Feeling at home

I was welcomed home a year ago, when I attended Burning Man for the first time. Over the course of my days there, this began to seem less strange. In some ways, I had stumbled upon a community of like minded souls, and I was home. That feeling, more than anything, is why I want to go back.

Last week, I attended my first World Science Fiction Convention (better known as Worldcon) at the amazing convention center in Dublin shown above. No one welcomed me home when I arrived, but after a day or two I realized they may as well have. This wildly varying collection of geeks are my people, too, and I feel every bit as at home with them.

What is surprising is the many things I found in common between these two different events, both of which spoke to me with such force.

Be you.

I’ve never meet two groups of people so dedicated to encouraging humans to be who they are in their hearts. From the wild array of costumes (and lack of clothing) at Burning Man to the colorful masquerade ball at Worldcon (shown left), everyone can let their inner light shine.

Participate, don’t observe.

Worldcon does not sell tickets to attend. It sells memberships in the organization, and being a member allows one to come participate. Do not expect to be entertained. At either place. They are both very clear about that.

Don’t be an asshole.

I found the culture of tolerance and acceptance as strong at once place as at the other, although I recognize individual experiences do vary. Not everyone may succeed every moment, but the aspiration of being both human and kind is a huge thing.

Do be capable.

Burning Man has its ten principals which include radical self-reliance. Worldcon just expects you to step in and handle the registration desk, or provide tech support, or whatever else you’ve grabbed a volunteer ticket for, and to do it as well as you can. Everything is done by a volunteer, and usually it’s a somewhat befuddled and inexperienced one. Everyone else is expected to be kind while the volunteer figures things out. It works better than you might think.

Among other things, I got to run the spotlight for the opening ceremony and for the Hugo awards, It was a position for which I was only marginally qualified. No one cared. Everyone thanked me very much. I had a lot of fun (and a terrific seat for both events.)

Be a community.

Along with the radical self-expression and individual competence, there is a sense of being a family. At worldcon, name badges let an attendee specify preferred pronouns and unisex bathrooms provided a space for everyone to be comfortable.

Worldcon went out of its way to accommodate those with access issues. Such efforts aren’t possible out on the playa, but the custom of gifting and the encouragement of assisting those in need of help has much the same effect.

Worldcon has been going on for 77 years now, attracting 5000 or so attendees to multiple countries. Next year it will be in New Zealand and I doubt I’ll be able to go. There are people who’ve attended for twenty or more years in a row.

Burning Man has it’s root in 80’s San Francisco. It now attracts nearly 80,000 people a year, many of whom have attended for twenty or more years in a row.

I’ll never be able to do that either, but I will be back at both events, hopefully many times. I think when you find a place in this world where you feel at home, you need to grab on to that. If you’re lucky enough to find such a thing in more places than one, well …. lucky you.

(Read more about my Worldcon adventures at And the winner, she is …., at  An Irish Worldcon: I’m here!  at A New Irish Experience and at Forward into the Past.)

 

 

How about this ad?

It started out so well.

Shape Lock 1

After I finally gained a little traction with Amazon’s lock screen ads for my first book, I hit the jackpot with my first Shape of Secrets ad shown to the right. I got 83,467 impressions, 475 clicks, and sold four books. Wow. Yes, I spent $63.78 doing it, but hey. I spent sixty some dollars selling one book for my first novel. I was making progress.

I’d also tried Amazon’s other choice for advertising, something called a sponsored ad. You don’t write copy for these; you pick either a bunch of key words, or you find other similar books, or you select a sub-genre or two. Then you bid to get your lovely cover displayed in the banner of suggestions that appears any time anyone buys anything on Amazon.

Shape Lock 2

I’d tried a mess of keywords for first book “One of One” and got one impression. That’s right, one. It was a very cheap ($0.22) and highly ineffective experiment. Forget keywords.

So for Shape of Secrets, I looked through Amazon’s suggested sub-genres. One was LGBT Fantasy Fiction. That was a category? Okay, the book is about a young gay man who can alter his appearance to look like anyone, so I guessed it fit. I tried it and got 87,684 impressions, 170 clicks, and sold three books. Hot damn. Yes, I’d spent$63.22 to do it, so I was losing money while Amazon was laughing all the way to the bank, but at least something was happening.

