Thursday, December 24, 2015

Merry Christmas!

I hope you're having a great holiday. I know the next couple days will probably be a whirlwind for most of you, but after things calm down you might want to grab a free copy of He said, She said "Murder" over at Amazon. It will be a free download on Kindle for the weekend. If you already own this title, feel free to let a friend know. You can also sign up for a paperback giveaway of Should Be Dead at Goodreads. The link is above.

I won't waste any more of your precious time. I know you probably don't have much to spare. Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas, and Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Never publish a rough draft... But don't assume you haven't, either

Even in the best relationships, there are bound to be a few hiccups.

 I love Amazon, not just for the convenience and competitive pricing, but also as a business partner. In the past, when they've called on writers to show their support, I've been there, and when I've had to go to KDP for help, they have always been polite and expedient. Unlike many traditional publishers, Amazon treats authors like valued partners. We provide them a product and they distribute it to readers. It's a symbiotic relationship that benefits all of us. Authors get better royalty rates and we maintain full control over our product. Readers get greater selection and lower prices. Amazon gets a cut of the profits, providing a service with very low overhead.

Unfortunately, even in a great relationship, things can happen...

One example is my latest steampunk novel, the Dragon's Breath. I published this book on October 30th, nearly six weeks ago. It's the third book in my Iron Horse series, and as such, Amazon's system should automatically include it in their listings so that anyone browsing my books will see I have a new title out. In other words, the book should link to the rest of the series and the series page should include the latest book. Usually, this happens within the first week of publication, or two weeks at most, but it hasn't yet. Being the patient, understanding person I am, I waited a whole month before I even contacted support. I just heard back today -a week later- that they're still troubleshooting the issue. I know, it's not huge, but every little thing can and does have an affect. As an independent businessman, I have to pay attention to all these details.

Another example: I recently found out that the KDP publishing system sometimes has difficulty sorting out which version of a book they should publish. What does that mean? Well, I recently heard about an author who put up a title for pre-order, prior to publication. In order to do this, the Kindle publishing system requires you to upload a file even though it won't be sent out yet. It's the same process for any e-book. Even if you're not ready to publish, you must upload a file in order to get your information in place and sorted out. I usually upload a rough draft of the book I'm working on. Then, right before publication, I upload a final draft.

The author I mentioned above uploaded a blank file. When it was time to publish, the author simply replaced the empty file with the final draft and then hit the "publish" button. Should be no problem, right? Except the system didn't replace the old blank file with the new one. It published the wrong one. Thousands of empty books went out on the day of sale. It was a mess, and it exposed a serious problem that I and many others had never been warned about.

KDP's automated system apparently keeps some -or all- of the files you upload, and it can't always tell which file should be published.It turns out other authors have had this problem, and only knew because they caught it themselves. The example I used was probably a best-case scenario because Amazon was able to easily correct the problem by sending out the final draft to all those readers. But what if those readers had been given a rough draft instead of a blank file? What if there are thousands, maybe even millions of books floating around on Kindles that aren't even the final version? Imagine the hit in sales an author could take when thousands of people are reading his rough drafts by accident. Honestly, it's a bit nerve-wracking to think about.

I have contacted Support regarding this issue, and I hope to hear back in the next day or two. In the meanwhile, I'm doing the only thing I can think of to prevent this from happening: I'm renaming the files of every single book I have published with a dated name, and re-uploading them to KDP. Hopefully, by integrating the date into the file name, this will force the system to recognize the newer file by its numerically higher name instead of allowing it to make some other arbitrary choice between multiple files. I don't know if it will make any difference or not, because I can only guess as to how the KDP system works, but it's worth the extra effort just for the peace of mind knowing I've done all I can.

I have run into other little issues here and there: From time to time, Amazon changes their algorithms and my sales drop into a hole for a day or two. Sometimes, their system flags and deletes good reviews on my books, while leaving reviews that were clearly posted as an effort to mislead readers about the content of my books. Despite all that, I know that the KDP techs do their best, and I sympathize with the difficulties they face. After all, KDP is HUGE, and the people troubleshooting these problems are usually not the ones who designed and wrote the software. On top of all that, Amazon regularly implements changes to the system, which can have unintended consequences to other aspects of the program. I'm sure it's a headache for them, and it doesn't make it any better when thousands of writers start shooting them emails titled "WTF?" or "What the h--- happened?"

I don't want to be that guy. I do want to be aware of potential flaws in the system, and if I find out about them, I want to make sure others are aware also. Hopefully, this issue isn't as bad as it sounds. Hopefully none of my rough drafts have accidentally gone out to my readers. If they have, then I'm sure KDP will be honest about it and do all they can to make it right. I'll update when I hear from them. In the meanwhile, if you publish through KDP, you just might want to take a look at your file names and consider making those changes.


I wrote this post a few days ago and before I could even publish, KDP responded. According to their response, the Kindle publishing system does NOT permanently keep previous files. When a new file is uploaded, the system is supposed to automatically replace the old file. Unfortunately, this does NOT happen immediately. According to the official response, it can take up to forty-eight hours for the changes to work their way through the system.

That's good news. But it's also terrible news. Why? Because I rarely upload the final version until I'm ready to publish. It's the last step in the publishing process. That means anyone who has purchased one of my books during the first few days of publication, at any time in the last FIVE YEARS, has likely read a rough draft.

In their response, KDP advised me that it's probably best never to upload a rough draft. Umm, yeah. Good to know. I wish I'd known it five years ago and hadn't been doing it all this time. And about The Dragon's Breath: Turns out they fixed that problem, too. Which is excellent news. It now links to the series correctly. However, it took over six weeks, with my personal involvement, to get the situation corrected, which makes me wonder if the same thing could potentially happen with one of these rough drafts. Is it possible that one of these rough draft files has been sold to my readers for weeks, or even months without correction?

I don't know. I have no way of finding out except to purchase a copy of each file after I publish it, and then immediately read it, looking for errors that I know were corrected in the final draft. Yes, I do feel sick to my stomach. It's humiliating. Worse yet, it's potentially damaging to my career (and to anyone else who's ever done this). There's no way to count how many possible readers have been turned off by downloading an unfinished file.

Going forward, I'm going to avoid creating the book in KDP until I have a final draft... or, at the very least, I will keep a blank file to upload in that situation. At least then, I'll know what has gone out to my readers and will be able to quickly remedy the problem. I'll also keep renaming my newly published files, just in case. This is probably unnecessary based on what KDP has told me, but it's best to take every possible precaution.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

New Mystery Available This Week!

I'm happy to announce that book one of the Valkyrie Smith mystery series is now available at Amazon,  in e-book and paperback formats. You can download Should Be Dead here for only $0.99 US, or borrow it for free with your Amazon Prime account. Pay attention, I'll announce a paperback giveaway soon!

Valkyrie Smith should be dead. None of the killer’s other victims have survived. Yet somehow, after spending two long nights trapped at the bottom of a dry well with a broken back, Valkyrie miraculously came through. She lost everything that night: her husband, her son, her dreams. Lying at the bottom of that well, staring up at a tiny circle of sky and waiting for the killer to find her and finish the job at any moment, Val lost one more thing: She lost her fear.

The doctors told her she might never walk again, but Val refused to give up. After years of rehabilitation and relentless determination, Valkyrie regained her mobility. She didn't stop there. Valkyrie went on to take training in self defense and firearms, and developed a strategy to track down the killer. She dedicated her life to bringing him to justice. She walked away from her past forever, and began moving from to town to town in search of the man who had slaughtered her family.

Now, after a series of missed opportunities, Valkyrie finally has her chance. An anonymous phone call informs her that the man she has been hunting has surfaced again in Sequoia County, a rural California landscape of redwood forests, vineyards, and isolated coastlines. Valkyrie knows it could be a trap. She doesn’t care. Armed with her skills, her intellect, and her determination, Valkyrie heads straight into the heart of danger. She thinks she’s prepared for anything. She’s wrong.


