Communion Of Dreams


Matter of perspective.

This will probably come across as a little brag-y. Sorry about that. Not my intention.

The other day I got a phone call. For Legacy Art. The gallery we closed May 31, 2004. Yeah, more than ten years ago.

And after I got through abusing the telemarketer over this point, I got to thinking about the many changes in the last decade.

First thing I should say up front: I’m at a low point in my bipolar cycle, as I’ve noted recently. That means that my self-image isn’t all that great. This isn’t a debilitating depressive episode or anything — I’ve managed to continue to work steadily, as well as enjoy the usual aspects of life. So not horrid. But it is sometimes difficult to not focus on the things which haven’t gone well, and my own failings which are often a component of that. And one of those failings is a sense of not accomplishing much, of being lazy, of wasting my time and the time of others.

Anyway. I got to thinking about the changes in the last decade. And surprisingly, more positive things came to mind than negative ones. That fed on itself, and I found myself making a mental list of the accomplishments.

In no particular order or ranking: wrote two books (one of them as co-author). Most of the way done with another. Visited Wales. And Argentina. And New Zealand. And Italy. Wrote several thousand blog posts. Became something of an authority on small caliber ballistics. Wrote several hundred articles and columns for publication. Was the full-time caregiver for someone with Alzheimer’s. Have done conservation work on something more than a thousand (that’s just a guess … may be closer to two thousand) books and documents. Made some great hot sauces. Raised, loved, and then said farewell to a great dog. Tried to be a good friend, and husband. Tried to help others when I could.

We all fail. We all have things we’ve done that haunt us in one way or another. Sometimes, those fears and demons overwhelm. Me, at least.

I may or may not be at a turning point in my bipolar cycle. But I’m glad that at least I can think of things I have accomplished. That helps.

Back to work on St. Cybi’s Well.

 

Jim Downey



By the book.

From Chapter 7 of St. Cybi’s Well:

Long training had taught him to put his trust in facts. In objective, testable reality. You didn’t fly a space shuttle – even one which had been stripped down to the bare essentials for transporting sealed sleeper modules – by the seat of your pants. That would very quickly get you killed. You flew it by the book, with close attention to your instrumentation and computer systems. Because your instincts would lie to you. Your hopes and dreams had no place in orbital calculations. The only miracles which existed were the ones created by careful science, proven engineering, and rigorous quality control.

 

And from a great entry today on Bad Astronomy:

The European Space Agency has put together a fantastic and enthralling video that goes through the steps taken to bring the space travelers down. This is seriously worth 20 minutes of your time.

 

Yeah, it is really cool to watch them go through it all by the book. Find the time to watch it.

 

Jim Downey



Get lucky.

“I’d rather be lucky than good.” — Lefty Gomez

* * * * * * *

In a fairly soul-baring piece by Emily Gould about the reality of struggling to be an ostensibly ‘successful’ writer, this should give even the most optimistic person pause:

In 2008 I sold a book-in-progress for $200,000 ($170,000 after commission, to be paid in four installments), which still seems to me like a lot of money. At the time, though, it seemed infinite. The resulting book—a “paperback original,” as they’re called—has sold around 8,000 copies, which is about a fifth of what it needed to sell not to be considered a flop. This essentially guarantees that no one will ever pay me that kind of money to write a book again.

 

* * * * * * *

In a discussion over on MetaFilter, successful Science Fiction author Charlie Stross had some thoughts on the above-cited essay. Here’s an excerpt from his comment:

In 2001 I had a gigantic stroke of good luck: I acquired a [good] literary agent and sold my first novel. It was about the tenth novel or novel-shaped-thing I’d written since 1990, on my own time. The advance was, eventually, $15,000 for US rights (a good first book advance in SF/F) and £3500 for UK rights. Note that a new novelist can’t get follow-on book contracts until their first book has proven itself in print — to justify the advance money the new contract will cost the publisher — so I had to keep up the freelance journalism for a few more years.

