Sunday, December 2, 2012

Editing for Self-published Authors

Here's a good column by Lindsay Buroker (author of Encrpted among other pretty good novels) on editing for those going self-publishing route: Editing for Independent Self-Published Authors.

Monday, October 15, 2012

SF Epithet of the Day

" morsel of depleted picritic shergottite!"
John Park (author of JANUS)

(I should note that said epithet is not from the book JANUS, just something that came up in online conversation...but it's one of those phrases that you just know is highly insulting, even if you have no idea to what it refers.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Starting with the action

I've always thought L. Sprague de Camp's, "shoot the sheriff in the first line" excellent advice to writers. I often find that manuscripts across my desk start several chapters before the actual story. But came across fantasy author Dave Duncan's version of the same advice this evening: "Start with the fire alarm, not an alarm clock."

To which John Park added "The brick-through-the-window opening sounds like the easy part of de Mille's 'Start with an earthquake and build up to a climax'."

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Simultaneous submissions

Ran into an established YA author I hadn't seen for awhile, and greeted her with my standard, "written any good books lately?" She replied that she had just sent the latest manuscript off to a new publisher she had just found.

"A new publisher?" I asked. "Did X reject it?" (Because I was surprised that her previous publisher would even consider letting her go.)

"Well," she replied, "I never heard back from them on it, or from my other publisher, and it's been nearly two months, so I thought it was probably time to send it out again to somebody new."

My face must have revealed my shock, because she said, "What?"

"You've sent the same manuscript to three publishers? At the same time?"

"Well, yeah. What's wrong with that?"

The answer is that simultaneous submissions are a very very bad idea. It's like trying to sell the same car to three different buyers. It can get you into a lot of trouble.

Most publishers are very explicit on their websites or in their submission guidelines that they do not accept simultaneous submissions. (There are a few--very few--exceptions, that explicitly accept simultaneous submissions, but even they insist that you tell them it is a simultaneous submission.)

The publishing industry is filled with stories of editors who, finding that this or that title missed a crucial deadline or otherwise isn't ready to go to press, reached down into the waiting pile of submissions, pulled out the next title in line, and fast tracked the editing, artwork, book design, etc etc, and then sent off the good news to the author that their manuscript is not only accepted but already halfway to press -- only to find that the author has just sold the manuscript to another publisher. (Yes, yes, smart editors would not order artwork before they had a signed contract in hand, but it has happened often enough to be the stuff of legends.) Needless to say, publishers get very pissed when they find themselves holding a cover to some other publisher's book; and that that author need never cross their doorway again--and probably shouldn't bother trying to submit to any other publisher that publisher has ever had lunch with, either. There are a million manuscripts out there awaiting publication, a thousand as good as the best, so publishers will often simply decide not to bother with an author they have come to think of as 'unreliable'.

But forget about the anecdotes of books halfway to press before the publisher discovered they didn't in fact own the rights. More commonly, the problem with simultaneous submissions is simply that you are asking the editor to invest 8 to 10 hours reading a manuscript you may not end up selling them. Editors are busy people who already have more manuscripts on their desk than they can possibly read before quitting time, so if they push other manuscripts aside to read yours, you're not just cheating the editor out of his time, you're cheating other writers out of their shot at that editor.

Even in small one or two person presses, it can take two to three months to decide on a manuscript. Admittedly, the first two months are probably spent with the manuscript sitting on a pile of other unread manuscripts while the editor frantically attends to some other more immediate deadline; or just attends to the stack of submissions from two months before that. But even once your manuscript gets that first read, the editor has to weigh it against other submissions, maybe talk it over with another person at the press, maybe play around with how this or that element could be 'fixed', and so on, before a decision can be made. So it is unlikely that you would hear back before at least a couple of months go by. Check the publisher's submission guidelines to see if they have mentioned their response times. If it says 8 to 16 weeks response time, that's how long you should expect to wait. Throw in another couple of weeks for good measure, then send a polite inquiry about the status of your manuscript. If there is no response, or time keeps going by and they don't seem to be making a decision, you can always withdraw the submission and take it elsewhere. Taking it elsewhere without first officially withdrawing it can place the editor in a very tricky situation.

For example, at larger presses, there is typically an editorial meeting at which each editor brings forward her three or four nominees and has to argue for them against the nominees of the other editors. This doesn't just represent the further investment of time in your manuscript, but may actually matter to the editor's career. If they've championed your manuscript at the meeting, but have to go back to the next meeting to confess that your's has been withdrawn because it has already sold elsewhere, than that can represent a significant loss of face for your editor. The other editors will be pissed that their nominees were trumped by a manuscript your editor was not in the end able to deliver. The stakes are similarly increased each time your editor has to defend your manuscript as the decision to purchase is vetted by the marketing department, more senior editors, the editorial board, or the publisher. So editors come to loath simultaneous submissions, even if they haven't invested a dime in production.

So, although it feels like the press should be able to respond immediately, or that they must not be interested if they do not respond within a few weeks, deciding whether to publish your book is a time consuming process. You must therefore give the publisher time to finish the process before taking your manuscript to the next publisher.

Another factor that this particular author had overlooked was that she had previously published with two of these publishers. That certainly gives her a leg up on newcomers submitting to the slush pile, and increased her expectations of a speedy response, but it also greatly increases her responsibility to the publisher. That publisher has already invested in developing her manuscript/talent, in promoting her writing, and so on, so that unless there have been significant problems with the experience, the writer should consider giving that publisher first right of refusal. Indeed, many first book contracts include a clause that make that a legal requirement. Submitting the book simultaneously to the competition may actually leave an author open to suit for breach of contract. (And again, the second publisher will not be overjoyed to find that they are being sued by the first publisher because you submitted a manuscript to them that you shouldn't have.

So basic rule: unless both the publishers to whom you are submitting explicitly say that simultaneous submissions are okay, don't even think about doing it. Allow each publisher in turn sufficient time to make a determination about your manuscript before withdrawing it and moving on to the next. Spend your time working on your next manuscript, rather than obsessing about how long its taking to hear back about this one.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Galley Proofs

Reviewing galley proofs today -- the most tedious part of any editor's job. Basically, after a book has been typeset, a copy of the page proofs are sent back to the author and /or editor for a final check for mistakes. And there are always mistakes that have somehow managed to sneak through.

I hate finding mistakes by the typesetter. Why can't that person just leave it the way I had it and not introduce such obvious errors?! It's not their job to change things!

I hate finding mistakes I've made -- why didn't the typesetter realize I meant to put that title in italics and fix that for me, instead of leaving such an obvious mistake? Why can they never show a little initiative?!

I hate finding grammatical errors. Why wasn't that caught at the copy-editing stage? I find this especially irksome on books where I was the copyeditor.

Worst of all is how correcting galley proofs makes me fat. I can only stand the intense tedium of reading text letter by letter for an hour or so before I have to take a break. And sitting in my office, resisting the obvious siren call of Facebook and Twitter, the only alternative is the coffee shop downstairs. Damn them and their lattes and giant cookies!

800 calories later, and I'm still only on page 35.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Tesseracts 17 Open for Submissions

And this year's editors are Steven Vernon and Colleen Anderson.

Colleen Anderson and Steve Veron

The theme is: Canadian SF Coast to Coast, i.e., regional representation of SF from across Canada--which translates out to a pretty open-ended theme.

I have to say that Edge has done a good job of continually appointing excellent editorial teams. Vernon and Anderson are both respectable names in the field; we have gender balance; reasonable regional balance; poetry and short fiction both well represented; and yet very different tastes, so presumably anything that they can agree on will have to be good enough to transcend particular subgenres. So I'm pretty pleased with the choice, once again.

The rotating editorship does seem, well, a pecularly Canadian approach. I can't think of any other on-going anthology series that switches editors every edition. I think that is one of the things that keeps the series so fresh, and gives it such staying power. You didn't like this year's theme or felt that it was not sufficiently representative of 'X'? No problem! Next time it will have a different theme, different editors, and whatever that perceived gap was, sooner or later, the series will get there. (E.g., not enough stories from Quebec? See TesseractsQ. Nowhere to publish your novella because its too long for an anthology series? No problem, they had one for novellas. I'm telling you, the Tesseracts approach is just brilliant!

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Son of a Dwarf by Jeremy Mason

Attended a production of Jeremy Mason's Son of a Dwarf this evening.

The play is part satire of the fantasy genre, part decent fantasy adventure. Although there are a number of pure pythonesque moments, and some brilliant shots at basic fantasy tropes that scored well with the audience, the central story is allowed to retain sufficient sense that the story hangs together for its own sake. Indeed, this is one of the plays' strengths, since a common error of satirists--deftly avoided here--is to get so wrapped up in jokes and one-liners that the whole thing collapses under the weight of its own silliness. This got pretty silly, but allowed the characters to retain a central dignity that saw them deliver their dialog as if they meant it.

