Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Odyssey Workshop Open to Applicants

In a few months, I'll be spending a couple of days as guest lecturer at one of the top SF/F writing workshops, the Odyssey Writing Workshop in New Hampshire. This will be my second time helping at Odyssey, and I came away from the first experience mightily impressed.

They're now open to applications from serious, dedicated writers who are close to that point of getting published. If you're in that category and are looking for an intensive learning experience, you might want to look into it. Here's the info...

Odyssey is one of the most highly respected workshops for writers of fantasy, science fiction, and horror writers. Top authors, editors, and agents serve as guest lecturers, and fifty-three percent of graduates go on to be published. The workshop, held annually on the campus of Saint Anselm College in Manchester, NH, combines an intensive learning and writing experience with in-depth feedback on students' manuscripts. Odyssey is for developing writers whose work is approaching publication quality and for published writers who want to improve their work. Director Jeanne Cavelos is a former senior editor at Bantam Doubleday Dell and winner of the World Fantasy Award.

This summer's workshop runs from June 8 through July 17. Guest lecturers are bestselling author Jeffrey A. Carver; award-winning authors Melissa Scott, Patricia Bray, and Jack Ketchum; and Ace/Roc Editor-in-Chief Ginjer Buchanan. The writer-in-residence is New York Times bestselling author Carrie Vaughn. The application deadline is April 8. For more information, visit or call (603) 673-6234.

"Vigorous writing is concise." —William Strunk, Jr.

Friday, February 20, 2009

A Chat with the Authors Guild

I wrote here earlier about my reaction to Authors Guild statements that Amazon's new Kindle 2 may be infringing on rights with its real-aloud capability. (You can hear a demo of the Kindle 2 reading here. It's way better than Microsoft Reader or Adobe Reader.) I said that having an electronic gizmo read text aloud is no threat to the performance quality of an audiobook. I still feel that way. But...

I emailed the Authors Guild to say I was worried they were picking the wrong fight, that they were only getting in the way of a technological development that could help make our ebooks more useful—and attractive—to consumers. I got a call back from Paul Aiken of the Guild, and we had a nice, long conversation.

Paul pointed out something that I hadn't really thought of: No matter what we think about the audio experience, and whether it's live or recorded, and whether or not it's good for the customer and bad for the audiobook business, there's something we need to consider—that text-to-speech function may violate existing contract terms. Which contracts? The ones writers and publishers sign with audiobook companies, which specify exactly what is meant by "audio." Kindle might be infringing on rights, for example, that an audiobook company has paid for—such a contract, for example, defining "audio" by terms such as the use of technological means to produce a sound version of the book. These contracts already exist, by the thousands.

(None of this, by the way, has anything thing to do with the rights of the blind—which are secured by law, as they should be—or the rights of a person to read a book aloud. Those are entirely unrelated issues.)

So what does the Guild want? As I understood Paul, the Guild wants to ensure, before this whole thing goes too far, that contractual rights are honored, that parties who have reserved or purchased the right to use technology to produce audible versions of a work be paid for such a use. It doesn't really matter whether we feel that a machine's reading is equivalent to a professional recording. What matters is the definitions in the book contracts.

If the Guild isn't trying to stop the technology, but simply to ensure proper compensation, how might this work? It could take the form of a small surcharge added to an ebook purchase, to enable read-aloud capability—with a royalty for having read-aloud enabled going directly to the audio rights-holder. Many ebooks already have enable/disable switches on their Microsoft Reader and Adobe editions. (My own ereads books, for reasons that escape me, have read-aloud enabled for Microsoft Reader and disabled for Adobe Reader.) If things go this way, I'd personally prefer to see the cost built right into the price of the ebook, and not make it something a buyer would have to think about at the point of purchase. But that's a detail.

While my own gut feeling about synthetic text-to-speech hasn't changed as a result of this conversation, my understanding of what the Guild wants to do has. There are a zillion book contracts out there that define what constitutes an audible presentation of a book. Those contracts can't be wished away by Amazon or by the book buyer, or, for that matter, by me. Although I've previously compared this question to the entertainment industry's attempts to stop the VCR, maybe a more apt comparison is the Hollywood writers trying to get fair royalties for the use of their work on DVDs and the net—not trying to stop the new technologies, but to make sure that structures are in place to guarantee them their fair share of the profit.

This, I'm sure, promises to be an ongoing story. As they say in the TV biz: To be continued...