 

* * * * * * *

“A gigantic stroke of good luck.”

But Stross is a good writer, right? I mean, doesn’t he deserve his success and popularity? The meritocracy of the marketplace and all that?

Perhaps. From an NPR story the other day:

Several years ago, Princeton professor Matthew Salganik started thinking about success, specifically about how much of success should be attributed to the inherent qualities of the successful thing itself, and how much was just chance. For some essentially random reason, a group of people decided that the thing in question was really good and their attention attracted more attention until there was a herd of people who believed that it was special mostly because all the other people believed that it was, but the successful thing wasn’t in fact that special.

Salganik came up with a clever experiment, one which allowed a large number of teenagers (30,000) access to several dozen songs by promising but as yet unsigned bands. The way the experiment ran created 9 different iterations of ‘reality’, to see whether the same song would become the most popular one in each test run. They didn’t. In fact, the results were wildly divergent:

“For example, we had this song ‘Lock Down’ by the band 52 Metro,” Salganik says. “In one world this song came in first; in another world it came in 40th out of 48th. And this was exactly the same song. It’s just in these different worlds, history evolved slightly different. There were differences in the beginnings, and then the process of social influence and cumulative advantage sort of magnified those small, random initial differences.”

Now obviously there are many different things that have an impact on success and failure — money, race and a laundry list of other things — and after this work, which one person in the field described as a seminal paper, Salganik went on to do similar studies with parallel worlds that suggest that quality does have at least a limited role. It is hard to make things of very poor quality succeed — though after you meet a basic standard of quality, what becomes a huge hit and what doesn’t is essentially a matter of chance.

 

* * * * * * *

Another comment a little after Stross’s in that MeFi discussion offered a different perspective that’s worth considering:

Emily Gould’s example is crucial because she is the primary example of a writer who had succeeded. She did everything she was supposed to do: came to NYC, produced a ton of successful content for a big brand website, then continued on her own to create a huge internet presence, and then branched out into conventional media (the NYT piece) and eventually a six-figure book deal. If you think of the thousands of writers who are racking up credit card debt writing for free or almost on free all those websites we read every day, they are trying to become Emily Gould. Regardless of what they might think of her work itself, that’s the approximate career path they’re trying to follow.

So when people are glibly like, “Oh, she lived in a one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn, there’s your problem,” what they’re saying is: the pinnacle of this career is one in which you will never be able to afford to live on your own, never mind have kids or financial stability or even a regular writing paycheck, the end. And that should really give us pause.

Because, sure, you can say “She should never have come to New York, she should always have kept a full time job in a different profession, etc. etc.” But to work for Gawker, she had to come to New York. To gain the kind of name recognition she has, she had to work full time posting and networking and Tweeting and, basically, working for free. And when her book failed, it didn’t fail because it was “bad” – because she wrote, in the book, the exact same way she wrote online. For better or for worse, that was what people liked. The real, applicable lesson is that the book failed because the people who read her stuff online didn’t care enough to pay for it in print.

 

* * * * * * *

“I’d rather be lucky than good.” — Lefty Gomez

I used to think that this was wrong. In fact I was quite confident that my intelligence, hard work, and focus could overcome any barrier. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with any of those things.

But I’ve seen too much life to still believe that. Yeah, I’d rather be lucky than good.

Back to work.

 

Jim Downey



Blows against the empire.*

Last week Hugh Howey, the very successful author of the Wool series, published The Report on his AuthorEarnings site which generated more than a little attention across the publishing/self-publishing world.

I’m not going to get into a real discussion of The Report here. I’m in no way qualified to criticize the data or analysis contained in Howey’s post, and others have already done so with thoroughness. If you’re interested whether or not Howey’s post holds up to scrutiny, I’d recommend reading those.