Shape Lock 3

At the start of this endeavor I’d set aside a few hundred dollars for climbing my learning curve as my own advertising exec. At this rate, I was going to be out of a job soon. I decided to dial back my budgets and bids.

Shape Lock 2 (my shorthand for the second Shape of Secrets lock screen ad) got 72,162 impressions, 343 clicks, spent $57.42 and only sold one book. Oops. Looked like the only thing I dialed back was sales. That wasn’t good.

I tried again. For no discernable reason, Shape Lock 3 crashed and burned with 443 impressions, 1 click and no sales. The ad never even had a Kindle Fire version, something I’m still trying to figure out. (Any ideas?)

Shape Lock 4

Curious, I tried almost the same ad again. Shape Lock 4 did almost what I wanted it to do. Except, only did it once.  It got 5,687 impressions, 12 clicks, and sold one book for $3.24. I almost made a profit! If I could get that up to two books, and then do it a hundred times …..

But I can’t.

I’m back to trying new text, targeting smaller groups more specifically, and trying new sub-genre sponsored ads. Is there anyone in this world more hopeful than a self-published author? Possibly not.
For more about my Amazon advertising adventures see “Would this ad work for you?”

Learning to Juggle

I came home from a month long trip last fall, on fire. I knew what I was going to spend the next eight months doing. I just wasn’t sure how I was going to do it.

I knew I wanted to rewrite/heavily edit all six of my books to fit a grand vision. I wanted better titles, more marketable covers, less typos, more action and more sensitivity. Chapters had to be shorter, dialog snappier, and everything more pithy. Less Michener. More poet. Where to start?

I drew on my experiences in management in a former life to chart a course, knowing I would have to motivate and direct the most challenging human I’ve ever had to deal with — me.

I do like to make color-coded spreadsheets, so I let myself go wild. It didn’t look too bad. I can do this.

Now that I’m about half-way through this, it’s time to ask. How’s it going?

Well….. Book one is out there and I’m happy with it, but I don’t have nearly enough time to advertise or promote it.  It has a review tour going which I should be putting more energy into, and I just printed out a large-type copy for my narrator who has finished a chapter of my first ever audio book and is ready for more. The sound guy will have that chapter back to us for review this week. Yikes.

Book two is out there and I’m happy with it, but I’m struggling to even get basics done like make request reviews and order hard copies for myself.

Book three comes out in two weeks. It’s still with my final proofreader and that’s making me nervous. I don’t have the paperback cover yet because I ran so late in getting the text for the back cover to my designers.  Argghhh.

Book four is on hold, having been edited. It’s ready for my final read through which I was supposed to be starting next week but there is just no way.

Book five is being edited now, and the new cover is in progress. Been through two iterations on the cover and it’s looking good. Will get what is hopefully the final version on Wednesday.

I’m not even thinking about book six.

Honestly, this is all too much to hold in my head at once. I keep checking my spreadsheet thinking I’m forgetting some essential component somewhere. There’s got to be something I’m forgetting.

Sleep? Food? Wait. In the process of trying to juggle everything, I think I’m forgetting to enjoy this.

 

Day 18. I, Human

All week I look for insights about what it means to be human. After all, the theme of this event is I, Robot. Some of the art, the cars, and the camps riff on this idea, and I’m determined to locate bits of wisdom in these creative endeavors.

Why? Even as I finish up my first six novels, putting the finishing touches on the collection and tying it all up with a bow for the new release of my six books, I am working on my Next Big Thing. It will be a sci-fi crime series, I hope, and will play with the idea of robots and humans and their differences.

The Man himself has a faintly robotic look to him this year, and art on AI surrounds me. Yet, day after day the inspiration I seek eludes me.

I’ve also yet to find a good way to spend the hot mid-afternoon hours here, so I try a new approach. This year some of the art cars have agreed to participate in BAIT, a public transportation of sorts. Official stops have been designated along with a half hour range for pickups, and lucky passengers will be transported out to The Man and on to The Temple and back. Maybe I’ll find my kernel of inspiration on the ride.

Only the ride never comes. I show up 5 minutes before the time range starts and wait 10 minutes past it, as the dust kicks up and my wait way out on Avenue L gets increasingly unpleasant. A nearby camp invites me to come inside and chill, but after a few minutes of refuge inside their large tent I worry I won’t see my ride. Right before I give up, I have my epiphany.

This is totally stupid.

