I’ve had this post in the queue for several months.* It’s one of those posts that I’ve needed to write, but haven’t wanted to write, and… Well, here’s the thing: I can be dumb, and insensitive, and I write from my own life’s perspective (which has been pretty darned good). Since I’m a writer, sometimes there are elements in my projects that can be dumb, or insensitive, or come from my own life’s perspective (which sometimes ignores that other peoples’ lives have not been pretty darned good).
Hey, did you know that people can be awesome? Since MAKER SPACE was released, readers have been donating copies of the books for a giveaway. I’ve already done a bunch of digital donations, but this holiday season, I’ve got 3 paperback copies of DIGITAL DIVIDE and 6 copies of MAKER SPACE to give out (postage included).
Would you like one? Do you have a camera? Great! Let’s do this!
Write GIMME BOOK! on a piece of paper and take a picture of it. Then post a link to your photos at your own blog (preferred method) in the comments. If you don’t have a blog or have privacy concerns, you can email it to me and I’ll post it anonymously.
There are three categories:
Most Boring Photo
Who needs dynamic or exciting photos? Not us! Those require “time” and “skill”. Your entry should be as dull and mundane as possible. Make us cry with boredom. One copy of MAKER SPACE and one copy of DIGITAL DIVIDE to the winner. One copy of MAKER SPACE to the runner-up.
So you think you can do better than a boring photo? Prove it! Stick your Post-It in weird places, or on a stack of stuffed ducks reading books of their own, or within a basket of sleeping kittens. One copy of MAKER SPACE and one copy of DIGITAL DIVIDE to the winner. One copy of MAKER SPACE to the runner-up.
Most Gut-bustingly Funny
You win if you make me laugh harder than anyone else. I don’t care what you do–Heck, if you can draw, make a cartoon! As long as it says GIMME BOOK! somewhere in it, it’s legal. One copy of MAKER SPACE and one copy of DIGITAL DIVIDE to the winner. One copy of MAKER SPACE to the runner-up.
- I’m the one who decides who gets what.
- You have until midnight EST on Monday, December 8, 2014 to post your photos.
- You can have one entry per category, but you can only win in one category. See: Rule 1.
- The usual disclaimers (aka: Don’t do anything stupid or dangerous or harmful to yourself or others when taking these photos! Don’t send me pictures of your junk, or your poop, or your dog’s poop…) apply.
- You don’t have to use brand-name Post-Its because I’m not getting royalties or nuthin’.
This is a post about self-publishing, and why Maker Space has been available since March in ebook form but took until Thursday to finally become available as an actual book.
I’m aware that some of you reading this are traditionally published authors (hi Jean!), and I am assuming that some of you are self-published (are author-published, practice artisinal publishing, engage in the craft of putting out your own writing…Ugh. Some days you just want to hit the terminology with a baseball bat and use what’s left of the pulpy mess when you’re done.). If you keep up with the publishing community in any way, you’re aware there is some controversy over which method of publishing best benefits the author. This argument can be boiled down to money and control.
Money is a big one. Royalties, obviously, but there’s also who foots the final cost of the product. Self-publishing is not cheap. Rephrase: self-publishing where the end result is a quality product is not cheap. (If you have not yet searched for “dinosaur erotica” on Amazon, please do so.*) If you pursue traditional publishing, the publisher is responsible for taking your manuscript and creating a finished product. They are also responsible for advertising, shipping, and the other elements of successful books.
At first blush, the issue of control sounds fairly simple. It asks: who maintains control over your work? If you are traditionally published, you turn over control of your work when you submit the finished manuscript. Elements of control, such as who holds the copyright and when it reverts to you, are (should be) established in your contract. The publisher is also responsible for advertising, shipping, and… Yes. That. Money and control are entwined.
I come from webcomics, and I’ve been putting out content for the better part of a decade. This has worked out pretty well for me, because I’m one of those weirdos who enjoys the process of taking my product from raw, unfinished ideas and shepherding them through the final stages. If you just did that thing where you said, “control freak” and pretended to hide it behind a cough? Thank you! When you’re responsible for putting out your own content, you are your own quality control expert, and nobody’s going to buy your shit if it looks like shit.
There are so many challenges/problems with this I can’t even, by the way. The learning curve is steep and expensive and frustrating… There are products you’re so excited to make that you forget to assess costs (case in point: the saga of the Speedy plush). There are designs you send to press and then, years later, your husband takes That One Shirt out of the closet and now you’re embarrassed that he’d still consider wearing it. To do yardwork! So, yeah, it can be horrible, and if you’re not careful, you stand a very good chance of losing a lot of money on products that won’t sell.