Should Be Dead is one of those fun stories that straddles the line between mystery and thriller. Like most of my novels, it's fast-paced with a few twists and turns. The characters are realistic and yes, there are serial killers and grown-up subject matter involved, but I think nothing overly disturbing. If you've ever watched Castle or CSI you should be fine with this.

I have to admit, I'm curious to see how mystery fans react to this character. I'm not sure how she stacks up against other popular fictional investigators because, to be honest, I haven't been reading a lot of mystery in the last few years. In fact, I've found myself reading a lot less fiction overall as I get deeper and deeper into my own writing. When I find time to read, I usually ended up reading nonfiction or going with the classics. Charles Dickens, Herman Melville, Edgar Rice Burroughs and so on.

For some reason, Valkyrie is a special character to me. The inspiration for her just struck me out of nowhere, and the instant I saw her in my mind, I felt that she was something special. In fact, I was almost reluctant to publish this book because I wanted to be sure that it lived up to Valkyrie's potential. I'm very hopeful. I think Valkyrie has many adventures ahead of her.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Erased: Radio Edit

When I wrote Erased, I had originally planned to submit (and hopefully publish) the book traditionally. Because of that, I tried to stay within the expected confines of the genre. What that means is that I wrote the book to stay within certain parameters that would make it acceptable to traditional publishers. The original draft was about 90,000 words. I specifically edited it to make sure this was the case, because traditional publishers like a thriller to come in between 90k and 100k words. They have similar expectations for pretty much every genre.

Of course, writing a thriller also requires a thrilling story. There must be a sense of danger and anticipation. It should be fast-paced, practically forcing readers to turn pages just as fast as they can. The characters should be realistic, but edgy: dangerous. That's why so many thrillers are filled with sociopaths who drink and swear, who have promiscuous sex, and kill their fellow human beings without so much as blinking an eye. And those are the good guys. (James Bond, anyone?)

For what I was trying to do, I think I succeeded for the most part. Unfortunately, even when I was writing the story I was aware of the fact that the profanity was going to turn off certain readers. Big publishers don't have to worry about this, because they market a book like Erased to a very specific audience. They know who that audience is and what they like. Sex and profanity are just part of what makes a good thriller thrilling. Plus, they have the ability to put a well-known name on the cover, virtually guaranteeing a certain amount of sales, regardless of what's actually between the covers.

The thing is that most of my books are pretty clean that way. My characters may make vague sexual references or jokes, but they never engage in graphic acts of sexuality, and only rarely do they curse. In my books, profanity is minimal and usually pretty inoffensive. Which is why, looking back now, I realize that Erased is sort of a black sheep among my books. I worry that some people who like my other mysteries, or even my fantasy and sci-fi stories, might end up reading Erased and being offended by it. I hope this hasn't happened -I haven't had any complaints- but I've decided that it's probably best to be proactive about the whole thing.

It's ironic I suppose, because I tend to be amused by people's reactions to certain words. After all, they're just words. And no matter how much PC propaganda you see on TV or hear on the radio, deep down inside you know that words don't actually hurt. Sticks and stones hurt. .45 caliber hollow-points and frag grenades hurt. Words may irritate, offend, and even blaspheme, but in the end they're just words.Yet if you use one of these words in the wrong company, you might find yourself ostracized or even worse. It can affect your social life, your family, even your job. Yet we use other words that mean the exact same thing, and we consider them harmless. I don't need to provide examples, do I?

So how did some of these words end up being profanity, while others are perfectly acceptable? Who made these decisions?

Well, it's a social thing, and it goes back to old English society, when people were divided up into classes, or castes. In those days you had a large population of peasants. These were farmers, mostly. Skilled laborers ranked slightly higher, and then came the merchant class, the nobles, royalty, and so forth. But despite this huge population, there wasn't really any middle class. You had two groups of people living at the extremes: extreme poverty on one side, and extreme wealth on the other.

Education wasn't free in those days. Since there weren't any public schools or programs for the poor, they remained ignorant, and their language was simple and often crude. Naturally, wealthy nobles could afford a good education, and they enjoyed a great many advantages because of this. This language barrier made it easy to differentiate which extreme you were on. The wealthy looked down on the poor as filthy and ignorant. The poor berated the wealthy for their arrogance and superiority. But over time, this system began to fall apart, and a middle class began to emerge. Soon, the nobles all but disappeared and the poor became educated.

Despite all these changes, one thing that stuck with us was the language. The words we consider profane -or acceptable- are based not on their meanings (after all, other acceptable words have the same meanings, right?) but on the fact that people who used them were either wealthy (and therefore superior) or poor (and therefore "low-class"). Naturally, the profanity in use today has nothing to do with education or even the meaning of the word, but rather a social stigma. People don't swear today because they're ignorant and can't find a better word. They swear because it's fun; because they know somebody will be offended by it, and that is thrilling. 

As for me, I'm a writer.  Every time I form a sentence or a paragraph, I have to think about different ways to write it. I explore different words and phrases, different rhythms, and so forth. I find a word's ability to offend, anger, or inspire to be amusing. But for the sake of my readers who do get offended by certain words, I try to minimize their use. And that's why I've spent several weeks this fall revising Erased to make it a little more socially acceptable, and a little more consistent with the rest of my body of work. I want to point out that I wasn't coerced into doing this. I didn't receive a bunch of complaints or threats. It just seemed like the right thing to do. I hope you guys agree.

So, if you already own Erased, you can download the newest edition. Simply log in to your Amazon account, and under your account, scroll down to digital content. Select "manage content and devices" and then go to "settings." On this page you'll find the option called "Automatic Book Update." Turn it on, and then your books should automatically download the latest version (assuming you are connected to the internet at the time). It's also worth noting that on this page, you will find the email address assigned to each of your Kindle devices and apps. Using this address, an author or friend can email a document or book directly to your Kindle. Then, depending on which device you're using, the document will show up in your library automatically, or under "documents."

I will also be contacting Amazon to make them aware of the changes. In some cases, they will actually "push" the update directly to your Kindle without any additional effort.

In this new revision of Erased, you will also find some minor editing changes and corrections, as well as updated links, with the exception of my newest book Should be Dead. I don't have a link for that one yet because it's not live, but it will be any second....

I hope the changes have been worth it, and I really hope you like what I've done with the book. As I've said before, I've lost interest in pursuing this title as a series, but you never know. Brandy Jackson just may show up again, in one of my other books, so keep an eye out. 

Oh, and if you don't have it yet, you can grab Erased at amazon for just $0.99!

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Iron Horse 3: Available Now!

I'm very excited to announce that The Dragon's Breath e-book is now available! As I often do, I'm reducing the price at Amazon to $0.99 for the first few days, just for you guys. While you're at it, grab a copy of The Clockwork God if you haven't yet, because it's free right now. That means you can get the first three books in the series for less than $2 U.S. I don't want to sound egotistical or anything, but it's totally worth it!

While you're at it, tell a friend. They won't get a better chance to sample this series. But do it now, because the price will go back up very soon. Also:I've approved the final proof of the paperback and it should be available on Amazon any time. It takes them a day or two to get the links worked out, but it will show up. After I have some copies in hand, I'll set up a giveaway. I might even get an extra copy or two for my loyal readers/reviewers if you ask really nice :)

I can't wait to hear what you think. If you enjoy the book, and happen to have a few minutes to post a review on Amazon and Goodreads, I would be grateful. In the meanwhile, I'm updating links and descriptions, and trying to get back to work on my other books!

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Coming Soon... Very Soon (with cover reveals!)

Over the next few weeks I'll be releasing two novels, one steampunk and one mystery/thriller. First, I'll be publishing book three in my Iron Horse steampunk series. Here's the cover and blurb:

As the Iron Horse journeys ever deeper into its mysterious post-apocalyptic world, the crew encounters a lone knight on a quest to slay a dragon. They mock him at first, but when they arrive at the fog-shrouded city known as Stormwatch, the streets are abandoned, the doors are locked, and the citizens are terrified to leave their homes. One old woman, alone and seemingly insane, confronts the crew with this ominous warning: Beware the dragon's breath! 

