Friday, March 7, 2008

Is writing a zero-sum game?

I can't count the number of times I've heard writers make statements along the lines of "If people weren't wasting their time on XX's books, then they'd have time to read mine." More generally, many writers complain about the success of other writers and attribute their own lower sales to the higher sales of those others. This sort of discussion begs the question, is writing a zero-sum game?

The answer is complicated and comes in multiple parts:

1) Some aspects are zero-sum.
2) Some aspects are not.
3) The question is irrelevant.

What parts of writing are zero-sum? That's easy: readers' time, readers' money, and, most importantly, marketing resources.

Even the most fervent readers among us can consume only so many books per year.

Budget is also a factor for many readers, though for many others it is not. Books still represent, per hour, an above average entertainment bargain for most people.

Marketing resources are actually a far more important finite resource. Publishers have budget limits; what they spend on A, they cannot spend on B. Bookstores have room for a finite number of books at the front of the store. And so on. All of these limits are somewhat flexible for the right book, but in general, they apply.

The part of writing that is not zero-sum is hard to quantify but boils down to this: there always seems to be room for another bestselling book. Regardless of what you think of it, no sane person can argue that The Da Vinci Code sold huge quantities. Equally inarguable is the fact that Brown's previous sales would never have led you to estimate the sales of that one book correctly. Some bestsellers are predictable (e.g., whatever King writes next), but many are not.

The most important point, though, is the last: this entire issue is the wrong focus for writers. We cannot control our sales. One can make a good case that even the most fervent promoters among us can barely nudge the needle with their efforts. When we worry about these things--as, unfortunately, all writers do--all we ultimately do is bring pain to ourselves.

The proper focus of all writers is the work itself. Decide what you're going to write, do the best job you can, and then hope for the best. Sure, feel free to help with marketing and cajole publishers and all the rest--I'm embarrassed to admit that I do, most of us do--but when you really want to accomplish something, shut up, write, and try to create the best work you can.

The only thing with a chance of lasting is the work; the rest is fleeting.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Almost there

Late last night, I finished the first pass of the outline of Overthrowing Heaven. I still have to go through my sixty or so pages of handwritten notes to make sure I didn't omit any key stuff, then make a pass over the outline, and then run it by Dave, but I am now in sight of completing this phase of the book.

I have to say that taking three months to reach this point has left me feeling like quite a failure; it's never taken me so long to outline a novel. On the other hand, I think the book will be signficantly stronger than it would have been had I begun writing a month ago, and my ultimate loyalty is to the work.

To which I will now return.

A word from Sarah--and more

And now, a word from Sarah:

You should listen to "Impossible" - the Shout Out Louds.

She forgot to mention that I completely pwned her tonight in RPS.

Okay, honesty compels me to admit that I wrote the above sentence before the nightly tournament. In fact, I lost, bringing my losing streak to three (and, says Sarah, "bitter tears to my eyes"). No tears, but I'm not happy.

And yet more bad prose from Sarah: Celebrated author, Mark Van Name, fell to his knees, looked up at the gods, and said, "A losing streak of three! Why me? Dear lord in heaven, why am I made to suffer so? Why am I made to be inferior to my daughter, as Apollo is said to be inferior to Cupid in Ovid's tale, 'Daphne and Apollo?'" Sarah then asked that I please note that despite the purple prose, she is "edumacated." Wow, as a father I am so very proud in this moment.

On a more realistic and happy note, the ARCs of Slanted Jack have arrived at Baen and are going out to reviewers soon. The ARCs look good, and I'm quite pleased. Those who have wanted a bigger book will be please to note that each of these weighs in at a hefty 348 pages, about 50 more than One Jump Ahead.

Based on the outline to date, I think Overthrowing Heaven will be even bigger. I am very, very close to finishing pass one of the outline, so this ordeal is drawing to a close. Last night, I outlined the climax, and I'm digging it. I hope you will, too.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

The rain is glorious

The skylights in my office are ringing under the onslaught of the serious storm that is bringing much-needed rain to our area. I took Holden out to do business and stood in the wet night air, my sinuses thankful for the moisture. Standing in the rain probably wasn't the best thing I could have done for my lingering flu, but I could not resist the opportunity.

