Pilgrimage

I’m near the end of what can only be called a pilgrimage for me. It’s not epic, not as if I were journeying to the Holy Land for grand spiritual insight, but that’s the word I keep coming back to.

This pilgrimage is back to my hometown, the place I grew up, a dusty little place in central California now grown into a small city. Still as dusty, and in some parts as quaint, but the downtown that used to be just where people went to shop is now the province of sidewalk cafes, gift shops and some very nice tatoo parlors. I can only think that the biker crowd has intersected with the modern tendency toward body art to produce enough customers to support three fancy establishments within four blocks.

Although the town was interesting to me, to see how it has grown and changed – for example my old house in what used to be a decent part of town has somehow moved across the metaphorical tracks into a declining neighborhood, while there are spanking new subdivisions on the edge of town – what I really came back for was the people.

The impetus for crossing the country just for this purpose was two indie author friends of mine, Vaughn Heppner and Brian “B.V.” Larson (shameless plug, check out their books). They have inspired me to begin writing this year, and I wanted to reconnect with them in person. I grew up with these guys, playing wargames and D&D and reading lots of the same stuff, but we never talked about being writers. Writers were like distant gods, handing down scripture from on high. To teenagers, authors seemed impossibly old, mature, imaginative in ways we could never be.

When I left town to join the Army (and subsequently made a career in the military) I carried that feeling with me. I knew I was a good technical writer. I ended up in the intelligence field, writing endless reports and analyses, but never fiction. The bar was set so high that I didn’t feel I could reasonably devote so much time to doing something with so little chance of success. It remained a dream no more real to me than winning the lottery or the World Series of Poker.

From our common twenties, basically the mid-eighties on, these other two guys started writing books – science fiction and fantasy mostly. They got the classic treatment – rejection after rejection. Both of them stayed in our hometown and became teachers to pay the bills. Jump forward twenty years – and then came ebooks. They were both nearly despairing of having any type of success in writing fiction, when the gates suddenly opened and anyone could publish. They were in the rather unique position of each having a score or so of novels in the can. They just had to be cleaned up, edited, formatted and put online.

They both went from nothing to pretty good livings within two years. Wow.

Now I had hardly kept in contact with these guys. Our lives had diverged and frankly I had not made the effort. I had other friends, and a wife and family acquired along the way in my military wanderings and had simply left these guys behind. But one day I just decided to google them and see how they were doing and I found their books online and their author websites and I realized how much I would like to reconnect with them.

Now it’s hard to convince people sometimes that you aren’t crawling out of the woodwork to take advantage of someone’s success. But the fact is, I make a good six figures in the defense industry. This had nothing to do with an urge to get rich quick. I think I’ve convinced them and everyone else of that. But now that I have retired from the military I was looking for soemthing else to do with my life. The nest of children is emptying – the last one is in college – and the government bureaucracy is becoming increasingly ossified and frustrating. So the concept of writing, inspired by these guys’ success, seemed like a good one. It was an opportunity to set new goals and challenge myself in a new field that nevertheless I believed I had some talent and skill already. I’d not be starting from zero, I’d just have to learn the writing game.

So after a good part of a year emailing these guys, and writing two and a half novels. I felt like it was time to go see them in person. So I did.

I don’t think I can fully communicate my feelings about this reunion. I had thought we had worked out any awkwardness over email but the results were interesting. In some ways we were thrown back to adolescence as we reminisced. In other ways I could see so clearly how life had changed them and, by reflection, me. I had gone out into the big wide world and many of my attitudes had changed. These guys had not, not so much anyway. There was a solidity in knowing they had never left my hometown, but also a realization that I could never really communicate what I had seen and done. I’d lived in the Far East, in Europe, in the Middle East, and had been deployed to several war zones. I’d lived in different parts of the US – Alaska, the South, the mid-Atlantic states, and the Midwest. How could I relate to these guys anymore? How could I talk to them without either talking down to them, based on my larger experience set, or seem to be sucking up to them, based on our common interest of authorship, as they were so much further ahead of me in that arena? At the root of it, I found myself yearning simply to be part of our little group of teenage friends again, the ones that had played so many games and shared so many experiences. And I realized that I was the one to be suspicious of, from their point of view. I had run off, now I wanted to come back. Maybe they felt I had betrayed them by leaving.

