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Crowd Sourcing a Space Program – Mars One Colony & Asteroid Mining

Crowd sourcing of funds for new projects is an interesting development for any artist. The approach has been used quite successfully by many writers, although these writers already had a large following to begin with. To get an idea of how far this can go, have a look at musician Amanda Palmer’s ted.com talk The Art of Asking. It’s clear the sort of extreme extrovert/sociopathic personality you need to take this to an extreme – hell I couldn’t do it. But it is fascinating. And the possibilities are there.

What is also interesting is how this concept is being applied to the development of the space industry and also space exploration.

Aspiring asteroid miner Planetary Resources is developing a series of spacecraft designed to study solar-system asteroids. The company has just launched a crowd funding campaign to support the development of their Arkyd spacecraft. The deal is, if you donate, you get to use the Arkyd, including potentially directing the vehicle’s space telescope at your own objects of interest.

Planetary Resources aim to mine near-Earth asteroids for precious metals and water, both for use in space and also to supply Earth’s needs. The company has some high-profile support, including James Cameron and Google-man Larry Page.

 

Planetary Resources have just launched a campaign to raise $1 million through public funding. They are waiting to see how much support they gather before deciding whether to also public-fund additional Arkyd spacecraft. For $25 you get a ‘space selfie’ a photo of an uploaded digital image of yourself taken against the background of the telescope in orbit. (Your image appears on a screen on the spacecraft, allowing your image to be in the shot). $99 buys 5 minutes of observation time, while for $150 you can point the telescope at any object of interest you choose and receive a digital copy of the Arkyd photo. That’s pretty cool. I wonder if they would let you drive it?

Explorers Mars One want to establish a permanent human settlement on Mars by 2023 – an ambitious timetable in anyone’s book. They recently opened for applications for colonists, so if you’re keen to leave the planet permanently, check out the site. While you’re at it, you can look at the profiles of the 80,000 people who have already applied.

Mars One do not intend to be technology developers, instead proposing to use a suite of existing/proven technologies under licence – such as Space X’s Falcon Heavy launcher, a lander envisaged as a variant of Space X’s Dragon capsule – as well as a Mars transit vehicle, rovers, suits, communications systems etc. They already have an impressive list of advisors and ambassadors for the project.

The Mars One model depends on revenue from donations, merchandising and from broadcasts leading up to the event that will focus on a 24/7 ‘Big Brother’ style converge of astronaut candidates. Opponents of Mars One’s approach compare the Mars One concept unfavourably to reality television, and believe the need for ratings will overshadow safety concerns. I wonder what happens when you get voted off the planet?

You can already by the Mars One T-shirt, coffee mug,  hoodie or poster.

What do you think about public-funded projects to get us off the rock? Is this an exciting or frightening development? Should space exploration be left to governments?

Cross-posted at chrismcmahons blog.

When it rains

This is one of those “life does this, and your books might feel a bit more part of a larger world if you do it too” things. Of course, in pantser-world, I don’t usually have to do it consciously – it just happens. Rather like life. Or excrement.

I’m sure everyone knows that when things are not going well, bad things tend to accumulate (or at least it seems that way). When you’re busy, you get busier. Chaos gets more chaotic despite attempts to make some kind of sense out of it. Whether this is something that actually happens or just the way human minds filter experiences doesn’t really matter: as far as we’re concerned if that’s what it feels like that’s what it is. It’s why giving something a name is so powerful – you can invoke the thing by using the name, even if you don’t know what the thing is beyond the name (this is what gravity was for many years – and arguably still is. An observed thing that caused objects to be attracted to each other in a clear, predictable relationship. With the name and the rules around it, the thing itself didn’t have to be known).

Proverbs tend to capture the way life works – that’s why they got to be proverbs. “It never rains but it pours” is typical, and means about the same thing as “Feast or famine”. Both describe the clumpiness of events, where you’ll get a period of time that’s pretty stable and everything trundles along more or less as normal. Then something tips and the next thing you know the excrement is happening and y0u’re dodging the foo as fast as you can (and inevitably not dodging all of it).

Doing this to your characters feels about right – provided that most if not all of the excrement can trace back to a decision made by one of your characters. It doesn’t work just to drop random mountains on them (although a strategically placed mountain can work wonders when things are slow or you’re stuck). But, if your character has to undertake a long, arduous journey to gain something, make the weather miserable, the locals unfriendly if not outright hostile, and of course, when your character gets to the end of the trip and finds what he’s looking for, it’s not what he thought it would be and it makes things worse. If there’s an antagonist, he can always make more trouble for your lead.

At some level we expect that when things go badly they’ll keep going badly. It’s the way our minds work – the same way as we expect that when things are going well they’ll keep going well. Stories are satisfying in part because they do the things we expect. They fit the pattern of things getting worse, then the sudden change to good and getting better – a change that in life is often triggered by some unforeseen and often random event but in a story needs to come from the characters.

If you watch any single athlete (the sport doesn’t matter) for any length of time you’ll see it happen. Things will be going well and the player will be on song. Then something happens – they miss a shot, or fumble a catch – and they can’t seem to do anything right for a while. Possibly they’ll regain their rhythm during the event, possibly not.

