Scarlet Letters

The not-so-private thoughts and rants of Elizabeth Donald, journalist/author and founder of the Literary Underworld.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Consider myself kicked

I've been thinking all day how I could possibly sum up the rollercoaster ride of the past ten days, and I simply don't have the words. Which is a little troubling for a writer.

Ten months ago, I was seriously considering quitting this whole writing thing. A project I'd been wrestling with for an ungodly long time was hanging me up, preventing me from moving on to other things. Sales were tanking, much of my published work was staggering toward going out of print, and worst of all, nobody seemed to notice that I hadn't put out much in the way of new work for a year or so.

If nobody reads what a writer puts down on paper, is she just talking to herself? They have doctors for that sort of thing.

Ten weeks ago, or thereabouts, I found out that I was going to be furloughed from my Daye Jobbe. Temporarily, but the loss of a week's salary was still daunting. Now, I love my job. I am truly blessed in that I have a job that I love, that I can do well, that makes a difference in the world, and if it doesn't pay all that well... well, I'm a simple woman. My needs are few. Give me caffeine and I'm good.

So a furlough... that's bad. That's a week of being useless, a week of eating Pringles on the couch and trying to figure out how I could possibly pay the rent with 75 percent of my salary. Sure, I could try to build up a week's salary in savings. But as the anemic wedding fund could testify, were it conscious: we ain't that great at saving. There's always a minor car repair, or a broken pair of glasses (Boy!!!), or a computer that goes down for the count.

Ten days ago, I launched my attempt to cope with the furlough, doing the only thing I know how to do that doesn't involve a reporter's notebook: sell books.

Okay, the only lucrative and legal thing I know how to do. Hush, you.

Write a novella and give it to the backers. Hit the road on their cash and stop as many places as I can from here to New York and back. Wait, I've already met that amount? How about Boston? How about Florida? How about New Orleans? California? Seattle?

Wow. That's the only word I can come up with for setting a goal of $750 and hitting $3,240. (Or, actually, an estimated $2,900 after Kickstarter and Amazon take their cut. We'll get the final total in two days.)

Jimmy says it proves that I'm popular. That would be a big surprise to the bespectacled nerd-girl of Westfield Middle School, but she's been surprised for a long time to find that her fever-dreams on paper are read by teeming hundreds of people.

And people were watching. A photographer I know remarked on the staggering success of the Kickstarter. It gave him hope, he said, that his long-time wish to travel to national parks, gather nature photography and publish a calendar might not be crazy. Of course it isn't, I told him. It helps to have an established fan base, yes... but it's also the way to build a fan base. Can't gain fans unless you have the work to give.

Which is good advice for me, too. The success of the Kickstarter doesn't just mean that I get to drive across the country two weeks from now, or that I get to meet so many readers who've supported me all these years. It doesn't just mean that I get to go on a series of bungee trips, too.

It also kicked me square in the Whinypants. It told me that even if I'm not deluged in letters begging me for the next book, people really like my stuff. They want to see more. They're even willing to donate money to support my fiction habit, to send me on the road with boxes of books in my trunk.

I think every writer has these moments of doubt, these secret (or not-so-secret) insecurities that we're all just fooling ourselves, we're not real writers, and we've been making an ass of ourselves all these years. Every writer I know has, at least. But then someone or something kicks us in the Whinypants, and we get back to work.

Consider myself kicked. There's this novella I have to finish, after all...

Thursday, September 26, 2013


Dear blue coffee cup,

We've been through a lot together since I bought you and your brothers off the shelf at Pier 1 in 2003. I'm quite fond of your dark-blue china and funky pseudo-Oriental pattern, so I was disappointed that you went out of print, so to speak.

When your handle broke, I glued it. And lo these many years we've gotten along just fine. All those cups of coffee and tea, mugs of hot chocolate for the Boy. It's been a long row, you and I.

So I'm more than a little upset with you. Not just because you chose tonight to die. But the manner in which you went.

I was innocently sitting on my couch, a Grisham movie playing on the screen while I accomplished any number of Endless Tasks (tm Allan Gilbreath) on my laptop. I was looking forward to a nice mug of hot tea. Moroccan mint tea, to be exact, from my friends at Teavana. It's coffee by day, but when the sun goes down it's tea all the way.

I picked you up by your lovely dark-blue handle, and you chose that particular moment to break off in my hand.

I want to thank you for defying the laws of physics and missing the laptop entirely. As much as I love you, it would cost about a thousand times more to replace Serenity the MacBook than it costs to replace you.

However, dumping an extra-large mug of steaming hot tea all over the front of my body was not appreciated. Is that any way to thank me for all the years we've had together? All the washing, packing, moving, thousands of cups? You couldn't have died on the kitchen floor or in the sink? You had to dump it all over me?

