Archive for December, 2011

Looking Back, Looking Forward

I’m going to actually link to my resolutions post from 366 days ago, just to keep myself honest.  And I’m going to be honest with some responses to it.

Resolution 1: Finish the first draft of Capsule.  This did not happen.  Largely because I hit a point where I realized the book I was writing was not the right book to write.  It needed to be divided into two books, because I was telling two completely different and unrelated stories.  I’ll come back to both of these books one day, but probably not until 2013 in all honesty, certainly no earlier than October 2012.  But I learned a lot from walking away, such as recognizing when something isn’t working and why it isn’t working.  I also stepped away to work on a novel that has a lot of promise, so again I can only beat myself up so much.

Resolution 2: Three short stories out at all times.  This was a lofty goal for someone who went into the year with a limited number of stories ready to go out.  And then came the fantastic problem of having two taken off the market by sales!  Yay!  I tried to keep the stories that were ready for publication circulating, but probably could have done more.  Some of them, like Sleep, are just hard to find markets for.  I do have two out with long-response publications right now (Vampires of Mars and Face of the Serpent).

Resolution 3: Write from-scratch stories for six anthologies.  I did five.  One sold (Home Again), one wasn’t sent due to quality problems (Back Half), two were rejected (Vampire of Mars and Beyond Light), one is still out for consideration (Face of the Serpent).

Resolution 4: Fortnightcaps.  This was a fun project for a few months, and I had intended to keep it going through the year.  What stopped me?  Discovering other flash fiction contests, and realizing that I was burning story rights without anything to show in return in terms of readership.  So anyone who was paying attention might have noticed they stopped in September, but since I never had a single person ask me “hey, what happened to those Fortnightcaps,” I suspect no one was really paying attention.  This showed in the readership dips on those days.  I’m not blogging solely for readership numbers, but it is nice to not send stories out into the void where no one is reading them when I could make something more out of them.

So it was a mixed bag, but even in my failures I feel like I learned a lot about writing in general, and specifically how I write, in this past year.  I wouldn’t trade a single bit of the experience.

Last night at CVS we sat down and talked about resolutions going forward.  I wrote down five at Day‘s insistence, but it was secretly just three.  We followed the SMART acronym used by most corporations in determining yearly objectives: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Timely.  For example, writing 10 novels is specific and measurable, but isn’t attainable or realistic.  So from that perspective, my resolutions break down to the following categories:

Completion.  Complete Nickajack to a condition where it can be queried, then query it.  There are a lot of steps involved in this (such as, ya know, finishing it), and “Query Nickajack” really is my overarching resolution for 2012.  Each month’s State of the Writer for 2012 will start with those words and my progress towards that goal so I don’t lose sight of it.

Research.  I’ve made a specific goal of reading three non-fiction books about pre-to-post Civil War era, and two fiction books with as similar a setting as possible.  Which is tough.  Southeastern US Steampunk is not a common market segment.  One of the fiction books will likely be How Few Remain by Harry Turtledove.  It’s not Steampunk, but it is Alternate History, and I’ve always preferred Steampunk that falls under Alternate History more than Fantasy.  Recommendations are welcome!

Man Up.  I need to get over my crippling con introversion, the one that border lines on social anxiety.  To make this goal measurable, I’ve taken it upon myself to find 6 people to provide prompts for the 2012 Flashathon.  With the event being expanded to 18 hours, that means I’m on the hook for a third of them.  This is, by far, the hardest of the resolutions I’ve set.  Which says a lot about me that I consider talking to six people, just six, at a convention as more of a challenge than finishing a fucking novel.

And with that, this blog will likely be dark until the New Year.  Everyone enjoy the festivities.  I’d caution to not do anything I wouldn’t, but that would make for a boring weekend, so go out there and do at least one thing I wouldn’t but is still legal.  It’ll be more fun that way.

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The Free Dilemma

I got an interesting reply today on my post about the 99 cent price point, and it made me do some reading and research.  First, a chunk of the reply:

But didn’t you hear: FREE on Amazon’s Kdp Select is the new 99 cents! These people have tripped over themselves in that race to the bottom, that race to nowhere, and are offering Amazon Select EXCLUSIVITY on their ‘work’ in exchange for being able to give it away for free.

I had heard, but I forgot about it.  Largely because it didn’t affect me at the time, since I’ve pulled my one and only self published eBook from all distribution channels over quality concerns.  However, I did some more reading and while…wait.  Crap.  That’s a picture of Admiral Ackbar I just posted over on the right hand side.  Damnit, that’s going to give away my entire thesis.  Alright, play it cool, maybe no one noticed it.

Ahem.

I did some more reading and while it’s a program that doesn’t directly affect me right now, I do have some thoughts.  Largely because it plays into a few things that I like to talk about: math, innumeracy, and psychology.