I have been following the work of Jeremy Mason for some time and am pleased to see him branching out from children's plays to, well, sophomore plays. The same principles of frantic action and comedic commentary that served Jeremy well when writing for 5 year olds kept the 1st and 2nd year university audience I was sitting with howling with laughter. My 14 year old laughed throughout even though she has only just started Lord of the Rings, has never engaged in fantasy gaming, and probably missed a third of the references. And even at my advanced years, I pretty much enjoyed the whole thing.

It's hard to know where Jeremy's writing left off and the inventive direction of the Accidental Humour Company took over. The creative use of multimedia screens required split second timing, but allow the production to include astounding special effects: an arrow shot at the evil wizard turns into a dove; magic mirrors talk back; tiny gnomes climb in and out of hero's backpack; forcefields shimmer to prevent the heroine entering the magic cave; explosions shoot from the wizard's staff; and so on. Great stuff for a live play! The battle scenes were fantastic: actual armies of--well, I might have missed what they were exactly, but they were very creepy in a hilarious sort of way -- evil minions threaten our heroes, as great choreography has the actors Harry Wooing across the stage in slow motion. Fabulous stuff!

I will absolutely seek out any future productions by Accidental Humour Company. Pure comic genius!

I give the play four out of five stars.

View the trailer here:

Monday, September 10, 2012

Creative Writing Grants (Canada)

Award-winning poet/author Helen Marshall, has posted an excellent "Practical Guide to Creative Writing Grants in Canada" on her blog, Movable Type. The article not only provides a great summary of available grants (particularly for Ontario; other provinces have their own equivalents worth seeking out, but this at least gives a sense of what might be available) and sensible guidelines for how to complete an application, but has the added benefit of providing a grant-winning sample. So useful! Highly recommended!

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

When Words Collide 2012

Attended the When Words Collide festival in Calgary again this year. Last year was WWC's first convention, and I have been writing rave reviews ever since. Indeed, the organizers won a well deserved Aurora Award for their efforts. but I was nevertheless a bit worried that it might have been some kind of fluke. Could they repeat their initial success?

I am here to say that yes, this was once again the best writer's convention since Context'89 (which saw the creation of SF Canada) or, well, WWC last year. Fabulous guests, including Adrienne Kerr, the editor for commercial fiction from Penguin Canada; an amazing number of panels on topics of actual interest to writers; increase in attendees from a cross section of genres; and the convention was the host of this year's Aurora Awards. I was very pleased to see participation from the Writer's Guild of Alberta, and such literary presses as Frontenac House, and Eastern-based presses like CZP and Five Rivers Chapmanry, in addition to the usual suspects from Western Canada.

Five Rivers did very good business at WWC: we officially launched the six titles above at a session on Saturday afternoon; the books sold well at both the launch and in the dealers' room, even selling out of the local authors' books; I negotiated the final details of contracts with two writers signing on with Five Rivers; Mike Plested handed out contracts for the anthology he is co-editing, coming out from Five Rivers; I asked for initial 30 page submissions from four new writers, and a full submission from a fifth; and I spoke on something like 11 panels (five of them intelligently), plus got to be one of the presenters at the Aurora Awards. I greatly enjoyed finding myself between Robert J. Sawyer and Adrienne Kerr (Penguin) on the live action slush panel, for example, and hanging with the editors from On Spec and NeoOpsis magazines, Bundoran Press; finally meeting Colleen Anderson in person; meeting Tina Moreau from Tyche Press; Justyn Perry (Breathless / Lycaon Press), and a dozen others, including my personal heroes, Sandra Kasturi and Brett Savory of ChiZine Publications. I love visiting with Canadian authors, meeting and helping new authors, and especially hanging with other fiction editors. Such an enjoyable and productive weekend! I have already signed up for next year.

WWC Live Slush Panel with Jennifer Kennedy (author); Robert J. Sawyer (former editor), Virgina O'Dine (editor), Robert Runté (editor), Barb Galler-Smith (editor), and J. Ellen Smith (editor)

There were, inevitably, a couple of minor 'areas for improvement'. One weak point was the banquet. The $40 ticket implied a better meal than I got: by the time our table got up to the buffet, there were significant gaps in the available food and the buffet was held up for half an hour (pushing the rest of the evening's events behind schedule) because the carver was late arriving. The Convention committee has already announced a change of venue (to the much larger Carriage House Inn) so that problem is resolved before I could even raise it.

The other problem was the strange lack of smoozing skills demonstrated by local Alberta these people know nothing of the larger world outside Western Canada? CZP is legendary for their parties, but when I went, there were like four people in the room. (Admittedly, four of the most interesting people I met at the convention and one of the most entertaining conversations, but still....) Perhaps things picked up later after I had to leave to deal with a family matter, but I get the feeling this was not the usual CZP party. From what I could see, most WWC attendees were crammed into the Edge party, or the steam punk party or the local writers' group party or the consuite. Okay, I get that all four of those parties were next to each other at one end of the hotel, and the CZP party was down another hall all by itself; and I get that people like to get together with their buddies. But come on, people, this was your chance to meet Sandra Kasturi and Brett Savory, the two best editors working in Canada today! You bloody well know everyone at Edge already... go socialize with some Easterners! At least for an hour before going back to your usual cronies. Made me shake my head. As I've said repeatedly, ChiZine Publications has not just fundamentally changed the face of horror as a genre, it is the best small press in the country and a model for everyone else interested in the future of publishing. Fifty years from now, scholars will be studying the flowering of the Chizine school of writing as the most important literary movement to come out of Canada this half century...and Alberta writers couldn't even make it down the hall to meet them? They didn't notice the four out of six nominations for best novel this year were from ChiZine Publications? Hello?! Stop complaining about Toronto's ignorance of events in Western Canada, if when a publisher does make the effort to come out West, nobody can be bothered to go meet them.

End of rant. I'm sure a lot of people did meet and interact with the three ChiZine editors who were there, perhaps at their table in the dealers' room if nowhere else -- it is impossible to walk past their table without stopping to stare at those covers-- but to miss the chance to go to an actual ChiZine party...!

Monday, August 13, 2012

Small World

In addition to doing freelance development/copy editing, I'm also senior acquisitions editor for Five Rivers Chapmanry. About 18 months ago, I signed H. A. Hargreaves to reprint his classic 70's SF collection, North by 2000 (the first SF collection ever marketed as "Canadian SF".) I wanted the collection because I often give lectures on Canadian SF to English teachers, etc., and often use Hargreaves (especially his, "Dead to the World" story) as the exemplar of Canadian / US differences. In one of my more recent talks, someone had pointed out that if the book had been out of print for 30 years, they could hardly use the story in their classrooms. So I either had to acquire the reprint rights and make the collection available to a new generation of readers, or--you know--update my lecture notes.

Six months later at the When Words Collide festival (Calgary), I met horror writer Bill Schnarr, and he said, "Hey, I hear you're reprinting Hargreaves' book!" This surprised me because we hadn't actually announced that yet, but Bill went on to explain, "He's a coworker of mine." Turns out that Bill Schnarr is a reporter at the Claresholm Local Press where Hargreaves--a retired English professor -- comes in once a week to proofread the paper. A few months later, Bill signed on with Five Rivers to bring out Things Falling Apart, a phonebook-thick collection of his short stories. I'm sure that part of his decision to go with Five Rivers was because Hargreaves was having a positive experience with the press, but still, kind of a coincidence that two of our writers not only come from the same small Alberta town (population 35,000) but even work in the same office.

At the same When Words Collide festival I met Schnarr last year, I held a pitch session in which eight or nine author's pitched their novels to me so that I could help them refine their pitches. Out of that number, I actually invited one woman, Susan Bohnet, to submit a manuscript. She did, and after she made some revisions we had requested, I offered her a contract. We then agreed to meet at this year's When Words Collide festival. So, she turns up Friday night at the session I'm hosting with H. A. Hargreaves. And Hargreaves points to her name tag and says, "I know that name. I proofread your column every week." And she confesses that she is indeed that columnist, and that when the editor of the Claresholm Local Press had been away that week, she had handed her column into acting editor, J. W. Schnarr. So you tell me: what are the odds that a micropress based in Neustadt, Ontario would end up with three writers from Clarseholm Alberta who all work in the same office?

Friday, July 13, 2012

Pulitzers and Editors

My favourite paragraph from interesting piece on why there was no Pulitzer prize for 2012:
It seemed, too, that a Pulitzer for “The Pale King” would be, by implication, an acknowledgement not only of Wallace but also of Michael Pietsch, the editor. As a novelist, I well know how much difference an editor can make—and there’s no major prize given to editors. The best an editor can hope for is mention on the acknowledgments page, when, sometimes, that editor has literally rescued the book.
'Course, I don't think I'd actually like "The Pale King". I would have edited out this monstrosity of an opening sentence for a start:
Past the flannel plains and the blacktop graphs and skylines of canted rust, and past the tobacco-brown river overhung with weeping trees and coins of sunlight through them on the water downriver, to the place beyond the windbreak, where untilled fields simmer shrilly in the a.m. heat: shattercane, lamb’s-quarter, cutgrass, sawbrier, nutgrass, jimsonweed, wild mint, dandelion, foxtail, muscatine, spinecabbage, goldenrod, creeping charlie, butter-print, nightshade, ragweed, wild oat, vetch, butcher grass, invaginate volunteer beans, all heads gently nodding in a morning breeze like a mother’s soft hand on your cheek.
This is what they give Pulitzer prize for these days? Oh wait, that's right, they didn't.

