Archive for June 2012
While I worked away on book two of the War of the Second Iteration yesterday, I had one of those moments during which I was completely aware of how much I enjoy doing this sort of thing. The production side of indie publishing can be a bit of a pain (especially waiting for POD proof copies), but the actual writing, and the process of revision than pulls it all together, these are a source of deep satisfaction. I’d use the word “joy,” but for some reason it falls short of what I experience. I have these moments on a regular basis, especially when I hit a rough spot and then successfully think my way through it. It’s such an amazing feeling when that works!
Later in the evening, while enjoying a glass of wine, I found myself thinking of the years just before I decided to give the whole independent publishing thing a try. I’d been selling magazine articles and essays for years before going back to school to finish my degree, but could never seem to get a break on the book publishing scene. I kept trying, for more years than I like to admit. Came a time when it just wasn’t possible to justify the next attempt. I set writing aside and tried to go on to other things, by way of the degree process. There’s an old say about getting knocked down three time but getting up four. After a while, finding a way to avoid being knocked down in the first place seems more sensible. Unfortunately, the switch took me from one dead-end to another, with a resulting lack of employment into the bargain.
Giving up writing had more insidious effects, emotionally. I’m not going to write about those, not yet.
Then along came Kindle and its imitators, and the digital direct publishing so-called revolution. These matters had been going on for a few years before I paid much attention to them. Came the day a friend told me of her efforts to go the indie publish route, and of her initial experiences doing so. I’d heard of the Kindle, but was not aware people could now side-step the publishing industry and do their own thing. It sounded too good to be true, but I looked into it anyway, and discovered that the entire concept of “self publishing,” once upon a time an admission of defeat wrapped up in denial, was being transformed. That same friend suggested that I dig out one of the novels I had in the proverbial trunk, clean it up, and turn it loose to see what might become of it. (Thanks, Frankie! http://frankierobertson.wordpress.com/ ) I followed that advice, rewrote and revised one of those previous projects and now The Luck of Han’anga is out there.
It’s a kick to see a book out there and available to readers. It feels good. But far more gratifying still is this feeling of being a writer again, unfettered by the doubts that plagued me each time I boxed up a manuscript and put it in the mail. I may meet no greater success as an indie author, in the long run, but I will know for certain one way or the other. The books will be out there, finally. I won’t be sitting here growing older and wondering “What if…?” And in the mean time, I’m writing again. That just feels good!
New amateur astronomers are often tripped up by their own expectations of what they will see through the eyepiece of a telescope. In stating this I’m surely not saying anything the majority of us don’t already know. Anyone who has had the experience of helping a newcomer has seen the consequences of unrealistic expectations. The disappointment can be as difficult to overcome as the expectations are easy to create. Telescope equipment advertising, observing guides, and magazines all persist on relying heavily on Hubble Telescope style images, and these images have come to dominate public perceptions of the Universe studied by astronomers. It’s only natural for the uninitiated, knowing no better, to expect something of the same sort through a backyard telescope. When the telescope fails to deliver, and all of them will fall short of Hubble, disappointment is equally natural.
The truth of the matter is that to human eyes, even aided by a good telescope, the Universe is a subtle place, and it takes time to fully understand and appreciate the beauty of that subtlety. You need to forget the colorful images while at the eyepiece. Then you need to spend time getting past first impressions. Going from one object to another in short order will give the impression that the Universe is a dull place, filled with things that look like wisps of smoke and puffs of dust. Those first glances can be misleading. Don’t trust them! Slow down. Figure on spending more time observing an object than it took to find it. A lot more, if a computer is finding things for you. Look at it straight on, then use averted vision, that trick that has you look slightly to one side. Did that dusty streak suddenly get longer? Or wider? Does the surface of the globular cluster seem to sparkle faintly when you don’t stare straight at it? Didn’t see anything like that? Try again. Try again on another night. Take notes or make sketches to remind yourself of what you saw before. This all takes practice, so the more often you are at the eyepiece and the longer you spend on an object, the better.
It also takes patience. Persisting in the face of initial disappointment takes patience, as does climbing the learning curve you face as a beginning astronomer. It takes loads of patience to sit there and wait for a calm moment that reveals details on Mars, or in a crater on the Moon. Even more to realized there’s truth to descriptions of stars in open clusters being arranged in strings or chains. And it takes patience to let time be your teacher. This will all take time.
But then, isn’t that always the case for a thing worth doing?
It’s a different sort of thrill, publishing a work of fiction.
I started the independent publish venture with the short memoir Mr. Olcott’s Skies because the size of the project lent itself well to the learning curve. I was able to complete the writing in a relatively short time, and the word count was small enough that it seemed likely I could get through the process of formatting and producing an eBook (and print on demand) before I was a lot older. All of this worked out, and seeing the book for sale, watching it sell, and getting feedback from readers have all been gratifying experiences. It was a proof of concept, in a manner of speaking, one that allowed me to take the next step with a bit more confidence.