First off, what is KDP Select?  It’s a new program that eBook self publishers can opt into that allows Amazon Prime members access to their books within the Kindle Owner’s Lending Library program.  What is the Lending Library?  It’s a new carrot Amazon has offered to lure Kindle owners into Prime membership by offering them the ability to “borrow” free of charge one Kindle book per month from a limited catalog of all titles.  It’s a fine benefit, and the one-a-month limit makes a certain amount of sense.  Amazon has, in general, provided some fantastic value-added to the Prime membership since it’s initial launch offer of free two-day shipping.

To compensate for these free downloads, Amazon has created a pool of money, promising that it will dip no lower than $500,000/month for the duration of 2012.  Each month this money is split between those authors who have books within the KDP Select program using a formula that I’m going to quote directly from Amazon’s KDP Select Terms and Conditions (REQUIRED reading for anyone considering participating):

We will establish a fund on a monthly basis and you will earn a share of that fund for each of your Digital Books included in the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library Program. Your share will be calculated as the number of times that the Digital Book has been borrowed during the month as a percentage of the number of times all KDP Digital Books have been borrowed, multiplied by the fund amount we establish for that month. This share is your total Royalty for borrows of that Digital Book through the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library Program. For example, if the fund for a particular month is $500,000, your Digital Book is borrowed 1,500 times, and all participating Digital Books are cumulatively borrowed 100,000 times, your Digital Book will earn $7,500 ($500,000 x 1,500/100,000 = $7,500). We will determine in our sole discretion the criteria for determining which borrowing events qualify for this calculation. A maximum of one borrowing per customer will qualify. We may publically announce the top Digital Books borrowed, including the author, publisher, number of borrows and KDP Select fund royalties earned.

This is odd explanation for what is a complicated formula to begin with.  Basically they look at what percentage of all KDP Select loans your books represent, and you get that same percentage of the pool money.  The sample math then shows someone earning $7500 based on two entirely hypothetical numbers.  While there’s no point where Amazon states that this is how much you might reasonably expect to earn, I’m rather uncomfortable with them throwing around such a generous number in their hypothetical math.  This is some of the initial bait that Amazon is laying down.  The next will come at the end of the month.

See, December is the first full month for the program, so it’s the first time these loans will pay out.  Expect to see some people report some gaudy numbers, as I suspect there are a lot of people taking a wait-and-see approach to this new deal.  However, there is a very limited resource at play here.  Thanks to the one-a-month limit, the total number of monthly loans has an absolute cap equal to the number of Amazon Prime members who also own a Kindle.  This means that, as more writers and books jump into the program, the pool will get diluted.

Now, the cap is going up.  One of the goals Amazon has in this program is for more Prime members to buy Kindles, and vice versa.  More and more Kindles are being bought, many people just got them for Christmas (some, if they got a Fire, also got three months of free Prime membership, so three chances to borrow).  The ceiling is rising, but it’s still a ceiling.

This creates an interesting situation.  First, it means that a participating book is facing wider competition for a slowly growing, finite number of borrowing slots.  Second, it means that the same number of borrows, month to month, might produce widely different payout.  Let’s say that a lot of people just got a new Kindle Fire for Christmas, and discover the Lending Library in January.  This sends the number of borrows up by 20% from Amazon’s math above to 120,000.  This means that each borrow is no longer worth a $5 royalty, but now only $4.16.

The $4.16 calculation assumes that the pool remains at $500,000.  I will give Amazon some credit.  When they launched Amazon Studios, they were promising minimum payouts for the first year, but those payouts have actually increased.  By the end of 2012 the pool of money for KDP Select may very well be closer to $1,000,000.  Or it may still be $500,000.  Or the number of downloads may be such that, even if the pool of money does double, the worth of each loan goes down by more than half.  Everything is an unknown right now, even how much these payouts will come to in December.  I can’t say people won’t make significant money.  Amazon can’t say people will.

But here’s where I get uncomfortable with the deal.  Again, from Amazon:

1 Exclusivity. When you include a Digital Book in KDP Select, you give us the exclusive right to sell and distribute your Digital Book in digital format while your book is in KDP Select. During this period of exclusivity, you cannot sell or distribute, or give anyone else the right to sell or distribute, your Digital Book (or content that is reasonably likely to compete commercially with your Digital Book, diminish its value, or be confused with it), in digital format in any territory where you have rights.

There’s the price you pay for entering the program.  You cannot offer the book on Smashwords, have it distributed to the Nook or iBook stores, or sell it directly on your website.  Amazon has become your publisher, and only they may distribute your eBook.  Additionally, there’s a non-compete clause in there I cannot even begin to understand or speak about, so I instead refer to the KDP Select post over on Writer Beware.  It’ll be hard to say what Amazon will consider as “likely to compete commercially,” diminish value, or create confusion until such a time as they invoke this clause.  It also has Smashwords, which has a growing stake in the wide distribution of eBooks to multiple sales venues, accusing Amazon of predatory practices.