But it also can be wonderful, as you get more flexibility to work within the scope of your own ideas. The Rachel Peng novels were intended as a series. Seven books, with one overarching plot driving events. With that in mind, I wanted a single thematic cover design to carry over from book to book, so they’d look like a set when sitting on a shelf. Rose Loughran, who does the webcomic Red Moon Rising, is the cover artist: each book features a different landmark from Washington, D.C. The jacket design reflects the colors in Rose’s landscape painting. DIGITAL DIVIDE was all reds and golds, with MAKER SPACE in blues, purples, and grays.
Rose does the painting for the cover art, but I do content, text layout, and everything else. The cover layout for DIGITAL DIVIDE was delicious cake, and I had no serious problems getting this first book through printing. Since MAKER SPACE was the same size and on the same thematic template, I didn’t think it would be different.
/casts summon problems
I use CreateSpace as my printer. It’s owned and operated by Amazon, so do with that what you will: hopefully,
all self-publishers–heck, let’s go with absolutely everybody–is aware that using Amazon and its affiliates comes with baggage. Most of this baggage is tiny and maneuverable and needs very little management within the day-to-day of your busy schedule… but then there’s that steamer trunk that’s about to crush your grandma and her local bookstore. I’ve got my reasons for using it, and one of those is that CreateSpace generates high-quality books at a reasonable price. Copies fresh off of the CreateSpace press are as sturdy as anything you’d receive from a traditional printing press, and the cover resolution is high. My husband has a loupe left over from when he used to work in printing which we use to check for DPI resolution on my products, and CreateSpace does right by Rose’s paintings.
So, right before MAKER SPACE was supposed to hit, I submit the cover to CreateSpace and order a proof copy. Cue shenanigans.
I think I ordered eight proofs in total over four months. Each time I got the copy back, there was something wrong with the cover. The color printed dark: the first two versions were purple-blue blobs. After tinkering to lighten it up, some of the colors didn’t match each other. And when I finally got the colors right, the whole cover had somehow jumped a quarter-inch to the left and the spine was misaligned.
These proofs weren’t free, by the way. CreateSpace charges me per item, same as you. I get a discount because it’s my content, but the endless proof-chain did set me back close to $70**. Now, if I were published by a traditional printer, I would have had a nice box of ARCs shipped to me prior to publication, free of charge and to distribute as I want. But I wouldn’t have had any say whatsoever in choosing the cover art, or its design, or the text on the back, or the pull quotes for the cover… Easier, less expensive (for me)? Definitely!
And I would have felt as though I had been excluded from part of the process.
Such exclusion is arguably a good thing. I might enjoy controlling the development of a product, but that doesn’t mean I’ve got specialized skills in cover design, font selection, or so on. I think the final layout of the book cover is solid; it could probably be better. In ten years, I might look back on the Rachel Peng covers like those ratty old embarrassing tee shirts in the back of the closet.
Today? I enjoy what I do and how I do it, and I’m better at it than when I started. Life’s a process, too.
*I am not suggesting that all dinosaur erotica is of terrible quality. I am merely saying that I have judged these books by their hastily Photoshopped covers, and by titles such as Turned Gay by Dinosaurs.
**Always figure in shipping and handling. Always.
Long-time readers of the comic may remember that I’ve been working on the Rachel Peng series for years. I’ve got giant files full of scraps of notes and stray paragraphs, and each time I found a new news item that could fit in her world, I’d open these files and slide that tidbit into its appropriate place.
Maker Space closed with Rachel coming to terms with her blindness. The next book in the series has her relearning how to read. She’s one of those people who has a stack of favorite books, and she can pick one at random, flip to any page, and plunge herself into a familiar world. In that respect, she’s probably like every one of you reading this. Now, imagine if that was taken away from you. All of those worlds you loved? Gone. Rachel can still read, but it takes her a lot of effort: ever since she woke up and found her eyes no longer worked, the only way she can visit these favorite worlds of hers is on brief business trips.
Semi-tangent: Audiobooks are often held up as a viable substitute for reading for persons with visual impairment, or just used as a substitute for reading in general. They aren’t. Listening to a book is passive. You are an audience to a performance. Reading a book makes you an active participant in a world that is only partially described, and you fill in the rest with your own ideas. What did the birds sound like the first time you entered the Shire, what did the sewers smell like under Derry… A good audiobook gives us some limited opportunity to fill in these blanks, but the rises and falls within characters and plot? Those are carried along with the performer, and tend to dominate the experience.*
It’s been my intention that Rachel will relearn to read with her fingers instead of her eyes. A few years ago, Yanko Design went into my plot note files. This is a South Korean company that’s been working on innovative technologies to translate printed text into Braille. They’ve developed a portable Braille tablet, as well as some other (ridiculously cool) product concepts. Fast-forward to this week, when I’m working on the part of the new novel where Rachel is relearning how to read, and I decide to revisit Yanko Design to fact-check their progress on these products.