Howey has had huge success, and seems to have managed that arc of success very well. By his own admission, he has been extremely fortunate with self-publishing, and his success is very much *not* what the vast majority of self-published authors will experience. But his success has made him something of an evangelist for self-publishing, and that is reflected in The Report.  Hence the title of this blog post — Howey very much advocates self-publishing for authors at every level, and in using the power which self-publishing has to force changes in the traditional publishing industry to benefit authors.

While I actually largely agree with Howey about the benefits of self-publishing, I thought I would offer my  own contrasting  experience as a self-published genre author who has had only moderate success.

After years of ‘close calls’ in almost getting Communion of Dreams conventionally published (including what would have been a nightmare - losing the rights to the book when a small publisher went under), in January of 2012 I self-published it.  Since then, some 27,000 copies of the book have been downloaded, and about 200 paperback copies have been sold.

Looks pretty good, right?

Well, 80% or more of those downloads were promotional. Which is to say, free.  And in addition to the paperback copies sold, I gave away about as many.

No complaints from me — this is using the tools available through Amazon, and I knew what I was doing. But that necessarily means that I didn’t earn any money off those books directly.

So in all of 2012, actual sales generated decent, but modest, income. Not enough to buy even an economy car new, but easily 3 or 4 times the advance that the Publisher Who Shall Not Be Named was going to give me. Then last year residual sales were less than $1000. If you add in my successful Kickstarter (after deducting expenses associated with that), all told I was able to stop doing most freelance writing last year and get to work on the next novel. Of course, while still trying to do enough book conservation work to stay afloat, and almost managing.

I consider this success.  It’s not Hugh Howey level success. It’s not even ‘mid-list authors a decade ago’ level sucess. It isn’t enough to live on.

But the first novel is out there, and has been well received. And I’m well on the way to having the next one out later this year.

Which is a hell of a lot better than banging my head against the gates of traditional publishing houses.

 

Jim Downey

*Reference, for those who are wondering. I’ve been considering doing a series of blog posts getting into rock music with a SF theme, looking at the development of that sub-genre over time. I still have a lot on my plate with SCW, so it’ll probably be a while, but if anyone wants to comment with suggested songs/albums/performers, feel free.



“A certain embarrassment.”

A good segment on this morning’s Weekend Edition Saturday with writer Marcel Theroux (son of Paul Theroux). I recommend the whole thing, but two particular bits stood out for me. The first is included on the ‘highlights’ page for the show:

I was trying to be as free as possible. I don’t really think about genre … to be honest. I find it constraining. And I know there’s a certain embarrassment about talking about science fiction in polite company, so some people prefer to call it “speculative fiction” instead.

 

And the second is my transcription from the actual interview (at about the 5:00 mark):

Anyone who has written a long work of fiction just knows that your mood goes up and down and at times it seems baffling and you feel that you should be doing something that is of value to the human race, not sitting on your own in a room churning out words. Or not churning out words.

 

Boy, howdy. I am happily churning out words at present, but sometimes it just feels so … self indulgent. And that doesn’t include the moments of complete panic that everyone will be disappointed in the prequel to Communion of Dreams because it isn’t science-fictiony enough or the writing isn’t any good or something.

*Sigh*

Back to work.  It’s all I can do.

 

Jim Downey



It’s not about security. It’s about abuse and incompetence.

I know sometimes people think that I am anti-government or anti-authority because I rant about infringements of our civil rights and personal liberties. I’ll cop to some of that, since I do believe that trading freedom (or even privacy) for a false security is foolish.

But more importantly, I think that the whole notion of secret courts or secret laws or secret lists are dangerous because they can be abused not due to an over-enthusiastic effort to protect the country, but because of personal grudges or to cover up incompetence. Without the ability to challenge these secret acts/actions, those abuses and incompetence cannot be brought to light and corrected. This is the perfect example of that:

The government contested a former Stanford University student’s assertion that she was wrongly placed on a no-fly list for seven years in court despite knowing an FBI official put her on the list by mistake because he checked the “wrong boxes” on a form, a federal judge wrote today.

