Archive for March, 2014

Full disclosure: My muse and I are in the midst of a trial separation. It’s been that way for going on three years now. Thankfully, the split has been mostly amicable. But we do have our spats, like all estranged couples do. She’s been known to give me the silent treatment for months at a time, and I’ll admittedly blow her off in favor of a six-pack and a ballgame when the mood strikes me. Every once in a while, though, we’ll get on the same wavelength and hook up in that place where all the magic happens—the decidedly unergonomic chair in front of my computer.

Our relationship has been especially bumpy over the past few weeks, to say the least. My muse (who looks suspiciously like Drew Barrymore circa The Wedding Singer) has been all over the map. One day she’s luring me out of bed at the crack of dawn, hot coffee and fresh storylines in hand. The next, she’s nowhere to be found, and I wake to a bleating alarm clock at 11:30 with nothing but the faint scent of her perfume to remind me she was ever there at all. Women. Am I right, fellas?

When I was at my best (God, I sound like Al Bundy reliving his glory days at Polk High) writing-wise, I’d wake up at 3:30 in the am, brew a pot of coffee, then sit down and write for two hours. I’d put about 1,500 well-scrutinized words on my hard drive, save, then head off to work to waste the next nine or ten hours of my life. Like clockwork. Somehow, I managed to do that for three years straight. All that stick-to-it-iveness yielded four complete novels and about a dozen serviceable short stories. Then came the drought.

For almost three years, I wrote next to nothing. I somehow managed to cobble together a decent short story (“Itch”) over the course of six months or so. I got a thousand or so words into another three shorts, even fifty pages into a novel before trunking it. Otherwise, nothin’. Then, this very month, all that changed. I began a casino heist novel that’d been banging around in my head for years. Then I shelved that, switched gears, and started work on the sequel to Signal Fire. Things were rolling along nicely. A couple weeks ago, however, my muse came a-knockin’, slurring her words and reeking of appletinis.

“Hey!” she said. “Y’know what you should do? Ditch that skanky sequel and get back with me. I know we ain’t always been the best couple, but I can change.” Then she started crying. So naturally, I had to take her back.

Since then, predictably, things have been chaotic. Between holding my muse’s hair back while she vomits every morning and calling local hospitals when she disappears every night, I’ve been less than productive. On top of all that, she’s planted two new story ideas in my head, one of which is a horror short that must be written ASAP, the other of which seems like it’s going to top out at novella length. So it looks like the civil unrest is going to continue for a while. But hey, what can I do? The two of us have almost twenty kids together.

Asking for a Re-Blog

Posted: March 29, 2014 in Self-publishing

Here’s my first re-blog (assuming I don’t screw it up). It’s from Opinionated Man at HarsH ReaLiTy. He’s a talented and successful blogger who’s looking to help fellow WordPressers increase their exposure.

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As evidenced by the blog post title you just read, one of my many weak points as a self-publishing writer is my inability to come up with clever, original, pithy strings of letters that make people want to buy my books. Exhibits A through C? All of my book titles suck. A World Gone Gray sounds utterly pretentious, but it winked into existence in my brain at the same time 75% of the novel did seven years ago. So it stuck. Signal Fire? I called it Beacons for four years, then decided a week before I published it that it looked too much like Bacon. So I opened my handy-dandy thesaurus to “beacon,” closed my eyes, and pointed. I’ll have to consult with my team of lawyers, but I’m pretty sure I owe the Roget estate half the royalties. I pulled Like Life Itself completely out of my ass. Obviously.

Well, the internal saber-rattling between my suckitude at marketing and my desire to sell books escalated into all-out war the other night. I happened to log onto Twitter, and #Kindle happened to be the top-trending topic (still is, last time I checked). Naturally, I thought, this is a golden opportunity to have my promotional tweets be lost among the millions of other ones being sent out by other self-publishers doing the same thing I’m doing. In a word (well, two): Mission Accomplished. Okay, it wasn’t a total loss. I picked up a few followers, some of whom seem to be actual existing humans. Some of them may even be readers.