They hear the knight's words echoed in her statement, and begin to realize that things may not be as they appear. Then, as night closes in, strange things begin to happen aboard the Iron Horse. Crew members are attacked by invisible beings and strange, mutated creatures. One by one, they begin to vanish. When it seems things can't get any worse, they realize their adventure has only just begun... and that maybe, just maybe, dragons really do exist.


I'm also launching a new mystery/thriller series. These books are not related to the He Said/She Said detective series except for the fact that they both begin in Sequoia County (my fictional setting based on several northern California counties) and they share a few of the same supporting characters. This is the Valkyrie Smith series:

Valkyrie Smith should be dead. None of the killer’s other victims have lived. Yet somehow, after spending two long nights trapped at the bottom of a dry well with a broken back, Valkyrie miraculously survived. She lost everything that night: her husband, her son, even her dreams. Lying at the bottom of that well, staring up at a tiny circle of sky, waiting for the killer to find her and finish the job at any moment, Val lost one more thing: She lost her fear.

The doctors told her she might never walk again, but Val refused to give up. After years of rehabilitation and relentless determination, Valkyrie regained the ability to walk. She took training in self defense and firearms, and developed a strategy to track down the killer. She walked away from her past forever, and began moving from to town to town in search of the man who had killed her family.

Now, after a series of missed opportunities, Valkyrie finally has her chance. An anonymous phone call informs her that the man she has been hunting has surfaced again in Sequoia County, a rural California landscape of redwood forests, vineyards, and isolated coastlines. Valkyrie knows it could be a trap. She doesn’t care. Armed with her skills, her intellect, and her determination to see the killer brought to justice, Valkyrie heads straight into the heart of danger. She thinks she’s prepared for anything. She’s wrong.


I'll send out a newsletter when they're ready. I also have a sequel to He Said/She Said written, but I'm going to save it for later in the series. I'm working on another right now, which should end up being Book 2. I hope to have both published by this spring. 

Also on dock: I'm in the outlining stages of a new fantasy series. It's high/epic fantasy, which I've missed writing over the last few years. I cut my teeth on The Lord of the Rings, Conan, Tarzan, and all of the derivative works that filled shelves back in the 80's. High-fantasy influences just about everything else I do, and I feel like I'm ready to delve back into that world. 

I have also been outlining the next two Hank Mossberg books. I know it has been a while, but I've had a lot going on and I didn't want to rush through these. Part of the problem is that I expect some major cliffhangers in Books 5 and 6, and a huge story arc that will require two books. I don't want to publish one and then make my readers wait a year for the second part, so I'm going to try to write and publish both at once. I've never tried this before, so we'll see how it works out. 

As always, follow my blog and newsletter to stay updated.  

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Amazon Sues Fake Reviewers

It's old news that people will write or buy fake five-star reviews for their books, and they will also post or buy fake one-star reviews against the books of authors they consider competition. Over the last two years, Amazon has gradually been hardening their stance against these scumbags. They've rewritten their terms of service and started enforcing them. They've removed hundreds, perhaps thousands of reviews they deemed suspicious, and earlier this year, they sued several websites guilty of selling fake reviews.

Maybe it's working, because now they've filed suit against more than 1100 individuals who are advertising their fake review services on a website called Fiverr. The website is a Craigslist type of classified, where you can purchase or sell services for five dollars. People use this for all sorts of things: graphic art, music, tutorials, resumes, and obviously, fake reviews.

It's still rather baffling to me that people will shamelessly advertise the fact that they will write a five-star review for a book they've never read, or worse yet, write a one-star against someone you don't like, for $5. I didn't have much faith left in humanity, and examples like this really don't help.

My personal feelings aside, Amazon knows that this is a problem, and now that it has caught the public's attention, it could possibly even endanger their business model. After all, if buyers can't trust the reviews on Amazon, they might end up going somewhere else. Amazon needs to get this fixed. I predicted before that they would seek people to make examples of, and I think this is another step in that direction. I don't know if this will succeed in discouraging fake reviews, but it should be interesting to watch the fallout. After all, Amazon has the identities of these reviewers and their customers. Or they will soon enough. The lawsuit will expose the identities and financial information of the people who bought and sold these reviews. Most likely, those "authors" will have their books banned from Amazon permanently and their accounts closed. They may even find themselves on the receiving end of another lawsuit.

 Which makes me wonder what will happen if Amazon finds that some of their best-selling authors were buying hundreds of fake reviews? What if their investigation proves that there is in fact a direct correlation between high sales and a large number of five-star reviews? Will they relax their policy? Or will they publicly shame these people for their unethical behavior? It's hard to guess, because Amazon is still a business, and their number one priority must be protecting the bottom line. Which is more valuable: a reputation for honest reviews and quality products, or a higher quarterly revenue due to a handful of best-selling novelists?

I'm not saying that's exactly how it is, nor am I predicting such a result, but it does raise some interesting questions. For a while, it seemed that Amazon wasn't terribly concerned about fake reviews. I'm sure many people out there took this as a sign that they were "looking the other way" in order to let authors (or other retailers) bump up their sales, even though it was technically forbidden in their TOS. What if those people now end up sued for all the money they made selling books at Amazon? Or more? And what about the victims? Surely, there are some authors out there who received these fake one-star reviews. After all, if somebody's selling them, that mean's somebody is buying them. So what will happen to those authors, when Amazon's algorithms find a connection between their books and these fake reviewers? It could get ugly, if they're not careful.

Hopefully, when the smoke clears, we won't find any innocent bystanders caught in the crossfire.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Surviving summer (progress report)

I did it! I survived the summer.

I know. It really doesn't sound like such a big deal. Everybody loves summer, right? Camping, hiking, swimming, sunshine. What could be bad about that? I'll tell you: I didn't get to do any of it. Admittedly, it's my own fault.

I should start at the beginning:

In my area of NorCal, summers are short. No, I don't mean we bend the laws of the universe and throw out the principles of physics that govern our seasons, or that we have our own California Calendar that ignores the rest of the world's seasons (though I'm not sure why not, since we seem to do anything else we want here, regardless of how bat---- crazy it is)... What I mean is that school summers are short. The kids get out in June and go back in early August. I don't know this for a fact, but I'm pretty sure my kids are getting stiffed out of at least three extra weeks of summer that I had back in the 70s and 80s. On the other hand, they do get a federal holiday every couple weeks, plus two weeks off for thanksgiving, and almost three weeks for Christmas, and they only go to school half a day every Wednesday.

Yes, every freakin' Wednesday is a minimum day, all year long. Why? I don't know. Nobody does. It's a mystery of the universe. Sure, I could go all conspiracy-theory about it and say the schools like making things difficult for working parents; that they like young kids going home alone. Or, I could say this has the fingerprints of the teachers' unions all over it, because it draws out the school year, shortens summer, and means more paychecks for the teachers. But I won't say any of that, because that would just be paranoid.

Anyway, back to the point: The kids (I have three, but only two still in school) are home for the summer, and that usually means I don't get much writing done. I pretty much gave up on trying a few years ago. I've been using that time instead to get caught up on other projects. Home maintenance, vehicle maintenance, maybe even building a canoe or doing something else creative. This year, I had the brilliant idea of building a loft in my house.

It looked pretty simple on paper. I had to tear down one small wall along the living room staircase, build a bigger wall, and then build a floor on top of that. This description is overly-simplified, but it seemed totally doable in six weeks or so, which is what I had by the time my permit was approved. I got some help from one of my sons in the beginning, but after the first week he lost interest. I kept chugging along, building the floor, installing wiring, sheetrock, texture and paint. I almost made it. I actually did the final painting the week that school started, and the carpet came about ten days later.

The loft is going to be my office, which is going to be great for my writing, but one thing I hadn't really considered ahead was the furniture. I've had to shuffle things around from room to room, and order a new desk. I'm still working on some other details. The good news is that I am back to writing. I've been working on revisions of books I wrote earlier this year (Iron Horse part 4, He Said/She said Part 2, etc.) and I hope to publish something by the end of next month. No promises, but I am getting close. And the fact that I've already written three books this year puts me way ahead of the game. (I like to aim for four books a year. I don't always hit the mark, and sometimes I don't publish one or two until the following year, but it's a solid goal).

So, despite being exhausted and physically and emotionally drained, I survived the summer. In fact, I made huge progress towards my goals for the year, and my future writing is going to be a lot more enjoyable. On the downside, I haven't done any sort of promotion in months. I haven't given any books away, run any ads, or even visited the writers' blogs and forums that I used to frequent. So now I have to start getting back to business. After all, that's kind of the point in having a writing loft.

So, I'll probably plan a few giveaways to coincide with upcoming books, and put out a newsletter or two reminding everyone that I'm still alive. I'll see what else comes up. But as soon as I have it figured out, I'll let you know. You do follow this blog, and my newsletter, right?

Friday, September 4, 2015

Alone: A show for true Survivors

Way back when, sometime around the turn of the century, I remember hearing about a new television show that was in production. The concept, as it was explained to me, was to abandon a group strangers on a desert island where they would be forced to survive with little or no supplies. That show was to be called Survivor, and I still feel disappointed when I remember watching the first few episodes.

It was immediately apparent that this show had nothing to do with surviving. In fact, even though billed as such, it wasn't even a reality show. It was a game show, arguably scripted, and the primary concern of each contestant was not how to catch a fish, kill a bear, or build a fire, but rather how  to make friends and then stab them in the back. It wasn't about surviving, it was about lying, manipulation, and betrayal. In short, it was television for sociopaths.

Well, I guess I'm on the outside here, because that show did very well among American audiences. It's not only still in production, there are several spin-offs. I don't plan on watching any of them. However, I have been watching History Channel's Alone. For any of you out there who feel the same disappointment with other so-called survival shows, this is one to check out.

The premise: Abandon ten survival experts on Vancouver Island. Allow each survivor a choice of ten pieces of equipment (choosing from a list of about 40 items), including such gear as an axe, a tarp, and a sleeping bag. Give them cameras to record their activities and place them approximately ten miles apart, so they are completely isolated and surrounded by impassable forests, mountains, freezing seas, and literally tens of thousands of black bears and cougars.

Pretty simple, huh? These guys are out there alone in the wilderness facing bitterly cold and wet weather, generally miserable conditions, and thousands of deadly predators. All they have to do is survive. Sounds easy, unless you've actually tried it. For example, have you ever tried starting a fire with only a ferro rod? It can be a lot harder than it looks, especially in northwest Washington state, where it can rain more than 250 inches per year! Some of these individuals chose to bring axes and saws, others brought a bow and a small supply of arrows, but when it came down to it, I was amazed at how difficult staying alive on this island proved to be. Many of them ended up surviving on kelp and seawood, and the occasional fish. One of the survivors even turned to field mice as a source of protein, and another was thrilled at the opportunity to boil up some slugs!

I won't tell you how the first season ends, but I can tell you that all of the long-term survivors lost a considerable amount of weight. I will also share this one spoiler: Over half the survivors were gone in the first week.

I have to be honest, I have always wanted to do something like this. As a kid in Montana, I spent a lot of time hiking and camping up in the woods by myself. My grandfather's ranch, where I lived until I was eleven, was up against a national wilderness. My parents were divorced and my mother usually wasn't home, so I had free run of the place. I built forts and tree houses, I climbed mountains, I rode horses (remember that scene in Disney's Brave when the little girl was shooting arrows at targets up in the trees from horseback? That was me. Except male, of course, and blond. I literally did that as a kid.).

Frankly, I'm not sure how I survived. I was up in those mountains alone with mountain lions, wolves, moose, and black/brown/grizzly bears. In fact, the area where I spent my childhood playing was a well-known drop-point for grizzlies out of Yellowstone. See, in Yellowstone Park, grizzly bears sometimes lose their fear of humans and start attacking us. When that happens, rather than kill them, the Forest Service shoots them up with PCP and drops them out of a helicopter in the remote mountains of Montana. Conveniently, those remote mountains were my backyard. Looking back, I truly believe it was only by the grace of God that I'm still alive. But I digress...

I have a lot of stories about the old ranch, but the point is that I always felt like I was just this side of Grizzly Adams. I was out there in the woods, often alone, doing everything short of literally living off the land. But I always had home nearby. I always knew that I was just a few hours away from food and shelter, and because of that, I never really got to find out if I could truly survive out there. Of course I was only a child at the time, and when I got really, really hungry I just headed for home.

While watching Alone, I couldn't help marveling at some of the decisions the survivors made. Each person took a different approach. Some I never would have considered. I found myself swinging back and forth between "Why on earth did he do that?" to "Wow, that was pretty clever."

I'm not sure I would attempt something like this at my age and stage of life. Most of my camping these days is done in a 25 foot trailer, or at the very least on a cot or air mattress. However, it was enjoyable as a vicarious experience and I even learned a few things that I can utilize in my own life, or even bring to my writing at some point. My family and I were drawn in, captivated, and we even learned a thing or two. That's value entertainment. I can't wait for Season Two.

By the way, they're taking apps on the website if anyone's up for the challenge!

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Make your own eBooks: Simple, Fast, and Free!

It doesn't take a genius to format a manuscript into an eBook. Yes, you can pay someone a few hundred bucks to do it for you, but if you know the basic operations of a word processor (like Microsoft Word) then you can do it yourself for free. The first question you have to ask yourself is whether you have the time and patience to learn this. It's not hard, but it will take a few hours of your time. When you're done, you'll have to check the results and make sure they're satisfactory. For some, that extra work is worth saving several hundred dollars per manuscript (which could add up to thousands by the time you're publishing your twentieth novel!). Others may prefer to hand their work over to a pro and fork out the cash, hoping their book will eventually sell enough copies to pull a profit.

What it really comes down to is this: Are you independently wealthy, or do you have to count every penny? Do you have a trust fund or other inheritance with which to finance your writing hobby, or are you trying to make a business out of this writing thing?

Okay, that was a little tongue in cheek but you get my point. I've heard far too many complaints from people who've paid for multiple rounds of professional editing, professional cover art, and professional formatting only to realize that it might take ten years for their novel to earn out the production costs. If you're spending thousands of dollars just to get one book published, you're doing something wrong. That isn't what being a writer is about. The old rule that Money flows to the writer, not the other way around, still applies. If you want to make a profit at this, you're going to have to balance the value of various services against your own time and abilities. E-book formatting is a good place to start, especially if you write basic fiction.

The first thing you should probably do is to surf over to Smashwords and download their Style Guide. The reason I say this is because out of all the eBook converters out there, I've never found anything more finicky than the Smashword's Meatgrinder.The Style Guide will teach you to format a spotless, almost worry-free manuscript from the moment you start typing. As with many things in life, good habits now can save a lot of work later. If you decide to publish through Smashwords, you'll be way ahead of the game.

Here are a few tips and tricks to get you started:

First of all, Keep It Simple! Everything you add that goes beyond a basic manuscript makes this process more complicated and unreliable. Want to add a bunch of art or graphics? Drop caps on every chapter opening? Hyperlinks to each chapter, or to various parts of the book? Each of these will add to the learning curve and increase the likelihood that your book won't appear correctly in one or more formats. The goal here is to make one basic manuscript that converts correctly to every format, and that is an excellent place to begin.

There are five simple rules to create a clean manuscript that can be translated into just about any format. Start with these: 

1) If you're using Microsoft Word or a similar word processor, disable smart tags. Select the Tools menu and go down to Options.  Select the View tab and uncheck "smart tags." This will save you all kinds of headaches later. Also go into Tools, Autocorrect, Smart Tags and disable the "Label Text with Smart Tags" option. Without getting into too much detail, smart tags are something used by Word that other word processors and programs don't always understand. You're better off not having them at all. This process may vary with different versions of Word or other programs, so further investigation may be necessary.

2) Use a hard "return" at the end of chapters. You do this by pressing "ctrl" and "enter" keys at the same time. This starts a whole new chapter on a whole new page, and signifies to e-readers and eBook conversion programs that this is a new chapter.

3) Use bold type on chapter headings. This tells some eBook converters that this is a new chapter. On others, it shouldn't do any harm, so you might as well practice it.

4) Do NOT use extra returns. In other words, don't hit return at the end of sentences and don't double space between paragraphs. In fact, some programs believe that three "enters" in a row should mean a new chapter. You don't want that. Instead, set up your word processor to automatically indent 3 spaces at the beginning of a new paragraph.  Do this by choosing the Format, Paragraph menus and under Indents and Spacing go to the Indentation section and select "special." Set "first line" to 0.3 and save. Now, your paragraphs will automatically indent to a reasonable-looking three spaces instead of the default 5. Every time you hit "enter" you will start a new paragraph with indentation, as it should be.

5)  Don't justify your text or hyphenate words between lines. Most e-readers do this automatically, and if you try to force justification, you're just asking for problems. (For example, people can choose different fonts and font sizes on their Kindle. If you set up justification and hyphens based on a certain font and page size, these variables will change from one reader to another, causing your text to come out in a jumble of typos and misspellings. Remember, just keep it simple!)

Conversion & Publication: 

Now that you have a clean manuscript, how do you format it for different programs and e-readers? The easiest answer is to set up an account at Draft2Digital, otherwise known as "D2D." You can upload your Word compatible document as-is, and their program will automatically format it for Kindle, Apple, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, and many more. It will also automatically add hyperlinks for the chapter sections at the beginning of your book, and you can add your bio, copyright, and/or website link if you choose.

They don't even mind if you download a copy and use it at those other places without using their services, although I highly recommend going through their automatic submission service. (D2D will charge a small fee based on your book sales. If you can't stomach that, you'll have to set up accounts at all those other stores and then manually upload and manage those accounts. Most of us sell very few eBooks in markets outside of Amazon, so it really isn't worth the trouble unless those sales take off in an extraordinary way.) Amazon is the one service where I highly recommend you publish directly. You'll have much greater control over your publications, real-time info on sales, and the option to download spreadsheets on previous months' sales data. Even so, you can still use the Kindle version created by D2D, and then upload it through your Amazon KDP account.

Other conversion options:

There are various software programs that can convert your document into various formats. Calibre is a nice one for Kindle conversions because it's free, efficient, and allows you to add those little HTML touches like Drop Caps, hyperlinks, and images. However, you should probably convert your Word doc into an HTML file before taking these steps and/or making the conversion. Simply go into Word's File menu, choose "Save as" and in the drop down box for file type, choose "Web Page, Filtered." The new file you save will be a fully editable HTML file, without all of Word's extra and unusable fluff.

Amazon's KDP also offers a relatively easy and consistent conversion, but remember that this will only be for your Kindle version. And of course, you should always view the converted file on the e-reader device or program for which it was intended, just to be sure your formatting remained intact.

This should be more than enough to get you started. The nice thing is that regardless of which publishing option you choose later, your manuscript should already be optimized by following these simple steps ahead of time. You can even set up a blank document with all these settings stored as a template. Name it something like "New Project," and use it every time you start a new book. After typing a few words, you can save again under your working title, and the "New Project" file should always be there for you.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Hell on Wheels

If you know anything about me, it shouldn't come as any great surprise that I'm a fan of AMC's Hell on Wheels TV series. After all, I'm fascinated by early industrial engineering (did somebody say steam engines?) and black powder firearms are a hobby of mine. Besides, this show revolves around the building of the U.S. Transcontinental Railroad, and I just happen to be writing a steampunk series called Aboard the Great Iron Horse.

In fact, The Tinkerer's Daughter Trilogy took place in the early stages of an industrial revolution not unlike frontier America. Of course -SPOILER ALERT!- my stories are fantasies that take place in a post-apocalyptic future peopled with elves, giants, and steam-powered gorillas (okay, just one of those). Technologies like gunpowder and steam engines were almost lost during the cataclysm that ended modern civilization, but never entirely went out of existence. But I digress...

Hell on Wheels is about the adventures of a former confederate soldier (named Cullen Bohannon) who sets out to take revenge on the men who murdered his family. He traces them to a temporary railroad town named Hell on Wheels and ends up staying there to help finish the railroad. The town is so named because it's little more than a tent city for railroad workers. As construction moves along, they pack up the town and bring it with them. But don't think that means Hell on Wheels is just a quiet little campground. This town makes Tombstone look like Happyville. Amidst the saloons, whorehouses, and casinos are ex Confederate and Yankee soldiers, Native Americans, and ex-slaves known as "freemen" struggling to find their place in a world where they're still not truly considered equal, and working for the railroad doesn't feel that much different than slavery did. In that respect however, all citizens of Hell on Wheels are equal.

Hell on Wheels is almost entirely populated by the dregs of society These people wouldn't find a place in a civilized town anywhere, and they all have one thing in common: no one's place is assured, and fates can change in an instant. This series isn't for kids. It's filled with drama and violence in a way that almost rivals Game of Thrones, save for the fact that sometimes the good guys win in this show. But don't count on it. There's plenty of tragedy to go around. In fact, one of the things I like about Hell on Wheels is that it's hard to tell from one episode to the next which characters are heroes and which are villains, and there's no way to predict who's going to come out on top.

The tension is ever-present and cliffhangers abound, so binge-watching will be the most rewarding way to enjoy this show. Hell on Wheels just started its fifth season, and the reason I'm writing this now is because AMC has announced that this is the show's final year. You can watch Hell on Wheels free on AMC, starting with Season One, or you can own it permanently on Amazon for a small fee per episode. I believe the first four seasons are also available on Netflix.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

2015 Projects

Spoiler Alert: This post is NOT exciting!

Project updates are where I usually tell you about my latest project or hobby, something like building a boat, restoring a classic car, or blacksmithing. Sorry, no pics this time because this summer is boring. No canoes, muscle cars, or even a real vacation. This year, I'm focusing on my house.

When my wife and I bought this place back in '03, it was perfect for us. Perhaps a little small at 1200 square feet, but it had potential. It was relatively new, and compared to some of the homes on the market at that time (fast approaching the pre-recession peak) it was a steal. Our payment was low enough that we knew we should be able to hang on even if one of us lost a job. And that potential I mentioned? The design of the house left room for numerous improvements and expansion projects. Like the second-story deck off the master bedroom that I built right away, followed by the recording studio in the garage.

After those projects, I left things alone for a few years to enjoy the fruits of my labor. In the meantime, we had our third child. Then, the economy went south. I lost my job of 10 years without any warning whatsoever, and we ended up almost losing our home. That's another story, but in the end we're still here and I've finally been able to turn my attention back to some of the projects I had originally planned all those years ago.

This summer, I've been working on building a loft. My living room has a huge vaulted ceiling, and I always wanted to do something with that space, so I'm turning it into a second-story office. I drew up the plans this spring, and applied for and received my construction permit in the beginning of June. Since then, I have built the loft with some help from my sons, installed the electrical wiring and half-walls, and I'm working towards the finishing touches (an inspector must sign off on the project before I sheetrock and paint, so he can verify that I did everything correctly).When it's all done, this space will be my new office. I also plan on tearing down the recording studio in the garage and moving all of that gear upstairs to make room for another project.

When the loft is finally ready, I'm considering recording audio versions of some of my books, probably starting with the Hank Mossberg series. Don't expect that right away. I still have three rough drafts to revise and publish by the end of the year. I'd like to write at least two more books in that time, which leaves little room for side projects.

Meanwhile, I'm also working on my porch. A few years ago, I had to rebuild it because the shoddy original construction was rotting and the roof was in danger of collapsing. Rather, we were in danger of the roof collapsing. I had to tear it down for a complete rebuild, so I expanded it at the same time. I really like the way it came out, with one exception. I have a narrow driveway, and the stairs at the side of the porch are only accessible by skirting the edge of the driveway and the wet, muddy lawn. I've always felt that setup was a recipe for disaster, not to mention the simple inconvenience to guests and delivery drivers.

So now I'm building another set of stairs: a nice wide staircase facing the lawn, where my wife and I will install pavers down the sidewalk. It's not a huge project -in fact, it's almost done already- but it's a lot of work,. and not very fun in the current heatwave we've been experiencing. I've already given myself a scorching sunburn and I still have some construction left to finish. On the bright side, besides improving the appeal and value of my home, these projects should make working on my writing a much more pleasurable experience.

For some writers, a little bit of suffering gives them the motivation to keep working. Grisham, for example. I once read in an interview that he does his writing in the winter time in his covered porch. He literally has to wear a coat while he's working, and has to warm his hands up occasionally so he can keep typing. To me, that's crazy. I work best when I don't have these material distractions. I like a comfortable space with a nice view, some fog or rain to get my imagination running, and a cup of coffee. To each his own, I suppose. Right now, I'm just hoping this sunburn will be gone by the time I've finished these projects so I can get back to writing.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

"So how's that writing thing going?"

All my life, I wanted to be a writer. I have fond memories going back to second grade of wistfully daydreaming about my future career. I used to write stories -or parts of stories- in my school notebooks. I would sketch images of my characters, outline plot ideas, and even write chapters here and there when I was supposed to be doing homework. Throughout all those years, I longed for the day that when asked, I could say I was a writer. Now, the conversation I used to daydream about has become something I absolutely dread.

The most recent example I can cite happened this week. I saw an old acquaintance, someone I hadn't spoken to in a few years, but who is aware of what I have been doing since leaving my old job. We started with the usual small talk, and quickly came around to the inevitable question: "So how is that writing thing going?"

My off-the-cuff answer is simply "Good," or "It's going great." Part of this is because it would be rude and presumptuous of me to start rattling off numbers and dollar figures, and it might come across like bragging or complaining, depending on the situation. I don't want to be "that guy," so I generally just say that it's going well and see where the conversation goes. Unfortunately, this is the point where it always seems to get awkward. Nobody assumes your latest book is outselling Stephen King. In my experience many people do assume the opposite. That is, they will assume you're a failure at that "writing thing."

Some people even seem a little disappointed when I say it's going well, perhaps because they wanted to hear the opposite? I really can't know what's going on inside their heads, but I do know from experience that many of the people I thought would support me as a writer instead seem to take my modest success as some sort of personal affront. The people closest to me, those who know how I struggled in the beginning and how long I've had this dream, are the least likely to even ask how things are going. Most haven't read my books, they don't want to read them, and they definitely don't want to know how well they're selling. (Speaking generally, of course. I do have a couple of supportive family members, but that's a couple individuals out of dozens.) And once they have that question out of the way, they almost never ask about your books or where they can get them. That in itself, is rather telling.

There's a weird psychological thing that happens in situations like this. Many people seem to get a thrill out of watching someone fail. They elevate themselves by taking someone else down. Perhaps it makes them feel better about not attempting anything themselves. Maybe it makes them feel smart. The Germans have a word for this. It's schadenfreude, and it's used to describe taking pleasure from the harm of others. According to this article from, this is sometimes a result of low self-esteem. According to the cited study, "Those with low self-esteem... were both more likely to be threatened by the overachieving student, and to experience schadenfreude. However, the researchers found that regardless of self-esteem, those who felt more threatened by this student also felt more schadenfreude."

So low self-esteem may play a role, but it's not necessarily the cause and may not be present. The important thing is that someone considered an "overachiever" gets taken down a few pegs. It also means that the closer you come to doing something truly outstanding, the more likely you are to be the subject of anger, jealousy, and even sabotage. Being focused on your own work -be it writing a novel or just completing a report for your boss- you might not even be aware of others' feelings until it's too late. This is all strange to me, because I've never considered writing books to be something threatening or exceptional. It's just a calling. It's something I love to do. And yet it does seem to invoke these feelings in others.

So when that question comes up, I'm thinking about all these different things. I don't want to brag or force the person into a conversation that's all about me. I'm thinking about whether that person really cares, or if he's just asking out of courtesy. I'm wondering if that person secretly wants me to say that I'm not doing well. I can't help the fact that all these thoughts are running through my mind, because they are simply a psychological reaction based on prior experiences.Maybe I'm a little jaded. Maybe I should be more forthcoming, even if it does sound a little like bragging. I really don't know the answer. I just know that now that I'm living my dream and loving every minute of it, but the one part I absolutely hate is talking about it. When people ask what I do for a living, I actually hesitate to answer.

I guess what's important is how you feel about what you're doing. We all know that basing our happiness on someone else doesn't work. We shouldn't do it in friendships or relationships, and we shouldn't do it with our careers.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

The Editing Scam

A few weeks ago, a story was circulating here in northern California about gas thieves who would park at a gas pump and then walk around the other side, switching the pump handles from one side to the other. When an unsuspecting customer pulled up in the next lane and put his credit card into the pump, the thief would quickly fill his own tank for free and then drive off, leaving the customer wondering why his pump didn't seem to be working.

Call them thieves, con-men, scammers... The world is full of them, and they're always on the lookout for something they didn't earn from someone who probably can't afford it. They don't care if the gas or credit card they steal will bankrupt you. They don't care if they leave you homeless, rob you of the ability to pay a doctor, or literally steal food out of your children's mouths. They don't care if the victim dies the next day because he couldn't afford his prescription medicine. They. Don't. Care.

I've blogged many times about some of the scammers and thieves in the publishing business. First, you have vanity presses that take advantage of starry-eyed writers by charging them publishing "fees" that often end up in the thousands of dollars. They steal most of the author's rights, and leave him or her with a less than stellar product that he usually can't sell. Some literary agents run similar scams, charging writers reading fees, office supply fees, or publisher referral fees. These people aren't agents or publishers, folks. They are thieves, and they will take you for everything they can.

Similarly, you have writers who post fake 5-star reviews on their own books, or they buy hundreds of sham reviews knowing that they are fake. They do this because they know a large number of 5 star reviews will drive up sales, and unsuspecting readers won't bother to return the product when they realize it's crap. Sometimes, these con-artists write bad reviews of a competing author's books, trying to drive away potential buyers and  thereby boost their own ranking. When Amazon started cracking down on this behavior, these scammers started changing up their game. They actually began posting fake three or four star reviews, where they would go on to slam the book or the writer in the review comments.

Lately, there is a new scam being run by people calling themselves freelance "editors," or "editorial services." These people approach an author privately with an offer of their services. If the author declines, they post bad reviews on that author's books, slamming the "poor editorial quality," or something along those lines. When this started gaining attention recently, they changed it up a little by posting otherwise good reviews into which they would sneak a few comments about how the work needed better editing. Sometimes, they write the review first, picking out a book that has very few reviews to the be sure the author will notice it. They write the review, make the "editing issues" comment, and then contact the author offering their services.

Sometimes, they even download one or two of the writer's free titles and scan them with cheap online software, looking for flaws. Armed with this software and perhaps even an Arts degree somewhere in their background, these people are masters of Proper English and absolutely clueless about writing fiction. Usually, the errors they find are not errors at all. These might be examples of character dialects that are grammatically incorrect but fully intentional, or the use of passive voice, or the over or under use of commas and such, which generally says more about a particular author's voice than about his editor. Good characters rarely use perfect English; so rarely in fact, that you should have a very good reason for it to happen at all. That's because real people don't use perfect grammar, and anyone who does usually comes off as a snob. Readers understand this. Computer programs don't. So these "editors" offer suggestions that can actually ruin a book. They don't care. They aren't trying to make your book better; they just want your money.

So what is an author to do about these con-artists? They're not like vanity publishers, who leave you alone if you don't want their services. These scammers can actually damage your business. They can hurt your sales, in effect stealing from you. The bad news is that it's expensive and time-consuming to go after them, and like most scammers, by the time you catch up to these people they've already moved on. The good news is that this behavior is called extortion and it's illegal pretty much everywhere. You can go to Amazon with your concerns, and you can take legal action. It may be hard to track them down, but a few I.P. addresses go a long way. If you have the time and money, you can even hire lawyers to do the work for you. Internet providers and I.P. blockers will respond to a lawsuit, and eventually you'll probably get a name and address.

There is also strength in numbers. As more people call out these con-artists, they'll move on to greener pastures. So don't be afraid to complain to Amazon and other retailers and hosts. When retailers see a pattern emerging, they will eventually act. These thieves won't ever completely go away. That's too much for us to ask. But hopefully, they'll eventually realize that writers are onto them, and they'll turn their attention to other, more profitable scams.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Embracing the Cloud

I was a Gen-X kid. I grew up with vinyl records, 8-track and then cassette tapes, and saw my first music CD when I was in high school. I saw my first cell phone then, too. It the size of a brick and just about as heavy. I witnessed the rise of VHS and the deaths of Betamax and Laserdisc. I remember being in elementary school when my father was showing off his first pocket calculator to the other dads. It was actually small enough to fit in his shirt pocket! (Barely.)

Then came digital watches and clocks, and the ensuing controversy over whether kids would someday forget how to read an analog clock. (The horror!) My father introduced me to computers at a young age also, by way of his second wife who was a computer programmer. Macs were new and exciting then, but she preferred Commodore 64. I spent countless hours playing games on those computers, programming page after page of code that I had copied from magazines, hoping that some new game would be the one to finally live up to the picture on the cover. (They never did)

Being more tech-savvy than most of my generation, the transition into the digital age has been easier for me than it was for most of my peers. I started building PCs around 1992, mostly out of curiosity and a driving need to have the best graphics and computing power available. I started with a 20 megabyte hard drive and 2 megs of ram. That system didn't have the computing power to run DOS and Word for DOS at the same time. But I needed a good word processor because typewriters weren't going to cut it for me, so I stood in line waiting to get into the computer show at the fairgrounds for the latest upgrades. (There wasn't anywhere else to get them; Brick and mortar stores didn't carry computer parts back then and the internet barely existed).

The computer shows only came around a few times a year, so it was always an event. I was walking around the display tables with twenty or thirty other customers in those early days, but by the time came along, those shows were getting several thousand visitors a day. Best Buy, CompUSA, and Circuit City were all the rage.

Now, I write all my books on computers and make my living publishing them online. That's a long way from VHS. But despite my eagerness to embrace new technologies, I've always been a little suspicious of the "The Cloud." Part of that may be because the first time I ever heard of it was through Microsoft's concept of selling me software that I would never ever actually own. I was already irritated by their rights-grabs when it came to my Windows operating systems, and the fact that they would even dream of making me long onto their website before I could use my own program made me blow a gasket. It still does. When I pay for a song, I expect to be able to listen to it anywhere. Same with my O.S. and my word processor.

But Microsoft never really did realize that dream, and in the meanwhile, The Cloud has evolved into something different. I hadn't thought about it much until this last year, when I realized that I was taking for granted the fact that I could log into Amazon from anywhere and effortlessly download any of the music or Kindle books I had purchased. No cables, no USB drives, and no syncing. No heachaches. I've actually started taking for granted the fact that if my laptop crashes, I can easily download all of that stuff again in minutes.

I've gone from demanding a hard copy of everything -from my operating system to my music to the latest World of Warcraft expansion pack- to just being grateful that it's all stored safely on a series of redundant servers hundreds of miles away, and available to me almost instantly no matter where I go. I've even been considering taking advantage of Amazon's cloud service to back up all of my family photos and books. That way, if something terrible like a massive power surge or a natural disaster should happen, my important documents and photos would be safe.

How and when did this happen to me? When did I evolve into a person willing to store digital copies of my most prized possession  in some dark mysterious corner of cyberspace, where it's completely out of my control, without so much as a backup CD under my desk? I'm not sure.

The truth is, I'm still struggling with it a little. After all, when my PC crashes, I do still need a hard copy of Windows or at least Linux to get it up and running. And I can't stand the thought of not having backup copies of my books stored in multiple places, both in reality and in cyberspace. Ten years from now, I might look back on this moment the way I look back on the time I took 400 cassette tapes to the pawnshop downtown and walked out of there with $40 in my pocket. Only this time, I won't feel like I got ripped off, because I won't have to replace all those cassettes with CDs.The new format is FOREVER.

Unless of course, a massive solar flare causes an EMP that wipes out every electronic device on the planet. But if that happens, I'll have bigger problems than missing out on Wrath of the Lich King and Disneyland pictures. Maybe I can use all that old video and CD storage space as a seed vault.... 

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Steampunk: Defining a genre

Steampunk definition, according to Wikipedia:

"Steampunk refers to a subgenre of science fiction and sometimes fantasy—also in recent years a fashion and lifestyle movement—that incorporates technology and aesthetic designs inspired by 19th-century industrial steam-powered machinery. Although its literary origins are sometimes associated with the cyberpunk genre, steampunk works are often set in an alternative history of the 19th century's British Victorian era or American "Wild West", in a post-apocalyptic future during which steam power has maintained mainstream usage, or in a fantasy world that similarly employs steam power..."

It goes on, but that's a reasonably concise summary of a genre that can be difficult to define. When I first wrote The Tinkerer's Daughter, I had a number of agents ask for a submission. In the end, I was always rejected because they didn't have any idea how to sell it. A few of them were familiar with steampunk, but didn't consider it commercial enough to sell to a big publisher. Those who were not familiar with steampunk didn't really seem to understand it, and didn't bother asking for an explanation. I also met rejection because those who did know steampunk had very different and subjective ideas about what it should be. One agent told me I downplayed the technology too much. The machines should have played a bigger role. Another said there was too much technology and it distracted from the story.

We've had steampunk-style novels there all along, going back at least to H.G. Wells, but nobody had classified them as such. These were just considered fringe sci-fi, or worse yet fantasy, because back then, fantasy and sci-fi were two vastly different things, and the prevailing attitude was never the twain shall meet. I'm not pointing fingers because I used to feel that way myself. I hated seeing a sci-fi novel in the fantasy section, or vice versa. I wanted my sci-fi with spaceships and aliens, and my fantasy with dragons and magic. The End.

But times have changed, and steampunk has gone through a lot of phases. It has recently become a sort of social movement like LARPing and renaissance faires. For some, it has almost become a lifestyle. But still, steampunk seems to be struggling with an identity crisis. Not surprising, considering that depending on who you're talking to the genre might be considered sci-fi, fantasy, Victorian, post-apocalyptic, or western, just to name a few. 

Steampunk has been slow to move into the mainstream for this reason. The most successful attempts seem to be novels one might classify as steampunk-themed romance. This isn't surprising, since romance is such a huge market and romance readers are more than willing to embrace new and different ideas based on the novelty alone. This is the same market where vampire horror, urban fantasy, dystopian and supernatural fiction all found broad acceptance over the last decade. This is a mixed blessing. The novelty factor means that more readers than ever are willing to give something different a shot. The downside is that many of those readers were introduced to the genre through romance, and without a heavy dose of it, they may be turned off. The same goes for steampunk that leans too heavily in the direction fantasy, sci-fi, or horror. Some readers will accept one but not the others. It's impossible to avoid. When I first published The Tinkerer's Daughter, one of the story's biggest criticisms was the fact that it defied certain principles of physics. Some people were happy considering it fantasy, but others wanted it to be hard sci-fi. You can't please everyone. I wanted to emulate some of the early steampunk-themed anime I had seen, but I wanted to take a uniquely western approach. That's why I opened the series in a frontier-like setting, sort of a combination between the American prairie and medieval Europe. It was a pre-industrial post-apocalyptic society of warring elves and humans on the verge of an industrial revolution. Try explaining that to someone who's never heard of Steampunk.

I left clues along the way; certain bits of knowledge that had been retained or rediscovered after the cataclysm. Certain tech that was similar to our own, but had evolved, or perhaps devolved. I can see how ten years ago, this must have made agents scratch their heads. Some of them probably still do. But that's okay, because today these stories have a chance to find an audience that never existed before. The gatekeepers -with their ledgers and marketing teams and disapproving stares- don't get to define what readers read and writers write. The definition of Steampunk will probably continue to evolve, but this time, this genre will not be defined by some anonymous board of directors in their fancy New York office tower. It will be defined by the readers. 

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Amazon Cracks Down!

From the Seattle Times:

" sued three websites it accuses of purveying fake reviews, demanding that they stop the practice. The suit alleges that the glowing product evaluations they provide deceive consumers and harm the sellers on Amazon’s site who don’t game the system.

The suit, filed Wednesday in King County Superior Court, accuses Jay Gentile of California and websites that operate as and, among others, of trademark infringement, false advertising and violations of the Anticyber­squatting Consumer Protection Act and the Washington Consumer Protection Act."

This isn't exactly news. Amazon filed this suit a couple weeks ago, but I haven't had a chance to talk about it until now. Pretty much everyone knows these days that fake reviews are all over the internet. Online ratings services have caught people gaming the system numerous times and not long ago, a few writers were even busted posting fake reviews through "sock puppet" accounts. They weren't just promoting their own books with fake reviews; they were also slamming other books they considered "competition."  Talk about taking sleazy to a whole new level. Amazon cleaned up that mess by deleting thousands of reviews they considered suspect, no doubt removing quite a few legitimate ones in the process.

This time, they're taking a different tack. Amazon is going after the owners of several fake review websites. Apparently, these sites have explicitly offered to sell four and five star reviews, sometimes going so far as telling businesses to send an empty box to the "reviewer."

I don't know exactly what Amazon is trying to get out of this, but no doubt they will sue for a lot of money and try to make an example out of these people. Most of the articles I've read tend to focus on the above mentioned points, but what I find most intriguing about this case is something no one else seems to have mentioned. I'm talking about discovery. In case you don't know, that's what legal experts call the process of procuring evidence during a lawsuit. When Amazon sues, their lawyers will gain access to all of the files and records owned by these companies. And what do you suppose they'll find in those files?

Yep. They're going to find names, account numbers, email addresses and other identifying information of companies and individuals who have purchased these fake reviews. Interesting. I wonder what they'll do with all that information. I mean, obviously they're going to delete those fake reviews, but what then? A slap on the wrist for those people who abused the system? A fine? Lawsuits?

It seems likely that Amazon will send out warning letters notifying these sellers that they are in breach of the Terms of Service and could have their account deleted (if not worse). It will probably end there, unless Amazon continues to have a serious problem with this issue. But I wonder what Amazon will do with all that information. More specifically, I wonder what they'll do to writers. Because the discovery process might expose authors who've been buying fake reviews. What if their names are released? What if Amazon uses that information to further analyze their accounts, and learns they've been posting through sock-puppet accounts? In some cases, those writers may think they've protected themselves by anonymizing their I.P. addresses, but that's not necessarily the case, because even if they aren't caught in this lawsuit, they might get caught in the next one. Or, they might get caught when Amazon (or the U.S. Government) investigates the anonymizing service they used. Or, when Amazon starts taking individuals to court for their role in this. Discovery can be a nasty business because it shines a light on things that people will do when they think nobody's looking.

I'll admit, I'm a cynic. I've become a bit jaded in my old age. When I was a naive farm-boy from Montana, I made the mistake of judging the world based on my own values. Because I was generally good and honest , I assumed that deep down everyone else was, too. Over the years, I learned the hard way that this is not always the case. The truth is that there are a shocking number of people in this world who will do terrible things as long as they believe they won't get caught. They might do even worse things when they realize they're about to get caught.

The resolution could be simple. Amazon might sue these website owners, make examples of them, and then forget the whole thing. Or, they might not. We'll know pretty soon. Either way, Amazon has to do something because it has become public knowledge that their system is being exploited. Already, people are deciding that one-star and five-star reviews can't be trusted, if any can. If the public loses faith in Amazon's system, their business model will have a serious problem. Personally, I expect them to become more aggressive about this sort of thing, at least in the short term. After all, this is business.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Ready to publish? Beware!

Recently, I talked about the reasons a first-time writer might pursue self-publishing vs. traditional. For the sake of this post, let's assume you have decided to go Indie. You have your book and it's ready to go. What now? How do you publish it, and who can you trust to help you?

There is no way to approach this topic without discussing publishing services; specifically, those services that promise to publish your eBook for a small (or not so small) fee. These come in various forms. Generally these "publishers" promise to take your manuscript, edit it, give it a cover, and publish for a fee. This is called Vanity publishing. In my experience, most authors who attempt this are taken for a ride.

The appeal of vanity publishers is that they're experts at conferring a sense of legitimacy. Many of their unsuspecting customers are led to believe they are being accepted by a genuine publisher, but that is not the case. They also make big promises. They claim to have excellent editors, cover artists, and promotional teams. They make it sound like they're experts who are going to do all of the work for you, allowing you the luxury of focusing solely on your writing. But there is one catch: They'll need a check from you. Sometimes it's a big fee up front, sometimes its a bunch of small fees that keep popping up throughout the process. Either way, it almost invariably ends up costing the author thousands of dollars, and the end product is often a major disappointment.

A good rule of thumb is to remember what bestselling author Neil Gaiman posted on his blog back in 2012: "Money flows towards the writer." 

It's that simple. For as long as publishing has been around, vanity publishers have preyed upon naive and inexperienced writers. The Sci-fi and Fantasy Writers of America offers a great analysis and warning regarding publishers like this. Preditors & Editors keeps a list of some of these "publishers" and even literary agents involved in this scam. A few hours of browsing these websites could save you thousands of dollars.

As if all this weren't insidious enough, these scammers present another -perhaps greater- danger. They're not happy just to take that big fee, they may also take a percentage of your profits forever, and possibly even grab some or all of your publishing rights. After dealing with these con-men, you might not even own the rights to publish your own book! Can you imagine shelling out thousands of dollars to a "publisher" who completely screws up your book and then ends up stealing your rights? It can happen, if you're not careful.

Writer/blogger David Gaughran has a new post this weekend regarding one of the largest vanity presses out there. This company has teamed up with traditional publishers who redirect aspiring writers to them for business. They are also taking advantage of book fairs as an opportunity to suck in inexperienced and naive authors who don't know any better. Get the whole story here.

However, having said all that, I must also offer this disclaimer: Paying for some services can be a good idea. What I mean by that, is that as an Indie, you have the opportunity to reach out to professional editors, cover artists, and book formatters in order to help polish your new novel. You don't have to take on all the work by yourself if you don't want to. You can hire out just about any aspect of publishing to a competent contractor, and -if you do your research- you'll probably get much more than your money's worth. Better yet, you will own the rights to everything. 

I'm not going to link to specific services (except for Just Proof It editing services, which has been in my sidebar for years) because there are so many and I have no way to guarantee their specific services, talents, or value. This will take some homework on your part. As always, Google is your friend.

If you feel like you have the time, energy, and commitment to do your own work, take a look at the Smashwords Style Guide. Smashwords has one of the most complex e-book publishing systems out there. They have a program they call the "Meatgrinder," which takes your uploaded book and converts it into multiple formats so you can publish at various outlets. This process requires an extremely clean and well-formatted original document, If your file works there, it will work almost anywhere. Read their guide and learn how to use your word processor to get the cleanest conversion possible.

Also, click on my "Cover Design Secrets" tab at the top of this page. I have several articles dedicated to the process of designing and building your own professional looking covers, regardless of genre. I'll talk more in another post about different publishing services such as D2D, KDP, and Smashwords, and maybe I'll take a closer look at the writing and publishing process as well.