Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Birdman cometh.

I am not one of those people who tries to see every film nominated for an Academy Award each year. But I usually end up seeing one or two of the Best Picture nominees, just because they sound intriguing. I fulfilled my annual quota for this year by seeing "Birdman" this weekend. (Don't ask me about any of the other movies; this is the only one I've seen so far.)

"Birdman" has been picking up a ton of awards, including Golden Globes for Best Screenplay and Best Actor, which went to its star, Michael Keaton. The movie has received nine Oscar nominations, and the buzz is that it has a good shot at winning Best Picture.

As a fan of magic realism, I'm thrilled to see attention heaped on this movie -- although I'm sure part of the excitement in Hollywood is due to the subject matter. Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, an actor whose career peaked more than 20 years ago, when he starred as Birdman in a series of superhero action movies. (Keaton did a lucrative star turn as Batman more than 20 years ago. Meta much?) Now he's attempting to jump-start his career by writing, directing, and starring in a drama based on a Raymond Carver story called "What We Talk About When We Talk about Love." And he's spent his last dime to bring the play to Broadway.

Carver's story is under copyright, so although you can find illegal copies online, I won't link to any of them (here's a plot summary, though, if you're interested). Like the story, the movie's subplots involve the many forms of love.

But the movie's main plot involves the eternal conflict inherent in every creative field in these capitalistic times: Serious Art vs. Popular Entertainment. Riggan can't escape his past -- especially since his superhero alter ego keeps growling at him that he's better than this crappy production and would be better off going back to Hollywood. A theater critic out-and-out tells him that she's going to give the show a horrible review because she doesn't like his kind waltzing onto Broadway like they own the place. His co-star Mike Shiner (played by Edward Norton) is a big name on Broadway who doesn't respect Riggan, either. (Of course, I couldn't help being reminded throughout of the literary-vs.-genre-fiction debate.)

As with any movie about acting, there's a blurring of art and reality. The cinematography makes it appear as if the film was shot in a single take, which adds to the magic-realistic feel. As the scenes change, the camera follows the characters through labyrinthine backstage hallways. It's no accident that at one point, Riggan surprises Shiner as he's reading Borges' Labyrinths.

I don't know whether "Birdman" is the best movie released last year, but I very much enjoyed it. We'll see here shortly what the Academy thinks; the Oscars will be awarded February 22nd. The voters do like movies about their craft (witness "The Artist" winning Best Picture in 2012), so "Birdman" could be a shoo-in. Time will tell.

One programming note: I'm attending the Tucson Festival of Books March 14th and 15th. If you're planning to go, look for the BookGoodies booth -- that's where I'll be, with a whole bunch of my fellow indie authors. Officially, I'm supposed to sign Seized Saturday afternoon and Seasons of the Fool Sunday morning -- but I'm not averse to signing any of my other books at any time. So if you'll be the festival, too, come on by.

These moments of movie blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Of shawls and sales and Kindle Unlimited.

First off this week, since I know you're all dying to know: Yes, I did receive the black yarn as promised, and yes, I did finish the Eden Prairie shawl. It turned out spectacularly well, if I do say so myself. Here's the picture of the finished product, in case you missed it when I posted it on Facebook.

And if you want all the details, including a link to the pattern, here's my Eden Prairie project page on Ravelry.

The shawl came out so well, in fact, that I'm toying with the idea of modifying the pattern to make a blanket or throw with the same idea. It's pretty far down on my list of priorities, though, and I will probably come to my senses before I buy the yarn.

There's been a fair amount of weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth in the indie world lately over Kindle Unlimited, a feature Amazon instituted a few months back. The Zon envisioned it as their answer to Oyster or Scribd. Basically, readers pay Amazon about ten bucks a month, and in return they get unlimited borrowing privileges for every book in the program -- as many books as you want at a time, for however long you want to borrow them.

The program has some drawbacks. For one thing, it's obviously not a good deal unless you read a lot. For another, at least initially, a number of traditional publishers were unwilling to opt their books into the program.

Indies didn't have a choice. If your book was enrolled in Kindle Select, Amazon opted it into Kindle Unlimited. When some indie authors complained, the Zon allowed us a one-time opportunity to opt our previously-enrolled-in-Select books out of KU. However, at this point, if you put a book in Select, it will be in KU, period.

At first, it wasn't such a bad deal. Amazon has set aside a separate pot of money for borrows. At the end of each month, they announce how much money they'll put in the pot for borrows during the previous month, as well as how much each borrow was worth that month.

