Astronomy and Wildlife

I suspect one of the last things people consider when they think about working at an observatory is encountering wildlife. However, it can be a surprisingly common part of the job. During my last shift at Kitt Peak, I had two very close encounters with wild animals, both at the room where I stay. The first happened in the afternoon when I was heading out to do my laundry. I looked over to my left and saw a bobcat walking away from me. It stopped and looked at me, then continued on its way. Unfortunately, it vanished before I could get a photo. Two days later in the morning, I heard a rustling by the garbage can near my dorm room. I turned and looked out the window and a very disgruntled bear walked by, just outside my room. I was able to get a photo of the bear just before he disappeared into the woods.

Wildlife encounters aren’t limited to the wilder areas away from the telescopes. Sometimes wildlife visits us in the control rooms. I’ve seen ringtail cats on three separate occasions in observatory control rooms. For those not familiar with ringtails, they’re not actually cats, but a member of the raccoon family that lives in the desert southwest. One time, we saw a ringtail in the control room of the WIYN 3.5-meter telescope. He peered out at us through a hole in the ceiling tiles. Another time, I was working at the 2.1-meter telescope when a ringtail jumped out of the ceiling, landed by a computer, growled at us, and then disappeared into a conduit. Another time I looked over and saw a ringtail in the control room of the Mayall 4-meter telescope, peering out from behind a garbage can. This was especially remarkable, since the console room for the 4-meter is some twelve stories above the ground. As the observer and I were trying to figure out what to do about the animal, it disappeared down a conduit never to be seen again.

Famous astronomers are not immune from wildlife encounters. I once heard a story that Clyde Tombaugh, the astronomer who discovered Pluto, had finished observing one night at Lowell Observatory and was walking to his room in the dark. He saw what he thought was a dog and held out his hand to pet it. The animal backed away, growling. The next morning, a caretaker spoke to Tombaugh and said he’d seen some strange tracks in the snow. It appeared that someone had approached a mountain lion very closely!

Encounters like this helped to inspire a scene in The Astronomer’s Crypt where the telescope operator, Mike, encounters a raccoon at the telescope. I won’t give more details than that to avoid spoilers for the scene, but it’s the kind of reality from my day-to-day life at the observatory that I’ve tried to inject into the novel. You can learn more about the novel at http://www.davidleesummers.com/Astronomers-Crypt.html. And remember, you can learn about all of my books and short stories by visiting http://www.davidleesummers.com

Marketing Buzzwords

One of the things that drives me crazy about the publishing business is that as writers and editors we strive to be clear, concise, and avoid clichés and hackneyed phrases. Yet, when it comes time to market books, many people including some very talented writers and editors will fall back on some very tired and overused phrases to describe the process. One phrase in particular that sets my teeth on edge every time I hear it is “building buzz.”

The idea here is that when a new book comes out, an author should make a concerted effort to get word out about the book. Because there are only so many people an author can interact with personally, the author wants to encourage others to talk and write about their book. And just to be clear, this is a good thing and authors absolutely need to do this. My problem is with the hackneyed phrase used to describe this activity.

My first problem with the phrase is that it sounds horribly egotistical. It’s like what you’ve written is so totally amazing that everyone is going to drop what they’re doing and talk incessantly about it until it becomes a drone, like the buzzing of bees. Let’s be real, no one has ever written a book that’s set people talking that much before they even read them. The closest I can think of are the Harry Potter novels. Of course, these books were discovered, read, recommended and discussed enough that they became best sellers, then had movies made of them, and remain popular years after they were written.

“Buzz” is earned through engaging writing. It’s not something manipulated and built artificially after the book has gone to press. People talked and wrote about the Harry Potter books because they liked them, not because J.K. Rowling, Scholastic Publishing, or some marketing company told them to talk about them. The buzz happened because the books touched the imagination of the audience.

What’s more, I think clichés like “building buzz” do a disservice to writers and publishers trying to navigate the complicated and ever-changing world of book marketing. It lends credence to the notion that there’s some magical recipe that will make your book so successful that everyone talks about it. If you didn’t successfully “build buzz” with your first attempts, you’ve failed and you should stop trying. As I implied earlier, the hard work of “building buzz” happens when you write the book and create something people want to read. Once the book is out, your job is to find creative ways to tell people about your book without droning on like the buzz of a bee.

When your book comes out, do tell people it exists. Tell them what it’s about in concise, clear words. Find creative ways to get that message out. Talk to other writers and find out what worked for them. Those almost certainly include such things as newsletters, blog posts, sending out free copies to reviewers, book trailers, social networking, bookmarks, and lots more. That said, don’t limit yourself to those things people have told you work. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box and try new things. This is not a recipe. It’s a process.

