Too Much and Not Enough – SXSW Interactive 2016

nasarobot2I’m sure there is some way to do this conference right and I never manage it. When interactive ends, I’m tired, dehydrated, malnourished and brain dead. This is a big expense and my clients don’t appreciate me disappearing for 10 days, so I feel I’ve got to take advantage of every moment, see every panel, go to every party, look at all the trade show booths…it’s too much. I do this every year but I can’t stop myself. Every time I think I’ll take a break or get lunch or go back to the room to nap something catches my eye on the schedule and I end up on another death march to another hotel for another panel.

This isn’t the best time for me to do this write up, but if I don’t do it now it will never happen. I’m going to take a deep breath and do a quick summary and try to be fair, because I did have some great moments.

My biggest takeaway from the panels I went to on privacy, security, encryption, internet of things, and big data is that we are FUCKED as far as privacy goes. There is no regulation coming anytime soon to make sure the connected devices that are coming into our homes are secure. I mean seriously – nothing is worse than watching five smart panelists, including lawyers and senators, sit in uncomfortable silence when an audience member ask if there is ANY plan. Then to hear them mumble about companies self regulating. And say the government can’t keep up with tech. And that no one wants to stifle innovation. These are our leaders??

People are bringing devices like the Amazon Echo into their homes and they have no idea what these devices are doing at any given moment. You’ve likely heard the story of the Echo responding to a voice on the radio and changing the temperature of thermostat?

Another big part of the problem is that once you purchase a device, the company does not have any obligation to keep the software on it up to date or patch it is a security weakness is exposed.

On a more positive note, I attended a couple of robotics/AI panels and the news there is better. Everyone seems to realize that robots can’t be black boxes. We have to understand what they are doing, why, and be able to anticipate what they will do next. They need to react to humans and give feedback and behave within the constraints of human social norms.

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A cool VR gaming “accessory” – a pod with 360 degree rotation

A woman told a great story of being frustrated in a robotics lab she worked in when she was blocked by a robot parked in front of a door. She squeezed around it and got yelled at because she ruined the experiment. It was trying to figure out how to get through the door. She said – how would I know that? They all realized the robot needs to give physical cues humans can understand and so now they are working with people from Pixar (Maybe? I forget which animation place) to develop simple motions to express thinking, frustration, failure, success–not with some fake face but gestures. The boxy robot scratches its head when thinking, slumps when it fails at a task, etc.

Researchers found a robot with a spherical head is perceived as more intelligent, so they have purposefully made their robot with a small square head to indicate it is NOT smart. A panelist argued robots should never be humanoid unless they are as smart as us (which is not going to happen anytime soon) because we feel tricked and frustrated when a human-looking thing doesn’t act human.

Also I feel a lot better about what we call AI thanks to Kevin Kelly. He is convinced that AI’s will do very specific tasks very well. An AI might drive a car and that’s it. It won’t be the same one that is running your insulin pump. No master AI will control everything.

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The state of virtual reality now: Everyone in the same room looking at different things

Also, VR headsets were everywhere. Even in the pathetic MacDonald’s lounge. I asked the guy at the front door what VR had to do with MacDonalds and he shrugged. “Nothing. It’s just supposed to be fun.” Hey, great marketing!

KW

On the more creative side, I was inspired by panels by directors, actors, and writers. I’ll need to go back and listen to these again. Hopefully SXSW puts up the recordings. Kerry Washington talked about negative comments “about her” on social media as being more about the people leaving the comments. They are “sharing” information about themselves, so the meaner the comment…

Ira Glass was candid and down to earth. I especially enjoyed him talking about Mike Birbiglia, writer and director of the movie “Don’t Think Twice.” Glass said Birbiglia was shameless in asking for help from anyone and everyone to get the script for the movie in shape. He showed the script to Glass who initially thought there was nothing there, no movie. And Birbiglia kept at it roping everyone in, getting feedback, making changes. And the movie premiered here!

