It’s Complicated

Borderlands Books (San Francisco’s science fiction bookstore) is closing at the end of March, ostensibly due to the increased cost of doing business in San Francisco.

Though they specifically cited the recently-passed law increasing the minimum wage, from what they say they have barely been breaking even for years. All the major chain bookstores left San Francisco years ago. Used bookstores seem to be doing okay, from what I can tell in passing.

My first reactions were anger, sadness, and then–action mode! I would figure out a way to fix this. They could move. Valencia Street is turning into a fancy shopping mall. Ditch that space and move to a cheaper spot. Sell memberships! I’d join! $50 per year with exclusive monthly events. Partner with a delivery service and offer same-day book delivery. Sell e-books in the store. I texted back and forth with friends. We were on fire with ideas. We would save the store!

Then I remembered something. I don’t really want any more paper books. Paper used to be the best way to store data, and now it isn’t. Unless the books are special–autographed or amazing Taschen art books or sentimental paperbacks from my childhood–they don’t need to be physical. After a brief adjustment period, I quickly saw the advantage of e-readers. I mean, my god, anyone who has ever tried to read Game of Thrones-length books in bed will understand. Anyone who had to choose between books and clothes when packing for vacation. Anyone who’s ever moved! Books are so heavy! I’ve cut my collection by half every time.


My bookshelf used to be an idealized representation of my mind. In the same way I’d put on makeup or a pair of big, black boots, my bookshelf was a showy way of defining who I was. Look how smart I am! Look how eclectic! Nonfiction! Poetry! Travel! Fat books, skinny books. I think you can actually gauge the rise in my self-confidence by which books I removed from my exhibit. First to go were my textbooks. I was never going to reread those. Then “important” books I’d read but secretly hated. Then books I’d intended to read but never did (still struggling to get rid of those). I’m getting down to signed books and sentimental books and books I borrowed from a friend and forgot to return…even so I’ve got to admit that 95% of my books have remained untouched since my last move 10 years ago.

I don’t even want the books I write to be on paper, other than a few fun copies as mementos for friends and family or the as-yet-nonexistent devoted fans. Those I can print on demand. It doesn’t make any sense to print thousands of hard copies and send them on planes and trucks to bookstores, where people drive cars to go buy them. Such a waste of resources, so many middlemen. I can send you The Perfect Specimen right now, instantly, and it is identical to my copy.

I’m sad the Borderlands store is closing, however after much soul-searching, I do believe the owner made the right decision. Technology changes the way we get media into our brains. San Franciscans still love “books” and reading and stories and storytelling and authors. In fact I’ve never seen the city so interested in the written and spoken word.

I hope that “Borderlands” as a caretaker of the soul of science fiction can find a way to exist without a permanent physical space. One of my favorite Borderlands moments took place at a Litquake event at Z space in 2013–Alan Beatts in conversation with amazing author Jean Christophe Valtat.


Read about that evening here:

Hopefully we find a way to keep this community alive in this new era.

* * * UPDATE * * *

Well, great news! Borderlands found a way to stay open another year and it involves, rather amusingly, selling memberships not books!

From their newsletter:

“Starting immediately we will be offering paid sponsorships of the store.  Each sponsorship will cost $100 for the year and will need to be renewed every year.  If we get 300 sponsors before March 31st, we will stay open for the remainder of 2015.

The Plan

Our goal is to gather enough paid sponsors to cover the projected short-fall in income that will be the result of the minimum wage increase in San Francisco.  At the beginning of next year we will again solicit sponsors.  If next year we again reach our goal by March 31st, we will remain open through 2016.  This process will continue each year until we close, either because of a lack of sponsorship or for other reasons.

We are still considering benefits we can offer our sponsors but, at this point, a preliminary list is:

  • Reserved seating at author events
  • The ability to rent the cafe and / or bookstore outside of normal operating hours for private events at our cost (which is roughly $25 to $100 per hour)
  • Invitations to a quarterly gathering at the cafe where you can socialize with other sponsors, members of Borderlands’ staff and occasional special guests
  • Access to preview sales of rare and collectable books whenever we make a large acquisition
  • The opportunity to purchase occasional items produced by us for sponsors and not offered to the general public (such as limited Ripley prints, chapbooks, and so forth)
  • A selection of unique apparel and accessories showing your status as a sponsor and not available to the general public
  • Invitations to sponsor-only events, like small gatherings with authors, exclusive writing workshops, and more

So, they took my idea! Ha – it seems it was everyone’s idea. The book store survives, but not by selling books, but community.

