Grief: It Never Really Ends

My daughter got us to watch a teen romantic comedy, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before.  It was much better than I’d expected, and I actually recommend it if you like such things. 
There’s a really touching scene where the female lead talks about what it’s like to have lost her mom years ago, and it was pretty much perfectly accurate.
 
You go on like normal, and then when you’re doing something pretty routine, you start to think about your family, and then you realize you’ve almost forgotten there was ever a different way. And then you feel horrible for moving on, or you get a rush of grief that is every bit as powerful as it was before.
 
For a few years now, I’ve been visiting my mom’s grave in Clearlake at least twice a year. Sometimes it’s a few moments of sadness, but some visits, it’s dissolving into tears and missing her all over again, and also feeling awful because I can’t remember what her voice sounded like.
It’s the same with my father, my grandparents, and an old friend who died in my twenties. I go on with my life, and every once in a while, I remember there used to be a person where now there’s only a memory.  It get easier with time, but it never quite goes away.

Fountain Pens

Through several of my friends and classmates from Viable Paradise 17, I’ve gotten back into fountain pens recently.  And I keep asking myself why I ever left them.

I’ve always loved fountain pens, since I was 15 and I took a summer school course in Calligraphy (what can I say; I lived in Napa and it was the 80s–we had classes like that).  But while I’ve always kept my calligraphy pens, and used them from time to time, I drifted away from using fountain pens–they tended to leak, and there would inevitably be a day when something would get ruined.

Well, it took years for me to realize that that happened because I was buying cheap pieces of crap.  I don’t blame myself; I was poorer then and got what I could afford.  But now that I’m a working professional, I thought it was time to try some new pens.  I got turned on to The Goulet Pen Company, who sell pens from 1.50 to many thousands of dollars.

I started out with a relatively cheap pen, the Monteverde Monza. It was a decent pen, enough to get me interested again.  And then I saw it.

In Lightsaber collecting, a Unicorn Saber is the lightsaber that you simply must have, the perfect saber that will complete your collection.  Well, on the Goulet site, I found the Unicorn Pen.  It was far more than I could justify spending, but I told myself I would get it someday.

And then I sold my novel. As my wife and I had agreed, my first advance was mine to spend however I wished.  For the family, I bought a PS4 so we could play some games that aren’t on Xbox. But then I got my pen: the Platinum 3776 Century Chartres Blue & Rhodium.

If ever a pen was designed for me, it’s this one.  Cobalt/Chartres blue is my favorite color.  I prefer silver to gold.  It’s translucent, which I love.  And when writing, it feels like heaven.

I currently keep the pen filled with Platinum’s Blue Pigmented Ink.  It’s wonderful.

At school, I use another pen for correcting papers starting today: The TWSBI Eco demonstrator, currently filled with Noodler’s British Empire Red ink.

I have a few other pens, all very cheap, which I’ve all but stopped using.  The Platinum and the TWSBI are my go-to pens for now, with the Monza as backup at work.

But I doubt they’re the last pens I buy.

The Widening Gyre Now Available For Pre-Order!

Exciting news!  The Widening Gyre, my debut novel coming in March from Flame Tree Press, is now available for pre-order (in some formats)!

NB: Only the hardcover, paperback, and non-Kindle ebook are currently available to order.  If you want it as a Kindle book or an audiobook, you’ll have to wait a bit longer to pre-order.

Hardcover, Paperback, and Ebook can be ordered directly from the publisher.

Paperback can also be ordered from Amazon in the US.  All other formats WILL be on Amazon US eventually, but of course you can also order them direct from the publisher.

Amazon UK has both the hardcover and paperback available.

You should be able to preorder from book stores, as well, but I’m not sure if it’s percolated that far yet.  The ISBN for the paperback is 978-1787581432. That might help. If anyone does successfully preorder from a brick & mortar, please let me know!

So far the book isn’t on B&N.com, Kobo, or iBooks, but as soon as it is I’ll post that information.