Before KU, the only way to get a piece of that fund was if a reader with an Amazon Prime membership borrowed your book. Prime members are allowed to borrow one book per month (along with all the other Prime perks, including free two-day shipping and free streaming movies). Back then, a borrow was worth about two bucks a book to the author -- which is more than twice what you could get as a royalty on a 99-cent book if the reader just out-and-out bought it.

But after KU was instituted, that per-borrow payout began to drop -- until a borrow paid just $1.33 in October.

At that point, the anti-Amazon faction started howling about how the Zon had finally turned on indies. Some indie authors who had been making a living from their books found that Kindle Unlimited borrows were gutting their sales. Some said they planned to pull their books out of Select. Then Joe Konrath mentioned, almost offhand, in a comment on one of his own blog posts that he was evaluating whether to pull out. Konrath has been an Amazon cheerleader since the inception of KDP, so an admission that he's evaluating his participation in Select was big news indeed.

The noise got loud enough that I wrote a column about Kindle Unlimited borrows for Indies Unlimited last month. My fellow IU minion Martin Crosbie followed up with his own take this past week. Martin intends to let his books stay in Select for now, even though his earnings, too, have taken a hit with the advent of KU.

I'm planning to let mine ride for now, as well, for three reasons:

1. The payout-per-borrow is trending back up. Since the low of $1.33 in October, Amazon raised the amount to $1.39 in November. Last month it went up to $1.43. To me, that's a sign that the Zon realized they'd taken the per-borrow rate too low. I expect further rate juggling over the next few months. It may never go back into $2-per-book territory, but I don't think we'll see $1.33 again any time soon.
2. A lot of authors talk about the wisdom of not having all of your eggs in one basket. To that end, I have only a few things in Select, so there are only a few books of mine that KU readers can borrow: the Pipe Woman Chronicles Omnibus, the Land Sea Sky Trilogy, my short story called Lulie and, for right now, Seasons of the Fool. Everything else, including the individual books of each series, are available all over.
3. Frankly, my sales were never so robust that I could turn down money, whether from a borrow or a sale.

I created the omnibus editions for the express purpose of putting them in Select, so I expect I'll leave them there, no matter what. Seasons has another two months in Select before I can move it out. (Enrollment periods for Select are in 90-day increments.) I'm planning to keep an eye on the borrow rate and the per-borrow payout, and I'll decide at the end of next month whether to release the book to other markets or leave it in Select for another 90 days.

And in the meantime, I'm going to keep writing.

These moments of borrowed blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Revenge of the black yarn.

You may recall, in my last exciting post about knitting, that I ranted about black yarn. It's boring to knit with, I said. It's hard to see the stitches in low light, I said. (Especially when you have dark-colored needles like I do -- which I meant to say but forgot.) The next person who wants me to make something with black yarn is going to get dragged to a yarn shop and forced to pick another color, I said.

Clearly, the Goddess of Black Yarn heard me. And apparently, She has a sense of humor.

My current knitting project is a shawl called Eden Prairie. Here's what it looks like:

Pretty, huh? The designer, Nancy Whitman, said on her website that it's meant to mimic stained glass. I was drawn to it because of the Frank Lloyd Wright vibe it gives off: it has the clean lines of Prairie School architecture, and yeah, that stained-glass effect along the bottom edge.

So when I was looking through Ravelry for a pattern to use the two skeins of wool/bamboo blend sock yarn I'd bought on a whim, this one jumped out at me. I dug through my yarn stash and determined that the leftover yarn from my Celestarium shawl would look great with the new yarn, and I had plenty left for the diamonds. And at the Shenandoah Fiber Fest last fall, I picked up a skein of recycled black yarn for the borders.

About recycled yarn: Craft stores sometimes stock cheap yarn made of recycled acrylic, but that's not what I'm talking about. There are crafters out there who buy commercially-made sweaters at thrift stores and unravel them. They can then either reuse the yarn for their own projects, or wind it into a skein and sell it. (If you're interested in the process -- or if you think I'm making this up -- go here for directions.)

The yarn I bought was a wool/alpaca/cashmere blend. It's soft and very lovely. It's also, as I mentioned, black.