Litquake’s Fifteenth Anniversary

I don’t know why I hadn’t heard of Litquake until a few years ago. It was happening in my neighborhood. It’d be nice to get in on the ground floor of one of the many cultural phenomena that spring to life in the Bay Area and be able to shake my fist at the late arrivers, proclaiming, “I remember when…” I suspect that Litquake is better now than it’s ever been, so I really can’t complain. The party is definitely not over.

A few highlights:

“Drivel: Litquake’s Book Launch,” featured well-known authors reading “some of their crappiest early work.”

The book is probably funny on its own, but it was great to see it read live. The authors were completely aghast. One poor guy used so many adjectives and commas in his sentences he couldn’t make it through any of them without a breath.

As bad as the Drivel was, I firmly believe that someone in the world would un-ironically enjoy the passages and that makes me happy.

litquakeDrivelJulia Scott, Andrew Sean Greer, Po Bronson, Peter Orner

Sunday I spent hours in a windowless room at Hotel Rex, which was tough because it was a beautiful day. Mid-October and San Francisco finally gets summer weather.

“Hybrid Publishing Models: A Writer’s Dream?” was a good panel, but didn’t cover much new ground for me, probably because I went to the Digilit conference this year. What astonished me though was how hard writers have to work to make a living. The panelists were superwomen, combo writers/writing coaches/small press owners/agents/etc. There is no pot of gold at the end of this rainbow!

Monday I went to what is always an interesting panel, “First-Time Authors Reveal All.” I’m fascinated by all the different paths writers take to publication. What continues to puzzle me is that many authors struggle to get a traditional publishing deal, yet I hear in panel after panel that you still have to do everything yourself, in regards to editing, marketing, and promotion. I’m so glad I didn’t realize what I’d be up against when I started this writing adventure. I willing to accept the reality of all this, but in small doses.

firsttime-14Edan Lepucki tells of getting promoted by Stephen Colbert

I gathered some good links from the panelists.

One of my favorite panels was “Masters of the YA Universe,” with Paolo Bacigalupi and A.S. King. I saw Paolo Bacigalupi a few years ago at Borderlands Bookstore in San Francisco. I’d guess maybe 15 people attended? Bacigalupi sat behind a folding table, nervous and uncomfortable as he read from The Windup Girl. No offense to the audience or Bacigalupi, but we were all pretty geeky.

What a difference a few years makes!

pbFirstly, the large room was packed, and Bacigalupi was a super comfortable and engaging speaker. I’m guessing he has been around the block a few times now–five years later. He was promoting The Doubt Factory, and his passion about the subject showed.

Also nice was the fact that he was doing the book tour with A.S. King, (promoting Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future) and it worked out well, each singing the other’s praises in a way an author could never do on his or her own.

asking2Anyhow, a great event, great energy.

Unfortunately I couldn’t do the Litcrawl this year. I’d been invited to a six-year-old’s Star Wars-themed birthday party, and hey, PRIORITIES.

Note to self

I went to the San Francisco Writer’s Workshop again tonight. I went last Tuesday. It was my first time at a critique group. I’ve been hesitant to do something like this for fear it would cut into my writing time, but the truth is that from 7-9 p.m. on a Tuesday night I’d likely be eating a burrito and watching Parks and Rec. So really, no downside.

I don’t know many writers in my “normal” life, so I felt like a bear cub that had been raised by a human family and is now being reintroduced back into the wild. I looked at the people surrounding me in the chair circle and thought, ah…real live writers. Do I look like you? Do I smell right? Will you accept me into the pack or maul me?

Everyone was very well-behaved and I felt very comfortable. Many others were there for the first or second time. Writing skills vary wildly, but everyone’s work was treated with respect. I’m not sure whether or not the short critiques will help me improve my work, but I spent tonight trying to be a better listener and to organize my thoughts. Why should I expect to get a good critique if I can’t give one? It’s really tough to hear a piece for the first time and then offer comments immediately. What frustrated me the most was being unable to articulate why I liked a piece. God, I knew some poor author agonized over a short story and all I could say was, “That was great!” Useless, totally useless. I’ve got to get better at this.

Afterwards, about half the group went out for drinks. I only got to chat with a few people (the bar was noisy) but I realized, wow, we have a lot in common, and also…wow…there are aspects of writing that are very seductive. Drug-like.


