Heading off to WorldCon and a Few Writing Updates

pocket-programI’m heading off to WorldCon this morning. I haven’t been since 2000 in Chicago, mostly because of the kids and the difficulty of travelling. Now, of course, the kids are older, and this year it’s just down the road in San Antonio. I’m definitely looking forward to it, but at the same time, I have to admit I’m a little disappointed in the programming.

You see, in all my years of going to SF/F conventions, I’ve often attended the writer-centric panels. They tended to be split between the craft itself and a dozen different ways of asking the question, “How do I get published?” I’m still interested in the panels discussing the craft of writing, but I’m no longer interested in the panels on getting published. I chose to go indie, so I’m not particularly interested in tips on crafting an agent query letter.

But I figured that with self-publishing (or indie publishing as the cool kids say) on the rise, there would be some panels talking about that. Well, no, it turns out there aren’t any. The closest it comes is what looks to be a defense of traditional publishing with all the agents, editors, and publishers holding the line and a separate discussion on the transition from print books to e-books, though not about the business changes that represents.

Meanwhile, I have seen estimates that anywhere from 10%- 30% of the SF stories being read today are by independent authors like myself. A quick glance at Amazon’s top 20 SF books shows me that about half of them are from indie authors. Mind you, this is across all SF books, not just SF e-books. Amazon represents about half of the US book market, so even if you cut that ten of twenty in half, you still have about 25% of those top sellers coming from the indie world. (A brief note to statisticians: I realized this is a very rough estimate, but there are no real, solid numbers available on this anywhere.)

Apparently, whoever did the programming for this year’s WorldCon didn’t get the memo. I can’t entirely blame them though. Most of their main guests and headliners come from the ranks of traditional publishing. This is sure to affect their mindset. Then again, with the commercial success of Wool, it might not be that long before an indie shows up on the fan-based Hugo ballot.

Still, there’s plenty to see and do, so I’m looking forward to it.

As for the rest of the writing, August was something of a crap-fest, particularly towards the end. I have special needs children, and their needs became, well… extra special this month. The last Friday before school, we put two and two together and have made a change to one of the medications, and that is already paying some dividends. And of course, they’re now officially back in school, granting me hours of kid-free time each day to do productive work.

And what work have I done so far? I confess much of this week has been spent on catching up on some administrivia that had nothing to do with writing. I sold off an old flatbed trailer. I dealt with some insurance issues for my mother. And quite lamely, I paid the water bill just in time to keep it from being disconnected. But I’m at least gearing up again. Here’s the current state of various projects:

Shattered: Draft done and lying fallow for the next few months.

Stone Killer: I’m about 40% of the way through at 32,000 words. I’m hoping to wrap it up sometime in September.

Hell Bent: I’m still waiting on the rest of my beta feedback. I’ve gotten three out of the six so far, and while it’s generally been good, I’ve got a pacing problem in the first third that I haven’t figured out how to fix yet.

Debts of My Fathers: It’s still in edits. I found this particularly hard to work on with the kids home in summer. Drafting new words was easier by comparison, because I could do that on my laptop. In fact, much of the new text for Shattered and Stone Killer was written in the early morning, down in the kitchen, while I cooked large batches of my picky son’s favorite food. Alas, I have to edit in my office where I can spread out with my printed copy and hand-written notes. Long-story short: I did not get much good editing time in my office this summer.

Oaths of My Fathers: It’s still in pre-draft limbo. I will attempt to get started on it once I had Debts of My Fathers off to the beta readers, and I will want to finish it before I send Debts to the copyeditor.

You may note that I left the dates off those. Well, they’ve slipped since my original estimates in June – I’m just not sure how much yet. Debts of My Fathers is the priority since I have readers asking for it, and I still hope to get that out around the end of the year or the beginning of 2014. Hell Bent, which is actually further along will very likely wait until after Debts of My Fathers is out the door. As one friend recently said, I’ve primed the pump for chocolate, so I need to deliver more chocolate before I send out the mint.

That’s it for now.

The Last Day of Summer

summervacationToday is the last day of summer at my house. A purist would say summer doesn’t end until September 21st. Some of my fellow Texans would say summer doesn’t end until the high for the day is below 90 degrees Fahrenheit for five days in a row – in other words, November. And I have a few friends in the southern hemisphere who tell me summer won’t even start until December. But around here, today is the last weekday of summer vacation, and right now, that trumps every other measure.

