided their thievery was carried off with panache. They were written as a “comedy of manners” and undoubtedly are some of the inspiration for those elements in my own writing.

Anyway, when I thanked him for writing these wonderful stories that I had loved, he replied, “Oh, so you were the one who liked them!” He clarified that they had not been a commercial success so it was unlikely there would be any more. That’s sad, but at least I got to read those three. I should probably buy new copies and read them again — they were wonderful.

Another story you don’t hear people talk about much anymore is Space for Hire. This was a book by William F. Nolan who became famous for his book Logan’s Run. His earlier book was a pastiche of the noir detective novels with the main character, Sam Space, clearly modeled on Sam Spade of the Maltese Falcon. They were silly and lighthearted. And, as a teenager (or perhaps still pre-teen) I loved that book.

As I was going to write this blog post, I couldn’t quite remember the name of the book so had to google it and found this blog post by someone else who also identified it as a “forgotten book.”

Another story I remember from my teenaged years was a Heinlein novel. This story, in some ways, might better remain forgotten — except for the fact that it’s ideas are still jiggeting around inside my head.

One of the challenges about getting older is how much culture changes: all of the messages and ideas you’re exposed to in your youth influence you in complex ways as you grow up and become an adult.

This was brought home to me when I did my graduate study in science education. One of the key things I learned in my course of graduate work was a really simple idea but that had profound repercussions for everything I later did professionally. Many of our traditional educational practices are based on the false premises that students come in without advanced knowledge and that our teaching transmits the necessary knowledge to them. These fundamental ideas appears everywhere in our traditional thinking about instruction — for example, we might ask ourselves after a lesson, “Did they get it?” (Meaning, did I successfully transmit the concept?)

In my graduate work, I came to understand that learning is not the product of teaching: it is the product of the activity of the learner. Students are not empty vessels waiting to be filled up and you can’t transmit knowledge to them. Students already know a lot of stuff and, for students to learn, they need to consider what they already know and then replace and extend it through their own activity.

It’s one thing to know this and it’s quite another to expunge a lifetime of experience and metaphors and everything else. For many years, I would find myself saying something and only while I was saying it, realize that it was yet another transmissionist idea or metaphor that I had uncritically learned, but never seriously considered or questioned — or updated with my new found insights.

The book I’m talking about is The Day After Tomorrow. At least, that’s what it was called when I read it. I was unaware a lot of the history of the story until I looked at the Wikipedia article. The story idea actually came from Joseph Campbell who has been pilloried in the science fiction community over the past 10 years for his openly racist ideas.

In this story, published originally in 1941 (during World War II), the United States has been conquered by a “pan-asiatic” army and a tiny outpost of American military develops a super weapon that can discriminately kill people based on racial heritage. The whole book has a lot of racist thinking in it, of the kind most of us thought had died out, until Donald Trump made white supremacists think it was OK to crawl out of the sewers and cesspools they’d been hiding in for years.

The thing I remember best from the story was the use of infrasonic vibrations. They use low-frequency vibrations to disorient people. Of course sound has now been weaponised by the LRAD.

But who knows what else I remember from the story that is still in there waiting for me to bring it to mind to consider and expunge it? It’s a long-term problem. Fortunately, it’s a problem of fixed term.

When we first started talking about the cover of For the Favor of a Lady (Book Two of Revin’s Heart by Water Dragon Publishing) I said, thinking of the climactic last scene, “Well, it’s gotta be Ravensbelth with an airship overhead, right?” So we started with that. But when I looked at the proposed artwork, I realized it actually fits even better for the next book Storm Clouds Gather. So we set that one aside and started thinking again. Then I remembered a passage from the story:

Lady Momoire occupied a luxurious suite of rooms on a corner of the palace, with windows looking north and west, over the ocean. Revin imagined watching the sunset through the windows and then shook the image out of his head.

Seeing a cover come together for a story I wrote still doesn’t seem quite real. It’s such a magical experience to have other people becoming invested in my stories. Seeing the scenes I imagine coming to life through the eyes of other people is something I had not really thought about before I was published as an author.

The covers for Paper Angel Press are being done by Niki Lenhart and I could not be happier. As we have gone from a single story to a series, we’re starting to identify motifs: in the first, we viewed an airship through a porthole. This time, through a window. And there will likely be similar framing for the stories going forward. It’s as though we’re developing a pattern language for the covers that tie them together. As I’m writing the next stories, now I’m beginning to think of iconic scenes that would work well for cover imagery.