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Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Diamonds in the Sky: an Astronomical SF Anthology

A while back, I wrote that I had sold a short story named "Dog Star" to an upcoming online anthology called Diamonds in the Sky. Edited by SF writer/astronomer Mike Brotherton, the anthology is funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation, for the purpose of furthering science education. The idea: to make astronomical concepts more accessible through entertaining stories. Each story takes on a different astronomical theme. In Dog Star, I tried my hand at dark energy and border collies.

Diamonds in the Sky has just gone live!

In addition to my story, it includes pieces by Geoffrey Landis, Wil McCarthy, Mike Brotherton, Jerry Oltion, Jerry Weinberg, and others. (Those last three guys were among my compadres at the Launchpad Astronomy Workshop back in 2007, another memorable event—and Geoff and Wil are really smart guys, actual rocket scientists, whom I bump into periodically at SF gatherings.)

I haven't read the other pieces yet, but now I get my chance along with you.

By the way, plans are afoot to gather the stories into proper ebook format and put those up for free download, as well.


Monday, February 16, 2009

Boskone 2009

Last weekend, I was busy at Boskone, the annual February convention sponsored by the New England Science Fiction Association (NESFA). It was a smaller convention than Boskone of years past, but was friendly and good fun, and a chance to catch up with friends and acquaintances I hadn't seen in a while. I spoke on a panel on "Faith in the Future" with a number of other writers, including James Morrow, with whom I have locked horns on questions related to faith and religion on many previous occasions. Jim's a good guy. We disagree on just about every aspect of faith, God, spirituality, and application to life, politics, and fiction. But it's a good-natured disagreement, and we've always stayed friendly. This year I enjoyed attending his book publication party for his new book, Shambling Toward Hiroshima, a Godzilla story (at least on some level; I haven't read it yet). I'm a Godzilla fan from way back, and I happily left his party with a wind-up, spark-breathing Godzilla toy.

As moderator of a panel called "Angels and AIs," I got to be the herder of cats trying to keep things moving in some direction resembling the discussion topic of whether sufficiently advanced artificial intelligences would come to seem like angels to us—or maybe like Cylons. With voices as disparate as Karl Schroeder and Charles Stross, among others, I'm not sure how well I succeeded in keeping the conversation on track. But one audience member told me afterward he thought it was an awesome discussion, so I guess it went okay.

I had long, enjoyable conversations with fellow writers Ann Tonsor Zeddies and Rosemary Kirstein, both of whom share my struggle with getting new books written in something less than geologic time frames. (They're both good, too; check out their books.) My literary beer brought together many past members of the Ultimate SF Workshop that I teach with Craig Gardner, as well as local fan and writer Dan Kimmel, and in a surprise appearance, math professor Bruce Burdick of Roger Williams University, who—although neither of us knew the other at the time—graduated just a few years after I did from Huron High School, in Huron, Ohio.

A small world. Lots of passing conversations with others: Jane Yolen, Greg Bear, Tom Easton, Jo Walton, Mark and Shirley Pitman, people from Tor...ah, I'm sure I'm leaving out a bunch—sorry. I finally got to meet the artist who produced the lovely cover for Sunborn: Stephan Martiniere. He does good work!

As do they all.

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Thursday, February 12, 2009

What's Hard About Being a Writer?

SFSignal, from time to time, asks the same question of a bunch of writers and puts their answers together in an interesting post called MindMeld. They've done it again this week, and the question—posed to me, among others—was What's the most difficult part of being a writer? (That link will take you to all the answers.)

Here's what I said (but do go look at the others, because they're interesting):

What's the hardest thing about being a writer? That's easy: Writing. Doing it, not talking about it. Not thinking about it or procrastinating to avoid doing it. Not checking the email for writing-related messages (hah). Just doing it. Putting. The words. On. The page. Damn, it's hard sometimes. A lot of the time. Most of the time. Okay, nearly all the time. Microsoft's patented Blue Screen of Death can't hold a candle to the dread induced by the White Screen of No Words on the Page.

I'm not talking about writing in general, but writing a work of fiction. Creating a story out of whole cloth and telling it in words that make the reader want to come back for more. Okay, I'm not even talking about that last part—that comes more in the rewriting phase, which for me is easier. I'm talking about, Who is this character, really, and why is she angry, or scared, or passionate? I'm talking about, What comes next—and why is it interesting or unexpected or inevitable? Why should anyone care?

I got some interesting insight into the different creative tensions in writing a couple of years ago, when I was asked to write a novelization of Battlestar Galactica: the Miniseries. I had just finished a first draft of my novel Sunborn, which for a variety of reasons had been a years-long struggle. The novelization had to be done quickly. But I had a DVD of the miniseries (it had already aired), and I had a shooting script (different in many respects from the final edit). The story was there. The characters were there. I couldn't change them, and didn't want to change them. But I had to bring them to life. I had to add dimension and depth where I could, and I had to make scenes make sense that were fine on-screen, whizzing by at the speed of TV, but that on closer examination had issues. It was a writing challenge of a particular kind, and I enjoyed it immensely. But it was a very different experience from writing my own books.