Before I dove into the gladiatorial arena that is Twitter-trending-Kindle, I had a game plan. Don’t be that over-eager spambot douche who Tweets every nanosecond, I told myself. People see right through that. But even if I had wanted to be a spamming douchebot, I couldn’t have. It turns out that my desire to compose an original, compelling 140-character self-advertisement trumps the ol’ copy-and-spam method every time. And it takes (me, anyway) ten or fifteen minutes to obsessively edit one of those bad boys into something suitable for cyberspace. But I also figure a ten- or fifteen-minute break between tweets gives any potential readers time aplenty to discover my awesomeness, so I’m golden. And that’s the story I’m sticking to.

To make a long post short, I think this bodes well for my writing. If I can obsessively edit throw-away Twitter posts at 3am on a Tuesday, odds are the rest of my work will be pretty well-scrutinized. For now, however, I’m off to peddle my wares on Twitter. Excelsior!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ah, Spring. The season heralds the return of stinging insects, artificially-inflated “summer blend” gasoline prices, and insufferable crowds of sweaty, unkempt human beings. Okay, there’s some good stuff too. Like warmer temperatures and flowers and such. Also, baseball.

On Saturday, at 4am Eastern Daylight Time, the Los Angeles Dodgers and Arizona Diamondbacks officially begin the Major League Baseball season at Sydney Cricket Ground in Sydney, Australia*. Not that other Sydney you were thinking of. Anyhoo, I may or may not still be awake to take in the festivities via the miracle that is television. Based on my beer-to-food intake ratio since getting home from work a few hours ago, I’ll probably miss the opening pitch. But while my Dodgers and that other team are battling it out for Game One of the 162-game season, I’ll be dreaming about the quandary facing that handful of players populating the Spring Training fields back in the States, the ones who have proven themselves in the minor leagues, but who can’t seem to find a steady job in the majors. The Quadruple-A players.

At the risk of getting too (literally) inside baseball, the term “Quadruple-A player” refers to a player who puts up impressive numbers at all stages of the minor leagues, including at the top of the food chain, Triple-A. He gets a cup of coffee with the big club, probably several cups. Unfortunately, there are holes in his game. Maybe he’s lead-footed on the bases or drags a stone glove to his defensive position every inning. Maybe he can’t lay off the fastball up and in or the curveball in the dirt. Whatever the case, he’s never going to secure a spot on that big league roster. He just doesn’t have a complete game. Hence, he ends up in that mythical waystation between Triple-A and the majors known as Quadruple-A.

I like to think I’m a decent evaluator of my talents, such as they are. Even before I decided to self-publish, I saw myself as a sort of Quadruple-A writer—maybe not hugely salable, but at least readable. I suspected I’d come this close to publishing a short story for pro pay or getting a serious look from a serious agent, but that instead of finally batting cleanup in New York, I’d end up toiling for some bottom-barrel, backwoods team with a wacky mascot and a fanbase in the double digits. After taking a long, hard, realistic look at my prospects (and my free time, and my patience level, etc.), I decided the self-pub route was the one for me.

So far, it’s been no-frills and few sales. But hey, I knew the job was dangerous when I took it.

*For Australian Eyes Only: My most recent impassioned pleas for your affection can be found here and here.

As much as I’d like to blame my inability to write naked on the five-thread-count, burlap-inspired upholstery that covers my writin’ chair or Mother Nature’s insistence upon Rick-rolling the Midwest and points east regarding the arrival of Spring (and the departure of triple-layers of clothing. Indoors.), there’s only one culprit when it comes to the Curious Case of the Clothed Composer—Stephen King.

By writing naked, of course, I mean writing clean, concise, uncluttered prose—the sort of prose your eighth-grade English teacher would proudly share with her Tuesday night bridge club. When I was a kid, I read everything in the house: Shampoo bottles, cereal boxes, a Nixon-era incarnation of Collier’s Encyclopedia. I also read Stephen King. Lots of Stephen King.

I’m not pooh-poohing Mr. King here. Quite the opposite. I consider him my greatest influence as a writer. But to my eight-, then ten-, then twelve-year-old eyes, his work resonated with me almost as much for its appearance on the page as for its actual substance. There seemed to be italics or bolding or underlining of text (or, sometimes, a glorious combination of the three) on nearly every page. (Keep in mind, this was long before Internet comment sections were invented.) Factor in the em dashes, ellipses, and epistolary segues, and my overactive little brain was finally receiving the nourishment it had been so cruelly denied by the California public school system, circa 1980-something. That dressing-up of words still creeps its way into my writing.

