Archive for September 2012
There are plenty of people involved in online discussion groups who are more than willing to give you advice, often whether you request it or not. That advice will sometimes be presented as a Law of the Universe, and then defended vigorously when exceptions to their rule start to add up. The posting of such opinions as immutable facts, and the keyboard courage saturated flame wars that erupt in defense of these opinions, may be about the closest thing to a tradition that exists on the internet these days.
The majority of these opinions are honestly based on a person’s actual experience. Yes, there are trolls out there, people who make things up just to get a rise out of everyone else – more keyboard courage. (Don’t even get me started about the “comments” that follow news articles on the internet.) A properly managed (meaning moderated) discussion board can keep such nonsense to a minimum. And yet, vigorous debates often erupt without the presence of a troll, and seriously degrade the signal-to-noise ratio of a discussion. All it takes is for one or more of the participants to forget the truth contained within a simple phrase, one that really needs to see wider use on the internet.
Your mileage may vary.
Whether you are climbing the learning curve of amateur astronomy or working to make your self-published books more visible to the public, you’re going to find more than one way to approach any given problem. Ask a question online and you will likely receive more than one answer, and all of them may be quite correct – for the person providing the advice. The fun begins when someone mistakes his or her experience and the resulting workaround, for a rule that cannot – or must not – be violated. It worked as XYZ for this person, and so the equally useful results of another correspondent using an ABC approach must be bogus, and evidence is provided (often with a dose of sarcasm or open scorn) to prove the point. Never minding for a moment that ABC accomplished the same goal as XYZ. Is someone faking it? Is someone just trying to be a phony internet expert? It happens, but not as often as you might think. What usually happens is that an honest desire to help someone gets crossed up with an ego trip, and the possibility that another person’s experiences may solve the same problem is lost in the shuffle.
There’s a related phenomenon, in which someone tries XYZ and reports back that results weren’t as advertised. Now the provider of the advice is on the spot, and being accused (however mildly) of being wrong brings out an understandable defensiveness. Again, rudeness often ensues, and some poor moderator needs to wade in with a chair and whip to back the combatants into their respective corners. In the end, I suppose, all the necessary information ends up out there to be used, but who wants to slog through hip-deep bullshit to work with it?
It’s too easy, sitting behind a keyboard, to feel empowered and stand your ground, and forget that the other guy may be standing in more or less the same place as you. If both of you solved the same problem, both of you found the right answer, even if your answers are not the same. Sharing those answers in a public venue is a good thing, since it allows people dealing the same (or a similar) situation to consider options that may not otherwise occur to them. But to make a forum as informative as possible, for as many people as possible, we all need to remember that there are often many paths to the same goal. The fact that someone is on a path unlike your own doesn’t mean they can’t read a map. Your mileage may vary, as theirs surely did, and that will quite likely be true also of anyone you try to help.
My desire to write is more than likely a consequence of my print addiction. I learned how to read very early, according to my parents, before I learned to tie my shoes. Whether or not that’s literally the case, I can’t say, but the truth is I’ve been an active, even compulsive reader, for so long now that books often figure in my foggiest early recollections. A love for books and reading was actively encouraged by those who had a hand in raising me, for which I will be forever grateful. And somewhere along the line, also very early in my life, putting words down on paper for myself became the flip side of reading, a natural outgrowth of a love of words and the tricks they can play. Writing and reading were soon of equal importance, and by the time I was half way through middle school I was quite convinced I wanted to be a writer. This side of the coin didn’t receive quite the level of encouragement as reading, however, due to concerns that I might develop “impractical” priorities.
The reading I did in younger days was not especially eclectic, with general science and science fiction making up nearly all the elective reading I did in middle and high school. There were exceptions. Somewhere along the way I was required to read Buck’s The Good Earth, a book that took my imagination to unexpected places. Most of the normal high school reading list left me flat, until I was assigned Moby Dick, a book that both baffled and fascinated me. Late in high school someone introduced me to Will and Ariel Durant, and history joined science on the nonfiction hit parade. And then there was Shakespeare. I had my problems with Elizabethan English, but for some reason was so fascinated by what I read (and saw performed in a couple of cases) that I made the effort. But these really were the exceptions to the rule, and the authors I knew best were the likes of Heinlein, Asimov, Silverberg, and Pohl. I read so much sci-fi as a teenager that the adults around me reacted to it the way some did the idea of kids drinking coffee – that it would stunt my growth, in an intellectual manner of speaking. And in time, the amount of time I spent off by myself reading was itself seen in much the same way, as too much of a good thing.