Heck, you can see the same thing in your own life (though I really do not recommend this) any time you have a near-miss while driving. Those of you who drive, you know very well that most of the time you’re not concentrating on driving. All the little adjustment happen without your conscious input – until something goes wrong. Then for a while, you’ll focus but you’ll drive very badly. You’ll be jerky, your judgment will be off, and you might well have more near misses or have an accident. You don’t start driving well again until you relax and the subconscious patterns take over again.

It sounds counter intuitive, but it makes sense once you know how the system works. Subconscious processing is cruder but faster, where conscious processing can be much more precise but takes a lot longer. When you’re dealing with a bit less than a ton of metal and plastics hurtling along a road at speeds human bodies weren’t meant to travel, conscious processing isn’t fast enough (actually, the same can be said of just about everything we find ourselves in. Once we’ve got the patterns into our subconscious we’re a whole lot better at it, for just about any value of “it” you care to mention).

This is why we expect stories to serve up the same kinds of patterns we know from our lives, and give them meaning.

All of which is a bloody long way to say I have absolutely nothing to talk about today because life is in “Keep Kate busy” mode. It’s mostly not bad-busy, but it’s still not much spare brain to think.

Fear

Jerry Pournelle once told me that Robert A. Heinlein “ran scared his whole life.”  At the time we went on with the conversation, and I don’t know if I asked him if that fear was monetary or of not having his next work bought.

In a certain way, I didn’t have to.  All writers lived with those two fears, side by side, until about two years ago.  Most still live with them.  The difference now is, it’s not necessary to be afraid you won’t sell again.  And the money thing is getting better, too.

Let me explain: when you’re a writer, you are depending on money from your writing for a living – but your writing doesn’t depend on you or how good it is alone.  It depends on how good a placement it gets; on how much your publisher bets on it; on how good your cover is…

It depends on other things too, things that even your publisher might have absolutely no control over: how stores and distribution have changed and how much they’ve changed recently (if they changed long ago, then people have adjusted how they calculate your sell through.  But if in the last ten years, they might not have.); what other books came out recently – for instance if you just wrote a sparkly vampire book right after Twilight did well, you’ll get a lift from that.  But your publisher couldn’t have known; what national events happened recently – 9/11 stopped book sales for about a quarter and the resulting economic downturn across the board made this even worse.

But the one unspoken thing about the publishing industry is that your numbers are yours and go with your name – not with the publisher, not with the national events, not with anything like that.  While no publisher would be crazy enough to tell me that 9/11 was my fault, the lack of sell through on my first book was held against me for years, when it came to new contracts and new books.  This is because your name is on the cover – that other stuff isn’t.

Now, some publishers – okay, Baen – are sane, and capable of looking at disasters like my very first book with Baen (Draw One In The Dark) with a cover that had nothing to do with the book and looked like it was drawn by a first grader, and a sell through hit hard by the fact that – freak occurrence – Baen books were kept out of the Ingrams listing by accident that month, and say “okay, this was a freaky occurrence.  Of course we’ll buy you again.”  OTOH even Baen couldn’t wave a wand and do away with the bad numbers, so I had to build them up again, book by book.  A lot of work and self promo and, yes, expense.

So, if you’re a writer and you absolutely need that check to buy groceries or pay the mortgage, as Heinlein and my friend Dave Freer did/do from their earnings, or even if like me – the second earner in the house – you’re just looking at new shoes for the boys, a new mattress for the younger one, and college tuition… You live with fear.  Stomach twisting, mind-wrenching fear.

Because in traditional published books it’s very important to get out of the gate strong (it helps in indie books too, but I refuse to play that game, for the same reason I refused to go through extensive infertility treatment again, even though I wanted more kids, after Robert was born.  The whole process and six years of failure had become so traumatic that I couldn’t) we watch the initial month like hawks, and worry about sales like shaved monkeys.  We do everything but read entrails to tell how the book did, because we won’t know for a year or more, when we get the first report.  (Or for a couple of years, or ever if you’re dealing with one of the houses which is creative with numbers.)

And sometimes you can’t figure out why a book is lagging.  I’m for instance fairly sure AFGM is lagging DSR, despite being a deeper/stronger book.  Not sure why.  I can make myself crazy thinking it over.  I would be making myself crazy over it, if I didn’t know I would always have Indie on the side, if it becomes impossible for Baen to keep buying me.

In fact, for ten years I lived in panic fear.  I have the health problems to show for it.  About two years ago, my hair was falling out by the handful.

Fear.  I understand fear.  I know from fear.

Which means I COMPLETELY understand the writers who keep jabbering like lunatics about “don’t go indie… it’s doom, doom I tell you” or who assert self-confidently that they will continue being traditionally published because they’ll simply do so much better.  (When in fact, the only way they could be sure of that is if they KNOW their statements are doctored upwards, as a few of the darlings’ statements HAVE to be.  Otherwise, how can they know without trying?)

These people are scared.  Terrified in fact.  This applies particularly to the marginal writers, who are barely making the cut at their traditional publisher; to those who are selling to very small presses, to people who feel like they’re hanging on by their fingernails.  Part of their fear is the fear that if too many people go indie their publisher won’t be able to keep buying them.  Part of the fear is that if THEY go indie and they don’t sell, they’ll “know” they were never any good. (Which is insane, of course.  For one, there is no objective measure for “good” after books are detypo-ed and grammatical.  It’s “what sells.”  How many best sellers do you think are horrible?  Show of hands.)

