Don’t Be Jealous

The next person who tells me to “just keep writing” is going to get a punch in the nose. Okay, maybe that’s a little extreme. Okay, not “maybe,” it is extreme. So don’t worry, I probably won’t punch you if you tell me to keep at what I’m already doing. But here’s the deal, friends. Since setting out on this path last Summer, all official-like, with the intent to make a go of writing as a career, I have written. I have written when I felt sick. I have written when I was tired. I have written, written, written. I have written from odd locations and under unusual circumstances. I have written. And, as a result of all this writing, I’ve got a pile of words. Some of which I have even edited, packaged, and am trying to sell.

Writing (and reading) are what I do. I take care of chores around the house so I can write. I take advantage of opportunities when my son can go play with kids his age in order to write. I move my calendar around, ask for help from friends and relatives, and re-prioritize my finances all so I can write. I’m writing plenty and I will continue to write.

What I’m discovering is that, just like any other small sole proprietorship (save dealing crystal meth), getting this thing off the ground is a lot of hard work and, more importantly, disappointment. And despite constantly stoking the fire of my small business it feels much like I’m blowing on punky, damp wood. I am trying to understand what I am doing wrong, but honestly, this thing sometimes feels a lot like failure.

Being an Indie is Hard, Really Hard

Society has stacked the cards against self-publishing authors. It is possible that you all have way too much to do, too much taking up your time. A friend posted this image on Facebook today and it illustrates at least in part what mean.

As I got closer to getting “The Big Red Buckle” ready for publication I started to think seriously about the many ways I might get the book into the hands of readers. This blog went through an iterative remapping process (still underway), I re-worked my trail running pages into author pages, and started pouring the foundation of my social media presence as an author. I researched different methods of getting my pages to market, considering the pros and cons of a handful of services. I pulled money from savings to finance imprints and editing.

And I guessed that of the 515 friends I have on Facebook I might expect at least 5% of you guys to say “Oh hey, look what Matt did this time. I might try his book just so I have something to tease him about.” So far 2% of you have earned that leverage.

Come on nerds, if a bowl can get 50k likes why can't my book get 100?

Come on nerds, if a bowl can get 50k likes why can’t my book get 100?

But I understand. I get up in the morning and crawl toward the coffee pot, too. I write to you today at the foot of a mountain of laundry — washed, dried, and folded waiting to be carted off and put away — there are so many thing to be done. So I am eternally thankful to the 2% of you who have bothered to put off your favorite re-run episode of “Breaking Bad” on Netflix in order to spend an evening with my book.

But this next part is for those of you who have expressed interest in this path. If you’re not up for the disappointment of staring day after day at sales numbers that never move, don’t envy me. Not even a little bit. If you’re not interested in trying to find out what will hook people in general, let alone your friends and family, by experiencing failure after attempted failure, then this is not the life for you.

Closed Doors

One of the things I’m discovering about indie publishing is that while some doors have been removed there are a lot of closed doors out there still. While the old game of submitting your work to publishers who will only accept something if you’re a “good bet” is a thing of the past, my experience is teaching me that readers may not accept your work. What this means to you as the writer, and the sole risk taker in your own little enterprise, is that the door just got moved. It is still there. The reading public just controls the knob now. And this means that you’re competing with all sorts of entertainments and distractions, head to head, for their attention. The question, “how am I going to get them to open my door?” keeps popping up.

Then there is the traditional publishing segment of the market. This part of the publishing world has its own institutional inertia. While there are cracks in this particular door it still presents a significant barrier to the self-published author.

For instance, North America’s premier genre guild Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America won’t even consider you unless you meet their bar of selling some number of pieces to a select list of traditional publishers.

“To become an Active member of SFWA, applicants must demonstrate either:

  • Three Paid Sales of prose fiction (such as short stories) to Qualifying Professional Markets, with each paid at the rate of 5¢/word or higher (3¢/word before 1/1/2004), for a cumulative total of $250, minimum $50 apiece; or
  • One Paid Sale of a prose fiction book to a Qualifying Professional Market, for which the author has been paid $2000 or more; or
  • One professionally produced full length dramatic script, with credits acceptable to the Membership Committee.”