That next step was the publication of my first novel: The Luck of Han’anga. Publishing fiction of any sort became a goal very early in my life, but through the long years has remained unrealized. As I worked toward that goal, I wrote other sorts of things. Articles and essays I wrote found enough outlets to lead me on in the hope of better things that never quite came to pass. (Book length nonfiction was another matter, mostly because what I wanted to write was not seen as marketable.) But fiction, short or long, while often greeted with encouragement by editors, never quite crossed line into the light of day. I know what it feels like to be published, to see my work in print. To see a certain kind of work in print. But there was always something missing.
I stopped writing fiction completely for while, starting at about the turn of the Millennium. I also scaled back on the nonfiction, though that never stopped completely due to involvement in a couple of online discussion and review sites, most notably the Cloudy Nights astronomy forum. Oh, the ideas for fiction were still there, and every now and then I’d start to write something, but there would be no momentum. The belief would settle in that I was wasting my time, that I’d never sell the piece, and the effort would sputter out and come to nothing. This was not a pleasant episode in my life. I am by my nature a writer. It approaches being a compulsion. When I returned to the world of amateur astronomy (at about the same time I gave up writing fiction) and started a journal of astronomical observations, each night’s efforts resulted in lengthy personal experience essays. I couldn’t help it. That’s just how it works.
I also have a rather active imagination that is bent in a science fictional direction. I wasn’t writing the stuff, but it was still there, a strange sort of burden on the mind that is very difficult to describe.
They say there’s nothing worse than an itch you can’t scratch. When the itch is inside your head it becomes something more than frustrating.
While I was keeping myself busy with other matters, but slowly coming unraveled because of that itch, there was a revolution. I almost missed it. The last time I worked in a bookstore there were no viable ereaders on the market, and I quit that job at about the same time that I stopped writing in a serious way. Late in the first decade of this still rather new century a friend told me over lunch of something called “indie publishing.” I’d heard of the Kindle ereader, but had given it little thought. I was unaware until told that day that you could self publish directly to the ereader market. I never went in for vanity publishing in the past, and remain uninterested in such an approach. But this “indie” stuff sounded different. So I took a closer look, and what I found re-motivated me to a degree that I was soon writing again in earnest.
The first result was Mr. Olcott’s Skies, and it was an exciting thing to see that up and for sale for various ereaders. Gratifying as it was, there was still that feeling of something missing. That feeling has been banished, at long last and over the past twenty four hours, as The Luck of Han’anga went “live” for Amazon’s Kindle and the Barnes & Noble Nook. By the time I finished the first draft of this blog entry the novel had even sold a few copies. I finally know what that feels like, and after all these years the reaction, the thrill and the emotion, eludes complete description. Let’s just say it feels very good.
Now to take a deep breath, and write the next one.
The 2004 solar transit of Venus pretty much passed me by. The job I had at the time left no opportunity to do more than take a short walk across campus and join the crowd gathered outside the Flandrau Science Center. It wasn’t an event, it was a glimpse, and left little impression on me.
The 2012 transit of Venus, the last for more than one hundred years took place this past Tuesday, and since I am currently between jobs I took full advantage of my freedom to observe the event from the start. I set up the Old Scope with a home-made white light solar filter (Baader film, if you’re interested), the whole thing perched on a light-weight equatorial mount set out on the back porch. A foam board shield attached to the telescope shaded my face at the eyepiece, and a carefully propped umbrella protected the mount and my legs. None of this changed the fact that it was early June, in Tucson (Arizona), which is to say that shade or no shade, it was damned hot. The porch thermometer read somewhere over 100°F (about 38°C) in the shade. I wasn’t in the shade, except for that provided by my Makeshift Solar Observatory. The air around me was, to put it mildly, toasty.
I hide in the shade of the porch until a few minutes before first contact, then braved the sun and hot breezes and perched myself on the observing chair. I put an 8mm TMB planetary eyepiece in the diagonal, focused the Sun as well as could be that time of day (rather shimmery image at times) and was immediately impressed by the sunspots sprinkled across the face of old Sol. I checked my watch and was glad to see things were about to start, as I was already wilting in the heat.
Not long after I forgot the weather for a while. An ever-so-shallow notch had appeared in the limb of the sun. First contact. As I watched it very slowly, but steadily, became deeper and rounder, until the shape of a sphere was clearly suggested. I drank water. I poured water (carefully) over my head, and I kept watching. The suggestion of a sphere became stronger as the black spot began to curve back on itself. Eventually a small black bead was visible, not quite detached from the black beyond the white limb of the Sun. It seemed to hang there, tugging gently on that blackness, then suddenly the connection was broken and there was a sliver of white around that side of the bead. There was Venus, and second contact was now a recent memory. I watched, amazed, as the planet ever so slowly made its way across the face of the Sun.
From that point my observations were intermittent. The heat took its toll. I went inside, sat in front of a fan, and absorbed about a quart of iced tea. When I felt refreshed, I went back out and watched some more. Back and forth, iced tea and a fan, and the transit of Venus, until the Sun had set into the neighbor’s trees and was lost to me. I dismantled the Makeshift Solar Observatory and called it quits. I was thoroughly satisfied by the experience. I was also well-done.
A shower, then, and something else cold to drink, though not iced tea this time.