Sunday, December 13, 2015

Damn the Numbers

I have two scenarios for you. Both involve self-published books within the fantasy adventure genre. In the first scenario, it's the author's first book. It has not been read by anyone else. No writing group. No editor. No copy editor. Nothing. Boom! He self publishes it; eBook only. And yes, it is just as bad as you imagine.

In the second scenario, it's this author's third completed novel length manuscript. It has been read by a number of people prior to publishing. It has seen the benefits of a writing group, an editor, and a copy editor. He self-publishes it and makes it available in both paperback and eBook.

Guess which one sells better in the first six months? Since we love irony, or its close relatives, you're probably thinking that the first book sold more. You would be correct. What's interesting, is that it is not even close. As I am a visual person, I have some charts to illustrate the disparity. The first one isn't so horrific, it shows how many free copies were "purchased" for the two books. This would include promotional give-aways and some Amazon free programs such as Select and the lending library. Book One is the god-awful first book and it gets 8x the number of downloads.

One thousand versus 150. But, these are only the free copies, so they don't matter as much, right? Sort of. It's still publicity, and people spending time with your work. But, let's look at the real number. The actual paid for, sold units. Drum roll please . . .

Ouch. See how Excel couldn't even render a visible color for Book Two due to the scale difference? Nearly 3,800 units sold versus, almost 30. Or in other words, the second book hasn't even sold 1% of what the first book did.

I took the first book down after the six month mark, as I couldn't abide by the idea that a work of mine was available to the public in such a raw and half-assed form. It also didn't help that I had some readers gouging their eyes out after trying to slog through the error-infested work, and weren't shy about expressing their experience to me. It was a fair complaint though, and it helped me develop a thicker skin

I admit to entering into Book Two, a.k.a Rise of Raulet (ROR), with a fair amount of naive expectations. My first book sold relatively well and I had improved since then, and I put more time, money, and effort into this next project. I made sure to do all of the "right" things, involving a team of folks to help me fine tune the book. So, if book one sold that many in such a sorry state, imagine how many this next book would sell?!?! Yeah, it sounds asinine stated like that, but in my heart, I believed it.

Granted, it's not an apples to apples comparison of course. Two books never are. The first book was in 2012 and a lot has happened within the self-publishing realm over the last three years. And the first book came out at $0.99 and I priced the second one at $2.99 (eBook). I did recently lower the price to $0.99 just to see if it does any differently.

I'm hoping that I can soon arrive at a place of acceptance with ROR sales being virtually non-existent, and my first walking nightmare doing so much better. There is some feeling of redemption in putting ROR out there, to "prove" that I can produce a book of good quality, but I already knew I could.

In the self publishing arena, you have the opportunity to oversee elements you wouldn't normally get to in the traditional publishing world. But, even with that additional influence, there are still numerous factors outside of your control. You just have to accept that fact, and keep at your art in whatever form that takes and damn the numbers.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

A Little Bit of Alchemy

First, a quick NaNo update before I blab about my next manuscript. Well, this was my second attempt at conquering the leviathan (50,000 words in one month!) and I hit the 20k mark. Not where I wanted to end up, but I did reestablish a couple of writing habits that proved to improve my daily word count by a couple of hundred words, so I will take it.

I must admit that my weekend free time was dominated by this:

In my defense that game is fraking awesome!

Anyway, I wanted to briefly talk about my next manuscript. ALCHEMIST is my next fantasy adventure story. I should be getting it back from my editor soon. In some ways this was a reaction against my last book RISE OF RAULET which had three rotating point of views and some brave characters. Don't get me wrong, I'm proud of how the last book turned out, but I wanted to do two things differently:

1. I wanted to focus primarily from one perspective.
2. The protagonist had to be a total nerd.

Alright, so the protag, Nicholl, is going to be a nerd, but what can he nerd out on? For some reason my mind turned to alchemy. Not the classic turn crap into gold bit, but a pseudo scientific chemistry, full of balanced equations, competing forces, and nesting formulas! I liked it. That was my backdrop. But what about the plot? I hear that some people consider that important.

Here is what I threw poor Nicholl into. He's just graduating from the equivalent of college. He's got one close friend, Trude, the woman that has pulled him out of more jams than he cares to admit and serves as his common sense and guide to those awkward things called social interactions. A baroness grants the freshly graduated Nicholl with an odd/enticing opportunity to use alchemy to free a Gazer.

What's a Gazer? There are three hundred statues that appear only at night with their eyes fixed on the heavens. Well, all of them but one. They are all uniquely carved and appear incredibly life-like. Plenty of theories have been formed over the years, but most agree they are magical based on their flickering in and out of existence, plus they cannot be moved.

