Friday, February 26, 2010

On Saying No

I find it quite hard to.

In particular, I find it a constant struggle to turn down or step away from offers of employment. Seems reasonable, doesn't it? Look at the unemployment situation out there! Why would anyone turn down work, especially when it's teaching work at the college level? At the best of times these jobs are hard to get. And now that's even more so. When I accepted the Associate Professor job at Cal State Fresno a few years back it was in an attempt to take a bite of that security pie.

Problem was, my family wasn't happy in Fresno. They wanted back to our house in the woods in Western Massachusetts. It was hard for me to leave the job for a variety of reasons, but when I did it was with plans to return to a near-fulltime writing life. That's what I headed toward in late June...

But by late July I'd accepted offers that meant I was doing as much teaching work as before. (I was even getting less money for it - though we were back in our chosen home, so that counts for a lot.) Instead of making daily progress on Acacia 3 I was only nibbling at it, and spending the bulk of my work life reading, critiquing, planning lectures, grading, etc. Don't get me wrong. Teaching is very good work. In particular, I enjoy the teaching I do for the Stonecoast MFA Program. That could easily be part of my life for a long time. Problem is that I'd added other stuff to that and allowed it become the center of my work life, instead of a just a component of it. How'd that happen?

Several things. There's the old notion that I still have to build my resume, get more credentials, more respectability. There's the dire economy. There are fears about the future of publishing. There's the understanding that as a writer I have very little control over my publishing prospects. (So, so much of it is out of the writer's hands. This is something I know aspiring writers don't understand.) There's the quantifiable numbers on a contract, compared to the ever changing mystery of royalty statements. There's the lingering desire to do right by my mother. As much as she supported my writing, she herself leaned toward steady, dependable employment. There are a lot reasons. I can see and understand how it happened, and I can recognize the virtues of it.

Thing is, I didn't become a writer to secure a teaching job. I became a writer to write and to be read by an audience of readers. The thing is... the longer one doesn't write, the more doubt creeps in that one ever will write again. That's not acceptable.

So I recently said no to a new offer of employment. No. It means I'm scaling back the teaching a bit, and hopefully pushing forward on the writing throttle. (By the way Stonecoasters, this changes nothing about my relationship with the Stonecoast MFA Program. That I'm quite happy with.)

Do you approve?


Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Go To The Next Room

Random post, this one.

Okay, so you know I'm writing for George RR Martin's Wild Card series, right? A month or so ago, he responded to my three part Infamous Black Tongue story. Lots of edits, lots of things to change. My story has to jive with the work of like six other authors - and none of us have read the other author's work! Just George. Master of it all, he is. And good thing, too, because he's an awesome editor. Everything he asked for - either to fit with other stories, or just editorial in general - made sense to me. So I rewrote.

Thing is, as I approached revising the end of one of the climatic scenes, I realized I had to make a change that George hadn't mentioned. When IBT has beaten down a particular baddy, he punches him one last time. Seeing him go unconscious, he says, "Go the next room."

Go to the next room.

Made complete sense to me, but I doubt it would make sense to anybody else. Why'd I write that line? Well, let me take you back...

When I was a young, spritely, twenty something Outward Bound Instructor living and working in Baltimore I spent one summer doing a long course that was urban based. We worked in partnership with the Yale School of Forestry. Basically, I spent the summer doing urban forestry with at-risk kids from inner city Baltimore.

On one of those days, we worked at some sort of men's home/shelter. We were given a tour of a the facility by a charismatic, talkative resident of the place, a guy that had lived his own hard life to get to the relative stability the home offered him. He had a great cadence to his speech as he led us around, a combination of street-smart slang and no nonsense gruffness that he somehow delivered with spiritual equanimity.

When he was done talking about a room, he would always say the same thing. "Alright? Got it? Good. Go to the next room." It seemed a strange, loose, kinda funky mantra at the time. And over the years it's come to have spiritual significance for me. Like, he wasn't just saying move your body into the next room so we can carry on with this tour. It's become an invitation to a higher plane. "Go to the next room, where rewards - or karmic retribution - await you." I've never forgotten it, and every now and then that phrase pops into my head.