So yes.  I started this post with a picture of Admiral Ackbar, largely because I look at this and my only reaction is…It’s a Trap!  But honestly, this is another one of those trials of being a writer looking to self publish, right up there with setting your price point and finding the best way to make your book as polished as possible.  Many writers will determine this is a good way to promote their books, and many authors will get good promotion out of this program.  Many of the authors jumping into this program are offering just one novel, whether a stand-alone or the entrance novel into a series.  However, as with any legal agreement, it’s best to know exactly what you’re getting into and what the ramifications are.  Especially with that exclusivity clause that I’m certain at least some writers will fall afoul of entirely by accident.

Let’s go back to the math for one more interesting, and I stress entirely hypothetical, thought experiment.  It’s possible for the pool of money to increase, for an individual author’s readership to increase, but for that writer’s compensation to decrease.  Here’s how it works.  Let’s use Amazon’s math from above: 1500 borrows for a book out of 100,000 total borrows.  Which results in a $7500 payment.  Let’s say the number of borrows quadruples, so Amazon moves to double the money available to $1 million.  Let’s also say the author improves their borrowing rate by 50%.  That means they have 2250 loans out of 400,000 total.  This is 0.5625% of all loans, which means the author is now making $5625.  In spite of everything going up (overall popularity of the program, payment pool, and number of loans for the author), the author’s compensation goes down 25%.  It makes this a gamble.  And the paradox here is that the program will be better for early adopters the less popular it is.  Hell, in theory if only one person signed up one book he or she would get a cool half million.

So be smart, consider the risk versus reward.  And if you jump in?  I wish you nothing but the best of luck.  I’d be thrilled if I’m being unnecessarily pessimistic about this program.  But, for now, I write to you firmly from the wait-and-see camp.  And keep an eye on Writer Beware in the following months, as there are several self published authors who are experimenting with KDP Select and have promised their experiences to the blog.

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#OneOffFlash Week: Only

Here it is, the stand-in contest to fill the void with so many other flash fiction contests taking the week off.  Your goal, if you choose to accept it, is to write and post up to 500 words, one of which must be the word below.  The contest will close at 8pm Eastern Time (5pm Pacific), at which point I’ll read through the stories and decide on one to be the big winner of the first, last, and only One Off Flashfiction contest.  That winner will walk away knowing that no one else will ever equal his or her accomplishment, as I never intend to run this contest again!

Sound simple enough?  Good.

Then lets go.

Your theme word is…RESOLVE

There are 16 definitions available for the word on dictionary.com, 12 as a noun, 4 as a verb.  I’m just asking you to use one of those.

Good luck, and good writing.

And don’t forget your Twitter handle!

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Write Your Frustrations

I wouldn’t call myself a Goon.  I do have a Something Awful account, I pop into the forums infrequently, but I’m by no means a regular and have likely made fewer than a dozen posts.  However, it’s a fantastic site to be any part of because of the width and breadth of the membership.  No, that was not a Goons-are-fat joke.  But it’s hard to imagine another place on the internet where the readership can simultaneous raise $61,000 to help a village in Haiti and generate photoshops of a character named “Dickbutt.”  It’s a site of opinions, some of them insanely pedantic, most of them well thought out, and all of them shared with little timidity.

I bring the site up because of two ongoing threads about Steampunk.  I’ll owe this post an update this evening with the actual links, but one in traditional Goon style is a takedown of a self published Steampunk novel, which has turned into opinions about both self publication and Steampunk in general.  The other is an offshoot, looking to talk more specifically about the opinions and gripes that people have about Steampunk both as a literary subgenre and as a movement in general.  I won’t say I understand the latter myself.  I don’t cosplay in general (I did one time for a Steampunk-themed wedding reception) and while there are some who have turned it into a fantastic artform, much of what I see falls into the categories of “Just Glue Some Gears On It” or “when goths discover brown.”

The discussion of Steampunk literature has largely revolved around the frustrations many have with the typical tropes.  The frequent failure to consider the effect on the working and servant classes when their jobs are largely taken over by machinery.  Suggesting the existence of complex coal-powered-steam driven devices that lack hoppers or the apparent need to refill on either coal or water.  I’m not suggesting that either of these issues are endemic of all Steampunk, but they are frequent enough that I’ve noticed them, and that the Goons posting in these threads have noticed them.

So what do I with my personal frustrations with the genre?  I face them head on.

This post is not my attempt to paint Nickajack as some sort of magic cure to the ails and shortcomings of other Steampunk novels.  That’s presumptuous, and really setting an unobtainably high standard for the novel.  Instead I’m simply saying you should embrace your frustrations with your favorite genre.  Sometimes you may decide to solve the problem with a dose of handwavium, after all sometimes tropes are tropes because they have no good explanation that wouldn’t otherwise dismantle the genre completely.  But more often than not these frustrations can serve as a fantastic source of tension within a story.  Just be careful not to mistake response to trope with plot.  While contravening cliché can result in enough of a plot for a story, too often these attempts when highlighted come across as too clever by half.