I'm sorry to bid you farewell, truly. There aren't many of you left. But as I treat the burns on my legs, I really wish you'd chosen a gentler goodbye.

Thursday, September 19, 2013


And you know that doesn't happen often.

As of this writing, the Kickstarter is at $1,195. My goal was $750, the bare minimum needed to get me from St. Louis to New York and back. We hit that goal in 28 hours, and since then we're well on the way to doubling it.


I never heard of "stretch goals" before last night, which shows what a newb I am at this. I thought about an expanded print run for the novella, doing it myself instead of contracting the rights to a publisher as planned. I thought about a voice-only reading of some of my work if we pass $1,500.

But the point of this thing was to get me to places I can't usually go, meet the readers who want me to come to their city. Sure, it's good to sell books while I'm there... but how much better to meet people face to face, talk with them and get to know them? After all, they've been forking over their cash for my books for ten years now. I want to say thank you in person.

And so that seems the most appropriate stretch goal.

Several people have asked me about visiting their hometowns. New Orleans. California. New England. Seattle. These places are too far for my route to stretch and still finish in ten days. But that's why God invented airplanes.

Paying full price, including airfare, rental car and hotel, it would cost the following amount for me to visit these places:

• New Orleans, $625 by air, $550 by rental car (with an extra day in Memphis).
• Seattle, $725.
• Boston, $905 (ouch).
• California, San Francisco/Merced/Los Angeles $530. 

All this assumes I don't eat, of course. Well, I am trying to lose weight...

As you can see, it would be difficult to sell enough books in a weekend to cover these costs. That's why I've never done them. Costs can be reduced if I know someone in town willing to put me up, or if the city has sufficient public transportation that I don't have to rent a car and figure out Boston traffic. Yikes. California is a bargain because I have family all over that state, saving me a potential $470 car rental fee. Double yikes.

But if we get enough extra on the Kickstarter, they become possible. I call them bungee trips - I fly in, speak at a library or a bookstore, do a coffee chat and fly out. I wrap vacation days around a weekend and I get my butt out there. Hey, if I rack up enough frequent flyer miles, that's another trip.

You've already exceeded my wildest imaginings on this thing. I am so excited about this adventure, and you're the ones sending me into it. I'd love to come see even more of you in the months ahead, and of course chronicle my adventures with posts and photos along the way.

And it looks like I better make that novella a damn good one.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Kickstarting the Furlough Tour

I don't think I've been more nervous about anything since I started this wacky writing thing! But here it is: the Kickstarter for the Furlough Tour.

You can read all the details at the site, but the shorthand is: I'm being furloughed. A week off unpaid isn't much compared to the trials some of my colleagues have had to endure; I'd rather a furlough than a layoff. But that doesn't mean my family can easily absorb losing a week of my salary.

But I'm going to turn this gut-punch into an advantage: I'm hitting the road for the Furlough Book Tour. I'm going to drive from St. Louis to New York and back. I'm going to stop in all those places that people have asked me to visit, and I've always had to say no because airfare isn't free and I couldn't be gone from the paper for more than a weekend. Suddenly I've got a lot of time on my hands.

This comes just as we are about to launch the reimagined edition of Dreadmire! If you're a reaaaaaally devoted fan, you might remember that fantasy adventure through the swamp I wrote about five years ago. It's been resurrected, so to speak, in a wonderful new edition by Inkstained Succubus Press.

And that secret novella I've been working on? It's going to be released first to the people who donate to the Kickstarter.

Now, it turns out I don't know all that much about Kickstarter. As I was dithering and preparing and researching and all that stuff, I didn't realize that there's a 14-day waiting period between the end of the Kickstarter and actually getting the money. That meant by the time I was ready to launch this week, I could only have a 10-day pledge period to raise the funds. That's why it's so short. :( As it is, I will probably have to begin the tour with the money still pending. So I sure hope sales are good at the next few events I'm doing before the tour!

(That would be the Strange Folk Festival and Archon, by the way.)

I've never done a Kickstarter before, so I'm pretty sure I've made seven or eight critical errors. And I'm rather nervous about it, because it's asking you all, my dear readers, to help me rent a car and drive across the country. That's a lot to ask, particularly in this economy.

But I'm also excited about it. I think it'll be delightful fun, and I'm hoping to get to meet a lot of my dear readers who have only been names on emails and posts up until now. I want to see places I've never seen, and maybe introduce my writing to some new folks.

So here's the part that isn't in the Kickstarter Plea O' Cash: Where would you like me to go? Some folks have already asked me about coming to Allentown, Harrisburg and York in Pennsylvania (geez, Pennfolk like me!); Baltimore; South Bend, Ind.; New York City and other points east. Are you anywhere along that route? Would you like me to come to your town? Tell me, and I'll see if I can make it happen!

