Friday, August 29, 2014

Dancing with the Stars

My two-part science fiction romance (light on the science fiction, focus on the romance, especially in part 1) has just gone live on the Kindle Store. You can find it by clicking on the titles below. I thought it wouldn’t happen until tomorrow, but Kindle Direct Publishing surprised me again. (They may not show up in the lending libraries for a few more hours, so if necessary, please check back on Saturday.)

If you subscribe to Kindle Unlimited or own a physical Kindle and an Amazon Prime membership (that is, you qualify for the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library), you can read both books for free. If not, they cost $2.99, unless or until I decide to run a promotion on them. If you buy the print edition, which should become available next week sometime, the price for the e-book drops to $0.99. As mentioned in “Kindle Unleashed,” I decided to publish these two books, Desert Flower and Kingdom of the Shades, in this way to test the impact of publishing solely with Amazon.com. Stay tuned for future posts where I report the results of the experiment.

It’s been a long journey. I wrote the first version of these books in 1994, rewrote them from scratch at least three times (not counting numerous interim revisions), then set them aside around the year 2000. Even more than The Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel, these were my “learn to write fiction” books. What I didn’t realize then—and was surprised to discover a month ago, when I went back to them—was how close the books had come to being publishable. Much closer than I believed when I put them aside for other projects. I set out to revise them, and here they are—not perfect, perhaps, but now on a par with my later novels. Meanwhile, I have spent a wonderful month in this world that I once inhabited every day, like returning to a beloved home not seen in a decade.

I hope you have fun with them, if you decide to read them. And to help you decide if anything in the Tarkei Chronicles is likely to appeal to you, here are the opening paragraphs of Desert Flower. 


Warning: You need not know much about ballet to enjoy the books, but it occupies a large enough part of both stories that liking ballet is probably essential.
Fabric gleamed in the flickering candle flame. Shadows danced on the cave walls. Blush pink ribbons slid through her fingers—soft and smooth. Once, before her mother died, she had stroked a m’retta with fur like this.
“What are these?” Entranced, Choli held out her find to the man who sat cross-legged in the corner, who had watched without speaking while she rummaged through his few possessions. Tall and slender, dark-haired, dark-eyed, olive-skinned, austere in his charcoal robe, he looked like the men of her world. But no man of her world would have tolerated her presence, never mind giving her free run of his home. This one sat, still as the rocks at his back, hands folded like a scholar or a priest. Or so they said, the people of the caves.
Choli wondered how they knew. Scholars were rare among the Kazrati. In her thirteen years, she had not met a single one. Priests were not so rare, but they were intimidating. Danion, of course, was not Kazrati, although he appeared to be.
His deep, cool voice answered the question she had almost forgotten asking. “They are shoes.”
A lock of straight dark hair fell into Choli’s eyes as she squinted at the shoes. Restless hands pressed them, prodded them. The uppers were soft, the soles like blocks of wood in her palms. “They’re so hard. Who wears shoes like that? Are they yours?”
“Not mine.” The man before her did not smile; he seldom smiled. Still, a note of something that might have been amusement tinged his voice. “Ballerinas wear them, so they can stand on their toes, like this.” He took one shoe from her and stood it on its toe, balancing it with a long slim finger, then handed it back. “As you see, that one is not new.”
Examining it more closely, Choli saw he was right. Someone had scraped satin off the toe, scored the sole with a knife, sprayed the front with varnish. The ballerina, she assumed. Whatever that might be.



Cover images purchased from Shutterstock.com and ThinkStock.com.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Novels as Therapy

Some people write explicitly autobiographical fiction, in which they take incidents from their lives and rework them through novels as a way of dealing with them. Virginia Pye, in her interview with me for New Books in Historical Fiction, mentioned that she usually writes about places after she stops living in them—although River of Dust, the subject of our interview, followed a different path to completion. My fellow member of Five Directions Press, Ariadne Apostolou, also draws on her own life experiences for material, although the application of a large dollop of imagination makes the results no less fictional than any other novel.

Since I have written two historical novels set in sixteenth-century Russia, a two-part science-fiction romance, and one romance bridging present technology with a fictionalized past, it should come as no surprise that I tend not to draw on the events of my own life for my raw material. Of course, I borrow bits and pieces from people I know (never entire characters) and mine news reports for evidence of attitudes and behaviors that might have prevailed in the settings I create. Likewise, my many years of studying medieval and early modern history, especially the history of Russia, go right into the books. Everyone does that, or something like that. “Write what you know” need not mean “write what you’ve lived,” but stories cannot exist in a vacuum.

Even so—and this realization has struck me with particular force this last month as I revise for publication a pair of novels that I began in 1998—my fiction, too, contains an autobiographical element. My novels work when they express my emotional state at the time of writing. Not my state at a given moment, although that can be useful in tackling individual scenes, but a deeper problem or approach to the world that characterizes my concerns throughout the two or three years required to produce 80,000–90,000 edited-to-a-fare-thee-well words. Otherwise, why would I stick with it?