The baroness has a theory of her own and thinks Nicholl is the only one that has the raw brilliance to crack the code and defeat the magic, freeing the Gazer and breaking the stone shell. Nicholl sees this as the ultimate academic challenge and is blind to the baroness's true intentions and the potential fallout of his actions. Thankfully, Nicholl brings Trude with him so he might have a chance to survive this.

I'm excited for it and do plan to query this bad boy out depending on how the editing goes. The one challenge I have is that in its current state, the book is a little short (70k ish) and borderline YA. Hmmm. Worse case scenario, I don't get any bites and I end up self-publishing the bad-boy. I will keep you posted.

How about you? What's your newest project?

Sunday, November 15, 2015

NaNo Update

Halfway through November and a fine time to assess the 50,000 word goal proposed by NaNoWriMo enthusiasts. My own battle is a mixed result. Thus far, I have written every day in November. I typically don't clock in on evenings and weekends, and the extra work has piled on the words. However, I'm more on pace for a 30k finish. In order to hit 50k, I would need to write more on the weekends and thus far, I haven't been inspired to whittle away the weekend hours with writing.

That's fine. I can find satisfaction in working harder than usual and hitting 30k. One of the cool things is I know a first-time NaNo participant that is using the structure to finally commit to writing a story that has been existing only in her head now for some time. The premise is fascinating and I for one am looking forward to reading it.

That's the best part about a public event like this and sharing it with others. It can open doors and encourage a person to embark down a creative path they otherwise might not have. And the world could always use more artists.

In other news, I turned in my next story for editing. After I finish NaNo and get that back, I will write a piece on what that is all about. Odds are I will query that bad boy and see what happens.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

An Artful Bean

Our condo is relatively small, but 12.5 foot ceilings produce a considerable amount of wall space. We've lived here for nine years, and have slowly started decorating the walls. In part, the reluctance was birthed from the daunting task of finding art to scale the seemingly endless drywall. Rachael broached the idea of using coffee bean bags as frame-worthy art. Though I like the idea of using things not intended as purely visual art, as art, I was a bit skeptical.

She collected a handful of bags over the years. Here are a couple of them for reference:

The burlap wonders are roughly 18" X 30". We narrowed the seven down to five, cut them, and loaded them into some ordinary black frames. You can sort of tell that from this horrible picture:
Next up, climbing up and down a ladder to hang them perfectly level over our kitchen cabinets, while attempting to maintain my fragile patience. Wish me luck. How about you? Any recent art projects?

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

50k, Baby

November encroaches, promising colder, longer nights and days riddled with turkey. Both of which I shall embrace. One November event I have typically avoided is NaNoWriMo = National Novel Writing Month. The goal is straightforward. In the month of November, you try to clock in 50,000 words, approaching the lower bounds of a novel's word count. Hence, the title of the event.

I write Monday through Friday in the morning for an hour or two, but I'm a slower type of gent (using the term loosely) averaging anywhere from 300 to 1k. The daily target for NaNoWriMo is 1,667.

I tried one year and didn't bust out of the 20's. So you can see why I hesitate a little.

I even told my writing group just a few days ago, that I did not intend to embark upon that train wreck again. But here I am, thinking about it. Envisioning the word count piling up, the inspired ideas, the hated jock, at his locker with a small smile on his face,starting the slow clap that quickly envelopes the whole school until they are ALL clapping and cheering me. Wait. Why am I in high school? Gross. Anyway.

I'm doing it. Going to give it a serious go. Another one of the huddled masses stooped over my keyboard at odd hours. I don't plot, though. That also gives a fellow pause. This type of momentum requires a consistent writing. But, I would rather my story develop organically. Don't worry. My characters don't talk to me and force me to do things or any of that BS. I just enjoy the discovery that comes from writing without a plan and the problem solving needed to figure myself out of writing jams. Well, it helps that I write fantasy, cause you know, you can just make stuff up. It's fantasy.

Sure it's prescribed. Sure it's annoying. Sure some channels of  NaNoWriMo chatter annoy people. I don't care. It's time to shake up my routine a bit and stretch.

How about you? Rocking the NaNoWriMo? Or another new endeavor in November?

Sunday, October 11, 2015

3,000 Miles & None The Wiser

What should an introverted homebody lacking any semblance of direction sense, with a slight fear of driving, do with a week of vacation? Why, go a road trip of course!

My mother re-located to the southwest and I had yet to visit her new home. Rachael thought we should take advantage of the opportunity, and instead of the standard few hour flight, turn it into an asphalt adventure and cure some of our geographical ignorance.