But it's all an excellent example of why one has to match the editor to the manuscript/author. I'd obviously have been the wrong editor for "The Pale King"; Michael Pietsch, Pulitzer nominee though he may have been, not the right editor for "Flight of the Illynov".

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Curious if True: The Fantastic in Literature

I had the honour of writing the foreword to this collection of essays on science fiction, fantasy and magic realism written by a talented group of up and coming scholars. Presumably the editor was looking for someone in the old guard to hand on the torch to this new generation of critics, and as I'm looking to retire from academia and move into full time editing, I was more than happy to oblige. Burn, baby, burn! Or something like that. Indeed, the major thrust of my foreword was that these kids today have no idea how hard it was to have SF taken seriously when we were younger. So I just provided a couple of examples of how far SF scholarship has come in just one generation. It really is quite astonishing, when you think about it.

The collection is edited by Amy Bright, the reviewer at Girl to the Rescue and the up and coming author of Before We Go (from Red Deer Press). Amy's academic work can be found in the Journal of Children's Literature and Studies in Canadian Literature. Contributors to Curious if True include Luke R. J. Maynard, Gaelan Gilbert, Mary Eileen Wennekers, Elisa Bursten, Amy Bright, Max F. R. Olesen, Laura van Dyke, Erin Dunbar, Tessa Mellas, Shannon M. Minifie, and Thomas Stuart. Cover art is by comic artist Betty Liang.

The volume is being launched this month (July, 2012) by Cambridge Scholars Publishers.

Friday, June 22, 2012

"Split Decision" Reprinted

Pleased to hear that my short story, "Split Decision", originally published in the Tesseracts 15 anthology, has been picked up by Imaginarium "best Canadian SF of the year" anthology.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Mike Plested talks Publishing / Promotion

Mike Plested "Get Published" Podcast, episode 84, talks about publishing and book promotion. Usually Mike interviews authors and editors on his biweekly podcast, but this time he is the interviewee, talking about his own new book, Mik Murdoch: Boy Superhero. Mike describes the process of writing the novel, shopping it around to publishers, the editing process, and post-publication promotion. I was particularly interested in his discussion of why he chose to sign on with a publisher rather than just self-publishing, and what it was like working with an editor.

(Particularly glad to hear him say complimentary things about the latter, since I was the editor on this book.)

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Five Twitter Turn Offs

Got yet another person following me on Twitter, in hopes that I will immediately follow back. A quick glance shows me that this individual has accumulated around 8,000 followers...and follows over 8,000 other people. I'm guessing almost all of them are working on the same wrong-headed principle that the more followers one attracts -- the larger that number -- the better one's networking and sales potential. This is completely stupid and an enormous waste of one's energy.

Rule #1: More is Not Better

8,000 followers does not translate to 8,000 network connections. If each of these averages 3 tweets a day, that's 24,000 tweets going past each day. If one is spending one's day reading 24,000 tweets, then one is a professional Tweet reader, not a professional writer. Since one would have to be a complete time-wasting idiot to read all that chatter, you don't. Since you know better than to read all those tweets, who do you think is reading yours?

Time invested in building up a following -- particularly in artificially inflating that figure by using the tricks one read in some self-appointed expert's column on how to use social media to promote one's book -- is consequently a complete waste of time and energy better devoted to improving one's writing or paid output.

If one's tweets attract an audience on their own, then it is remotely possible that those individuals following you are in fact reading you. But following others to get them to follow back, and other such tactics, is just useless.

Rule #2: Keep the noise to signal ratio low.

I am constantly amazed at the number of idiots whose tweet stream is their stream of consciousness."Going for coffee. Gonna have a big cup. Oh Yeah!" Who gives a giant pile of dead leaves? I don't even want to hear this from my wife, unless immediately followed by "Can I get you anything while I'm up?"

Admittedly, there are a few people I follow who are sufficiently witty and provocative that their daily observations are worthy of the 15 seconds of my attention that reading their tweet requires. It's like office conversation, and provides the illusion of having coworkers for shut-ins and isolated writers, but these masters of the trivial are few and far between. The vast majority of tweeters (yes, I mean you specifically) are just wasting their time and their Followers' time by tweeting such minutia. I do not care how much coffee you drink, and if you insist on commenting on it, you're a prime candidate for the next round of "Unfollow"s.

Similarly, I find Twitter's recent change to post tweeters direct messages to others a complete waste of my time. I can't stand tweets like "@whosit: Right on Sister! You tell 'em!" or "RalphM42: More to the left and then up one!" What does this mean? Why would I care? I understand the concept of re-tweeting: passing on news and interesting tidbits picked up from someone else stream is a (potentially) useful networking function. But relaying conversations out of context simply wastes my time. Consequently, I don't follow people whose tweet stream contains a lot of direct comments. People who only occasionally make direct comments to others, and who take care that these comments are intelligible to those outside of the immediate conversation, are more likely to stay on my Follow list, and to be read.

Rule #3 Quantity is Not the same as Quality.

What is required, then, is a few quality tweeters. I follow people who provide useful information on topics that I am likely to need to know about: topics I teach about or write about. There are hundreds of folks out there, for example, who tweet when they read an interesting science article. I follow two or three whose interests appear to parallel my own. By following them, they act like a specialized clipping service helping me to quickly focus in on a few relevant documents, thus saving me hundreds of hours of research.

I try to return the favour, tweeting about resources that I have found useful or surprising that others might not otherwise have come across. If I feel the need to tweet about my daughter's new video on YouTube, I stick "for family and friends" or at least "Family" at the start of the post so everyone else can just skip it.

To sum up: only follow people who contribute directly to your work by providing a stream of useful information. Try to be that person for everyone else.

Rule #4: Don't Use Tweets (or Facebook) for Commercial Announcements

One is permitted to post one tweet when one publishes a short story; two for novels (the second in case someone missed it the first time round). That's it. If one sends out a tweet every couple of hours about sales on this or that title, then one's tweets become nothing but the commercials interrupting the Twitter Stream content, and readers will quickly learn to tune them out.

If you really want to promote your work be interesting. If your followers come to associate your name with interesting stuff, they will be prepped to buy your stories and novels. When I find an author I don't know on Kobo, and they have a good cover and a good tag line, I might think their book is a possibility. I will then go to their blog, or Facebook page or Twitter feed, and if I find there nothing but self-congratulatory commentary on their own brilliance, I realize I have made a mistake and move on. When I found Lindsay Buroker's Encrypted and checked out her blog, it didn't say anything about her books. But it made me laugh out loud in the first two posts I read. Consequently, she made the sale. (And I subsequently wrote a positive review of the book). Stop trying to write ad copy. Write stories and books, and if you have to tweet, write something interesting and worthwhile there too. Or, just don't. <{> Rule #5: No Reruns

I used to just quickly glance at someone's tweets (three or four samples come up when you first click on their name) and think, wow...those are great tweets, I'm going to follow this guy! But you only get suckered a couple of times before realizing there are a bunch of folks out there who develop a list of 10 or 20 or even 30 brilliant tweets, and then just rotate through that list again and again in the hopes that people will follow them. This works well to greatly inflate the number of their followers, but once I see the same tweet a second time, I realize that the individual is a phoney cluttering up my tweet stream with reruns. I can't hit the "unfollow" button fast enough.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Retreat: Day 12 (last)

Had trouble sleeping on the train again; this particular stretch of track and high speeds leads to some significant shaking. There is also the disturbance that at midnight they merge the trains from Portland and Seattle, which involves a certain amount of bumping around; and they start announcing stations and breakfast etc way too early. The train going West, I was able to turn the speaker off in my room, but this particular sleeping car didn't seem to have a mute for the speakers. (The steward told me that it was the only car with this particular control panel type in Amtrak, a constant annoyance to him because the call button and the light switch looked identical.) But when I eventually drag myself out of bed, have a quick breakfast and finally start on my fiction.
Get three hours to wrestle with my short story, see the problem and write a couple of scenes to fix them. Am not quite through when train arrives in Shelby and I disembark, gas up the Van, and start driving back to Lethbridge.
On the whole, I judge the Retreat a major success. True, I had hoped to be writing more fiction when Mary booked the trip, but it's my own fault for not clearing the decks by that implied deadline that I had to work on work-related writing instead. But I managed to get what might have otherwise been about a month's work of work done in 12 days. This has taken a huge amount of pressure and stress off me, and ultimately, that's the point of the exercise. Hopefully I am now sufficiently back on track with work deadlines that I can in fact have my work completed by the time I go on Study Leave (July 1) and be able to write both my textbook and my novel without too many major distractions.