It was the same when I was a kid. That last Friday before schools started was the last day of summer. Technically, yeah, I know it wasn’t even the last day of summer vacation – that being Sunday or the occasional Labor Day Monday when we started late – but either way, the last Friday was the last day that counted. The weekends were days that we would not have been in school anyway. (Strangely though, summer vacation began four nanoseconds into the first oscillation of that final bell at school, regardless of which day of the week it was.)

All of that is to say that my kids go back to school on Monday. This has been a hard summer at my house, particularly this last month. My boys on the autistic spectrum have been having a hard time. The eldest had his routines disrupted in late July by some extended family visits, and that has had repercussions on everything from whether he’ll sleep in his room to his toilet use. Meanwhile, my youngest has been having some serious freak-out that we now suspect is an adverse reaction to a medication change that started in May. And in the middle our daughter has been, well, caught in the middle of it, having a rough time with the turbulence.

Yeah, I know, folks complain about kids as a reason to get in the way of everything from cleaning house to writing the great American novel, but anyone who has spent much time at my house knows that my kids are a greater challenge than most. I love them and everything, but they can pretty much consume my universe when things get bad. That was my summer from about July 20 onwards.

Anyway, my writing took a hit. The blog has been largely silent, and I’m behind on edits and new drafts. I’m not promising to be back at full productivity by Monday morning, but things should turn around shortly. Sorry for silence here on the blog, and my apologies to those waiting for the next installment in the Father Chessman saga.

So, see you on Monday. In the meantime, I’m off to make sure the kids aren’t setting anything (or anyone) on fire.

Still on haitus for a bit…

Summer at home with the kids is proving more challenging as the weeks go by, and I’ve been making the novels my priority over blogging as the insanity ramps up.  On the other hand, my 9-year-old daughter is no longer merely asking “What are your writing?”  Instead, she’s asking how the book is coming, and she’s remembering the titles that I’m working on.

Little Galileo

I bought my daughter a telescope for Christmas. It’s a 70mm refraction telescope with a 9x and 25x eyepieces. I confess I’d been hankering for something bigger, maybe in the 4-6 inch reflecting range, but they were much pricier, and all the reviews pointed to this as an excellent starter telescope. I also knew it was powerful enough to see Saturn’s rings.

So, we put it together, confirmed that the red-dot viewfinder was properly aligned, and waited for a clear night. And waited. And waited. That last week of December was pretty cloudy here in central Texas, but it did clear eventually, so we grabbed the telescope and headed out into the frigid night — well, at least as cold as it gets in this part of Texas, i.e. about 25F.

I had not done any preparation or research. I had no plan of observation. I had no star charts. Even the little star-map app on my phone was a bust since my phone is pretty poor at detecting its own orientation. But I figured we could just go out, point the telescope at some light in the night sky, and see what it was, a bit like those astronomers of the early 1600’s. Even with me living somewhat out in the country, they probably had much less light pollution than I did, but the quality of my optics were vastly better than theirs.

First of all, with 70mm of light-gathering aperture, the moon is way too bright to look at. Seriously. It wasn’t quite “do not look at moon with remaining eye, but I could see the moonlight blasting out of the eyepiece, illuminating dust particles. So, I gave up on any direct moon observations until we could add some kind of dark moonlight-filter to the setup.

Then I pointed it at some bright light about 20 degrees above the horizon. I used the viewfinder to line it up, then peered through the eyepiece only to find it empty. I looked through the viewfinder again to see that I was off target. I figured I must have bumped it, so I lined it up again, went to look, and damn, still nothing there. By the time I went to line it up again, I could actually see the thing moving. It was an airplane.

By this point, my nine-year-old daughter’s excitement is turning to impatience. It was literally — yes, literally — freezing out there, and all she had gotten for her troubles so far was to watch me play with her Christmas present.

I looked up at the sky, trying to find something interesting. I saw the constellation of Orion, and remembered something vague about how one of the stars in Orion’s belt was actually a nebula, or maybe a galaxy. Or was that in the sword hanging down from the belt? My daughter started pacing to stay warm.

A little bit up north from Orion, however, was a particularly bright light. I knew my compass directions well enough to know it wasn’t Polaris, so I figured there was a decent chance it was a planet. Given how far it was from the now-set sun, I knew it couldn’t be Mercury or Venus, and its color did not make me think of the red Martial soil at all. I didn’t think Uranus or Neptune could be seen with the naked eye, so I figured it was Jupiter or Saturn. Either one should make for an interesting peek.