And, as if often the case, even other authors may exclude indie authors from consideration. As an example, John Scalzi (who I am a big fan of) has been reviewing and promoting other’s fiction via his blog feature “Big Idea“. He only does this if you sell your book traditionally or if you happen to already be a super successful Indie.

“Works must be published by a third party, i.e., not self-published (Amazon Digital Services, Smashwords, et al are distribution platforms, not publishers in the usual sense). This third party publisher must publish more than one author, must have an editorial staff that is not comprised of the author or their immediate family, and have a Web site which includes its current author slate and immediate release schedule.

“In very rare cases self-published work by authors with substantial, successful previous publishing history will be considered.”

In some small way I can understand why SFWA and Scalzi might not want to deal with the zombie hoards of self-published “authors” out there. Quite often I feel that my book, and my voice, are completely drowned out in a sea of other writers all grasping for “brainssssss” of readers. And I’d hate to be on the receiving end of that fire hose of submissions and requests myself. But it’s a door, a closed one, nonetheless, and it makes life out here in the zombie wilds just that much more difficult.

Incidentally, while I’m not eligible to be a SFWA member my work can still be nominated for the Nebula by members in good standing. As a quick aside, if you’re a SFWA member who would like a copy of “The Big Red Buckle” before February 15th, my email is right here.

The Final Issue

Sometimes, what you must necessarily do and say as an Indie feels a whole lot like panhandling. Really, it does. I find myself swallowing my pride very often lately. Begging for reviews. Or just your spare change.

This is an uncomfortable sensation. I deal with it the best way I can, which is often to write more. Usually with a scowl on my face and potentially a chip on my shoulder. But I like to write so eventually the scowl melts away and the chip falls off.

If you have considered writing for a living and you cannot humiliate yourself to close the deal on a $0.99 ebook than this is not the right career path for you. Also, don’t judge me.

Conclusion

Last Wednesday, while I was sitting at a table typing up a storm at the Rec Center, a lady sitting on the couch in the lobby across from me asked a couple of questions. She was being polite and nice, initially all she wanted to know about was the bluetooth keyboard I use with my iPad. It turns out that her Mother, in her eighties if I recall correctly, loves to write and so, as these sorts of conversations go, we ended up chatting about independent publishing.

Since then the topic has been riding me hard. I’ve even been a little grouchy about the current state of my book and ever so reluctant to keep writing more “sports in space” if “no one is ever going to be interested in the topic” (boo hoo for me). Maybe I should focus on teenage vampires or zombie crushing monster truck kids? But for me, that sort of writing would not be very much fun. It is not what I like to read and it is not what I will write (although monster trucks in a zombie story, I mean, why hasn’t this been done?).

I’m about 30% done with “Up Slope“, as of last night, so it is entirely possible that my Fat-Bike, sci-fi, action adventure will be pressed by April. By that measure, I feel like I am an instant success. In a very short period of time I have completely changed how I live my life, and how I write (from technical documentation and project planning to science fiction). It is not a hobby or pastime. And I’m producing a book about every quarter.

Sales, I know, will come with time, and exposure, and with all the help that you guys will lavish on me. If you haven’t already bought my book, maybe some day you will. That is a fairly heartening thought. Something to look forward to.

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Self Publication Mistakes

There exists a very gray space for “indie” authors. Acting as your own advocate, you must find the sweet spot between advertising your book and bothering your potential readers. I have spent a great deal of time recently watching other “indie” authors in a variety of locations to get a better idea of how to find this balance while expanding readership. Here are some observations I’ve made along the way. What works and what crosses over that line.

Misleading Key Word or Hashtag

I learned my lesson about this one a while ago. I wrote a blog post during the hight of my seizure period in which I complained about “A Fucking Wall of Secretaries” in which I complained about running into officious bureaucrats and busybodies that were universally in my way while I struggled to find help, a diagnosis, and even (a hope in vain) a cure. In 2012, it was the single most searched on post of mine, but not because the rest of the world was running into a similar wall of phone-answering boobs. Rather, some of you watch porn and you search on the terms “Fucking” and “Secretaries” … a lot.