Retreat: Day 11

Sleep in because up very late last night. Spend what’s left of the morning doing email: half urgent business, half arguing with colleagues on teaching/learning list over assessment issues. I should probably be spending the time writing, but I love pontificating even more. I am probably annoying many of those on the list by pointing out why their grading practices make no sense, but off list am being egged on by private emails of support and requests to reprint my comments in their newsletters or Facebook pages. (A lot of the staff in teaching/learning centers don’t have tenure, so are rather more cautious about telling off profs, but I am happy to front for them. I think instead of going for full prof, I should apply for official curmudgeon status.)

Mary tells me to go to the Seattle Art Museum for the afternoon, so I do that. It’s just three blocks away, and it would be crazy for me to keep wasting time on email while I am in another city, especially one I’ve never been to before.

I instantly love Seattle. I desperately want to go to the Café Nervosa, but am handicapped by it not being a real place. But that’s the tone of the whole city. I can definitely see why people move here. I feel invigorated just walking through the streets in spite of the rain and cool temperatures.

And the Art Museum! It is middle of the afternoon and jammed packed with people. Not school kids this time, but adults of all ages. If this is typical of the turnout, then Seattle is one art-loving city. The current exhibit is Gauguin and Polynesian art…I find Gauguin kind of okay, and when I work out how old he is and how young his native girl “companion” in these paintings, there is a bit of an eewwweeee moment. White imperialists picking up local teens is kind of dark. But the Polynesian artifacts that inspired him are marvelous.

There are several other exhibits I rush through, the African facemasks being a great one. I snap some pictures for future reference for my own cultural appropriation purposes, should I ever care to write fantasy.

Then onto the Empire Builder. Supper is with three gentlemen who have been travelling extensively by rail, clear enthusiasts. They exchange the relative merits of particular trains and routes. On of them is a piano tuner, and we have a great conversation about mentoring, the arts, Seattle, and life.

Not much writing done today. But an excellent holiday.

Retreat: Day 10

Arrived in Vancouver, quickly find a Starbucks so I can use wifi to fire off my report to committee in preparation for Monday’s meeting. Then transferred to train station to train back to Seattle. (I have to train back to Shelby, rather than fly back to Lethbridge because that’s where I left the car when I started out.)

Across from the train station is the Science Center, so went there until my train. The exhibits are mildly interesting and there is a nice little gift shop.

Scale at Science Center indicating that I weigth more than average black bear, but less than a loggerhead turtle.

Watched Imax movie on Arabia. It was well done, but a blatant propaganda piece to counteract deep-seated American prejudices – that not all Arabs are terrorists needs to be explained to American audiences is embarrassing to watch; but great photography, nice re-enactments.

The early morning crowd in the science center is almost entirely classes of school children, with a scattering of mom’s with toddlers. The toddlers are fun to watch as they interact with the interactive displays, and the larger kids move in herds and so are easy enough to avoid.

Overheard two teachers talking to each other about some interesting point concerning one of the displays:

“That’s my point exactly. Say, have you seen any of the kids?”
“No. But they must be around somewhere. So anyway. . . "

What parents suspect happens on field trips.

After, I find a three story Chapters with free internet for anyone with a Chapters card, so fire off bunch more emails, other essential work stuff. Then back in time to catch train to Seattle.

I finally get some time to work on my fiction. Struggle with a story I had started on years ago but abandoned because could not fit all the characters required within word limit for short story publication, and the idea not quite worth a novel. But been thinking about it a lot lately for some reason, additional scenes coming to me unbidden. But it’s still not coming together, and I start to see holes in the logic of the piece. And then, about 3 AM, it occurs to me that it might work if I reverse the POV. So will try that tomorrow.

Arrive in Seattle and step outside to find pedicab pulling up, so have Mitch take me to the hotel. He peters out a block short, but it’s late, the end of his shift, the last hill up is 45 degrees and he is simply not going to make it with me and my suitcase in the back. Indeed, I’ve been watching him struggle this far and wondering if I’m liable if he dies from a heart attack. (Though in reality, he is far less at risk of that than I. He looks to be in pretty good shape!)

Arriving at the Olympic Fairmount hotel, am assigned palatial room. More a suite than a single room, it has separate bedroom, large sitting room, and the bathroom is round a corner and down its own separate in-suite corridor. Makes the Westgate’s room seem small by comparison. Don’t know how I’m going to cope with tiny bed on train tomorrow after this. The radio is on and by the time I settle enough to turn it off I don’t, because this is the best radio station I’ve heard in a long time. Who plays this music?! So the station I would tune to if I could. Check out the TV, am surprised to find Seattle has it’s own Chinese TV station, almost equally surprised to find they get CBC.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Retreat: Day 9

Day 9 Ship docked in Port Angeles, Washington, which I had never heard of before. Apparently a logging town, now diversified into ship building and ship repair. Town has less than 20,000 people, so arrival of Oosterdam raised the population by 10%; doubled the skyline. The town was deliriously happy to have cruise ship in town: a host of volunteers served as greeters at the port and were scattered along the town’s two main streets to direct tourists. A fleet of shuttle buses, obviously commandeered from a twenty-mile radius (i.e., had the names of retirement homes and the like, rather than tour companies, on the sides) ran Holland American’s aging passengers the three hundred yards downtown for a mere $7. (If I were the median age of a Holland American passenger, that might strike me as a fine deal, but after three days of cruise food, I definitely needed the six-minute walk.) Another manifestation of the significance to the town of the Oosterdam coverage in the local daily paper:

Yesterday’s front-page news: “Cruise ship arrives tomorrow”.

Today’s front-page headline: “Cruise ship fashionably late, won’t arrive until noon.”

The town was so small…it didn’t have a Starbucks.

But for all that, it wasn’t a half bad place to walk around. Two bookstores, a half dozen antique shops, and a nice used-clothes/coffee shop (Clothier Coffee) with excellent cookies and free customer Internet. I had followed a girl on stilts to the coffee shop when she said the magic words “free internet” to a crowd of Cruise passengers a few blocks from the store. It’s amazing how much email can accumulate in just three days off line. I downloaded, answered key business emails, uploaded previous day’s blog posts, and continued my tour. I hiked a fair way listening to “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” on my iPod, so probably startled a few locals by laughing out loud for no obvious (to them) reason. Pretty sure insulted antique store owner by laughing uproariously as I fingered her merchandize, but episode with Neil Gaimen is one of the funnier ones.

Highlight of Port Angeles for me was the Lower Elwha Klallan Tribe’s cultural Center. Not only is it a visually striking structure, but when I complimented the manager on the architecture, she told me it used to be a tire store. Mindboggling to me that they could take an old eyesore like a dilapidated tire store and turn it into such a striking and vital community center. Some visionary leadership in that group, obviously. (Found out later they had also led the lobbying for largest dam removal in the world, to restore the Lower Klwha river. Unbelievable leadership for such a tiny nation!) Inside they had tribal dancers/singers (rather good, I thought—I’ve always preferred West Coast tribal songs/drumming to plains culture) and a fabulous gift shop. I found I couldn’t buy anything, though, because the majority of items said “made in Canada”, which kind of defeats the purpose, eh? But the Kallan in the Lower Elwha number less than a thousand, so lack the critical mass to have their own merchandise. Still, well worth the visit. I was bit saddened to see how few Cruisers had stopped inside. The Center had obviously gone to a lot of work to mount a series of activities and a fairly elaborate sideboard of appetizers (couple of whole salmon for starters!) for Cruisers, but I don’t think that the cultural center was one of the five stops for the shuttles, and that was a long climb up an almost hill for the average 80 year old, so not many of them had made it there.

And unlike San Diego, there was only one homeless guy lying in the street. (Or, I don’t know, maybe they tidied up for the Cruisers…though it seemed a more laid back community than some.)

Returned to ship, had a nice dinner, finished my report around midnight. Off the ship in Vancouver tomorrow morning around 7:00 AM

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Retreat: Day 8

Keep to my cabin for most of the day, just coming out for lunch and dinner; take in the show at 10 PM. It’s the “comedy and vocal impressionist” Jason Neistadt, and I have to say, he is very funny. Fascinating to see him do impressions of people who have been dead for decades and get huge laughs from an audience that remembers them as if it were yesterday. Bit depressing that I seem to be one of them. Poor kids in the front row have no idea who he is supposed to be. So he tries Dr. Evil from Austin Powers, and gets blank stares from everyone except one pre-teen who cracks up. I am impressed with Neisadt’s repertoire because it is obvious he is reaching into a vast line up to pull out the ones he thinks will work for the Holland America crowd. If he tried this routine in LA, he’d get nowhere, as you have to be at least 60 to get any of it. But it’s a nice end of day wind down activity for me.

I make excellent progress on my report; break to do some more fiction editing. I finish the book I want to buy for Five Rivers: very pleased with it, better than I remembered. (It’s funny how wrong our memories get…one of the scenes I remembered the most distinctly isn’t actually there at all. I must have made it up out of whole cloth. And I had completely forgotten the two bits of business that are now my two favorite scenes. Such brilliant little touches of characterization, humor, that create an almost complete picture of village life in just a few sentences.) Such a nice little book, can’t understand how it has been allowed to languish out of print for decades.

