Fascinating courtly intrigue and bloody power games set on a generation ship full of secrets―Medusa Uploaded is an imaginative, intense mystery about family dramas and ancient technologies whose influence reverberates across the stars. Disturbing, exciting, and frankly kind of mind-blowing.” ―Annalee Newitz, author of Autonomous

Friday, June 26, 2009

Missing Sequels

As a writer, one of the toughest questions I have to answer is, “Why didn’t you write a sequel to . . . ?” It’s not that I don’t have an answer, it’s just that no one believes me – at least, no one who isn’t in the same biz. The short answer is, “I didn’t write that sequel because my publisher made it clear they wouldn’t buy it.” And why wouldn’t they buy it? They say it’s because the previous books didn’t earn enough money. But this is where the answer gets complicated, because usually, what they’re saying isn’t true.

Understand, most of us earn peanuts for our books, anywhere from $4000 to $9000 advance against royalties. Those royalties are usually 8% of gross sales for a mass-market paperback, maybe around $.35 per book. The publisher rarely prints more than 20,000 copies of a book, so you don’t actually have much chance of earning back the advance, and they don’t have much incentive to go back to print. The mid-list books exist to be the french fries of the book industry (you want fries with that?), the product that didn’t cost the publisher very much and the one they actually earn the best margin on. You’d think that would get them to work harder to promote and re-print that product, but that’s where things get psychological. If they start doing that, they don’t have a mid-list book on their hands anymore, they’ve got a potential bestseller. A writer whose book falls into that category can demand better royalties. Get it?

Every mid-list writer is hoping to write the break-out book, the one that will bust them into the bestseller category. But the way the book business is structured, this is almost impossible, and it’s not just the fault of publishers – not by a long shot. Book chains create extremely tough circumstances for publishers, not the least of which is the “strip” system. When they need to generate income to purchase new product, they’ll go through their paperbacks, strip off the covers, and mail them back for credit – regardless of how well those books are selling! The publisher (and especially the writer) just lost that income and that leaves fewer copies available to allow the writer to “earn out.”

Lots of other writers have written extensively about this situation, I suppose I’m not adding anything new to the argument, not even when I say that this old way of doing things is crashing and burning. As my pal, writer Rick Cook says, they’ve been trying to finance an expensive distribution system all these years, and now they can’t do it anymore. The internet and the e-book is going to shatter their business model, especially since they absolutely refuse to do the new thinking that would allow them to flourish. And that’s a great opportunity for writers.

But it’s also a big challenge. One thing publishers have going for them is professional editors. These people help writers polish their work. When we’ve worked on a book for the better part of a year, we lose our objectivity about it. There are problems we can’t see anymore. If professional editors are smart, they’ll start contracting with writers, maybe even lure us into partnerships. An editor who manages a book website and pays good writers 70% of the profit from sales could transform the book biz.

I’ve already got a professional editor I work with: Elinor Mavor, who edited AMAZING STORIES in the early 80s. For the time being, I’m going to manage my own fiction website. I’m so used to not getting rich, all I care about is that it shouldn’t cost me too much money. I’m not afraid to venture into new territory – I do that every time I write a book!

So which books do people ask me about the most? There are three of them. First, a sequel to my Emily Devenport titles, Shade and Larissa. I had both a sequel planned (called Knossos) and a prequel (Stripe).

Second, a sequel to my Maggy Thomas title, Broken Time. This is the title that earned the most critical acclaim, and readers on amazon.com have begged for a sequel. I hadn’t considered the idea until I got so much positive feedback, so I sketched out an idea that I thought I would call The Abyss Looks Back. If I had successfully pitched it to my publisher, they probably would have demanded that I change the title. Now I’ll have to rely on Ellie and my husband Ernie to tell me if my title is dopey.

Last, readers have expressed an interest in a sequel to my Lee Hogan titles, Belarus and Enemies. I could actually envision several books in that series, I’m afraid that universe is too big for just one more book. But the book that’s clearest in my mind is not a sequel, though it’s set in the same universe. It’s set on Tally Korsakova’s engineered world, Canopus, and I wanted to call it Harpy. Of all the possible books I’ve just mentioned, Harpy is closest to my heart. For sure, I’m going to write that one. I hope one day you can read it, too.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Two Cents About Ten Composers

When the British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote his 3rd Symphony, the Pastoral, it was during World War I, and he was driving an ambulance, transporting wounded troops in France. France and England are as different as they can be from the Arizona desert, yet when I listen to R.V.W.’s 3rd symphony, I see beautiful, lonely landscapes in Arizona.

