Worlds of Words

Last weekend, I was at the Tucson Festival of Books, which brings together authors of every genre imaginable from around the world to talk with readers about their work. The entire University of Arizona mall is taken up with tents occupied by vendors selling books and exhibiting products, services, and information. There was also an area called Science City which focuses on STEM literacy.

I love walking through the festival and seeing the books for sale and meeting the authors exhibiting their wares. Bookmans Entertainment Exchange is a chain of used bookstores in Arizona and one of the sponsors of the festival. They had a large tent and it was especially fun to go in and discover they had a copy of my novel Owl Dance for sale. What’s more, it was sitting on top of a copy of Bridges of Longing by my friend Marsheila Rockwell. As it turns out, I’d just spent time visiting with Marcy and her husband Jeff Mariotte a few minutes before at a tent where they were selling their books.

Fun as it is to visit the vendors, my favorite part of the festival are the tremendous panel presentations. On Saturday morning of the festival I joined J.L. Doty for a panel on Scientists Writing Science Fiction. I discussed how science influences my writing and editing. For example, science brought me together with Steve Howell of NASA Ames Research Center to assemble Kepler’s Cowboys, a collection of stories about planets discovered by the Kepler Space Telescope. I also noted that working in science doesn’t always influence my science fiction. The 4-meter telescope at Kitt Peak is a big, spooky building, especially at night and it inspired me to write my horror novel The Astronomer’s Crypt. We also discussed bringing the discipline we learned in science to our writing. In that context, Jim mentioned how he writes without an outline. On the other hand, I do use outlines. In both cases, we think carefully about what we’ve written and plan our next writing sessions so we do any required research ahead of time.

I also moderated a terrific panel on building fantasy worlds. The panel included my friend Gini Koch. I was also delighted to meet Samantha Shannon, Erika Lewis, and Brian McClellan. We discussed the process they go through when creating their alternate worlds and how they keep track of the places within those worlds so they’re believable to the readers. I thought it was especially interesting to hear that Samantha was a fan of A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, because I saw some influences in The Mime Order. That said, she noted that she’d actually removed some of the more overt influences because she didn’t feel they were working in the context of her work. The photo above was taken after the panel was finished and we gathered to sign books.

By itself, a terrific weekend at the Tucson Festival of Books would have done a great job of recharging my batteries so I could continue work on my fourth Clockwork Legion novel Owl Riders. However, just a couple of days after the festival, I was delighted to find a new review of book two of the series, Lightning Wolves posted at Geek-o-Rama. Reviewer Katrina Roets wrote, “Do you want to know how you know that you’re really enjoying a book? It’s when the power goes out and you curl up on the couch with a flashlight so that you can keep reading. Seriously. This happened to me last night.” Knowing that I wrote fiction that kept a reviewer reading through a power outage gives me a great, warm fuzzy feeling and makes me ready to write even more.

A Restful(?) Week

As I mentioned in Monday’s post, I have quite a few projects lined up for this year. Also, by “luck” of the draw, I had to drive to work at Kitt Peak National Observatory on Christmas Day and stay through New Years morning. So, I decided to take this first week of the new year as a low-pressure week to unwind from the stress of the holidays before jumping into new projects.

One of my Christmas presents this year was a model of the spaceship Bentenmaru from the anime Bodacious Space Pirates (Click on the title to see my discussion of the series). My wife included a copy of the movie based on the series, Abyss of Hyperspace. The movie was pretty good. It’s essentially an extended episode of the series and doesn’t add much to the bigger story arcs. Still, it was great to see Pirate Captain Marika Kato, the crew of the Bentenmaru, and the Hakuoh Academy Yacht Club back in action.

bentenmaru-box

The model itself was an import from Japan made by Hasegawa Hobby Kits. I’ve had fun building other anime space ship models from Japan. Most of those were Bandai kits. As with the Bandai kits I’ve built, the actual assembly of the model was smooth and the model includes lots of detail. Unlike the Bandai kits I’ve assembled, this one came with a generous sheet of decals. This is where my week of fun and pleasant diversion morphed into challenging learning experience.

Now as someone who has enjoyed building models since I was in elementary school, I’m no stranger to water-slide decals. So, I didn’t think I needed instructions for applying them—useful since the instructions that came with the kit were in Japanese. However, as I began to apply the decals, I discovered that they were both a bit thicker than the American decals I’ve used and seemed to have less glue. The result was that I found them a challenge to stay in place and several started to peel up again as they dried, instead of remaining stuck to the model!