I start the next book I am reading for Five Rivers. Actually another editor’s project, so I’m just reading it to give some quick general feedback--more free reading than assignment. Can’t put my finger on why exactly, but it reads more like European novelist than Canadian. Nice alien world though.

Retreat: Day 7

Spent the day essentially locked in my cabin writing. Fairly productive, getting quite a bit of the preliminary work finished. Tomorrow I will take my data and cut and paste it into appropriate sections of the report to produce a cogent argument. No chance of finishing the whole thing, but enough to meet my goals for next Monday’s meeting. What one refers to as “breaking the back” of the assignment…getting the general structure figured out and just having the fiddly bits of actual writing left to do.

Stepped out of my cabin for lunch and dinner, quick tour of the shops. Excellent food, though that tempts me to eat too much. Nothing to tempt me in either the shops or entertainment offerings, so that’s actually a positive as far as the Retreat goes. Similarly, the cheapest Internet package is $55, so I decide I can forego the distraction of email for four days.

I take a couple of minor breaks reading a novel I am in the process of buying for Five Rivers, part of a three book deal if it goes through. It’s quite wonderful, with just a few minor slips here or there. (Most commonly, switching point of view without realizing it – you know, where a character other than the narrator for that scene thinks something that the narrator couldn’t actually know they were thinking. Simple to fix—the character just has to use their ‘outside’ voice for that thought so the narrator can hear and know it.) But that’s the beauty about being an editor: any part of the novel that bugs me, I get to change!

Retreat: Day Six

Got some work done in the morning, then check out of the Westgate and onto the Oosteram, the Holland American Cruiseship Mary booked me on. When I get to my cabin am delighted to discover I appear to have been upgraded: I expected to have an inside cabin but have a floor to ceiling window instead. True, the view is mostly blocked by a lifeboat (so maybe they do count this as an inside cabin still), but sunlight still streams in. King size bed, couch, largish bathroom, wall of cupboards, and a decent sized desk to work at. An excellent workspace for the next three days.

This is my first time on Holland America. It is much less garish than Carnival, but still kitsch, an American’s version of European eloquence with altogether too much statuary scattered about. I still prefer the unpretentious decoration of, say, the Norwegian Sun or the Hidden Mickeys of Disney. (None of them, of course, compares to the Queen Mary. That was when ships had real class!) The food in main dinning room is excellent, but not noticeably better than Carnival as I had been assured, and perhaps not quite up to Disney. And almost everyone is older and in worse shape than I….

I throw myself into my work, quickly realize there is no possibility of my processing all this data in three days. Even if I could, it would be 500 page report, and it has to be under 20. So, new strategy.

But I can already see the angle, how to make it fit. The great thing about being a writer is that sometimes one’s subconscious has been working on the project the whole time when it looked like one was goofing off on other stuff, and it just comes out whole. Of course, sometimes when you think you have a great idea at midnight, it looks pretty stupid next morning…. I’ll let you know how this turns out tomorrow.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Retreat: Day 5

Finally connected with client over editing job, and manager apologized nicely for screwing up, but apparently had emailed me at the wrong address, and assigned the work elsewhere when I hadn't replied. Why the manager hadn't tried, oh I don't know, phoning me at the contact numbers they'd insisted on when she hadn't heard back, or why they hadn't responded to my correctly addressed emails to them is less clear. "Oh, we never got those emails!" The whole conversation has the same feel as when students insist that they have submitted their assignments on time, it must have gotten lost in email/ Moodle/ WebCT/ their dog somehow.... But whatever: it was pro bono work, and I'd much rather be working on other stuff during my retreat.

So actually go out and about in San Diego. The Westgate, where I'm staying, is on the edge of the Gaslight district, so walked around there for a couple of hours. Yesterday was pouring rain, nasty wind, too cold to walk very far, so I just went to downtown mall for some take away. Today was way better. Intermittent rain, but then really great sun when the clouds open up. Had the drinking chocolate at Ghirardelli's. Bought a few things for the kids at World Market. Enjoyed the architecture of San Diego (nice looking convention centre! Some nice towers. Even some of the smaller buildings colourfully painted etc.)

Thing that makes the strongest impression on me, however, are the number of homeless on the streets here. I count an average of three per block. I'm only approached by pan handlers a couple of times, and they're carefully low key, polite even, but every few yards there's someone sitting with a shopping cart, three to five large green garbage bags of possessions, and a resigned expression. In two cases, its families. And everybody else just walks by as if this is perfectly normal. I can't understand how average American can feel secure when so many of those around them are so obviously in desperate straits, though the other subliminal presence were armies of guys with "security" on the back of their jackets. One particular image burned into my brain is of an obviously homeless guy leaning against a parking meters, watching at a group of yuppies -- their clothes and smart phones and expensive sun glasses pushed back into their hair said 'brokers' or 'software moguls' to me -- yakking away in an sidewalk open air bar. The way he was starring at them -- though they were completely oblivious of him, three feet away -- I could see him thinking, "that's who I was four years ago". And I look back at the yuppies and think, one mis-step and it is a long way down....

No wonder the haves are so focused on getting more. San Diego is a nice place to visit, but I don't think I could live somewhere where it is so literally every man for himself.

And all those guns.

Back to the hotel for productive day on various writing projects. Make excellent progress on my day-job Report. In between working on different sections of report, start negotiating a three book deal for Five Rivers while I still have reliable internet access. Author seems open to it. Another coup for Five Rivers, I think.

Work until supper time, eat at The Bandar. Unbelievably big portions, three times the size of anything ever served in equivalent Canadian restaurant. Again, can't help but think of homeless outside, conspicuous consumption inside. But would highly recommend Bandar to anyone who likes middle Eastern food. Superb meal. Had to wonder, though, how many of the customers realize that "Persian" means "Iranian"? (Aside from that group over at the next table who are themselves clearly Iranian and therefore, you know, potential terrorists. :-) Another productive writing session after supper. Things are starting to come together!

Friday, April 13, 2012

MacBook Air Review

I bought a MacBook Air to take on my trip with me, my 17 inch MacBook Pro weighting about 200 lbs and so full that I constantly have "out of memory" errors these days. The thought of lugging my Pro around, or worse, of losing it or have it crash while away, was sufficiently daunting that I felt getting a true portable a worthwhile proposition.

I considered getting a tablet, but all the IT guys I talked to were unanimous that the iPad is for people who want to consume media rather than to produce it. The Air is lighter than the iPad, and I really couldn't be without the real keyboard. The Air's keyboard is identical to my 17 inch, only without the stereo speakers adding en extra two inches on each side.

I have not been disappointed! The Air is worth every penny. The three days on the train were enough to convinced me. The Air sat in my lap for about 1200 miles without ever becoming heavy or uncomfortable...not so the MacPro, which is not only heavy but often extremely hot. Furthermore, coming back from Calgary on the bus the other day, my 17" portable was too big to open all the way between bus seats...I've had the same experience with airplanes. But the Air sits anywhere I can. Even in the private room on the train, I would have had to pull out the table to sit the 17"Pro which then would have been at the wrong angle. The Air was a delight to work with!

The other feature I love is that it is instantly on when you open it. Flash memory means nothing has to spin up to speed or overheat or eat up battery power. I got hours and hours out of my battery. In contrast, the 17" is down to about 90 minutes before it goes down.

Having to get used to Lion operating system though, particularly to the new trackpad motions. I quite like two finger scrolling, once I got used to it, but still find I am accidentally moving my hand without realizing it and triggering all sorts of weird responses...e.g., made a random, accidental circular motion with three fingers and the screen went blurry. It me a couple of minutes to figure out how to redo the motion to refocus the screen. Who knew it could do that?

So 17" will remain my home desktop, moveable but no longer considered portable. The 13" Air will be what I use for trips, presentations, note taking and so on, my true portable. Mary got herself the 11" Air which is even smaller and lighter, but I found the screen bit small for my aging eyes; and I like that the 13 inch is faster and has more memory. So highly recommend the air to writers and editors... Leave iPad for readers.

Retreat: Day 4

Arrive at Westgate Hotel in San Diego at 1:00AM. The Westgate is luxurious: Grand lobby, marble everywhere, classical music playing softly in the background. My room is almost overly spacious: the shower, for example, is literally larger than my entire cabin on the train. A nice transition between train and cruise ship, it’s intended as the place I can spread out, organize my notes, and access reliable high speed Internet. Given the comfortable bed, blackout curtains, and absence of conductor announcements, I allow myself to sleep until ten.

I’ve mentally designated today and tomorrow to a major editing job I’ve taken on, since it requires access to the client’s website and this is the only point in my trip with reliable Internet. But it’s ten days past when they’d promised to get me the manuscripts, and no one is answering my emails. I reluctantly try an alternate contact I have, not wanting to go over anyone’s head, but it’s pretty much 'now or never'. I am still awaiting developments at the end of the day. I fill the time with other useful tasks, moving a bunch of minor projects along, but can’t motivate myself to work on my big report. In retrospect realize I am coming down with a cold, feeling a bit iffy. Go to bed early. Have learned on previous trips not to push too hard or worry too much, less the pressure create insurmountable writer's block. I remain confident that I will get report done and have time left over for my own writing. Several scenes in story I’m working on filling out nicely in my head. If editing assignment doesn’t materialize tomorrow morning, will work on report or getting story down.

