Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Why I don't game

As I said at the end of my previous rant, it was originally only intended to be the set-up for this post. Today's subject is why I believe with great certainty that people project themselves into their reviews and criticisms, and it represents a very narrow sub-set of the kind of behavior I described previously.

You see, there's a criticism that has cropped up several times, from various reviewers, on various unrelated projects, that is so implausible in my case that it's laughable. The criticisms vary in detail, but the gist is that people see in my writing some kind of RPG campaign, or some rote use of RPG game mechanics.

Now, stuff like that does happen in fiction, without doubt. I once read slush for a major fantasy magazine, and every box of mail that arrived had an assortment of stories that were obviously just a chronicle of somebody's D&D campaign. The appearance of the words "thief" or "cleric" in the opening paragraph was usually a clue. Frankly, I suspect there has been no greater poison visited upon fantasy fiction than D&D.

That's not a criticism of the game, because, to be honest, I hardly know enough about it to fairly criticize. I'm just saying that D&D lay down a rather rigid template of character types and adventure formulas and then convinced whole generations that this translated directly into good fantasy fiction, which it does not. A game is a game. A story is a story. There may be an area of overlap, but they are not the same thing.

Here's where I make a confession that will shock, confound, and maybe even outrage a lot of people. I don't game. Not at all. In my entire life, I have never played a role-playing-game. Not D&D. Not BattleTech. Not anything. Nada. None. Zip. I've played strategy games, and I've played MechWarrior a couple times, just long enough to get some feel for how the combat works, and I play a few computer games now and then (sims, shooters, and the occasional strategy game).

This despite the fact that I'm just about to start work on my third MechWarrior Dark Age novel, set in what is essentially an RPG universe (though MechWarrior itself is a miniature-based strategy game set in that universe). This despite the fact that I wrote the greatest Heavy Gear novel never-published. Sure, I've read from lots and lots of rule-books and game supplements. But I've made a conscious decision not to play the games so far, and at this late date, I doubt I ever will.

I've already hinted at the biggest reason why. I think that excessive familiarity with the game will inevitably color the storytelling. This might not hurt the story, but I really don't believe it can help it. My theory of fiction is that everything must serve the needs of the story. If other elements start pushing the story around, then that's wrong. If I ever find myself thinking about hit-points or combat tables rather than characters, plot, and the reader's experience, then I've gone horribly off-track. To my mind, the best way not to have that happen, even unconsciously, is simply not to know about any of those things.

As I've said, I do read the game guides. I do study the tech, the worlds, the history, the people. But I carefully avoid (as much as possible) the bits about game mechanics and actual play. Inevitably some of it slips through (you can't write MechWarrior/BattleTech unless you understand heat-dissipation, for instance), but I try to keep it to a minimum, and think of it as explanations of real technology and engineering, not game rules. My theory of how to write one of these books is to treat the world I'm writing about as absolutely real. I read them the same way I might read a Fodor's travel guide or a CIA Fact book entry on a real country I was writing about.

I do not write about games. I write about characters, worlds, and situations. BattleTech's Inner Sphere, Heavy Gear's Terra Nova, Conan's Stygia, or Marvel's Xavier School for Gifted Youngsters, these are not parts of a game, references from some old pulp-adventures, or names in some comic-book. They are real places that exist in my head, based on extensive research and extrapolation from that research. I've never been there, but they feel real to me.

Sure, I know it's all make-believe, but unless on some level I can totally buy into that world, I don't see how I can expect the reader to buy it either. And I'll never buy into it that deeply if I constantly see all the springs, wires and hidden mechanisms that make it work.

Now, I admit that most writers of game fiction don't do things that way. My friend Loren Coleman, who has also written MechWarrior and Conan (not to mention classic BattleTech and other game fiction) is an avid gamer and game designer. Michael A. Stackpole, who is pretty much God to fans of BattleTech fiction, reportedly games every battle in one of his books, and if the outcome isn't what he was planning, he changes the book accordingly.