I ended up going out to the internet to find methods for rescuing the decals. I found one site that recommended sticking them down with a little watered-down white glue. This worked for a few of the smaller decals. I was able to rescue a few of the decals by applying a tiny drop of superglue underneath with a toothpick and pressing the decal back down. The biggest decal was on the base—the series logo. That one went down easily and seemed to stick well, but as it dried, its edges seemed to lift up. My attempt to rescue it led to the worst disaster of all. One forum I read suggested sealing the edges with clear nail polish. I’m sorry to say, clear nail polish melted these decals. Fortunately, I’d only tried on a small area and only did a little damage that I was able to touch up with some paint.

Eventually, I found my way to a forum for Gundam models, another Japanese hobby company focusing on mecha. Their video for decal application suggested that I was applying the decals correctly, but that I should also use a clear liquid called decal set after applying them. I’ve been aware of decal set, but I have never found it all that necessary on the American models I made. I picked up a small bottle and tried it on the last couple of decals on the Bentenmaru and they did indeed seem to stick down better than the ones applied without decal set. In the end, I’m pretty happy with the results, though I’m a little concerned that the model won’t age well if decals peel up and fall off.

bentenmaru

If anyone reading this has built Hasegawa models with decals, I’d be interested in any tips you have. If the model doesn’t hold up to time, I may attempt it again. If so, I want to go in with as much knowledge as possible!

Because of the decals, the model took a lot longer than I expected and wasn’t really as restful as I hoped. Even so, it did clear my mind and gave me a change of pace for a few days before leaping into new projects. As writers, we’re often told we have to write every day and apply every waking hour we’re not writing to marketing our books. I think it’s important for writers to step back from that and realize that they’re self-employed business people. Everyone burns out if they don’t take a break once in a while. If you’re a writer, remember to be a good boss to yourself and give yourself some time to play—whether it’s some time relaxing on a beach, indulging in a hobby, or even taking a class. It’ll pay dividends in your efficiency, and who knows? You might have an experience which could be used in a future story.

Why Write Vampire Tales?

Perhaps one of the best pieces of writing advice I’ve heard is don’t chase trends. In other words, don’t write a genre just because it’s popular and you expect to make a quick sale or lots of cash. Odds are, you’ll be sorely disappointed. SummersDragon'sFall By the same token, you should care a great deal about those subjects you do write about. After all you’re going to spend a lot of time with that subject writing, researching, and editing. If you have a measure of success, the book or story could be with you for some time after it’s written. You should be passionate about the subject.

I wrote my first vampire story in 2001 and I just sold my most recent vampire story this year, 2016. Vampires were popular when I started and continue to be popular. Even when my vampire novels reach relatively good sales ranks at Amazon, it’s not uncommon to see two or three hundred vampire novels with even better sales ranks. I think this shows both the popularity of the genre and explains why people at science fiction conventions often complain about how saturated the market is with vampire fiction. Of course, this is just another reason why passion is required. If you want to write a bestseller in a particular genre, it’s easiest to do so in a less popular genre than a more popular one!

So, why am I passionate about vampire stories? For me, they touch several themes near and dear to me. Growing up in urban Southern California, I was taught the night is a dangerous place with people lurking in shadows waiting to do me harm. I then went on to discover a love of astronomy and started spending a lot of time outdoors at night. I did learn to be careful and watchful at night, but I also learned that the night can be quiet and peaceful. Writing about vampires is like writing about kindred who are as passionate about the night as I am. I’ll note, the one time someone stole something from me, it was in broad daylight and I saw them coming. While I don’t fear the day, I can’t say it gives me more comfort than the night does.

What’s more, my dad died when I was young, forcing me to confront mortality head on early in life. There is admittedly a certain aspect of wish fulfillment in the idea of becoming a creature that circumvents death. However, living forever would come with costs. Among them, is the question of whether or not immortality is really all it’s cracked up to be and how one deals with hunting others to maintain an immortal existence.

I’m not only passionate about vampires, I’m passionate about history. Vampires of the Scarlet Order Writing about immortal vampires allows me to take a long view and write about people who get to see different periods of history and watch the world change. Of course, one of the consequences of being a vampire is that you can never really grow close to anyone other than a fellow vampire. Humans just grow old and die too quickly.