As far as I can tell, none of them have gone into production. This seems kind of messed up to me, so I started looking around and found that no low-cost portable Braille e-readers exist.
For me, this is an opportunity. It’s a handwave where smart people do things with wires and poof! Rachel has her magic device:
“The Braille e-reader was slightly thicker than a tablet, its back and edges sealed in some sort of silicone to make it waterproof. Calling it a first-generation device would have been generous: the thing was so far removed from the production line that it might as well have come from the technological equivalent of a farmer’s market. The silicone was lumpy, the metal shell beneath covered in deep scratches where a Dremel tool had kicked sideways, but the reader’s face was as smooth as glass. Mako and Santino had made it for her, and it had quickly become one of her favorite things in the world.”
In real life, tho’…
Guys, this is truly messed up. I’m going to do a little more searching to check if there’s a different barrier besides “the economics don’t make it worthwhile.” Maybe the prototypes worked for about three days and then caught fire, I don’t know. I do know that we are at a time and a place in our civilization in which these types of products should exist.
*Not bagging on audiobooks, by the way. We got the recording and editing of Digital Divide all wrapped up just this past Friday. Just saying that listening to a book is a different experience than reading it.
No no, not “me” “I”. I meant “you” “I” and…
Let’s try this again.
I’m now reading on a Kindle. A friend gave me his Gen 2 Kindle to test the formatting for Digital Divide. I expected to use it once and then stick it on a shelf to collect dust until the next time I had to proof an ebook; instead it has created a fundamental shift in my reading habits. Yes, it’s convenient; yes, it’s portable, but…
Okay, backing up again. I’m an avid reader, and run through at least two or three books a week. Until I got the Kindle, I made a bi-weekly trek to a used bookstore, filled up a shopping basket with whatever paperback caught my eye, and paid about $10 for the entire mess. I discovered a lot of good authors this way, saved a hell of a lot of money, and supported a fantastic independent used bookstore.
Now, I go to Amazon, locate the book I want to read next, download it, devour it, and repeat the process a few days later.
You could argue that changing my habits might have hurt some people: yes, I’m now supporting Amazon instead of a used bookstore; yes, there are repercussions for the publishing industry because fewer print books are in circulation. I would argue that an in-law worked in that used bookstore and I got mad store credit, and that sales of those used paperbacks weren’t tracked by the publishers.
I would also argue that changing my reading habits now means I’m supporting authors. There are (enormous) flaws in the ebook pricing model, but for every traditionally-published book I download, the author gets a cut. For self-published books*, the percentage the author keeps is higher. This was not the case with my used paperback habit: I might have been keeping the stories alive by reading used books, but I was doing no favors to the authors who created them.
There are other hidden benefits in how self-pubbed ebooks are purchased. Speaking for myself, I make the most financial profit through .pdf sales through the store, because the third-party cuts are smaller. However, purchasing my books through Amazon or another online vendor gives me free advertising. Ranking is everything; the more sales that a self-pubbed book gets, the higher it climbs in the lists, so its exposure increases, which results in more sales… It’s a lovely circle of profitability. It’s also an indicator that a self-pubbed book is good–or at least readable–as there is the very real problem of the self-publishing shit volcano.
If you’re a reader of mine and you want to know where to purchase my books, use the purchasing service that best benefits you. I will get different benefits, financial and otherwise, no matter which method you use. But if I were asked about my ideal book-purchasing scenario, I’d say: (1) Download from Amazon; (2) Read, read, read!!! (3) Post an honest review; and (4) Tell your friends if you’ve enjoyed it.
With this in mind, Maker Space should hit on Monday. See you later! I’m off to the Anxiety Pantry for some cake mix, and then I’m spending the weekend in the Weeping Closet sucking that cake mix through a straw.
*Or author-published, or whatever you want to call it. Lately I’ve been saying I practice “artisanal publishing”. Check back in June for my hand-crafted slow-brewed Summer Wheat fanfics!**
**Totally kidding about the Summer Wheat fanfics.
This is my first crowdfunding project, which is apparently exactly like self-publishing your first novel, in that you think that every new donation or purchase is a fluke and you obsessively monitor your stats while trying to not lose your shit completely or think about what might happen if you fail (oh God oh God we won’t be able to afford dog food and the monster will eat me…).