That, in some strange way, was what Infamous Black Tongue was laying down on the villain in question. But without context I understand that it would mean nothing to anybody but me. Oh, and you - now that you've read this far.

Still, though, it doesn't make that much sense in that moment, so I cut it. Perhaps one day I'll write a story in which I can build that line and let someone deliver it in context. Here's hoping, cause I need to get it out of my system...

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Friday, February 19, 2010

Nebula Awards Final Ballot

It's just gone up! The titles in the novel category (where my attention always goes) are:

The Windup Girl, Paolo Bacigalupi (Nightshade, Sep09)

The Love We Share Without Knowing, Christopher Barzak (Bantam, Nov08)

Flesh and Fire, Laura Anne Gilman (Pocket, Oct09)

The City & The City
, China Mieville (Del Rey, May09)

, Cherie Priest (Tor, Sep09)

, Jeff VanderMeer (Underland Press, Oct09)

For the rest, take a look HERE. Congrats to them all!

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Thursday, February 18, 2010

Locus: Three Out Of Four

Locus has just come out with their list of recommended titles from 2009. Alas, The Other Lands (Acacia, Book 2) isn't on the list. Sigh. Not that I'm surprised. I don't think Locus reviewed me this time around, and that kind of precludes later inclusion in a "Best Of" list. Such is the way it is, though, and one must remember that you can't have everything. In this case, there's a balance that still leans in my favor.

Locus did, for example, give me a doozy of a great review for Acacia: The War with the Mein. And this year they also published Jeff VanderMeer's reaction/list of his own. The Other Lands features nicely on that one.

And... I'm to be featured in an interview in an upcoming issue! So I'll get to have my say within their pages in my own words. All in all I'm quite happy about it.

Now, if the New York Times would just remember how much they used to love me…


Saturday, February 13, 2010

New Cover

I'm writing from the lobby of the hotel at Boskone. Just taking a break for a sec. It's been good, but I'll keep this quick.

I just got a glimpse at the cover Doubleday has planned for the massmarket paperback of The Other Lands. It's the same basic image, but retooled a little. Take a look...

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Thursday, February 11, 2010

New York Times on E-Book Pricing

Here's another article about the whole thing. Nothing new really, although for me it's official confirmation of stuff I've watched happen personally.

It's got a quite a few quotable lines in it, but I'll resist the urge.


Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Are You Sure You Want To Say That? Just Wondering...

I recently noticed a blog post by an aspiring sf writer of African descent. She got turned on to the genre, apparently, by reading Harry Potter, and now she has a recently completed manuscript. Thinking she would look into what other black writers had accomplished in the genre, she looked for some titles to read, found Acacia: The War with the Mein, read it and... decided to blog about how lame it was. She didn't like it much. Found the characters mostly uninteresting, their names annoying, nothing much surprising in it and just way too many words for such a nothing story, that sort of thing.

Now, I have absolutely no problem with someone not liking a book of mine. She may think it's not a good book; I'd say it is, but it's not a good book for her. I wish people would understand that a bit more often. But so be it.

What I am interested in here is that she chose to write a blog post that included all the above information. Why, I'm inclined to ask, would an aspiring writer hoping to break into the genre and become one of very few black writers in the genre choose to begin by writing publically and negatively about one of the few other black writers to find success in the genre? Does that sound like the best career planning? Especially when they're writing on a personal blog that nobody is reading, but that the author in question is more likely to come across because it's their book being trashed. See what I mean? She's reaching very few people, but the one person she's most likely to reach is... me.

I'm not sure how much folks know this, but part of what it means that black writers are so few in this part of the literary world is that we tend to... ah, know each other. Go to a con and you're likely to connect with Nalo and Nnedi, with Alaya and Nora, with Steven and the Minister, Tananarive and Doselle and Tempest and... well, I was going to say Samuel, but the only time I was at a con with him I was too shy to say hello. But my point is that it's a small group, and the way we stand out in this community makes it easy to connect, strike up friendships, and find professional support. We don't all know each other, but in general we do know each others' work, and I reckon we keep an eye on each others' careers to some extent. None of these writers is doing exactly the same thing. None of us need love each other's writing without question (though I often do). But all of us benefit from looking out for each other. A blurb here, a recommendation there, a shout out on occasion, choosing a particular title for a course and thereby selling twenty books... It's small stuff, but it counts.