But as we grew comfortable again with each other I realized that they were letting me back in to their lives based on nothing more than distant memories. This was amazing to me, and puts the lie to naturalistic ideas about the pure selfishness of human beings. They were generous with their time and their thoughts and their lives and I realized how much I had missed. I was the ship, they the harbor.

To bring it back to writing, it was a spiritual and emotional renewal that feels like an infusion of enthusiasm for authorship and the potential of this craft to transform me and my life. From being a consumer of content I’ve become a producer and I find this very satisfying. Having these guys as models and examples is invaluable – the simple idea of “if they can do it, so can I” is so powerful. I move forward with a renewed sense of purpose and hope for my future as an author.

The Honeymoon is Over

For me, there’s always a honeymoon period for any new activity I take up.

I’m admittedly a person of passions and impulses – generally governed by sanity, but not always. I’ve taken up many new pursuits in my life – some stick, some don’t. Generally I get very enthusiatic for a few months, then the novelty wanes and either settles down to normal or fades away entirely.

I should have expected writing to be no different.

In the honeymoon period I wrote about 250,000 words in less than 6 months. That’s averaging about 1400 words a day – two and  a half novels, a novella and four short stories while holding down a middling-stressful office job (which saps mental energy). The newness of it all and my own pent-up creativity sustained me for that time.

I ate up all the blog posts and articles e-publishing, I cruised the boards, I posted pieces for critique, I offered to critique anything – I just wanted to do it all day. I would write, then edit, the read, get some coffee and do it all over again. So that was like the opening of a footrace, using up the initial energy.

There came a point, hinted at in earlier posts, when I was stressing myself out. I saw a certain amount of burnout and felt worried that I couldn’t sustain that level of productivity. I just had to accept the fact that I couldn’t, not at almost 50. When I was younger the honeymoon period would probably have been longer but the results would be the same – eventual burnout.

Now it’s time to settle down and log miles beneath my mental sneakers. Part of that is setting some goals – write a certain number of words per day for example. Be more disciplined, keep chipping away at it, eat the elephant one bite at a time, the journey of a thousand miles etc. – pile up the metaphors.

***

So on a completely different topic, I ran across this site recently http://www.teleread.com/ and was impressed at the range and applicability of the different articles and blog entries about e-publishing. High-quality, well-edited, and relevant.

***

Had some folks over last night for dinner and the watch Inception, which is one of my all-time favorites. But it was the first time I watched it really with a writer’s eye, and I was able to recognize its strengths and flaws much more. It did not diminish the enjoyment for me, though frankly it threatened to, but constantly tempting me to think about the movie instead of experience it – but I did spend some time idly wondering how I could write a book like that – and I don’t think it’s possible. Books and film are different media. Still, I also realized before – I’ve discussed it now and then – that I tend to write in scenes, rather like a movie. Open a scene, kind of a mini-story, then close it out. Sometimes my scenes are tightly interspersed because the threads of plot are getting close to each other; sometimes they are long and relatively deep. In all cases my visual imagination tends to control the action – I’m trying to paint a word picture for the reader.

I don’t know necessarily how others do it. I’ve been reading a lot of OS Card recently and frankly his word pictures are not as good as some others. What he excels at is affective conversation and the interplay of ideas – the reader really viscerally feels for the characters, identifies with them. But his actual descriptions of things like the battle room or the actual battles with the Buggers are very sketchy.

I have met military sci-fi readers who really loved Ender’s Game but hated the sequels because “they were so different.” Yes, in one way they were very different – they weren’t about the struggles of a child in a military academy, about his “natural reactions to an unnatural situation.” And because the sequel Card wrote leaped forward to Ender as a grown man three thousand years in the future, readers felt a disconnctedness with the first, brilliant book.

But I also think they identified with Ender himself and his struggles, that they did not even realize how little of the military sci-fi there was in it at all. When I re-read it for perhaps the seventh time recently, AFTER I had started writing books myself, I realized what a lot of those guys missed – Card was setting them up for the Xenocide punchline. The clues were there, but most people miss them the first time through because of the powerful identification they have with Ender. They want Ender, and Humanity, to win! Woohoo, feel good about ourselves. But Card’s entire purpose was to deliver his punchline, that uncontrolled winning, the total destruction of an enemy, is almost as much a tragedy as losing.