I’ve noticed that there are a number of “indies” out there seeking to capitalize on this phenomenon. About once a day I see this one.

The problem with this strategy is that if you happen to attract Anthony Weiner with this bait, he is unlikely to actually bite your hook. You won’t sell any books to someone searching for “#sex” unless you happen to write erotic graphic novels.

One Book Wonder

In a recent industry guide I picked up, “Write, Publish, Repeat“, the authors, Sean and Johnny, spend the better part of a chapter building an illustrative narrative about anyone’s experience going into an old fashioned book store (the kind with walls and shelves). Within the narrative, they describe the several layers of book marketing that happen for someone searching for their next read. You walk through the door and there will be some choices, usually best sellers, sitting on a table right in your path. They are there because someone, the publishers and their authors, want you to see those first.

Maybe there’s nothing there for you, so you wander over to your favorite section. Genre fiction. Along the shelves you’ll notice that there are a few books with their covers out, but most are only spine out. Maybe you’re interested in a particular author so you side-step down the aisle. Maybe you’re looking for the next in a particular saga. However, in this “indie” marketing mistake, none of that matters because you’re actually experiencing a hallucination. The hallucination is an after effect of the book some overzealous author fired from a cannon at your head when you first got out of your car in the parking lot of your favorite Barnes & Noble.

Yep, there are people out there that write. And then, once the writing is done, they try to sell the crap out of that book. They load it up in their social media shot guns, yell “pull” at the top of their lungs, close their eyes, and pull the trigger. Over and over and over again.

And frankly this sort of self-promotion is annoying. Regardless of the quality or price of your book, the only thing it does is turn people off. It is like trying to attract flies with highly concentrated sulfuric acid or win friends by punching strangers square in the mouth.

And of course I see “indie” authors making this mistake on Twitter all the time too. It has gotten to the point that as I scroll my feed I simply blank them out, already knowing what they’re going to say. I know, when you are the only one at the helm of your little writing and publication company, it can be very tempting to imagine that the aggressive sell might work. You know your book is *that* awesome, if everyone would just cough up the equivalent of half a cup of coffee they too could know the wonders of your imagination.

But folks — and I’m reminding myself right here, right now — if you want your reader’s love and affection, you’ve got to take your time. You’ve got to seduce them. You’ve got to romance them in 140 characters or less. You gotta, gotta, gotta show a lil tenderness. Just try, try a little tenderness, yeah yeah yeah.

Indifference

So you have worked hard. You have written your book or your trilogy or whatever. And you have enough in the way of connections and leverage that as soon as your magnum opus hits the shelves, you have already hit several best seller lists and you’re making plans to attend “WorldCon Where Ever” because there will be a little metal rocket waiting for you when you arrive. And hey, good on ya! Because that sort of fairy tale actually happens so infrequently that it is phenomenal if only for its rarity.

But maybe your modicum of success goes to your head. Maybe you never were a very nice or considerate person in the first place. Or perhaps you are too privileged to recognize what a good thing you have. It is a rare thing when authors actively scare away their fans à la Orson Scott Card style. Most of us will just lose our enthusiasts because we simply fail to recognize that they exist.

This marketing failure is best illustrated by its negative. There are a few very notable examples of what I mean. Near the top of that list are folks like Hugh Howey and John Scalzi. These guys both have earned enviable positions within the publishing world. Yet, both of them have a well oiled socialization mechanism that does two things for them.

First, it keeps them human. Your fans really like to know that you do the same things that they do every day. If they’re like me, if they aspire to your level of success within this business, they’ll want to know the details of each little fuck up or struggle. And you can tell them about these things via your blog, or Twitter, or whatever. They’ll listen.

But with guys like this, who annually receive millions of hits on their sites, it is unlikely you’ll ever get a reply email. Yet it still happens. Even these guys at the top of the game will take a moment to listen to their fans, to their followers. And I think, in some way, they gain something from this interaction, although I suppose no one really expects anything from them.