The agent, Michael Kelly, based in San Jose, misunderstood the directions on the form and “erroneously nominated” Rahinah Ibrahim to the list in 2004, the judge wrote.

“He checked the wrong boxes, filling out the form exactly the opposite way from the instructions on the form,” U.S. District Judge William Alsup wrote (.pdf) today.

* * *

Much of the federal court trial, in which the woman sought only to clear her name, was conducted in secret after U.S. officials repeatedly invoked the state secrets privilege and sought to have the case dismissed.

 

Doctor Ibrahim is the first person to successfully challenge in court being put on a government watch list in the US. It’s highly doubtful that she is the only one to be placed on such a list incorrectly.

National security may benefit from secret lists and hidden actions. But so does bureaucratic incompetence and hidden agendas.

 

Jim Downey



Thinking about the unthinkable.*

Next Wednesday is the 50th anniversary of the release of the classic film “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.” It’s long been one of my favorite movies, even as a kid. Yeah, I was a strange kid. Don’t act like you’re surprised.

Anyway, Eric Schlosser has a good article in The New Yorker reflecting on how the movie, originally considered a farce, was actually frighteningly accurate. From the article:

A decade after the release of “Strangelove,” the Soviet Union began work on the Perimeter system—-a network of sensors and computers that could allow junior military officials to launch missiles without oversight from the Soviet leadership. Perhaps nobody at the Kremlin had seen the film. Completed in 1985, the system was known as the Dead Hand. Once it was activated, Perimeter would order the launch of long-range missiles at the United States if it detected nuclear detonations on Soviet soil and Soviet leaders couldn’t be reached. Like the Doomsday Machine in “Strangelove,” Perimeter was kept secret from the United States; its existence was not revealed until years after the Cold War ended.

 

“Detecting nuclear detonations” … hmm, where have I heard that phrase recently? Oh, yeah:

A Sound of Cosmic Thunder: Earth-Impacting Asteroid Heard by Nuke Detectors

On the second day of 2014, a small asteroid blew up high in Earth’s atmosphere. It was relatively harmless—the rock was only a couple of meters across, far too small to hit the ground or do any real damage—and it disintegrated over the Atlantic Ocean anyway.

What’s cool is that now we know for sure this is the case: Infrasound detectors designed to listen for nuclear bomb detonations actually heard the explosion from the impact and were able to pinpoint the location of the event to a few hundred kilometers east off the coast of Venezuela.

NASA put together a nice informative video explaining it:

 

Gee, it sure is a good thing nothing like that has ever hit the territory of the old USSR … er, oops.

And now that I’ve given you a nice dose of fright, let me make it up to you with a reminder that you can download Communion of Dreams (which has it all … game theory, nuclear exchanges, and more than a little of my old strangeness) for free today and tomorrow!

 

Jim Downey

*The title of one of Herman Kahn‘s books about nuclear war/deterrence, and where I think I was first exposed to the concepts behind game theory.  I’ve got Schlosser’s book Command and Control on my to-read list when the Kindle price comes down a bit.



Before & after.

Most of the book conservation work I do is pretty nondescript, just workmanlike. After all, the intent isn’t to draw attention to my work, but to preserve as much of the original character and structure of the book as I can.

But now and again I get to do some ‘pretty’. And it’s nice to come across those again later, particularly when for whatever reason I’m feeling a little down. It’s a pleasant boost to my self esteem. Such it was yesterday when I was browsing through the Adopt-a-book program at MU’s Special Collections, and saw this entry:

Adopt-a-Book > Book Detail

M.T.C. Epistolae familiares accuratius recognitae

Author: Cicero, Marcus Tullius.     Published: Venetiis : Apud Aldum et Andream Socerum, 1512

Description: Take apart and resew, saving the label where possible. New leather binding

Condition / repair needed: This codex was printed by the legendary Aldine Press. It was printed during the life of Aldus Manutius, the founder of the press. The most famous dolphin and anchor printer’s mark is seen on the title page.