Again, we all lived with this kind of fear for years.  I understand them.  They’re terrified of losing the toe hold they have on the field, terrified that things will go from bad to worse.

What they don’t get is a) how much the field has changed. Things will get worse whether they jump or other people jump or not.  And publishers are not looking at how “good” you are, in terms of paying them lip service, (i.e. how well behaved your are) but how good your sales are.  This is why they sign all those “bad” boys and girls who go indie and make it big.  b) that being traditionally published, they hold sway with the minds of the raw newbies, and when they say “never do this” they’re doing a disservice to any number of young writers, who will take their word as gospel and never try the very route that could get them published.

How much the field has changed –  The story is that printruns have fallen across the board.  I say there’s more than that because the publishers are still making all that money in ebooks, but this is what they’re saying.  The rule of thumb is this: those who were getting more than 100k, are now getting 10k; those who were getting more than 50k are now getting 5k; and those who were getting less are now not working.  (Except at Baen.)

So, if you are marginal, you’ve got a good likelihood of being dropped, regardless of how much you say “what a good boy am I.”  It’s tough times for publishers, too.  They’re going to go with what sells.

Your choice is whether, once you’re dropped, you go to one of the tiny presses – a lot of which exploit those fears and are in fact terribly grabby with the rights – or you’ll try it on your own.  The more you tell yourself no one sane would go indie, the more you are just setting yourself up for a world of hurt.

“But don’t most indie published people fail?”

I don’t know.  I have a window into indie publishing both through myself, through friends of mine, and through being involved with Naked Reader Press.

I also have a good view into traditional publishing through my friends.  What were your chances of making it in traditional publishing?  Not high.  That is, not high if you count from the moment when you decided to start writing seriously.  Ahead of you were years of sending stuff out and getting it rejected, often without the courtesy of a reason why (and it’s dangerous to assume it’s because it sucks.  Sometimes they just don’t know your name.)  Most people take about three years to break in.  Most people go to cons, make contacts, and work the fan circuit.  I didn’t do any of those and it took me THIRTEEN years till I sold something – a short story.  By the time I sold I had amassed 80 rejections.  And it wasn’t all beer and skittles from then on.  For the next three years, I used to reach 100 rejections by March, every year, and sell an average of three short stories a year. (I sold a novel in the third year, and then stopped writing so many shorts, which is why I no longer get as many rejections.)

Was this all craft?  Well, part of it was.  The other part was name recognition.  I know this because since my numbers in novels picked up, I’ve sold almost all my trunk short stories.  However, I won’t lie to you.  Going over these stories to self publish I can find several inflection points, where I was writing at a level, and then suddenly took a giant step (and sometimes went back again for a few stories, before finding my footing.)  Some of those very early short stories will never be published unless heavily edited.

Writing is a craft.  Just because you’ve been using words your whole life, you shouldn’t assume that you can tell a story – anymore than you should assume that because you can color with crayons, you can paint like DaVinci.  There’s study and work involved in sharpening your craft, and it will take time.  You can’t shirk it.  It will take time, even if like my husband you can study well in the abstract.

And if you start from that point, traditional publishing loses about 999 writers for each of those who actually ever get ANYTHING published.  (The anything could be a short story.)  The statistics used to be available.  Of those who write novels and short stories with intention to sell and submit SERIOUSLY for a few years, 999 per thousand never see a word traditionally published.  Then you publish a story.  Some number of people will decide, right after, that they accomplished what they set out to do and drop out.  (Few, I think, but a significant number.)  A much larger number will get discouraged when they first published story doesn’t win any awards or attract any notice and give up.  Another even larger number will quit when they continue getting rejections even after that.  The number who persist in submitting are a minority.  The number who will go on to sell regularly – instead of getting fed up with how hard it is (and it is very hard) and finding something else to do – is even smaller.

So, when you’re established – which I was told when I broke in was when you were selling fifty percent of all you wrote – it gets easier, right?

In traditional publishing?  For those who came in when I did?  Not markedly.  We came in under the push model and facing the tightening of the market due to both publisher and bookstore merger/concentration in the big boys.  I think Dave Freer says what it created was something called Oligopsony – the word might be wrong.  I know it drives me to dipsomania. – which means many suppliers, but no way to reach the public except through few distributors.

This gives the distributors immense power, and when I came through what they were looking for that determined whether your book got widely distributed didn’t even have anything to do with quality of the book.  It had to do with connections, looks, and with fitting their ideas of “saleable” and “promotable.”

Most writers didn’t fit that, and they entered a treadmill of fear.  I have a friend who got dropped by her traditional publisher as far as we can tell because she outsold their expectations SEVERAL times over.  Yes, you read that right.  At least that’s the only reason we can find.  Her book sold five times what they expected (from advance and initial printrun) so she’s never worked in that town again.  More common are the people who are told they didn’t sell enough – regardless of the factors – and also will never work in this town again.

And for those who continue, unless they are among the few darlings who are pushed with all the house has, or they happen to get lucky and have a miracle occur (and it used to take a miracle to change your “level” of sales) they will live with fear all their writing lives.  On the merciful side, those won’t be long.  Some friends and I once tallied most mid list careers (by when the name shows up in books and stories and then disappears) and they are about ten years.