What can I say, there’s always a delicate balancing act when it comes to writing.

So what if you don’t have any frustrations with your genre?  Well, first I’d like to ask how you know it well enough to write in it, but I’ll avoid getting quite that confrontational.  Instead, I’ll suggest finding some.  Oh, I don’t mean you are required to track down every common frustration with your genre and correct them all at once.  But know what’s out there, know what people complain about, and be ready to have someone ask you about them while on a panel or at a signing.  You might not care to have an answer, but at least knowing what frustrations are out there let you sound more knowledgeable about your chosen genre.

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Cookie Swap: Mocha Brandy Balls

I wish I’d thought of this earlier and assembled a cookie swap among the writing bloggers, but I’ll do it just for myself this year and perhaps see about expanding it next year.  Below is my mom’s recipe for mocha brandy balls, with some modifications I’ve made through trial and error.  I’m sure she got the recipe from somewhere, but I don’t know where to credit it.

Mocha Brandy Balls:

  • 2 tsp instant coffee
  • 6oz semi-sweet chocolate
  • 1 ⅓ cup crushed chocolate wafers
  • 1 c pecans, toasted and chopped
  • 3 Tbsp corn syrup
  • 2 Tbsp brandy
  • 2 ½ + ½ cups powdered sugar
  • ⅓ cup water

Dissolve coffee in ⅓ cup of boiling water.  Allow to cool.  Melt chocolate over low heat in saucepan or double boiler, stirring frequently.  Remove chocolate from heat.  Add wafer crumbs, nuts, syrup, brandy, coffee, and 2 ½ cups of powdered sugar.  Chill until workable.  Roll into balls and dust with remaining sugar.  Put each ball into its own paper cup.  Store in an airtight container.  Makes several dozen, depending on size of balls.

Notes:  Chocolate wafer cookies are a real thing, I’ve found them in most larger grocery stores on the cookie and cracker aisle.  They’re in a long yellow package, and there are exactly 5 to the ⅓ cup, making measurement easy.  If you absolutely can’t find them, I’ve successfully substituted chocolate teddy grahams, or chocolate cat cookies from Trader Joe’s.  If the dough is too firm to work, microwave it for 30 seconds at a time, just to make it pliable.  I find these get better as they sit, and typically make them 4-5 days in advance of whatever party I’m bringing them to.

My own recipe (same instructions, modified ingredients bolded):

  • 2 tsp instant coffee
  • 6oz unsweetened chocolate
  • 1 ⅓ cup crushed chocolate wafers
  • 1 c pecans, toasted and chopped
  • 3 Tbsp corn syrup
  • 2 Tbsp spiced rum or chocolate liquor
  • 2 ½ + ½ cups powdered sugar
  • ⅓ cup water

I find often find the recipe is a little too sweet, even with just semisweet chocolate.  The unsweetened (not bittersweet) cuts the massive amounts of sugar nicely.  The spiced rum can add a brighter flavor to the recipe, or the chocolate liquor obviously makes the recipe that much more chocolaty.

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One-Off Flash Fiction

There are a lot of flash fiction contests out there, which is why I don’t run one.  But a lot of these contests are taking next week off, so I will run one.  Once.  It will be the One-Off Flash Fiction Contest.  It will be rules light, because that’s what I do.  I’ll put up a prompt at noon eastern on Wednesday the 28th, deadline at 8pm, winner announced the next morning.  The prize: getting to call yourself the one and only winner ever of the One-Off Flash Fiction Contest.  No one else will ever win because it won’t ever happen again, so no one can ever take that away from you.

Help spread the news on Twitter with the hashtag #OneOffFlash, and join us here on Wednesday for some writing fun.

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The $0.99 Dilemma

I’d like to dip my toes into some dangerous waters.  Dangerous because I know there are strong emotions around the issue.  And dangerous because I’m largely an outsider to the issue.  But it’s an issue that’s been floating around various writing blogs, and that I have my own thoughts on: the 99 cent eBook.

There’s a recent school of thought that 99 cents is the natural price for a writer trying to break into the market, someone trying to make a name for himself.  Some have even suggested it’s the “proper” price of all eBooks.  The argument goes that it’s the lowest allowable price, which makes it the lowest investment purchase for a reader while still giving the writer at least some money.  It’s also a step above free, which clearly leaves nothing for the writer who has put effort into this work of fiction, and is often viewed by readers as an admission of poor quality (public domain works notwithstanding).

I have some problems with the 99 cent price point.

Is 99 Cents the New Free?