When I drive the highways that skirt Vermilion Cliffs and the Grand Staircase in Utah and Arizona, I hear R.V.W.’s Concerto For Two Pianos. The Grand Canyon reminds me of his 5th Symphony, which he wrote during World War II. His 7th Symphony, the Sinfonia Antartica, is based on his score for the film Scott of the Antarctic, but it evokes Mars as much as it does Antarctica, and both Arizona and Utah can seem very Martian in places, especially if you’ve ever seen photos of our sister planet.

You can assume that I see Arizona when I hear classical music simply because I was raised in Arizona, but I don’t think it’s that simple. Not all of R.V.W.’s music causes me to see my homeland, plenty of it evokes landscapes I’ve never seen. And the music of other composers doesn’t automatically cause me to picture Arizona landscapes either.

But it’s true that classical music tends to evoke pictures in the mind of the listener, much like the opening sequence in Disney's Fantasia demonstrates. Classical music is the sound equivalent of the virtuoso paintings and drawings of illustrators. Some of it may be abstract, even mathematical in tone, but most of it tells a deliberate story. In the case of Vaughan Williams, that story is often about some lonely, beautiful place, so the listener might be inclined to see places very different from the ones that inspired the composition.

I know for some folks, Classical music must be soothing rather than evocative, stimulating the intellect instead of the emotions. I can understand that need, I feel it myself from time to time. Other listeners want the story spelled out for them in lyrics; the music may not evoke any images at all, regardless of its intent or execution. The interesting thing about this kind of music is that the lyrics can be at odds with the lyrics; for instance, happy music combined with dark, painful lyrics.

I’ve been suckered that way many times, and though I enjoy a lot of popular music, I think this is one of the reasons I tend to prefer orchestral works. Having spent a fair amount of time warning you about my preferences, here’s a list of my favorites. I’m not presenting it because I think you ought to like it too, I just hope that if you haven’t heard it before, and you’re interested in investigating, you may be inclined to look it up and sample it.

Ralph Vaughan Williams: my favorites are his 2nd, 3rd, 5th, 7th, and 9th Symphonies. I’m also fond of his Oboe Concerto, his Fantasia on a theme of Thomas Tallis, his Concerto For Two Pianos, and (my absolute favorite) The Lark Ascending. I like most of what Vaughan Williams wrote, but that’s too long a list to feature here, so these are a good place to start.

Gustav Holst is famous for writing the Planets suite, and it’s a hum-dinger, but my favorite pieces by Holst are The Perfect Fool and Egdon Heath. His Saint Paul suite is also marvelous.

I know everybody tends to rave about Claude Debussy, but his most famous works are not my favorites. It’s okay with me if I never hear La Mer or Afternoon of a Faun again. I’d rather hear The Sunken Cathedral, L'isle Joyeuse, and Nocturnes With Female Chorus.

Anatoli Liadov is a little-known gem – you may have trouble tracking down his albums online. If you can find one with his folk song suite, Baba Yaga, and The Enchanted Lake, buy it now!

Aaron Copland is the American standard, and if you haven’t heard Appalachian Spring, or Fanfare For The Common Man, definitely try them. But my favorites are Quiet City, Concerto for Clarinet, Music for Theater, and Music for Movies.

Alan Hovhaness is another great American composer, but he’s as different from Copland as he can possibly be. He’s a mystical soul. Try Mysterious Mountain to begin with, and if you like it, sample some of his compositions for harp.

Rachmaninoff is famous for his piano concertos, and rightly so, but I love his Suites For Two Pianos. The double-piano version of his Symphonic Dances is also magnificent. If you can get the RCA LIVING STEREO recording of Rubinstein performing Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini, that one is the absolute best.

Prokofiev is best known for his ballets, but I love his 1st and 3rd piano concertos. His movie music is also wonderful; try Alexander Nevsky and Ivan the Terrible.

Respighi is a favorite for classical music lovers, especially his Pines of Rome and Fountains of Rome. My two favorite recordings of this are the GREAT PERFORMANCES (RCA) album with Eugene Ormandy conducting and the LIVING STEREO album with Fritz Reiner conducting. Try The Birds as well, and Three Botticelli Pictures.