I’ve done many different creative things in my life (painting, drawing, photography) so I’m familiar with the magic that happens when everything is flowing and things are going right and you’ve tapped into something beyond yourself. I’ve felt that in writing, but I’ve also had the “building a bookshelf” feeling. I’ve got this wood and this saw and these screws and I’ve got to put it all together and it has to function.

Now that I’m meeting other writing “addicts,” I realized the dangers of this vocation. How tempting it is to talk about writing and read about writing and take another webinar and write a little bit of this and that and never finish anything because that isn’t the fun part. I’m not saying anyone I chatted with was in this situation, I just saw the light in everyone’s eyes and thought how hard it is to move this from indulgent hobby to a profession.

Yeah I get the irony, I’m writing about writing now, and I go to conferences and author readings, but this blog is exists so I DON’T go on and on about all this at a party or when I meet you for lunch. Because, note to self, talking about writing isn’t that interesting. I’ll get the fuel I need for my new profession by listening.


Agent Search Begins…Now

I just emailed my first query letter to an agent. I’m excited but bracing myself for the inevitable string of rejections.

Why try to get an agent? I’ve attended several “First time authors reveal all” panels at Litquake, and heard stories of successes and failures, both with and without agents. Self-publishing The Perfect Specimen has given me a glimpse into the publishing world and even the pathetic attempts I’ve made to market the book have cut into my writing and editing time. I haven’t written anything new in months. Plus, I believe in the value of an expert. An agent can market my book better and faster than I can, and now that I’ve tried to do this myself I’m not going to begrudge them their commission.

Even if I don’t find an agent, everything I did in preparation for this needed to be done. I created a two-page synopsis of my 140k word novel. That was tough, but I found a technique that worked for me. First, I did a synopsis of each chapter. Then, using only those as source material, I created a ten-page synopsis. From that, I got down to two pages.

Though I’m annoyed that I have to paint my intricate artwork in such broad strokes, I realize I can do the same thing to other books I’ve read with no qualms. “Bookstore employee solves centuries-old mystery with the help of modern technology.” (Mr. Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore), so I need to get over thinking my work is too precious for the same treatment.

Also, I finally created a decent query letter. It helped when I imagined it being read by a voice actor. “In a world…” It has to be big, dramatic, and easy to grasp. I’ve got only a couple of paragraphs to tempt an agent into reading my synopsis, and that has to interest them in the first five pages of the book.

Here is the frustrating part. I really like my book. It is as good as anything you’d grab off the shelf of your local bookstore, but agents and publishers are drowning in a sea of creativity. I’m doing little more than throwing another bucket of water at them…but hey…we both have a job to do and I’m doing mine to the best of my ability and I have to trust that they are as well.

Why the photo of the 280z? This was my dream car when I was in high school. It was a vehicle, a way to transport myself and my friends. Now, I’ve found a much better way to transport people. : ) (I know, groan!)


Spring in the city

A quick update from the attic. I’m hard at work editing Six book one. As you may or may not know, Six started out as one ginormous book. I won’t even tell you how long, but you could have used it and a George R. R. Martin book in a weightlifting class and gotten a great workout.

After much thought, I realized I had to break the book in two. I was hesitant to do this because, a) it would mean more work for me after I was already “done,” and b) I’d coerced a number of friends into reading the book and they liked it and now I had the added worry of messing up something that worked.


You can see my house in the above photo.

Good news: This was absolutely the right decision. Everything I’m doing to book one absolutely needed to be done, but I was blind to this because I had my eye on the grand finale and this was “the middle.” Seriously, it is like I was walking from the living room to the kitchen down a long, dark hall and someone turned on a light and I was like, hey, what’s all this? Where am I? I didn’t know this was a hardwood floor. Check out all these photos.

If the book is too long the characters tend to wander off and eat sandwiches. Now that what used to be the middle is the end of book one, I’ve cracked the whip on my characters and plot and made sure they were hard at work in every single sentence.

I’m so excited about Six!!! Okay, back to work. I’m procrastinating!


A simple question

My first ever author interview goes live today on the pages of Paranormal Unbound, a blog that declares:

We are writers and geek girls, genre apologists and romance lovers, Whedonites, trekkies, historians, lawyers, scientists, priests, and above all, readers in search of books to fall in love with.  Come nerd out with us over everything from the evolutionary basis for the popularity of vampire romances to the terrible injustice of Firefly’s cancellation. Drop us a line and recommend your favorite offbeat paranormal romance. Tell us about your adventures as a fellow geek. Look around, stay awhile, and don’t be a stranger.