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Ira Glass makes a balloon animal for an audience member

It was fun to see the women from Broad City all dressed up and professional, and to hear  them to declare they are NOT like their characters insofar as they work really hard and know what they want from life.

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The actors and writers from the TV show Silicon Valley were really funny (improv style). When asked why there weren’t more women on the show, the writer/director said the real silicon valley is something like 89% white dudes, so that is how he casts the show. I understand. He is holding up a mirror and we are meant to both laugh and realize the stuff going on here is pretty awful.

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The evening events were overcrowded and underwhelming. In years past parties seemed to have more of a theme and some hands-on activities. The parties we managed to get in to (many had lines around the block and were also at capacity) all had DJs playing so loud it was next to impossible to have a conversation – or to meet anyone and network. I met a few interesting people but ended up with only a couple business cards. Last year I got dozens.

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Mr. Robot F Society evening party – had a line around the block & we never got in

Another barrier to meeting people is the ubiquity of phones. Waiting in line used to be a great place to get to know people, as was waiting for a panel to start, now 90% of everyone is heads down on a phone. I was really sad about this. Before striking up a conversation was a kindness, now it’s an interruption.

One weird thing about SXSW is the “shadow” events that take place at the same time. All around town restaurants and bars are closed for private parties and the huge corporate-branded spaces are usually open to badge-holders during the day, then privatized at night for who knows what. Adding to the complexity are events and spaces that are “public” but RSVP-only. All this ends up creating a strange atmosphere. When you look around the place feels like a big party but when you try to join in, there are barriers.

Kroll

I did RSVP to the Fast Company Grill and really enjoyed it. It is one of the only branded spaces here that makes sense. So many sponsored parties here have logos everywhere, the bar staff in logo t-shirts and…no information about what the company does and no representatives. Fast Company is a magazine. They had magazines out. They had drinks and food, but also speakers and panels by people they feature in the magazine. Great! Got it! Marketing success. Though, I don’t read the magazine so…?

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The Director and cast of “Don’t Think Twice” at the Fast Company Grill

I’m not sure that interactive is working for me anymore. I tried to be zen this year and let whatever happens happen, but it frustrates me that there is an ideal sequence of panels I could go to each day but the venues are so spread out (the convention center itself is nearly a kilometer end to end) that I cannot physically get from place to place and even if I managed to get there, the panel might be full. I also miss the publishing/writing track they used to have.

Nothing blew my mind and I can’t help but worry that it’s my own fault. If only I’d gone to that other panel. Maybe I wasn’t listening hard when the speaker said the really important thing. Maybe I should have introduced myself to the people next to me who were so damn intent on updating their facebook pages. And then I felt annoyed that I was blaming myself. It’s okay to hate lines and crowds and maybe conferences with more than 80,000 people aren’t for me.

Shrug. Sometimes everything aligns and sometimes nothing happens. Maybe I’ve just been to this too many times and it is too familiar and my WOW bar is raised too high.

Heh. I sometimes feel the universe is a little too interested in making me eat my words. And making me eat them RIGHT NOW. I’m writing this at an outdoor café and the man one table over heard me mentioning VR to a friend of mine that stopped by. He came over to show me one of those little VR/phone cardboard things that he said had a documentary on it and that he could more fully connect emotionally with the movie thanks to the VR. He is a documentary filmmaker from Finland who is investigating ways to rewrite theater plays for VR. He sat down, we chatted about the conference, about Nokia’s new $60k VR camera (which I hadn’t heard of), about Finland, about people being on their phones all the time.

Then, he gave me his card.