What it was, I think, was that my story-imagining lobes were given a break, while my story-crafting and writing-craft lobes did the heavy lifting for a while. I worked hard, while at the same time, part of my brain was vacationing! And afterward, I came back to the rewrite on Sunborn with better clarity and more energy. Based on feedback from readers so far, I think I did good.

Guess what I'm doing now. That's right, I'm first-drafting a new novel. Blank White Screen of No Words on the Page. Damn, that's hard.
By the way, for those of you who might not be regular readers of Pushing a Snake, the book I'm working on now is the fifth volume of The Chaos Chronicles: The Reefs of Time. (Will John Bandicut and Julie Stone find each other again on Shipworld?... and other questions, to be answered.)

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Wednesday, February 11, 2009

More on the Kindle 2 and Read-Aloud

In my last post I wrote about the controversy raised by the new Kindle's ability to "read aloud" ebook text files, and the assertion by Paul Aiken, executive director of the Authors Guild, that this constituted copyright infringement.

There's a provocative (and occasionally surrealistic) discussion of the question at the forum thread: New Kindle Audio Feature Causes a Stir.

And from someone who apparently is an ex-copyright attorney, this interesting page on Know Your Rights: Does the Kindle 2's text-to-speech infringe authors' copyrights?

I'm guessing that this is a question that's going to drag on for a while. Wonder if it'll make it to court. Although I find myself on Amazon's side on this one (odd feeling), I think it's probably a legal gray area.

Someone on Mobileread asked how I'd feel if C3PO read Sunborn aloud to a stadium full of paying guests. I said I thought that would constitute a performance, and wasn't relevant to this discussion. (I didn't raise the question of whether C3PO is sentient and shouldn't be considered a machine, but maybe I should have.)

Now, if someone gathered a stadium full of people all with Kindles with Sunborn loaded, and in unison they started a mass read-aloud, with or without my permission, I would think that was...pretty damn cool!

Someone want to organize that for me? :)

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Kindle 2

This week's big news in books, of course, was the official unveiling of the Kindle 2, Amazon's second-generation ebook reader. Michael Gaudet of E-reads offers his appraisal, noting some of the new Kindle's enhancements:

  • slimmer, with more memory and longer battery life
  • faster screen refresh
  • redesigned buttons for navigation
  • faster book downloads, and "Whispersync" to keep multiple Kindles synchronized wirelessly
  • a text-to-speech voice synthesizer, to read your books aloud to you
These all sound like pretty nice enhancements. But as I look at the device, I'm not regretting my choice of the Sony PRS-700. The built-in light and the touchscreen on the Sony still put it way out in front, in my book (so to speak).

But the Kindle announcement hasn't come without blowback. "They don't have the right to read a book out loud," said Paul Aiken, executive director of the Authors Guild. "That's an audio right, which is derivative under copyright law." (From the Wall Street Journal online.)


I'm a member of the Authors Guild, and I was a little horrified to hear Mr. Aiken make this claim—because to my way of thinking, having a Kindle (or any device) read a file aloud should be no different in copyright terms from my reading a book aloud to my family. I mean, really.

And yet, I understand why he made the statement. Authors often license audio rights separately from other rights. There's a natural concern about anything that could cut into audiobook sales. But to me, there's a big difference between a machine reading of a stream of text and a professionally produced audio reading by a professional reader who gives the reading inflection and expression, perhaps with the help of music and sound effects. Now, it may well be that some people who like audio books will forego buying audiobooks if their Kindle will read text aloud in a computer voice. (Given that Amazon owns Audible, I imagine there were some in-house discussions about this.) So clearly this is an arguable point. But I still don't agree with Mr. Aiken, even though he speaks for my organization.

I've been frustrated for years that read-aloud is disabled on my own ebooks sold through outlets such as (a retailer I am otherwise very happy with, I hasten to add). The only format, until now, in which this was relevant was Microsoft Reader format, because only MS Reader had that capability. I've always felt that if people bought my ebooks and they preferred (or needed) to listen to it through a computer-synthesized voice, they should have that choice. Why not? They bought the book. It turns out that the disabling of this feature is the policy of Fictionwise. But I wonder now, in light of the statement from the Authors Guild, if maybe it's based on fear of backlash from publishers who might see text-to-speech as an infringement of audio rights.

