Friday, July 25, 2014

Keeping The Faith, or Can You Change Your Name Without Selling Your Soul?

I wrote this essay in 1997, when the world of publishing was very different from what it is today. Back then, who could have anticipated the revolution in epublishing and the way it has given rise to self-publishing and independent publishers. Upon reflection, however, I think it's worth considering. Let me know what you think!

Many recent articles in newsletters, magazines and websites describe the dire state of publishing and the difficulties which writers face in order to break in, let alone survive or flourish. Conventional wisdom resonates with images of loss and scarcity:

"The midlist is dead!"

"IDs (Independent [Book] Distributors) have imploded!"

"If a single book fails, your entire career is finished unless you change your name!"

"Media tie-ins and franchised universe fiction are squeezing out original work on bookstore shelves!"

The background to these declarations is grim. Approximately 50% of all novels marketed as first novels are in fact written by established writers seeking to escape from poor sales figures. This situation benefits publishers because they then need pay only first-novel level advances for solid, midlist‑level books. The average advance has not increased in a decade, while those for a few, more highly promoted books have skyrocketed, further fueling the "boom or bust" polarization. Bookstore chains occupy an increasingly large share of the market and their computerized ordering practices base advance orders on the author's previous sales. Some critically‑acclaimed books sell so poorly that their authors have difficulty finding a publisher for their next work. In this age of micro-management by distant multiglomerate corporations, the success of a book can be determined before it appears on the shelves. Publishers hold "autopsy" conferences to discuss why a book which they believed would do well "failed" in terms of sales.

Advice is easily given in an atmosphere of unspoken desperation. Sometimes the suggested tactics succeed: a byline change or a switch to a more commercial form of fiction may rejuvenate an author's sales or at least subsidize more serious writing. Too often, however, such changes are proposed and undertaken without consideration of their emotional implications. Well‑meaning advice gives special privilege to forces which are inherently beyond a writer's control and which have to do with merchandising, not creativity. The writer who follows such advice unsuccessfully is particularly vulnerable to feelings of guilt, regret, loss of artistic identity, and betrayal ("having sold out.")

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

[personal] From the piano...

From time to time, I share what I'm working on in my piano practice. I say practice not just in the sense of "drills and repetitions" but as a spiritual practice. One of centering, focus, and intention. One of continually going deeper into the music and letting that (wordless) experience transform my day.

I'm an adult student, meaning I did not begin music lessons of any kind until my late 50s. I shepherded both daughters through endless lessons (from age 5 until the end of high school) and then finally it was My Turn. My piano belonged to my mother, who also realized her dream of playing it as an older adult. Sometimes it feels like she is looking over my shoulder, smiling.

Chopin, Preludes (op. 28, no. 4 and 6)
Satie, Gymnopedie #3
Brahms, Waltz in Aflat
Kabalevsky, Waltz
various pieces from the easy piano version of The Lord of the Rings movies

Chopin, Waltz dminor (op. 69, no 2. post.)
Bach, Fughetta
Kabalevsky, Novelette (how could I resist?)
easy piano/vocal version of "Song of the Lonely Mountain" from The Hobbit movie
two O'Carolan tunes, arranged for piano - "The Separation of Body and Soul," and "The Queen's Dream"

Sunday, July 20, 2014

BOOK GIVEAWAY: The Heir of Khored

The third book in The Seven-Petaled Shield trilogy came out in early June, and I have a box of author's copies sitting here begging to be sent to good homes. I'm happy to oblige them, but I make certain assumptions:

You've read the first two books (The Seven-Petaled Shield, Shannivar) and
You've liked them well enough to want to know how the story ends.

So here's the deal. Write a review of one or both of the earlier volumes and then post a comment here. You don't have to divulge where you put up the review -- online booksellers, your own blog, your town newspaper, social media sites, whatever -- I'll take it on faith that you did. That way, you can say what you thought without the apprehension of the author peering anxiously over your shoulder.

On  August 4, I'll choose 5 names at random from the commenters (so the cutoff time will be 9 am Pacific Time). I'll pay media rate postage within the US, although donations are as always welcome. For outside the US, we'll negotiate, maybe splitting the postage.

Hope you enjoy the books, have fun with the reviews, and let the commenting begin!

Friday, July 18, 2014

GUEST BLOG: Dave Trowbridge on Tajji and the BAT

Dave and I continue to alternate "dog blogs" on the rehabilitation of our newly-adopted retired seeing eye dog, who has extreme reactivity to other dogs.

Practicing "Puppy Zen"
Dave: Since Tajji’s last class, we’ve been working her frequently and most particularly on voluntary head-turns, as requested by Sandy Pensinger, our trainer. You simply start rewarding any turn of the head towards you, no matter how feeble, under very low-distraction conditions. Then build towards a real check-in with you.

At today’s class, we saw the payoff, which came despite a serious lapse in training the day before that I’ll describe later. We practiced a training method called Behavior Adjustment Training (BAT), which basically involves setting up safe situations in which the dog can learn to manage its reactivity.

The week before we had done desensitization via classical conditioning: exposing Tajji to another dog far away and rewarding her as soon as she noticed it by running away to behind a blind, T-touching her and praising her, and then giving her a treat. This kind of training will help her eventually understand that good things happen when other dogs appear, which helps increase her threshold. (Deborah: The picture shows us practicing a focus exercise, in which the dog is rewarded for sitting very still -- calming herself -- while a tasty treat is slowly lowered.)

Friday, July 11, 2014

The Tajji Diaries – Every Dog Is Different

As Tajji, the retired seeing eye dog that we are rehabilitating for extreme reactivity to other dogs, progresses through her curriculum, one thing stands out over and over again: every dog is different. It’s one of those utterly banal, self-evident statements, and yet how many times do we, even knowledgeable dog owners, take a one-size-fits-all approach to their behavior?