You may have noticed the unholy mess that constitutes the first sentence/paragraph of this web log post. By my count, I’ve included two commas, four apostrophes, five hyphens, thirteen capital letters, a parenthetical (complete with periods and sentence fragments), and perhaps the lengthiest chunk of alliteration in literary history. I won’t even get into the forced pop-culture references. And y’know what? I love it. It was fun to write. Fun to write, but hard to understand for readers. Well, sane readers, anyway.

I suppose most of my desire to fanci-fy my words comes from plain ol’ boring lack of confidence in my writing. Since I’m the first writer in humankind to feel this way, I feel obligated to remind myself that all the italics and ellipses and Random Capital Letters (RCLs) in the world won’t make a bit of difference if I’m not constantly striving to improve the substance of my work. So I solemnly pledge to keep doing that.

Thankfully, as much as I love to dress up my writing for a night on the town, I’m able to rein in that urge come editin’ time. For the most part. I love me some em dashes. And italics. And short sentences. Fragmented or not. But most of all, I love for the reader to know what the hell I’m trying to say. So here’s to me mastering that skill one day. Like Stephen King has.

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One of the best pieces of advice I’ve come across in my seven or so years of writing fiction of questionable merit comes from Stephen King’s On Writing. Okay, 95% of the best writing advice I’ve encountered has come from On Writing, but bear with me for a moment. As tempting as it is to relive the genius that is your completed manuscript a nanosecond after you type “La Fin,” King suggests locking that bad boy in your dresser drawer and denying it the light of day for six weeks, minimum. Since I have the patience of Andy Dick at the DMV, my completed novels only spend four weeks in hard drive purgatory. Lucky them.

Mr. King points out, and I’m paraphrasing here, that the six (or four, if you’re as ADD as me me me) weeks of separation is time enough to distance yourself from the work and make logical, practical decisions when it comes to editing drafts two-through-whatever. This is valuable advice, and I look forward to the day I can heed it. Unfortunately, I have as much trouble pulling the plug on my “darlings” as the next guy or gal; my first drafts tend to look suspiciously like the finished product. Thankfully, my characters have a good sense of humor about the process.

One of the fun things about revisiting an old manuscript long after moving on to the new one is that you gain a sort of detached insight into the characters you’ve created. You know you wrote them, but as King noted (again, paraphrasing), it feels as if they could’ve been written by a kindred spirit. Most of the stuff I’ve self-published so far is dark and/or post-apocalyptic fiction, so it’s comforting to know that one of the attributes most of my characters share is steadfastness in the face of unspeakable adversity. Here are a few lines and/or exchanges from/between/among my characters that made me laugh months (even years) after I initially wrote them:

From Signal Fire:

  • Reese (refusing to buy into the hysteria of the populace after mysterious lights start popping up all over the planet): “I’ll just sit back and watch everyone run around like their heads are cut off and screaming to the high heavens about how the sky is falling.”
  • Tom: “How can people scream if their heads are cut off?”
  • Reese: “You know what I mean.”

***

  • Travis’s interior monologue after trying on the sweater his fashion-challenged wife has picked out for him: The sweater was covered in bizarre geometric patterns, as if a trapezoid and a rhombus had coupled and their offspring had somehow been immortalized in knit.

***

  • Young blogger Leo Simmons’s alternative name for the Teacher Conference Day that suddenly appears on his school’s schedule following the lights’ arrival: If they wanted to be honest, they would’ve called it a We Don’t Know What’s Going on With the Aliens, So Go Ahead and Stay Home Just to be on the Safe Side Because We Don’t Want to Get Sued by Your Parents Day.

From A World Gone Gray:

  • Captain Benjamin Phillips, squeezing through the barely-open door of a ruined strip club: He hissed in pain when the edge of the front door bit into his nipple. Guys around here used to pay a fortune for stuff like that, he thought.

***

  • Morton and Howard, soaking wet and starving, approaching a lighted farmhouse in the middle of nowhere: “What do we say when they answer the door?” Morton wondered aloud.
  • “Tell them you’re Ed McMahon and they’re Dipshit County’s newest millionaires,” Howard suggested.