But then there are guys like Tobias Buckell, Jay Lake, and Michael Bunker who are all working very hard at their craft, but who have more nominations than awards. These three examples have built a large and flourishing fan base, but routinely find time to reply to their email, hold twitter conversations with strangers, and are quick to provide a word of encouragement or even publicly acknowledge someone else’s work. That my friends is the stuff of greatness.

Incidentally, if I didn’t mention you here, please don’t take it personally. It is New Year’s Eve and I have had a couple glasses of wine, so much of this is simply coming off the top. I know these authors perhaps better than others (because I’m a fan) and so its easy for me to talk up, not only their work, but also their contributions to other writers. This message is for those of you who *DO* acknowledge their readers, keep up the good work.

Finally, if you’re reading this and wondering “Where are all my readers going/gone?” then you may be illustrating the consequences of not taking care of your readers. Think back: have you ignored someone because it just seemed like too much time or effort to respond? Get followed on Twitter, but refuse to follow back? How about your blog? Do you have followers that you refuse to read? They are all little slights, but even well beyond high school ignoring someone who is just trying to, at the very least, be friendly with you is a fine way to create a foe. They wont forget the slight.

Conclusion

Yes, here is the resolution part. Having thought about these things, in apparently great detail, I also resolve to do my best to remember them. The difficult part of this whole thing for me is the business side of this small business. I can write my fingers off day after day, but ultimately that’s just step one. After the editing and copy work, comes the selling of the books and stories. My intention is to build a loyal if small fan base, and write a mountain of stories. I don’t want to cross that line with any of you, straying into the territory of annoying author/self-publisher, but I sure would love to see more of you reading the stories I have to tell.

What I Was Going to Write

What I was going to write, when I sat down at my desk this morning, was the conclusion to the second story in the Birki’s coming of age tale and maybe some sort of summary of the last year on the blog. I’d been thinking about these two things, sort of a pre-writing construction exercise, since I woke up to the chill, snow blanketed morning and blue sky to share a steaming cuppa with my lovely wife. I had it all worked out, what I was going to write, when I sat down and put my fingers to the keys.

The problem started when I put my headphones on my ears and called up Rdio to stream some music while I practiced my craft. There were a couple of notifications waiting for me in the upper right hand corner of the browser and I hate leaving those unanswered. They nag at me. If you want me to take care of something, just cut out a bright, red circle of paper, add an arbitrary white number in the center, and affix it near the thing you want done. Post-it could make a fortune with that idea and the mental health industry would discover a pile of new patients.

So I clicked the notifications to discover an artist I enjoy had a new single out. Bon Iver has re-recorded “Beth/Rest”. I clicked play. And I’ve been sitting here externally stunned and internally roiling ever since.

This song does not need words, at least not for me. It is the sound. Like the howl of a lonely wolf, it speaks to me without requirement of meaning. It is a sound that pushes my soul around, leading it in a dance around the tribal fire.

Now all my planning has fled. If I wrote on paper, I’d toss the stack into the air.

The Conversation We Never Have

Here’s my life. My lovely and patient wife wakes up at the crack of dawn, usually the semi-predictable perturbations of our toddler, and the two of us claw our way to the kitchen where we split coffee duty (yes, Tess I know you make it most of the time lately). There are discussions held around the table while we try and stuff food into our child’s mouth. Then we break, I usually go sit with Aral on the potty (it is toilet training time) and she’ll go take a bath and get ready for the day.

By the time she is walking out the door, headed to her solid job with good benefits and reasonable pay, I’ve either packed up the kiddo and headed out to the Rec Center where I will write for a while or am ensconced at my desk writing up a storm. Time is limited and soon I know I’ll have 16 kgs of squirming three year old hanging off my arm or climbing up my back. He will be ready for adventure.

So, I am fully aware of the special position I occupy both in my family’s financial and home life. My wife brings home the bacon, while I’m working out the details of being a successful writer. Fake it until you make it, right?