In hindsight, they clearly had a point. I was rather shy in younger days, and averse to taking risks. These traits, combined with a combination of family issues and the very conservative social environment in which I grew up, conspired to make me something of a late bloomer. Being somewhat behind the curve made it harder for me to fit in – anywhere – something that made me ever more escapist in terms of the reading material I sought. When I started writing science fiction and fantasy it seemed only natural to do so. I practically lived by and for genre fiction, those genres in particular. Attending science fiction conventions and hanging with a crowd with the same fixations reinforced the habit. To say that what I wrote in those days was terribly derivative would have been, at best, an understatement. That I sold absolutely none of that fiction, not a word, is in hindsight not at all hard to understand.
Nothing stays the same, though, another aspect of reality I’ve come to appreciate in a different way over time. I met people in the sci-fi crowd who had one foot firmly planted in the “mundane” world from which I desired to escape. Through friendships made with such people I eventually found myself encouraged to try new things in that mundane world, to approach and embrace it with a bit more courage. When you take a chance and succeed, you are more willing to push yourself a bit further and harder. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, but if the wins at least give you a sense for facing even odds, you keep at it and keep growing. It becomes a positive feedback loop, an upward spiral, and things really begin to change. You do crazy things, like bicycling the length of Baja California, getting married, and going back to school to earn a degree. You become your own agent of change.
Two things happened to my reading habits as these changes unfolded. I spent more time doing things and less time reading, but at the same time covered a wider range of subjects. Conversations and experiences with a broader range of friends and acquaintances led to the selection of different sorts of reading material. Sci-fi lost its near complete dominance. On the way to the degree I became so caught up by other matters that I nearly stopped reading fiction altogether. Hardly a surprise, I suppose, that I also stopped writing it, although continued lack of sales certainly helped to spill the wind from those sails. Books on history, biography, and science were most likely to stick to my hands in bookstores, with escapist fiction fading to a minor role. I read hard books, works that challenged me, and sometimes confused me. It was a very different escape from the ordinary.
The digital age has brought writing back to dominate my life, these days, and although my first book is nonfiction, I was immediately drawn back to sci-fi. (It felt like going home.) As I’ve worked to develop a credible fictional world I’ve discovered that reading and writing seem to have developed a relationship that inverts the way it was in my youth. Once upon a time reading made me want to write. Now I’m writing science fiction again, and to promote my work I find myself interacting with fans and readers of the genre. They’re talking about books that sound worth reading, and so now writing has led me to read more fiction. It’s a different experience these days, however, and not so much about escaping reality. Reading, which is now the flip side of writing, is informed by a wider range of experience. So is writing. Considering this, I finally understand a comment I heard a long time ago. Live boldly, read boldly, and then write about it.
Most of the fiction I read is sci-fi or fantasy, and this has been true almost from the time I first learned how to read. Tom Swift books featured prominently among the books given to me as birthday and Holiday gifts. My interest in the genre expanded when I joined the Science Fiction Book Club in high school. Having access to the SFBC put a very important book in my hands: The Hugo Winners’, an anthology edited by Isaac Asimov. The introductory material he wrote to preface each story revealed to me a thing called science fiction fandom, generally referred to as “fandom” by those on the inside, a literary subculture that held regular gatherings – conventions – for the sake of the genre long before Star Trek rendered such things newsworthy. The very idea drew me, and I wondered what it would be like to find myself in a gathering filled with people who read – and wrote – the sorts of things that fired my imagination.