Finally, if I ever use the phrase “building buzz” as a shorthand for getting the word out about your books or mine, you’re more than welcome to call me on it!

Time Traveling through Books

Susan over at the Dab of Darkness blog tagged me in a post about books and time travel. This seemed like a fun topic near and dear to my heart and a good way to start a new week.

What is your favorite historical setting for a book?

jani-greater-game

The hard part about this one is that I love history and I usually find something to enjoy in any historical setting I explore. However, I think if I had to pin down one era it would be the Victorian era that’s so near and dear to the steampunk I write. In fact, I’m delighted to have added a signed copy of Gail Carriger’s Changeless to my collection. That said, although I do enjoy a good novel set in Victorian England itself, my favorite books are ones set in other places of the world at the time, including the Wild West such as Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century novels or India, such as Eric Brown’s Jani and the Greater Game or even the Africa of Jack Tyler’s Beyond the Rails series.

What writers would you like to travel back in time to meet?

There are lots of writers whose work I admire, but two of the writers who most interest me are Robert Louis Stevenson and Lafcadio Hearn. Stevenson and I share share two initials, a birthday, and a love of pirate stories. Hearn was captivated by the stories of the places he immersed himself in from New Orleans to Japan. Not only have their writings inspired me, they both traveled extensively at a time when it was not always easy to do so and I’d love to hear some of the stories they didn’t have a chance to write down.

What books would you travel back in time and give to your younger self?

salems-lot

The books I’d point my younger self to actually existed back then, but I’d kick myself and actually get myself to read them! I would go back and hand myself Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot. I had preconceived notions that I wouldn’t enjoy King’s work because it was horror, but I would have loved his spooky tale of vampires and I would have been captivated by his great use of characters. I could have learned a lot from reading that book which took my many years to figure out on my own—that I’m still figuring out. Discovering King at a younger age would have started that process a lot earlier!

I’d also encourage myself to read Heinlein’s young adult novels. I remember them on the bookstore shelves when I was a kid, but for some reason never took them home. I would have had a blast with them and their sense of adventure.

If I had to pick a contemporary novel to take back in time, it would have to be a steampunk novel. Clementine or Ganymede by Cherie Priest would have been good choices that my younger self would have liked. It might have kickstarted the idea that I could write steampunk earlier than I did. (Although arguably I started pretty early since I sold “The Slayers” in 2001!)

What book would you travel forward in time and give your older self?

I’d give myself a copy of James Cloyd Bowman’s Pecos Bill: The Greatest Cowboy of All Time. That’s the book that started my love of tall tales and strange stories set in the wild west. It’s actually a book I don’t own, but have recently discovered it’s still in print, so I do need to remedy that. It would be fun to go back and see how Bowman’s version of the Pecos Bill story and the wild west inspired me.

What is your favorite futuristic setting for a book?

It depends on what your asking. Would I like to live in that futuristic setting, or do I think a good story is told there? There’s lots of futuristic settings that make a good story, but I wouldn’t want to live in that world! The Star Trek universe is an example of a futuristic setting which both has great stories, including many great novels, and where I’d like to live. The same is true of A. Bertram Chandler’s John Grimes novels. Both give generally optimistic visions of the future while suggesting plenty of adventures and many worlds to explore. I’m also fond of Ray Bradbury’s Mars, where the past meets the future in a kind of rustic setting on an alien world.

What is your favorite book that is set in a different time period (can be historical or futuristic)?

moon-harsh-mistress

The hard part about this question is that so much of what I read is set in a different time period, it’s hard to pick just one! However, I’m going to pick The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein. I love its mix of engaging characters, politics, and attempt at examining the hard realities of making a colony on another world. This is one I remember enjoying a great deal and is one of the books that inspired me to sit down at the keyboard and actually try my hand at writing. It has been a long time since I’ve read it and it’s one of the books I’d like to go back to and see how well the book stands up to my memory.

Spoiler Time: Do you ever skip ahead to the end of a book to see what happens?

I used to do this all the time when I was a kid, but I stopped. I’m not exactly sure when that happened. My best guess would be during my college and graduate school days when most of my reading swapped over to comics and graphic novels for a time. In those, a glance at the end can be a major spoiler!

If you had a Time Turner, where would you go and what would you do?

It would be seriously tempting to go back and “fix” painful incidents in my life. For example, I could take some modern textbooks on cardiac care back to doctors who were tending my dad in the 1980s. However, I’ve read enough books cautioning about the dangers of time travel to know how fraught with peril these kinds of well-meaning things can be! Even Hermione Granger was cautioned about interfering with her own time stream.