Now, enter indie…

Whenever I talk about this, I get told that I don’t know what it’s like.  I don’t write under Joe Blow.  Of course I have fans.  Of course you have a name…

Poppycock. I have SEVERAL names, some of which have published only indie (and one of which no one, not even my husband knows about.)  So do almost all my indie publishing friends.

Why?  In my case because of the other fear.  The fear that by opening up about politics I’d lose ALL my readers.  Keeping a few secret pen names, in utter darkness and not associated with me gives me a feeling of security, even if it’s mostly illusory.  I don’t know why my friends do it, but I suspect the reasons are similar.

So, even among my traditionally published, and some bestseller friends, we have any number of names no one knows.

We also have friends who weren’t published, or who were published once many years ago and never again, who are now trying their luck at indie.

I’m here to tell you our results have more to do with what genre we’re writing in and persistence than with name recognition.  In fact, for ALMOST everyone I know, their pen names outsell them by more than two to one.  (And I have a theory for this – I think the writers feel more free to play under a closed pen name, and when they’re having fun the readers have fun too.)

Now, I’ll grant you that ALMOST every writer I know is not a raw newbie.  This is not a decision made on the spur of the moment.  They’re writing and have been writing for years, and though degrees of knowledge vary, most KNOW their craft.

That being a given, they do sell more than ten copies per book – uniformly.  How much they sell is affected by certain factors and I’m going to give you the factors:

1 – You have to have more than one piece of writing out.  This is a given.  Yes you can get massively lucky with one piece, but if you have two you doubled your chances of being found.  It’s not a coincidence all the people who hit it big had about ten pieces out.

2- Novels sell better than short stories.  This is probably because people have been trained out of reading short stories for years.

3- Some genres sell way better than others.  Romance and mystery will outsell sf/f EVERY time.  There is a larger public looking for those.

4 – And this one is not immediately obvious: you will do better if you’re purveying something that the traditional publishers don’t.  Let’s call this the “talk radio” rule.  Look, there is a reason conservative talk radio did very well, while leftist talk radio was a dismal failure.  This is because if you go into left talk radio, you’re competing with EVERY OTHER LARGE PURVEYOR.  If you go it on your own from the right, you have an underserved market (that election after elections proves is 50/50.  So there’s a huge market waiting, and indie voices can reach them.  It’s the same in writing, and yes, politics can be part of this.  What I mean is: hit from a direction the big boys aren’t fulfilling.

Isn’t this at odds with #3?  Not really.  Look, more people are going to search for Romance, but if you’re doing politically correct, feminine-empowerment, “men should be women with penises” romance, then you’re competing against all the big publishers.  OTOH, if you do it as “real people fall in love” (well, not really.  It’s still a book, but as close as possible.) enough people will be so relieved, you’ll discover a following.  Same with mystery that doesn’t have businessmen as villains.

As proof of this, Mil SF outsells even romance, in indie.  Why?  How?  My guess is because it’s a massively underserved genre.  Baen alone can’t do enough for all the fans.

What I mean is your angst-ridden literary fantasy with politically correct characters is not likely to take off madly.  Not saying you can’t or shouldn’t write it.  I’m saying you should be aware you’ll be competing with all the big six.  They’re likely to win.

5- but don’t you have to do a lot of publicity when you go Indie?  Go to cons and stuff?

Er… no.  Yes, you can if you want to, and in my experience it provides some TEMPORARY lift to your work.  HOWEVER long term?  Not so much.  Long term, you’ll do better our of writing another book, and another, and another.

In traditional publishing publicizing when the book comes out is important, because you’re fighting for shelf space RIGHT THEN.  How the book does right out the gate determines whether there will be reprints, and how much attention it gets.  And if book one goes out of print, you’ll have trouble selling book three.  In indie publishing, though, people don’t care.  Your book is on the virtual shelf (and now, if you do it on paper also order-able forever.)  If people discover you on book three or five or ten, they’re going to buy all the others.

Now, where publicity works is up front.  Word of mouth is powerful, but takes about three years to get going (which is why traditional can’t harness it.)  If you’re a publicity maven, then you can get a lift much earlier.  If not, keep your head down and keep writing.

So, am I saying for a fact that you shouldn’t go traditional?  Forfend.  I’m saying you should do ALL of them.  I am.

Indie is no bed of roses.  No attempt at making a living from writing is.  BUT if you persist there can be rewards.  If you stay alert, you move fast, and you do it RIGHT (which means as well as you can.)

In a continually shifting terrain, there’s no reason to restrict yourself.  Continue trying for traditional, but go indie too – under another name if you’re afraid traditional publishing will hold the venture against you.  Why should you give up at a chance of success?  Yeah, you might fail.  But you might fail in traditional too.

You are only permanently defeated when you stop trying.

UPDATE:  My PJM Column is up.

Of good decisions and bad

With summer fast approaching, con season is getting into full-swing and people’s minds turn to vacation. Looking at some of the news coming out about the publishing industry, it is clear that some folks had their brains go on vacation earlier that usual. At least that’s the way it seemed yesterday when I was trolling the internet looking for anything of interest to blog about today. Well, to be honest, not everything was of the shut-off-brain variety, but there was more than enough to have me shaking my head.