Apple did this.  Amazon did this.  They set 99 cents as the cheapest an item could be, whether in the App or Kindle store, while not being free.  This was, in part, to prevent a race-to-the-bottom.  With this pricing scheme, two people with competing apps or books can’t leapfrog each other on the race to be the cheapest offering by shaving off two cents at a go.  If you want your impulse buyers but still want buyers rather than takers, the floor is 99 cents.  These are companies looking to make money too, and while they’re willing to support free apps and books as loss leaders, using their resources of hard drive space (though that’s basically free anymore) and bandwidth, they’re not willing to work out a revenue split on a nickle or penny.

And who can blame them, really.  It’s easy to forget the middlemen in the modern microtransactional marketplace, to feel that we’re buying directly from developers or writers, but this isn’t the case.  If anything, the need for middlemen becomes more important with digital transactions.  It protects both the creators and the buyers.  But that’s not the point of this post.  The point is that, through these decisions of 99 cents as the absolute price point floor, they’ve created a new reality in which 99 cents feels nearly free.

And isn’t it?  Have you ever paid for something out of your pocket change and had it felt free?  Have you ever cashed in your coin jar and felt like the resulting money was somehow a windfall, found money?  Inflation has created a modern America where coinage has less of a value than in the past, it’s what was left over after we paid for something.  There’s also psychology at play, the same psychology that’s always been at play with prices that end in 99 cents.  Going from $99.99 to $100 is, in terms of percentage, a minimalistic increase, but in terms of a human animal predisposed to look for round numbers and thresholds, the difference between “Under $100!” and “Only $100!” is a surprising chasm.

So if 99 cents is “Under $1!” and we’ve come to devalue change, doesn’t this price point become essentially free?

And if it’s the new free, the new ultimately disposable price point, doesn’t it have the same issues as free always has?  Doesn’t it become the mire through which someone has to dig to find the gems, the legitimate loss leader books that will hook you on a new series hidden among the books that have been thrown up in haste and cynicism.

Where Do We Go From Here?

I love that the new digital marketplace for goods and ideas has opened a door that never existed before.  It’s the idea that literature can be microtransactional.  There are now places to buy and sell short stories à la carte, which opens up ways for writers and readers to connect to each other in new ways.  By transacting in units of one short story, readers can pick and choose who and what they’re reading.  By selling units of one short story, an author can try something new or even, as I’ve discussed before, expand their world for the most curious and devoted of fans.

This has also reopened the novella market, traditionally the hardest length of fiction to sell because it has the fewest markets. They’re not long enough for separate publication in the eyes of most traditional print publishers, but they require serialization in a magazine or a lion’s share of an anthology, which asks a lot of the editors of either.  However in modern ePublication, length doesn’t matter like it once did.  Because there aren’t limited resources, like page numbers, to fight over, and there aren’t super-skinny spines to hide among the novels on store shelves, novellas can stand their own.

But with the 99 cent price point for novels, these two markets get squeezed again.  There’s no way to go down from 99 cents, so there’s a situation where novels, novellas, and short stories, all works of differing lengths with various expectations, end up lumped together at the same price point.  And that’s unfair not just to the short stories and novellas, but to the novels as well.

Pricing Proposal

So if we’re stuck in a marketplace that sets a floor at 99 cents, and allows for publication of fiction at any length the author chooses, shouldn’t 99 cents be the proper price point for a short story, rather than a novel?  This price point isn’t far off from most print journals or anthologies, it only looks cheaper because you aren’t “forced” to buy stories you “don’t want.”

Please note I put both of those in quotes.  I don’t ascribe to that theory.  I’ve had several instances where my favorite stories in an anthology weren’t the ones I bought it for.

Next step up.  Novellas.  Longer than short stories, requiring more work from the author and often entered into with more expectations from the readers.  Since the market place requires prices that step up in whole dollars, the next cheapest price point allowable is $1.99.  Step up a dollar again for novels, and you’re at $2.99.  Which in my thinking really is the magic number.

Not only does $2.99 create space for shorter-form fiction in the marketplace, it’s also an important threshold in Amazon, the point where the self publishing author jumps from a 35% share of the revenue to a 70% share of the revenue.  Now, I know that a lot of writers who are hanging out in the 99 cent price point aren’t there for the money.  But…they are.  If they were there for just the exposure, they’d be pricing things for free.  At 99 cents, they’re calling their product something worth paying for, something that they want to see monetary gains from, even if they will be minimal.

The Fiction of Exposure

But the exposure.  99 cents gets you exposure!

It’s true that there are a lot of Kindle readers who are willing to buy books at that 99 cent price point without a second thought, who will read authors they wouldn’t have read before because the book was nearly cheap-as-free.  There are two problems here.  First, there’s already a sampling process within the Kindle Store, one that any author must take full advantage of.  Second, exposure only works if the book is worth being exposed to.  I know there are stories online of people who have had a lot of success with 99 cent books, who have seen their titles shoot up the charts, and who perhaps even made an appreciable amount of money 35 cents at a time.  Not enough to retire on, but perhaps enough to vacation on.