Retreat: Day 3

Retreat Day 3 Mary was right: it was a better sleep the second night. Not sure whether that was because the ride was less bumpy or whether I was better acclimatized. Got up with last call for breakfast.

I breakfasted with Stuart Bennett, proprietor of Simonsen Road Farm, an equestrian Inn and/or 30 day, 12 step program for those wishing to dry out; and designer/draftsman Alan Hardonk of Calgary, who has the niftiest business card I have ever encountered -- a business card sized and shaped protractor ("give that to an Engineer and it's the one card they always keep on them"); and his Mexican wife of 25 years. They're on their 25th anniversary trip. Another great wide-ranging conversation with people with whom I would very likely never have otherwise come into contact.

(And their stories are now my stories…. The trouble with eating with other writers at a writer’s retreat is that they all intend to use their own stories themselves. Here, in contrast, are stories and characters going begging. Sooner or later you just know I’m going to need an engineer in one of my SF novels, and he is definitely going to be handing out protractor business cards. And some other character is going to get a Mexican lab tech wife who makes to-die-for tamales. And why wouldn’t the B&B owner in my next Eloise mystery inviter to fill in for him as he’s off to L.A. to act in a movie? Yes, of course all one’s characters are completely fictitious and bare no resemblance to persons living or dead; except all the little pieces of these composites we create have to come from somewhere…and mealtime conversation with strangers is a highly valuable source.

Indeed, when I once had the invaluable opportunity of shadowing writer Candas Jane Dorsey through a working day, I kept waiting for her to write, but she kept just ‘goofing off’. She got up in time for lunch, which she took with friends; then we hung out with some other people, then went out for supper, then went back to her place for her weekly salon with half the artists and writers from the nieghbourhood she had helped organize into a housing collective. When finally she snuck away to write, she was gone for less than an hour, but pronounced herself well satisfied with the resulting two and a half pages of polished work. “That’s it?” I had cried, “you call that working?” “Yes foolish boy” (I was a lot younger in those days) “didn’t you see me eaves dropping on the people all around us in the restaurants? The conversations this evening? Where do you think authors find dialog, characters, ideas? It’s all writing: writers cannot have output, without input”.)

Omelet was decent, too.

Found and managed a shower, no small trick on rocketing train.

Then back to the parlor car where I put in frustrating morning trying to recreate grading file I had apparently left in Lethbridge. Four different flash drives with me, and not one of them had the complete final grade file. I must have renamed the final file to something else (“Final file” being one possibility) and stuck it on the desktop rather than in the mark folder so I’d be sure to take it with me…. Idiot. Either that, or it was on the fifth flash drive and I grabbed the wrong ones. (Note to self: next time, don’t buy six identical flash drives.) I’ve now finished marking everything, but can’t post the marks online without the missing file. Grumpy emails from students justifiably impatient for their grades are already starting to show up.

Mary offers to go to my office and search for the relevant file, but since the only time our schedules would match up that I could be sure of both cell phone and Internet connection (necessary to allow me to talk her through the maze of files on my work computer to most likely suspects) would be after I arrived in San Diego at 1AM (2AM where Mary is). Since she is herself driving up to Calgary tomorrow afternoon, no way I want her up after 2AM tonight emailing me files. Crazy. But I am overwhelmed that she even offered. (She’d already invested an hour emailing me potential files from my home computer…. Moral of the story (besides: get all your marking done before you go on writer’s retreat) is take time to pack properly and verify you have everything you’ll need for the retreat.

(Note to self: add dental floss to packing list. Or don’t order the steak.)

Lunch is with three ladies who go on at some length about the decline of American civilization, by which, I am disappointed to learn, they are referring to their inability to impose Christian beliefs on their neighbours, rather than, say, the current declarations of the Republican campaign. I smile and nod and back away at the earliest possible moment. It’s not that I don’t emphasize with their sense of a lost golden age, but that I’ve heard it all a million times before and there is nothing new here to steal. Er, I mean ‘inspire’. To be fair, it is probably because I have not tried to steer the conversation onto more interesting topics, but I was still bummed about the missing file thing, and two of the women had previously befriended each other so it would have been intrusive to disrupt the established dynamic.

Having by lunch officially given up on grading, I went on to other projects. I generally make excellent progress. I even start on piece of my major report, though as I look into it, I realize that particular piece needed to be started about three months earlier since it involves writing others and getting feedback, a step I seem to have missed somewhere along the line. I develop several possible strategies for dealing with the problem, but they mostly seem to come down to various ways of saying “Close enough for government work,” the mantra of my first boss. (Having myself, turned 60, a lot of what he used to say makes more sense to me now.) But as I chip away at various projects, I feel a glimmer of hope that I might in fact come out of this retreat with a great deal of what I need to be done completed.

I again take in the wine and cheese tasting (or at least the cheese part of it), since a plate of local cheeses goes nicely with the scenery and Internet access. I take an early supper alone, seeing as I was mid-productive frenzy and the opportunity expectantly becoming available; the deciding factor being that the only other open spot is back at the table with the three women.

I eventually have to retire to my room to pack; we arrive at Union Station in Los Angels, and I transfer over to the Surfliner to San Diego. It’s strictly a commuter train, no sleeper cars. The last train of the day going south, it is practically disserted, though the conductor assures me it can fill when there is a game on.

I stretch out and blog, but am disturbed by the smell of acrid smoke, as of solder melting. Unsure whether it is my brand new MacAir melting down (should have opted for the Apple Care package!) or the train is on fire, or – it occurs to me—whether the industrial part of California through which we are now racing simply smells like that all the time, I can’t decide which of these options is ultimately the more distressing. I accost the conductor as he passes and he assures me, after some careful sniffing, that it is simply the smell of the brakes. Clearly, he was sufficiently habituated to the smell that he hadn’t even noticed before I inquired, which raises some questions about train maintenance, but was very reassuring on the MacAir front.

I can’t get over how fast we’re going, though, shooting past refineries and neighborhoods and intersections as if they were on coming traffic. I guess that it’s because I’m used to the more sedate speeds of Edmonton’s LRT or Calgary’s C train, light rapid transit that is no match for a full out train like this one. We probably aren’t actually going significantly faster than the Starline or the Empire Builder, but zipping by this close to buildings creates a very different impression than crossing vast plains or judging movement against distant mountains. It just feels more terrifyingly reckless.

Hotel for the night, and bed next.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Retreat: Day 2

Okay, drawback to landcrusing: train was doing 80mph all last night, consequently sleeper car shaking back and forth with considerable vigor. I have to confess this tended to keep me awake rather than lull me to sleep as I had expected from fondly recalling the many sleeper car experiences of my childhood. Apparently, I wasn’t particularly worried about falling out of bed when I was ten when I still had a four inch clearance from the edge… Nowadays, I rather fill the single bed with a minimal margin for error, so having someone violently rocking the bed from side to side was not conducive to a secure and peaceful sleep. Mary tells me the next leg of the trip is a bit quieter, but I’m dubious as the train is currently doing about 80 mph and shaking violently from side to side as I type this.

A freight train broke down ahead of us this morning, so we sat on the track in the middle of nowhere for about four hours. When we finally got moving again, we had used up all the time I was supposed to have in Portland between connections. Indeed, we arrived after the second train was supposed to have already left, but it waited for us. I stepped off my train, was scooped up by a conductor and driven in his golf cart to the next platform, shooed into the sleeping car, where I quickly dumped my suitcase in my cabin, and trotted down the corridor to the dinning car for a rather late lunch, within about two and half minutes of the first train coming to a complete stop. Full marks for efficiency!

I, on the other hand, wasn’t every efficient or productive for the morning, partly feeling sleepy and partly worrying about my connection. (I tend to be a nervous traveler, which is irrational because not only had my wife contingency plans for every eventuality, she has my back remotely – anything goes wrong, she knows about it before I do--thanks to Amtrak updates via Internet--and can talk me through anything as she makes and unmakes reservations ahead of my travels.) But it’s like waiting for the cable guy: there’s no real reason why knowing he might come should stop you from doing all those other chores around the house, but somehow it becomes this constant, if absent, distraction. And, to be honest, having finished marking the last of my student papers this morning, I was it finding hard to motivate myself to begin my next big task, a report I’d rather not be writing. But I got into the holiday mood listening to episodes of “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” on my Ipod while enjoying some excellent scenery.

