Monday, May 25, 2015

Experiencing controversial things

Last summer I was getting out of my old habits and experiencing electronic music on a brand new level. It led me to some insights on how humans achieve transcendent states without chemical assistance, and I saw parallels between two-day EDM festivals and the vision-inducing rigors that ancient hermits inflicted on themselves.

Let's take that in a different direction. If you haven't heard it yet, any author who wants to write about guns ought to take an opportunity to handle them in person. I recently spent a weekend with the Appleseed program, a .22 rifle, and some paper silhouettes.

I don't have any interest in guns outside of their practical details. The Second Amendment is not something I'm interested in arguing about in this blog. However, guns exist, they are tools which can be used for good or for evil, and personal experience will always give one more insights than reading somebody else's account of a thing.

I spent sixteen hours, over two days, loading magazines, making my rifle safe, and shooting at increasingly small silhouettes on paper. A .22 has very little kick, but a sore spot developed on my right collarbone. I've never been so glad that Cobra Pose in yoga comes easily to me, or that I've learned to hold a position for a long time while breathing slowly and steadily.

There were frustrations. I couldn't get a cheek weld with the stock. None of the seated firing positions work for me. My eye had a lot of trouble focusing on the targets. Actually, you're not supposed to --you focus on the front sight -- but it meant I was firing all but blind sometimes.

For some, shooting is about becoming absolutely still, like a statue. Stillness is absolutely a part of it, I agree, but aiming is also about knowing the rhythms of your own breath and muscles. I was finding the right moment in the natural movement of my gun's sights to strike.

There's an instinct there. Humans are predators, after all.

Guns can be controversial, more so than EDM festivals... and there are more controversial, unorthodox or outrightly dangerous experiences one can have than firing a rifle. We can't go out and try everything that might give us a completely accurate picture of what our characters experience (I've never experienced zero gravity, though if I had the chance I'd jump at it) but if it can be done safely then I don't see why a writer shouldn't.

Safely, ethically, legally, that is. If I were writing Dexter I wouldn't take up serial killing.

Have you done something new just for research purposes?

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Structure in paranormal thrillers

I went looking for a decent monster movie.

That's a tall order, unfortunately. A lot of monster movies are action- and horror-formula killfests with precious little introspection. To make matters worse, I didn't want alien monsters or scientifically created monsters. I wanted magical ones. Cryptozoology, if you prefer. Which shortened the list even further.

I wanted something to prod me into thinking about how people react when confronted with something they've long believed was mythical. Aside from reaching for a weapon, that is.

Out of necessity, I started moving toward what might be more accurately called paranormal thrillers. They were more thoughtful and more focused on the characters. I also started to notice structural similarities.
  1. Gadgetry & denial: The main character arrives in a state of denial. Science is called in to explain the initial situation. Gadgets are deployed, tech-speak is thrown around, and surely science will save the day. 
  2. Facile solution: Spooky things happen. A rational answer is found. The question seems to be resolved. We're done here, right?
  3. The hook: No, we're not done. Something inexplicable happens that touches on the character's tragic past. More on this later.
  4. Confrontation/Acceptance: Science and logic are abandoned. The main character starts reacting emotionally and/or intuitively, and the paranormal reveals itself. As a result, the character relives the past trauma and changes internally.
  5. Fallout: Objective reached, the paranormal withdraws or is conquered. The main character has to deal with the emotional and practical consequences. 
Best of the three, IMO
The one thing I particularly noticed about the three pretty-good paranormal thrillers that I watched -- The Awakening, The Mothman Prophecies, and Oculus -- is that the main character in each is wrestling with the death of a loved one(s). Central to the paranormal revelation is the ending of the grieving process in which the character has been "stuck" for however long.

Interesting that being touched by death seems to be a prerequisite for being able to properly confront the paranormal. Having to face our helplessness against death preps us, perhaps, to face something else that's outside our control and understanding: the paranormal. Something which science can only do so much to stop. So in a way, stories about the paranormal are be stories about helplessness... which can be terrifying.

Naturally, having seen a pattern in these stories, I want to mess with the pattern. My character has already faced the death of a loved one (this is a sequel story) so he already partly fits the mold. I had not thought about this story in terms of his grieving process, though.

So maybe I succeeded in prodding my brain despite the deck being stacked with awful B-movie fodder.

Seen any good paranormal thrillers recently?

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Real world sales numbers, part 4

It's time for my twice-yearly update on self-publishing sales numbers by those of us who don't shoot into the stratosphere of popularity! Last time, the lingering questions were how will my novella with Dreamspinner impact sales and how will finishing my fantasy series impact sales?

The final part (#6) of Disciple went on sale in March, quickly followed by the Omnibus which collects the whole thing into one nice doorstop. I ordered a paperback copy of that just to have it on my shelf. :)

Hawks & Rams went on sale December 31, 2014, and I have gotten two royalty reports from Dreamspinner since then.