The first “huh” moment came when I read that a children’s publisher based out of New England had decided not to sell its titles through Amazon (U.S. and U.K.). If you just read that and then did a double-take, join the club. I did the same thing. Yep, a publisher has decided not to sell its books through what is arguably the largest online retailer of books. This isn’t like the battle between Amazon and the Big Six several years ago when they were fighting over e-book pricing.

No, Barefoot Books isn’t going to work with Amazon any longer because Amazon doesn’t conform to Barefoot Books’ “commitment to diversity and grassroots values.” This isn’t the first time Barefoot has dropped a major market. According to the article, it stopped selling its books through Barnes & Noble and Borders seven years ago. Some of the reasons given are “low ball pricing”, delayed payments and the difficulty they had with the “automated” customer service system.

All of those may be valid concerns. My skepticism about them comes from the fact that we aren’t reading a lot from other small to mid-sized presses about slow pay or problems finding a person to talk to at Amazon. I know from my own experience with KDP that all it takes is an email and I can get someone to call me back if I have a question about something for NRP. Yes, I know that isn’t exactly what Barefoot is talking about, but it does make me wonder.

My next thought is to wonder why anyone in the business would cut themselves off from the largest potential market available. Yes, indie bookstores are making a comeback, but it is slow. For those without a good indie bookstore in their area, they are going to boot up their computer and go straight to Amazon — or BN.com — to order a book. Unless they are familiar with a publisher, they aren’t likely to go searching for publishers looking for a book to entertain or educate their child. Instead, they will look at what Amazon or another online retailer has to offer and buy from there.

I wish Barefoot luck, but I really wonder if they haven’t just metaphorically — and economically — shot themselves in the economic foot.

The next bit dealt with a post I saw linked to on Facebook. It wasn’t so much the linked to post that bothered me, although I do disagree with some of what the author says, but it was the way folks jumped onto the boat to say, “Yes! I’ve been trying to tell folks this all along!” The post itself, discussing some information released by Mark Coker of Smashwords, focuses on how direct e-book publishing isn’t as great as some folks try to make it out to be and how most folks who go into it aren’t going to be successful (yes, this is an over-simplification, but that’s because next week I’m going to do a more in-depth discussion of what Coker said and how it applies not only to Smashwords but to other venues.)

What got to me, as I said, were some of the comments. Many of them were in support of traditional publishing, the sneers at self-published authors or small press published authors clear. One person even commented about how he’d rather get 7% of 10,000 sales than 70% of 10 sales. That comment is where my bullshit meter went off the scale and I knew I wouldn’t be able to let this go without making at least some sort of comment.

The logic of the above statement escapes me. If an author is selling 10,000 copies of something that has been traditionally published, that author has a following. That means he will certainly sell more than 10 copies of something he puts out on his own. Even if he never mentions the title anywhere outside of his dreams, he will sell more than 10 copies. Why? Because folks searching for his name will find that title listed and will buy it. So, fallacy number one.

But the big fallacy with the commenter’s statement is that to receive royalties on 10,000 copies of a title is that he first has to sell through and earn out his advance. All you have to do is read author blogs — and I’m not talking about newbie authors. I’m talking established authors who have been writing and publishing for years — to learn that they rarely, if ever, earn out their advances. Part of the reason for this is they aren’t receiving a true accounting of their sales. How can they when publishers rely upon Bookscan that only reports partial sales and then magically extrapolates the “actual” sales?

Add to this that publishers will then look at those same inaccurate sales figures when time comes to negotiate your next contract, if you are lucky enough to get a contract, your advance will be less than before.

It also ignores the fact that print runs are not what they once were. Pre-orders and publisher push (ie, anointing Author A as the next big thing while Author B is not given the same push) determine print runs as well as the number of books sold vs. the number printed for the previous book by that author. Most authors, if they are being honest and aren’t some place where their agent or editor will overhear, will admit that their print runs decline from title to title and they have yet to “earn out” their royalties.

So, the commenter dissing those who decide to self-publish to get the higher royalty rates is exactly the same person, generically speaking, that the original blogger said we shouldn’t really be listening to — one of those who are successful and who are, as a result, the exception in this industry and not the rule.

Is this my way of saying everyone should publish on their own and they’ll be successful? No, absolutely not. What I’m saying is that when you take raw data and try to make it fit your premise, it doesn’t always work. For one thing, the sales figures don’t take into account if the author has one title or 100 out there. It is data from only one outlet. It doesn’t break down how much money an author is making based on whether their titles were sold only by Smashwords or through the “premium catalog”. It doesn’t break down sales based on genre, or fiction v. non-fiction. It doesn’t take into account print sales either and how digital sales may or may not drive those sales. Simply taking a couple of raw data graphs to prove a point, even if it is a point I agree with, isn’t good math or science.

Writing is hard work. To be successful at it, you first have to define what “success” is. Your definition quite possibly will differ from mine. What I’d like to see is a break down of authors who self-publish one or two titles and then nothing else. They get discouraged because they don’t get rich quick or get lousy reviews, etc. They don’t understand writing is more than just putting the words down on paper, so to speak.