Wish me luck! I'm gonna need it...

Note: For those reading this live, I'm going to be in a Google+ Hangout for the next hour or so answering questions and chatting. Drop by and say hello!

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Groupon this

You know, I love the Bevo Mill. It's a nifty restaurant with great food inside a windmill in St. Louis. 

And their Sunday brunch buffet is something to behold. All the omelet and carving stations you can imagine, plus unlimited mimosas and did I mention the Belgian waffles? I've been there a couple times... as someone's guest.

Because $30 a head is a tad out of my price range. I'm just a humble reporter with two other jobs. 

And I love Groupon. Whenever I'm flush I'll pick one up. We love restaurants, so Groupons let us indulge, try new independent restaurants around town and keep us from breaking the bank.

A $14 Groupon for the Bevo Mill brunch. Oh, that's awesome. We'll make a day of it. Brunch, then the Botanical Gardens on a clear fall Sunday. That's my vision of perfect.

Until you read the fine print. Limit one per person makes sense; duh, it's a buffet. Limit one per TABLE? So if I have the Groupon, I have to pay full price for Jimmy and Ian? Or we can use the Groupons if we sit at different tables? Oh, I can have two at the table if there are two other adults. Great, so all we have to do is bribe another couple to spend $60 on brunch and leave the teenager in the car.

Sorry, Bevo Groupon. You had me for a whole minute. You are, in fact, awesome... but I can feed all three of us brunch at a local diner for $16. It won't be as tasty as yours, of course. But I'll still be able to pay the rent.

Friday, September 06, 2013

RIP Ann Crispin

I won't pretend we were close friends. I may have been on a panel with her once, but I unfortunately don't have the honor of having been close to her.

But I'd be lying if I said her passing left me untouched. Ann C. Crispin didn't have the fame of other popular science fiction authors, or presumably the vast riches poured onto the mega-bestsellers. What she had was the respect of nearly everyone in speculative fiction, not only for her own work, but her tireless efforts to improve the genre and the publishing business.

I encountered Crispin's work as a young girl, a freshly-minted Trekkie eagerly seeking books about this vast new world that had fascinated me. Her Star Trek tie-in novels were excellent, entry drugs into other science fiction. She wrote the Han Solo trilogy for Star Wars, novelizations for movies like V, Alien Resurrection and the backstory for Pirates of the Caribbean, as well as her original Starbridge series.

But she also founded "Writer Beware," an immensely valuable service providing free advice and warnings about scams and charlatans preying on beginning writers. I've always thought that people trying to scam writers are one of the lowest forms of scum; if you're going to scam someone, scam someone who actually has money. It became the go-to spot for writers to check the bona fides of their potential publisher or agent, and has saved countless writers from devastating and costly mistakes.

When I was in Atlanta last week, I carried with me a copy of Crispin's novel Sarek. Jimmy had received it as a gift and was greatly enjoying it. He also knew of Crispin from her presence on Absolute Write, the writers' online hangout where he used to practice his craft before he wrote his first novel. It says something about her, I think, that she was willing to offer her advice and free time to anonymous beginners, a generosity not often seen in or out of the genre.

Unfortunately, Crispin was not at Dragon Con. It startled me, because as long as I can remember, she coordinated the two-day intensive writing workshop. I've had several friends go through the workshop, which they described as intense, life-changing and immensely valuable. I always wanted to do it myself, if I could get free of panels, but never managed.

But it turns out Crispin wasn't just taking a year off. She said her goodbyes to her fans a few days later, having struggled for years with cancer. And this morning she left us, hopefully surrounded by her family and friends, as well as her husband, Michael Capobianco. Cancer takes the best of us, dammit, and my anger toward this disease grows every time this happens.

I wish I could think of the endless hours she put in at SFWA, or the writing workshops, or the immense impact of Writer Beware, or even of Mr. Capobianco and his crushing loss. But I keep thinking of a twelve-year-old girl sitting up late in her twin bed next to her handmade model of the starship Enterprise, reading the adventures of Kirk and Spock. Ann Crispin was part of my entry drug into science fiction, which led to most of my career. That's a debt I can't repay, not to her or any of the others that led me into this shiny new world.

We are all a little poorer today for the loss of Ms. Crispin. Rest in peace among the stars, dear lady.

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

In case anyone is wondering why I'm marrying him...

Him: Cleaning engineering tonight. Choo choo.
Me: I guess that means you're really on track.
Me: Enjoy your spiders.
Him: This place is a MESS! The whiteboards look worse than ours! Dust bunnies the size of Godzilla! Having to fight them off with my trusty broom!
Me: Defeat those dust bunnies!
Him: I will win this battle of man vs. dirt!
Me: Then you can attack our basement.
Him: Sure thing! I like cleaning.
Me: God, I love you.