If you came across this site – from the biography in one of my books, perhaps – you may have noticed it’s been a while since I published something.
Well, I’m not dead. It’s just that I’m not writing anymore. The last things I wrote date back to early 2016 and I haven’t written anything since then. The Color of Emotion is a translation from Italian, and that novella actually makes for a perfect hiatus marker, if you ask me.
Last week I watched Ex Machina. And then I watched it again a couple of days ago. Yeah, it’s that good. Go watch it now, you really should. It’s a, introspective, sensible, no-nonsense sci-fi movie, with good visuals and deep dialogue. No explosions, though.
In the movie, there are expected and obvious questions like what happens to the artificial intelligence if it fails the Turing test, meaning it’s not conscious. Science fiction got us used to this kind of unknowns.
But there was a little moment of truth in the film: the AI – she’s called Ava – asks the protagonist whether he’s a good person or not. It’s not something we usually ask to our fellow humans. Not even children ask it, because good and bad are concepts deeply embedded in our culture. It’s not something you explain, it’s something you show with your actions. A sort of show, don’t tell in real life.
So, what makes a good person? Altruism? Empathy? Respect for others? Faith in some god(s)? There isn’t a simple answer and each of us has a different view, but I believe that, deep down, we all know if we are a good person or not. And an AI would easily figure it out by itself, once it understands human values.
What the AI does with that kind of information, well, it’s another story.
Last Wednesday I ran a promotion for Branch Off. OK, technically speaking, it was not a promotion because the ebook is always priced 99c, but anyway.
For $35, I purchased a feature on bargainbooksy.com in the category Science Fiction. They give you a 1-day placement on their site, but more importantly your feature is sent to their email subscribers, which are 68,000 for scifi – or so they say, I have no way to verify or confute that number.
All in all, both the site and the email look good and well-curated – much more so than other competing services that I worked with in the past. But because this was the first time that I paid money to promote a non-free book, I didn’t know what to expect.
The total number of copies sold on Amazon Kindle is 18±2. That’s a conversion rate of 0.026%.
To be honest, I’m not sure what to make of this number. Is it horrible? Is it good? No idea. What I do know, however, is that the last time I ran a free weekend, 30 or so people downloaded the same ebook without any kind of advertising except a couple of tweets. I didn’t earn anything (we’re not in for the money, are we?), but I also didn’t spend a cent.
There’s something we humans all share, even in our huge diversity: we need to have a place that makes us feel at home.
It doesn’t have to be a physical place. Maybe it’s just an idea, a concept. A tiny personal ritual. A person, or a pet. A song, or a photograph.
But we all have it. Think about it. What’s yours?
I myself have a few, big and small. Among the ones that would look insignificant there are some habits. Maybe it’s just because I like to inject order in the total chaos that is life. An illusion, I know.
One big feel-at-home thing for me is writing. It’s just me and the page – well, the screen. I love writing for others, with a group of readers in mind. It helps me focus on the style and the story.
But even better is writing for one specific reader. That’s the top, and I really find home there. Maybe that specific reader won’t ever read what I write, but it’s something special and intimate that makes me a better person, a bit less adrift, a little more happy.
And the point is exactly this: jotting down words is something that helps me find the route for the nearest harbor, and from there to home. Making stories up might seem silly, but it’s not. It’s very serious. After all, most of what we read in fiction is just real life with a fresh coat of paint on it. We find a lot of the authors’ own personality in the characters, and many of their real-world experiences.
Just like how we dream to consolidate memories (and often cope with them), I write to put order in what happens around me.
“But you can work from anywhere, right? With the web and email and Skype.”
I could work from the middle of the Gobi desert. There’s nothing preventing me, that’s true, but it doesn’t mean that I can. Most of us just don’t function like that. Most of us need to get in the zone, which is a mental state that allows us to focus on the job and do it well, with accuracy and passion.
While I can check social media and read news pretty much in any situation, I can’t do much else outside of a controlled environment. To read a book, for example, I need to be in my bed. I can write stuff on the train, but only sometimes. I need quiet, silence, a comfortable place, the right light. If it’s too hot or too cold, I can’t focus. Most of us can’t.
The reason for this is simple. Our brain is the collector of the hundreds of stimuli that bombard us all the time. That guy laughing on the phone. Someone asking if the seat is free (when it obviously is). Your head itching. The woman attracting your attention two rows down. Birds chirping outside. Emails arriving. The more stimuli we get, the less free “CPU time” our brain has to take care of other things. The threshold is different for each of us, but it’s always there.
So, yes, while it is possible to do information work from anywhere and at any time, that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.
And how do I get in the zone? It depends, but I mostly need:
quiet environment, without distinct sounds (white noise or background music is fine)
comfortable chair + desk combination (quite hard to find)
reasonable temperature: 19C – 24C is optimal (yes, I’m that specific. I’d need an “Operating Temperature” sticker)
in many cases, not many people around me (people distract me; they tend to be interesting to look at, although I know I sometimes give them the creeps).
But having the right conditions isn’t nearly enough. I also need a certain level of will, varying from time to time. I have to want to get in the zone. It’s not something that simply happens.