I have not yet found that underlying element in The Swan Princess, which probably explains why I’m procrastinating on it. I know the overall plot, the character arcs, and the general locations, but I still have to figure out why it matters to me; the whole enterprise remains too intellectual for a pursuit as creative as fiction. Desert Flower and Kingdom of the Shades, in contrast, are like a window onto my own past, a chance to revisit that earlier self and see how I’ve done in terms of resolving (or not resolving) the issues portrayed there. It’s been a fascinating trip. I will be glad to get the books out, but at the same time, I will miss the submersion in that world, that part of my history.

I won’t tell you what specific issues found their way into the books: they are heavily disguised and, in a sense, not important. What counts now is their fictional representation. But I will say that the subconscious mind is a marvelous and peculiar place, one to which every novelist and creative artist owes a huge and ongoing debt. And once in a while, it’s fun to dip a toe into the onrushing stream of time to see what small parts of the past can be recaptured.

Maybe it’s true, as Tom Wolfe says, that you can’t go home again. But write it down, and you have a place to revisit ever after. For me, that’s good enough.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Hidden Lives

In my latest interview for New Books in Historical Fiction, Laurel Corona notes that historical fiction is “the second arm” where women’s history is concerned. What she means—and I hope you will listen to the interview, where we go into this and other topics in much greater depth—is that historical sources often obscure the reality of women’s lives. For much of history, the focus has been on battles and conquest and court politics, areas traditionally dominated by men. Women, even when they succeed in this arena—Empress Wu of China is a good example—tend to be portrayed from a male perspective, as either harridans or sirens. Outside this arena, they are simply ignored: nameless creatures playing supporting roles by washing shirts, darning socks, raising children, and keeping the home fires burning—no matter that tending those home fires without help amid a society in chaos demands courage, intellect, and resourcefulness. (For more on this topic, see my series of posts that began with “Women of Steel” and ended with “Taking the Veil.”)

One antidote to this documentary silence is historical fiction. The discipline of women’s history has come a long way in the last four decades, and much more information is available about the general conditions of women’s lives in the past. But to capture the reality of an individual life, an informed imagination is often the best approach—or if not the best, a valid approach. Laurel Corona has tackled this task in four novels set in different eras and places: The Four Seasons, Penelope’s Daughter, Finding Emilie, and The Mapmaker’s Daughter. The results are impressive. So listen to the interview. Read some of her books. You won’t be disappointed.

The rest of this post comes from the New Books in Historical Fiction site.


In North America, the year 1492 is inextricably linked to Columbus’s discovery of the West Indies, funded by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. But in Spain itself, the year brought two events that at the time appeared more vital to the health and spiritual purity of the kingdom: the conquest of Granada from the last Muslim rulers of Andalusia, and the expulsion of the Jews whose families had inhabited Iberia since the height of the Roman Empire. Against the backdrop of the Spanish Inquisition, The Mapmaker’s Daughter (Sourcebooks, 2014) tells the story of Amalia Riba—child of a converso family whose father embraces Christianity to save his wife and children and whose mother pays lip service to the new religion even as she teaches her daughters to observe Jewish ritual in secret.


During Amalia’s long and varied life, she travels from her childhood home in Sevilla to Portugal and to Castile, to Granada and to Valencia—accompanied by the exquisitely decorated atlas painted by her great-grandfather and charting her course between security and identity. With a sure hand, Laurel Corona explores the importance of choice, the prices paid for resistance and assimilation, and the overlapping of identity and community, especially in the lives of women. Along the way, she makes a powerful case for the value of diversity—not only in the past but in the present.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Things Change


A shorter than usual post this week, because I am in the midst of my annual writing vacation and want to devote every minute to my stories.


I rarely think about the themes in my novels. Most of the time, I can’t tell you what the theme is until the second draft. Sure, I have a vague sense that a given book plays with questions of vengeance or loyalty or love, but too much focus on delivering a “message” takes the fun out of writing the story—and in the long run proves onerous to readers as well. 


So I was surprised to discover, while spiffing up Desert Flower and Kingdom of the Shades for release this fall, that these novels I wrote fifteen years ago have a theme: the need to change with the times, to embrace the future even when it gets in the way of what you thought you wanted because that unexpected snag may push you toward a destination more beautiful than you ever imagined.


I saw it, I think, because it was a message I especially needed to hear right now. This week I learned that the company where I have freelanced for twenty years has been sold to a larger firm. Many of my friends are out of a job. One of them worked tirelessly to convince the new owners to keep the freelancers, even though she herself has to look for a new position (I thank her profoundly for that). And perhaps the new owners will, although whether they do and under what terms remain to be seen. I’ve spent much of the week chatting with others, many of them more affected by this change than I, as we try to decide whether the deal offers an opportunity to move on or just financial insecurity. And whatever happens, I will miss working with those who must leave. Or whom I must leave, as the case may be.