Who knew that writing could be so much fun!

The real challenge will be when we do the fix-up novel that collects the novelettes. I predict that’s going to be tough to choose.

Once upon a time, I thought an author would write a book, get it published, and then write their next book. But, once upon a time, I also believed in Santa Claus.

Let me start by admitting that I have never seriously considered becoming a “writer” as a career. I’ve had an eclectic employment history, but I came to writing rather late in life. My first speculative fiction publication (in Esperanto) was in 2010 (in my late 40s). That is also the year I self-published my first book, Poŝtmarkoj el Esperantujo, a collection of haiku in Esperanto and English with imaginary postage stamps, using Createspace.

I went on to self-publish another three books. These are books where I did very nearly everything (although I got a friend to help me edit the manuscripts — you really can’t edit your own manuscripts.) But I did the writing and page layout and cover art and interior art. And “promotion” — if you could call it that.

These books were not commercial successes. But I never expected them to be. I made them mostly for fun — so I could give copies of my poetry to friends and family. And to learn about self-publishing. It was an interesting and valuable experience. But I also came to appreciate how much work it is to self-publish.

I’ve never been traditionally published, although I’ve seen book publishing up close. I’ve worked on several book projects for traditional textbook publishers. And been invited on some of their junkets. My father published several books. And my brother has always been interesting in writing and publishing.

But the key point I’m making is that I’m not personally that invested in my writing becoming a significant part of my financial support. I wouldn’t mind, but that’s not primarily why I’m writing. And this fact drove a lot of my decisions about how I approached choosing a publisher for my work.

In Fall 2021, I signed a contract with Water Dragon Publishing (an imprint of Paper Angel Press) to publish my first work of speculative fiction in English, The Third Time’s the Charm. Working with a small press offers unique opportunities and challenges to an author. But it’s not for everyone. Anyone who is tempted to go with a small press should probably be aware of the trade-offs before signing a contract.

Publishers are a kind of specialized venture capital firm. They put up the capital to publish a book hoping to recoup their investment plus profit. But more importantly, a publisher hopes to discover the Next Big Thing. That’s what they’re really hoping to do: to discover the new writer today that becomes tomorrow’s great and famous writer.

Large (traditional) publishers basically require you to work with an agent. A small publisher probably won’t. Agents can be helpful in terms of negotiating the terms of the contract. And knowing which publishers are most likely to be interested in your manuscript (and, indeed whether your manuscript is likely to be publishable by one of the traditional publishers.) But, of course, their labor doesn’t come for free either. Their interests are aligned with yours but, at the same time, they’re also probably on friendly terms with the publishers too. (Make of that fact what you will.)

With a small publisher, you’re on your own. This is, front and center, one of the primary reasons that Writer Beware warns against small presses. “Be afraid! Be very afraid!” You, as the author, will be negotiating with them directly.

That said, a good small publisher will act like your agent for many of the tasks you would otherwise need to do yourself if you were self-publishing. And, in some ways, is better than an agent: An agent probably has some good ideas about what kinds of manuscripts a publisher is accepting. But the small publisher knows. 🙂

Small publishers tend to not have deep pockets. So don’t expect an advance. But you will probably get a more favorable revenue sharing arrangement. What does a small publisher do? They do the publishing: they edit your manuscript, do the layout, arrange for the cover art, etc., etc.

Perhaps, the biggest challenge is that small publishers (and authors) face is publicity. The large publishers have a track record and established relationships with the national vendors and media outlets to help get favorable placement for their authors in book stores and advertising. Small publishers mostly do not.

In point of fact, however, the large publishers have been pushing authors to take larger and larger roles in publicizing their work. Authors are encouraged to maintain a presence in social media and try to develop a fanbase that can help get “word-of-mouth” referrals, which is the gold standard (or, perhaps, best manure) for growing sales. And as the traditional publishers make the author do more and more of the publicity work anyway, there are fewer and fewer downsides to going with a small publisher anyway.

If you imagine a line between self-publishing (where you do everything) and traditional publishing, there are a whole range of small presses in between that offer more or fewer services. Shop around! Look at what kinds of books they’re already publishing: Will your work complement what’s already there? Do you like their selection of cover art?