I eventually pulled out some of myfiction I’d been thinking about the last several weeks. For some reason a short story from the 1990s has been popping into my brain. I abandoned it back then because it was too long for short story markets, too short for novel, but now with e-publishing, length is just no longer a consideration, so idea is again worth revisiting. So I read over the original version and saw how easily my new ideas would plug into what I had from before. It’s embarrassing, but I remain my own biggest fan. I don’t know what it is about this guy, but he has exactly my sense of humor! So that got me into a writing mood, if not on the work I’m supposed to be prioritizing.

By the time I switched from the Empire Builder to the Starliner and had lunch I was prepared to settle down to work. Discovering active wifi in the parlor car on the Starliner, I was one happy camper. Catching up on work email, posting grades and so on, finishing off all the work I was supposed to have done before leaving, while they hosted a wine and cheese reception around me. (I can’t drink, but plate of cheeses was nice!) Quite productive afternoon and evening, interrupted by a steak dinner for supper. Fellow dinners were a family from Orleans, a Vice Principal and his wife --an instructor at the university--and their son in a Perry The Platypus T-shirt. A pleasant conversation, and interesting for me as the VP explained why he hated interviewing new teachers: “They all say what they think I want to hear so it’s different faces but the same speech over and over and over.” He was the VP of a Catholic school which pays new teachers about $30,000, so he knows that his applicant pool are those who couldn’t get jobs in the better paying public schools. So that was interesting for me in terms of preparing my graduates.

When I finally retired for the evening, settled down to read an SF novel from the 1980s that was one of my favorite examples of why Canadian SF is different than the American version. Not quite recreational reading--though I am thoroughly enjoying re-reading the novel--because it is one of the ones I am negotiating to republish, so and I’m editing as I go. As a novel previously published by one of the big houses, it obviously doesn’t need as much editing as most of the manuscripts that come across my desk, but it never ceases to amaze me that the previous editor let a lot more stuff go than I intend to. The lapses are all minor – some Bob and Doug dialog, a couple of momentary lapses in POV, the very occasional ambiguous sentence, but still… it’s the editor’s job to see the book is as good as it can be when it goes out.

Of course, I say that knowing that some fan is going to identify a billion minor lapses in the last manuscript I edited. Just finished editing Mik Murdoch: Boy Superhero and even on the third iteration, found stuff I had missed on the first two times through. Pretty sure I nailed all the big stuff, but there is always the occasional mistake that slips through: e.g., caught a reference to an earlier but now deleted scene, or that we forgot that we’d tied the dog to a tree at the start of a scene and need to retrieve him at the end of it. Oops. But after a while the editor becomes as intimately familiar with the novel as the novelist and consequently suffers the same kind of “see what you expect to see” blindness. When the galleys come back for Mik Murdoch I’m giving a copy to my daughter to read in hopes that her fresh--albeit untrained-- eyes can catch stuff like that….

Of course, I, the author, the publisher, and another editor will also be proofing the galleys. It’s constantly amazing how many errors can creep into even a thoroughly edited manuscript at the last second. I remember when I worked as a test developer for the provincial government, each test went through about 30 different reviews, and we still had the occasional exam go out where the typesetter (and the 11 different proof readers who subsequently reviewed it) missed an exponent on an equation, rendering the question incorrect. But at least we try, in contrast to the big houses which now seem to expect manuscripts to come in preproofed and self-publishers who just don’t see the need….

Retreat: Day 1

drive from Lethbridge to Shelby to board the train to Portland. The steward hands me my dinner reservation as I board; I am later seated with three random strangers. The first excuses himself after a moment to join friends he has discovered at another table. After the usual pleasantries--interrupted by appropriate oohhhing and ahhhing as we pass through Glacier National Park--the three of us who remain slowly get to know each other. The man seated across from me acknowledges at one point that he used to be a corporate pilot. As the woman next to him draws him out, he allows that he was also a former test pilot. Later, a stunt pilot, and featured airshow act. He is, in fact Delmar Benjamin, whose plane and flying are featured on the covers of three different flying magazines, a one hour TV documentary, and a series of YouTube videos under his name and GeeBee. (Go have a look, I’ll wait.)

So this guy, this random guy, has a ton of fascinating stories, including the fact that he did 52 airshow performance in one year, clearing about $300,000. (The airshow scene, he noted, is now in decline and he doubts that this is still possible. Too many doctors and dentists, he says, have bought planes and are willing to perform for free.) He regales us with tales of his days as a flight instructor for the next generation of test pilots. He is one interesting guy.

Has he, I ask, ever considered writing a book? Well, yes he has indeed written a book. His first book was published by a small niche aviation press some years ago. He is now writing his memoirs, tentatively entitled, Ten Seconds to Impact. “There are so many stories, things that I’ve done and seen, that would just be gone if I don’t write them down.” We discuss publishing options at some length. He has 10,000 photos of he and his plane, youtube video, documentary video, magazine covers with which to promote his forthcoming book. I explain about Pinterest. He responds by noting that he has an email list of 12,000 people interested in his plane. After choking on my water, I explain to him why he must be the envy of every other author. Compared to others whose names mean nothing, he has a built-in market with which to launch his novel.

Meanwhile, the recently retired woman with us notes that her father had been an illustrator with publisher Ziff-Davies in the 1930s and 1940s, and crazy about planes. He had created innumerable covers for Popular Mechanics and Flying Magazine in which Delmar was subsequently featured… (twice).

I find her father’s name strangely familiar. Didn’t he also do some SF covers for Ziff-Davies? Spaceships and the like? Why, yes, yes he did.

Small world.

She is also interesting in her own right, an excellent conversationalist who not only took the lead in drawing out Delmar’s story, but had a number of anecdotes about her own life and family,

So, how great is this? Way more interesting a first night than I have any right to expect.

But I can’t help reflecting that here it is, only the second time I’ve taken a meal on a train as an adult, and the second time I’ve been seated with someone midway through writing a book. Can it really be that one out of three strangers is writing something?

Writing/Editing Retreat

Several years ago, I had debated attending a local retreat, but the price tag was $3500 for the week, and I wasn’t sure the particular writer in resident (a respected poet) was quite right for my needs. I hemed and hawed, when Mary said, “You know, I could put you on a cruise for half that.” The more we thought about it, the more sense that made. A cheap inside cabin is just big enough to be a good womb-like office space for uninterrupted writing; when I need a break, there is the running track on deck, better food than any writer’s retreat, including often room service; staff to clean your cabin and replace your ice; evening entertainment; and the occasional exotic local if one wants to go ashore for some input or proper pacing space. Ever since, Mary has booked me on an annual writers retreat. Mary finds a bargain cruise (usually a repositioning cruise, where the ships are really just moving from one site to another--say Mexico winter cruise to summer Alaskan cruise--and the fares are heavily discounted because there really aren’t any interesting stops) and away I go. This year, for example, she booked me on a four day cruise from San Deigo to Vancouver and Seattle for $360. You can’t stay in a decent hotel for four nights for $360, and that price includes Holland America meals and all the rest. So, not bad! This year, however, Mary included landcruising; which is to say, train travel to and from the cruise ship. But the principle is the same: for reasonable price I get a small (okay, really small) private room; all meals; transportation to and from the cruise; and no distractions. And, as often as not, really interesting dinner conversation.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Good Week for Five Rivers

Today's blog entry from Five Rivers good indication of how much this micro-publisher has grown just this year: Two story collections from H.A.Hargreaves (Canadian SF pioneer); reissue of bunch of Ann Marston's classic fantasy; horror collection from J.W. Schnarr; two novels from Matt Hughes; story collection by Susan J. Forrest; and Michell Plested's Mik Murdoch: Boy Superhero (one of the novels I edited); and a novel by Mike Fletcher. Plus some nonfiction. Not bad output--quantity or quality--for a tiny press. Decent covers too.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Reviews and Defamation

As a sometimes reviewer, found this page at Caslon Analytics (an Australian consulting firm) highly entertaining: covers what one can and cannot be sued for in a negative review, with some hilariously malicious reviews included as examples. Their page ondefamation in novels may also be of interest to readers of this blog.

(Thanks to novelist Chris Hoare for bringing these to my attention.)

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Monday, February 27, 2012

Bots, Books and Pricing

Hilarious but disturbing post by Carlos Bueno on how competing computer programs set the price for Carlos' book without his knowledge or participation. And there is a follow-up post on how a fake online bookstore (Geefts) tricks consumers by offering his book below Amazon's price, but doesn't actually have any books to sell.

Totally bizarre. But clear wake up call for authors and self-publishers.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Pricing E-books

Thoughtful and informative piece on e-book pricing from Steve Bareham.

Coincidentally, just went to a presentation on ebook publishing in academia where the speaker noted that ebook textbooks were selling for about twice what the same book in hardcopy sold for. This, of course, makes no sense because the elimination of paper, printing, storage, and shipping costs should make ebooks much less expense. The presenter had no explanation for this, but said it was a clear and universal trend in textbook publishing. So, three possible explanations present themselves to me: (a) the academic text publishers are entering ebook market only reluctantly and fighting a rear guard action to prop up print market by reverse pricing, -- but that is a losing battle, so hard to credit that explanation; (b) the publishers assume a certain amount of piracy when making their texts available in ecopy, so build that into the pricing; (c) simple supply and demand: college and university students are moving to ebook format faster than other demographics so can be charged accordingly. Since one is often required to drag texts to class, and since texts weigh a ton, I wouldn't be surprised that students might actually be prepared to pay a premium to have all there texts on a Kindle.