***

  • Kidnapped pilot Mike, responding to über-rich alcoholic Howard’s query regarding the edibility of a dead colt: “You complain about the quality of liquor in some farmer’s basement, but you’re open to the idea of making Secretariat-burgers out of a week-dead horse?”

It’s surprising yet gratifying (surpratifying?) to know my characters can be relied upon to inject a measure of levity into otherwise precarious situations. Hopefully the characters in my forthcoming mainstream/contemporary novels (y’know, the ones who are actually supposed to be funny) can follow suit.

I’ve discovered that pop culture references, no matter how dated, find their way into my work more often than Taylor Swift changes boyfriends. While I was finalizing Signal Fire mere weeks ago, I found that I’d included references to both The Simpsons and South Park in back-to-back chapters. Chapters one and two, for those of you keeping score at home. In the end, Matt Groening’s animated family was cast aside in favor of the sons of Stone and Parker. I don’t think the creator of the Life in Hell comics will lose any sleep over my decision. Besides, there’s a solid Simpsons reference in A World Gone Gray.

To this very day, obscure pop culture references infest my drafts like Michael Keaton’s cockroaches infested Melanie Griffith and Matthew Modine’s dream home in Pacific Heights. Just this morning, I found myself gleefully hat-tipping Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome while working on Signal Fire‘s sequel. That was on page three. Carnac only knows how many more long-forgotten allusions will set up shop on my hard drive by the time I get to the end of the story.

The problem with including pop culture references in a novel is, of course, that by the time the novel reaches the bookshelves or your readers’ tablets (weeks, months, even years after its final edit), the majority of those references are going to have that “not-so-fresh” feeling. As writers much more talented than I have noted, it’s generally a good idea to keep Los del Rio and Balloon Boy out of your final draft as it’s likely most of your readers will have no idea who the hell you’re talking about by the time the thing’s published. It’ll make your book seem more dated than Anna Kournikova.

One of these days I might take that advice. In the meantime though, I think I’ll keep on truckin’ with the pop culture references. Replacing them now would be like replacing Jane Pauley with Deborah Norville. And nobody wants that.

After nearly four months in the self-publishing biz, I recently received the first two* (count ’em, two!) reviews of my books. Both were posted to Smashwords by the same reader, one each for A World Gone Gray and Signal Fire.

First, the good news: Someone I do not share a surname with (at least I don’t think I do) took their time and money and spent it reading over 200,000 words of mine. That’s still kind of surreal (and very humbling) to me. The reader gave AWGG four out of five stars and felt that it was well-written. Signal Fire? Not so much. Although he or she noted that it was also pretty well-written, the reader was less-than-pleased with its conclusion, which they felt was too abrupt, as if it were the beginning of a continuing work.

Although I’m new to self-publishing, I’m fairly certain this is the part where I’m supposed to ignite a flame war (over Signal Fire, ironically enough) with the reviewer, calling into question their eyesight, their intelligence, and their personal hygiene. As fun and career-ending as that would be, there’s a problem; the reader is absolutely, positively, one hundred-percent correct.

Of the 16,312 anxiety-inducing reservations I had prior to publishing Signal Fire, number one on the list was whether or not it came to a satisfying conclusion. Like the reader suspected, I originally envisioned SF as a longer work, maybe even a multi-book series. With that in mind, I brought it to what I’d hoped was a reasonable, albeit ambiguous, ending. I thought it would work as either a stand-alone or the first in a two-or-more part series, release dates TBD. Strangely enough, I had the exact same problem with AWGG, which I’d also conceived as a much longer work. (In some alternate universe, my poor characters are holding Rascal races in A World Gone Gray Book XXVI: They’ve All Gone Gray.) But as the reviewer made clear, I was able to pull off AWGG‘s conclusion with mostly ham-less hands.

So what to do? I’ve had a few days to think about it, so I’m not going to do anything rash like pound on the Unpublish button and go into hiding. I know one review isn’t the be-all end-all of it all, but if the one reader outside my immediate family who took the time to purchase, read, and comment on SF has the same issue with it that I had, there’s a problem. The last thing I want to do is mislead anyone or put a shoddy product out there. Thankfully, nobody is buying my latest book (if I only had a nickel for every time I’ve heard a writer say that…), so I’ve updated the descriptions on Amazon and Smashwords to reflect that it’s the first of two in a series, and that its exciting (and hopefully, satisfying) conclusion will be available in autumn of 2014.