What brought all this on this morning? Probably a comment on Sarah’s blog yesterday where someone who was oh-so-superior, in his own mind at least, than the rest of us. First of all, he made the mistake of saying Heinlein wasn’t a good writer. Then, when folks didn’t agree with him, he came back and asked if we ever read anything that wasn’t published by Baen or self-published. Yep, he went there. Yep, he was a troll. But it simply underscored the problem we still have in this industry. There are still those who have been so protected by their publishers, so “cherished”, that they have forgotten — if they ever knew — how hard it is for the rest of us to break in to traditional publishing. It isn’t that the talent isn’t there. It isn’t that the desire isn’t there. But legacy publishing can only put out so many books a month. That’s the way their business models are set up. The ability to get our books and short stories out there on our own or through small presses has been our path to success — and yes, a number of indies have become successful.

So, figure out which path you want to follow and do it. But take this piece of advice: hedge your bets and do your research and never slam any door until you’re sure you don’t want back in.

How many people does take to change a story?

I am caught up in the ever-increasing circle of more and more and more characters in Heirs of Alexandria series that either keep telling me they need their story told, or having reader inform me that really they need to know… (which is where the story that is up on the Baen site comes from. A reader had asked me just what Antimo Bartelozzi‘s backstory was, that made so intensely loyal.)

Now as anyone who has become involved in the 1632 saga knows, the more stories get written, the more loose ends there are fraying away out there, begging to be tied in, and of course, getting more and more wrapped up in a canon that gets more detailed and more complex with each story.

I have the same issue with the Heirs books, in that I’m a dismal failure at killing enough interesting characters. And the canon is now very complex – the problem with Italianate Macchiavellian politics is that after a while (like the end of a big fat book) you get messy stains on the pages from the author’s small brain exploding. It’s that or confused readers, and I’ve decided I prefer the former. I can always get more braaaaaaaaaainz… At last call I (and a few others) were interested in more adventures of Cair Aidin, more adventures Jusef Szpak (from A Mankind Witch (Heirs of Alexandria)
– which is selling about a copy a day at the moment, which I am very pleased about. THE FORLORN
, less so.), more from the person that perceptive souls may have realised was a famous Swedish king in the same book, more from Iskander Beg, Guiliano Lozza and Thalia, (in TRM) and more from the thief, David, and Count Mindaug (MUCH FALL OF BLOOD). And that’s without the major characters, some of whom we will hear more of. (Vlad is less than certain.)

And that’s just one series. And they’ll spawn more, if I write them…

Which brings me to my topic. Of course this varies from writer to writer, setting to setting, subgenre to subgenre… but is there a good number (particularly of principle or POV characters)? And just how do you tell. Personally, I KNOW from practical experience, that too much head-hopping confuses me as writer, let alone readers, but in Byzantine intrigue in high fantasy plots it is very hard to avoid. I’m quite limited by the samll brain, so I’ve found 4 major POV’s is ‘easy’ with an occasional blow in acceptable. But the size of your cast of major characters is question I have never had adequately answered. I do find each major character adds between 10-20K to a book… which has some practical limitations. But what are your thoughts?

Noah’s Boy

Noah’s Boy

Sarah A. Hoyt

Chapter 1

 

The sun was setting in a splendor of red and gold over the Rocky Mountains, glistening like a fire over the remaining snow on the mountain tops when the young woman drove into Goldport in a brand new red pickup truck.

No one watching would have been particularly struck by her or by the pick- up truck.

Nestled against the peaks of the Rockies, Goldport had once been a settlement of miners and frontiersmen and it was now a city of students and computer technicians, with a Victorian core forming the center of a town that was gentrifying and growing, acquiring a few spectacular glass-fronted high-rises and a vibrant art and tourism scene.

In that environment, a college-age woman driving a four wheel vehicle was the most common of sights.  That she was Asian or partly Asian would startle no one since Goldport was host to a vibrant Asian community.  And no one would have thought anything was particularly strange when she parked outside a low slung building atop of which a neon sign blinked the words Three Luck Dragon.

Someone might have thought it a little odd, though, when she entered the shiny red lacquered door  and a hand reached out to the window and turned the Open sign to Closed, right at the beginning of the dinner hour.

* * *

Beatrice Bao Ryu, better known to her friends as Bea Ryu, didn’t find it funny, when they closed the restaurant as she came in.  She found it distinctly unsettling.  But she managed a small smile, striking a pose of nonchalance as she said, “I don’t actually intend to shift and start a battle with Himself in here, you know?”  Her warm Georgia accent drawled out onto what seemed for a moment to be the uncomprehending server – a skinny young man with Asian features.  But he bowed to her, looking scared.  “No,” he said.  His accent less obvious but no more Asian.  But he didn’t flip the sign to Open again.  Instead, he led her to a door next to the one marked “restrooms” and  knocked politely, then said something in rapid-fire Chinese.

Bea didn’t understand it.  Her maternal grandmother was Chinese, but her maternal grandfather was tall, blond and of Germanic ancestry.  As for Bea’s father, he was the great-grandson of Japanese immigrants to the United States.  Bea’s parents spoke English and their daughter had never learned either Chinese or Japanese till college, where she’d taken two years of Japanese – which meant she could catch the occasional word and say almost nothing.

A curt Chinese word answered from inside the mysterious door.  The server opened the door and remained bowed while Bea walked into the room.