And be sure to do your due diligence: What’s their track record? How long have they been around? Have they been reported as a vanity press? Are people complaining about them?

But if you do decide to go with a small press, you should understand that the relationship is a two-way street. The press has chosen to invest in your work. They’re going to do whatever they can to help you succeed. And that means it’s incumbent on you to also help your work succeed. You need to advocate for yourself and get your work out there. But you should also try to help raise the profile of the press: their success will also be your success.

Don’t publicize your book with links to distributors! Link directly to the publisher! They can provide the links to a range of vendors that buyers might prefer. And people going to look at your book might find other things at the press to buy.

Tag the press when you post about your work! Help the public to discover and learn about the press! The more people are looking at the press, the more likely they are to discover what other stuff they might have — including stuff you have there.

Work together with the other authors at the press! They can help cross-market your work and coordinate with publicity. And help discover opportunities (awards, conventions, etc.) that might be useful. Who knows? You might even make a friend or two.

At its best, your relationship with a small publisher is a kind of partnership. If you were self-publishing, you’d be on your own. But with a publisher, you’ve got someone you can work with, ask questions of, and get advice from. Take best advantage of this partnership and work together.

Neil Clarke spoke at length during a kaffeklatsch at Boskone about editing and publishing. Having submitted a half-dozen manuscripts to Clarkeworld, with none of them selected, I was interested to have more insight into what he’s looking for. But he just said, “Surprise me.” He then went to go on to about thematic things he doesn’t like or wouldn’t like. He talked about how the statistics of what he’s accepted historically are misleading, because they don’t really predicted what the next thing is. Although he uses them to try to maintain balance, for example, in terms of accepting manuscripts from international authors. In other countries, the markets for short fiction are limited or absent — or are actually overwhelmed by work translated from American sources. Some local authors can benefit from the “pedestal effect” of having their work appear in the US market and then get translated for distribution back home.

He spoke at some length about the state of the small press. He argues that most short fiction outlets are functionally small press (with a few notable exceptions like Tor.com). Many struggled during the pandemic, but things seem to be normalizing. The biggest problem is not quality or supply, but in getting people to pay for what they consume. (Only about 7% of readers pay for what they read.) The lack of funds means that a lot of the labor involved (e.g. editing) is unpaid, which makes these outlets vulnerable to illness or burnout. We need to find some way to make the finances work better.

Someone asked about using a paywall to let people see some amount for free. But he said that model, which might work for news, wasn’t satisfactory for fiction. Authors want their stuff to be out where people can see it — especially for the fan-nominated awards. If people can’t read your stuff, they can’t nominate it. And, in fact, there was evidence to suggest that stories that were in anthologies — or paywalled — were at higher risk for not being nominated for fan-based awards.

I asked about alternate financing models, e.g. Patreon and Kickstarter. He said he thought they were OK and, in fact, he uses Patreon his own self. But had concerns about using Kickstarter, which he said was like a “sword of Damocles” hanging over your head. It might be OK for seed money to start something, but subscriptions are more predictable: you may have some lapses and some new ones every year, but more likely to be incremental in terms of changes.

A key problem with small presses is that, since it doesn’t really pay for itself, it often depends on free labor. He indicated he had declined to pay himself for his editorial work for years, to “re-invest” the revenues back into the press. After some personal reverses, he decided he wanted to quit his day job to focus on the press full-time, and that it took 5 years, but that he had accomplished that. (Although, he admitted, his wife still had a day job).

In the end, he said he enjoyed working with short fiction: its where experimentation happens, so its constantly changing and evolving — it’s what drives the field. The money quote:

“It’s not negative to notice the problems [in publishing]: it’s negative to do nothing about them.” —Neil Clarke

I had originally planned to attend Boskone face-to-face, but when Omicron caused Arisia to cancel, I decided to wait to see how conditions were before deciding about Boskone. In the end, I decided to attend only virtually. These notes are pretty scattered but I wanted to get down my recollections as best as I could.

There was very little information about what the “virtual” conference would entail. A day or two before the convention, a discord server was made available and the schedule showed which panels would be streamed virtually — usually just one or two per session.

Boskone started on Friday afternoon, but I was still teaching. So I missed the first several sessions and could only start attending Friday evening.