So I pointed the telescope up, got down on the concrete of the driveway and peered through the viewfinder. I got the red-dot lined up on the bright light and took a look through the eyepiece.

For the first time, I was rewarded with not a blank field or some blinding moon. It wasn’t even a point anymore. It was a circle. It wasn’t a giant disk with swirling clouds and a big red dot, but it was clearly a circle. There were no rings, either, but this was clearly a planet, not some distant star.

I fine-tuned the position controls to center it, and handed it over to my daughter. “I think that’s Jupiter,” I told her.

Jupiter4moonsShe looked through it and waved her arms in excitement. I told her to be careful not to bump the telescope, and she calmed down and peered some more. Eventually she stood, looked back up at the point in the sky and asked, “What are those dots next to it?”

I looked up and only saw a scattering of other stars. “What dots?”

“In the telescope,” she said. “There are dots next to Jupiter.”

So I sat down on the ground and looked in the eyepiece again. Sure enough, there were four dots around Jupiter, two on each side, evenly spaced. I realized I had noticed them before but dismissed them as some optical artifact between the telescope lenses and my contact lenses. The spacing and arrangement was just too regular to be anything else. Or maybe I’ve just seen too many lens flare effects in recent Sci-Fi movies.

But no matter how much I blinked, the dots did not go away. Eventually they started drifting up out of the view as the Earth rotated, so I used the fine-tuning controls to bring them back into view. They were still there. I angled my head one way and another, but no matter what I did, they remained persistently visible and kept themselves aligned the same way.

That’s when it hit me. These were not optical artifacts. These were the four big moons of Jupiter: Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto.

“They’re moons,” I told her. “Those are four of Jupiter’s moons.”

“Jupiter has moons?” she asked incredulously.

“Yes,” I told her all proud of passing on this knowledge, but then I realized that she was the one who had spotted them, not me. I had dismissed them as tricks of the light, but she had noticed them and wanted to know what they were. “They’re the four biggest moons of Jupiter, and you just discovered them.

She looked back through the telescope again solemnly. “Moons… cool.”

GalileoSince then, we’ve talked about how Galileo first saw them through his telescope just over 400 years ago. We’ve gone looking since, and seen them with different spacing, including seeing only three, figuring that one was either in front of or behind Jupiter. I’m trying to explain to her how you can discern that these different observations allowed Galileo to discern that they were circling Jupiter. The theological and political implications of that in what was then still officially an Earth-centered universe will have to wait until she’s a little older.

It’s easy for us to think of those early astronomers like Galileo as epic figures, locked in a struggle against the stratified philosophies of the universe. Yet, at the heart of it, he was just a curious fellow who asked the same question my little girl just asked. “Just what are those dots next to Jupiter?”

Birthday Wishes

Today is my birthday, in memory of my mom’s hours in labor, I decided to give most the USA the day off: Labor Day.  (Forgive me, but I only get to make that joke about once in seven years…)

Friends and family often ask me what I want for my birthday, and I usually have no idea. Or rather, I have plenty of ideas, just very few that people can buy in a store.

My wife got me some desperately needed new pocket t-shirts… which I inadvertently swiped from the laundry this morning before she had gotten the chance to wrap them. And then I think my 8-year-old daughter is getting me a new pair of reading glass, since I think I need to step up a bit from these +1.25 glasses.

These are all good, but what I find myself really pining for are things like:

  • More time to write.
  • Fewer bills.
  • More book sales, or failing that, more book reviews from the sales I already made.
  • New knees, or failing that, fifty pounds less for them to be carrying around all day.
  • Better communication with my autistic son.
  • The audacity to tell a particular idol that he’s full of shit.
  • A chance to go back and do a few things differently.
  • Star Wars prequels that don’t suck.
  • One more day with my father.

Those things don’t come in a store.

But this didn’t either. I got to spend an hour today throwing paper airplanes with my 8-year-old twins. I chose a design with a heavy blunt nose, vertical stabilizers, and wing flaps that all combine to provide a lot of lift. I couldn’t quite get it to do a loop like I’d remembered it could, but they’ve been sending it around it long spiraling circles, sending it down the stairs, and having a blast. All from a few pieces of paper and one innocent little question, “Daddy, how do you make a paper airplane?”

But I’ll like the shirts and glasses, too.