When it comes to geographical considerations, I am, simply put, a moron. My third-grade memorization of the states and their capitals has grown thick with cobwebs, and sadly was never supplemented with additional knowledge. A few years back I started upon the Shelby Foote's brilliant civil war narrative, and was forced to consult a map tirelessly due to my ignorance.

We rolled away from Saint Paul on a cool and crisp (how else to describe a MN morning?) on October 3rd. Our first day was designed to ease into the trip, with a pause in Des Moines to visit a friend, and then only a few hours more to bring us into Lincoln, Nebraska, birthplace of Rachael. Why there isn't a statue there to commemorate the event is puzzling to me! The college town has a plethora of bars and dinner spots to choose from, but our weariness prevented much exploration.

Next day had us in Denver exploring the mythical Red Rocks Amphitheater. The rocks there are simply gorgeous. I am not a photo journalist, as these photos will attest:

After Denver, we rolled into Albuquerque and woke up to the news that just a miles away from our hotel, hundreds of hot air balloons were being launched. This has got to be the lamest photo ever, but here was our view:

The next few days in NM went by too quickly. A few highlights:
My wife and I in White Sands

A wooden railroad trestle in Cloudcroft NM

What trip would be complete without visiting the world's largest pistachio?

The desert mountains possesses a raw beauty that's easy to appreciate. It's fascinating to see the terrain change from a dusty scrub land into a lush coniferous forest simply by increasing the elevation a couple thousand feet, which can be done in 20 miles of travel.

We took three days to get down there, and decided to do the trip back in two. Nine hours of driving got us to Oklahoma City, and we were surprised by the greenery OK had on display. Day two consisted of 12 merciless hours of interstate 35, and for the record, Kansas, your $7.00 of tolls was not very cool.

Even the most cynical corners of my mind can at least recognize the advantages of travel, if nothing else, to appreciate and long for the comforts of home. Overall, I enjoyed the trip and welcomed the tiny bit of knowledge I garnered about this giant land mass that is the United States and its various forms of beauty.

How about you? Done any traveling recently?

Monday, September 28, 2015

Stuttering Starburst

In first grade, I was special. Ms. Haugen would pick me up from class and lead me through the empty halls, through the cheesy bread smelling cafeteria, and into her tiny office. I didn't know what a speech pathologist was, but I thought she was cool. We would play games, talk, call up random businesses to ask questions, and all sorts of random things. At the end of every session, she would let me pick a Starburst from the jar on her desk (of course I nabbed the pink ones!)

At some point I was deemed cured and Ms, Haugen no longer would pull me from class. Some other lucky kid must have been eating those pink Starbursts, leaving the neglected yellow and orange to pool at the bottom of the jar. I now knew what they must have felt like.

As an adult I still have minor speech issues. Not so much the classic stuttering people think of, when a section of a word is repeated, like a skipping record. Instead it's more of a sporadic pause, where I want to say the word, but I can't force it out. It doesn't happen often, but it's there, a stalking ghost of an awkward kid.

Talking on the phone is when it strikes most. I think it's the extra attention on the sound of the voice. In person, you have expressions, and other stimuli to help deliver the message. On the phone, you only have your voice.

When I was envisioning a character for my new manuscript, The Alchemist (working title), I pictured him as a gifted academic, but struggling in the social world, oblivious to social cues. Also, I heard him stutter. I was able to tap into my own experience and add in the minor quirk to flesh him out further. It's the little things that help build a character beyond just the physical description, the clothes they wear, and the things they say. The small things purchase credibility with the reader as they experience the diversity in your imagined world.

There is a push in fantasy, and other genres to increase the amount of diversity represented in the books, and I'm all for that. I believe it should go beyond the obvious gender, race, and sexual preference checklist. Interesting worlds in my opinion, are teeming with various forms of life and sentient beings possess that much more potential for variation beyond coloring and who the like to have sexual relations with. The possibilities are endless. You can use our world as an example.

I'm working on a new story and pushing hard at three-dimensional characters and environment. I hope to create a living, breathing world. Maybe one where the orange and yellow Starburst are the sought after ones. You never know.

Monday, September 21, 2015

The Dreaded Question

Whether it be family and friends, interviews, or fans, authors get asked a fair amount of questions. The infamous inquiry that has been identified by a number of writers as their least favorite is: where do you get your ideas?

Not that I have people beating down my door to seek my audience, but I don't mind that particular question. Personally, I don't think the actual method is usually interesting, but the details for a particular story can be.

The reason I don't think the method is all that fascinating, is it typically involves the same two components. Unhinging the mind, and metacognition. Don't worry, I'm not getting all new-age on you. Or stated in another way, you let your mind off the leash and follow it into the weeds.

