27 August, 2012

A new Nook

So The Queen of Mages is now available for the Nook, too. For you anti-Amazon folks out there. ;)

Becoming a Professional

When it comes to a mass audience, a large part of success is perception. If a potential reader perceives that your work is Professional Quality™, they're more likely to buy it.

How do you get them to think it's professional, when all the merchandise you've got is a product page on Amazon? It's a long, slow, pulling-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps process. I went into this expecting zero success, so I find myself inordinately pleased every time I sell a single copy of THE QUEEN OF MAGES. I have no marketing budget and am slowly working my way into communities where I can suggest that, hey, maybe you'll like my book!

If you can get a few good reviews, and get some buzz going, it can have a multiplier effect. Suddenly more people are exposed to your work, and they see other people recommending it—they start to think, hey, maybe it's worth something. It raises its value in their eyes.

Something else is to have a larger body of work. If someone puts out a novel and that's all they've got, readers instinctively assume they're not worth much. All you've got is the one novel? But this guy over here, he's got five novels and a dozen short stories for sale! Clearly he's more professional.

I'm on the wrong end of that so far: one novel, two short stories. But I'm working on it. My goal is to have a wide gamut of material available, so that there's something to pull in a variety of readers.

There'll be a new free short story available here soon, which I hope everyone will enjoy; and, Godzilla willing, maybe it'll convince someone that my writing is enjoyable enough to spend a few bucks on something more substantial.

22 August, 2012

The Hollow

There's a certain feeling I get in the pit of my stomach occasionally. It took me years to identify it: anxiety. I thought I was someone who didn't ever get stressed or anxious. It's still pretty rare, but that doesn't make it any easier to deal with. In fact, it makes it worse, because I have so little practice dealing with it.

I'm not normally very vulnerable to negative criticism; not that I don't deserve any, but rather that I just don't feel hurt by it... usually. Today someone said something to me that (quite by accident) nailed a particular chunk of self-doubt I've been harboring. I wouldn't be much of a writer if I never had any self-doubt, but because of what was said to me, I've spent the whole day trying to ignore that hollow feeling in my gut. Maybe she's right. Maybe I'm no good.

Am I a good writer? Only time will tell, and even then only if I persist long enough to get some feedback. Maybe a good night's sleep will make the feeling go away—it's worked before—but I'm always going to know that the self-doubt is lurking there. Maybe some day I'll be able to face it.

19 August, 2012

The Post-Publication Dilemma

Consider the dilemma of the just-published author. Let's call him, oh, to pick a name at random, BEN.

Ben has just self-published a book on Amazon (*cough*). He thinks it's pretty good, but that hardly matters: Ben has no advertising budget, no promotional machine supporting him, no name recognition (except for a few friends on a hypothetical fantasy writing discussion forum he frequents, or would frequent, if it were real, which it's not, because Ben is fictional).

From Ben's POV, it's easy: the book is good and everyone should want to read it. But from Randy Reader's POV, it's just one book among thousands of others. What's there to recommend it? Why would he even spend one second looking at it, when there's so many other ways for him to spend his time?

Okay, so you may have seen through my clever ruse and figured out that I'm talking about myself. I'm torn between spending time crawling the Internet, looking for places to promote my book; and spending time writing the next one. On the one hand, the more work I can get out there, the more likely it is that I'll cross that mental threshold into being a "real" author in the eyes of readers; on the other hand, if I can get attention for this book, maybe that will start me off with a bang sooner.

I'm better at writing than marketing (...or so I've led myself to believe), so I'm going to concentrate on the writing aspect, with just a little bit of persistent marketing. It's going to be a long slog to success no matter what, and it's impossible to tell in advance what path to take; so I may as well take one that sounds sane.

17 August, 2012

Several Horrifying Things I Learned While Writing a Novel

Never try to guess how much longer it will take you to finish. You will be wrong.

You will become brutally aware of the phrases you overuse. Do yourself a favor and don't count them, because the number will horrify you.

Deleting a chapter and starting over is a lot less painful than you think it will be.

Don't edit when you're sleepy. You'll just make it worse.