Let's see how the sales graphs are looking:

Sales by title, per month
Total sales, per month

  • Date range: October 2012 - April 2015. 
  • H&R sales are reported quarterly, so to avoid a huge spike I divided them evenly over the three months of the quarter.

Last time I posted, I had just had an October of zero sales. As you can see, they've bounced back well. The trend (red line in the bottom graph) is definitely upwards. March was my best sales month ever. H&R's sales have definitely made a difference so far.

One question I had as a self-publisher was how a small press would compare to my own efforts.
Sales by retailer
As you can see, despite the big spike in Amazon sales when I dropped both Disciple, Part VI and the Omnibus, Dreamspinner has been an excellent sales channel. 

So am I making a living yet? Well, let me put it this way: in 2013, I earned about $207 from my book sales. In 2014, I earned about $305. 50% higher! 

Is that awful? Well, in 2012, half of self-publishers were earning less than $500 a year. It's hard to say what that number is these days -- there's a lot of sketchy information about self-publishing out there. 

I don't mean for this to be discouraging if you're thinking about self-publishing. I'm just trying to show you that when we say it's hard, slow, and difficult, we aren't kidding. How would my numbers be different if I published four books a year? Ten? (I can't write that fast, it's not physically possible. But some people do.) What if I was writing in a hotter category than epic/gritty fantasy?

Who knows. Your self-publishing story will be different, I know that for certain.

Got questions? Feel free to ask.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Finally free of the WIP...

I finally finished my WIP. I've been working on it since October, so it's taken me the better part of five months to write this thing. That's unusual for me. It's called Airborne at the moment and it involves a new cast of characters, a new universe, tackles new genres (for me) and wanted to be told from a new POV (for me).

Having said that, maybe five months isn't so bad after all.

"Omniscient" POV
I posted a sample scene from Airborne and got a little feedback on it. One of the aspects pointed out to me was that the POV is omniscient. The critiquer mentioned that omni needs to be done "really, really well" to work and didn't care for it in this sample.

OK, she didn't like my omni voice. That's fine. What nagged at me was that is has to be done "really, really well" -- for some reason, I've heard this un-useful bit of advice a thousand times -- and avoided like the plague otherwise.

How in the heck are you supposed to learn to write omniscient if you "can't" unless it's "really, really good"...? We all need to practice. We all need training wheels. And it's not like you have to sound like a 19th-century author if you're going to use an omniscient POV. What does 21st-century omniscience sound like anyways? (I'm willing to bet it sounds like social media.)

I have shelves of "how-to-write" books just like anyone else, though I'll admit I haven't cracked one open in years. The questions of what omniscient is and how it's done is sending be back to the shelves. Should I have done that before I wrote Airborne? No, I don't think so. Better to revise a shitty first draft than to analyze yourself into paralysis before writing it.

The critiquer also pointed out that I billed Airborne as an "urban fantasy medical thriller" but there's nothing medical or thrilling going on in the scene. True. Guilty. But it is urban fantasy, at least. I'm fairly sure I got that part of the novel right though the rest is open to debate.

To be honest, I'm not entirely sure where this scene should go in the story but it does need to be somewhere near the front.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Promotions, or Why Self-Pubbing is Such a Slog

So I'm finishing my Disciple series (yay! woohoo!) after two years of hard work and I want to make some noise about it. Like most other self-publishers, I've arranged many a blog tour myself over the years and this time I thought you know, I've got a little cash and it would be nice if someone else could do the work and get me into some new blogs.

Because let's face it: if we're all just posting on each other's blogs all the time that makes for an incestuous little neighborhood. How many fresh eyeballs really get in here?

So I Googled. I found a list of "book blog tours that accept self-publishers". Bearing in mind how unimpressed I was by the blog tour I purchased waaaaay back when I published Disciple, Part I, I set about vetting some blog tour services.

How do you "vet" a tour service?
Step 1: Get a fresh drink, this is going to take a while.

Sample blog tour page
Step 2: Tour services will list current and past tours on their websites. Click on some and try to find a book that's similar to yours in some way. Scroll down to the list of tour stops and start opening the hosts in new tabs.

Step 3: Try to answer these basic questions about the host site

  • How long has this site been active? (does it have a substantial archive?) 
  • How active is it? (how old is the top post, how many posts per month?)
  • Does it have followers? (check sidebar for listings) 
  • You'll probably see blog awards -- a lot of these are given by friends to friends and don't mean anything. You may also see a list of tour services that this blog is a host for. Those are worth noting.

Step 4: More advanced questions

  • Click on their Twitter and see how many followers they have. This is a judgement call, but I consider anything under 500 to be useless. 
  • Do they tweet about books? Sounds like a no-brainer, but some of these are spam mills.
  • Likewise for Facebook. How many friends? What do they post there?
  • Do they post reviews to Goodreads? Amazon? 

Work your way through six or eight blog stops and see how many of them look genuinely worthwhile vs. just another dark corner of the internet.