It might be a full-blown plot that develops in the mind, or it could be a scene, a concept. One of the starting blocks for Rise of Raulet was a scene from a TV show where a young man is taking care of his publicly shunned sister. Both the sibling bond and the societal rejection were used to form Jasper and Margret.

Sometimes it's more directly derived from a reading experience. That's one of the freeing aspects of writing. Tired of seeing XYZ recycled again and again in a particular genre? Great! Write something in a different vein. Hence, why some people refer to the writing process as adding to the conversation. Granted it is a loud and disorganized conversation, but I will buy that for a dollar.

There is one question that makes me a little uneasy, though it is a fair question, and that is: is this character, you? The answer is always no with a small asterisk. Well sure, my thoughts went into building that character, and in that regard it's a part of me one could argue. With an unlimited world of imagination, why would I create a character that is me? Booooorrrring!

I want to feel unhindered in the creation process and I usually do. But, creating a violent character, or if I wrote a sexually deviant character, that would make me shift in my seat a little, as some people are going to assume those characteristics are mine too! Just because a character in my story likes to rub jelly doughnuts all over his body and then dance naked in the silvery moonlight, doesn't mean that I do that. What a waste of a good pastry.

I don't mind if people don't like me. Ok. That's a slight lie. It bothers me a little. What would make it worse, is if the person doesn't like or respect me based on a lie or a misconception. That idea drives me batty. That is why the question, if a character is me, is my dreaded question.

How about you? Do you have a dreaded question?

Sunday, September 13, 2015

The Only Two Fans in the World

Turn back the time machine to the late 1980's and think video game consoles. The glory of the Atari had mostly waned, and two competitors rose to fill the void. My family was fortunate enough to have some disposable income and snapped up one of these amazing boxes. You're probably picturing this:


Nope. While everyone else was jumping around with Mario and shooting ducks, my brother and I were taking precisely-timed 30 minute turns on this beasty:

This $200.00 investment came with Hang-On and Safari Hunt:

Kids around the neighborhood invited us over to experience Mario and Top Gun, but no one wanted to play Hang-On or Alex Kidd. That didn't stop my brother and I from spending many glorious summer days inside maintaining our pale and haunted appearances.

I still recall reading about a new game called, Phantasy Star. It was to be our introduction to the role playing game. Looking at this picture elicits a stream of nostalgia bound glory and also a little shame, as I begged my poor mother for the game endlessly:
Phantasy Star box.jpg
Now, I'm not a video game historian, but this thing was ground breaking. First of all, note the fact that we have a female protagonist. That's pretty awesome. The game had four heroes that you would explore the world, fight monsters, level up, buy/find better equipment, and actually had a mostly coherent story line:

You can see where I learned my colorful language with early influences like this. Both the SEGA master system and the next generation console, the SEGA Genesis, did poorly in sales compared to the NES and SNES. It fostered a defensive pride and SEGA loyalty in my brother and I. We were quick to point out the hardware superiority (we were born nerds from day 1) of the SEGA versus the NES, but it fell upon deaf ears.

When it wasn't my brother's turn or play (or my dad, as he sometimes played = waiting a full hour!!) I would watch whomever was at the controls, experiencing the game with them, and some games (Streets of Rage anyone??) would allow for 2 players, which could not have gotten better.

Almost thirty years later, and my brother and I are still avid gamers, a passion that we share. Occasionally discussions with friends and new acquaintances will turn to retro-gaming and I'm always hoping I will encounter another SEGA fan, but inevitably talk turns to Mario.

How about you? Ever had the joy of rocking a SEGA Master System or Genesis?

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Secrets and Letters

There are two ways to nab that elusive literary agent and obtain that big book deal born of dreams.

Method 1

First, you must obtain a mint condition, first edition Stephen King novel. I’m talking pristine. Which one? Doesn’t matter. The next step involves locating an abandoned crossroads. Preferably one with a lonely, flickering light that even the flies know to avoid. Bury that aforementioned book at the dead center and wait five or ten minutes for the next available agent. Try not to let your senses be dulled by the soothing music.

The agent will appear with a puff of smoke and a whirl of discarded query letters. The summoning was the easy part. She will demand you pass two tests. The first test is a brutal trial that eliminates nearly all. She places a vintage version of the board game, Operation, upon the dusty road. Time has only made the damn thing more sensitive (did I just switch tenses?). She points wordlessly to the wishbone.