For those of you who hate this reasoning, who want clean and satisfying victories, I suggest that you can have those clean and satisfying victories without xenocide, or genocide, or total destruction of your enemy.

For the Western world, World War II is a clear and simple example. We the Allies battered the Axis to its knees. We could have wiped them out with atomic weapons. Instead we turned them into our future allies. We retained the military and moral victories together and also reaped the economic benefits. All we gave up was a cheap self-indulgent sense of satisfaction – and the tragedy of continuing a slaughter of a defeated population.

Card gave Ender – and the reader – the satisfying military victory – then snatched the satisfaction away at the end in favor of a greater moral point. Extending a hand to a fallen enemy can be the greatest victory of all. But I think that’s why many military sci-fi readers end up feeling betrayed by Ender’s Game. I suggest to you it’s simply a case of mistaken identity. Card counterfeited a military sci-fi novel so well that the readers believe that’s what they are reading. But Ender’s game is no more a military novel than Les Miserables or War and Peace are really about the Napoleonic Wars.

It, and the original sequels, are about power and politics, about emotion and redemption and the complexity of family. They meander, sometimes chasing their own tails and bogging down in conversation, sometimes rising to excruciating heights of insight, laying pain so bare that as a reader I had no choice but to weep.

But at the end of the day, as much as I admire Card’s ability and enjoy those moments, I also would like to see, to have, more of the counterfeit, the illusion of Ender’s Game, with more cheap easy satisfying and morally clear victory and less anguish and angst. I admit it. I read for escape. I don’t reach for great literature to relax me. I’ve read it, and it educates me, but most of the time I’d rather read, and write, something…fun.

Leveling off

So I’ve been on a definite high since the promo and my sales started, but it didn’t help my writing. I started feeling pressure to get my next book out, and that actually caused a drop in production. I couldn’t get in that zone, kept getting distracted by the thoughts of sales, how I should market next, etc. Add that to some stress at work and then I started worrying about getting the next book done “on time.” But I had set my own deadline, and it was up to me to change it.

So after a certain amount of hemming and hawing with myself, and talking with my best friend, confidant and wife Beth (all those are the same person, although she says there are three of her in there), I just reset my own deadline. I told myself I didn’t need to do it fast, just well.

I immediately felt better and wrote more and better.

Combine that with getting some things off my plate at my day job and I am back on track. A bit over 27K done for “Reaper Plague” and I feel very comfortable now. Note to self- stop checking sales more than once a day. It’s just numbers.

On another, better note I got a nice 5-star review on Eden Plague from a new fan, Sharon. Hi Sharon! What surprises me – in a very good way – is that Sharon is well into middle age (I won’t give you the number she gave me out of respect for my elders) but when I was growing in the 70s up it was quite a surprise to see a woman writing science fiction or a girl reading it. In fact I had a huge crush on a girl named Valerie that I met in the sci-fi section of my local library. At 13 she was the first girl I’d ever talked to that was interested in “boy stuff.” I imagine it was even more so when Sharon was a child. And now she’s reading my books alongside the greats. What a pleasant shock to be here as an author, even though I have a long way to go. The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. Bless you ebooks, bless you Amazon for the Kindle.

 In any case since she was my first completely unrelated and unsolicited 5-star review, I sent her a copy of the second book, The Demon Plagues, for free. I hope she reviews that one as well, and I know she’ll be honest. Praise is like sugar, a little is nice but a lot makes you sick.

Water in the Desert

I can hardly believe it’s been barely five days since I did the promo (last weekend) and I have over 50 sales from it, aside from the free downloads. From the anectdotal information I have from other new authors, it appears the rough correlation is about 100 to 1: 100 free downloads generate something like 1 sale. Most of the sales were of Eden Plague (book 1) at $0.99. My theory is that some people who missed the freebie but still heard about the book through emails decided a look was worth 99 cents. But about 20% of the sales were of The Demon Plagues (Book 2) at $4.99. Because of the 70%/35% royalty break, a 99 cent book makes me 34 cents while a $4.99 book makes me something like 3.30, almost ten times as much. I also had 4 “borrows” which I believe will earn me something under 2 bucks each from the “KDP Select” program.