Don't make characters too nice. As much as we all wish we could stay in control, characters who sometimes lose it and say reckless things are a lot more fun to read.

Don't give your first novel a downer ending, because you'll just end up having to completely rewrite it.

It's fun leaving in subtleties and allusions, but people who aren't you tend to miss them. So be sure you put in enough that readers catch some.

Novels are not movies. Don't write dialogue the way movie characters talk.

The awesome battle music from the Lord of the Rings soundtrack you were listening to when you wrote your battle scene will probably not be playing for the reader when they're reading it.

Writing is hard, and there's nothing you can do about it

Writing well is hard because it's hard to get good feedback. Woodworking, filing paperwork, playing poker; these are all things that have relatively simple ways to quantify success. The chair doesn't collapse; last year's tax files are easy to find; you win more money than you lose.

Writing has a trap that other skills don't, which is that you can write for ten years and not get any better. If you're not getting good feedback about what readers think about your writing, you're going to be limited by your own ability to criticize your work; and by all accounts, humans are not good at analyzing their own writing. We always have blind spots, especially about things we created. Your tenth novel might be just as clichéd and boring and poorly-copy-edited as your first one.

If you can get 100 people to read your novel, and they're all strangers, and are all willing to give you good, solid feedback—congratulations, because you're a wizard or something. Most authors can only get a few people to give feedback, and usually those people are friends and family, because those are the only people who are willing to read a novel by an unpublished author. And their feedback is going to be biased, because they don't want to hurt your feelings if they think it's bad.

14 August, 2012

Now what?

So THE QUEEN OF MAGES is now out there in the cold, unfeeling world, bobbing around the Amazon charts. What's next? Is my mission complete? Was my only goal to publish a novel?

Hell no! For one thing, there's going to be two more books in this series. Amira's story is not yet fully told. I've already got copious notes for book 2 and it should be underway soon.

But for another, I made myself a promise when I started this mad quest: I'd give it ten years, and if I didn't find some reasonable measure of success by then, well... then I'd just keep trying.

Because I love writing. I always have; I believe I always will. I haven't got the marketing muscle to get my work widely seen, so I'm going to have to rely on 1) writing well and 2) chipping away at the public consciousness. And I haven't got the free time to spend assiduously building my brand in addition to the hours spent writing.

What's the worst-case scenario? That I spend decades doing this and never have much to show for it. And even if that happens (think positive thoughts, folks!), I at least had the pleasure of creating something—hopefully many somethings—that might have brought entertainment and delight to at least a handful of people.

Our time is limited; I already waited ten years longer than I should have to begin my life's work. I refuse to find myself on my deathbed, wishing I'd had the courage to take my life in the direction I always knew I wanted it to go.

So hold on to your hats, folks. Sooner or later, THE SILVER WAR is coming.

THE QUEEN OF MAGES now available!

After more than a year of blood, sweat, and tears (admittedly, not much blood), THE QUEEN OF MAGES is now available for purchase on Amazon for only $3.99! I guarantee that that's the best deal you'll find all day. (Guarantee not guaranteed.)

Certainly I'm biased, but I think this is my best writing yet: 190,494 words of what I hope readers will find an exciting, entertaining, moving adventure.

I'll write more later today, but for now, go buy it!

13 August, 2012

Final cover art for THE QUEEN OF MAGES

Welp, here it is:

The ebook will be published on Amazon in the next couple of days.

12 August, 2012

The Coming Review Food Chain

With the rise of self-publishing, there are now literally hundreds of thousands of ebooks being published each year. In the old days, the quantity of published books was relatively small; if you regularly perused a few of the mainstream review outlets (mainly newspapers/magazines), you could get a line on just about everything that was both 1) probably good and 2) actually available for you to purchase. (We'll ignore for now the hidden gems that you couldn't get because no large-scale publisher would touch them, even though if you did get a chance to read it, you'd love it.)

The perpetual tsunami of self-published works is unlikely to abate. And the overwhelming majority of what's published will never see any substantial success. But naturally there will be some gems in the rough. How will those get identified?