This blog post is in response to a really well written piece I encountered earlier today by Ann Bauer. In “The Conversation We Never Have” she describes a couple of instances of people, authors who have achieved some level of success and notoriety, but are completely oblivious the advantages they have had along the way. And I think she makes a most excellent point when she writes “In my opinion, we do an enormous ‘let them eat cake’ disservice to our community when we obfuscate the circumstances that help us write, publish and in some way succeed.”

It is important to recognize the support system that allows us to move forward, making incremental progress day after day; I know this because it has not always been this way for me. The difficulties along the way, the challenges and distractions, all kept me from writing when I was younger even though the stories were all there to be written.

Today, I am essentially sponsored by the woman who shows up at the dinner table every evening. We exchange our tales-of-the-day and kvetch about the little nuisances that we’ve encountered. We also spend hours talking about what I’ve written and what I might write. That is my favorite part about all this, working with my best friend on ideas.

I just completed my first novelette and am up to my neck in other writing projects (two novellas and a full length novel). I’m writing happily and quickly, averaging about a thousand words a day, because I have the time and funding to support me. Also the encouragement and good reviews are a big boost. I get much help from my wife and family, and my cover art from an old Army buddy. Without these advantages I wouldn’t have stacks of editorial work to dive into. Sure, there is still a lot for me to work out, a lot to learn. But without all this help I wouldn’t be creating.

OK, there’s mine. Now show me yours.

Grant for People

This morning I was spending some time sorting through my RSS reader and came across a post from John Scalzi about a grant from the Speculative Literature Foundation. Thanks to the efforts of my ever loving wife I’m not currently in this situation, but I’ve certainly been there before.

It’s difficult to have a voice when you’re worried about making it through another night under the unforgiving stars and you are not sure where your next meal might be coming from. Even living paycheck to paycheck means that you are probably spending the majority of your time polishing some knob’s ego instead of putting to paper that story that has been haunting your dreams. As is wonderfully expressed in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Science in the City series, innovation and creativity are both luxuries that are only possible when poverty and deficit have been taken care of, both materially and spiritually.

If you have something to say, but are struggling, read through this and take a look. Stay strong–you are a person despite your situation–and you deserve respect and a place at the table.

Working class, blue-collar, poor, and homeless writers have been historically underrepresented in speculative fiction, due to financial barriers which have made it much harder for them to have access to the writing world. Such lack of access might include an inability to attend conventions, to purchase a computer, to buy books, to attend college or high school, to have the time to write (if, for example, you must work two jobs simply to pay rent and feed a family, or if you must spend all your waking hours job-hunting for months on end). The SLF would like to assist in finding more of these marginalized voices and bringing them into speculative fiction.

You are eligible for this grant if you come from a background such as described above, if you grew up (or are growing up) in homelessness, poverty, or a blue collar / working-class household, or if you have lived for a significant portion of your life in such conditions, especially if you had limited access to relatives/friends who could assist you financially. We will give preference to members of that larger pool who are currently in financial need (given our limited funds).
Please note that, unlike our other grants, you may receive this grant anonymously or pseudonymously. Application materials will be kept confidential to the grant committee and SLF staff.

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The Down Side

I was just realizing, while sitting down at my desk and firing up my music stream, that there is a bit of a downside to giving yourself a NaNo style deadline to complete a novel length story.  I have not looked recently, but I’m imagining that if I fired up Audible on my phone and navigated over to the statistics page I would undoubtably find that my book listening is way down this month.

And its not surprise that the amount of time I’ve put in reading anything on Kindle or in print for that matter has been severely amended. Oh the things we give up for our shot.

I guess there is something to look forward to when December 1st rolls around, huh?

Almost There

This has been an endurance race. There is no other metaphor that even comes close to describing my first NaNoWrimo. I’ve spent the last twenty-four days brooding over this story, pushing myself up one intellectual hill and then down back the other side. And today I know that the finish line will be, if not in sight, near enough I’ll be able to imagine the path that remains. Today I’ll cross the 40,000 word mark and only have a fraction of the goal to figure out and write down.