And people have successfully offered the first book of a series for 99 cents to get someone hooked.  Remember the drug dealers in the old after school (and sometimes during school) specials we used to watch?  The first one’s always cheap, get someone hooked, then jack up the price.  It’s a legitimate marketing strategy, and some authors have used it with out-of-print back catalog titles of ongoing series.

But the trick with exposure: it’s only exposure.  It’s not inherently good.  It lays you bare and lets people see you for what you are.  And if they don’t like what they see, they aren’t going to want to see any more.  To put it simply: 99 cents is not a license for bad writing.

Be Worth Your Price Point

Why are we willing to pay more for the new Stephen King book?  Because it’s a known quantity.  We also know that it’s been vetted, edited, revised, and cleaned up.  All by professionals.  Mr. King didn’t just finish 11/22/63 then stick it on Smashwords the next day.  The self published writer looking to make a name on the Kindle store finds himself in a store that also offers King, may even find himself in the same list of search results as a King novel.  But he doesn’t have the name, doesn’t have the promise of a professional publishing house, so he uses the only tool in his arsenal: undercutting the price.

But just because he’s able to put his book up there for 99 cents, or even $2.99, doesn’t mean that it can be of clearly inferior quality.  Because readers will be turned off.  The success stories that have come out of authors self publishing on Kindle don’t come from people who have slapped up their Nanowrimo novels and called it a day, they’re from either established writers who are self publishing their rights-reverted back catalog, or from writers who have busted their asses making sure the product they’ve created is as indistinguishable as possible from professionally published novels.

Need I remind you, Amanda Hocking eagerly signed a publishing contract rather than staying self published.

Any novel presented to the public at large should be worth at least $2.99, because if it’s only worth 99 cents, then the writer is cheating his reading audience, and in turn is really cheating himself because the negative exposure will stick.  I learned this first hand with my one venture into self publishing on Kindle when I did put up something that wasn’t worth the $1.99 I was charging for it.

Looking at this from another angle: My wife is the fastest reader I know, and even then I’ve never seen her go through a novel in less than four hours.  At $2.99 that’s only asking 75 cents per hour of entertainment even for the speediest reader.  But it’s also asking for hours of a readers life.  This is a contract that goes both ways.

In Conclusion

There are legitimate uses for 99 cents in the Kindle store.  Getting people hooked on a series.  Offering books for limited period sales prices.  What I don’t agree with is the notion that it’s somehow the “right” price for the self published writer, or any writer, by definition.  You as a writer are worth more than that, and if your book isn’t, then it shouldn’t be published to begin with.  Is that harsh?  Yes.  Do I stand by it?  Yes.

It’s a new market out there.  And with any new market, there is going to be some growing time, and some learning time.  I suspect (at least I hope) that this 99 cent period is a fad and that the market value for a self published novel ends much higher.  Because novels are worth more than that.  They are an investment of hundreds (sometimes thousands) of hours of the writer’s time, and still stand as the best ratio of cost-per-time of any entertainment form on the market.  The 99 cent price point really devalues all of that.

So be worth it, and people will buy, even if the book costs a little more.

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Confessions of a First Chapter Editor

Bless me blog readers, for I have sinned.  I do not remember when my last confession was.

Last night I succumbed to hypocrisy as I went into Scrivener and…rewrote the beginning of my novel in progress.

I know I’ve said it time and time again, writing is about going forward, working on the end, that going back to the beginning of a work creates a difficult spiral of overediting and underwriting a manuscript.  I understand these things.  I know these things.  I can only cry out that it was a moment of weakness, a temptation that I couldn’t overcome.  I gave in.  Haven’t we all at some point or another?  Haven’t we all hit that moment where we know we shouldn’t, but we do anyway?

Perhaps we start POV hopping?  Perhaps we start editing too soon?  Perhaps we explore a plot line we know isn’t constructive to the story?

Oh, I’m not trying to pin my moment of weakness on you, reader.  I’m not saying that because you were weak it means that I have a license to be weak.  But aren’t we all human?  Don’t we all have those demons calling at us, trying to get us to do wrong, to step off the straight and narrow path of first drafting?  They’re horrible little buggers with names like Editing.  Tangent.  Research.  Ahh, my friend and nemesis research.  Did you know that the Civil War governor of Georgia sent out a broadsheet to all mechanics in the state calling on them to drop everything else to create six foot pikes for use by all able-bodied citizens to run through the bastard Union soldiers when their guns jammed or ran out of bullets?  And do you know that after I was done rewriting the opening, I still wasn’t working on the end because I was reading that broadsheet out loud to my wife in a thoroughly horrible Civil War Confederate accent?

But that’s not what I was talking about.  I was talking about the editing I did.  See, our beta readers thought it started too slowly.  And it did.  And we had an idea on how to fix it.  And I didn’t want to forget it.  And I had a good inspiration for some lines.  And…look, I know, these are all excuses, pitiful reasons to have stopped work and done something I’ve railed against in the past.