Assuming this is correct, and it works for him, then that's great. But I can't in my wildest dreams imagine writing a book that way. I often play fast-and-loose with the game universes I work in, and consciously put myself out on the edge of what will work. Sometimes I go over the edge, either accidentally, or more often because I think it's somehow justified. At that point, I depend on the editors and the game people who vet the outlines and manuscript to tell me to pull it back in.

Usually I do. Sometimes we argue about it, and then usually I end up fixing it anyway. But sometimes I win, and things get in there that just don't work in the game. But they work for the story, and that's worth fighting for.

Yes, occasionally this does put me at odds with my editors and the game folks. Fact is, they usually are very familiar with the game mechanics and play (in fact, I count on it), and their emotional investment is with the game, not the books. That's just common sense. The games are always the biggest part of their bread-and-butter. The novels are just a little side-license that generates some extra income. Nothing to sneeze at, but a sidebar. So it's only reasonable for an editor or reader in that position to believe that the novels should be written about the game.

But that's not the way I write novels. I write novels about the real world(s) that the game is based on, and any game is always just going to be a simplified approximation of that world. That's a subtle but important difference in approach.

Usually those two very-different views overlap enough not to cause problems, but as I've said, there are sometimes conflicts. When that happens, I make my cause, but ultimately, in this sort of thing, the final call always goes to the company licensing the fiction. That's as it should be. I feel like I'm there to advocate my viewpoint, not enforce it. (If I felt I had to enforce it, I wouldn't be working very much. The licensee is boss!)

So why don't I just write books their way and save myself the trouble? Because I think that this is the best way to produce good books. I do the best I can from my approach, and they edit it critically from their different one, I advocate in return from my viewpoint, and we come to some compromise (probably weighted in their favor). But and I think the result is usually better than either approach alone would generate.

I try things, take approaches, not strictly drawn from the way the game works, and in turn push the envelope of the kinds of stories we can tell. They then keep it real for the gamers who are a primary consumer of these kinds of books. If I go too far, if I'm going to alienate that audience, then they're there to call me on it and to correct it. But to my mind, it's always better to go to far and trim back, than to conservatively color well inside the lines. And if you know where the lines are you're always, consciously or not, going to start putting on the brakes before you get there.

So, if you think you see game mechanics or cliches peeking at you from between the pages of one of my books, then it's almost certainly your imagination. I'm certainly not faulting you for thinking it, but I'd suggest you not say it out loud, or post it on Amazon for that matter.

The human brain is wired to see what it wants to see in randomness. We're programmed to find patterns, even if there's nothing there, and we inevitably draw upon ourselves to flesh out those patterns. It's why most people see pictures in every cloud. And it's why some people see die-rolls behind every plot twist.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Through a mirror darkly

What do an Amazon review and a Rorschach Test have in common?

Answer: they both usually tell you more about the person doing the reporting than the thing they're reporting on.

It's a curious artifact of user-written reviews, be they of books, or movies, or coffee-makers, that they often give you a peep-hole into the reviewers'lives and thought processes. Often, there's a voyeuristic quality to reading them, even to the extent of making me feel a little guilty sometimes. It's like standing outside someone's window after dark, looking in a them as they've unwittingly opened the curtains.

In writing reviews, people reveal their own prejudices, desires, passions, and failings. As a good book tries to challenge and expand the reader's perceptions, it often runs straight into peoples limits, be they emotional, intellectual, educational, or social, and in reviews, they dutifully report those impacts, often with little more idea of what really happened than a gold-fish bumping an aquarium wall.

(As an example, a recent criticism of one of my works addresses a scene in which the hero encounters what is apparently an evil version of themselves, then asserts that the idea was somehow derived from the 1983 movie Superman III. Never mind that the comic-book Superman has been dealing with his own twisted "Bizzaro" counterpart since 1958, or that the concept of the evil-counterpart can be found in many ancient mythologies and has been used countless times in fiction since.

The would-be critic could have, with some justification, accused me of resorting to a cliche and emerged free-and-clear. Instead, they had to accuse me of stealing from a 1983 movie they happened to be familiar with, and demonstrate that the depth of their knowledge doesn't much exceed that of the kiddy-pool.