I realized my chances of meeting a VR documentary filmmaker from Finland as I trudge through my usual routine in San Francisco are precisely ZERO. I need to take a deep breath, and a nap, eat some vegetables, and embrace the big mess that is SXSW because my WOW bar is way out of alignment and my perspective is messed up. I met an astronaut. And a wheelchair-bound cattle farmer from north Texas with a concealed carry permit who’s lost 80% of his trees due to drought. A guy from the U.K. who is the CEO of a startup destined to fail (sorry). A woman from the DoD who runs all their websites. I discussed EMPs with a guy from a senate intelligence committee. A woman walked up to me last night and said, “I met you in Berlin,” and she was right!

Maybe I will come back.

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I actually understood Bruce Sterling’s closing remarks – a first!

The Future is Coming…

New Year’s Eve, December 31, 2015

I worked steadily this year, both in writing and at my day jobs, and it’s hard to romanticize either. I wish writing were more dramatic but editing Six is like building a brick wall–one I’m not sure how high or long to make.

San Francisco Sunset

The last sunset of 2015, as viewed now from the attic where I write

The book is actually in good shape. My writer’s group has given extremely helpful critiques and I hired a professional editor give me a high-altitude review of the whole thing. I’m fine-tuning it now and will send this draft to a couple more beta readers, then begin to shop it around in earnest.

I wish I could pat myself on the back for achieving a couple of milestones this year, but I can’t. I feel I haven’t gotten enough done. I think that is the real challenge–getting used to never being done. I’m working on Six, a couple short stories, and a side project in a totally different genre to clear my head. All this is how it should be and preferable to not having anything going but I need to focus on getting more of the pieces finished and out the door.

Enough of my whining. On to…

The Highlights of 2015!!

Shakespeare and Company, Paris.

Shakespeare and Company CatIn January, I almost attended a writer’s group at Shakespeare and Company in Paris. I showed up, as did half a dozen other people, and then a clerk came up to our attic room to tell us it was cancelled.

I was bummed, but I met a couple of interesting people. One women from South Africa had a book published years ago, and to some acclaim, though she now talked of it disparagingly. She was in her mid-30’s so the book must have come out when she was in her 20’s. I was dying to know her name and the name of the book, but I had to be “cool” because she was going out of her way not to mention either despite some pretty obvious hints from me. Another woman had come to Paris “to write.” She wanted to finish her wine-themed memoir. I didn’t say anything but I think going to Paris to write is a terrible idea! Go to Paris and have a good time and then go somewhere boring to write.

Anyway, I felt super writerly just being there. There are things that should be on my to do list that I can’t even imagine until after I’ve already done them, and this was one of them. Writer’s group at Shakespeare and Company. DONE!

She’s Geeky Conference, Sunnyvale California

A great un-conference for women in tech. I was intimidated when I went the first time but everyone assured me that they want to add the “A” to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math). I highly recommend this event.

South by Southwest, Austin, Texas

Film, Interactive, and Music. We did it all…and I didn’t get catch a cold. Though I did sprain my ankle pretty much as soon as we arrived I didn’t let that stop me. Saw and heard amazing talks (the future of human computer interaction, future crimes, surveillance’s threat to liberty, a look inside DARPA, book publishing and new media, what privacy means now, digital ethics, and of course Bruce Sterling’s famous closing remarks), saw amazing movies (including the world premiere of Ex Machina with a Q&A with the director and cast, and a screening of Mr. Robot, with Director and cast), went to a biohacking party, saw bands, drank too much. The usual! I meant to do a post on this but blogging often feels a lot like procrastinating.

mrrobotcastThe cast and writer of Mr. Robot. I was too shy to get a photo with Christian Slater.

Shoreline of Infinity comes out

My short story See You Later is published in a Scottish science fiction magazine – and I got paid for it!!

Bay Area Book Festival, Berkeley, California

This was the first year for this event and it was PACKED. I’d meant to attend many talks (all free) but most sessions were full. I did get to hear John Scalzi speak, and I introduced myself to Paolo Bacigalupi. I felt bad for him. I was super red and sweaty and looked the crazed fan part perfectly. Said hi to Ransom Stephens who I met a few years ago at the San Francisco Writer’s conference.