Each of the four dogs in the class (Reactive Rover, taught by Sandi Pensinger of Living With Dogs) is reactive in some way. To other dogs, to strange people, to sudden noises. Yet even dogs who are triggered by the same type of stimulus express their distress in different ways. For example, both Tajji and George are reactive to other dogs. Tajji has greatest difficulties with small dogs, while George, a solidly-built chocolate Labrador owned by an elderly woman, reacts most strongly to other large dogs. We have no history on Tajji’s problems, except for her fractured tooth, whereas George’s problems stem from a specific constellation of events – the deaths of his male owner and his female canine companion plus an attack by another large dog. Tajji has extremely good eyesight and could easily spot a small dog on the other end of the field (275 feet) while George did not appear to notice the small dog until he had advanced quite a bit closer than that. 

Sandi's dog, Pilot - very scary!
Today’s exercise, as you can tell, involved exposure to a “decoy” – last week it was a stuffed dog, this week a well-mannered small dog. The decoy would be led out from behind a blind (a waist-high portable screen) at the far end of the field. If the student dog did not notice, its handler would take a step at a time toward the decoy, waiting after each step.

For Tajji, just being out on the field with strange people and all the smells of other dogs was arousing. She gave lots of signals of being under stress (including shedding, something we noticed as we petted her in long, soothing strokes) in just the walk from the car to the canopied area where the other human students were seated. This was after we had arrived early to give Tajji a chance to sniff around, stretch her legs, and generally get happy in the field. We’d signed up for a one-dog-only play session Monday morning and she had a wonderful time practicing her relaxation lessons and then chasing a ball.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Deborah’s E/x/h/a/u/s/t/i/n/g Excellent New York Adventure, the Good Parts Version

In early March, I learned that my science fiction novel Collaborators had been named as a Finalist for the Lambda Literary Award. Much celebration ensued. (Feel free to do so yourselves at this point – a little celebration is good for everyone. Ready to go on? Okay!) Once the initial giddy high had subsided somewhat, the Big Question arose: whether to go to New York City to attend the awards ceremony. Many reasons to do so presented themselves.  OMG how could I NOT? topped the list, followed by how many friends and relations I could visit and how long it had been since I’d had a face to face confab with my agent and my New York publisher. The reasons not to go began with I won’t win (I was right) and devolved into how can I possibly afford it? and my loathing for travel across time zones, the hideousness of the resulting jet lag, and that I always get sick when I do. I kid you not. The reason I didn’t run for a second term as SFWA Secretary was that I’d come down with bronchitis whenever I traveled beyond the West Coast. In the end, the reason that clinched my decision was the pterodactyl exhibit at the Museum of Natural History. I adore living in the redwoods, but museums are not exactly plentiful and anything paleontological generates a noticeable surge in endorphins.

Airline tickets, check. Phone calls to relatives, check. Place to stay in Manhattan with dear college friend, check! Dates with publisher, agent, and local friends, you bet. Although I typically live and work in old comfy jeans and T-shirts, I had the perfect dress to wear to the ceremony itself – a flowing silk caftan, tie-dyed in brilliant rainbow colors, a discovery from the UNICEF store in Pasadena in the early 1970s (silk endures – it’s worth the investment). As for the rest of the events – ack! I am so not a person who enjoys shopping (see above wardrobe). My neighbor surprised me with a late birthday gift, three colorful tops, all with pretty details at the neckline.

I loaded up the first-generation Kindle bestowed upon me by my early-tech-adopter daughter with Book View Café offerings, packed clothes and gifts and netbook, and hied myself hence to the airport. About the only good thing I can say about airports is that I am usually paranoid enough to arrive really early because you never know what problems may arise with security. The gods laugh at this, and cause me to be randomly selected for express passage or whatever it’s called. I didn’t even have to take off my shoes. The result was that I had plenty of time to write while awaiting my flight/s, this being the best way to screen out the sights and sounds of the airport. I still cannot understand why the seats in the waiting areas are designed to create back problems even in people with healthy spines, but they are. Maybe the interior designers are in the pay of chiropractors’ associations. I arrived in New York City with seven additional pages on my work-in-progress and figured that no matter what else happened, the trip was a success.

Friday, July 4, 2014

GUEST BLOG: Dave Trowbridge on Tajji's continued progress

Dave and I have been taking turns blogging about Tajji over on Book View Cafe. For those folks following the saga of rehabilitating a retired seeing eye dog here, here's the latest entry.

The intrepid "swamp collie"*
I suppose everyone has had the experience of looking into an animal’s eyes and wondering what thoughts were passing through its mind, or how it was experiencing the moment. When learning to train an animal, the wonder becomes tinged with frustration, as one realizes how poorly one hears the animal even when it’s frantically semaphoring its thoughts and emotions. What chance of sensing its internal life, then, when the animal is quiet?

Looking back from the other end of the leash, such uncertainty disappears. As the result of hundreds of centuries of co-evolution with mankind, Tajji’s mirror neurons give her a pretty good model of my internal life, as far as her purposes are concerned. And what she lacks in empathy, she makes up for with the startling speed with which she learns the rituals of play or training or everyday life.

Paradoxically, the combination of two highly desirable canine traits, empathy and trainability, yields a dog that can actually be more difficult to train. For instance, two of the drills we do with her daily if possible are the “name game” and “puppy in the middle.” In the name game, you throw a piece of food on the ground in front of the dog. As soon as the dog is finished eating, but before it lifts its head, you call its name, then mark and reward any turn of the head towards you. In “puppy in the middle,” two people take turns calling the dog away from the other partner, rewarding in the same fashion for a head turn or, hopefully soon, the dog’s return.