It’s not really that bad.
(it’s totally that bad…)
I know not everyone likes audiobooks, so over the past month I’ve been working on different products that would be worth the purchase price, as it were. The first of these is a new Rachel story, where she takes Shawn for his first social outing. Shawn’s getting better, but “getting better” in the OACET mansion and “getting better” in a public place are two very different things.
The second is a laser-cut custom name plate:
There’s NO adjustment of the colors on this image. Our buddy Steve took a photo of a nameplate on a black satin background with a light above it, and removed the stands and some dust specks in post, but otherwise this is an untouched image. We’re working with a local laser cutting shop on these. Brown and I have been to the shop a couple of times, and the design’s been tweaked so the detail glows. We’ve had some of the samples out on the counter and when the sunlight hits them, you have to move them or they’re distracting.
The next is the Cuddly Hippos t-shirt:
I thought long and hard about using Rosie the Riveter as the basis of this design (feminist icon > and is also ≠ to gang of assassins), but you see that Latin motto there? It translates to “underestimate us at your peril.” So, the spirit of the homage is consistent, and if anybody makes a joke about how hippo = woman, just don’t hang out with that person and maybe let a little air out of their tires when they aren’t looking.
Finally, the badges. I talked about these in the last post. All in all, I’m pretty happy about how it’s going, but I’ll be happier in a month when it’s over. And then I can freak out about releasing MAKER SPACE…
I think I lied. It’s never over.
I’m sure most of you good folks over here at Ye Olde Blogge follow the comic, but in case you missed the news posts (and you wouldn’t believe how almost everyone misses the news posts), I’ve put up the first nine chapters of MAKER SPACE, free. You can download a .pdf here, or a Kindle-compatible .mobi file here.
Why give away the samples? Many, many, many reasons. To get readers interested in the release, sure! But there was also that little matter of a television series with a lot of similarities to AGAHF. I was supposed to have MAKER SPACE out three weeks before the show was released, but they pumped the show’s premiere to early January. Le sigh.
FOR THE RECORD — It doesn’t matter where the ideas in that show came from. They are remarkably dissimilar to the book which inspired the series, but (a) you can’t copyright an idea, and (b) if the main character suddenly has a wisecracking sex-crazed koala as his best friend, I wouldn’t have the money for a legal battle anyhow. I’ve basically decided to never watch the show, and just appreciate how Josh Holloway is now paid to pose shirtless from time to time.*
What I am concerned about is having fans of a brand-new television show claim that this fictional universe I’ve been working on for more than seven years is a derivative of this other similar work. I’ve invested too many hours in developing these characters, their society, and how the implant functions. So, nine chapters of MAKER SPACE have been released ahead of schedule. There’s not enough of plot in these chapters to form spoilers, but the two tech concepts associated with the implant that I have developed in this book are firmly established.
*And answer a lot of emails along the lines of Why aren’t you suing-Why don’t you-Why won’t you… These are already showing up in my inbox, and I am not looking forward to January. Guys, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: There’s not just one vampire movie, or zombie movie, or even one cyborg movie. The best thing to do is to say “Hey, if you liked that, then I bet you’ll love this!” and spread the word of the comic and the books.
You know that moment when you’re all like I NEED TO WRITE OUT MY SCHEDULE FOR… OH HELL JUST PUT IT ONLINE AND CALL IT A BLOG POST? I did not just have one of those moments. Nor is this my rough schedule for first-quarter 2014*
JAN 20 – Launch 30-day Kickstarter for the DIGITAL DIVIDE and MAKER SPACE audiobooks.
I’m keeping production of books and audiobooks completely separate. MAKER SPACE will exist no matter what. Audiobooks? Well, that’s what the Kickstarter is for. Since Rachel is blind, I think it’s critically important to make the Rachel Peng series available in audiobook form and improve accessibility of the story to persons who may be visually impaired. However, producing a high-quality audiobook is pricy. Boom. Kickstarter.
MARCH 3 – MAKER SPACE RELEASE DAY
I learned quite a few things from the release of DIGITAL DIVIDE. I think “set a release date and stick with it” might be the most important of these. Then you can schedule the production phase of the book, and add some extra time when all of these internal deadlines go whooshing past like doves. Or bullets.
MAY 1/JUNE 1 – JOSHSMUT THE SECOND
The next Joshsmut will be a treasure hunting adventure through ancient ruins (giggity). It will either come out in early May or early June, depending on how well the Kickstarter does and how much time I have to spend on shipping.
Again, depends on how well the Kickstarter does. I’ve heard a high-quality audiobook can take over a month to record and another month to edit.