But what the big textbook suppliers don't seem to recognize is that they are doomed. As a textbook author, what exactly is my incentive to go with a big publisher which is going to charge my students an arm and a leg for my book; demand that I change my book to meet the needs of some idiot instructor on another campus whose course has just enough overlap with my text that if I add five more chapters (which my students have to pay for) he might adopt it; and pass on almost none of the profits to me, the author?

I've sold my upcoming textbook to a small press (Five Rivers, of course) which will charge my students a quarter of what they are paying now and pay me five times the royalties. And my colleague was explaining to me how his self-published textbook is quickly spreading to other campuses and he's making 100% of the net. The big publishers were necessary when publishing was too complicated and time consuming for an academic to undertake him/herself. But today, the technology actually makes it simpler--and incredibly faster--for me to put a course reader together myself online then to have the university bookstore--let alone some distant publisher--do it. Producing and distributing a single author textbook is still bit complicated, especially if one is looking for decent cover art, book design, national distribution etc., but a small publisher can do as good a job as one of the big three, and they take a much smaller cut of the pie.

And, what is most important to me, the smaller publishers don't insist on controlling what and how I write. The big publishers have to sell thousands of copies at exorbitant prices in order to break even; so they have to insist on authors revising their texts to reach lowest common denominator in the marketplace. Which is why all textbooks are boring and cover the exact same content the exact same way. The last time I wrote a text, the publisher insisted on taking out all the funny bits because some of the instructors the publisher sent sample chapters to felt that funny has no place in a serious text. (Rubbish! Either they were afraid my funny bits would upstage their own lectures, or they simply too pompous to be allowed in a classroom. Funny not only makes reading a text more palatable, it helps students learn and remember.) I'm okay with an editor telling me my jokes aren't working, but I have a problem with the marketing department saying my text has to be rewritten so it can sell in Texas.

One of the more provocative (read: "outrageous") textbook chapters I wrote is still being reprinted and used in course readers on half a dozen campuses across Canada, even though the textbook it is from has been out of print for nearly 20 years. Precisely because it is funny and provocative and not the same as everything else. In those days, I had no choice but to try to get my text published by one of the big academic presses. Now, I can upload that chapter to a clearing house and get paid directly every time a prof reprints something I wrote. No intermediate editors, publishers, or distributors required.

So then the question becomes: how much should I charge for my article? Too high, and budget-minded instructors might cut it to bring their course reader down to something affordable for their students; too low, and revenues generated might not be worth the trouble. There is something to be said for giving it away free, since reputation counts for something in academia, but as Steve Barham points out, 'free' often implies 'worthless' to potential buyers. Tricky business, setting prices. Barham article is a good place to start though.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

THE GG Podcast

Speaking of Arthur Slade, caught tail end of an interview with him this afternoon. Sufficiently interesting that I hunted down the podcast. Turned out to be a nice little set of programs on authors who've won the Governor General's award and how it's impacted their writing and writing careers. Worth a listen.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Fascinating post on e-publishing by Arthur Slade

Gov General Award-winner Arthur Slade on ebook publishing tells exactly how many copies sold, and how much cash made:

So much of the blogosphere focuses on one or two (highly exceptional) stories to hype self-publishing model, or equally unhelpfully tell us that the average self-published title (i.e., by illiterate, unedited newbies) sells fewer than 20 copies, that it is very difficult to get a handle on actual potential for writers.

On the other hand, I have to say I'm a little shocked. If Arthur Slade can only bring in five grand a year from e-books, where the hell does that leave the writers who haven't won a GG and don't already have 15 titles in print? Yikes.

Of course, we all hope that our particular title will go viral, or can figure out that $5,000 a year might work out okay if that figure grows or remains steady for several more years to come. The typical advance for a new SF author from a major publisher is between $3500 to $6000, so $5000 from self-publishing still compares -- except that the big print publishers throw in editing and cover art and book design and perhaps some marketing for free, so at least half of that theoretical $5000 payout is likely going to cover self-publisher's costs. But bottom line is, are you in the same league as Arthur Slade?*

Mind you, at least one of the authors I've edited for has told me s/he is making more than a $1200 per month off ebooks. So it can be a good revenue stream.

My take on it is that self-publishing works best for (a) established writers continuing to bring out new print books with the majors, but who have reissued their out of print backlist as ebooks (which would otherwise not be earning anything, and which have already gone through extensive editing etc.); and (b) new or experienced authors writing for a niche market too small to attract the major publishers, but sufficiently large and untapped to provide steady modest income to those servicing that market through small specialty presses or self-publishing. In both cases, when a satisfied customer finishes with one title, they may go on to buy an ebook by the same author.

[Update 18/02/2012: *Arthur Slade commented:

    Robert, I honestly attribute very little of my sales to my own fanbase. Most of my sales are in the US and UK and they don't know me very well there. It's more whether you have the right book for the bigger audiences. My YA books (other than DUST) don't cross over that much into the adult market, which are the majority of kindle owners. I wish I had a serial killer mystery in my back pocket, or a romance. Or a brilliant fantasy. I think my numbers would be much higher if I did.

Of course, Slade has a point! Most Kindle users are adults, so children's books won't have the same market base. But that may be changing rapidly. I know I download books to read my 8-yr old on my Kobo, and my older daughter (13) has her own Kobo. As all her peers seem to be upgrading to smartphones and/or tablet computers, those that read will more likely read on Kindles et al. Already my students are asking for their texts in e-format...rather than lugging heavy texts around with them all the time. And the provincial government is talking about switching from texts to e-materials in next couple of years. So...give it a minute....]

Friday, February 10, 2012

Good week for ChiZine Publications

One of my favorite small presses, ChiZine Publications ( just signed a deal with Harper Collins Canada to take over its Canadian distribution, and its global digital distribution. (Diamond Book Distributors remains as the distributor for the U.S. and internationally.) Then ChiZine Publications was named "Best Horror Imprint" in Rue Morgue Magazine; then publisher Sandra Kasturi was profiled for "Women in Horror".... So they are having a pretty good week!

CZP is one of my favorite examples of the small presses evolving to fill the gap left by the decline of the previous publishing model. CZP has three things going for it:

(1) publishers (Sandra Kasturi and Brett Savory) who know a great book when they see it -- in contrast to the majors that have abdicated editorial choice to their marketing department's. Readers know that no matter how far out a particular title appears, if Brett and Sandra have passed on it, its got something. I am no horror fan, in fact I generally despise the genre, but I have yet to read a CZP title that I didn't like. Okay, "like" might not be quite the right word, because some of this stuff is seriously wrong but you know, brilliant. So this is an excellent example of successful branding. There are a billion titles out there and its increasingly difficult to find the good stuff. One the one hand, the big traditional publishers try to play it safe in their quest for the big sellers, and so turn out process cheese; on the other, the majority of self-published material isn't even literate. So the most interesting stuff is being published by the small presses, but their output is often uneven. But once one has identified a particular press as a trusted brand -- and CZP is the current best example of a 'never a wrong note' press -- then the press becomes the guarantor of quality that readers require.

(2) publishers who understand the new publishing model -- and Sandra and Brett have practically invented the new model. As publishers of limited edition hardcovers, they play well to the collector market, readers who want books as objects of art almost as much as for their content. Even their paperback editions are things of beauty. And using that market as their base, have slowly, carefully, thoughtfully built themselves into a significant imprint distributed by one of the big players.

(3) publishers who understand community. I think this is one of the key factors that made for their outrageous success story, and one they may not even totally consciously get themselves. I happened to be in Toronto one week when they had an event planned, so dropped in. And was instantly blown away by the community these guys had grown. They have surrounded themselves with a pool of incredibly talented writers, editors, reviewers, and readers. The sociologist in me was fascinated to watch how they turned a reading series into the best author networking opportunity I've seen in years. I watched dozens of horror's best sitting around bouncing ideas off each other, validating each others work, living the writing life. All facilitated by CZP reading series. No wonder they keep finding great new talent-- they're creating it wholesale by creating a community. CZP isn't just a press, its a bloody movement! A school! I know beyond any doubt that future literary scholars will identify this group as a major turning point not only in horror (the horror community world wide has already clued in that CZP is completely revitalizing that otherwise moribund genre) but for mainstream Canadian literature. Kasturi and editor Helen Marshall, for example, are clearly two of Canada's best poets by anybody's standards, and are slowly being recognized as such by the mainstream literary establishment. When was the last time the canlit crowd took horror seriously? When was the last time you actually thought of buying a poetry book. But I tell you, these two...! And they're just the tip of the ice berg. I wish I lived in Toronto to be part of it, or at least to be there with my notebook to document it all, but even way out here in Alberta I can see that the CZP community is becoming THE up and coming literary circle in Canada.

Remember you heard it here first folks!