I mean it. It makes no sense. I am standing in the middle of a desert so inhospitable that no life form except microbes lives here. It is hot and miserable. The food is lousy and I have no appetite. The liquor all gives me a headache. It’s crowded and noisy and the sounds never stop. The porta-potties stink and I’ve no where to brush my teeth and I can’t even get a damn art car to stop for me even though the sign says it should have been here by now.

What’s worse? I paid $400 to do this. I drove nearly 3000 miles, spent at least another $1000 on supplies, and used up most of my free time for the last month getting my shit together to be out here. And  ….. here comes the epiphany. I’m glad I did it. I’m enjoying myself. Worse yet, I’m thinking about coming back here and doing this again. Seriously…

Do you think you could program a machine to do that?

I contend that the odd assortment of things that are bring joy here aren’t quite the same for any two people, and are radically different for many. There is no one answer, or twelve answers, about why this works. Somewhere in the quasi-random process called evolution which created us as a species, and the equally bizarre series of events that shaped each of us as individuals, are little beads of capacity for joy that can’t be understood or duplicated. In fact, there is no logical need to understand or duplicate them.

Design a machine to behave logically, Or randomly or some combination thereof. Design it to seek joy when its needs are fulfilled, and take a stab at defining those needs. Design it any way you like. I contend that no thought-out effort results in a significant number of your models choosing to go to Burning Man once, much less to return.

Being here doesn’t make sense. It’s a human thing, machines. You wouldn’t understand.

I finish my thoughts, give up on BAIT, and head back towards my camp. I notice one camp has erected a small café, complete with a Maitre ‘d out front, and I decide to get some lunch. He seats me, presenting my menu with great flourish, and I see several other customers stifling grins. What’s going on?

“Take your time, dear” a lady sitting next to me says.

“I know I couldn’t make up my mind,” adds another.

I open the menu. It says “Cappuccino.”

That’s it.

“I think I’ll have a cappuccino,” I tell the waiter.

“Excellent choice,” he says.

The good news is it is excellent cappuccino.

Over the five full days I am at Burning Man, I end up working three four-hour shifts as an assistant stage manager at the Center Camp, and I enjoy myself immensely. On the first of these shifts I discover that if an act doesn’t show up, it’s our job to find someone in the audience to perform. The show must go on.

On my second shift, I discover that if the audience will not produce an act, we must. When I arrive, the previous three acts have all been no shows, and the entire stage crew has been up there for hours doing everything they can think of. Shifts are staggered, so I am greeted by a sound technician and the head stage manager having an on stage debate about what the worst processed foods are. Four or five sleepy burners sip coffee and watch with mild interest while the rest of the stage crew looks at their watches.

It seems only right to provide some relief, so I offer to take the mic and share the story of my day. As I launch into my tirade about how stupid it is to be here, a few more coffee drinkers wander over. By the time I’m arguing no one could program a machine to make an informed non-random choice to attend Burning Man and furthermore, there is no reason one would ever want to, I’ve amassed a couple of dozen listeners and I’m even getting comments from the audience. Not bad for my first time on stage.

Today’s rule of the road?

It doesn’t have to make sense, at least not if you’re human.

Today’s song?

Not one I’d normally pick, but it’s a shout out to the person who invited me here in the first place. Years ago he and friends designed and built a camp with a large shade structure and a viewing platform to climb up to. The supplies have been passed along to others, but he still enjoys going back to visit. They called it the ICU Baby camp. I understand this song is still played there often…

If you’d like to read a short blurb from each day of my journey, check out
Day 1. The Journey of 6000 miles
Day 2. Rules of the Road
Day 3. Just Don’t
Day 4. Bloom Here.
Day 5. Yes Aretha. Respect.
Day 6. No Trucks. Just Corn.
Day 7. Cry
Day 8. There’s No Place Like Home
Day 9. It’s Okay to Ask a Human for Help
Day 10. Always Bring an Onion
Day 11. Gimme Three Steps Towards Nevada
Day 12. I Want to Scream.
Day 13. Dusty Virgin
Day 14: Magical ride
Day 15. As Nice as I Want to Be
Day 16. What Rules? What Road?
Day 17. If you get interrupted by a parade …
Day 18. I, Human
Day 19. A Border Crossing
Day 20. Someone to Help Me Get Home
Day 21. Time flies like an arrow and ….
Day 22. Stop, or Else …
Day 23. What’s Your Reality?
Day 24. If it seems ridiculous …
Day 25. Backing Up
Day 26. To Stop a Hurricane
Day 27. Lights Along My Path
Day 28. Grateful

 

 

Day 11. Gimme Three Steps Towards Nevada

I have a six hour drive ahead of me today as I head west out of Moab on I70 to Ely Nevada. The first two hours are sheer joy. Red cliffs are all around, traffic moves well, and the morning is cool. I drive with the windows down, singing along with my music and wondering why I get to lead such a fun life.