My favorite storms are those at the beach, when the clouds attack from offshore as if they are dragging part of the ocean with them, but any good storm will do in a pinch. Each one evokes a primal, unchained, unrestrained passion that I find irresistible. So lovely, so rich, so powerful.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Two things I’ve never seen before

So struck was I by two things I witnessed in the Denver airport today that I’m writing this entry on the plane home, with much of the day still ahead of me and the fate of my luggage up in the air. If something else remarkable happens, I may do an addendum, but for now I’m going to assume this entry will stand for the day.

Morning arrived as a mixed blessing. On the good side, I slept better than I have since I left home: four hours straight before awakening, and another stretch of three hours. The bad news was that despite keeping the heat off, the lack of a humidifier left me with a nose so clogged I could barely breathe through it and lips split and bloody.

I worked, took a long shower, worked some more, and rode the shuttle to the airport--all routine stuff for me on the road.

Airport security resembled a Disney ride line, with hundreds and hundreds of people ahead of us, but the TSA staffers were efficient and courteous, and my fellow travelers also generally behaved well. The wait was thus long but no more unpleasant than usual.

The first of the two unique events occurred after I had passed the ID check and while I was in line for the scanning machine. The woman in front of me, a petite thirty-something brunette in skin-tight blue jeans and a cream sweater so sheer and tight you could count the hooks in her bra strap (two), left the line to examine the trash barrel to our left. This barrel contained tons of things passengers remembered at the last second that they could not take through security. This woman slowed the line for almost two minutes as she dug through the trash and produced multiple items, which she then shoved into Baggies she had brought for the purpose. When she returned to the line, she must have caught the expression on my face, because she smiled, shrugged, and moved on.

The second event happened about a minute later. The archway through which I had to pass was serving two lines, ours and the one to the left. My turn was to come after a very large blond woman from the left line passed through it. This mid-thirties woman, who stood about my height and had to tip the scales somewhere north of three-fifty, wore all black and was dripping metal jewelry: three large earrings in each ear, multiple necklaces, a wide assortment of rings, and bracelets totaling at least three inches wide on each wrist. The security guy asked if she might like to take off some jewelry, but she shook her head, said she’d have no problems, and went through the detector.

It clanged.

The security guy smiled and said he’d now have to insist she take off all the jewelry. We all waited as she did, a process that understandably consumed more than a few moments. With a TSA bowl overflowing with jewelry now on its way through the scanner, she stepped through the detector.

It clanged again.

She said, “Oh, yeah!” and lifted her black sweater to expose an extremely large and very white stomach, at the apex of which sat the largest piece of belly jewelry I have ever seen. In my opinion, navel piercings on women can be very pretty, even quite sexy--but only on certain stomachs. As someone who is simply too fat himself, I am reluctant to criticize anyone’s weight, but I do believe that once you pass a certain size navel piercing is probably not a good idea. This woman obviously disagreed with my assessment, which in and of itself matters not at all, but the sheer size of her navel jewelry stunned me. It began with a large stone that sat atop a triangle of steel. Hanging from the bottom side of the triangle were strings of jewels, beads, and so on. From navel to bottom the contraption had to run at least five inches, and it was easily five or six inches wide at the bottom. Once she took it out, dropped it in a second white plastic bowl, and ran it through the machine, she passed easily through the security check.

Rarely do I experience such entertainment before 9:45 in the morning.

Addendum: Two items seem worthy of note.

First, all of my luggage arrived on the flight with me. The United luggage-handling folks had somehow managed to completely rip the cool name tag from the TED bag, but otherwise everything was intact.

Second, as a simple measure of the conference’s power, consider this: while discussing stories of two of the sessions, emotion so overcame me that I choked up and teared up. An amazing time.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Travel 1, me 0

Travel kicked my ass today.

The 5:45 a.m. wake-up call brought to an end another night of bad sleep in Aspen. Not once in my stay at the otherwise lovely Aspen Institute did I sleep a full two hours in a row. Today was no different.

I was at the front desk ready to go at 6:25, per the plan. The snow, unfortunately, was well ahead of me.

We stood in the long check-in line at the Aspen airport, made it in what looked like a close call but proved to be anything but, and then did the usual security crawl.

That was about as much fun as we had the rest of the day.

