Award-winning author
Unusual times, remarkable places

The "Standard of Ur" from ancient Mesopotamia

The "Standard of Ur" from ancient Mesopotamia

30 June 2012

Birds in my yard

Living by desert mountains as we do, we do not have the wide variety of bird species in our yard that the typical suburban backyard does. But what we lack in variety we make up for in quantity. Here are a few of the birds we've photographed in our yard recently.

White-crowned sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophryus)

Possibly a female Anna's hummingbird (Calypte anna)

Male house finch (Carpodacus mexicanus)

Black-headed grosbeak (Pheucticus melanocephalus, a spring visitor) and male house finch (Carpodacus mexicanus)

Male and female house finches; possibly a male house sparrow (Passer domesticus) in breeding plumage

Male (behind) and female California quail (Callipepla californica)

Greater roadrunner (Geococcyx californianus)

Possibly (left) a female Anna's hummingbird (Calypte anna); unknown female hummingbird at right

21 June 2012

Clarion Write-a-Thon starts Sunday

For the next six weeks, graduates and friends of the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers' Workshop will be raising money to support Clarion, a workshop that has produced many well-known writers, primarily in the sf/f genre. Clarion grads include two of my own Clarion teachers—Robert Crais and Kim Stanley Robinson—as well as notables such as Tobias Bucknell, Octavia Butler, Ted Chiang, Cory Doctorow, Gregory Frost...and on and on through the alphabet.

During the Write-a-Thon, you can support the Clarion workshop—and ensure its continued production of awesome sf/f writers—in any of several ways.

  • Sign up as a writer and collect pledges and donations in your name. The process is simple, and making public your writing-related goals for the summer is a great motivator to actually work on and complete your projects. Interested? Learn more or sign up here.
  •  Donate directly to Clarion. Go here and click on the green button.
  • Sponsor me and my summer project. My project for the Write-a-Thon is to finish a major revision of a novel and then go through it again, revising even more and polishing. To make a pledge or donation in support of my revisions, sign up here. Everyone who contributes at least $10 receives a token of my appreciation.
  • Sponsor writers you know or admire who are participating in the Write-a-Thon. The list of writers who have signed up is here. You can click on each person's name to find out something about them and what project they are doing during the Write-a-Thon. If you want to support several writers, Clarion has made the process simple. Start here.
  • Buy Clarion swag. Go here and here to find teeshirts, mugs, hats, and other stuff.
  • No time? No money? Spread the word through your social media: blogs, Websites, Twitter accounts, Facebook page, or whatever else you do. You can grab some cool Write-a-Thon badges here.
Clarion's goal for this Write-a-Thon is to sign up at least 150 writers and to collect donations of at least $18,000. Donations go to support the workshop in general and to scholarships to help students who otherwise could not afford to attend Clarion. Donations are tax deductible if you itemize deductions on your U.S. federal tax form for 2012, to the extent allowed by law.

Thank you for reading this post and for helping Clarion in any way you can.

20 June 2012

What kind of idiot self-publishes a 29-year-old dissertation?

Uh, that would be me.

And I don't think it's idiotic, all things considered. So I prepared a FAQ.

Isn't your dissertation way out of date?

Unfortunately not. My original 1984 dissertation (finished in 1983) remains the most up-to-date and complete work on mating behavior of the Nicobar pigeon (Caloenas nicobarica). I also stuck in a five-page insert with some recent information, primarily on the growing importance of knowledge about the Nicobar pigeon and on island biogeography.

OK, I'll bite. Why is your research on the Nicobar pigeon, a bird I never heard of before, important?

Glad you asked!
  • The Nicobar pigeon is classified as Near Threatened. Unless good conservation measures are taken soon, it could dwindle or even die out in the wild as humans and their accompanying dogs and rats encroach on the remote small islands where Nicobar pigeons breed. When preserving a species, knowledge of its behavior, especially its breeding behavior, is essential.
  • It's among the most beautiful of the pigeons and doves. Its loss would be a shame for that reason alone.
  • It split off early from the rest of the doves and pigeons. As a result, it has some fascinating features that are uncommon in other living Columbids. For example, it breeds in colonies, and it swallows stones to help grind up the hard food it eats. It is also an example of what the ancestral ur-pigeon may have been like.
  • Much research on mate choice has been conducted on ordinary lab pigeons. My data on the Nicobar pigeon can be used to test whether theories developed with lab pigeons holds in other pigeon species. Ditto for other aspects of mating behavior in pigeons.
  • Since 1983, scientists have discovered that the closest living relative of the dodo (Raphus cucullatus) and the solitaire bird (Pezophaps solitaria) is the Nicobar pigeon. Because the dodo and the solitaire are extinct, the Nicobar pigeon is the best model we have for speculating what the biology and behavior of these birds were like.
  • Since 1983, the enigmatic, and extinct, "Liverpool pigeon" has been assigned to the genus Caloenas as Caloenas maculata. In addition, fossil remains of a giant Nicobar pigeon (Caloenas canacorum), now extinct, have been discovered. The Nicobar pigeon is no longer an oddity, but rather represents a successful line of birds that includes the dodo, solitaire, and other members of Caloenas that lived on islands for roughly 45 million years—until human encroachment.
  • Many mammals, birds, and reptiles that live on small islands in the Pacific are in the same precarious position as the Nicobar pigeon. The more scientists know about the Nicobar pigeon and its behavioral and biological adaptations to the small-island lifestyle, the better the odds of survival for all of these animals.
You don't actually expect to make money selling a dissertation, do you?