Of course, this doesn’t last.

Everything changes shortly after I turn on to state highway 50. As I descend out of the mountains, the temperature rises 20 degrees and the scenery turns to endless scraggly sage. I enter one of the weirdest stretches of road I have ever traveled upon.

I grew up in Western Kansas and most people consider it pretty desolate there, but it is an overpopulated mass of humanity compared to this part of western Utah. For long stretches, I do not see another car or a building of any kind. I have no phone service. The sun blares down and I go to AC.

I pat my dashboard. Not a good place to breakdown, I whisper to my trusty FJ Cruiser. Fortunately, she understands and agrees.

Then I hit the road construction. Or rather, the road construction signs. They insist I slow down to 35 mph, so of course I do. I creep along looking for either people or machinery. Neither appears. The asphalt looks new, and some stretches are missing a center line, but that’s the only sign of roadwork. I let my speed creep back up. If going 35 mph feels slow on a normal highway, it feels like sitting still out here.

I’m just about back up to 65 mph when I see another sign. This one wants me to go 45. Okay, I play along. Again, no workers, no machinery, no other cars going my direction and only a rare one going the other way. I feel silly driving 45. After a while, I creep back up again.

This goes on four or five more times, with each lowered speed limit slightly different, and never a sign saying it is okay to resume normal speed. It has ceased to be amusing when I begin to round the crest of a small hill and notice the top of a vehicle off the right. Surely not, I think. But just in case, I slow down to 40 mph.

Yup. It’s a big ol’ sheriff’s truck, setting smack dab in the absolute middle of nowhere hidden by the only hill for miles. As I go by, he steps out of the vehicle and points something at me, a speed detection device I assume. By then I’m doing 34 mph and giving him the finger in my head.

Doesn’t this man have anything better to do?

No, he doesn’t. Before long I notice him at a distance in my rear view mirror. I slow down. He slows down. I speed up. He speeds up. I’m contemplating all sorts of crazy reactions when Rule 11 solidifies in my mind.

Avoid unnecessary trouble. Just avoid it.

Is trouble ever necessary? Yes, I tell myself. There are fights that need to be fought, causes that should be championed. But … doing something stupid because of one lone sheriff determined to collect a fine is not a cause worth messing up a perfectly fine day for.

It’s about twenty miles to the Nevada border. I can do this. I slow down to 40 mph and creep along. A mile from the border, he pulls a u-turn and heads back into Utah to find someone else to pick on.

Just inside Nevada there is this wonderful little establishment surrounded by miles of nothing, selling gas and a offering a dim room full of singing, blinking slot machines. I use the restroom and consider playing a machine as a thank you for the facilities, then opt for treating myself to a ginger ale instead.

“Have a nice day,” the young man chirps.

“I will. I’m so glad to have made it to Nevada.”

He nods like he understands and I think maybe he does. It could be the sort of thing he hears from half a dozen or so people every day ….

My travels end well with a nice meal in Ely at a place called Cell Block Steakhouse. Each table is it’s own little jail cell. Cute, huh? Maybe not so much so after the day I had. Yet, it could have ended far worse.

Seeking a song for the day, my mind went straight to this, my favorite song ever  about a man trying to avoid trouble. It makes me laugh every time I hear it, and I especially like this recent live version.

 

 

 

Be Yourself? Which self?

“Just be yourself.” I’ve been given that suggestion hundreds of times, and it was particularly unwelcome coming from my waitress who I suspected had indulged in a few too many free shots at the bar.

In a way, it was my own fault. I’d broken one of my cardinal rules and shared a piece of personal information with this complete stranger. Once she knew I was apprehensive about meeting my fellow diners, she proceeded to offer a steady stream of unwanted advice until they arrived. This morning I’m still miffed that my oblivious husband tipped her 20%.