Or an aquarium. Bonk! "What was that?")

When you're reading reviews of some product, or someone else's work, then it can be amusing, even entertaining. But when you're reading reviews of your own work, it can be frustrating, even infuriating, as these revealing little windows most often open in negative reviews. It's frustrating to know that many people take these reviews at face value, rather than as isolated, and very subjective reports of someone's reading experience.

Take for example, Amazon.com. A typical mid-list or lower book (where most of us live) will get no more than a hand-full of reviews, hardly enough to be statistically relevant even if they were pulled at random from a larger pool. But they aren't random. They're self-selecting. Usually they're either (and author's live for these) people who made some special connection with a book and want to share it, or somebody who had a very negative experience with the book and feel compelled to warn others, or perhaps almost as often, they're somebody with an independent agenda whose path just happened to cross over with the book.

So, what's wrong with that? Well, nothing, at least with the first two. But all these things should come with a "your mileage may vary" disclaimer. Just because one person loved a book doesn't mean you will too. It's a positive sign, but nothing conclusive.

Same with the negative experience, only more so. People have lots of reasons for hating books, and many of them have little to do with the quality of the book itself. If you've decided you hate science-fiction, you will probably not enjoy a science-fiction book no matter how well written. You may also hate a technothriller, or a futuristic romance that uses science-fiction trappings. But that doesn't mean there's anything objectively wrong with the book. It pushed your buttons in a bad way, but not everyone comes equipped with the same set of buttons.

These sorts of prejudiced can be more subtle. Some readers love rich, poetic, prose, and could care less about plot or character. Some demand a cracking-good story, and could care less about how the words are put together. Some people may have trouble identifying with a viewpoint character with a different gender than their own, or a different culture.

Speaking personally, there are best-selling authors I can't read, and others I just don't enjoy. But I know, given the numbers of people buying their books, that the writing is obviously exceptional in some way I'm not receptive to, of that it has shortcomings I'm especially sensitive to which overwhelm its virtues.

But then there are the agenda people, and they are legion. The most obvious ones have political agendas. Look at viewer written reviews of movies like "Fahrenheit 911," or "Broke Back Mountain," or "Syriana," and you'll likely find most of them are far more about the author's politics, religion and world-view than about the movies in question. But those are obvious hot-button works. Experience has shown that even a movie like "Forest Gump" can become intensely politicized, not so much because of the movie itself, but because it provides a canvas on which people can project their own agendas.

Of course not all agendas are so obvious, large, or even logical. For many people I encounter in the type of tie-in novel that I write it takes the form of some purity test. Some people judge Star Trek fiction, for instance, based on which characters (or series, or eras) that they either like or hate. Never mind if you've written the ultimate Wesley Crusher story, if they hate Wesley, then they won't give you the time of day.

With my MechWarrior Dark Age novels, it's often about the division between the "Classic fatalities" era, and the rebooted and later "Dark Age" timeline. Many old gamers are annoyed about the reboot and vent themselves at those of us who write "Dark Age" books. Well, guess what? Nobody gave us a choice. As with all tie-in fiction, the license owner calls the big shots, not the author. You write what they tell you to write, or they just get somebody else to write it. I always write the best book I can within the parameters given, but I almost never get any say in those parameters.

Then there are the "deceased author" properties. I've done this sort of thing twice now, first with the "Bolo" novellas I co-authored a few years back, based on the work of the late, great, Keith Laumer. More recently, I've done a trilogy of novels set in the world of Robert E. Howard's Conan.

There, one encounters the self-appointed guardians of said author's work. And there, the agendas are spread out, hidden, like mines in a mine-field. Only in politics and religion will you otherwise find passions that run so high, or opinions so deeply held. Add to this the personal stake (more on this later) many of these people attach to their roles, and it's trouble-on-a-stick as far as I'm concerned.

