Thursday, November 19, 2009


Author Lynn Viehl has, for the second time, posted her sales and income figures for her novel TWILIGHT FALL on-line ( TWILIGHT FALL was a paperback original that spent a few weeks on the NEW YORK TIMES bestseller list in the paperback division. It has now gone through two royalty periods, and Viehl has posted both actual statements. She's brave to do this, since most writers do not share their numbers and would feel more comfortable discussing their sex life, drug history, or criminal records than their incomes.

Viehl is not just brave -- she's disgruntled. Her initial advance for the book was $50,000. Sales so far are about 61,000 copies, with the publisher holding back income against an estimated 7,500 more returns. She figures that after taxes, agents' fees, and "expenses," she earned about $25,000 for the year it took her to write the book.

However, even though this is an accurate depiction of why most writers have day jobs, it is not the whole story. Viehl says that she sells overseas copies through her blog, and has not yet had foreign-rights sales. For many authors (including me), the foreign-sales income eventually equals the advance for a book. It can be a very long "eventually;" I just sold Korean rights to a book published ten years ago. But if you keep on slogging, eventually you earn as much from overseas markets as from the English-speaking one.

In addition, authorship -- and I should think most especially NEW YORK TIMES bestseller authorship -- brings offers to teach workshops, give keynote addresses at writers' conferences, and speak to a variety of groups from schoolkids to old-age homes. This, too, generates income.

Finally, writers vary tremendously in how long it takes them to write a novel. Viehl gives the impression that she writes full-time, and needs a year for a book. Many of us (including me) are a bit faster, and manage to fit in short stories and/or articles as well in the course of a year.

Writers are all over the map in their incomes. Viehl's story is honest and interesting -- but readers should not assume it's universal.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Real Estate

I am selling a house. This is a bad time of year to be selling a house, and a bad market to be selling a house, and to make it worse, three of the twelve houses on my road are for sale at the same time. This is not the result of foreclosure or a suddenly discovered toxic dump, although it does give prospective buyers the impression that people are fleeing en masse from Mallards Landing. In fact, one sale is due to a divorce, one to a newly perceived need to own a barn, and one (mine) to a cross-country move.

On the plus side of selling right now is a bill passed by Congress to not only extend the $8,000 tax credit for first-time buyers, but to add a $6,500 tax credit for not-first-time buyers who have lived five of the last eight years in their previous houses. The rules say the sales contract must be signed by April. This is supposed to stimulate the economy and, one hopes, the people interested in my house.

So far, this has not happened. But so far is less than one week.

Meanwhile, I am editing my life. Getting rid of everything I don't use, wear, or read. There is an astonishing amount of all three. How does this happen? I think stuff must be cross-breeding in closets... but Avram Davidson already wrote that story, long ago. I will say this: Editing fiction is easier than editing belongings. With fiction, you just press DELETE. It's more complicated to dispose of several thousand books, a 30-cup coffee maker, articles one planned on reading "some day," duplicate spatulas, and that lovely dress whose discarding requires facing the hard truth that one will never again be a size 6.

Stay tuned for a breathless saga of real estate in financially difficult times.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Book Problem

I have a book problem, and I'm hoping someone out there has a solution. I am moving to Seattle (that's not the problem). Like most authors, when my hardcover books were remaindered by their publishers, I bought up a few hundred copies of each. New authors, especially, tend to get over-enthusiastic about this. So did my late husband, Charles Sheffield. As a result, my basement is full of literally, thousands of books that I do NOT want to ship to Seattle. I want to get them into the hands of readers. But how?

I have some donated to libraries and sold some at local used bookstores. But there are still so many books left (I think they're breeding). I don't want to sell them on-line, one by one, which involves more effort and time than I have. I can't seem to find any used bookstore that wants a huge number of the same titles. I will sell the entire lot very, very cheap. Does anyone know how I might do this? Or will I be reduced to leaving them all over town in small lots, like Johnny Appleseed sowing apples, until someone reports me for literary littering?

Desperation is starting to set in.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Cranky at the Movies

A few days ago I saw the new Coen brothers' movie, A SERIOUS MAN. Its effect on me was serious: It set me thinking about expectations in fiction plus the experience of reading/viewing it.

A SERIOUS MAN is based on the Bible book of Job, sort of. (WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD) Arthur is a nebbish to an extreme degree; he is pushed around by his wife, his wife's lover, his kids, his deadbeat brother, his macho neighbor, and his students at the college where he teaches and is up for tenure. But he tries to do the right thing. A student failing his physics class (the kid can't do mathematics) tries to bribe Arthur to give him a passing grade. When Arthur refuses the bribe, the student threatens him. Then so does the student's father. Arthur does not give in, but in true Job fashion, misfortune after misfortune befalls him anyway, involving all those people and, seemingly, the universe. Arthur continues to struggle on, doing the best he can, and eventually things turn around for him. So far, so good.

But in order to get money for both his brother and his own legal debts, Arthur eventually takes the bribe from the student. This happens during the last five minutes of the movie. Immediately his son is threatened by a tornado and Arthur is diagnosed with cancer. The end.