Pre-Production Report: The next WIP

I’m currently in “pre-production” on a new-ish project, by which I mean I am engaged in working the kinks out of an idea I’ve been kicking around for some time.

In movies, pre-production is when art, financing, casting, etc. are done.  The script is finished, then broken down into scenes, and storyboards.  Location scouting, costuming, props, all are being worked on.

In writing a novel, pre-production is very similar to film work.  I’ve finalized the cast of characters (with, of course, room for new supporting roles as needed), and I’m working out the plot–or, rather, the plots, because this book has a few of them.

In The Widening Gyre, there are some subplots, but there’s really just the one throughline–as a first-person work, I could only show what Tajen himself was there to see.

In this new story, I’ve got four POV characters, and each one has their own plotline, beginning in vastly different parts of the Boundless Empire, each on their own path.  Now, before the end of the book, some of them will come together, and by the end, they’ll all be pretty interconnected, even if the characters never meet.  But that’s still four major plots, and every POV has at least one minor plotline.  All in all, this story has ten distinct story arcs.

This is even harder than TWG was, because in TWG, if I adjusted something, it might cascade to other things in the novel I had to adjust, but in this book, if I change one plot, it might have ripples that affect every other arc.  For example, I removed a meeting from one character’s plot–I decided having her go off on her own against orders, and have to deal with the ramifications of being something of an “outlaw,” was more interesting that just having her fight a mindless bureaucracy to get things done.   But removing that meeting meant a subplot that affected other plots had to change.  And that subplot’s change led to even more changes, even for storylines that at that point in the story are only tangentially related to the first arc.

It’s teaching me a lot about how to juggle plotlines, and each change forces me to think through elements of the story.  As a result, things that had been part of the story from the beginning are now falling away, discarded because they don’t make as much sense as they once did, but they’re being replaced by better elements that will make the story stronger and much more interesting.

I’ve also been adjusting certain character attributes, figuring out what makes each character tick–what their goals are, their individual psychologies, and even their appearances.  It’s a story far removed from Earth, again, and not part of present-day Earth cultures, but also informed by them.  So it’s very much a multi-ethnic cast, even if they don’t exactly correspond to modern-day ethnicities, and many of the characters are multi-racial.  I’m still working on names, because some of them are a little too modern for my tastes, but so far the cast includes Shin Kincaid, Alua Tan, Jen Tan, Ian Khan, Lavraj “Raj” Patel, Emily Kennedy, and Marian Neves.

Right now I’m mostly focussed on figuring out who the characters are under their skin.  Once that’s done, I’ll focus on their individual plotlines in earnest, and then once those are all nailed down, I’ll break them into scenes, then interweave the scenes so they work as a coherent, cohesive whole.  I figure I’ll be adjusting the whole thing as I go, until it’s time to start work on the composition–and even then I’ll be adjusting until the story is finished.

Writing, man.  It’s hard.

 

Friday Fragment: From WIP

This is from chapter 3 of The Blood-Dimmed Tide, book 2 of the Zhen series (which remains unsold; don’t get your hopes up):

Councilor Siiren rose from her seat in the circle around the outer edge of the room. Like all female Kelvaki, she was slighter than the men, about the same size as a human male. She stepped softly to my side, and her hand rose to rest briefly on my shoulder. “We do understand this, Captain.” She looked at Aljek, and her expression hardened into one of disgust. “What my esteemed colleague is asking, is why that should concern us?” She looked at Aljek. “Yes?”

He glanced at me, then at her, and then at the Ascendant, who was leaning forward, his eyes fixed on Aljek.  Finally he turned back to Siiren. “Yes,” he said grudgingly.  “Though I would not have phrased it quite so ineloquently.” Siiren hissed amusement; she knew damned well he would have.