The most basic agenda is that nobody should sully the deceased author's work by expanding upon it. I'm ultimately sympathetic to people who don't want to read such work. Certainly there are countless inferior sequels and follow-ons that were better left undone. But ultimately, the decision to initiate something like this depends on the will of the author's estate, and the decision to sustain it is based solely on the public's willingness to buy it. These people would obviously be best served by just ignoring the offending work and hoping it goes away (as it ultimately does in most case). But many of these folks feel compelled to read the work anyway (or at least, to pretend to read it so they can complain about it).

Then there's the agenda of how the world and/or characters should be presented, and what kind of stories can be told in it. For example, some fans of Keith Laumer wrote Amazon reviews complaining about how the follow-on books portrayed Bolos (sentient, cybernetic, fighting machines) as having human commanders on-board.

As a fan, I understand that. Most of Laumer's Bolo stories concern incarnations of Bolos that operate entirely autonomously. But he also established in his published (published during his lifetime, I might) Bolo timeline that manned Bolos of various types were used at various points in their long and ongoing history. So what this says about the reviewer is perhaps that they don't know their Bolos, or Laumer's work, as well as they think they do.

As a writer, I also understand that while most of Laumer's Bolo works were stand-alone short-stories, we were writing longer-form works, where it would be difficult to sustain with a gigantic cybernetic tank as a protagonist for 300 pages. Ultimately, having humans in the picture, and dealing with the relationship between human commander and fighting machine, made for much better story-telling in the long-form.

Finally, they complained that the stories had a different character, dealing more with action and large-scale combat than the thoughtful themes and lighting-fast thinking typical of Laumer's short-stories. There, I agree to some extent. Laumer's stories are less about war than about the fundamental nature of warriors. A recurring theme is that the ultimate warrior might actually be the definition of a perfect being, and that such a being might finally be the best champion of peace and reason possible.

We, on the other hand, were given the directive to write slam-bang combat, big battles, lots of action. Why? Well, the publisher knew from experience, that's what sells, and I imagine the estate was very happy about the selling part. I gave the publisher what they wanted, but I also worked very hard to put in as much as I could of what I loved about those Laumer stories.

The result was a compromise that could never be mistaken, even on a dark, foggy, night, for something Laumer would have written. But I'm proud of our work on those books, and I personally don't feel I dishonored the author at all. I'd gladly trade it all for one more good Bolo story from Laumer itself, but that isn't happening. So instead, we hopefully made some money for his heirs, entertained a bunch of people, keep Laumer's name and his creations from slipping into obscurity, and hopefully tricked some unsuspecting readers into going back and checking out his original work for the first time.

What's wrong with that? Plenty, apparently. It just depends on who you ask. People found things to complain about on Amazon. But the books sold well enough to keep the series going for quite a while, so some silent multitude was out there enjoying them. That's what counts.

That's the bottom-line. If it doesn't sell, it won't get done, and I suppose that's a form of agenda in itself. If you take offense with what is being done to the Beloved Author's work, you may find yourself compelled to do what you can to actively sabotage it in the marketplace. Write scathing reviews (maybe even under a multiple names). Often the author finds themselves in the miserable position of being chastised, not for the book they wrote, but for the book they didn't write, the one "proper" that exists only in the reviewer's mind.

As I said, there's often a personal component to all this, a dangerous element of ego and hubris. People seek to bolster their own apparent importance by attaching themselves to the "great man" (or woman), or to give themselves a sense of power and control by trashing the work of others. (I suspect this is just as common to academics as it is to fan-boys. But with rare exceptions, tie-in writers usually don't find themselves attacked by literary scholars, at least in any venue of commercial importance.)

In any case, the deceased author has nothing to say about their new "friends" or the interpretation of their work that they advocate. The curse of true fame: even a hundred years after you're dead, you can still have hanger's on. In any case, only with the most iconic of pop-culture characters are the expectations of such purists likely to have much to do with the expectations of the casual readers who will likey make up (if the book is successful anyway) most of a given book's audience.

From a writer's perspective, you just do the best you can do with what you're given to work with, cash the check, and hope for the best. There isn't much you can do about reviews, except to try and have a sense of humor. I've been told by wiser and more experienced literary heads than myself that one should simply never read reviews, professional or otherwise. There's nothing you can do about them, and nothing good that they can do for you or your future work.