You're being mean!
What right to I have to dismiss small blogs, given how tiny my own blog is? Look, I've been doing this for years and I know how tough it is to run a blog. I know that real people live in small blogs and they work hard and love books too. But we're talking about advertising here and advertising is a numbers game.

I want to maximize my chances to get eyeballs per dollar spent -- because no, there's no guarantee that any dollar spent will get me any eyeballs (let alone a purchase.) The hard truth of advertising, especially when you're a small fish, is that there's no guarantee it will get you results.

But that doesn't mean I'm just going to throw my money away. I'm going to choose my gambles as wisely as I can.

Does this page offer promotions on its own?
Some of them do. See if there's a tab for reviews, promotions, or running ads on the blog. If there is, more questions:

  • What size ads? How much per month? Where exactly will it be posted? (I ask this because so many people browse from phones now. You don't see sidebars on phone browsers -- but they might see a banner.)
  • This is important: do they give any site statistics? Most importantly, how many unique visitors per day/week/month? (FB friends, Twitter followers, etc., don't matter here. Your ad isn't going to appear there.) 
  • Can you buy a review? If you've been doing this long, you know how risky that is.
  • Are they spammers? One site I saw bragged that my book would be promoted every 2 hours through all social networking channels. No thanks! 

Overall, you could save some money and target your advertising more precisely by promoting at individual sites rather than buying a blog tour.

What's the verdict? 
Jury is still out. I've gleaned out a couple sites that I might target individually, but so far the overall tours are still only looking marginally useful. Better than nothing? Maybe. We'll see.

What's your experience with blog tours been?

Thursday, January 8, 2015

"I stand with Charlie Hebdo, as we all must"

Feel free to grab this image and use it 

I don't particularly like Salman Rushdie. I haven't been a fan of crude, crass satire since I outgrew MAD magazine. But there's tremendous danger in keeping silent just because you aren't the immediate target.

Censorship is one of those things that can creep in on little cat feet. The nasty, rude, and badly written stuff on the fringes is easy to object to. It offends just about everybody. So it's easy to tell them to shut up, go away, you're just cluttering up the landscape.

Then the questions start about whether the better written satires are in poor taste. Whether offending anybody, or the chance of offending anybody, is a bad idea. Whether those offended people have guns and might kick in your door.

Jihadists? Maybe. Or maybe it will be governmentally sanctioned door-kickers.

Censorship is alive and well in the United States, of course. I first became aware of it as a comic book fan through the work of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund -- why does such a thing even need to exist? Because the fringe stuff in the comic book world is nasty, rude, badly written, and offends just about everybody.

Does it have a right to exist? Absolutely. Should the creators be called out on their rudeness, use of awful stereotypes, misogyny, and bad writing? Absolutely.

And on a more personal note, I've been mildly censored myself. Self-publishers may remember the purge of incest, under-age, and other fringe pornography from the ebook shelves a year or two ago. In the midst of all that, quietly threw my Disciple, Part II out of their store and blocked it. They never said why. I can guess, but why bother? I took all of Disciple out of Kobo and I won't do any further business with them.

Fortunately, I can do business elsewhere. But as I said, censorship can creep in quietly. It doesn't take masked thugs with guns.

Just some thoughts. What have the Charlie Hebdo shootings made you think about?

ETA: the CBLDF is brave enough to post the images -- bless them.

Friday, January 2, 2015

The case of elusive mojo

And so this is the closing of 2014. It's been a good year for me on the whole, but there are parts I'm not wanting to repeat.

It's said many times, many ways: a writer must write. I've blogged about how important a writing habit is, whether daily or weekly. 2014 reinforced the truth of that for me.

My daily word counts get tweeted and I track my progress in the sidebar of my blog. Down at the bottom you can see word counts from previous years. My peak year was 2012. I blamed the drop-off in 2013 on time lost to self-publishing and promotions.

This year I simply fell off the bandwagon. Yeah, I can blame personal drama and late editors but it comes down to: I didn't write. As a result, I didn't even break 100,000 words this year.

(ducks thrown tomatoes)

Everybody's different. I wrote 95,800 words in 2014 and for me that's discouraging. A project that felt like a major undertaking was stillborn. I spent too much time waiting for things.

On the up side, I self-published two volumes of Disciple and sold Hawks & Rams. I did finish the story I was writing at the beginning of 2014 -- Callisto's Ghost -- and my current WIP has surprised me.

Will 2015 be better? worse? I have to wonder whether I am in a slump or if the years that I was writing Disciple were unnaturally fertile. That sort of question does not have an answer, since I will never be the person I was in 2012 again (if I have anything to say about it.) Whoever I am now, I need to work on my writing discipline as much as I ever did.

My old word counts still stand as proof to how much you can get done plugging away with less than a thousand words a day. That's right, even at my best the daily average works out to less than you'd think. Less than it takes to win NaNoWriMo.
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