Note: The main tool I used to kick off my free promos was:

http://authormarketingclub.com/members/submit-your-book/

The Author Marketing Club brings together a lot of resources for marketing your book and most of it is free. Unlike some sites they don’t try to sell you a bazillion things for a lot of money. The site is a treasure.

More important than any money, which is negligible, is the encouragement and validation. It’s hard to keep banging away at a keyboard when there is no indication that anyone likes the book. You can’t trust your friends and family in this. Oh, I know, you should be able to, but there’s always that nagging feeling that they are just being nice. But total strangers should give you a good read on whether it’s actually any good.

I’m over 20K words on the last book. I hope to have it done by the end of August.

So this week has been like a cool sip of water in the desert – not fully satisfying but a tremendous boost. It makes me want more. I used to gamble and I will tell you, this is just like winning a bet but better, less transitory. It’s placing a bet on myself that can and I hope will pay off for a long time to come.

After the free-storm

So in the last blog I told you I’d talk about what happened over this weekend when I free promo’d my first novel The Eden Plague.

http://www.amazon.com/Eden-Plague-Wars-Volume-ebook/dp/B008EMKJ6Q/

The Good: I got almost 3000 downloads in two days, which to date have generated ten sales of either The Eden Plague or the sequel, The Demon Plagues. I priced Eden Plague at 99 cents following the free promo, figuring there would be a certain number of people who would go to get it free but be late – but for $0.99 they’d get it anyway. All sales are good sales, the miniscule amout of money aside. Right now I am trying to build exposure. I have hopes that as some of those 3000 people actually read the book, they will review it (hopefully favorably), and some recommend it to friends. Some will then go on to buy the sequel for full price ($4.99). I believe some will, as it’s a longer books and I believe it unlikely that, say, a $2.99 price would garner more sales than $4.99. As a reader, if I want to read a sequel, and I can afford it, a couple of bucks won’t deter me.

It started slow on Saturday morning. By Saturday evening late I had about 400 downloads. It really went fast on Sunday starting in the afternoon. I have heard the second day builds on the first; also, perhaps Sunday is the day people tend to be more relaxed, at home, or preparing for their upcoming work weeks by scooping up some new reads. In any case, this iteration was much better than my first try in June, which was 400 downloads in two days, but I did not do any advertising then. At the top I almost broke into the top 100 overall and was #36 in Thrillers. Next time I plan on doing a 3-5 day promo (when the book becomes eligible on Select, around the end of September) and using the knowledge I gained (below) from this time, but I’ll list in under science fiction. While the first book is arguably a techno-thriller, the seconds book moves firmly into the realm of sci-fi so it may do better there. I’ve heard that thrillers have a bigger market but is it better to have a bigger market for a first book or a smaller less crowded market?

The Bad: My strategy to get the downloads and attention was to hit as many sites for free-e-book promos as possible on the same days, 25-26 August. I think I signed up for about 15 sites. However, on the day of, several sites did not seem to be displaying or carrying it. I am not sure if this was because I did not give them enough time (5 days), somehow input the information incorrectly, or there was an unknown problem.  A couple of the sites required a certain number of reviews, and I met the requirements of all but one. Some of them were not automated but rather talked about “if we choose to feature” so maybe I just didn’t meet the criteria. A few of them charged nominal fees – $2 – $5 – to guarantee the front or top listing, which I gladly paid. However, I had also run across another ten or so sites between the cutoff time and the days of, and I am going to put together a tight listing of all the sites along with their quirks, requirements, and anything else I observed. One site had to be posted the day-of, so I waited until after midnight and clicked “submit”, and it worked just fine.

The Ugly: There wasn’t really any ugly yet. No bad reviews, no real disappointments except for the sites where it did not show up. I had higher hopes but this sure wasn’t bad. I’m committed to KDP Select and seeing if this model will work. Worst case, I can always pull later, it’s a 90-day-at-a-time commitment.

