Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Embracing the New Technology - Part II

My Kindle 3 was delivered yesterday. Even though I know the UPS truck gets to my neighborhood after 5:00 PM, I didn’t want to leave the house. What if it was early? What if I needed to sign for the package? Every time a heavy vehicle went by, I looked up from my desk to glance out the window. As it turned out, I was up to my wrists in bread dough when the doorbell rang at about 5:40. I almost ran down the dog trying to get to the front door.

Although I’ve been self-publishing through Kindle and Smashwords for a while now, I really had no idea what a Kindle would look like. I don’t have any close friends who own one (yet), and so far they’re not available in retail stores around here.

As recently as five years ago, I was one of the many readers who said you’ll have to pry my print books out of my cold, dead hands. I couldn’t see the point of an e-reader, and my only experience with trying to read a digital book was something I uploaded to my Palm Pilot. A really crummy way to read anything, especially when a person reaches that certain age—the one of presbyopia, or nearsightedness.

So what do I think of the Kindle?  WOW! This is amazing! It does so many things, certainly more than I expected. And there’s a learning curve here to figure it all out. But I’m very impressed.

Those of you who already own one are nodding. Those of you who don’t probably share my previous opinion of this whole business. Trust me, you might change your minds yet.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Who Did You Say You Are?

    Writers have different techniques to flesh out characters. Some use a list or fill out a form that reminds me of some of the job applications companies used in the bad old days (before they were told they couldn’t do it anymore): physical description, religion, background, moral and philosophical viewpoints, political leanings, best and worst life moments, social organizations, best and worst qualities, etc. Or writers will use sketches on index cards, a check list, and so on. I tried these approaches, but usually came up with pretty silly responses. For example, under the column of “best qualities,” because it seemed vague and generic to me, I groped for entries. One time all I could think of was, “Can hold his breath for two minutes.” Wow. That was a big help. And not even true.
    These particular methods are great, but not for me.
    In my mind’s eye, my characters are all famous actors so I know what they look like. Occasionally I'll use the random neighbor or other real-life person as a secondary. (For the villain in Homeward Hearts, I used a UPS delivery guy who was an especial pain to deal with.) I’m working on the early chapters of a book, the characters of which I thought I knew. A couple of them haven’t been cooperating though, and sometimes the best way to handle this is through interrogation, um, I mean a character interview. It’s a kind of Ouija board Q&A, in that if I can think of the right questions, the resulting answers are not only helpful but can be surprising.
    1.  What is your name? (That much I usually know but it gets the ball rolling, and seems like the polite thing to do.)
    2.  What is happening right now in your life?
    3.  How did you get to this point?
    4.  How will you fix this problem?
    5.  Do you wish you had done things differently? How?
    6.  What’s the one thing I can give you that you’d like above all else?
    7.  What do you fear I’ll do to your part of the story?       

     And so it goes. The questions always vary, depending on how problematic the character is and how important to the rest of the book.
    Ah, I see one of them has arrived for her appointment. Let’s see what she has to tell me.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Embracing the New Techology

    Whoa—look at that! Here it comes and it’s moving fast! (No, not Christmas, but that holiday will surely be involved again this year.) I’m talking about the e-book revolution, flying straight at us.
    True, e-books have been hovering around for years and in several incarnations. I first saw one about fifteen years ago and it was on an autographed floppy disc. There followed a few dedicated e-readers that tried to get the niche off the ground but human readers weren’t quite ready for the change—maybe those electronic gizmos weren’t either. I looked at wikipedia.com and found this article: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comparison_of_e-book_readers  It lists a surprising number of existing e-readers that most of us have probably never even heard of, and some extinct ones as well.
    Online publishers like Elora’s Cave, Samhain Publishing, and many others have offered e-books and POD books, and traditional publishers offered their own authors’ books as one more format, like audio books, in addition to printed books.
    Then the Kindle came along. At the beginning, I wasn’t excited about it. The price was prohibitive, $359 for the Kindle 2, and knowing better than to be the first kid on the block to own any new technology, I stayed on the sidelines to watch the parade. By Christmas of 2009, the price had dropped to $259. Just recently, a new generation was announced (the one on backorder to me) with two prices, $189 for the 3-G/Wi-Fi, and $139 for Wi-Fi alone. These have a new color option—graphite—as well as white, and an improved display, which Amazon claims to be 50 percent better over its previous models.
    Added to the mix are the Nook from Barnes & Noble, Sony’s Reader, and the iPad from Apple which is also a computer. Then there are apps for smart phones, PDAs, and a lot of other devices.