I glanced at Liam, sitting on the side of the chamber. His wide eyes met mine, and I suddenly realized—I was standing in the middle of a power play that ultimately had nothing whatsoever to do with me or with Earth.  I was being used as a convenient lever to move a difficult piece in the Asendancy’s game of rule. I took a moment to consider my words carefully, then moved to the center of the chamber, turning to face Aljek and the Ascendant both.

More Cats Than is Strictly Necessary

One of the lines in my mini-bio, which I am perhaps inordinately proud of, is that I live in Sacramento, CA with “his wife, daughter, and more cats than is strictly necessary.”

Which is to say, four. And sure, four cats isn’t a terrible number of cats, but do we really need four? No, we do not.  And we didn’t really choose to have four of the little beasts.  Here’s how it happened:

When I was single, I had two cats, Caisha and Shinji.  Caisha was a lovely black cat, and Shinji was an adorable black and white kitty with a Hitler moustache.  They were best friends, though Caisha was twice Shinji’s age.

Then I started dating Elli, who also had two cats, Cleo, a tortie, and Fletcher, an “orange” tabby kitten.  Obviously, once we got married, our two cats each became four.

In late 2006, Shinji suddenly became very ill, and had to be euthanized–one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.  He was only five years old.

I couldn’t even think about getting another cat for years.  Eventually, we discussed it, and we decided that a “one cat per person in the household” rule was good.

A couple of years later, we came home to find Caisha, who had been his normal self, catatonic under a cabinet, not responding to us.  We rushed him to the hospital, and to make a long story short, as I’ve written about this before, he, too, had to be put down.  Again, it wrecked me.

Eventually, we adopted Maggie, a one year old ragdoll.  She’s amazing, but we decided after a while that maybe three cats was too many, and so we’d let attrition whittle us down to two cats, and then we’d only have two.

Cleo, the oldest of the household, was failing fast, and at 17 years old, we had to put her down to spare her an increasingly painful decline into death.

We then went on with only two cats for a time, until friends had to give up a cat, and we took her in.  So now we have Celty, an adorable-but-neurotic cat of indeterminate age (at least 13, we think).

And then my sister asked if we could take another one.  He was adorable, and our daughter fell in love with him, so we adopted Loki, who is now two years old and seems to like me best, and then my daughter, and then–if she’s laying in the right place–my wife.

As the guy who does the majority of cat waste disposal, I have put my foot down: NO MORE.  And attrition until two cats is the rule of the house once more.  Four cats aren’t particularly hard to take care of, and they’re not destructive, but it’s a lot of work. I’m trying to get my kid to start helping, but you know kids and pets–dad does most of the work.

How many cats (or dogs, or rabbits, or whatever; we here at the Johnston house don’t discriminate) have you got?

 

 

 

What it’s Really Like, Part 3: The Cover

Yesterday, I received an email from my editor.

Yes, I still love to say “my editor.”

Anyway, I thought it was going to be my edits, but no–it was cover design ideas. He presented me with two, told me his preference, and asked for mine.

I’ve thought about this moment a lot, even before I made the sale, and I’ve always known it would be a stressful thing.  For one thing, I’d been thinking about possible designs for a while.  Most of my ideas were, I knew, unobtainable. Further, while some publishers will ask the author what they think, the final decision is the publisher’s.  More than one author has hated their book cover.  I was prepared to join them, but hoping for better.

So it was with some trepidation that I clicked on the files. And then I smiled, because both designs were fantastic.

I really loved the artwork on one of them, but it doesn’t quite fit this book’s feel or themes as well as it might.  But the other design is thematically perfect, and dynamic.  It’s eye-catching and has a great tagline.

I’m happy. The design may change, in small or even large ways, between now and finalization.  But for now?  I’m totally pleased.

 

My First Worldcon

So I attended Worldcon 76, in San Jose, CA. It was my first Worldcon; the last one in my neck of the woods was Reno in 2011, and I was not in a good enough financial space to go to that one.

All in all, I enjoyed the experience, but as a baby writer whose book is not even out yet, it was … interesting.