Paolo Bacigalupi signing booksPaolo Bacigalupi signs books while his wife waits patiently

Neil Gaiman in conversation with Stuart Brand, San Francisco, California

I blogged about this.

Yes and Yes Yes, Palm Springs, California

My first time at this unconference in Palm Springs. They can explain it better than I:

“A gathering of…

  • thinkers/futurists/nerds/weirdos
  • voracious consumers of and generators of ideas and information
  • creatives that like to engage in conversation about their creative pursuits & the concepts behind them
  • people comfortable with & excited about their own obsessive interest in their odd corner of the world”

Right up my alley. I had a really great time until it was time to fly home and the plane overheated on the runway and we were stuck in the closed-down airport for hours and hours.

YxYYI know this looks like voracious consumers of beer, not ideas, but we found we could do both

EFF anniversary party, San Francisco, California

Yikes…this was an intimidating crowd. Everyone was so smart. Lawyers who argued the such and such case, professors, authors. I met Cory Doctorow (again) and Will Wheaton (what a gracious guy) and gave them both SomaFM t-shirts. It’s tough for me to introduce myself to public figures. It feels really intrusive. OTOH, they are in public so random people like me coming up is an expected annoyance. I’d rather not do it, but it is important for me to close the gap between screen and real, and to gain more empathy for people that put themselves out there in the media. It is a tough job.

EFF and Cory DoctorowI really like Cory Doctorow’s jacket

DEF CON Hacker Conference, Las Vegas, Nevada

DEF CON was great. I finally felt comfortable and not like an impostor the way I did last year. I went to sessions. Parties. DJ’d. Drank. More on this in a future post.

DefConBedside table at a party at DEF CON

XOXO, Portland, Oregon

This was my first time at this “experimental festival celebrating independently-produced art and technology.” Very interesting sessions, interesting attendees, and crazy hot weather for Portland.

I met author/illustrator Jason Porath. He seems to be a friend of a friend and we ended up at the same table at a food truck court. His book, http://www.rejectedprincesses.com/ should be coming out soon.

I got my novella printed at Powell’s Books via an on demand printing machine. It was really cool to see it go from virtual to physical.

Powell's books Portland

I met Carl Steadman and Joey Anuff of Suck. They were a big deal to my crowd back in the day. I talked to Joey Anuff at length about his stint at MTV as well as other things. He was a really nice.

Eclipse

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Our writing group read at LitQuake’s LitCrawl

I wrote about this in another post.

Huh, I guess I did a lot this year in addition to working and writing. I didn’t realize until I put it all in one place. If it seems like I go to a lot of conferences, this is true. I spend 95% of my time in front of a computer screen either writing or doing design–and not interacting with people or getting a sense of “the next big thing,” which I’ve got to have a handle on if I’m writing near-future fiction. Going to these kinds of creative conferences allows me to get face to face with people and see what they are excited about.

Also, I need to visualize the next step in my writer career by interacting with successful, published authors and this is a challenge because they aren’t wandering around in the wild. If I wanted to become a programmer or a social media consultant or an architect or a teacher I could walk down to the coffee shop right now and grab one for a chat. It’s harder to find a science fiction writer! Thus, the necessary but awkward introductions at conferences and lectures. I don’t know if all writers would find this necessary but for me it is a great motivator.

My goal for 2016 is to do even more, be even more productive, and GET SIX PUBLISHED.

Happy New Year!!!

A series of Fortunate Events

Saturday night marked a huge milestone in my author career: I read at Litcrawl! Last year the events were so crowded I couldn’t even make it into the audience, let alone imagine being a reader. I was really discouraged. All those venues, all those authors. Would I ever be one of them?

Shortly after this, I saw an announcement in Bernalwood, my neighborhood blog, that the Alabama Street Writer’s Group was looking for new members. Not only that, they met only two blocks from my house. It was too perfect. I’d been wanting to join a writer’s group. I tried the San Francisco Writer’s Workshop, but so many people attended that not all could read, and there wasn’t time to think or give any kind of cogent feedback.

