Monday, June 27, 2011

What I Am Working On--Part 2

I’ll tell you as much about my novel-in-progress as I dare.

There must be at least a few good reasons to say nothing about one’s current project. I’m not sure if all of them are legit. Some are surely superstitions.

(By the way, confession is a powerful practice, especially for someone raised old-school Catholic like me. In my May 19 post, I confessed to having two stubborn superstitions. One of them was feeling compelled to read the entire Help Wanted section in the local paper each Sunday so that I never have to apply for a job again. The following Sunday morning, I sat down with my 20-oz., 4-shot Americano and a copy of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner at the coffee shop and realized how stupid the whole Help Wanted ritual was. I didn’t feel the need to read it then, and didn’t, and I haven’t read it since. Just like that, another flea crushed.)

(As for my last remaining superstition, I have no desire to reveal or eliminate it. It’s rather homey and sweet.)

When someone asks me (and I think this holds true for other authors) what I’m working on, I usually reply in very broad terms, such as, “on my third novel,” or “on my latest science fiction novel.” I avoid detail. I never reveal the plot.

I do this for these reasons:

  1. When I talk about a work-in-progress, the talking seems to dissipate the story’s energy, leaving not enough juice for the difficult work of getting it down on paper.
  2. Fear of having my ideas ripped off by revealing too much.
  3. Even small details can give too much away.
  4. Talking about something like a plot or character can “lock it in,” sometimes too soon.
  5. At some point the whole project might implode and I stop working on it (it’s happened). Wouldn’t exactly like to do this live online.
  6. It’s bad luck.

In my May post, I brought you up to Nov. 2010. What have I been doing since?

I have been working on a novel that pretty much combines the essences of most of my recent “failed” projects. Fresh from the composting heap of my mind to yours.

There is a working title, but it gives too much away, and I can’t say it.

I can say that it’s my first Alaskan novel. It seems impossible to me, but I’m fast approaching my 40th anniversary as an Alaskan. I guess I’m gaining a long view of the place. You’d be surprised at the variety of stories you can collect about a place over a course of 40 years. And it’s about time I get some of that down on paper. About time I laid claim to this wild territory in my memory. So I’m setting the story in a very special corner of Alaska, a place I’m going to visit in about ten days--the largest National Park in America. (more on that later)

It’s also my first E.T. story ever. I’ve never published a story with an alien character. As one who sides with the great, late Mundane SF movement, I dismissed alien contact as improbable and thus not mundane enough to write about. That’s why I never invented an alien character, only posthuman clones and sentient AIs.

These days I think, why the hell not? Aliens are fun, and they have traditionally served a number of purposes in SF fiction (more on that later), one of which is: Alien as Foil. That is, through interaction with non-human sentients, we gain insight into what qualities make us human.

This seems especially fitting, since a major theme of this book is . . .

. . . the neurological basis of Faith. I have not given up my desire to explore in fiction a cool idea I have about religious faith. What better way to speak to that issue than aliens in the Alaskan bush? (more on that later too, I guess).

S and T Palin may or may not play a role in this book. Probably only a cameo. I don’t know. Maybe they provide the plot a McGuffin.

Although I’ve been working on this book since Dec. 2010, and despite about 400 longhand pages of a first draft and 120 pages of notes, much of the story is still obscured in the mist of possibility. I simply do not know what happens. Every day or so, another puzzle is solved, and a rush of invention follows. At this point I have a good idea where the story is headed, but I don’t know how it gets there, and am making everything up as I go along. When I get stuck and can’t proceed, sometimes it means that I’ve gone off track, and I have to back up to firmer ground. I delete whole chapters or entire characters or story threads. I go back to the last sure text and restart from there. This is the way I seem to work, rather than outlining the whole story before beginning to write.

What else do I dare reveal? Here’s one. There’s a dog character, a mixed German shepherd named Crissy Lou. Her owners, in Glennallen, Alaska, were high bidders in a fundraising auction for 49 Writers last year. For their winning bid, Crissy Lou gets to do a cameo part in the novel. Well, she’s in there already, and it looks like she may possibly play a plot-driving role. Maybe a heroic part like Lassie. I don’t know, but it could very well happen.

stay tuned for more--

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Book Pirates

What to do about pirates?

I have Google Alerts set on the titles of my books so that whenever they appear anywhere on the open internet, Google sends me an email with a link. This is a good way to track reviews, mentions, and buzz. It’s also a good way to track piracy. Lately I’ve been getting notified that ten or so pirate sites are offering a download of an audible version of my second novel, Mind Over Ship. As far as I know, no legitimate audible version of this book has ever been produced. I can’t imagine that some fan has made his or her own recording (14.5 hours unabridged) and posted it somewhere for download, but I can’t think of any other alternative. I’ve got to wonder if it’s professionally made or is doing more harm than good to my book’s reputation. And why would someone do something like this without asking or telling me?

As an added bonus, Counting Heads, the pirated download, is getting increased traffic as well.

As I said in an earlier post, I’m not a big fan of the “open culture” which says that everything digital wants to be free. But I, myself, read way more books that I check out of the public library than ones I pay $24.95 for. So I don’t know how to react to the piracy of my work. It’s not like authors can go on tour like musicians to recoup the value of our labor with paid live performances. (And please buy a CD on your way out.) To paraphrase Cory Doctorow, the enemy of a writer is not piracy; it’s obscurity. This is especially true when everybody and his cousin thinks he’s a writer and Amazon and B&N (and others) make it so easy to self-publish. So I guess I should be happy that someone felt moved enough by my novel to spend 14 hours reading it into a microphone. I can only hope they did a bang-up job.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Exploring the Intertubes

With my return to blogging, I am trying to formulate some “big picture” understanding of what the internet is today and where I can best apply my energies. In this endeavor, I have asked you, my readers, for input, and I have received some valuable leads and insights here and in private emails. I have also scoured the new book section at the local library for titles on the topic. I found three: Pull, The Power of the Semantic Web to Transform your Business, by David Siegel; You Are Not a Gadget, a Manifesto by Jaron Lanier; and Say Everything, How Blogging Began, What It’s Becoming, and Why It Matters, by Scott Rosenberg. Since this is the public library, “new books” tend to be six or more months old by the time they hit the shelves, and, indeed, these books were published a year or two ago. Which is a long time in the ongoing transformation of the Web, but hey, it’s a start.