And then there’s the comic, and the paid work, and the home repairs, and the work on the next book in the Rachel Peng series…
Bye gonna fall down for like six days okay thanks.
* This is totally my rough schedule for early 2014
November has been a fast-moving month. MAKER SPACE is nearly finished, and is entering the edit/proof phases. In the meantime, I’ve been working with Rose Loughran, the cover artist for the Rachel Peng books. Rose and I have been kicking designs around since July. I knew the feature image for this cover would be the Jefferson Memorial at night: the design and the colors of that building are gorgeous, plus Jefferson can be considered a maker himself.
So that was the starting point, and then came the months of tweaking.
And the final art came in today. Don’t get fluffy about the quality of the text! It’s pre-tweaking and is there for placement purposes only.
I couldn’t be more pleased with Rose’s work. This cover is going to look fantastic in print. The best part of these novels is this end phase where the pieces make a whole.
The thin leather clutch bumped against her hip. Rachel pressed it down with her hand to pin it against her side. She had pulled the tiny bag out of the back of her closet that morning, thinking that leaving her usual oversized clutch at home would show she had put in the extra effort to be fancy. Now, a quick scan of the restaurant told her she was underdressed; excepting shoes, she was the only person in the room with a leather anything.
Oh well, too late now. Rachel tipped her chin up and swept through the front doors, smiling kindly at the maître d’ as she passed him on her way to the bar. He smiled back at her, an ugly scornful orange hidden behind splendid orthodontics.
Becca was early. She was nursing a drink and making small talk with a young man whose conversational colors put him as more than casually interested; Becca’s cool jade green core made a nice contrast against his surface colors of lusty red.
(As a color, jade green was something of a misnomer: Rachel’s grandmother had once laid out a dozen pieces of jade stone on an old threadbare piece of cotton to show her how each was unique, ranging from white to pink to blue and nearly black, and had told her to think beyond narrow definitions. Even at the tender age of seven, Rachel had seen what her grandmother had meant, but she was also a child of Crayola and the name on the crayon was forever fixed in her mind. And, two decades later, jade green was how she defined the core of the beautiful Latina waiting for her at the bar.)
Becca had a lovely spill of long brown hair; she was not-so-subtly inspecting this for split ends as the businessman insisting on freshening her drink. She saw Rachel coming and straightened in her seat, her conversational colors brightening.
They kissed in the way of new friends, quick on the cheek; the businessman’s lust pulsed. As Becca ordered Rachel a drink, Rachel hit him with her cyborg stare, that cold, soulless gaze that was only possible when the other person had no idea they were looking into the eyes of a blind woman. Rachel had found it to be especially effective in chasing off lecherous drunks.
The businessman fumbled in his wallet and threw some cash on the bar, then scampered towards the door. She flipped her implant to reading mode and saw he had accidentally dropped a fifty; the bartender was about to have a good night.
“What did you say to him?” Becca asked.
Rachel blinked at her, pure innocence. “Not a word!”
The maître d’ arrived to escort them to their table. There were linen napkins were folded into pointy swans, and more knives than Rachel had expected. Multiple forks and spoons, those were a given, but when a restaurant offered more than one knife she began to get twitchy. They ordered wine, appetizers, and Rachel tried to ignore how Becca kept sneaking peaks at Rachel’s chest over her menu in a curious yellow way.
After a few moments of small talk, Rachel finally had to pretend to notice. “What?”
“I don’t want to be rude, but… Are you okay? You look like you’ve lost fifteen pounds in a week.”
Oh. This was the first time they had met somewhere fancy: Rachel was in a sleeveless dress which had left no room for her usual bulletproof vest.
“Work clothes,” Rachel said. “Not the most flattering, I admit.”
“Ah.” Becca wrapped her hands around her wine glass, her conversational colors going ever so slightly gray.
“We’re still not talking about work?”
“We can. We should.” Becca said. “I just… I just don’t want to.”
“Bet you a dollar my job is worse than yours.”
“My job’s not bad! But…”
Becca was thoroughly gray now, intensely worried. This was probably the point right before her typical date stomped off, appalled. Rachel had to force a straight face; she had never been on this side of the conversation. It was a lovely change of pace.
“Prison?” Rachel asked.
Becca shook her head. “No.”
“Dog fighting, cock fighting, bull fighting?”
Rachel laughed; she couldn’t help herself. “That was my next guess.”
Becca gave her a small but sharp glare, and her conversational colors flared a brief but hot red. Rachel grinned back at her. God, how she loved fire.
“Okay,” Becca took a deep breath. “Remember the subprime mortgage scandal in 2008?”