First, individual authors have to promote themselves like mad in order to get any traction. The first tier of readers will be friends and family of the author, or people who the author directly contacted: people at cons, people at bookstores, or even a small handful of people who happened to click on one of the few AdWords spots that the author was able to pay for, as well as an equally small number of people who stumble across the book and buy it just because they like the cover art or the subject matter or the synopsis.

This tier of people all read the book, and if they think it's good, they'll recommend it to other friends and family. The second tier will repeat this process, and the book may continue spreading, as long as new readers keep thinking it's good.

Most works will never get very far. But a few will, and eventually, they may come to the attention of the bottom tier of reviewers.

What exactly is the "bottom tier of reviewers"? This is sort of the critical flipside of self-publishing: independent critical outlets. Little online magazines, or even just blogs, where people review works. (These sites will have their own issues becoming popular, but we're not concerned with that here.)

The very bottom of these sites will have a handful of readers. Some of these sites will prove to be more astute critics, or will be better at recognizing works that are likely to be popular with a larger audience. And occasionally, one of these bottom-tier review sites will end up hearing about a bottom-tier ebook that a friend (or a few friends) recommended.

So they'll review it, and the other independent review sites in nearby tiers (the ones that have a similar but perhaps somewhat larger readership/prestige) will pick up on the ebook. And if they hear enough about it, they'll end up writing their own review.

This process repeats up the chain, until (ideally) the ebook comes to the attention of the large-scale media outlets that have hundreds of thousands or millions of readers.

It's essentially the crowdsourcing of the slush pile. As a reader seeking good books, you can still pay attention to the big-name critical outlets with a long history; but you can also look around and find a few independent outlets that tend to recommend things you end up liking. Nobody really expects individual readers to troll the endless sea of self-published ebooks.

10 August, 2012

The things we talk about

A sample conversation between me and my wife:

Ben: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3dWw9GLcOeA I, for one, welcome our new roof-surfing avian overlords  
Jean: That's completely inaccurate. He's not surfing at all.
Jean: He's snowboarding.
Ben: He's riding something on top of water. Surfing. QED.
Jean: He's riding a single object down a snowy slope. "Water" is flat.
Ben: http://www.hunuwan.com/WAVE1.jpg != flat
Jean: But definitely not shaped like that rooftop, either.
Ben: Not for very long, sure
Jean: Nor does the surfboard follow the "slope" of the water.
Ben: It's cold in Russia, things work different there
Jean: I'll worship the snowboarding bird, but I will not have this blasphemy that calls it "surfing."
Ben: The New Reformed Church of Water Sports Linguistics accepts definitions expansive enough for all believers.
Jean: They're heretics. They do not understand the TRUE nature of the bird.
Jean: Or of snow.
Ben: I've had enough of this, I'm calling the Crow Pope.
Jean: The Crow Pope is just a jumped-up carrion bird. True understanding of the love of Snowboarding Bird comes from directly viewing the video and understanding its meaning, not from the third-party interpretation of a bird in a silly hat.
Jean: Not exactly what I was looking for, but close enough: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/_mWTKhKCRAi8/TJrol2kMgXI/AAAAAAAADF8/B2RmSErw2gc/s1600/crow+hat_002.png
Jean: Here's your crow pope: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-UgatH3upuyg/Tv5ACsZuYqI/AAAAAAAB-4s/91i-OU4iECo/s400/surprise%2Bparty%2Bcrow.jpg
Jean: And a promotional poster for his US Crowmobile tour: http://images.clipartof.com/small/95375-Black-Over-The-Hill-Crow-Wearing-A-Party-Hat-And-Standing-On-A-Cake-Poster-Art-Print.jpg
Jean: This appears to be him in extra-fancy ceremonial garb, with attendants (or possibly, decoys): http://www.trendytree.com/raz-christmas-decorations/images/h3153361-crowH3153361blackcrows.jpg
Jean: Do you have any idea how much those hats cost? Do you realize how many fledglings Crow Pope could have fed with that birdseed?