I sent in a story and was invited to join. I’ve been going every week for almost a year now and the experience has been great. I’ve gotten so much helpful advice from the other members. I am learning to really listen, with a completely open mind, because I trust that the people around me love reading and writing and truly want to help me polish my stories. I’ve heard stories about mean writer’s groups with rude and cruel people and thank god no one in this group is like that.

I really enjoy the diversity of writing. We’ve got fiction, memoir, horror, sci fi, YA. The challenge is to not think, I can’t critique this, this isn’t my genre, I don’t know anything about ____. We have to set aside our theoretical ideas of what we do and don’t like and dive right into every piece and help the author realize his or her vision. Plus, every time I analyze someone else’s story it helps me see the weaknesses in my own.

That we would get to read at Litcrawl was an amazing bonus…and as the day approached, a source of some anxiety as well. I’m not much of a public speaker. I’d read in front of people exactly once. I’m not a huge fan of my own voice. I did my best to get over this by reading my story (See You Later – it is the one published in the Scottish science fiction magazine) VERY LOUDLY when no one was home. MANY TIMES. This was good.

ASWG_litcrawl

Oddly, all my nearest and dearest friends and family were out of town or busy the night of Litcrawl. I was pretty annoyed at first. I mean, seriously?

A few deep breaths later I realized I was lucky. Zero people I knew meant zero pressure. I intend to keep at this for years and years and hopefully do many readings. Everyone can’t come to everything and I’ll be a lot better at this when I’ve gotten more practice.

City Art Gallery was a great venue. Good lighting. Super nice staff.

I was second to last to read. I thought I’d get more and more nervous but I was okay. Nervous but not paralyzed. We had a good-sized crowd but no one I knew, so what the hey! Instead of being worried my face would be super red and I’d stumble over words, I worried that people would be bored–which is a huge step in the right direction.

I have no interest in being a performer, however, I do want my stories to be heard, which in some cases will entail me reading them. I’ve got to allow the audience to concentrate on it and not me. I can’t be nervous or that will make the listeners uncomfortable.

I don’t know if I did it well but I did it! And next time I’ll do it better…and maybe some of my friends will show up.

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XO marks the spot

A friend told me about the XOXO conference and festival in Portland. The festival portion is “an experimental festival celebrating independently produced art and technology,” and the conference is “two days of talks from independent creators using the Internet to make a living doing what they love, and the challenges they face in the process.”

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Yes, please! I carry three business cards and run out of each at an equal pace. Writer, freelance designer, and SomaFM jack-of-all-trades. I don’t even remember what that tax form is you get when you work for a company full time as I haven’t seen one for years. Not by choice, but speaker Amit Gupta displayed a great quote from Joseph Campbell during his talk: “You must give up the life you planned in order to have the life that is waiting for you.”

I don’t know if this was the life that was waiting for me–as that sounds kind of ominous and inevitable–but it is the life that is happening to me right now and though it is a little nerve-wracking, it is also pretty interesting. And, yes, I know that other quote about interesting times.

I managed to “win” a ticket in the lottery, and despite the fact that the schedule was unpublished, bought the ticket and committed.

Very glad I did.

I was nervous when I walked into the opening party (on the lawn of a 1920’s high school now converted to offices and an event space) but thank god, beer was free so everyone had a pint in hand. The woman in front of me (in the beer line of course) introduced herself and her companion whom she’d just met, and I felt much better. It was THIS kind of place. A place where you could be friendly and expect friendliness in return.

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I met so many nice people over the course of the weekend. Not like “networking” interactions, but more like we were old friends or coworkers catching up. I butted into conversations, joined board games in progress, followed people I’d just met across town to a food truck park that was supposed to have beer but didn’t, and chatted with speakers who’d just stepped off the stage.