We ended up sitting in the terminal until around noon, at which point they booked us onto a plane that might be leaving for Denver ahead of our original (7:55 a.m. scheduled departure) flight. People greatly outnumbered seats, so sometimes we sat, other times we stood. I drank a bottle of water and a bottle of Diet Coke, but I didn't eat in the stupid belief that the time estimates the airport staff were making had some validity. I really can't blame them; no one can control the weather.

We boarded our commuter jet--and sat for three hours on the tarmac. First, we had to get our turn with the one de-icing truck. Our chance came, but the truck was out of fluid. By the time it filled up, we had rotated to the back of the three-plane queue. We finally got our shot, but the truck ran out mid-way through, so we waited some more. When our de-icing was complete, we went out onto the runway and the pilot announced that we had less than the mandatory two miles of visibility, but that visibility was coming and going, so we were going to hope for the best. We had a fifteen-minute window during which visibility could hit two miles and we could take off. After that, we would return to the end of the de-icing queue. Fortunately, about ten minutes into the window we took off.

The plane was jammed, as you would expect. My bag wouldn't fit under the seat in front of me because the guy in front of me had filled that space with his extra stuff. He refused to move it when I asked nicely, and by this point I was afraid that asking less nicely might take me and this man to bad places, so I shut up and perched in leg-cramping postures on my briefcase. The young man next to me fell asleep and twitched, each twitch causing him to elbow me in the side. I considered speaking, but by then I feared I would not be able to be nice. So, I reminded myself of many worse situations I've experienced, worked on breathing slowly and deeply, and took the discomfort and annoyance. I tried to lose myself in the book I was reading (Gibson's Spook Country), but unfortunately I finished it too early. I had a spare book, of course, as well as a notebook PC, but I could reach neither due to the crowding. I worked on the Overthrowing Heaven outline in my mind and fought for self-control.

The flight, though often bumpy and continually unpleasant, lasted less than forty-five minutes. We taxied a while, made it off the plane--the joy of personal space awaiting all of us--and walked quite some way to the nearest United Customer Service Center. It was, of course, thronged.

After about an hour and a half, maybe two, in line there--I intentionally never checked the time and concentrated on being pleasant--we made it to the front of the queue. A very pleasant United agent then said that our options were a red-eye on Frontier or the same flight Monday that we were supposed to have taken on Sunday. Work awaits, and we wanted to be home, so we opted for the red-eye. No such luck; it was full. So, tomorrow we spend most of the day flying home. I lost my aisle seat, of course, so I get to spend over four hours in a middle seat. Still, that's tomorrow's problem, not today's.

Our luggage was basically unavailable. The man said we could try to get our bags from baggage claim, but that doing so would take at least two hours and most likely much more. We gave up on that option and choose to have them send the luggage to Raleigh with us. I don't expect to see my bags tomorrow, but so it goes; with luck, we'll all get our belongings one day soon.

We then needed rooms. Calling around was not a good option, because my phone's battery was running low and the charger was--where else?--in my checked bag. Gina came to our rescue and found us rooms at the rather nice Denver Airport Marriott, which is, in the way of big-city airport hotels, fifteen minutes from the airport. A forty-buck cab ride later, we announced ourselves at the registration desk--where the clerk said we had no reservation. I trusted Gina to have been right, and she had given us confirmation numbers, so we pushed back, and the clerk dug through some alternate reservation systems. He finally found the room reservations; the original clerk had entered my name as "VAN/NAME/MARK", thus confusing their system.

I've been working in my room for some time. I have no change of clothing, and my garments are on the funky side, so I am airing my socks--which leaves my exposed feet rather cold. If I warm the room, my sinuses will pay, so I decided to live with the cold. My feet became too cold to tolerate easily, however, so I adapted to my environment: wrapping one's feet in a large bath towel will keep them quite warm.

I unfortunately then discovered that getting so absorbed in your work that you stand and move quickly with your feet tightly wrapped can lead to amusing acrobatics. Fortunately, neither the glass of water nor the glass of Diet Pepsi spilled, and the notebook is safe. I will now pay more attention to my feet when I stand.

I have not eaten in twenty-four hours, and my day has sucked, but I am current enough on my work to suffice, and if this is the worst that life has to give me, I am lucky indeed. Or so I try to tell myself.

Time for calls home and then too much dinner, as I stress eat, but with luck at least the food will taste good. I hate the lack of self-control that leads me to overeat in situations like this, but I need an outlet right now, and that's the easiest one available.

I look forward to being home.


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