As penance, 2000 words tonight.  Absolutely.  Move the story forward, don’t look back, keep pushing through this first draft.  Then I can edit.

The thing is then…I won’t want to.

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A Writer Reviews: A Christmas Story

In what year does A Christmas Story take place?  It’s a simple question, one that I thought I knew the answer for when my wife asked it last night during my annual review of a favorite film of mine.  I went online to quickly confirm I was right to discover that the question is widely debated with five answers directly supported by the movie.

1937.  The issue of Look Magazine that Ralphie sneaks the Red Ryder ad into was the December 21, 1937 edition.  However, this is two years before the film adaptation of Wizard of Oz came out.

1939.  It explains all the Wizard of Oz references, since that’s the year the movie came out.  It’s also directly supported by a calendar barely visible on the wall during one of the dinner scenes.  It’s turned to December with the 1st falling on a Friday.  That’s 1939.

1940.  The decoder pin that Ralphie gets from the Little Orphan Annie show is a model only given out in 1940.

1941.  The mother distracts the Old Man by pointing out a game between the Packers and Bears “this Sunday”.  The two teams played each other on a Sunday in December in 1941, and not again until 2011.  Their previous Sunday December meeting was 1933.

1946.  The Sox traded Bullfrog.  “Bullfrog” was Bill Dietrich, and the Sox never actually traded him, but they did release him in 1946, albeit in September.  Little Orphan Annie was long off the radio by this point.

So in what year does A Christmas Story take place?  It’s easy to call the above discrepancies continuity errors, and there are several legitimately anachronistic items in the movie.  It’s to be expected of a film put together on a $4 million budget that was never intended to be an enduring holiday classic.  I choose a more charitable view.  So let’s chalk it up to a form of everyone’s favorite narrative style, the unreliable narrator.

It’s not typically what we think as an unreliable narrator, but what narrator is more unreliable than someone trying to remember his childhood?  This movie is clearly the memories of several Christmases fused together, whether intentionally or accidentally, supplemented with other memories from Jean Shepherd’s essays, and all time shifted as Shepherd was born about a decade earlier than Ralphie would have been. Thus the movie takes place in no specific year, and makes a point of not listing a specific year.  Instead, it takes place in a childhood within an idealized world, where nothing that happens outside a young boy’s narrow perspective matters.  It’s this timelessness that allows it to still resonate, and that makes the “what year” question ultimately futile, and perhaps even counter-productive.

Memories are funny things.  They exaggerate, they blur together, they take on lives of their own.  We see all of this, everything is the heightened realism of childhood experiences.  The line to see Santa goes on forever, the weird kid at the end of it is…really damn weird.  There’s a grown-up earnestness to Ralphie that comes from being the younger version of the narrator.  It’s part of the charm of the movie, and what keeps people coming back to it, even if they have no nostalgic connection to the era.

Another example of unreliable narrator via cloudy memories?  How I Met Your Mother.  While there are points and episodes where the adult-Ted-relating-these-stories narrative falls down, there are those episodes where the writers have used this structure with great effect.  Ted’s brief fling with a girl only referred to as “Blah Blah” by the characters, as older Ted can’t remember her name.  Getting two stories of Lily being mad with Barney conflated, not remembering that one happened when she was pregnant and the other a year before.  Not being able to remember the exact year for the Goat Story.  This is all the unreliable narrator trying to pull memories out and getting them just not quite right.

We never remember things quite right, except for those people blessed (cursed?) eidetic memory or hyperthymesia.  Except, it seems, in stories.  Our fictional characters frequently remember the past clearly, lucidly, with no hiccups or faults of memory.  This isn’t the way the human brain works.  We are all unreliable narrators of our own past, typically because we paint ourselves with our own heroic tendencies or worst neuroses.  Always remember this.  Never forget this.  Especially with a first person narration.  Even if the story isn’t intended to have an unreliable narrator, in one way or another it still will.

I started this post not with a movie poster, as I typically do for Writer Reviews, but with a Dali painting.  Most of you probably recognize it, many likely by name: The Persistence of Memory.  It’s surrealist, certainly, but melting clocks is perhaps one of the best metaphors I’ve seen for how the human memory actually works.  Things distort, they blur together, they’re not quite right.  Remember that when your characters are remembering anything.

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Gamification

Yesterday I posted an article about how much I love numbers, and how that leads to my obsession over word counts.  That push to hit the next milestone in any of three to five simultaneous counts I’m keeping.  There was a word I didn’t use in that post, because it’s a word that I know is controversial in some circles.  However, someone on Twitter immediately called my obsession for what it was.

Gamification.