A knitting pattern gives you a list of stuff you need to make the project. If I had made the list for the Eden Prairie, I would have put colors A, B, and C first, and the border color (BC) last. But the designer listed them in the order you use them in the project: color A, color B, BC, and color C. Which makes sense if you know the pattern. For somebody who's coming to it for the first time, maybe not so much. Or maybe I just need to pay attention better. In any case, I read the last item on the list as needing 105 yards of yarn, so I bought a smallish skein (136 yards) of the recycled black. Turns out I needed 105 yards for the diamonds, and 175 yards of black. And of course, I didn't figure this out until I was well into the project. I soldiered on anyway, thinking that maybe I could stretch what I had to make it work.

So here's where I am. The shawl is done except for the top and bottom borders. I couldn't lay it out flat for the photo because the bottom edge is all grunched up on my longest circular needle. I need to knit six more rows along that bottom edge, then pick up stitches along the top edge and knit seven rows there. And that little bobble of black at the bottom left of the shawl is all I have left of my lovely recycled yarn.

The good news is that I was able to contact the seller. She has some of this yarn left and she promised to put it in the mail to me tomorrow. This is how I know the Goddess of Black Yarn doesn't really have it in for me; if She did, I'd have to use some other yarn to finish the project.

So the shawl will be done soon, and it will be gorgeous, and I take back everything I said about knitting with black yarn. I've changed my mind. It's awesome. Really.

These moments of bloggy black yarniness have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell -- who just loves knitting with black yarn, honest.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Resolutions? Feh.

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Happy New Year!

If you're like many people, you've already broken whatever resolutions you made before the clock ticked over on New Year's Eve. Other than the set of writerly resolutions I wrote for Indies Unlimited last week (and let's not talk about where I am with the tooth brushing...), I didn't bother making any this year.

But folks on Facebook are always happy to share suggestions they've found elsewhere. Earlier this week, one of my buddies shared this list of 15 suggestions for 2015 from Elite Daily. Neither one of us is in Elite Daily's target GenY demographic, so maybe I shouldn't be nitpicking their suggestions. But I'm going to anyway.

These are the items I have issues with:
  • Stop feeling sorry for yourself. Ahem. Some people in this world aren't simply whiners; they really have had a tougher go of it than others. Not everybody has the sort of life they can change just by changing their attitude. And while we all admire the people who smile through their hard luck and exhibit grit and pluck and all those other great pioneer qualities, I'm pretty sure even those folks throw pity parties for themselves every now and then. Don't be a bore, sure. But if you're feeling down, don't make it worse by being hard on yourself.
  • Stop thinking money creates value. I think this one is phrased badly. What they're trying to say is, "Don't make decisions based on the cash value of the outcome." In general, I'm on board with this, but only to a point. I've had one of those careers everybody wants (broadcast news), and I've also had a completely prosaic one (my current day job). The prosaic job pays a lot better than the flashy career ever did. So yes, follow your heart -- but if you're going broke, you might want to reassess.
  • Stop saying "yes" all the time. Another one I'm only partially on board with. I agree that "no" is a complete sentence, and that too many of us think we owe people a reason for not doing the things they're trying to guilt us into doing. It took me decades to learn that giving reasons for your "no" just gives sales people and guilt-mongers more material to work with; they figure if they can answer your objections, they can talk you around to "yes." But the flip side is that you can get into the habit of saying "no" too often, too. In other words, you can yoke yourself to duty so tightly that you reject any opportunities for having fun. It's okay to play sometimes.
On the other hand, I can totally get behind these:
  • Stop comparing yourself to others. This one is spot on; comparing yourself to the Joneses is one of the fastest routes to misery and disappointment I can think of. I've occasionally seen this question tossed around: "Which author do you aspire to write like?" And my answer is always the same: Me. I want to write like me. Certainly, there are writers I admire because they do stuff I can't do. But they have their technique and their voice, and I have mine. I don't want to write like anybody else. If I try to emulate someone else, I will always fall short. That's a setup for feeling like a failure. And that's no way to live.
  • Stop worrying about what others think of you. You can't control their thoughts. And anyway, they're probably not thinking about you nearly as much as you think they are. (Especially if they're men.)
  • Stop thinking you have to get it right on the first try. This speaks to perfectionism, which is another quick route to misery and disappointment. Look, nobody's perfect. For certain, nobody's perfect on the first go-round. That's especially true of indie publishing. One of my perennial to-do list items is to go back to the first few paperbacks I published and reformat them. The margins in SwanSong are way too wide, and I didn't figure out how to format headers to look like trad books until Annealed. I'll get to it one of these days. In the meantime, they'll just be gloriously imperfect.
Now, if you don't mind, I'm going to go brush my teeth.

These moments of resolute blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.