   This years-old technology is finally an overnight sensation.
    What this means to the future of traditional print publishing is a hotly debated topic and since I left my crystal ball in the back of a closet, I’m going to stay out of it. Prognostication is a hit-and-miss practice in most cases. Personally, I don’t think this digital revolution will be the end of printed books. Even wild horses will not drag a lot of people to an e-reader, and for justifiable reasons. They love the feel, the scent, the paper, and the experience of reading a physical book. They are true bibliophiles. (For my part and with very few exceptions, I’ve never liked audio books.) And some books, such as cookbooks, or any material that is graphics-intensive, will not yet lend themselves to a dull black-and-white image. As time passes and e-readers continue to evolve, that will probably change.
    But here’s something I know for certain, and it’s the most exciting part of it all. Readers have been complaining for a long time about the limited sorts of fiction available via traditional publishing. One post I saw on a blog somewhere went so far as to say that rather than actually giving readers what they want, publishers convince readers that this is what they want. For marketing and financial reasons, publishers buy trend-intensive work from writers. All those vampire and erotica novels? Yes, there has been a strong demand for them, but not only them. This new literary epoch will let authors with good, strong stories about a variety things have the chance to take their work straight to the consumer, stories that have been or would have been rejected by agents and publishers as non-commercial. It won’t cost the writer much at all, the work can be reasonably priced, and everyone wins.
    Sure the downside is that I can’t do booksignings for a digital book and can’t meet my readers that way. I used to be able to walk into any big-box bookstore in the country to sign stock, give my name to the person at the cash register, and enjoy instant recognition. Those were wonderful experiences. And I’m not saying I will never do it again.
    But for the time being, this is working so well for me, I think I’ll stick with it. And to meet my readers, well, I’m guessing some enterprising individuals will come up with conferences where this can happen.
    Oh, I’m looking forward to the end of the month! That’s when my Kindle, my magic carpet ride to the future of books, is due to ship. What wonders I’m going to see . . .

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Sail On, Sailor

    I’m a fan of Deadliest Catch on the Discovery Channel, and it was my great privilege to meet Captain Phil Harris in the summer of 2008, only a few months after he suffered a pulmonary embolism. He was in Portland doing some promotional stuff which ultimately took him to a pretty gnarly pirate joint, and that was where I went to see him. It was the end of the day and he was tired, but he was the same humorous, tough-talking good sport we see on TV who was gracious enough to spend a few minutes talking with me.
    When he passed away this last February a friend called me at 9:00 AM, something my pals generally know not to do. But this was important. Captain Phil was dead. And although I didn’t know him, after watching him on TV for four years and then meeting him, it felt as if a friend had died following a massive stroke. In the past few weeks, the series has highlighted his determination to get back on his feet, and watching that made me feel like he had died again.
    Maybe one of the reasons I’m so interested in the show is because A Light For My Love, my second book published by NAL, was about seafaring merchant seamen and tall ships of the late 1800s. I read everything I could about it. I made two research trips to Astoria, Oregon and pored over their library. I read about sailors’ customs and superstitions—and I don’t think any line of work beats them when it comes to the minutia good luck-bad luck. I learned more stuff than I could ever use, but it was fascinating.
    After news of Captain Phil’s death was spread to the other crab boats that participate in the show, Captain Sig Hansen noticed a seagull sitting on the rail of the F/V Northwestern and did a kind of double-take. He said seagulls that appear at the instant of a sailor’s death are said to embody their spirits. I had even used that tidbit in A Light For My Love years before Deadliest Catch had been thought of.
    Although most of my books have been westerns, ALFML continues to hold a very special place in my heart. It’s a story about risk-taking and redemption, love and honor, a passion not only of man for a human woman and his mistress, the sea, but for the chance to right old wrongs.
    If you’ve seen it on Kindle, Smashwords, or some of the other e-book retailers, download a free sample and see what you think.
    The Seattle Fishermen’s Memorial is “dedicated to promoting safety in the fishing fleets and easing the burdens of the families and friends of fishermen/women lost at sea.”
    How similar in spirit is this mission statement to the prayer my heroine China Sullivan intones each night when she lights the lamp in her window that overlooks the Astoria harbor. “For all men gone to sea, living and lost. May you find the way back to your home port."
    Rest well, Captain Phil. We’ll miss you.