My problem with this is its unrelenting misery: Arthur is ground down into the dirt when he does good and when he does ill. He never gets a break. This doesn't seem like life as I know it, nor does it seem like rewarding fiction. I don't ask that protagonists be sympathetic (every single person in this movie is both unlikable and unattractive), nor that endings be "happy." But I do ask that fiction illuminate reality in some way that makes sense to me, either as effective mirror of what is or as an ideal of what could be. This movie does neither.

Sunday, November 8, 2009


Yesterday I attended a local con in Rochester, NY: Astronomicon. Guest of Honor was Mike Resnick, and his GOH speech was hilarious. He talked about past Worldcons, including the one where the Hugo bases had arrived in time for the ceremony but not the metal rocket ships which screw onto the bases. R.A. Lafferty won one. Later Mike and friends found him crawling under the table, very drunk, saying plaintively, "I think I might have won a Hugo, but i lost part of it!"

I did three panels, including one on "Alien Languages" and one of technology that SF promised us but which has not yet arrived ("Twitter My Jetpack.") I also attended a panel by Jill Nicholas and Alicia Henn called "Main "em Right." Jill, an ER and ICU nurse and Alicia, a microbiologist, answered questions from the audience on how to correctly injure your characters: What happens if someone is struck by lightening? Gets shot (various caliber guns)? What can pass the blood-brain barrier? What are emergency wilderness methods for dealing with a wound? The latter included peeing on it or, more appealingly, using honey. Both will help deal with infecting bacteria. You can also pack a wound with spider webs to give the blood something to clot over. First remove the spider.

Drinks in the bar with a crowd that included Rob Sawyer, who reported that he's very happy with the TV series based on his novel, Flash Forward. Indications are strong that it will be picked up for another season.

Dinner with Mike and Carol Resnick, Nick DiChario, and other friends. Mike told more stories; nobody knows more about the inner workings of the byzantine SF business community. Then, exhausted and happy, I drove home and lay awake pondering honey, spider webs, and alien languages.

Friday, November 6, 2009

What Was I Doing?

Two weeks ago Western Washington University released a study on "inattentional blindness," which means you don't see something because you're paying attention to something else. Specifically, they wanted to know how much talking on a cell phone "blinds" you to other sensory input. Test subjects were in one of four states: talking on a cell, walking in pairs, listening to music on an MP3, or just walking along without benefit of electronic or human companionship.

The cell phone users were far more "blind" than the other subjects. Three-quarters of them failed to notice a clown on a unicycle who rode past them. The cell users walked more slowly and acknowledged fewer people they passed. Essentially, like Gertrude Stein's famous comment about Oakland, there was far less "there" there.

This state applies to other electronics users as well -- such as, for instance, the two pilots who missed Milwaukee because their laptops absorbed their attention more than did landing a plane. Also less "there" are all those people on the other end of your cell who are simultaneously playing computer solitaire or checking their FaceBook pages or playing WoW (you know who you are).

What struck me about the Western Washington study, however, was how much it applies to writers I know -- including me -- even when we're NOT using electronics. If we're thinking about a story in progress, we're often not there, either. We're in the story setting, or mentally rehearsing plot twists, or carrying on a separate conversation with the protagonist. Do writers have more inattentional blindness than other people? Now that's a study I'd like to see.

Monday, November 2, 2009


Much SF is concerned with environmental issues, from dead oceans (e.g., TIMESCAPE) to calorie shortages (most of Paolo Bacigaluppi), to global warming. In the best of these books -- unlike most SF movies, which goes for simple disaster -- attention is paid to the need to balance the concerns of various forces. You can't change one part of the environmental equation without affecting other parts.

A real-life version of this is playing out right now with regard to wolves in the West. Since their reintroduction into Yellowstone Park in 1995, wolves have multiplied to about 1600 in a three-state region. That's enough to endanger too many elk herds, so wolf hunting was reintroduced in Montana and Idaho (but not yet Wyoming). There are quotas in place for each part of the state, but that has not ensured balance. For one thing, wolves don't seem to know where Idaho ends and Wyoming begins.

Conservationists argue that allowing wolves to be hunted only four months after being removed from the endangered-species list could damage the recovery. They also object because several of the wolves killed so far have been those wearing radio-tracking devices that allowed zoologists to study pack behavior. In the Cottonwood Creek pack, at least four of the pack's ten members have been shot, including all those equipped with radio trackers.

On the other side of the debate are different conservationists plus some park officials, who say that the unexpectedly quick repopulation of wolves has badly damaged elk and deer herds, and that unless the wolves are hunted, the entire food chain will be upset. Joining this side are some farmers. One rancher in Dillon, Montana, found in his pasture the carcasses of 122 sheep. Wolves, unlike many predators, will kill more than they eat, killing for pleasure.

Conservationists have filed lawsuits to shut down the wolf hunt. If that succeeds, a third faction fears, ranchers and hunters will simply take matters into their own hands and shoot wolves illegally. So what's the answer? Nobody seems to know. But the entire controversy illustrates how complex controlling the environment can be. And what applies to wolves also applies to crops, atmosphere, rain forests, and oceans. None of it is as simple as the disaster movies make it sound.