If she’d thought about it, and she’d never done so in so many words, she’d have expected the place to be a sort of throne room, perhaps with some ancient gilded chair in the center.

That would have fit with what she’d read in the letters in her father’s desk drawer.

Whatever this criminal organization was, it dressed its leader in very pretty words: “Himself”, “Revered One.”  “Ancient One.”  It seemed to denote silk and gold and the sort of culture that required both.

Instead, the room she entered was small – only big enough to contain a desk-like table and two chairs, one on either side of it.  It might have been an interrogation cell, except that the person on the other side of the table had a vast metal bowl in front of him into which he was shelling peas.  With a pile of unshelled peas to the right of the bowl, and a pile of shells to the left, the sleeves of his white button-down rolled up to his elbows, and his hands working busily at the homely task, the man could have been any of a hundred middle-aged Chinese employees at a hundred different Chinese restaurants.

Bea cleared her throat.  “I’m sorry,” she said.  “I think I’ve come to the wrong room.  You see, I was came to talk to The Ancient–”

The man looked up and Bea took a step back and caught her breath, not scared exactly but startled, because his eyes were older than the middle-aged face.  They were older than any face.  Looking out of barely creased features, they appeared old as time and twice as deep, as though he’d existed through the uncounted ages of mankind and kept track of every slip, every error humans had made on the way to civilization.

“Oh,” Bea said.

The man said three brief words in Chinese and then his eyes widened, as though in shock.  He closed his eyes a moment.  “You don’t speak Chinese.”  It wasn’t a question.  He raised an eyebrow.  “Japanese, then?”

She cleared her throat.  “I–  No.  You see, I took a year in college, but—”

He shrugged, dismissing the matter.  “It’s of little importance,” he said.  “Our people have spoken many tongues, throughout the centuries.  What we speak doesn’t matter, except for comfort and a sense of heritage.”  His own English was almost unaccented, save for a faint hint of something British and very high bred.  “What I need from you requires no great linguistic competency.”

Bea swallowed hard.  She’d rehearsed this, all the long drive from Atlanta, and the nights in motel rooms, but somehow, suddenly it seemed very hard to say the words she’d planned.  It was the look of immense age in the man’s eyes, she thought.  But she swallowed again and said, her voice sounding strangely wavering in her own ears, “I don’t care what you require from me.  I came to tell you to leave my parents alone–  To leave dad’s business alone.”

The man looked up and frowned a little.  His hands resumed his work of shelling peas.  “Your parents,” he said at last.  “Finally saw the light and sent you over.  Now they have nothing more to fear from my people.”

She shook her head.  “My parents did not send me over.  Not that it matters.  I have no intention of doing whatever you want me to do.  And why you think—”

“Sit down,” the man said, gently.

Bea shook her head.  Those soft words had sounded like an order, but she had no intention of obeying.  In fact, despite all her best intentions and everything she’d decided to tell this creature about himself and his criminal organization, face to face with him, she found the best she could do was disobey.  Just – disobey and hold on to her rebellion with every fiber in her being, even as she felt him trying to bend her to his will.

He raised his eyebrows at her.  “Surely,” he said.  “Your parents have told you what you owe me.”

“No,” she said.  “Owe you?  I don’t even know who you are except someone who has been messing with dad’s business.”

“Truly?  Then you don’t know we’re an organization of dragon shape shifters?”

“Sure,” she said.  “I know that.  But the only reason I even knew you existed and that you wanted something with me was that I overheard mom and dad talking.  I found out you were the reason dad’s office got vandalized and about the calls to his clients.  The reason dad has had so much trouble keeping afloat as a veterinarian.  And that to make it stop you wanted me to come and…  And do something.  I wasn’t sure what.”

“I see.  Well, you came.  That’s what matters.”

“I came to tell you it must stop.”

The man looked up at her and smiled.  “Ah.  Spirit will serve you well, but do sit down.  I have a long explanation to make, and I despise having to look up to do it.”

She hesitated, but the truth was she wanted to know why anyone, even a criminal organization of shifters would require her presence urgently enough to interfere with her father’s business to get it.

She knew she was attractive.  She had a mirror.  She knew that the combination of her varied heritage had resulted in an oval face, large green eyes, and a pleasant combination of other features, all of which became even more striking with her long, glossy black hair.  Since about the age of sixteen, she’d become used to looks of admiration from the male half of the species.

But the truth was too that she had no illusions about the full extent of her beauty.  She was pretty and striking, but not so out of the normal leagues in attractiveness that dreams of modeling had ever occurred to her.  The campus of the college where she studied art could count at least a hundred women more beautiful than her.

None of her other characteristics were any further out of the ordinary.  She was smart and talented, but was not going to set the world on fire with either her intellect or even with her art talent.  She hoped, someday, to make a good living in commercial art and design, but that was about it.  So why would this criminal organization want her that badly?

She knew it had something to do with her turning into a dragon, but it was just now and then.  Occasionally.  Truly, hardly ever, since she’d turned twenty and learned to control herself.

“So?” Bea asked.  “Why is it so important that I come here?  And why do you think I should obey you?  Or that I owe you anything?”

The man smiled.  It was a surprisingly engaging smile.  It seemed to her as he narrowed his eyes that a sense of amusement touched them too.  “I think,” he said, softly.  “That I’m about to shock you very much.  However, I trust you’ll let me explain my motives before dismissing them.”