No. I priced it too low, for one thing—only slightly above Amazon's cost. I want it to be affordable for grad students.

But I definitely will save money. Over the years, foreign scientists and students have written to me saying they needed my dissertation for their research but couldn't afford to pay the $70+ the U.S. dissertation repository charged for a copy. In such cases, I photocopied the dissertation and mailed it to them. Now that the dissertation is available for only $7.99, I won't have those photocopying and overseas mail costs anymore.

But didn't you have to spend money and time preparing the book for publication?
    Because I plan to self-publish a novel later this year, I would have had to spend the time learning how to publish with anyway. I just learned a little earlier.

    As for money, all the work was done in-house. My husband scanned the original dissertation. I used a free, royalty-free background and out-of-copyright images for the front and back covers. I designed the covers myself (with some design help for the front from my sister-in-law) and did all the rest of the production. I used only software I already owned. Amazon takes its cut when books sell; one does not need to pay anything upfront.

    Thus, I spent nothing to put my dissertation up for sale.

    Why didn't you publish it as an ebook? You could have sold it even cheaper.

    First, I didn't have the files. I finished it in 1983, remember? Second, the dissertation is table-heavy, and Kindle currently does not handle tables well.

    OK, you've convinced me this publication was not a total waste of your time. Where can people get this masterpiece?

    It's for sale as a large paperback at at Thanks for buying it.

    I didn't say I was buying it. I just asked where it could be found.

    Interview over.

    06 June 2012

    Ebook cover design

    Below is a slightly altered version of my post at NovelSpaces today. It raises an issue in self-publishing that has not been addressed much . . . or at least none of my friends have talked or blogged about it. The issue is how to design a good cover when one is self-publishing in both trade paperback and ebook formats.

    Here is the NovelSpaces post with my ebook cover design added:

    I met a writer at the recent ConQuesT science fiction convention in Kansas City who had sold about 180,000 self-published books in the past year. I mentioned that I planned to self-publish a novel this summer, and she encouraged me to produce both e-books and trade paperbacks. 

    I took a look through her CreateSpace-printed books and was surprised at the quality. (CreateSpace is Amazon's hardcopy self-publishing arm.) The coverstock, inside stock, and ink looked as good as those of books produced by New York. I decided I would self-publish my novel both electronically and as a trade paperback.

    But what would I do about the cover? I had designed it for the Kindle, and so it:

    • is very simple
    • is brightly colored
    • is bold
    • uses large typefaces for the title and author name
    • fits the Kindle's preferred 5x8 proportions
    It won't work as is on a 6x9 trade paperback. Sure, I can stretch the image here and squash it there so it looks nearly identical to the Kindle cover. That would allow me use the same promotional materials for both.

    But do I really want to make only minor formatting changes? What is pleasing and catches the eye in an image half the size of my thumb and on the cover of a 6x9 paperback are quite different. A book cover pleasingly complex enough to get me to spend a minute or two looking at it in person is often a blurred mess when viewed in the carousel of my Kindle. (Which I know because covers look different enough in person vs. on my Kindle that I have bought several expensive books on Kindle and then later bought them in paperback or hardback, not recognizing them. Ouch!) 

    I worry that the Kindle cover may be too loud and too simple to work for a paper book. I worry that my name will look overlarge on the paper cover for a writer early in her career.

    Another worry: I created the cover using Microsoft Word and some free programs. (I don't own Adobe Illustrator or any other fancy art program.) I had to do some work-arounds to create the cover I wanted within Word's limitations. The resulting minuscule flaws won't show up on the Amazon ad or in the Kindle book, but they will be glaringly obvious if I use the image on the trade paperback's cover.

    I am still mulling what to do. The advantages of the same cover on every edition of a book are obvious. But so are the advantages of tailoring the cover image to the size at which people will view it and the disadvantages of having clear mistakes in the art. 

    I think some of my answers may lie in digging deeply into Word's more obscure features; somewhere buried under many layers of menu options may lie the solutions to the flaws created by my work-arounds. I will also try making subtle but significant alterations to the design and printing them out at different sizes to see whether I can make the image more suitable for a paperback without altering it significantly.

    As more of us try out self-publication, solutions to these and other problems of designing our own books will become common knowledge. In the meantime, we each struggle with producing a high-quality book within the limited financial means we have as writers.