09 August, 2012

To hell with OpenOffice

With only a handful of chapters left in my final revision pass (and mostly I'm just waiting on the final cover art), I've decided that even though I wrote the entirety of THE QUEEN OF MAGES in OpenOffice (later LibreOffice; I upgraded back in March, although the two programs are still nearly identical at this point—LibreOffice is a fork of OpenOffice), I'm throwing the damn thing away.

(For clarity, I'm just going to call it LO.)

It is nice writing in a traditional word processor program, with its pretty fonts and non-breaking word wrapping and automatic curly quotes and such, but (and it's a but so big that Sir Mix-a-Lot would drool) problems abounded:

  • Assembling 40 individual chapter documents, 5 pieces of end matter, and a table of contents into an ebook file turned out to be a kludgy, annoying mess. I was able (despite awful documentation) to figure out how to create a master document, in which I could embed the 45 separate documents... one... by... one...
  • You can't edit documents in situ in an LO master document. You have to open each individual linked document separately. Normally this wasn't that big a deal—I tend to work on chapters individually anyway—but occasionally it was annoying, especially when I just wanted to adjust things having to do with layout. After I'd already finished my first draft, I wanted to go back and change how the title of each chapter was written. This meant opening 40 files and editing the header of every. Single. One.
  • LO (even after upgrading from OO) was touchy. Doing certain things with the document list in the master document would make LO crash. Sometimes opening too many documents at once would make it crash.
  • I kept all the files for the entire novel (chapters, front/end matter, notes, etc.) under source control in Subversion. Each day (sometimes multiple times per day, if I was getting a lot done) I would commit the changes. The problem is that Subversion has no idea how to compare differences between versions of OpenDocument files, so Subversion here was nothing more than a highly incremental backup system. If I accidentally changed something (via fat fingers), it might not be obvious, and there was no easy way to tell if something had changed relative to what was in the repository. You can't do svn diff on binary formats.
  • LO has some weird UI issues. Sometimes when scrolling around, a line or two of text will compress by a few pixels. It's just a subtle rendering error, but it's ugly and makes it look weird, but it happens constantly and looks weird.
  • OpenDocument files are a lot bigger than text files. Not that I'm low on disk space or memory, but I've been computing since the days of MS-DOS 2.1, and unnecessary bloat always makes my eye twitch.
  • I only use spellcheck right before I publish something. However, since you can't edit things in a master document, I would have had to open every single chapter file and run LO's spellcheck (which has a not-great UI) on each of them to see if anything was wrong. Instead I ended up using the command-line tool aspell on the exported HTML file (after I stripped out all the HTML tags) and, whenever I found a typo, opened up the particular chapter file to make the fix.
  • LO's HTML exporter is horrible. Not as bad as Microsoft's, but not even close to HTML 4 compliant. Yes, HTML 4, which was finalized in 1997. FONT tags everywhere, badly-formatted CSS, utterly extraneous SPAN tags... ugh.
  • The corollary to the HTML exporter's horrificness is that it's sometimes difficult to tell what kind of formatting/layout you need to do inside LO in order to get a given result in the HTML. This is normally not a huge deal, beause LO tries to preserve the look so that if you view the HTML document in a web browser, it will look more or less the same. But when you then have to convert it to MobiPocket, a format that is not particularly forgiving of formatting weirdness, it can be a problem.
  • I use vim for virtually all text (and for absolutely all code) that I write, and I'm so used to its convenient editing commands that whenever I want to edit things in LO's old-fashioned insert-mode-only interface, I feel like I've had half my fingers cut off.
  • I can SSH to my desktop from my phone, wherever I am, and write using vim. Using LO remotely is far, far more difficult, and (depending on the hardware) sometimes impossible.
As a result of all this, I'm going write the sequel in vim. Yep, good ol' vim, which I've been using for programming for 13 years. (It can do non-breaking word wrapping, too!)

I spent a couple of hours putting together a bash script that uses perl and sed to format the chapter files into MobiPocket-friendly HTML, and then assembles them and the front/end matter files (which are pre-written HTML fragments) into a single master document. It also automatically constructs an HTML table of contents (with links) from whatever files are in the chapters directory.

The only real advantage LO gave me was a little prettiness. But it's not much of an advantage. So I'm kicking it to the curb.