“The one that tanked the global economy?” Rachel lifted an eyebrow. “Yeah. I remember.”
“Okay,” Becca said. She looked down and toyed with the tablecloth. “Okay, I might have… had something to do with… that.”
“The what? The mortgage scandal? I think a lot of people were involved in that.”
“Yeah, well… Did you hear about Goldman Sachs? How they made a profit from betting on short-selling mortgages?”
Rachel ran a quick search through Wikipedia. “Yeah,” she said slowly, mentally skimming the text as quickly as she could. “They knew the junk mortgages were bad and shorted the market.”
“Yes.” Becca nodded. “That was sort of… my idea.”
Rachel’s jaw dropped.
“I was just a summer intern! I didn’t think they’d take me seriously!” Becca was insistent. “They held a cheap throwaway meeting with a Board member, one of those introductory seminars that’s supposed to convince the kids they’re a valued part of the organization. They told us to write up any proposals we had to advance the company. I… I might have suggested a bundling process involving high-risk mortgages.”
“Oh my God,” Rachel said. “You tanked the planet!”
“Not alone, but I definitely helped,” Becca said, then sighed. “Honestly, I did make a shitload of money.”
“Did you keep it?”
“Ah… Not all of it,” Becca said as she reached for her wine. “I donated most of it. And I do a lot of pro bono work for a legal firm who helps recover bad mortgages for lower-income families. I’m trying to put it right, but I’ve got a lot of bad karma.”
Rachel shook her head, chuckling. “This is hilarious.”
“No!” Becca was indignant. “No, it’s not! It’s terrible! Do you realize how many people lost their jobs, their homes! I ruined families! People killed themselves over what I did!”
The other woman fell silent, her colors sad and damp, with a trace of fierce red that was aimed directly at Rachel. Rachel put on her most sympathetic face, and the red faded.
“No, you’re right,” Rachel said. “The banking scandal? Not funny at all. I’m laughing because I’m usually the one giving the ‘This is what I do for a living and hey where are you going?’ speech.”
In response, Rachel reached into the tiny clutch and took out her badge. The bright green and gold of the OACET seal was picked out against the black Nylon webbing as she flipped its protective folio open.
“You’re a cop?” Becca smiled. “That’s not so bad.”
Rachel pushed the badge towards her. “Read the fine print.”
Becca leaned forward for a cursory look, then snapped the badge off of the table for a closer look. Her colors bleached white in shock as she stared at the badge, then at Rachel, her mouth forming a small and perfect o.
“And this,” Rachel said, “is usually when my dates end.”
“Cyborg,” she sighed. “Or, in the language of past dates: freak, machine, creature, and the all-encompassing one of those… and they add a long pause for emphasis… things.”
“Oh.” Becca said quietly, then asked: “That’s what happens? They call you names?”
“Well, one time I got a glass full of wine thrown in my face,” Rachel amended. “She stormed out without saying a word.
“Stuck me with the bill, too,” she added.
Becca snorted, hard. It was an odd sound, completely out of place coming from a beautiful woman perfectly at home in an expensive restaurant, and Rachel found herself laughing.
It took a few tense seconds, but Becca joined her.
“Heh,” Rachel said, after the moment had passed. “Okay, that’s the best full disclosure has ever gone.”
“For me, too,” Becca nodded. She was an uncertain yellow. “But… um…”
“You get one trick,” Rachel said.
“To prove I really am OACET.”
“I believe you.”
“No, you don’t,” Rachel said, shaking her head. “You won’t believe until you get proof. That’s just how this works. The easiest trick is you hold up some object, and I send that image straight to your phone. It’ll be from my perspective, so you’ll know it’s from me. But there’s a bunch of other ways, if you think I’m wearing a hidden camera or something.”
“Oh.” The wine red bloomed through Becca’s surface colors, swirling through the yellow. “You get a lot of shit, don’t you?”
The waiter glided up to their table, tiny salads swimming in dressing on his tray. There was an unwelcome pause in the conversation as he pushed ground pepper; Rachel sent him running to the kitchen for bread to sop up the vinaigrette.
“So,” Rachel said, “let’s do this, let’s get the image out of the way. Unless you want a text message instead? Or, you can pick another person in here at random and I’ll make their phone ring…”
Becca shook out the cloth swan and draped the napkin across her lap. “Do you believe I’m a banker?”
“Hm?” Rachel blinked; Becca had deviated from the usual script.
“Do you think I’m lying to you about what I do? Or about… what I did, back when I was just starting out?”
“No,” Rachel said, catching on. Smiling.