If you somehow manage to skirt the buzzing sound and lit nose to obtain that pesky piece of plastic, your last Herculean task is the secret handshake. Every published author knows the handshake, but is sworn upon painful obscurity to never reveal it. Plied with enough bourbon, they will relent and admit the existence, but that is all you will manage to dredge. If you can master all of the intricate slaps, fist-bumps, and fist-plosions, she will bow her head and hand you the golden typewriter.

That damn thing is heavy. You didn’t walk to the crossroads did you? Good luck carting that behemoth home. Newb.

Method 2

For the rest of us, there is the query letter. For those of you that don’t know, the query letter is a one page attempt to introduce yourself and to convince the agent that it’s worth their time to read your newly minted manuscript.

Some consider it a necessary evil, but It does makes sense. No agent has time to read 200 novel-length manuscripts. The challenge is to get past the auto-reject. Imagine if you had 200 letters to go through. Are you going to carefully examine each one, stroke your chin, and ponder the contents? No. You will be looking for any excuse to recycle and whittle that slush pile down to a few promising samples. So do they.

There are a few possible responses to your query letter ranked in order of awesomeness and scarcity:

1.       Silent rejection. Very common.

2.       Form letter rejection. Dear Author, thanks but no thanks.

3.       Helpful rejection. No thanks, but . . . they may tell you specifically why they passed on your manuscript, ask you to send your next work, or just offer some rare words of encouragement. Bless the agents who take the time to do this.

4.       Partial request. They ask for a few chapters to test the waters, partially intrigued by the query, but not completely sold yet.

5.       Full request. Bingo. They saw enough promise in your work that they want to read the whole thing! From here it could be a no thanks, a revise and resubmit, or an offer of representation (this is where you learn the handshake!)

In my first round of queries, I got partial requests, but nothing panned out. I did get a helpful rejection, which was, well, helpful. I also got a form rejection, after seven months. That was not very helpful J. One of the bits of advice I picked up was to set aside your favorite 5-10 agents and save them for last, instead sending out smaller batches of queries to see if they elicit responses. If not, rework and try the next batch. Rinse. Repeat.

It’s an odd system, but as flawed as it is, it does seem to largely work. How about you? Have any bits of advice or tales to share about the query process?

Saturday, September 5, 2015


Some books are devoured whole, the tension arc building and carrying us through the pages, defying the rest of our carefully planned schedule for the day. After these books are set aside, we may never step inside that particular universe again. It was a delightful ride, but it didn’t linger, it didn’t resonate.

A knee-jerk response would be to judge that rapid finish as the ultimate measure of enjoyment. But, these aren’t the books I seek the most. The works I revel in, are the ones that even after I refile the book, filling the gap on the shelf, I can’t help but think about it more, relive a particular scene, wonder what if . . .?

I have found that these resonating experiences come in three varieties:

1.       A particular passage
2.       The ending
3.       The entire breath of the book

I recently had the pleasure of reading Elizabeth Bear’s All the Windwracked Stars. I certainly found it an enjoyable read and would recommend it to a seasoned fantasy reader, but it wasn’t my favorite book of the year. However, there was one passage that I halted over and reread multiple times. Not because I didn’t understand it, but because I wanted to replicate the feeling of wonder and sharp inhale the first time my eyes touched it:

“And Cathoair found himself thinking that there should be a word for the way the hair sticks in curls to the neck of somebody you ought to have learned to love but didn’t, when you are walking with them at night, down the beach in the rain.”

Haunting. Occasionally these powerful segments can actually pull us from the story, sending us along an overgrown path, one we haven’t dared to traverse in years.

Endings get a lot of hype, as well they should. I’m not delving into the shocking endings, or the cliff hangers, I mean the perfect capsule that enriches what you just read and creates a life of it’s own beyond the text.

The example that sticks out most of me is Stephen King’s Christine :

“What if it’s started again?
What if it’s working its way east, finishing the job?
Saving me for last?

His single-minded purpose.
His unending fury”

Granted, you need the rest of the story to understand the character of Roland D. LeBay, and his constant anger, and those final two lines are sublimely perfect. It’s the only time I can recall actually feeling scared after finishing a book.

Finally, there are books where the fiber of it stretching from preface to epilogue refuses to leave. The first example I have of this is, The Girl Next Door by Jack Ketchum. That was such a powerful and disturbing book that I begged my friends for a light-hearted read to cleanse the palate.

A second example is Octavia Butler’s Kindred. What a marvelous job of transporting us into the antebellum south and into the mindset of the early 19th century. The relationship that is built between Dana and Rufus is as human as it is ugly. I agreed with Dana’s choice near the end, though I would have not predicted that conversion. The willingness to go along with her poked and prodded at me and I could only sigh in resignation.

That’s my story. What books resonate with you?