I got the feeling that most of the speakers and attendees understand that in the internet era, your 15 minutes of fame are broken into one-minute chunks. One day you are in the New York Times, the next you are barely employed. You’ve got fans but no funds. Your career is derailed due to age, an animated gif, or illness. We all have dreams and we all have bills to pay. How does it work? We try to do what we love and keep our heads above water.

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It is so important to me to be able to compress the space between two-dimensional people (those we only see on the internet) and three-dimensional people. Between perceptions and reality. Between what we imagine and where we are now.

I don’t want to get too sentimental but XOXO was, for me, one long pep talk, because no one tells you that doing what you love can be freaking tedious at times.

My “yes, and…” (beyond telling the people I met yes, you are awesome, and I admire you, and hope I am half as successful as you, and I’ll have another beer) happened when I went into Powell’s Books. Ginormous bookstore in case you haven’t heard of it. This greeted me when I walked in:

selfpublished

I thought it was a general, power to the author type thing, then I found out they had a print on demand book machine onsite!!

I rushed back to the hotel and reformatted my e-pub version of The Perfect Specimen (which actually took a few hours), emailed it to Powell’s, and a few hours later, held print versions of my novella in my hand.

perfectbindingI wasn’t supposed to be excited. I am supposed to be cool with digital only versions of my text BUT I WAS SO HAPPY. And even better, so was everyone at XOXO. I pulled a copy out of my backpack at the slightest provocation and everyone got it. They got that we put so much effort into our “internet” things and those things are real and reach so many people but sometimes we need a weekend where we can page through one of the eight hard copies of someone’s book and eat pizza and drink beer and play the first edition of a Jane Austen-themed card game and accept a sweatshirt from a stranger late at night when we are cold because creating is sometimes a lonely business and we need to know we are part of a community even if we are hundreds of miles apart.

Thank you to Andy, the other Andy, and the Other Other Andy for putting this on. It worked. : )

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Fireboat on the opening day of the Tilikum Crossing bridge in Portland.

Neil Gaiman on Storytelling

Funny how when we try to elevate our minds, we get sidetracked by our bodies.

The Castro Theater was hot. I dunno if they have air conditioning. Most buildings in San Francisco don’t. The average temperature here is probably 62 degrees so we don’t need it. The theater was sold out and the seats are “old-timey” – not super narrow but not the loungers we’re getting used to in the new places. Meaning, the guy next to me dominated the armrest and his thigh squished against mine. Also, we had to get up half a dozen times to let people into our row.

The Long Now Foundation was true to its name. The 45 minutes we waited for the talk to begin seemed like FOREVER.

I mention this to explain why I wasn’t as receptive to the first half of the event as I might have been if I’d been at a two-top table with a fake LED candle and a Manhattan.

I felt like I was at a sermon. Or a college lecture. No offense to Neil Gaiman because I’ve seen him at a couple of other events (at SXSW) and he was great. Is great. In this case, his slow, practiced lecture voice, the podium, the notes, me thinking I’m-not-sure-where-this-is-going, and the spotlight that illuminated him and left us in the dark…all I could think was, oh yeah, interesting, good point. Fuck, dude, get your thigh off me. Can’t you retract?

My favorite part of the lecture was when Gaiman described what it’s like when you try to relate a dream to a friend or partner. How their eyes glaze over. I won’t try to retell it. Very funny. Also, he made a clever comment about (paper) books being something you can drop and they still work afterwards (vs. Kindle). Made me laugh, but didn’t work with the theme of stories having a life of their own and living 2000 years regardless of medium. I felt like Random House or whoever publishes his paper books stepped into the room.

NGSB

Once the conversation with Stewart Brand of the Long Now Foundation started, all was good, though still freaking hot. I’m a huge fan of this format. This is when moments happen that could never happen at any other time. I love listening to smart people converse.