I don't entirely agree with that, or I probably wouldn't have written this post (and maybe I shouldn't have, but too late now!), but I do get the point. Most anything you say to defend yourself is simply going to make you look bad. Sure, as with the Superman III bungle, you can point out factual errors, or defend why you made a given decision (or were required by and editor or licensor to do something in a certain way), but there's little point to it. The amature critic will find something else to complain about, heaping new invective to justify the one criticism that doesn't require justification at all: "I didn't enjoy it."

As I said, ultimately, the review says much about the reviewer, but the most valid thing they have to offer, their own, unadorned experience, is the usually the thing they feel least comfortable in expressing. It's a pity more people don't simply take a moment to post a simple, honest, "I liked it," or "I didn't like it." If they did, Amazon-type reviews might have a lot more value.

All told, perhaps the best response to critics comes in the form of a quote attributed to Truman Capote. "Where were you when the page was blank?"

(Actually, I'm not exactly through with this topic. The original title of this post was "Why I don't game," and this topic was just supposed to be a short-setup for that subject. Unfortunately, it ran away with me. I'll get back to the "Why I don't game" topic presently, and you'll then see how it relates to this essay.)

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Undercover uncovered

I've finally be given the go-ahead by my editor at Wizkids to unveil the cover for my upcoming MechWarrior Dark Age novel, "Trial By Chaos." I think it's a beautiful cover (art by Fred Gambino, check out his site for a spectacular gallery of work). The computer scan doesn't do it justice. Here on the cover-flat, it seems almost looks 3-D. For some time now, this cover has appeared on my web pages with a "Top Secret" banner across the painting.

Why? Well, the new Ghost Clan Mech pictured (the Karhu) is part of a new release of MechWarrior gaming miniatures, and they wanted to keep the art under wraps until the set was being released.

Anyway, here's the cover. Hope you like it as much as I do.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Going Dark

Things have gone dark here.

No, I don't mean the fact that I haven't posted here lately. It's that our little town on the Oregon coast suffered a five hour power outage, from late last night until this morning. Ironically, it was eye opening.

Now, as problems go, this was pretty minor. We aren't talking hurricane Katrina. We had a fairly typical winter storm here, fifty-sixty MPH+ winds, 20 foot surf. This is what they call a "pineapple express" storm, so it was warm for this time of year.

I was still up when the power went out, working at my computer. It was expected, yet not expected. We'd been warned when we moved here six years ago that we should expect regular power outages in the winter. "It could be out for days," we were warned. Living where we do, there's also always the unlikely but serious possibility of a tsunami that could not only cut off power, but wipe out roads and other services for an indefinite period.

We prepared for it that first winter, but it simply never happened. Thereafter, I let things slide, and it never came back to bite me. We had mild winter after mild winter, and our location on the long-thin, coastal power grid turned out to be more reliable than our more experienced coastie friends just a mile up the highway. We had lots of power glitches and the occasional momentary brownout or outage, but no extended power failures at all.

Okay, it was still only five hours, and as things go, five hours when most people are asleep, which is convenient as things go. It wasn't cold enough for the lack of heat to be an issue, and unlike the typical hurricane power outage along the gulf coast, heat is almost never an issue here (certainly not in the winter). But for most of those five hours, I was thinking to myself, "this could be out for days. What will we do?"

Fortunately, not all of the lectures on preparedness had been lost on me. We always have plenty of fresh batteries on hand, and we keep most of them in an easily found location. Not an issue.

Fortunately also, we had plenty of flashlights at ready. A couple weeks ago, our sage friends had warned of a storm system out over the Pacific, the one that ultimately pounded California about a week ago. We were again reminded of the multi-day power outage. So I went shopping for new flashlights. We were well prepared in that regard. We had plenty of canned food and drinkable liquids on hand in case roads washed out. It wouldn't have been nice, but we could have lasted for days or maybe even weeks if we'd needed to.