The website TVTropes.org has a very good page of suggestions for people who are interested in trying their hand at vampire fiction. One thing they discuss is that you should be genre savvy. This allows you to use and subvert tropes with knowledge of how others have approached the subject. Of course, this is another reason to be passionate about anything you wish to write about. If you’re doing it right, you’ll be spending a lot of time reading books and watching movies in the same genre you want to write. If you’re not passionate about it, that exercise will get old real fast.

If you’re passionate about vampires, or even just mildly curious, I hope you’ll spend some time getting to know some of my fictional friends in the following books:

Acting Out a Scam

No one has ever accused me of being a financial analyst, but I once played one on the television series, Unsolved Mysteries. Here’s a somewhat blurry screenshot from the episode. I’m the tall, happy fellow in the yellow hard hat.

unsolved-mysteries

Back in my senior year at New Mexico Tech, while working on my physics degree, I had a few elective hours available and took a class in musical theater. We presented the Lerner and Loewe play, Brigadoon. The musical director was Mike Iaturo, who I gather played accordion on Broadway for Fiddler on the Roof. The play’s director was Carolyn Abbey. Carolyn’s husband, Mike, is the bearded fellow in the photo above.

After graduating, I remained at New Mexico Tech to work on my master’s degree in physics. I also joined a community theater group run by Carolyn and we put on a set of one-act plays collectively entitled The God’s Honest. Working on these plays was good experience for collaborating with editors and artists as a writer and publisher. I learned to listen, be flexible, and take criticism. The collaborative nature of plays taught me the freedom to change lines so they worked best for the scene as played. It helped me to avoid falling so much in love with my own words that I could never change them.

In the fall of 1989, Carolyn called me to say the television series Unsolved Mysteries was holding auditions in Socorro for a segment they would be filming. I went to the hotel where they were holding the auditions and stood in line for a while. The casting director looked me up and down asked if I had a suit and was willing to shave for the part. I answered “yes” to both questions and she called the next person. Since she didn’t ask me to do anything else, I was certain she wasn’t interested. The casting director surprised me a day later when she called up to say I’d been cast as one of the financial analysts who investigated a gold mine scam a few years before in New Mexico.

It was an interesting experience to see behind the scenes of the making of a television series. As I recall, I woke up at 5 in the morning, dressed in my suit and went to the hotel where I auditioned. I met the other actors and extras who were hired and they drove us to a mine just north of Socorro in the small town of Escondida. We were there until about 6pm. All of the extras playing financial analysts hung out together. From time to time, we were called out to play in a scene. When we were not acting, we had access to a trailer full of stuff to eat. As a graduate student, this was like a dream come true.

The segment featured Maurice “Ed” Barbara, who convinced people to invest in his fake cold mine near Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. Among the people he conned was famed attorney Melvin Belli, who played the Friendly Angel in the Star Trek episode, “And the Children Shall Lead.”

The episode finally aired on December 13, 1989. It was episode number 40, which was part of the second season. Here’s the part of the episode I was in. As you can see, twelve hours of filming was condensed down into about two minutes. I have to admit, it’s something of a thrill to have my actions narrated by Robert Stack.

I gather there was a follow up in episode 64, but unfortunately, I never saw that. If anyone has ever heard what happened to Ed Barbara, I’d be interested in hearing the end of the story. At the end of the episode, they said he had fled to Canada.

Hope my readers in the United States are having a good Thanksgiving weekend and staying away from scams on this busy shopping weekend!

Space “Cowboys”

This weekend I’m at Bubonicon 48. If you’re in Albuquerque, I hope you’ll drop by and visit us at the Hadrosaur Productions table and check out some of the cool panels going on. In the run-up to Bubonicon this past week, Steve Howell and I have been working on Hadrosaur’s anthology Kepler’s Cowboys, which looks at the variety of planets discovered by NASA’s Kepler space telescope and imagines the brave men and women who will either explore those worlds or will come to our world exploring.

One of the things that I’ve noticed while reading for this anthology is how literally many of the authors have taken the cowboy idea. Several of the submissions feature very literal cowboys in space, who practically wear spurs and big hats. That’s fine and I think a few of those will definitely make it into the anthology, but I do want to point out that’s not the only thing I want to see. In fact, I thought I’d spend a little time today introducing you to a few of my favorite space “cowboys.”