Probably everyone has heard Bernard Herrmann’s score for Psycho – it has pretty much ruined showers for a whole generation. I love his brilliant score for The Day The Earth Stood Still – it will always personify the other-worldly for me. Another must-have score is Fahrenheit 451, and don’t believe conductors who say they did a better job performing and recording it than Herrmann did. No one did a better job. Get his original soundtrack recordings if you can, in whatever format.

That’s my two cents about ten composers. Some of you will agree and some will disagree, but I hope you saw something on this list you’ve never heard, and I hope you’ll feel inspired to check it out.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Ernie's Robot

My husband, Ernest Hogan, is a writer and an artist. I've had a lot of his work framed, and it crowds the wall of our home. This one may be my favorite. He calls it "Hot Blooded Machine," I call it "Ernie's Robot." If Ernie's brain could be placed into a robot, this is what it would look like.

Mr. Disco Hooves

Every ghostly encounter is always at least 50% imagination. I’m happy with that equation – it makes me sound almost scientific, while leaving some room for the unexplainable. Sure, it could be 100% imagination; or it could be 60% imagination and 40% weird-but-natural; or it could even be 70% imagination and 30% supernatural. But you always have to meet a ghost at least halfway. No encounter with a ghost is ever going to be more than 50% supernatural.

However, I’m not sure the same can be said for other supernatural creatures. Imagination may play a strong role in these other encounters, I’m just not sure to what degree. You can look at folk tales and see societal trends and psychological factors, but the beings encountered in these tales have a weirdness that transcends the folk tradition from which they come.

Take the story my friend Mark relayed to me about a scary encounter he had around Midnight, in Framingham Mass., as he was walking to an all-night hamburger joint. One side of the street was lined with apartment buildings, but the other side belonged to an old graveyard. That night the gravestones were obscured by a mist that marched all the way up to the fence but stopped short of the sidewalk, as if it didn’t feel inclined to cross the street. Mark didn’t want to walk on the side with the apartments because of the bats that swooped in and out of the lights (chasing bugs), so he braved the graveyard side.

Mark wasn’t one to be afraid of graveyards, but he felt uneasy as he walked toward the end of the block and the distant light of the hamburger joint. He kept his pace casual, and his eyes open, but it was his ears that warned him something was wrong. Behind him he heard a distant clop, clop, clop, clop, clop.

He glanced over his shoulder and saw a figure walking about 100 yards behind him. He couldn’t make out the guy’s face, or even what he was wearing, except that he assumed the guy was wearing disco boots. That was the only thing he could figure that would make a clop, clop noise like that.

The guy was well back, so Mark kept walking at the same pace, but in another minute the sound was louder. Once again, he glanced over his shoulder, and though the guy hadn’t picked up his pace at all, he had gained on Mark. Yet his features could not be seen at all, nor any detail about his clothing, he was simply a shadow shaped like a man. "Hey buddy," Mark wanted to call, "those are some really big disco boots you have on!"

But something about the guy made Mark uneasy. So he kept his remark to himself and sped up his pace. He didn’t really want the guy to overtake him. He walked faster for a few minutes, and he heard the steady clop, clop, clop behind him. But the sound got louder. Mark glanced over his shoulder again and was shocked to see the guy had gained on him some more, he might have only been 100 feet away now, yet his features still could not be seen, his body was still in shadow. He wasn’t moving any faster at all, so how had he closed so much distance?

At this point, Mark gave up any pretense of casualness and broke into a full trot. For all he knew, the guy was taking wider steps, if not faster, so now it was time to put some real distance between them. No way could he overtake Mark at this point, unless he wanted to jog.

But though the sound continued at the same pace, it got louder. Mark glanced over his shoulder again, and now the guy wasn’t more than twenty feet away. The end of the street was in sight, but panic spurred him into a mad dash. He ran like a sprinter trying to win an Olympic gold, and behind him the clop, clop, clop got steadily louder, until it sounded like the guy was right behind him. Mark jumped off the end of the sidewalk and into the street, aiming straight for the front door of the burger joint.

And the sound stopped. At the door of the diner, Mark looked over his shoulder again. The guy was gone. He had stopped right at the edge of the road and simply disappeared. "He couldn’t have gone anywhere without making noise with those boots," he told me. "He just vanished. It was like he couldn’t cross the street, like that would be against the rules."