She swallowed, wondering what he meant by that.

“Forget what I said about owing me.  That was…  You see, where I come from, it is assumed you owe your ancestors unusual respect, and I’m the ancestor of most of the dragon shifters alive today.”

“That is hardly likely,” she said.  “I know all my grandparents, and I—”

“I am not your grandfather.  Not even your great grandfather.  It’s much… older than that.  Thousands of years.   How many, I’m afraid I’ve lost track.

“But that’s imposs—”

“Please, Miss Ryu.”  He paused, his hands holding a pea pod over the bowl, looking at her.  Then he said, “Hear me out.”

It wasn’t a command – or it shouldn’t have been, spoken in that voice as soft as crackling flame.  But she stopped and listened.

His nail ripped the pea pod apart and his finger swept down the green envelope, trickling glistening little globes into the bowl.  “I have…  that is…  I don’t suppose your parents told you that I am your ancestor in—” He seemed to be counting in his head.  “Your mother’s mother’s side and your father’s mother’s side.”

“I don’t understand,” she said.  “My father is Japanese and you—”

“Oh.”  He dropped another spent pea pod on the growing pile and made a gesture, either dismissing that restaurant or the entire world.  “This is an identity of convenience,” he said.  “I told you my people predate most such things.  Dragons—Dragons belong to the whole world, even if our type is mostly of Asia.  There are other types—”

He resumed shelling peas, now very fast, as he spoke.  “It is the immutable rule of our people that the Great Sky Dragon must be a descendant of the previous Great Sky Dragon in the male line.  Unbroken male line.  And that he must be a Dragon shifter. We don’t know why but that’s how… that’s how it works.”  Peas tinkled into the metal bowl like falling rain.  A green smell filled the room.  “That was me, the many times grandson of the Great Sky Dragon, growing up on the banks of the Yalu River at a time when—”  He shrugged.  “It doesn’t matter, except to say that in my very long life, and sometimes I forget how many thousands of years it is, exactly, I’ve had wives, concubines and lovers, but—”  He looked up and smiled at her.  “There is no reason to blush.  In a life as long as mine, well, there will be friendship and love, and, occasionally, less honorable associations.  But what I meant to say is that of all my connections with human and shifter, many daughters were born.  My line is threaded through dragon kind, Ryus and Lungs and many other family names are honorably descended from me.  But in that time, only one son was ever born to me.”  He looked up again, and amusement pulled at the corner of his mouth.  “He was not born of a normal marriage.  It was more… a treaty and a ritual pairing.  Years ago, there was a … another dragon tribe.  Near the frozen… ah… I believe what is now called Scandinavia.  Their ruler was a woman, a female.  She was called the Queen of The West, as I was the King of the East.  We made a treaty, to keep our people from fighting each other, and..  There was a symbolic marriage.  Which resulted in a son, who was not a shifter.  I thought our blood didn’t work together, that we’d never have children who were shifters from that line, so I ignored it.

“Until someone stole the Pearl of Heaven and I found that while I could touch his mind, I could not control him as I could other dragon shifters.  And it wasn’t just because he had dragon-blood from the tribe of the west, for I could sense he had my blood too.  I had people trace back through his ancestry and found that he was descended from that long ago forgotten son.  And he is my only male descendant on the unbroken male line, the only one with a power close to my own.  The only one who can carry my burden.  The one who will carry my burden.”

A fleeting poor bastard crossed Bea’s mind, but she did her best to look attentive and blank.

“His name is Tom Ormson and he is…” The man she was now sure was The Great Sky Dragon shrugged.  “Very young.  I think in his early twenties.  He lives here in town and owns a diner, the George.”

“Yes?” Bea said.

“I’d like you to marry him.”

Noah’s Boy.  Available July!

The Nth Circle of Editing Hell

Ok, for a start it’s not really possible to edit a manuscript an infinite ‘n’ number of times. Sooner or later you have to let the Ugly Baby out into the world. As the old saying goes, “art is never completed, only abandoned”.

I’ve just put the finishing touches to my Urban Fantasy Distant Shore. My last monumental push was inspired by the deadline for the Queensland Literary Awards, Unpublished Manuscript Award. The competition is always tough, especially for quirky genre works like mine, but it was worth it to support the QLA and to give myself that last bit of motivation to get the thing up to scratch.

Right now I’m drained. I’ve really put everything into doing the final redrafts on this one. Every damn trick I know is in this baby. Not only that, I’ve pushed myself up that sticky slope of manuscript improvement further than ever before.

The problem is, it’s not enough to just have a good manuscript. It’s got to be best you can do and then some.

For me, this meant getting that extra – uncomfortable – brutally honest feedback. Then working to clarify and streamline the prose. Working on word choice – trying to get that perfect verb. As well as all the usual stuff, like eliminating passive voice, using physical responses and sensations in the character to make the experience more direct. Regulating and mixing up sentence length. Over 96,000 words, that’s a lot of work.

Then after all that, I read the work out loud to myself to check the flow and to eliminate those last errors. You can believe I lost my voice over those two days!

What do you focus on when you enter the Nth circle of editing Hell?

Cross-posted at chrismcmahons blog.