So, with that in mind, I’d probably use the time turner to give myself some extra time to work on writing at home while I’m also operating telescopes at Kitt Peak. Heck, using the time turner to go back a few hours and get some extra sleep would be pretty amazing.

Favorite book (if you have one) that includes time travel or takes place in multiple time periods.

man-who-folded-himself

Of course, the original and classic is The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, but perhaps my favorite is The Man Who Folded Himself by David Gerrold. Instead of avoiding possible time travel paradoxes, Gerrold embraces them and looks at what happens when someone tampers with time, including his own timeline. The book’s open discussion of sexuality kind of freaked me out as a kid raised in a conservative, Christian household, but it also opened my eyes to other lifestyles than the one I was told was “correct.”

What book/series do you wish you could go back and read again for the first time?

I think it would be Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series. I hate to admit, but I still haven’t read all of them and those I’ve read have been in kind of a haphazard fashion, so I’d love to go back and make a real dedicated reading of the complete series.

Inviting others to play along.

I’m always a little hesitant to tag lots of people in these kinds of posts since I don’t want to make anyone feel obliged to play along. Also, it’s always possible someone was already tagged by someone else and I just missed their post. That said, if you’ve read this post and would like to take a crack at the answers, you’re more than welcome. If you tag me as the guy who inspired you and let me know, I’ll mention you here.

The following people have tagged me back, so go check out their answers!

2016 Tucson Festival of Books

This weekend, I’m at Wild Wild West Con, which is a steampunk convention being held at Old Tucson Studios just outside of Tucson, Arizona. If you’re in the area I hope you’ll drop by. The link above will take you to the convention’s home page where you can get more information. I hope to post some photos in the next couple of weeks.

TFB-Logo

Next weekend, I’ll be back in Tucson for the Tucson Festival of Books at the University of Arizona. Clicking the name or the logo to the left will take you to the festival’s home page for more information. I see lots of great authors scheduled including Greg Bear, Jeffery J. Mariotte, Marsheila Rockwell, Beth Cato, Diana Gabaldon, Jonathan Maberry, and many more. I’m scheduled for the following event:

Scientists Writing Science Fiction:
Two real life scientists discuss writing science fiction.

Location: Integrated Learning Center Room 151
Time: Sun, Mar 13, 10:00 am – 11:00 am
Signing area: Sales & Signing Area – Integrated Learning Center (following presentation)
I’ll be on this panel with Chris Impey.

I will also be signing books at the Massoglia Books Booth during the weekend. Be sure to stop by the book and check for times. They’re booth number 446 and in addition to my books, they have an outstanding selection of used and collectible books. I can easily spend hours just browsing their selection.

Hope to see you there!

Reviewing Consumer Art

As a writer, one of the things I really appreciate is when someone takes a few minutes to place a thoughtful review of one of my books online, either on their blog, Amazon, or Goodreads. Whether they like the book or not, the fact that they took the time means the book meant something to them. That said, not everyone feels comfortable writing a review.

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Earlier this week, I was going through some reviews of the movie Beasts of the Southern Wild on the website Rotten Tomatoes. Most of the reviewers loved it but a few didn’t. That’s not surprising. One movie can’t please everyone. That said, one of the reviewers compared the movie to Disney’s infamous Song of the South. I happened to notice the reviewer was a white male and I was curious if any black reviewers shared his opinion. Browsing through Rotten Tomatoes, it struck me how many professional reviewers are white men. In fact, I couldn’t find a black reviewer whose opinion was cited. It struck me that this is a serious problem and I couldn’t help but wonder if by giving such weighted value to the opinions of white men, it keeps others from sharing their opinions as freely as they might. It also made me wonder whether or not white men dominate other review venues so thoroughly. I haven’t had a chance to pursue that question.

At the same time as I’d noticed this, I took part in a discussion of book reviews at The Steampunk Empire. It occurred to me that one of the difficulties of reviewing books and movies is that they walk in two worlds. They can be both art and consumer products. What’s more not everything that’s good consumer product is good art and vice versa. In an ideal world, the two come together and a good thought provoking book will also sell well, but that doesn’t happen very often.

It occurred to me that when I review books, I tend to look for the best in them. Were they fun? Did they make me think? Were they good art? Did I have a good time reading them? I realize that’s not true of everyone. Some people have very specific things they look for in a title. For others a good review will simply reflect how well the book met that person’s expectations.

Do you review the books you read? What kinds of factors do you look for in your reviews?

Las Cruces Comic Con

Before I leave just a couple of news items. This weekend, I’m at Las Cruces Comic Con in Las Cruces, New Mexico. My table is the first one against the left-hand wall as you walk in. If you’re in town, be sure to drop by! Also, I’ve heard my editor is hard at work on The Brazen Shark and I should see her notes in the next couple of weeks. I’m wondering if I’m going to get notes for both my steampunk novel and my horror novel The Astronomer’s Crypt at the same time. Yikes!