I quickly learned that most of the writing craft-focused panels were not for me.  They were saying things I already knew. The sort of “theory”-based panels were much better, though I didn’t make it into a few of them due to overcrowded rooms.  C’est la vie.

I learned late on Saturday that the head of my publisher was in attendance, and I tried to arrange a meet, just to shake his hand and say hi, but we weren’t able to sync our schedules and get a minute.  Ah well, there will be other chances.

I attended a panel titled “The Revival of Space Opera,” which included among the panelists my Viable Paradise instructor, Teresa Nielsen Hayden.  I wanted to go talk to her at the end, but I didn’t feel like fighting my way through the press, and assumed I’d be able to find her somewhere else.  Sadly, I didn’t, so I didn’t get to talk to her, which I regret.  Teresa’s one of my favorite VP people.

I did learn that going to a con with my pre-teen daughter is difficult.  Tegan is 10, which presents a problem: the child-focused stuff was too young for her, and she’s not old enough to go hang out with teens yet.  So she spent much of her time being bored, though she did attend her first panel on her own at one point, and enjoyed that.  She felt better once her mom arrived on Friday evening, though daughter spent Friday night visiting her Bay Area-based cousins.  Tegan really wants to be my “assistant” if and when I ever do signings and the like, but I think we’ve both decided she’s not ready for that yet.  We’ll see what happens as she gets older.

What I really enjoyed the most about the Con was visiting my tribe members who came to Worldcon.  Through Beth Morris Tanner, who seemingly knows basically everyone in the SFF field, I also met Karen Osborne and Mary Anne Mohanraj, both of whom were delightful and I hope to see more of in the future.  I didn’t get to talk to all the people I wanted to, but that’s the reality of Big Social Events.  Dinner with my VP crew on Saturday was a high point, for sure.  Let me tell you, if you’re ever in need of some great SFF anecdotes, K.G. Anderson is the person to sit with.

I’m delighted that most of my Hugo votes were for the winners, and I gladly give my congratulations to all the winners, even the ones I didn’t vote for.

Now it’s time to get ready for the school year to begin, and keep plugging away on the writing projects I have going right now.

The Importance of Silence and Downtime

I’m not silly enough to assume this is true of all writers, but it’s certainly true of me: I need silence.

Not true silence, the absence of noise, though that is also beneficial.  What I really need is a sort of mental silence–time in which I don’t have to be thinking too hard about other things, like work, or whether my child is screaming for good or bad reasons, or if I remembered to feed her.

The reason I need that time is so my brain can work through story issues.  I can sit, in a hammock, let’s say, staring at the trees above me, blinking but doing nothing else–and in my brain, ideas are being sifted through, sometimes consciously, but sometimes in the “background” of my mind while I’m just processing sensory input consciously.  It’s a weird and hard to describe process.  So here’s an example:

Saturday night, my daughter and I stayed in a motel in Placerville, about a half-hour drive from my home, because we were going out to watch the Perseid meteor shower and I didn’t want to have to drive all the way home from our star-watching spot at the Ice House Observation Plateau to Sacramento at oh-dark-thirty in the morning.  When we woke up Sunday, we got dressed, packed up, and went home, where an hour later, I realized I’d left my pillow–a non-standard, kinda expensive pillow that is literally the best pillow I’ve ever had–in the motel room.

Figuring the gas to get there and back again was less than the cost of buying a new pillow, I went back for it.  I went alone, which was useful.  As I drove, I started asking myself some tough questions I’ve been having a hard time with about The Remembrance War around some of the events in book 2 and some stuff I’m building toward in book 3.

Namely, I had two major questions:  First, instead of getting into a protracted street fight in book 2, why don’t the Zhen simply blast the rebels into the dirt from orbit?   Second, why don’t they shoot Tajen dead when he begins [REDACTED]*?  And, bonus question, why ARE [REDACTED] getting involved with the whole mess in book 3?