By a strange coincidence, this week Fotopedia, which I featured in earlier posts as a great source of Creative Commons images, announced that it is shutting down on August 10. The message implied that the site owners saw no way to turn it into a business, although personally I would have been happy to shell out $5–10 for the Fotopedia app or even pay a small annual subscription rather than lose access to those wonderful photographs. Based on the responses to the announcement posted on the Fotopedia site, I am not the only person willing to support that solution.


“Things change … It is their nature.” So speaks the hero’s mentor in Desert Flower. We can’t freeze the past in stone, but we can mourn its passing and hope that the holes things leave create the space for other, even more rewarding endeavors.



Friday, August 1, 2014

Kindle Unleashed

The retail giant Amazon.com has been in the news a lot recently. Its fight with Hachette over pricing and pre-orders has caused a particular furor, with authors screaming “foul” as the combatants draw swords and each accuses the other of wanting to destroy the book business or the writing life or something equally far-fetched.

I’m not taking sides in the Amazon/Hachette controversy. Years of watching such battles have left me with a natural skepticism when two giant corporations square off. I suspect each of wanting what’s best for its own business; how the outcome affects authors and readers naturally concerns the authors and readers, whereas the companies seek, first and foremost, to maximize profits.

But that is not the only Amazon-related story this month, nor is it the subject of this post. On July 18, 2014, Amazon.com introduced a new service. Called Kindle Unlimited, it allows subscribers to borrow e-books and audiobooks enrolled in the program: 600,000 so far, according to the site page. In contrast to the previous—and continuing—Kindle Owners Lending Library, borrowers do not need either an Amazon Prime subscription or a physical Kindle device, just a Kindle app and a willingness to sign up for $9.99/month. Subscribers can borrow up to ten books at a time, keep them for as long as they like, then delete the books from the app and add new ones. Amazon places no restriction on the total number of books borrowed each month; that’s where the “unlimited” comes in.

Since anyone can download the Kindle app for free and run it on his/her computer or tablet, the potential readership for Kindle Unlimited is huge, although it’s too soon to tell how many people will shell out $9.99/month to enroll after their free 30-day trial ends.

Meanwhile, authors have to decide whether to join and in what way. New readers, good. Payment for borrowing, good (if someone reads past 10%, the author receives a piece from a predetermined pie—exactly how large a piece remains a mystery, and the size of the pie and the number of slices vary by month).


But there’s a catch. To qualify for the Kindle Unlimited program, a book must be enrolled in KDP Select—meaning that the author or publisher agrees to distribute the e-version only through Amazon.com. No other e-bookstores, no sales through outside websites, no listing with public libraries even: for a minimum of three months, Amazon.com has exclusive rights to the content. (Print sales are not part of the deal.) What’s an author to do?

Until now, my instinct has been to avoid KDP Select. Call it skepticism, again. At least 85% of my sales go through Amazon.com, yet I can’t quite shake the idea that a company that gets too big loses its incentive to please little people like me. After thinking about the options for Kindle Unlimited, though, I decided to run an experiment. I took The Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel off the other bookstores that listed it, removed any purchase links from my website and my publisher’s website, checked this blog to ensure I had not forgotten anything (in fact, I had, but not on the blog), and clicked the button to enroll the book in KDP Select.

The Amazon.com computers turned me down. The book was not eligible, they said. I don’t know why. One of the other bookstores took a while to process my request, so to a computer it may have appeared that the book remained on sale. Or the computer may not have recognized that the website purchase links sent people to Amazon.com and did not signal independent distribution. I was surprised and somewhat displeased, but not hugely put out. In the interim I had remembered that my local public library system listed the book—which, as it turned out, disqualified it for KDP Select anyway. I put it back on sale at the other sites and sat back to ponder.

That was when I remembered the two books I wrote before running into my wonderful critique group, which helped me finish The Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel and the novels that followed. Those two books, Desert Flower and Kingdom of the Shades, had never been listed on any site or uploaded to any library. I hadn’t even opened the files in five years, maybe ten. They looked like perfect candidates for KDP Select. If I made money on them, either directly or through people discovering my other books and buying them, great. And if I didn’t, well, I had given up on the idea of publishing them, so I couldn’t lose what I’d never had.

But were the novels any good? I’ve learned a lot in the last eight years—about writing, about publishing, and even about marketing. With considerable trepidation, I converted the two books to ePub, copied them to my trusty tablet, and began to read.

Darned if they weren’t respectable. Better than respectable, in fact. I discovered some sloppy writing—way too much smiling and laughing and quirking of lips, especially in the first novel. But sloppy writing is easy to fix. The rest of it—characters with the potential to grow, conflict, a story problem, distinctive people and places, narrative drive—was already in place.

So I’m revising to remove the clichés, and you can expect to hear soon that Tarkei Chronicles 1 and 2 are available for Kindle (initially) and in print. Stay tuned, too, for the results of the experiment. I may even write the planned third book one day, after Legends 5 heads out into the world....