The first session I attended, about “unhappy endings” was interesting to me. Having written a story that is a tragedy (A Bitter Lesson), I was interested to hear what the panelists had to say.

As that was winding down, I noticed that Ada Palmer was holding forth in one of the voice channels of the Discord. So I hung with them for a while before heading to bed kinda early — it had been a very long week.

On Saturday, I came to my computer early and started streaming programming from Boskone, though I mostly left it running in the background while I worked on other stuff. I listened to the panel on Island Fiction — this topic resonates with me having visited St. Croix — and having set my current serial Revin’s Heart in an archipelago of islands. I tried to listen to the presentation about Quantum Computing but I found I wasn’t getting anything out of it to just have it in the background. The Craft of Writing Conversation with Max Gladstone and Ada Palmer was enjoyable. And it’s always fun to hear readings by Charlie Stross & Cory Doctorow. The panel “Writing the Naughty Bits” was fun. I was pleased to learn about Circlet Press.

I got up early on Sunday morning for Do it Again: The Pains (and Pleasures?) of Rewriting. The money quote:

“Being too stupid to know when to quit is a real asset in this business.” —@TamoraPierce

Unfortunately, it was at the same time as the session about inclusive cons. So I switched back and forth between the two a bit.

The Ask the Editors session was interesting — it’s always useful to know what the enemy is thinking. Although that was one of their key points: the editor is not the enemy. But that’s just what they’d want you to think, isn’t it? The money quote:

“It’s frustrating because sometimes editors can be RIGHT!” —David Marshall

The panel on Social Media had Cory Doctorow and had some interesting stuff. I’ve been watching social media for a long time, so it was interesting to hear where things may be going. I enjoyed the panel about Scientists Who Write Science Fiction mainly for getting to see Larry Niven, who wrote so much amazing stuff I remember from my youth. The panel Monstrous Façade: Disability and Disfigurement as a Villainous Trope had the amazing John Wiswell who said, roughly, whether you have an artificial leg or a tattoo, the moral equivalence of your body modifications are equal.

Finally, I had fun with Impossible Cities in Speculative Fiction. There was a bit about the evil side in Star Wars. I agreed with the guy who said that the original Star Wars movie (not IV, but the original) was the only good Star Wars movie. To be honest, the only bit I really paid serious attention to was a kaffeeklatsch with Neil Clarke, for which I took detailed notes. I’ll post that in a separate blog post

When I was the appropriate age for such things, Young Adult (YA) literature was not really a category. I certainly read stories that today would be classified YA. The Three Musketeers and Treasure Island would today probably be classified as YA. They were among my favorite stories I read over and over again.

In fact, the first real book I read, The Hobbit, could probably be defined as YA using Cheryl Klein’s model (as I wrote here). The Hobbit is a story centrally interested in the experience and growth of youthful protagonist(s) who drives a story narrated with relative immediacy. Bilbo is not teenaged, but hobbits age slower and live longer. And even though Bilbo is not a teenager, the story arc is largely concerned with his growth throughout the story. This was particularly brought home to me by the movie adaptations, which changed the story from an optimistic YA story into a tragedy, serving only as the grim introduction to the Lord of the Rings. But I remember one book that would undoubtedly be considered YA today: Another Fine Myth by Robert Lynn Asprin.

I remember my brother loaning me his copy of Another Fine Myth. I was initially a bit skeptical because it didn’t look like a regular book. It was in a trade paperback format and had weird artwork. I remember having to be persuaded to give it a try. But, wow! It totally blew my mind.

I remember thinking, “Can you even do that?” as I was reading the book. It mixed comedy and drama in ways I had never imagined were even possible. The endlessly corny puns tickled my funny bone. I’m sure I made everyone the household sick by reciting the terrible puns. I remember reading that book and its sequels over and over again.

I read several of the early MythAdventure sequels and enjoyed them too, although the series was a bit too much of a one-trick pony. Once the main character had grown a bit, the YA character of the stories was hard to maintain. And the endless puns did have an end after all, as they became increasingly cloying.

None of this takes away from the original magic the story had for me. It was a delight and forever changed what I thought was possible with literature. And I recognize now that this story probably got passed over by editor after editor in the traditional publishing world and, in the end, was published by a small press, StarBlaze Graphics. It makes me appreciate all the more that I’m getting to work with Paper Angel Press and Water Dragon Publishing which let me push boundaries and test limits.