As I drove, with nothing to do but let the music on my crappy car radio be white noise while I thought (and steered), I found all three answers.  So I committed them to memory, and then spent some time refining the concepts and pre-composing a few scenes that will help make it all clear–scenes that will fit into the already-planned story arc and scene structure.

That kind of downtime, you see, is precious.  And I don’t get a lot of it in my daily life.  Between work, ten year old child, and spouse, there’s a lot of talking, and a lot of doing, in my day.  And I need the quiet to be able to figure out what’s going on with the story.

Fortunately, once I know what’s supposed to happen in a given scene, writing does not require silence.  I wrote one of the best scenes in The Widening Gyre while sitting in a room with 300 chattering parents and their kids at my daughter’s school, waiting for an event to begin.  I wrote several other scenes in the middle of restaurants or coffee shops full of noise.

So while it isn’t necessary to actually write down words, it is super necessary to figure out what the general shape of those words should be.

And now, it’s time to get back to the writing.  Tajen’s about to make an idiot of himself before the Kelvaki High Council at the worst possible moment.

What It’s Really Like, Part 2: The Contract

A few days after I sent my acceptance of the terms the publisher was offering, they sent me the boilerplate for their contract.

boilerplate is standardized language used in contracts.  Every publisher has their own.  It’s essentially the same thing you’ll see in the contract.  This is where the negotiation happens.

So I read over the boilerplate, and googled like crazy for a couple of days.  The contract lays out what you’re paid, when it happens, and how royalties are calculated. It isn’t the same for all formats–there’s separate rates for hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook, and then rates for remaindered books, and book club editions.

It also lays out how much the author gets for the sale of translation rights, film/tv rights, audio play (as in radio) rights, etc.  Most of those, I imagine, will never be used, but they’re enumerated in the contract.

The contract lays out what happens if I don’t live up to my obligations by delivering the book by the due date (I’ve already turned it in, since it was complete when I submitted it for consideration), and how any disputes between the publisher and I will be dealt with.  I don’t foresee any of that being an issue; it’s all pretty straight-forward.

It all looked great, so I signed it.  I’m sure in the old days this was done primarily via mail, but because the 21st century is amazing, I signed it just like I signed a lot of my mortgage papers–online, via DocuSign.  Thanks to the iPad’s abilities, my finger-signature even looks like my actual signature.  Within half an hour of signing, I got a copy in my email, signed by me, my editor in New York City, and the head of the publisher in London, UK.  I love the future.

Of course, what I know now is that I should have at least tried to hold on to the tv/film rights.  When I signed it I didn’t really care, because in the unlikely event of a film rights deal, I’d get the majority of the money.  But after signing, I learned from a few sources, most eloquently Jen Udden and Bridget Smith, in their podcast Shipping & Handling, Episode 47, that I should have asked for those rights to remain with me, partly for monetary reasons, but also for reasons of control.  Udden and Smith also recommend keeping the rights to graphic novels, and merchandising. They also suggest that if you must give up those rights, try for more than 50% (which I got without haggling, because my publishers are good people). Again, this will likely never come up.  Film deals are exceedingly rare.

I’m not sure how my publisher would have handled that–my understanding is that most of the big houses just grumble and give up the grab at those rights–but, in my case I don’t think I was harmed in giving up those rights even if there is interest further down the road. But it’s a data point new writers should have.

In any case, I don’t actually regret giving those rights up, mostly because the odds of it ever becoming an issue are pretty much against me. But it’s something I’ll keep in mind going forward.

And finally we come to where I am in the process: Waiting. I expect the first-round edits and copyedits in the next 2-3 months.  Publication is tentatively scheduled for March 2019.  I’m working on book 2, which has not yet been signed, and will send off the proposal for it when I’ve got a couple of chapters done (it’s already been plotted and a synopsis has been written).

I’m also doing a lot of research on conventions and other avenues of writerly book promotion.  All while trying to give my kid a fun summer and also plan for the next school year.