This is a pretty exciting moment for me. And, much like a long endurance run, its very difficult to share how I feel about it with anyone else. Regardless, its a pretty special feeling. There is excitement and pride for certain and a certain amount of astonishment at what I’m capable of achieving (188 pages as of this morning). I know that there is a fair amount of work left to do, but I’m feeling pretty comfortable with banging out the words since I’ve long since wrestled the worst of the pain and trolls in the story. Running or writing, I really like this mosaic of sensations that I get right about here.

I’ve learned a number of lessons too. And like running, they seem to be mostly my lessons; you may or may not find value in the same rules of thumb that I’ve come to recognize have worth, but I’ll share a few of them just in case you might learn something from my experiences.

Trap Words

Everyday I get up. I move around the house and sometimes the town. Then, I get tired and I return to my house to sleep. It can be the easiest thing to be riding my bike to the store with Aral in the trailer on the back and realize I’ve just solved some plot problem. The words will be there, scrolling across my inner eye, teasing me because I know that by the time I get where I’m headed they will have fled. I’ll spend much of the day playing hide and seek with them.

But, I’ve also discovered that I can promote the situations that result in words and then set my day up so that there is no possible way they can get away. I set traps for them. Doing laundry? Well its a thoughtless exercise, think about the story and then when you have folded the last t-shirt rush to your computer and bang them out. You will nab three of four hundred in fifteen minutes.

The most productive day I’ve had this month (nearly 7,000 words over 24 hours) I rented a carpet cleaner and shampooed the rugs. The tiny reservoir had me walking back to the sink about every ten minutes or so and I nailed most of those words on my iPad waiting for the water to heat up. The situations you create for yourself are word traps.

Ask for Help

You may think what you are doing is pretty darn crazy. Somewhere between actively trying to win the lottery and searching for your own personal strike of lighting. And statistically you are correct. So few authors will ever become the kind of authors that make a living from what they write. Its hard work and there are very few rewards and no recognition in the mean time.

But here is the astonishing part, if you want it badly enough, I mean want to write badly enough, people around you will be impressed. They will lend a hand, but you may need to ask. I spent a week at my parents house this month letting them help me manage my little boy. I could have done it on my own, but their help allowed me time to resolve some particularly nasty plot issues I was having with Counterfeit Horizon. Their help allowed me the time I needed to sort out these problems to my own satisfaction.

Even better, discussions with my Dad and my wife Tess have given me some ideas for how to deal with some other nastiness. The results are excellent. Finally, you as a NaNo and also as an author have more than just writing tasks you need to focus on to complete your book. A friend of mine from my Army days, Jeffrey Witty, nailed this awesome cover for me. He is an incredibly skilled illustrator. Who was, much to my astonishment, interested enough in my story to pen and paint one of the hunter-seeker drones from the first chapter.

The point is, you have friends and family that are actually really interested in what you are doing. They may think you are a crack pot and a bit of a lunatic at times, BUT (and this is a bit “but”) they also want to see you succeed. If you need help ask for it. Even if you do not need help, ask for it. You will be surprised at what people will give you if you have the courage to ask.

Hang In There

Last Friday I lost one of my dearest friends Gigi. She was my loyal collie and constant companion for the last fourteen years. She helped me through some really rough spots in my life and on my journey to this time. Her passing was not easy and I’m still feeling her loss deeply.

But, and this is something I had to consciously decide on my own, I want to be a writer. I’m grieving for my friend, but I want to be a writer. So, yesterday and again this morning, I woke up and started doing this thing that is not grief. I’m not sure it will even help me deal with the loss I know I’ve got to cope with. Hanging in there to see your project completed is pretty important. Its **that** important.

As you write your novel NaNos things, both big and small, are bound to occur in your life. Some of them will be wonderful and some of them will be miserable. They are just as much a part of your life as the book that you want to write. Want to write it! When you feel that nagging sense of self doubt start running you down chose to hang in there. Beat it back and write on.