The first one, being a book on how to improve one’s business, I can dispatch rather quickly. The panacea for business success is--metadata. Pay attention to the particular metadata that your industry attaches to your product or service, and you too can harness the power of the semantic web. I read the chapter about the publishing industry and pretty much ignored the rest. I learned a few things about marketing in traditional publishing, but not much I can use.

The second one is the chewiest of the three. Lanier was an early developer of virtual reality and has toiled in Silicon Valley for a long time. His views on software engineers and the early days of the personal computer are interesting, as is his take on the state of the internet today. It’s a book I’d probably have to read again to fully understand. But who has time to read anything more than once these days? And I fear I might not be able to understand it better with a second reading anyway. That’s because of Lanier’s writing style. It’s rather choppy. Ideas are introduced and dropped without, first, an adequate explanation of what he means by them and, second, any way to tie them into a larger picture. Even words like “person” get short shrift. (“Being a person is not a pat formula, but a quest, a mystery, a leap of faith.” Yeah, right. So why’d you bring it up?) Also, he likes to illustrate abstractions with more abstractions. I’m not sure there is a point to the book other than the impression that Lanier is disgruntled and slightly wary of the state of technology today.

But I almost did get something valuable from his manifesto that relates to my novel-in-progress. That is, in disparaging the Web 2.0 and its “cybernetic totalists” with their vaunted open culture, Creative Commons anti-context file sharing, and derivative mashups of a previous generation’s work, he implies that there is an opposing point of view. I, myself, have looked askance at the whole open culture paradigm (hey, I want to be paid for my work), but I didn’t know there could be a counter position, other than the old, dead, litigious rearguard of the music industry (suing grandmothers for pirated music on their hard drives). So I eagerly read on in hope of discovering what this other camp might be, only to be left in the dark. Likewise, he speaks of the Singularity as being a religious tenant of the cybernetic totalists. I have taken a contrarian POV toward the Singularity in my two novels (not that anyone noticed), and I touch on it again in my current book. So I was keen to hear how a modern technologist might argue against it. But again I was disappointed. Lanier seems to be a dualist at heart, though not necessarily a theist. He seems to be saying that humans are the exceptional animal; though a part of Nature, they participate in the ineffable (i.e. they are “spiritual but not religious”). Might as well go to a UU meeting.

The third book, Say Everything, was the one most germane to my investigation, and from it I’ve drawn several valuable conclusions. First, I’m probably not a blogger, and this blog may not be the best way for me to reach my PR goals. Blogging is a form of writing in itself. This is not to say there’s a single approach to blogging. There are three, more or less, and there may be more variations in the future. One of the original impulses in blogging was the first-person, self-revelatory, diarist approach. Ordinary people were suddenly presented the tools necessary to publish their thoughts about everything and anything to their friends and the world at large. No more gatekeepers. Rag on your employer, reveal family secrets, obsess about your body parts, chronicle the family vacation. Whatever you like. When I asked my readers for feedback about what you’d like to see in my blog, one of the replies I got was to steer away from this True Confessions/home-movie type of blogging style.

A second approach, exemplified by the excellent Boing Boing blog, is to make a digest of links to interesting stories on other sites.

A third is to offer up a running commentary on a particular topic, like politics, religion, collecting sports memorabilia, or whatever, usually with a highly personal POV. This type has been commercialized, as with Gawker. When attached to a news/magazine site, like Salon, HuffPost, and the Atlantic, they take the form of essay or commentary.

None of which I’m interested in doing. Why? Because it takes time. It has taken me two days to write each of these few recent posts (except for the previous one on foreign releases). That’s two days I should have been writing fiction. Also because it’s not my preferred form of writing. I am totally wrapped up in writing the long fiction form--the novel. The hours I spend working on a novel each day make me feel good. I think that my mind is especially shaped to excel at novel writing, that novels can be things of lasting value. Having my name on a finished novel is fulfilling. So, that’s what I should focus on. And with any luck, the novel form will survive in this ever-accelerating world. Short stories might not. They’re in the same length niche as blogs and other forms of web reading. But the long form is a form unto itself, and people like to sink themselves into unfamiliar universes every now and then.

So why am I keeping this blog? Maybe I won’t. Maybe I’ll quit. I laid out my goal for it a few posts ago. Traditional publishing is dead. I may have to publish my next book myself, and if I do, the one skill I lack is promotion. There are 300,000 or so new books released in this country every year; who’s going to even hear of mine? And with the gates to epublishing thrown wide open, there’s bound to be two and three times that number soon. YouTube made everyone a videographer. The Kindle and Nook are making everyone an author. You can download thousands of books for free.

OK, I’ll keep updating this blog, at least until I find something better. One of the things a fellow suggested in the comments is that I start a forum. I’ve given that a lot of thought, and I like the idea. Not that I would start a forum myself. I don’t think I could pull it off. Rather, I’ll look around the web and find the most popular science fiction forum going, and I’ll join that. More on that later.

Where do you go to chat about science fiction? Let me know.

The photo at the top is a demonic moose that visited me last December.