In my opinion, this aspiring writer has unintentionally demonstrated how little she knows about the industry she wants to be part of. After writing this negative review, what's she gonna do if she meets me at a con? It's fine if she says hi without commenting on my writing, but it's hardly a great opening to say, "Hi, I read your book and didn't like it and went out of my way to tell other people it wasn't that good. I'm hoping to be a writer myself, though. Can you help me get an agent?" Of course she never would introduce herself that way in person, but... that's exactly what she's done with her blog post!

Remember folks, when you post something on your blog people may read it. It may serve as your introduction to them. Just something to keep in mind...

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Monday, February 08, 2010

AudioFile Interview

My librarian just informed me that I have an interview/article in the current issue of AudioFile magazine. Nice.

HERE it is!


Friday, February 05, 2010

Barack/Barad the Lesser

I got an email from a kind fan recently. Let's call him V. He said nice things about the series, and then he asked me a question. It was about the character Barad the Lesser from The Other Lands (Acacia, Book 2), a character who appears to be mentioned once in the first book - but only in passing - as Barack the Lesser.

Part of V's question was worded like this:

"I wondered when exactly you'd been working on the novel and how much Obama was on the national radar when you chose to name a character after him. I wondered if he was still a junior senator in Illinois, kind of a minor politician you were fond of and wanted to tip your cap to, or whether he was already gaining enough steam that you could imagine his becoming President... Maybe it was a coincidence that you used the name in the first novel, during the writing of which Obama might not have been very well known, but then you felt the need to change it now?"

And here's how I responded:

Great question. The funny thing is, you're the first person to ask it! I'm sure some others must have noticed, but none of mentioned it to me directly yet. Thanks for the careful reading, and I'm happy to answer.

So, it's like this... Yes, the character named Barack the Lesser in the first book became Barad the Lesser in the second. No, I didn't explain that anywhere in the text. Yes, Barack Obama is probably to blame for it, but no, the first name choice wasn't any direct homage or endorsement of him. I'm not a big fan of that sort of thing, and don't do it intentionally in my fiction. It's just one of those strange situations where life surprises you and throws chinks into your work.

I'm a little fuzzy on the details, but let's go back in time. First, note that the first book came out in 2007. Before the election. The text of the book was accepted and put into production a year before that, in 2006. And the book itself was written in 2004 and 2005. All of that is just to say that I wrote the thing before Barack Obama was president, and I wrote quite a bit of it before he was even a national political figure.

But I said he was to blame, right? Yes, I think that at some point when I was writing the book Obama made a speech, maybe at a Democratic convention in 2005 or something like that. I recall liking the speech, but moreover the name Barack seemed perfect for this minor character I had in mind. In the first book he's only a name mentioned once - literally
once on page 259 of The War With The Mein. That makes him a tiny character, and at that point Obama was a relatively unknown wannabee from Chicago. Nobody involved in the book's production even noticed or thought about the name. Not my early readers. Not my agent, not my editor or the copyeditor.

Fast forward a couple years... When I began writing
The Other Lands Obama was still a crazy long shot for the presidency. I'm sure I began it before he was even a candidate. But you know what happened with that... With my writing, I became more and more drawn to making Barack the Lesser a point of view character in the second book. I'd never thought of him as connected to Obama by anything other than the fact that I'd casually pinched his name, but still, I started to write more about him. You know how that went...

I honestly didn't think a thing about it until I delivered the book to my editor, in the winter of 2008. At that point - though even he had read much of the book earlier than that - he went, "Ah... wait a minute. You can't call this Barack anymore. Nobody is going to be able to read that without thinking of Obama." He was right, of course. Obama owns the name for all intents and purposes. My minor character had been named after a man that had suddenly become one of the most famous men on earth!

It was quite strange to face that. On one hand, my character felt to me like he inhabited that name. He was his own thing. On the other hand, I was fully involved in following the election. I was even an Obama supporter. But it didn't really occur to me until my editor pointed it out that I had a problem with that particular name.