While going over Signal Fire for the umpteenth time before its release last week, I made the decision to scrap my current project (a heist story) and work on what I thought would be a sequel or companion novel to SF. I started feeling closer to SF”s world than to the one I was very slowly developing in the heist thing, so moving it to the top of the queue was an easy choice. This is just the kick in the ass I needed to set it all in stone.

*When I went to update Signal Fire‘s description on Amazon, I discovered a five-star review there for AWGG dated yesterday. Yippee!

Admittedly, my already tenuous grasp of the language is rusty, but I think that title translates to “Hello, my German friends!” Since my impassioned plea to the people of Australia in the second half of this post eventually yielded my first sale in the Land Down Under (and because I see Amazon.de has added the Look Inside feature to their site), I will now attempt to convey the worth of my works to the beautiful nation of Germany. So here goes:

I spent the better half of the early aughts stationed at the dearly-departed Kelley Barracks/Nathan Hale Depot in Darmstadt, conveniently located directly across the street from Wal-Markt (pronounced vall-marked), a Chinese restaurant, and a local vendor who sold whole roasted chickens out of his delivery van. Needless to say, the three years I spent there were among the most enjoyable of my life. I was immersed in a culture rich in architectural history, beer, friendly women, beer, and lastly, beer. I even picked up a bit of the language, including: ein dunkelweizen, bitte (a dark beer, please), and sechs stück McNugget mit süß und sauer (six-piece McNuggets with sweet and sour sauce—comes in very handy after drunkenly gesticulating to your Turkish cab driver to pull into the McDonald’s drive-thru at 4am). I learned a few other phrases, too. But my mother reads this blog. So…

In all seriousness, I loved my time in Germany. In fact Frankfurt (about 20 miles north of Darmstadt) is one of the settings in the first act of Signal Fire, and writing the handful of chapters in which Germany figures prominently brought back a lot of happy memories. While I was obsessively checking the various Amazon sites a few nights ago to monitor the status of my newly-uploaded second novel, I noticed that the German site now has a Blick ins Buch feature, which means, literally, “something something book.” To me, anyway. In reality, it probably means something along the lines of “Look Inside.”

So, Germany. There’s my spiel. Do with it what you will. But in the end, I think you’ll do the right thing and give my books a Blick ins Buch.

Danke!

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Well, the long wait (for me, anyway) is finally over, and Signal Fire is now available in ebook format at both Amazon and Smashwords!

Here’s the “official” description:

One by one, mysterious pink lights appear in seemingly random locations around the globe—in major metropolitan areas, in remote deserts, even deep beneath the surface of the Atlantic Ocean. While the world’s governments debate how to properly confront the lights, society grinds to a halt as frightened citizens take cover and await contact with the visitors.

Linguist Tom DeWitt and biophysicist Diane McKeenan are recruited by the United States government and tasked with uncovering the secrets surrounding the lights. Time is short, however, as the rest of the world grows increasingly hostile toward the invaders. Meanwhile, wounded soldier Travis Holton must contend with a transfer from the front lines to a desk job, then reacquaint himself with the faith he left behind a decade earlier, all while learning to walk again. Twelve-year-old Leo Simmons uses his blog to chronicle the disorder the lights’ arrival unleashes upon his hometown.

Along with the general “Oh crap, what are those lights going to do?” vibe that forms the basis of the story, I took a look at how different segments of society might react to a situation like this. While DeWitt and McKeenan (and their assistant, Reese, who steals a lot of the best lines) tackle the grunt work of discovering what the lights are and what the hell they’re doing here, Travis and his atheist wife, Petra (along with several billion other folks), are forced to reconsider their faith, or lack thereof, in light (Get it? Light?) of the events unfolding around them. I didn’t delve too heavily into the religious aspect of how proof of alien life would affect humanity, but hey, I had to address the proverbial pachyderm in the living quarters. While the adults are freaking out in a decidedly grown-up way, young Leo and his blog provide on-the-scene coverage of the lights’ effects on Main Street, USA.

Now, the stats:

Word count—95,240 (sez Smashwords)

Price: $2.99

Enjoy!