“All right, then,” Becca said, pushing the inedible salad aside. “Let me bore you with my fantasy football team.”
They pointedly ignored all talk of work. It was slightly awkward between them, at first, but they soon settled into a pattern of jokes and complaining about family. By the time they had finished the main course, they were happily comparing overbearing Old Country grandmothers.
“Dessert?” Rachel asked.
Becca shook her head. “Not here, but do you have a few minutes? There’s a bakery nearby that does some of the best ethnic pastries I’ve found. We can show each other what Grandma used to make.”
Rachel shuddered. “You’ve obviously never had a Chinese pastry. Most of them are a scary breed of jelly doughnuts.”
“I love jelly doughnuts.”
“Sugar is a new phenomenon for some parts of China,” Rachel said. “Think Fig Newton without the flavor.”
The check came and went, Becca’s platinum card eating the sum. The two women gathered up their coats and left, walking west towards the old warehouse district.
“Tell me something,” Becca said.
Yellow, but not questioning. Curious? “Tell you what?” Rachel asked.
“Anything. But it has to be something you wouldn’t tell me until the tenth date.”
“Huh?” Rachel laughed. “Shouldn’t we save that for the tenth date?”
“Nothing’s guaranteed,” Becca said, and shrugged. “This question is my personality litmus test. Lets me know if the other person thinks we’re compatible.”
“Ah. I have one of those.”
“When do I get to take it?”
“Right now. Professional wrestling: sport or entertainment?”
“Good,” Becca said. She grinned and looped her hand through Rachel’s. “Your turn.”
“Hmm,” Rachel murmured. Becca’s colors fluttered when her fingers brushed against Rachel’s stitches, and she loosened her grip. “This doesn’t seem fair. I asked a question; you want a story.”
“Should have picked a different litmus test, then.”
Rachel chuckled. She flipped off the emotional spectrum to keep herself honest, and ran through her Big List of Dangerous Topics until she found one that had nothing to do with OACET or her eyesight. “My dad took my mother’s name.”
“I think I figured that out already. Unless your dad was Chinese but born in Texas?”
“Nope. I think he’s mostly Scottish.
“You think? You don’t know?”
Rachel shook her head. “Mom got a visa to Texas A&M to study architecture. This was the early ‘80s, when Chinese students didn’t leave the country, and Chinese women basically never went to college(1), period, so something else was going on there. They still won’t tell me how my mom got to America, or why they got married, or why I’ve never met any family members on my dad’s side.”
“And you haven’t tried to find out?”
“Of course I have,” Rachel said. “They said I’d find out when they’re dead.”
“That’s a terrible story. That’s not even a story. That’s…” Becca jabbed Rachel in the side with her thumb. “That’s the promise of a story! That’s even worse than not telling a story at all!”
Rachel held up her free hand, surrendering. “That’s what we’d talk about on the tenth date.”
Becca glared at her. “The implicit threat that I’d have to know you after your parents died to get the entire story?”
“Well,” Rachel offered in a lilting sing-song, “maybe if you tell me something tenth date-y, then I’ll give you a better one.”
“Fine.” Becca was quiet for a few moments.
Rachel flipped on the emotional spectrum for a quick peek; Becca’s colors were a blend of Rachel’s southwestern turquoise and an almost anxious orange. Uh-oh.
“I’ve never dated someone for more than five months.”
“What?” Rachel was honestly shocked. “How old are you? Twenty-eight?”
“Twenty-seven, thank you. And my relationships tend to… They start strong and then fade out.”
“Well,” Rachel said. “I’ve heard you’re never supposed to date someone who’s more than thirty and who’s never been in a long-term relationship. Twenty-seven is safe.”
“Yeah,” Becca said. She was grinning, but there was anxiety behind it. The yellows and oranges grew and began to bubble over into Rachel’s turquoise. “Just so you know, though, I’m done with rushing into relationships. Move too fast, and it’s over before it starts.”
“You’re right,” Rachel said. “You’re absolutely right. And this is an excellent tenth-date conversation, so I think we should wait until the tenth date to have it.”
“Fair enough,” the other woman said. Her grin lost its pinched edges and the soft pops of yellow-orange slowly began to fade. “Just so you know, I’m a bit of a control freak. It tends to put people off.”
“Becca? My roommate has turned my entire house into an arboretum. I think I can cope.”
The other woman laughed. She smelled of jasmine, and the sleeve of her blazer was soft raw silk against Rachel’s forearm. Rachel cast around for a good tenth date story… Jade green. “I think my maternal grandmother is gay.”
“No! Really? The same grandmother you were telling me about over dinner? Your… um… Low-low?”