So I changed it. I made it Barad so that it was close to the original, so that it felt similar to me but was still different. And that was that. Now, it's easy for me to think of him as Barad - and he's got nothing to do with Obama - at least not that I'm overtly aware of.

That's the story. Nothing like this had happened before with my previous novels. I doubt it ever will again. Thanks for the question. If you stick around for the third book you'll get to see what happens with Bara... With BARAD the Lesser. He's got a role in all the craziness, right up to the end!

And that's it. Now, dear reader, what do you think? Should I amend the name in future editions of The War With the Mein? (It is only a single word in the text, after all.) Or should it stay the way it is, a weird moment of real history intruding on an imagined world?


Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Hampshire Reading

Hey I'm doing a reading!

"Fiction writers Christine Lehner and David Anthony Durham will read from their most recent works of fiction on February 11 at 7 p.m. in the Hampshire College Library Gallery. A book signing and reception will follow the reading. The event is free and open to the public. "

HERE'S more info on it.

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Monday, February 01, 2010

Charlie Stross on Amazon, and Toby, and fashionista_35

Another examination of the subject, with some great points.

And here's Tobias Buckell.

All these guys know way more about this stuff than me...

As does fashionista_35, as proven here.

You know, I'm actually not too confused anymore. :)


Ah, So Amazon Has "Capitulated"

Things are happening fast, apparently. has announced that it's going to have to accept Macmillan's terms. HERE'S their announcement. I put the quotes around the "capitulated" because Amazon used it themselves. They've "capitulated" to selling ebooks at a higher profit margin, to likely making more money while also allowing the publisher to maybe remain able to publish titles in the future. Tough deal...

Listen, I'm no enemy to Amazon. That's not it at all. Please note the Amazon links in this blog. Rest assured that I check my Amazon sales ranking daily, and that I'm a frequent customer myself. I just find some of the rhetoric around this dispute... questionable.

For example, I find the wording that Amazon uses - that "Macmillan has a monopoly over their own titles" - a bit strange. Shouldn't they? That's what it means to be a publisher, to take all the risks of publishing and supporting titles. And that's a misuse of term "monopoly". If Macmillan was not only the producer of the titles but also the only venue to sell them that would be one thing. But that's not the case. And why shouldn't a publisher have ownership of the titles they've legally contracted to bring into the world? As an author, I signed a contract with my publisher (who is not Macmillan, by the way) to look after the future of my books; not Amazon. By pricing them publishers are not making people buy them at that price. They're not selling gasoline, here. They're only saying selling them for less doesn't work for them as a business.

I guess a lot of folks think should have that ownership, judging by the comment thread. Seems like a lot of people think publishers are just making a big money grab, since ebooks should just be like gravy to them. I may just have a different perspective on this, but I think folks have the wrong idea if they're thinking the publishers are some sort of fat cats in control of everything, and if they think that ebooks are completely separate from the economics of the entire industry. As a novelist with five books behind me my feeling is that the publishing world is struggling to stay afloat - not chowing down on big ebook profits.

Tina Jordan, in a short piece for Entertainment Weekly, words it this way:

"As someone who has been following this drama, and reading all the comments on this and many other books blogs, I'm alarmed that so many people seem to see Macmillan as the villain here. It's not that simple. The book business has never had high profit margins (I believe 3% is considered fairly healthy, which ought to give you some idea.) It costs an enormous amount of money to produce a book. The author is paid an advance; the book is edited and copyedited and often put through a legal check; a jacket is designed; the publisher pays for marketing (ads!) and publicity (sending the author on tour, or, if they're lucky, paying to bring the author to New York so that they can appear on a national TV show). The printing, binding, and shipping of a title are not the real expenses involved in publication. The issue that Macmillan had with Amazon is a very real one: Given the punishing terms that Amazon insists upon (most e-book profits are going to Amazon, not to the publisher/author), publishers are literally often losing money on their e-book ventures with the company. What Macmillan wants to do is what it calls "agency pricing", that is, offer the e-book for more money when it first comes out, and then decrease the price as time passes - much in the way that a book is first available in hardcover and then in paperback."