Thank You to Donor:J. Schweitzer, R. Drake and M. Correale

 

I’ll explain later why it was that I was browsing the site (it was a good reason, but I don’t want to get into it just yet).

As for why I was feeling down … No special reason, as I mentioned yesterday. Getting over the touch of the flu I had early in the week. A touch of the winter blahs. The mild feeling that I get in the middle of any project that I have bitten off more than I can chew and that I’m going to fail spectacularly.

So it’s nice to see tangible evidence that I actually can do something well.

Remember, Communion of Dreams is available for free download in the Kindle edition today through Sunday.

 

Jim Downey



Music of the spheres, music to my ears.

Overnight, this blog hit 100,000 visits. Rah. Go, me.

 

* * *

Remember the old notion of the ‘music of the spheres‘? It wasn’t really about actual music you could hear, but more a philosophical/mathematical concept about the relationships within different aspects of reality. I make some oblique references to it in Communion of Dreams, and it’s a safe bet that you’ll see some similar references in St. Cybi’s Well.

Anyway, here’s something kinda-sorta tangentially related, insofar as it is a musical interpretation of traveling through our solar system, using data collected from the two Voyager spacecraft:

The sound of space: Voyager provides music from solar system and beyond

It’s a surprisingly nice little duet.

 

* * *

Persistence, I realized, was not the end goal. It was the actual game.

I had all the chances in the world to quit this game. Any rational person probably would have. Poverty, unemployment, crazy relationships, chronic illness, an imploding publisher… I could have quit. I could have said, “Fuck this noise.”

But after raging around on the internet or drinking a bottle of wine or taking a long bike ride, I came back to the keyboard. Always. I always came back.

Most people don’t.

I don’t blame them.

An excerpt from a really excellent, really honest assessment of what it means to be a fiction writer in this day and age. The author, Kameron Hurley, also participates in a discussion of the essay/topic on MetaFilter.

She’s had more success than I have, but my own experiences and conclusions are not that different.

 

* * *

A friend of mine who does a couple of podcasts had some fun recording an ad for Communion of Dreams. You can download/listen to the MP3 of it here. And if you’re into firearms at all, you should check out his podcasts.

 

* * *

Overnight, this blog hit 100,000 visits. Rah. Go, me.

That sounds a little more cynical, a little more bitter than I mean it to. Though I have certainly gone through both cynicism and bitterness many times, and expect that I will again.

But not now. Now, I’m … weary. For a variety of very human reasons. Reasons we all share, now and again.

But in spite of the weariness, I push on. As I mentioned in a comment the other day, writing/promotion these days is more akin to guerrilla warfare than anything.

And speaking of which, remember: tomorrow through Sunday is my two-year anniversary promotion. The Kindle edition of Communion of Dreams will be free to download for all three days. Spread the word — be part of my little guerrilla force.

Thanks.

 

Jim Downey



Three things.

OK, actually more like four. Maybe. Kinda. Sorta.

You’ll see.

* * *

Interesting item on this morning’s Morning Edition, looking at a new book about how scarcity has a psychological impact which pushes people to make poor choices.  The transcript isn’t up yet, so here’s just one passage from the interview with co-author Sendhil Mullainathan:

When you have scarcity and it creates a scarcity mindset, it leads you to take certain behaviors which in the short term help you manage scarcity, but in the long term only make matters worse.

Specifically, it’s a coping strategy: by setting aside some long-term problem, you actually have more time to deal with urgent short-term problems. This is a very normal human reaction, and actually even makes evolutionary sense — not getting eaten today is more important than where that glacier up the mountain will be next year.

I still remember a poster my Resident Advisor had up on her wall in college, which distilled this problem nicely. It said (with appropriate humorous graphic): “When you’re up to your ass in alligators, it’s easy to forget that you came here to drain the swamp.”