But I was caught by surprise on several other things, and there were lessons to be learned. Maybe you'll find something useful in them as well, no matter what your local threat is (hurricanes, tornadoes, tsunami, flood, earthquake, blizzard, landslide, volcano, whatever, you probably have one or more in your area)

1. Keep everything charged. Our cell phones continued to work, but neither of our two phones had a full charge, and I wasn't sure where the car chargers were after a recent trip.

2. Keep the car fueled when a storm is coming. We had less than a eighth of a tank of diesel in Herbie. Even if we didn't need to evacuate (and actually, that would have been enough to get us inland to safety, if that was all that was required), the car is a useful source of power. With fuel to recharge the battery once in a while, we could keep the cell phones charged, and even use (or recharge) the laptop computer. It has its own radio, and can recharge batteries to run portable radios and flashlights should we run out.

Gas pumps need electricity. That should be obvious, but it's one of those things you don't think about. We simply don't drive enough to use that much fuel. There isn't much excuse for me to let things get below half a tank, and I'll try not to in the future.

3. Have an emergency radio on hand. Get a good one. Fortunately, I was prepared on this count. Late last year I spotted a nice weather-alert radio on clearance at Target and picked it up. It runs on C-cell batteries (long battery life, and interchangeable with many flashlights), picks up national weather service broadcasts, includes an alarm clock, thermometer, has a built-in emergency light, and even a compass in the unlikely event we ever had to walk out of an emergency.

Of course, a radio is no good unless you can find it, and it has fresh batteries. And while you should have at least one good one, it doesn't hurt to have others, either cheapies or portable ones you use for other functions, scattered around the house and garage.

4. Think about the pets. Fortunately, we had plenty of food on hand for our cats, but I was worried about our cat, Banzai, who is still sick and barely eating. His meds would have been a problem in an extended outage. But the biggest problem, as it happens, probably would have been water. When I said "drinkable liquids," I didn't mean water. I don't really know how much, if any, bottled water we have on hand. We have lots of soda and Snapple around, so we wouldn't have died of thirst any time soon, but who know if the cats would (or should) drink any of these things? We'd probably have had to collect rain-water for them. Not an ideal situation.

So, when considering your emergency food and water situation, keep your pets in mind as well.

5. LED flashlights are the greatest thing for emergencies since sliced bread. No, they won't replace regular flashlights (yet). You still sometimes need the extended beam of a powerful conventional light, or the bright area lighting that a conventional battery lantern can provide, but LED flashlights are good general-purpose lights, especially for indoor (or in-tent) use, and that have some tremendous advantages.

The bulbs (well, technically, there are no bulbs, but never mind that) never burn out, and the battery life is outstanding. Some lights will run for 200 hours or more on a set of batteries. That means that in most emergencies, you can afford to just leave one running most of the time. This can be especially important if you have frightened children to comfort. If you're bored, you can read comfortably and not feel too guilty about it. And unlike other extended light-sources like candles, oil-lamps or lanterns, there's no fire hazard or carbon-monoxide issues.

These are currently more expensive than conventional flashlights (but not that much, and prices are falling) and they'll pay for themselves quickly in battery savings. (We also have an LED crank light, which works well and requires no batteries at all.) You owe it to yourself and your family members to have several of these on-hand.

I recommend keeping a small one at each bedside and at strategic locations around the house. Flashlights are no good if you can't find them, and you should be able to find them in the dark. I hung one of my single-LED pen-lights in the kitchen attached to a glow-in-the-dark keychain. I did it almost as a joke, but it worked perfectly, and it was the first light I located after the power went out. Using it, I quickly rounded up all the other flashlights and got things ready for the rest of the night.

6. Finally, the big lesson is that any level of emergency preparedness is better than none at all. Even if you don't have a proper emergency kit (and I confess, I don't), buy some flashlights and batteries (you need them around the house anyway), stock up the pantry (hey, got to eat!), get some bottled water (got to drink), keep plenty of pet-food on hand (it's annoying to run out), and buy some more blankets when they're on sale. If you're putting off doing everything, do something. If you pick these items up when you're out shopping anyway, and spread it out over time, the effort is near-zero, and the cost will be lost in your usual household spending.