Strange moment though. Brand asked Gaiman if his view of death had changed now that Terry Pratchett died (of Alzheimer’s). I don’t know what his view was “before” but this didn’t seem a very appropriate question to ask in front of 500+ people. You might ask at a weekend getaway with friends after too many drinks and most everyone else has gone to bed. Though Gaiman hit this head on, with anecdotes about Pratchett, his protestation that the only time he’d ever feared death was when he had the only copy of drawings for one of his graphic novels with him on a plane rang false and incredibly true at the same time. He worried that creative output would be lost. I can only assume he’d be just as protective of the creative spark inside his own soul.

I don’t know what you are supposed to say when a guy trying to build a 10,000 year clock asks you what you think about death. Offer a cheery high-five to distant future kin? Being in a hot theater left me thinking about nothing but the next five minutes. I guess I’m not a good candidate for membership in this foundation. : )

Great News!

A couple months ago I got a standard email rejection for one of my short stories, and then I did a double take. It wasn’t a rejection. I had to read it three or four times to be sure. Then I screamed, very softly, because my husband was still asleep, and then ran down and woke him up to tell him.

SOIcoverMy story, “See You Later” will be in the first issue of Shoreline of Infinity – a new science fiction magazine from Scotland (e-pub and PRINT!!).

I waited so long to write about this here because I couldn’t quite believe it was happening. Yes, I had the acceptance letter and a signed contract, but I still wasn’t sure. Today I got an email from the editor with the cover…WITH MY NAME ON IT. In the same block of text as Charles Stross. !!!!!

I wrote before about not feeling like a “real” author, so looking at this is like standing up too fast.

Over the past few years I’ve been to many conferences and author readings and other events and tried to make sense of how words make it onto the pages of professional publications. What I’ve heard, over and over again, is that there is no formula. And no objectively “good” story. One woman, compiling an anthology, found almost no consensus among her ten editors. Each had one or two stories they liked very much (not the same stories by the way), and were lukewarm about the others. Not only do you have the issue of personal taste, an editor might have just published a story with a plucky robot hero and won’t want to publish yours, even if it is great.

There are too many reasons why a perfectly good story doesn’t fit in a particular publication on a certain day. I’ve had to hear that from many people before it really sunk in. The story itself isn’t flawed, it is round and the magazine needs square.

The real trouble as an author is figuring out whether or not the story is “perfectly good” and just hasn’t found the right spot, or is not that great and needs work–because the standard rejection gives absolutely no clues.

People told me this writing thing was hard, but I misunderstood why. I thought it was hard to write the book. Hard to carve out the time and then hard to stop when I was in the groove but *people* wanted to do things like eat dinner with me. I thought it was hard to edit. To slash passages I really liked. To decipher what my smart beta readers mean when they say something is too long or too short or confusing. They point out a problem and there are a hundred ways to fix it.

The really hard part is sending a piece out into the ether and hearing nothing. No praise, no derisive laughter, no whisper of someone reading aloud in bed, no crinkle of paper as a printout is balled up and tossed into the recycling bin. Everyone has a different place they need their thick skin and this is where I’m building up mine. Facing a sea of apathy and being willing to dive into it to find the handful of readers who will read my story and be glad they did.

I’m not sure why I focused so much on rejection when I’m feeling so very happy and buoyed by this acceptance. It is really great that my story fit with this editor and this publication.

Thank you so much Shoreline of Infinity for making this happen!

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.

authorsignature2

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.

alanJeanTalk

Read about that evening here: https://mlukemcdonell.wordpress.com/2013/10/11/the-future-that-never-was/

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.

http://nouvellabooks.com/about/

https://www.bookbub.com/home/

http://store.kobobooks.com/en-us/

http://www.themillions.com/about-the-millions

http://www.meetup.com

http://litseen.com/

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.