Here’s an interesting article my wife ran across.

http://finance.yahoo.com/news/best-book-reviews-money-buy-131408538.html?page=2

My emotions about this are mixed – kind of like Captain Jack Aubrey said in Patrick O’Brian’s sea-adventure books, about corruption: something to the effect that corruption is always bad, except when it allowed him to get his ship serviced and supplied ahead of others and complete his mission; then it was necessary, even good. I found myself decrying the “review inflation” while simultaneously being tempted to pay the guy myself. That’s what it is to be an author, I believe, or any other creator/businessman. If you put your whole heart and soul into something, it seems worth some extra money to get ahead. I imagine this is the same feeling that tempts people to bribe government officials, cheat at sports or on their taxes, and otherwise do bad things for “good reasons.” It’s an interesting emotional rollercoaster, this writing thing. And in the new wild west of self-publishing e-books, the whole key is to get noticed and generate buzz, to rise above the pack. Good writing will not get the job done; there are a bazillion good writers out there. Bad writing, I hope, will help clear the field, but once you can write competently and tell a good story, a lot of it is about building a brand, building a following.

I’ll keep you all posted.

-Dave

My Second book, The Demon Plagues, Going Live

Yes, the title is self-explanatory but there is so much more to it.

It’s been a wild ride for me these last few months. I am morphing from a muggle into an author – or something like that. Seriously, authorship is making magic. It’s like learning one is a wizard. But like ol’ HP, there’s a lot of work and learning to be done, and I’m still a Freshman.

The Eden Plague, my first book, had a few hundred free downloads and sales in the teens. I’m scheduling a free-book promo this weekend and a media blitz on the cheap, using Author Marketing Club http://authormarketingclub.com/members/submit-your-book/ which is a nice conflative site to start from. It gives you ten or fifteen places to go to announce your free promo. My friend and fellow author Ryan King http://www.amazon.com/Ryan-King/e/B0070D7BFW/ had a lot of success with this recently, with his short story “The Burden” vaulting well into the top 100 and receiving thousands of downloads. He saw the sales of the story itself and his other stories jump right afterward from the tens of sales, into the hundreds. So I have high hopes for this strategy. I’ll blog afterward and tell everyone how it went. My hopes are that giving away The Eden Plague will induce people to purchase The Demon Plagues, Book 2.

I am working on book three right now, working title “The Final Plague.” I have about 10K words written and I am confident I will finish it quickly and painlessly; my story line is well-mapped in my mind, and for me, that’s a license to write!

 

 

The Value of Writing Groups

I’ve been to a few writing groups. If you’re a writer you probably have too. If you’re a very new writer, maybe you haven’t. Sometime, considering the web and resources like Meetup.com, webgroups, or old-fashioned networking, you will probably find your way to one.

Some groups are structured, and are run with discipline, more like classes. An organizer or facilitator may give out assignments to do on the spot or to bring back later; he or she may teach about certain aspects of writing. If you’ve never been to a creative writing class or if you like this type of structure, this may be for you. I’d say every aspiring writer should hit at least one of these groups. The downside is that you may end up eternally in student mode, ever believing that you have something more to learn before you can “be an author.”

Poppycock. Move on from that as soon as the learning curve flattens. Start creating.

Other groups, “read and critique” groups, are much more useful. These tend to have a mix of excellent to poor writers. By attending and reading your own work and critiquing others, you will get a rough but fair idea of where you fall on this scale of competence and creativity.

If everyone is applauding your work and no one has any pertinent critique, move on. Find another group. Unless your goal is accolades without improvement, you need to find a group that includes some people who are better than you are, and are willing to tell you how to get better. No one, from athletes to rock musicians, gets better at their art and craft without experts and good examples and role models and inspirations above them. Praise is like sugar, you only need a little before it’s too much and will make you sick – and you may not even notice it. Seek critique from those sadistic bastards that will whip your prose into shape.

If you find you fall into the middle or even the bottom of the group you are with, praise the writing gods and stay with that group and listen. Listen and learn. Write down what everyone says about your work and keep your mouth shut. Try never to defend your work – you may explain it, sparingly, but if you want critique, don’t fight back. If you think the critic is an idiot, smile politely and move on. Feel free to ignore all critique in your heart of hearts and your little writing room, but smile on the outside. And if you keep hearing the same things over and over – for example you feel it is artistic to start every sentence with a conjunction, but you are universally condemned – consider the fact that the critics may be right. Steinbeck or Hemingway or Zelazny or Stephen King may do all sorts of unusual style-bending things and get away with them, but you aren’t there yet. If you were, you’d be going to that group I talked about above, where everyone is applauding you.