Faye Faye Vallentine is one of the bounty hunters in the anime Cowboy Bebop. Although I enjoy watching Faye’s story, I probably wouldn’t want to know her. In fact, she’s rather arrogant and lazy and she might well be addicted to both gambling and alcohol. However, she does (albeit grudgingly sometimes) show concern for the crew of the spaceship Bebop and the mystery of her past makes her vulnerable. By all appearances she became an ace pilot in about three years. Although much of the mystery of her past is resolved in the series, there are still lots more stories that could be told about her, both from before she joined the crew of the Bebop, and after the end of the series. I love it when it feels like we’re seeing a snippet of someone’s life in a story and don’t feel like that character was born the moment the story was created.

Jewell_Staite Kaylee Frye is the mechanic who keeps the spaceship Serenity flying in the televison series Firefly. The photo is from Phoenix Comicon a couple of years ago when my daughter and I had the chance to meet Jewell Staite, the actress who played Kaylee. Firefly, like Cowboy Bebop, is almost the definitive space cowboy series. In both cases, I could pick almost any character from the series as an example of someone who fits the archetype. I picked Kaylee because I like the fact that she’s a technical genius. Of all the members of Serenity’s crew, she’s probably the worst with a gun, but she’s loyal and has no problem telling it as she sees it.

Nichols My final entry is arguably two for the price of one, because not only would I consider Nyota Uhura a space cowboy, but Nichelle Nichols, the actress who played her in the original Star Trek is arguably a real-life space cowboy! The photo shows Nichols with my daughters at New Mexico Tech in 2008. To many, Uhura did little but “answer the phone” for Captain Kirk, but those people miss the fact that she not only worked communications on the Starship Enterprise but she could take over the science station when Spock wasn’t there and she could navigate the ship. In the animated episode “The Lorelei Signal,” Uhura took command and even rescued Kirk, Spock and McCoy. What’s more, she was a strong African-American woman on television at a time when most African-American women were relegated to roles in comedy or playing slaves in historical dramas. As for Nichelle Nichols, she not only played an explorer, she’s worked as a real-life space advocate and recruiter for NASA. She’s a powerful speaker and visionary and I’m honored that I’ve had the chance to meet her.

As you’ll no doubt have noticed, none of my cowboys are boys, nor do they have anything to do with cows. (Except perhaps for that one episode of Firefly where they hauled cattle, but that’s beside the point!) Although I don’t want fan fiction with these specific characters, I would love to see more stories with strong women like the ones depicted here. I’d also love to see more stories by women. Here’s what you need to know for submissions:

Queries, Marketing, and Talismans

It’s been a little over a year since Tales of the Talisman volume 10, issue 4 hit the streets and I thought I’d take this opportunity to update you on the magazine’s hiatus.

Tales10-4-cover-big

I took the break, in part, to finish three novels under contract. Where those stand is as follows: The Brazen Shark was published earlier this year. I just turned in the first round of galleys for The Astronomer’s Crypt. I still need to write Owl Riders. My goal is to work on that novel this autumn and winter. Lurking in the background was also the anthology which is now called Maximum Velocity: The Best of the Full-Throttle Space Tales. As I mentioned last weekend, construction of that book is well underway.

I’m also conducting an experiment to see whether it’s a better business decision for Hadrosaur Productions to focus its publishing efforts on anthologies rather than a magazine. That experiment is on-going and you are welcome to participate. If you’re a writer, we’re reading for the anthology Kepler’s Cowboys right now. Find out what we’re looking for at the Guidelines Page. If you’re a reader, be sure to visit my homepage at davidleesummers.com and sign up for my newsletter so you can be among the first to know when the book is released! Just as a brief update for those writers who have submitted, the first short-listed stories are with my co-editor Dr. Steve Howell right now to get his opinion. If you want to check on the status of a submission, please feel free to query.

Which brings me to a brief digression for some writerly advice. Over the last few weeks, I’ve received a few queries about Tales of the Talisman and other projects. When writing a query, keep it short, on point, and avoid presumptuousness, no matter the reason for the query. A specific example comes to mind when someone queried to see if I’d be interested in reading an essay they’d written. About mid-way through the query, they said something to the effect: “This essay is longer than your guidelines specify, but the material is so interesting, I’m sure you’ll want to take a look.” A writer needs confidence, but this is not the best way to express it. Better would be a simple statement of the length. This would allow me to decide if I’m willing to bend the rules. Best would be to indicate willingness to work with the editor if changes are desired. In this case, don’t even indicate that it’s the length that’s at issue. The problem with the query letter was that it was so specific on the point of length that I suspected the author wouldn’t be willing to make any changes. Even if I had been buying essays for Tales of the Talisman, this would have made me less likely to consider the essay.