For those unfamiliar with the word, it describes taking the tenants of games, especially modern video games, and applying them to aspects of everyday life.  What bits of games?  Achievement badges, experience points, even leveling up.  All have been successfully applied outside the traditional gaming realm.  One of the earliest examples I’m aware of was a website called Chore Wars, which offered people the ability to gain experience points for doing everyday chores.  People leveled up and directly competed against each other just for doing those mundane everyday tasks that need to be done.  It’s been applied to exercise, specifically when Pokémon came out with a version bundled with a pedometer, encouraging children to stick the pedometer in a dryer go for a walk if they wanted to evolve their pocket monsters.  It’s been applied to driving, in my example of the Prius graphs yesterday (very low-key gamification for the extremely math motivated) and newer hybrid cars that will include a Tamagotchi-like digital plant to represent how ecologically its owner is driving.

In all of these cases there is a direct benefit to the activity.  Doing chores results in a cleaner house.  Exercise results in a healthier you.  Driving ecologically results in a better environment.  What makes these examples all gamification is the secondary reward, the actual motivation.  The experience points, the evolved Pokémon, the happy little digital plant.  These are not the primary positive benefit of the activity, but they are the ultimate motivator.

This isn’t quite the classic carrot on a stick.  Gamification is not your mother looking at you and saying “eat your vegetables or you won’t get any dessert.”  Ultimately that doesn’t make us want to eat our vegetables, we aren’t motivated to continue eating vegetables.  We just eat them the one time to get some ice cream, then the same dance starts the next day.  The result of gamification is not an excuse to do a task for a promised reward, it’s to specifically turn those tasks into games with internal rewards.  The distinction may seem blurry between those two, but it is there.  It might take someone a little better versed in gamification to explain, but it comes down to small, incremental rewards rather than a single big reward.

If I could explain it better, I’d have a far more lucrative career as a gamification consultant, which is now a legitimate business venture.  It has applications in education.  It had applications in business.  It’s the new hip fad motivational tool.  And it’s powerful, because it’s directed at motivating a generation of children and young adults who have grown up playing video games.  Who haven’t stopped playing video games.  A generation accustomed to game-style motivation.

That’s my amateur attempt at a brief history and explanation of gamification.  I’m certain any number of people could point out where I’m wrong.  If you want a more thorough (and I’m talking hour-long) explanation, I offer up Gabe Zichermann who covered the subject in-depth as a Google Tech Talk:

Gamify Your Writing

What I described yesterday, motivation from word count milestones?  That’s a low-key form of gamification as well.  As are the status bars that some writers employ on their websites.  Every graph and chart available on the Nanowrimo website, from status bars to graphs showing current pace and estimated completion date?  All of that, every last bit of it, is gamification.  Oh, not intentionally so.  Writers were tracking their word counts well before gamification was a word, and Nanowrimo predates the first use of the word by several years.  But both still fall into the realm of gamification as it’s been defined over the last five years.  It’s about creating a secondary motivational tool above and beyond the apparent primary motivation.  It’s about driving someone forward not by the eventual goal of a completed story or novel, but instead driving them incrementally forward with the promise of hitting a multiple of 5000, or keeping the estimated completion date ahead of November 30th.  In a small way, the entire conceit of Nanowrimo is about gamification of the novel writing process.

Anything like gamification that has its proponents is going to have its detractors as well.  It comes out every year in some of the critiques of Nanowrimo.  And it comes out in the non-writing world via critiques that gamification oversimplifies or trivializes significant real-life interactions, critiques that gamification is simply a rebranding of existing techniques and practices, and critiques that children have far too much interaction with video game mechanics just from playing those games and it shouldn’t be encouraged at a larger scale within society.  If we’re talking the rebranding critique, in many cases it’s absolutely true.  The word was invented in some small part to describe what people were observing in some fields in an attempt to apply it to other fields.  As for the other criticisms, I ask what the harm is.  In the end, gamification with regards to writing isn’t about whether it’s harmful to the practitioner from some external reference, but whether it’s useful to the practitioner from their own perspective.

Gamification is, at its heart, a motivational tool.  And as with any motivational tool there are individuals who will be moved by it, and individuals that won’t.  From my post yesterday gushing over my love of word counts broken down on the session, day, scene, chapter, and novel level, I suspect it’s already well established which camp I fall into when it comes to the gamification of writing.  So perhaps that explains my inability to find fault with it.  Your susceptibility to its motivational powers is largely tied to how much you’ve gamed.  My general experience has writers as more likely to be gamers than the general public, whether that’s video games or the ultimate origins of many of these tools: pen-and-paper RPGs.  Though my observations are far from being a scientific study on the matter.

Well now, this has turned into rather more of an essay than I anticipated going into it, so a summary is daunting.  Especially since the real wrap up is the observation that gamification is a powerfully motivating tool for those who are motivated by gamification.  It has its detractors, but if it’s working for you and getting you to write, then don’t listen to them.  Write.  That’s what writers do.  Count your words.  And remember that motivation doesn’t need to come from the end game, it can come at any point along the way.

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