If you find yourself, blessed be, in a group where everyone is good and they are at least as good as you are, who will praise your good pieces and kindly rip your bad ones to shreds – you have something special. Grip that group with your grubbies and go. Go forth and do, go forth and write, with the knowledge that you are where you need to be, for as long as you need to be there. Soak up knowledge and sweat it out for their benefit and bask in that rich sauna of creativity.

But never substitute groups for writing. If you find yourself writing to please the group instead of yourself, or not writing at all, you are going to too many groups or sessions, move on. If the group becomes your social club and not writing-focused, move on. If you feel like you have learned everything you can, move on.

Maybe you won’t be able to move on physically, but you may move on mentally and emotionally. Perhaps you will become a mentor to others in the group but stop seeking critique. If you happen to have risen above them, you will have to decide what your role should be. But don’t let any group, no matter how loved, interfere with your writing. Because if you are a writer, that wants to be an author, that’s what it’s about. It’s about what you publish, what people read, what your body of work is, and what legacy you will leave when you are gone.

Live to write. Write to live.

 

 

 

Here’s an awesome blog – far better than mine I freely admit – from a mad reader/writer friend of mine.

Nothing New Under the Sun

What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun. – Ecclesiates 1:9

Though those of you with a new iPad might disagree, King Solomon wrote those words so long ago thinking not of technology but of humanity. Fiction is about humanity; even fiction about animals or aliens is ultimately about humanity at some remove. And with humanity, there really is nothing new under the sun.

That used to depress me; it used to make me feel like I had nothing to contribute. Everything had been done, everything had been written, so why bother? But this insight contradicted what I felt; and what I felt was that I had unique things to say, I had unique stories to tell.

So how could they be unique? Not in their basic ideas, their basic tropes. I’d venture that almost every piece of fiction I ever read was 90% or more derivative. So what’s new, different, and unique about my stories, or any other author’s? It’s nearly always in the execution, in the rearrangement of characters, situations, settings, plot, not in their basic material. Until I put pen to paper, there never was a Franco Lucius, a DJ Markis, a Jill Repeth. Before Ayn Rand wrote Atlas Shrugged, there never was a Dagny Taggart. Before Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol, there never was a Scrooge and, incidentally, an eponymous term for a miser. Before Rowling wrote Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, there was no Harry Potter.

Yet all these works are hugely derivative, mine included. They are stitched together in the authors’ minds out of pieces of their own first- or second-hand experience, . If any author lets herself get stopped by derivativeness of her own work, even something so blatant as Terry Brooks’ Shannara series (very derivative of Tolkien) then none of us would ever publish.

Because truthfully the reading public does not want complete originality. Complete originality generally does not sell, at least not right away. The public will buy Andy Warhol paintings of Marilyn Monroe and soup cans before Picasso’s cubism.

Vince Gilligan, the creator of Breaking Bad, relates in a recent Newsweek column how when he came up with this “totally original” idea for the show, his main pitch to the studio was brought short up when one of the executives asked him, “Doesn’t this sound like Weeds?” Breaking Bad would be about an ordinary middle-class guy who goes off the rails when he discovers he has lung cancer, deciding he’s going to be a methamphetamine dealer. Weeds, already in production, was about a middle-class woman who discovers she has cancer and decides to deal marijuana. Still, the studio thought it was different enough that they backed it and the rest is years of television history.

So when I finally decided to act on my latent desire to be an author, I decided to stop fretting about whether I had an original idea in my head. I figured I’d just write what I wanted to, write the kind of thing I’d want to read, write what I thought others would want to read – and quit worrying. Don’t let anything get in my way. You know what? My stories do have original ideas in them here and there, that came naturally out of the creative process, but I didn’t try to come up with it before I started. If i had, I think I’d have never written a word.

And that’s my bit of free advice for today, worth exactly what you paid for it. Don’t let worrying about your derivativeness get in your way.