A Contract, a Convention, and an Interview

Last week, the run-up to Phoenix Comicon was a perfect storm that kept me from making my usual Saturday morning post. That said, this particular storm really was perfect in that it involved some excellent news. I just signed the contract for the ninth novel I wrote, The Astronomer’s Crypt. The timing was such that we were able to announce it publicly for the first time during the “Tension on Every Page” panel. Of course, it’s only been two weeks since I turned in my tenth novel, The Brazen Shark. Neither book has a formal editing/release schedule yet, so it’ll be something of a race to see which one is released first!

The convention itself was a blast. I was on several excellent panels and got to meet lots of great people both at panels and at my table in the exhibitor hall.

David_at_Booth_phxcc15

One thing different this year from previous years was that all the celebrity autograph sessions and photo-ops happened on the third floor instead of the exhibitor hall, so I’m afraid I never really got to see any of the movie and TV stars who were in attendance. That said, I did get to see some really terrific costumes throughout the weekend. Here we see samurai Batman, a terrific rendition of Wolverine, and Calvin and Hobbes. If you click the photo, you’ll get a larger view.

Costumes_phxcc15

Finally, one thing I love to do at conventions when I have the opportunity is to give stuff away. I held a drawing for a basket of books, including These Vampires Don’t Sparkle, A Kepler’s Dozen, and Revolution of Air and Rust. All one had to do to enter was sign up for my mailing list. The lucky winner was Edward Pulley. Here we are hamming it up for the camera.

Basket_winner_PhxCC

Of course, if you missed me at Phoenix Comicon, or just didn’t get a chance to attend, you can still click this link to sign up for my mail list. You may ask, what’s the fun in that, since the drawing’s over? Well, besides being the first to hear about news, updates, and special offers, you’ll also be among the first to hear about any giveaways that are happening in the future.

Finally, I’ll wrap up this week’s post by mentioning that Jack Tyler, the founder of the Scribbler’s Den group on the Steampunk Empire has interviewed me about Lightning Wolves. Drop by and learn a little more about me and read a short excerpt at: http://www.writing.com/main/books/entry_id/850545-David-Lee-Summers

Monsoon Season

It’s monsoon season here in the southwest, and fortunately this year we’re getting much needed rain both at home in Las Cruces and at Kitt Peak National Observatory. During monsoon season, the clouds typically roll in around four or five o’clock in the afternoon, then rain. Sometimes they disburse and sometimes linger into the morning hours. Either way, the warm temperatures and cloudy skies make it tempting to spend a lot of time where it’s dry, enjoying the air conditioning and reading a good book. One place I like to discover good books is at science fiction conventions and I spent last weekend at Bubonicon in Albuquerque.

Bubonicon Dealer's Table

The photo shows me at the Hadrosaur Productions table in the dealer’s room. In addition to dealing, I was on several panels. Two that were closely related to my steampunk writing were “Sci-Fi and Southwestern Fiction” moderated by Walter Jon Williams and “The Weird Weird West” moderated by John Maddox Roberts. One highlight of the first panel was discovering that Laura J. Mixon had family connected to the Roswell Incident. As it turns out, my undergraduate advisor, an atmospheric physicist named C.B. Moore claimed to be responsible for the Roswell Incident, saying it was a nuclear sensing balloon that got away from him. Both panels touched on Tombstone, Arizona along with the technology that has long been present in the Southwest. For example, Nikola Tesla had his lab in Colorado Springs. What’s more, railroads and mining companies brought a lot of technology into the southwest.

During the convention, I had the opportunity to read from my novels Lightning Wolves and Dragon’s Fall: Rise of the Scarlet Order. Speaking of which, if you’re looking for something to read as summer wanes into fall, I’m giving away a copy of Dragon’s Fall over at The Scarlet Order Web Journal, but you need to hurry if you’d like to enter. I stop taking entries on the afternoon of Sunday, August 10. By the way, this lovely graphic for Dragon’s Fall was created by Sharlene Martin Moore. If you’re an author and would like her to create one for you, visit http://graphicsbysharlene.wix.com/graphicsbysharlene.

Dragons Fall Card 2

As for my own reading, I’m wrapping up the submission period for Tales of the Talisman Magazine. We’ll be closing to all submissions at midnight Mountain Daylight Time on August 15. Please note, I have a short list full of outstanding stories. Thanks to those who have submitted. If you haven’t heard back from me yet, I’m hoping to have answers to you by the end of August.