"Are you sure they were boots?" I asked. "Could they have been hooves?"

He went pale at that point. "Yeah," he said. "They could."

Mark’s heritage is Native American and African American. Was there something about his blood that provoked a response from Mr. Disco Hooves? Was there some prayer he should have said to appease an elemental resident of that ancient territory? Or was Old Hobbes just having fun with him?

It’s hard to say. But if you happen to be walking down that particular street at midnight, I recommend you walk on the side with the bats.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Ent Sighted In Utah

"He was leaping from rock to rock," claims witness. "We would have missed him if he hadn't been moving so slowly . . ."

And If You're Ever In Moab, Utah

This rock & fossil shop is on the main drag, right as you enter town from the North, and the bike rental shop is just a little further in. Moab is one of those places I'd like to live . . .

For Those Who Shop The Odd

I found a wonderful shop in Cave Creek, a little town North of Phoenix. It's called The Town Dump, and though it doesn't have a website, you may find it if you surf the google Images pages. The lady who co-owns the shop tells me I'm not the first smitten shopper to take pictures of the place and blog about it. The address is 6820 E. Cave Creek Road, and the stuff they sell there could be placed in the Home & Garden catagory -- especially if the home and the garden belong to Morticia Addams . . .

Needless to say, that's my kind of place.

Surviving Summer In Phoenix

Just about everyone thinks summer is too hot where they live, and just about everyone is right. Some people are more right than others – especially those in humid climates. But on average, Phoenix is probably the hottest city in the United States from June to October, if you’re just counting the temperature and you don’t count Death Valley (which isn’t a city, so no fair). After living in Phoenix for 46 years, I think I’ve earned the right to say it’s too hot at least part of the summer. But being too hot isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Someone once described Phoenix as air-conditioned Hell. Taken at face value, that phrase is an oxymoron. The air-conditioning is actually what makes Phoenix about ten times more comfortable than, say, Miami in July. If you’ve got a.c. in your car and in your house, you’re going to pretty much breeze through the summer in Phoenix. Add some ice cream, ice-cold tea, and a covered porch out back, and you’re going to be downright happy. You’ll complain about the heat, sure, but mostly for recreation, and to keep visitors from crowding your over-heated paradise. The seasonal decline in population is one of the positive aspects of too much heat. Personally, I’ve never been fond of crowds.

But my husband and I have never had a.c. in our car. On one historic day back in 1990, when the temperature in Phoenix reached 123 F, we were in our little Honda, which hadn’t even been built with an a.c. unit. We were running our own housekeeping service back then, and we had learned from extensive driving during the previous year (during which the summer lasted six months instead of the usual four) to go directly to a convenience store and buy a 48-ounce cold drink for the trip to the first job, then to another store for another 48 ounces of ice-and-whatever for the trip back home. On that momentous day, we set out across town with our cold drinks in hand, and we may have remarked to each other, "Jeez it’s hot!" or we may not. We didn’t know how hot it had gotten, we only knew it was probably somewhere over 110 .

It’s at a time like this that you find out whether you’re a hot-weather person or a cold-weather person. Me – I’m hot weather, to the core. And I proved it on that day, because I didn’t croak in my un-airconditioned car. In fact, I did something that only desert dwellers can truly understand. I went into Dream-time mode. This mental state may seem philosophical at some times, spiritual at others, and still other times it may seem both. And it’s the other reason that too hot is not always a bad thing. It’s altered consciousness without the drugs, it can stretch time or make it stop completely, it can make you believe in God, or Space Aliens, or Bigfoot.

It can also kill you, if you don’t stay hydrated. Do not, upon reading this account, go charging into the Arizona desert with no hat and no water on a hot afternoon, thinking, This is so cosmic! The news of your unhappy demise will be featured with film at 11:00 the following evening (though if your body lies undiscovered for long enough, you’ll make an interesting mummy).

I’ve learned to appreciate Dream-time mode, but that doesn’t mean I don’t like a.c. I use it extensively at home, thank you very much. And by this fall, Ernie and I will be buying a vehicle with fully-operational a.c. in it (believe me, it’s never been because we didn’t want it). But before we do that, we’ve got one more summer to suffer through, a long drive every day without good ol’ a.c. We’ll haul our cold drinks with us and try to ignore the thermometer, just one more time.

It’ll be Dream-time, all the way.