[A late addendum: My daughter had been hinting all day at a “big surprise, so bright you’ll need your sunglasses!”  After the presents, I got my sunglasses as instructed, and she took me outside for the surprise.  She told me she had discovered how pretty the sunsets are by looking out her window, and she wanted to surprise me by sharing this wonderful fact with me, that sunsets are beautiful.  Wait for it…. awwwwwwww!]

Apollo Made Science Cool

Today is the 43rd anniversary of Apollo 11’s landing on the moon. There’s nothing magic about the number 43, but it’s the first time it’s rolled around since I started my blog. Apparently, that’s enough for me to get my soapbox out. So, this is me, getting up on that soapbox:

The space race, from Mercury through Apollo, made science cool. It wasn’t all white-coats, beakers, and blackboards. It was fiery rockets going to fantastic places. It was making maps and looking over the horizon. Fill up that extra oxygen tank, Sparky, because we’re heading out in the morning!

Now science seems to be about smaller computers, cosmological models, new materials, and better batteries. Even something as cool as the discovery of the Higgs boson fails to connect with the common man. More to the point, it fails to connect with the common kid.

I was born in 1967, and while I don’t remember it, I’m told I was on my daddy’s knee when Neil Armstrong took that one small step. My older brother remembers more of the space race, but I still grew up knowing that men were going up to the moon and doing stuff there.

I watched the final return from Spacelab on my grandmother’s TV, and I saw the launch of Viking II from the balcony of a Florida motel. And in a curator-curdling act, I stretched my little arm past the velvet rope and touched the Apollo 11 capsule in the Smithsonian. This was not some vague extrapolation of the Standard Model of particle physics. It was something I experienced in a very real and visceral way.

So, of course, I wanted to be an astronaut. At the age of seven, I did not really know what that entailed, but I knew that all this stuff about going into space required scientists, engineers, and mathematicians. So studies of English, social studies, and other soft stuff fell by the wayside as I pushed myself into whatever I could find that was at least a little scientific.

Ultimately, I found my proficiency for math and computer programming, and while I never even tried for a job at NASA, I did end up writing software used to design many of the vehicles that have been launched into space in the last two decades. It was also used to design bridges, houses, planes, and computers, but it was not the notion of writing useful design software that sparked my interest as a kid. It was the bold adventure of heading off into space. Even now, I hold out some tiny hope that I might someday make it at least into orbit on some tourism venture.

People debate about the costs and benefits of the old space race. The cost blew through all estimates, and the quoted benefits are often limited to such mundane things as velcro and tang. A deeper look adds advances to such fields as computers, telecommunications, and material sciences, but even with those we face the argument that we could have achieved those advances with earth-bound research initiatives at a fraction of the cost.

But what people rarely talk about is that going to the moon made science cool to millions of kids like me. My story of spaceflight inspiration is hardly unique in my generation, and while only a fraction of us went on into the so-called STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics), a lot of us did. I haven’t been able to lay my hands on the actual numbers, but I’ve seen a few graphs to suggest that the percentage of US bachelor degrees in STEM fields peaked in the mid-80’s and has been in decline ever since. In other words, that surge in the percentage of STEM graduates was from that generation of kids who grew up watching Neil Armstrong walk on the moon.

These days, there is a lot of talk about increasing the number of STEM graduates here in the US. We’re told we need it to remain competitive in the global economy. Proposals abound on how to fix this, and they’re all about education reform, industry involvement, and tuition incentives.

Yet I haven’t heard a single proposal about inspiration. No one is talking about lighting that fire to make kids want to explore science in the first place. That’s not a decision we make when graduating high school. It’s not even a decision we make when we’re going into high school. I think that decision is made somewhere deep inside when we’re seven or eight years old. It lights a fuse inside, and it keeps us going until we’re blowing up chemistry labs and crashing mom’s computer.

Meanwhile, humans heading out past Earth’s orbit has become something we talk about with nostalgia. Kids don’t see it happening on TV. It’s in old movies with retro music and in conversations between adults that begin with “Remember when…” The only time politicians talk about renewing manned exploration of the heavens, it’s always an initiative to bear fruit in eight to twelve years, i.e. long after we’ve forgotten the promise and when it has become the next guy’s problem.

So, here’s my idea. Yes, do what we can to make science education better, but do something to spark that fire in little kids. This is not a solution for boosting STEM graduates in ten years. It’s probably won’t even help much in fifteen or twenty years. But if we step up and send people to Mars in ten years, it would produce a generation of scientists that would put my own generation to shame.

If you want more scientists, do something to make science cool again. Go to Mars and do more than leave a boot print.