The focus of the blog is on paranormal romance and urban fantasy, not science fiction, but I’ve read a fair amount in these genres and feel a close kinship with writers who want to take the real world and add something extra–something that doesn’t currently exist–and see what happens.


I’m a fan of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, which take place in modern-day Chicago. The main character is a wizard, but he can’t “hocus pocus” do whatever he wants; there are rules and Butcher does a great job of building magic into the real world in a plausible way.

Writing near-future fiction isn’t much different. I get to make up technology (which might as well be magic), add it to the real world and speculate on what happens next. In The Perfect Specimen the “magic” is the technology that allows corporations to discover a habitable planet and colonize it.

Celia Breslin, my interviewer, asked a seemingly simple question: “What do you love about writing science fiction?” that threw me for a loop. It was like being asked why I love a certain person. My brain kind of froze up. Too many thoughts and feelings rendered me inarticulate. Unfortunately, I’m supposed to be writer so inarticulate isn’t an option, but the real explanation of why I love writing science fiction would require a multimedia extravaganza. The shorter answer is that reading and writing science fiction is like traveling; I get to see new things, meet new people, have adventures, get a fresh perspective, and all of that is wrapped up in a neat package.

Day to day life can be plot-less, and I think we humans crave plot. Travel has a built-in plot; you know when the trip begins and when it ends. You stand on the sidewalk in front of your house with an overloaded suitcase, the cab arrives, and you are off! A week later you return and everything familiar feels different for a time.

I’m not trying to provide an escape from ordinary life in my writing, but rather a tool to help readers see with fresh eyes and awaken their curiosity. “What would happen if…” is pretty much the question that starts any creative project!

Plots in ambient video

I am in Seattle for Decibel Festival, an “international festival of electronic music performance, visual art and new media.” No surprise that I love electronic music as it seems to go hand in hand with science fiction.

Brock Van WeyLast night we went to an ambient, experimental electronica showcase. The musicians were paired with video artists, who projected in the background while the music unfolded.

I’ve not seen that much ambient video, but what really struck me last night was how strong the human urge (or at least my urge!) is to make sense of images, to create a narrative. I’d have been completely content to nurse my drink and let the music wash over me, but the ambient video was distracting. Who is that woman? Why is she writhing around on the floor? Wait, is that her now, but all red and pixelated? Is that her giant hand? Is she okay?

The next video artist featured spacey cloud images that made me feel like I was flying towards something…always moving forward…never arriving. When will the sun rise? When will we get to the space station? Where was my video climax? I didn’t get one and left frustrated.

I’ve been working on Six Book One, and the ambient videos served as an important warning to me: if I don’t provide a good, solid plot and a compelling story, the readers are going to use the sentences I give them to create one of their own. And, chances are, their story won’t have the same ending as mine. Not to be overly trite, but as an author I want to be sure we are all, literally, on the same page. If I don’t keep a tight hold on the plot and the reader’s expectations, we will all leave frustrated.

“It was a dark and stormy night”

A recent New York Times article about A Wrinkle in Time by Madelaine L’Engle inspired me to reread the book. I had absolutely no memory that “It was a dark and stormy night” was the first line.

This was also the first line in the 1830 novel Paul Clifford by Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, and the inspiration for the San Jose State Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, “a whimsical literary competition that challenges entrants to compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels.”

Was L’Engle’s reference tongue in cheek? No, according to a rather dicey citation in a PDF on Scholastic’s website.

One question she is asked a lot is why she began the book with the words “It was a dark and stormy night. . . .” According to L’Engle, the phrase “a dark and stormy night” is one that is used to start lots of scary stories, the kind of stories people told around campfires when L’Engle was growing up.”

Plus, A Wrinkle in Time was published in 1962, and the Bulwer-Lytton contest didn’t start until 1982.

A Wrinkle in Time won a Newbery Medal in 1963, and I can’t help but wonder if those poor seven words really deserve the awful reputation they’ve earned in the past few decades.

Best advice I ever got?

Don’t follow any rule off a cliff.

I recently read an interview with Rebecca Skloot, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. She says, in response to making herself a character in this nonfiction work:

I refused to be in this book. I think a lot of potentially great stories out there have been damaged and in some cases ruined by a writer not being able to step out of the story and let the story happen. When I teach, I always harp on my students, “Stop inserting yourself in other people’s stories.”

Rebecca Skloot’s best selling book, praised by the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal and many other publications, would not exist if the author had followed her own advice.