“Close. Lăo lao.”
“Why do you think she’s gay? Did she tell you?”
“Oh God no! She’s practically a caricature of the Chinese matriarch. Everything has to be just! so!” Rachel said, and jabbed at the air with her free hand. “My parents tell me she was furious when my mother immigrated to America, and nearly disowned her when she married my dad. And she loved me—I mean, she had to love me, she practically raised me once she moved in with us—but if I had suddenly turned into a full-blooded Chinese boy, she would have been totally okay with that.
“It was only after I came out to the family that she finally started to like me. After that, we used to stay up all night, talking.”
“Girls, boys, women, men, movies, music, religion, politics, China, America… It’s weird to have known someone for almost your entire lifetime, but never, you know, have known them.”
“Small reason to think she’s gay.”
Rachel nodded. “Yeah, but there’s also some winking and nudging in the family. Her husband died awfully young, and she never remarried.”
“That could be cultural. Or maybe she isn’t the remarrying type.”
“Could be,” Rachel said. The other woman’s hand was warm in her own. “I’ll probably never know for sure. We’re close, but there’s family-close and then there’s close-close. ”
They stopped talking long enough to run across a four-lane road. Rachel got her bearings and retrieved her stored copy of MPD’s map of the city from the OACET database. Great. They were beginning to wander into an unsavory part of town, and the usual weight of her gun was conspicuously absent from her hip. Becca was oblivious in the way of the rich; this neighborhood might be tame enough in the day, but she didn’t realize that most predators were nocturnal. It was a relief when they turned that last corner and arrived at the pastry shop.
Which was out of business, of course. The store was shuttered up, a handwritten note on a sheet of copy paper thanking customers for their loyal, but obviously insufficient, support.
“Damn,” Becca swore. “Do you know how hard it is to find a good ensaïmada around here?”
“There’s a…” Rachel said, then paused as she ran a quick search. “There’s a bakery that does brioches a few blocks from here.” The bakery was nearby, but was also located on (by sheer coincidence, surely) a casually gentrified street with more than a few afterhours clubs and pricey restaurants. The two of them would fit right in.
“Did she defend you when you came out?”
“Hm? No! I mean, she didn’t need to,” Rachel said, steering them towards safety. “Coming out as being part of OACET was way harder on my family than coming out as a lesbian. I sort of vanished from their lives for five years, and then, hey guys! It’s your daughter, the cyborg! I’m back, and… And I see you’ve remodeled the kitchen into my bedroom. Yay, ranch house layout.”
Becca laughed. “OACET wouldn’t let you contact your own family? Why not?”
“Sorry, can’t tell you.” Rachel grinned at her. “That’s an eleventh-date conversation.”
“Give you time to make something up, you mean.”
Rachel sighed and dropped Becca’s hand. “Pick a streetlight.”
“Pick a streetlight. Actually,” Rachel corrected herself, “pick three of them, and point them out in order.”
Becca gave her a wry smirk.
“Just do it,” Rachel sighed.
The other woman pointed at the lamp directly above them.
Rachel glanced up, and the light popped off.
“Oh,” Becca said.
“They’ve got solar sensors,” Rachel explained. “I told this one the sun had come up.”
The loss of one lamp made no difference to how Rachel saw the street, and shouldn’t have affected the temperature one iota, but there was a chill in the night air that hadn’t been there before. She released the lamp and the small dark pool they had been standing in vanished, but the chill hung around.
“Okay. Pick two more,” Rachel said.
“I believe you,” Becca said. “Why do you think I don’t believe you?”
“Because…” Rachel flailed. “Because they don’t believe me until they do, and that’s when the date is over.”
Becca found Rachel’s hand again, and started walking. There was an awkward moment when Rachel’s feet didn’t realize they were supposed to follow, and then they tripped and fell back into step with Becca’s.
They walked without speaking for the better part of a block, and then Becca said, “I’m sorry you’ve had problems, but those other women? They aren’t me.”
“Yeah,” Rachel said. “I’m starting to get that. Why doesn’t this bother you, by the way?”
“I don’t know,” Becca replied. “It’s like watching someone freak out about their cell phone. It’s sort of… overly dramatic.
“Certain people might…” Becca added, “… even think it was boring.”
Rachel chuckled. “Okay,” she said. “Point taken. I’m done.”
“No, no, I’m sure it’s very interesting how you can turn lights on and off. It’s just that I’ve been doing it my entire life, so…”
“Shut up,” Rachel said, bumping Becca’s hip with her own.
(1) I research the crap out of what might seem to be throwaway statements. This article, Inequality in Chinese Education, is fascinating reading.