Defcon22 – Hack my brain

Defcon badge

I suffer from a chronic case of imposter syndrome and I have got to get over it. I recently heard a brave man admit, “I was CEO of four different companies before I felt like I was really a CEO. I kept thinking I wasn’t qualified and I was going to be found out.”

I breathed a huge sigh of relief. Hearing this made me feel better. Very confident people tend to be the ones that speak out so the more tentative of us feel we are surrounded by superstars, which only makes imposter syndrome worse.

I’m not sure why the list of, “I’m not…” screams louder than the list of, “I am.” This was my second year at Defcon and I still felt like I was about to be thrown out for faking it. I wasn’t a hacker. I wasn’t a security professional. I wasn’t programmer or a gamer. Hell, I wasn’t even sure what some of the words meant in the program!

Why didn’t I focus on the positive? I was invited. Soma FM (my day job) provided music for the chill room again, and I’d be DJing. (Even now part of my brain is telling me I’m not a DJ.)

Also, I am extremely interested in privacy rights and surveillance states, and these were the subject of many of the talks. Finally, Defcon is all about the near future, and my science fiction stories take place in the near future. I did belong, and I was qualified, but I skulked around feeling like a trespasser.

Eff at defcon

Still, I had a great time. I went for the full-on paranoia track in the talks. “How To Get Phone Companies To Just Say No To Wiretapping,” by Phil Zimmermann, “Detecting and Defending Against a Surveillance State,” by Robert Rowley, “What the Watchers See: Eavesdropping on Municipal Mesh Cameras for Giggles (or Pure Evil),” by Dustin Hoffman & Thomas (TK) Kinsey, “Am I Being Spied On? Low-tech Ways Of Detecting High-tech Surveillance” by Dr. Phil Polstra, “Dark Mail,” by Ladar Levison & Stephen Watt, “A Survey of Remote Automotive Attack Surfaces,” by Charlie Miller & Chris Valasek, “Ask the EFF: The Year in Digital Civil Liberties,” by Kurt Opsahl, Nate Cardozo, Mark Jaycox, Yan Zhu, & Eva Galperin.

The panels were great. My main takeaways? The technology ordinary people use is super insecure. The out-of-the-box settings leave the devices susceptible to hacking. Outside the home, many small cities (as well as small businesses) don’t have the budget for an IT department, so they are dependent on contractors who set up the equipment and then bail, leaving their former clients untrained and unable to keep up with the ever-changing security landscape. And finally, that the government and corporations are going to intrude until we scream “UNCLE!” with the help of the EFF. I’d be discouraged if it weren’t for the fact, as the EFF helpfully pointed out, that feeling helpless is exactly what the opposing forces want, as that leads us to throw up our hands and say, there is nothing we can do. Fuck that!

mowhawk at defcon

When I wasn’t imagining a bleak future, I had a blissfully good time. I DJ’d. I learned to pick locks (a little). I played Hacker Jeopardy. I watched people get mohawks. I swam. I drank weak Las Vegas convention center drinks. I ate crappy food. I got to watch DJ Spooky do his sound check, then saw the show. I went to parties. I caught up with friends. I danced.

Paul Miller

I spoke to some Defcon oldtimers who were saddened that the event has grown from a small, clubby gathering of friends into a many-headed beast. I’ve heard the same thing about SXSW and burningman and only now can I see both sides. Regarding burningman, I’m on the old timer side of the fence, lamenting that we can’t run around naked shooting guns and peeing on the playa. I was later to game for SXSW, and though I’ve seen it grow I have no right to complain.

But Defcon? If it hadn’t grown and evolved over the years, I’ve never have been able to attend. I realized that growth allows space for the timid and the unsure, those that don’t rush in but have so much to offer if they are invited to participate.

I heard a great definition of hacking from one of the Defcon staffers: Hacking is making a thing do something it wasn’t designed to do.

I am a hacker and I’m going to hack my misguided brain. Goodbye “I’m not” and hello “I am.”

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.

ungarcon

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.