* * *

I’ve … struggled … with procrastination all my life. Sometimes more successfully than at other times. It can manifest as lethargy. Or writer’s block. Or simple distraction.

And I learned a long, long time ago that that struggle was made worse when I was confronted with other stressors in my life. A bad bipolar cycle. Financial stress.  Emotional stress. Simple lack of sufficient sleep. Just look back through my blog posts while we were doing care-giving for Martha Sr, and you’ll see exactly what I mean.

So when I see someone come up with an interesting take on procrastination, I pay attention. Here’s a very good one:

In the monkey world, he’s got it all figured out—if you eat when you’re hungry, sleep when you’re tired, and don’t do anything difficult, you’re a pretty successful monkey. The problem for the procrastinator is that he happens to live in the human world, making the Instant Gratification Monkey a highly unqualified navigator. Meanwhile, the Rational Decision-Maker, who was trained to make rational decisions, not to deal with competition over the controls, doesn’t know how to put up an effective fight—he just feels worse and worse about himself the more he fails and the more the suffering procrastinator whose head he’s in berates him.

It’s a mess. And with the monkey in charge, the procrastinator finds himself spending a lot of time in a place called the Dark Playground.*

The Dark Playground is a place every procrastinator knows well. It’s a place where leisure activities happen at times when leisure activities are not supposed to be happening. The fun you have in the Dark Playground isn’t actually fun because it’s completely unearned and the air is filled with guilt, anxiety, self-hatred, and dread. Sometimes the Rational Decision-Maker puts his foot down and refuses to let you waste time doing normal leisure things, and since the Instant Gratification Monkey sure as hell isn’t gonna let you work, you find yourself in a bizarre purgatory of weird activities where everyone loses.**

* * *

There was a great story yesterday afternoon on All Things Considered, about a little boy who was terrified by a statue of Frankenstein(‘s Monster). It was funny, charming, and insightful.

What insight? This one:

“Well, your nephew is a brilliant story editor,'” says psychologist Tim Wilson of the University of Virginia.

Wilson has been studying how small changes in a person’s own stories and memories can help with emotional health. He calls the process “story editing.” And he says that small tweaks in the interpretation of life events can reap huge benefits.

This process is essentially what happens during months, or years, of therapy. But Wilson has discovered ways you can change your story in only about 45 minutes.

* * *

There’s a second part to that item about procrastination I posted above (hence my ambivalence about whether this blog entry was about three things or four):

There’s only one way to truly beat procrastination:

You need to prove to yourself that you can do it. You need to show yourself you can do it, not tell yourself. Things will change when you show yourself that they can. Until then, you won’t believe it, and nothing will change. Think of yourself like a basketball player on a cold streak. For basketball players, it’s all about confidence, and an ice cold shooter can tell himself 1000 times, “I’m a great shooter, I’m going to hit this next one,” but it’s not until he physically hits a shot that his confidence goes up and his touch comes back. So how do you start hitting shots?

* * *

3) Aim for slow, steady progress—Storylines are rewritten one page at a time.In the same way a great achievement happens unglorious brick by unglorious brick, a deeply-engrained habit like procrastination doesn’t change all at once, it changes one modest improvement at a time. Remember, this is all about showing yourself you can do it, so the key isn’t to be perfect, but to simply improve. The author who writes one page a day has written a book after a year. The procrastinator who gets slightly better every week is a totally changed person a year later.So don’t think about going from A to Z—just start with A to B. Change the Storyline from “I procrastinate on every hard task I do” to “Once a week, I do a hard task without procrastinating.” If you can do that, you’ve started a trend. I’m still a wretched procrastinator, but I’m definitely better than I was last year, so I feel hopeful about the future.

* * *

Wait — I said three things? Or maybe four?

I suppose it’s really only one, after all.

Time for me to get back to work.

 

Jim Downey




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