But bad restaurant experiences aside, that is a horrible piece of advice. Pretty much anything you do or say is yourself. Some sides of you are more likeable, or more fully developed, or more integrated into the whole you, but if it is coming out of your mouth without an intent to lie, it is you.

The problem is that we are all complex creatures. I have a squeamish side that gets nauseous at little things. I also have a this-is-an-emergency side that steps in and deals with the grossest of injuries if need be. I’m not faking either one. I’m not a simple person, and neither are you.

So when people tell me to be myself, my answer is “which self?” I’ve got at least dozen different genuine responses in my head to anything you have to say. Some may lead to a budding friendship, others to hostility. Over time you might get to know most of those sides of me, but which one do I let you see first?

This dilemma of defining the real me has recently spilled over into my writing, or more accurately into the marketing of my books. I love my book titles and my book covers. They are the real me. However, I’ve been told by those I respect that neither titles nor covers are helping me sell books.

After quite a bit of reflection, I’ve decided that being effective is also the real me. I’m practical and I like to achieve my goals. My goal is to find more readers. So, the real me is renaming my books and has sought out a professional to provide covers that will be a lot more like the one shown here. (It is for someone elses book about an appearance changer.)

What will those new names be? I’m having a lot of fun deciding on them. What will the new covers really look like? I can’t wait to find out. I’ll be sharing some of both here over the next few months, and if all goes according to plan a new crime novel about a gay genius who can change his appearance will be released in early January 2019.

The real me can’t wait.

 

Live like you are going die?

The worst piece of advice I ever received was to live like I was dying.

The timing was bad. My father was, in fact, dying and doing it rather quickly. Cancer was tearing through his body, leaving his doctors and my mother baffled by its virulence.

I was grown, with small children of my own, keeping a stiff upper lip for all. The “live every moment as if it was your last” verbiage didn’t sink in until after his funeral, and then it engulfed me so completely that instead of grieving, I stopped being a reasonable person.

Somewhere, deep inside, I now understood I was going to die. It was a fact I’d heard before, of course, but until it happened to my dad, I guess I didn’t really believe it. Didn’t get it would happen to me.

Then, with my father no longer standing between me and eternity, every minute was precious. It wasn’t precious in a “thank-you-universe” kind of way. It was more like a for-god-sake-how-long-am-I-going-to-have-to-stand-in-this-grocery-line-while-you-pull-out-your-damn-coupons kind of way. It was a move-your-car-so-I-can-make-this-stupid-light kind of way. I had things to do and life to experience and now that I understood I didn’t have forever, I didn’t want to waste a minute of what I did have putting up with anyone’s shit.

I was miserable, and I was miserable to be around. It was no way to live.

This lasted for awhile and then I got tired of it. I mostly forgot about the fact that I was going to die, because we’re just not wired to hang on to that sort of thing. I went back to normal, wasting time and letting other people waste my time and usually not getting upset about it.

Much later, I would realize this had been by own way of grieving, and a few tears would finally come. I would find ways to celebrate my dad, and to enjoy my own life more.

I’m pulling out my passport for a trip I will take soon. I’m headed to Machu Picchu, a place I’ve always wanted to go. A closer look at my documents shows that in the past couple of years I’ve been to Portugal, Morocco, and Kenya. I imagine a customs official looking at me and asking “Did you win the lottery? Or are you dying?”

No, I haven’t won the lottery and even with budget travel I’m risking insufficient funds later in exchange for grabbing opportunities now. That’s an equation requiring balance, and I know I’m leaning to one side. I don’t intend to lean too far, but I’m okay with the imbalance.

You see, I am dying. Not any faster than anyone else, as far as I know, but I accept that my time is a limited resource.  I’ve decided to do the things I really want to do now.

During one of the last exchanges I had with my dad, he told me he wished he’d gotten more time, but he was grateful for all the moments he had. All the things he did. “It was a great life,” he declared and even as I heard him say it I thought I want to be able to say that, too.

Which is why this year I’m going to Peru, and participating in at least three other interesting things that matter to me and I’ve not made time for. Yet.

Because, of course, it isn’t about going places. It’s about having the time of your life. I realize having the time of my life is something I should have been doing all along, but it’s never too late to start. I’m thinking of what I might add in 2019.

You see, the best piece of advice I ever received was to live like I was dying.

(For more thoughts on how to use one’s time with wisdom see Spending time.)