But it's morning, the storm has eased up for the moment (though a forecast for another week of rain, at least, promises that road closures from flooding and landslides are likely), and the power is back on.

But I won't take things quite so much for granted this time. Time to go charge my cell phone and fill up the car.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Random reports from the field

I haven't posted here in a few weeks, and have been rather lax through December, so it's well past time for an update.

I haven't been under deadline for a couple months, and it's been my first break and well over a year, so it's been a double whammy: not as much time at the computer to post something, and very little professionally to post about.

My theory of blogging (feel free to argue) is that I don't want to post here every day. I feel like that would be too overwhelming to the audience, and while I may be vain enough to consider myself interesting, I'm not so vain as to consider myself overwhelmingly interesting. If I can offer you five minutes of diversion a week, I think that's doing pretty well. If I have to offer you five minutes of diversion every day, I should be drawing a pay-check.

Well, what's to report? Not much. I should start planning on my next Mechwarrior, Dark Age novel soon. I've had a nibble on another non-novel project, but it's way too early to talk about it.

Author Copies

Just before Christmas I got my author copies of books two and three of my Age of Conan trilogy (as usually, these show up long after the book is in stores), the problem being that I never got author copies of book one, and the number of books sent was less than in my contract. This sort of stuff happens. Sending out author copies is not a high-priority item for a publisher.

Hmmm, you guys do know how author copies work, right? No, unless you're in the business, you probably don't. The author of a book usually, as a matter of contract, gets a certain number of free copies of their published book. At my level of the pecking order, the number is small, usually no more than a few dozen books. I imagine that at higher levels, authors can get cases of books, if they want them, though perhaps they may not. I know prolific writers who have huge problems storing all their copies of books, even when they only get ten or fifteen copies of each, they add up to a significant volume.

I know that comes as a surprise to some people, how few copies we get, and that we have to pay (usually a discounted rate, but we still pay) if we want more. If they meet or correspond with an author, there is somehow an expectation that the author might just hand them some free books. Okay, we might, under certain circumstances (as when we're running out of space for our older books), but probably not.

Look at it this way. Say I get fifteen copies of a book. One pristine copy goes straight onto a "brag shelf" in my living room. A second copy probably goes on a shelf in my office for future reference. A third copy gets carried with me most everywhere for a few weeks so I can show it off (hey, only human!) and usually ends up pretty beat up by the end of that time. Usually three or four copies go out to family members. A few more may go to close friends.

That might leave five or six copies of the book. (Actually, it's probably that plus one. The author copies always arrive so late, I usually end up buying a copy -- at full retail -- as soon as it hits the stores.) So, why can't you have one? Well, I might need some of those for PR purposes, to hand to a reviewer or reporter who might potentially do me some good. If it's an original novel, I'll also want to keep some file copies to send out should I ever want to directly market reprint or foreign rights. So that leave me with -- well -- guess I'd better go buy a few more copies.

Life Distracts

Another reason I've been neglecting here, is that life has kept me busy through the last month or so. We wrapped up the last of our work on the local Fireman's Toy Drive in mid-December (Chris and I have picked this as our major local charity, and it's a major part of our Christmas here).

We took a short trip to California to visit our son and his S.O. just before Christmas, which turned out to be an excellent (if tiring) trip.

There's also been a lot of family business going on, all of it hopefully leading to good news, and all too personal and preliminary for public discussion.

We've also, unfortunately, had cat-health issues. One of our two cats, Banzai, has apparently developed a liver infection and has stopped eating. We've spent the last week torturing the poor guy (he's high-strung, and hates things put into his mouth) with needles, oral meds, and eye drops. For the last few days, we've also been bottle feeding him just to make sure he's getting some calories and fluids down.

Not fun, and he's a long way from out of the woods. Getting him to eat again is key. We got him through a similar "cat-won't-eat" crisis last year (the vet thinks it may have been an earlier bout of the same infection), so I'm cautiously hopeful, but only time will tell.