What a crazy business. I suppose one day computer synthesized voices, combined with AI-comprehension of a book's content, could produce a sufficiently expressive reading that it might compete with a true audiobook. But that seems unlikely in the foreseeable future.

For now, my basic position is, whatever gets people buying and reading books (both e- and p-) is probably good. Whatever gets in the way of it is almost certainly bad.

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Thursday, February 05, 2009

Do Free Downloads Sell Books?

This, of course, is the question that many authors want the answer to (and also blog-reader Tim, in a comment to my last post). If you believe the Cory Doctorow and John Scalzi school, the answer is clearly yes; others remain skeptical. Publishers range from scared to enthusiastic.

For me, this is an ongoing experiment. The first part was a no-brainer: the first three Chaos Chronicles books were out of print, so it was unquestionably better to get them in front of readers and get them interested in the series. For that part of the experiment, the results are an unqualified—but also unquantified—success. There have been about 15,000 downloads of those books from my own site, with more from feedbooks, manybooks, mobileread, and now the Baen Free Library. Many people have written me, saying they tried my work for the first time with those freebies and liked what they found. Some of them said it prompted them to go out and buy a copy of Sunborn in hardcover. Hurray!

But wait just a minute. How many extra copies of Sunborn did it sell? Three? Three hundred? How many sales did I lose because I put it up for free in PDF? Truth: I don't know. In the first place, it's not like I actually get detailed information about sales; this remains one of the dark sides of publishing, the dearth of actual data coming back to the writer. (Sure, eventually I'll see totals on a royalty sheet. But that can take years.) Just as important, though, is a question that no one can answer: how many would I have sold without the free downloads. The series was out of the public eye for years. I was out of the public eye for years. I have no doubt the sales picture could have been grim. As it is, from what I'm told, Sunborn is selling at least as well as its predecessor in the stores, Eternity's End. (BSG is a side trip, and doesn't really count.)

So what do the publishers make of all this? Well, Tor and Baen both seem to embrace the notion of giving books away as a means to selling more. Tor has had free download promotions from time to time, and Baen has their ongoing free library. On the other hand, I recently had an email exchange with a fellow writer whose new book is on the Nebula preliminary ballot. His publisher was reluctant to let him send out an electronic reading copy or to put a PDF up even on the members only SFWA site, for fear I guess of piracy. This, to me, makes no sense. If a book is published, chances are it'll be up on the darknet regardless. Better to get people reading it and talking about it.

Tim mentioned the music and film industries as examples of reluctance. The thing is, they're coming around. Amazon offers free MP3 music downloads. Itunes has a free song of the week. The networks put their TV shows up on the web for free. (That's how I'm catching up on Chuck, which I missed in favor of Sarah Connor Chronicles, back when they were on at the same time. And that's even how I'm seeing Battlestar Galactica—on Free On Demand!) And web comics—free. What that may imply for a business model for earning an income from writing is a much bigger question—a topic for another post, maybe.

Bottom line for me: I can't guarantee that my books will sell better because I'm offering them for free download. The truth is, I may never know. But I don't think I'm hurting sales, and right now, the enemy with the name Obscurity written on its back is a far bigger threat to me than the chance that some people are reading my books for free.

And wasn't the hope that people would read my books the reason I wrote them in the first place?

"You must keep sending work out; you must never let a manuscript do nothing but eat its head off in a drawer. You send that work out again and again, while you're working on another one. If you have talent, you will receive some measure of success—but only if you persist." —Isaac Asimov

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Free BSG Download and Other News

With Battlestar Galactica now in the final stretch of its glorious and slightly insane odyssey, I asked for and received permission to put my novelization of the miniseries, titled—wouldn't you know it—Battlestar Galactica, up for free download on my web site. And so I have, and there you can get it for your reading pleasure. I've got it in PDF and EPUB formats. The Mobipocket version is on sale in the Kindle store. Naturally, I hope a few of you might be inspired to buy the paper book, still available here and there. But mostly I just wanted to share the fun.

In other download news, the first three books of The Chaos Chronicles have just gone up for download in the Baen Free Library. (If you already have the Chaos books from my web site, there's no reason to redownload; they're the same book files, copied over with my permission.) If you don't know the Baen Free Library, it's a wonderful resource to help people get a taste of work by authors they might not know, in ebook form—and it's got a lot of great classic SF by people like Andre Norton and James Schmitz. Check it out.

Meanwhile, I'm now proofing the text for the ebook version of Seas of Ernathe, my very first novel. There's a trip down (fading) memory lane! That writer kid, he has promise, I think.

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