As far as the hiatus is concerned, I estimate I’m about two-thirds of the way through the time-critical projects that I knew would take a lot of my attention from the magazine. The experiment to see whether anthologies are a better product for Hadrosaur is really just gaining momentum. The upshot is that the hiatus will continue through 2016 as planned and will continue into 2017. About mid-way through 2017, I’ll take another look and see where things stand.

Of course, the one thing that speaks volumes to any editor or publisher considering a project is sales. The thing that would most convince me to bring back Tales of the Talisman sooner than later is a surge in back-issue sales, which actually brings me to another writer tip. For me, one of the hardest things about marketing is tooting my own horn. However, magazines and anthologies offer a way around that difficulty because there are great works by a number of authors. Instead of tweeting “buy my book” you can encourage people to “check out this magazine with an awesome story by Lee Clark Zumpe and an terrific poem by Beth Cato.”

Ht21

If you go to the “Issues” link at TalesOfTheTalisman.com you’ll find the four issues of Volume 10. More than that, if you scroll to the bottom, you’ll find links to all the past volumes. For an extra special treat, check out Tales of the Talisman’s predecessor, Hadrosaur Tales. Many of the back issues are available at the HadroStore! These older issues are a real bargain. If you’re a writer who wants Tales of the Talisman back as a market, why not recommend a few of these older magazines to your readers. I encourage readers to browse and find something they’d like to try. Even though the issues have dates, stories and poems don’t spoil. They’re just as fresh as the day they were published.

The Future of Steampunk

I was on a panel yesterday at LepreCon in Phoenix, Arizona, entitled “The Future of Steampunk Literature.” As it turns out, my other panelist didn’t show up and I ended up being the only speaker. Still, it was a good conversation and I think several good points were raised that are relevant to questions about the future of any genre.

First off, I’ve encountered people who have suggested that steampunk has reached its peak in popularity and may even be past it. While I think it’s possible that steampunk has reached a peak in the general public’s consciousness, I see that the genre has a good strong, core following. I think this is helped by the fact that steampunk is not just a literary genre, but is strongly connected with the maker movement and has a vibrant music scene. Even if it didn’t have that strong core, I think it’s easy, especially for new writers, to put too much emphasis on writing to what’s popular and avoiding what’s not popular.

It’s true, the big New York publishers are going to base decisions on what they see in their marketing numbers and if they see steampunk on a rise, will probably buy more steampunk. However, they’re not going to be looking for what you send them in a month or two. They’ll be looking at what they already have in their reading stacks. If they see numbers trending upward, they’ll talk to authors and agents they know and perhaps get a few known authors on board. In short, the publishers are probably way ahead of you in the popularity game and it’s better for a new author to write what they’re passionate about than chase perceived trends. Of course, creating what they’re passionate about is one of the things steampunks do best!

Second, steampunk is a very multi-faceted genre. There’s alternate history, weird westerns, science fictional steampunk, magical steampunk, horror steampunk, post-apocalyptic futuristic steampunk and probably more than I haven’t thought of. Not only that, new authors are putting their own spins on it, punking up the diesel era, the atom age, and even going back to the stone age. Although these many facets can make marketing steampunk a challenge, the fact that so many people are being so creative with the basic idea speaks to the health and the vibrancy of the genre.

I can’t pretend to have any great insight into steampunk’s future, but the strong, evolving core following tells me it’s a healthy fandom and gives me hope that it will be a force in publishing and other areas for many years to come.

Clockwork-Legion

I continue to be on panels for the rest of this weekend at LepreCon, and will be engaging in more steampunkery. When I’m not on panels, I’ll be in the dealer’s room. Local Gamer Guest of Honor, Ben Woerner has graciously given me some space at his table. Be sure to come by the table and check out his cool samurai noir role playing game, World of Dew as well as my books. If you’re not at LepreCon or you managed to miss me, you can check out my steampunk books on Amazon: