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 Livescience.com, 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.