Near the end of 1975 my family relocated to Phoenix, AZ. Going from a small farm town to a large and rapidly growing city was one hell of a shock, but good things did come of it in the end. Among these was the discovery, a year or so later, of a bookstore in nearby Tempe that catered to the sci-fi/fantasy crowd. (I believe it was called The One Bookstore. I can no longer find references to it, and so may not have that right.) On one of my first visits I found a flyer on the counter for something called IguanaCon, which turned out to be the Worldcon for 1978. Something I’d been reading about was about to take place in my new back yard. I signed up, and attended the first of what would end up being dozens of “cons” that made up a major element of my life from 1978 to the early ‘90s. Only the decision to return to school and complete a degree finally knocked me out of the habit. Once the habit was broken my attendance became sporadic, then died away completely.
That changed again in 2011 when I embarked on my independent publishing venture. I attended TusCon 38 in November of that year, to get a feel for the whole con thing again after so long. I knew I would need to reconnect with fandom to help promote my work. It was a strange but good experience, being back after so many years, but I was still just a fan. I had fiction in the works, but none of it was published. That changed in June of this year with the publication of The Luck of Han’anga. The first con to take place after the release of my novel was CopperCon 32, held this past Labor Day weekend. I attended of course, and had a very different convention experience.
The drive to Avondale was long, hot, and dull. Arrival and check in echoed every convention I ever attended in the past. The people milling about were just the sort of folk I remembered being drawn to such an event, though few of the faces were familiar. I’d volunteered to be on a couple of panels, and had a signing and a reading scheduled. The last two items were a risk, being unknown, but what the hell? Got to start somewhere, and so I arrived with thirty copies of the novel (and ten of Olcott’s Skies) in my baggage. (Also a box of bookmarks to give away.) It felt good just being there, and I enjoyed the memories that were nudged to the surface. I’d once been a part of the organization that founded CopperCon (the Central Arizona Speculative Fiction Society), and if memory serves was actually on hand when it all came together. I do know I attended the first ever CopperCon. It seemed more than appropriate to be an author at a con for the very first time, at a con with which I shared a little history.
From what I saw of it, CopperCon 32 went quite well. It was much smaller than I remembered, but I understand the event has had some hard times and is now staging a comeback. The first panel was on the subject of creating alien characters, and I ended up with only one fellow participant, Gini Koch (author of Alien in the Family, among other books). We hit it off well and led an interesting discussion with plenty of audience participation. The next day (Saturday) I gave away bookmarks as I took up space in the dealer’s room for the signing, along with Saul Garnell (author of Freedom Club). I sold but a single copy, and signed it. It was an eye-opener for the buyer to learn that his was the first ever copy of my book to be autographed. Of course, it was grand moment for your’s truly, as well! I spent the rest of Saturday meeting people, indulging in long and interesting conversations, then turned in early in order to be well-rested for the reading the following morning.
The reading turned into the only speed bump I encountered that weekend. It was scheduled for 10am Sunday morning, a time slot I accepted without thinking. I should have known better. In my more active fannish days I was always up until the wee small hours of the night, and not fully conscious again until late the next morning. This is typical of con-goers, and so my audience consisted of a single person. The rest of the convention was consuming brunch. Not exactly what I had in mind. The person who showed up sat and chatted about self publishing for half an hour, and that was that. This would have rendered Sunday morning an outright disaster, except that while waiting for my last panel discussion I ran into the fellow who bought the book the day before. The first words he uttered after I said “Good morning” formed a question on the timing of Book Two’s release. I said it would be later in the year, and suggested facetiously that he read slowly. Too late. He’d stayed up the night and read my book straight through. Apparently he liked it. I’d be hard pressed, just now, to say what blew my mind most that weekend, signing a book for the first time or having a new reader get so caught up he stayed up all night to read the entire book.
Okay, no, that’s really a no-brainer, isn’t it?
So after one last panel, on authors using the social media (in the company of authors Deborah Baudoin and Mark Rude), I packed up and made the long, hot, boring drive home to Tucson. I felt pretty good along the way, though. Being in a familiar situation, but playing a very different role, was enlightening. My first time at a con as an author had not been perfect, but I gained valuable experience and made new friends. It bodes well for future events.