How Do You Work This Thing?

TimecastWomen crawl all over me
I’m as smooth as a millionaire
Preacher always calls on me
I got a soothing way with a prayer

–Jeff Holmes/The Floating Men, "Long-winded Prayer"

A fortune teller in the French Quarter once told me that I would never make a good politician. "You’re too honest, brother," he said.

He explained that in order to politick, you must be able to spin. In order to spin, you must be able to put yourself out in front of people, smile in their faces, and convince them to buy what you’re selling without sounding like you’re trying to convince them to buy what you’re selling. I assume the same abilities are required for sales and marketing folks, who make a living convincing us consumers to plunk down money for things we don’t really need and reasons we never entirely understand.

I’m not criticizing the practice. In fact, I’m rather envious. When I worked in newspaper, I sometimes made a point of expressing my appreciation to the sales and marketing folks for the jobs they do. Anyone who can beat the drum for the product day after day and not want to go home and crawl under the bed at night has my utmost, undying respect.

Last week, I finally released my time travel novelette Timecast (which I wrote about in my last post) to the world via Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Google eBooks, iTunes, and Goodreads. My confidence was boosted almost immediately when my first sale and first customer review appeared on Amazon.com. It was an unsolicited 5-star rave: "really enjoyable, well written, and nicely paced" the reviewer wrote. It was music to my ears.

That said, I can tell you that I’ll never expect sales of Timecast to reach stellar heights. Not because of any fault with the story or its crafting. It’s a unique short work of time travel fiction, if I do say so myself. The problem is that I’m an introvert, awkward at socializing in both real life and online. I can tweet about Timecast all I want, but unless I can sell you on it (establish it as something you want or need to read) you’ll easily pass on it no matter how great I think it is.

What to do, then?

The only thing I can figure is that I need to find some way to play the extraverts’ marketing game without creating undue stress and risk to my introverted nature. Although extraverts might think differently, introverts are most of the time quite happy being introverts. We are not broken extraverts. However, there are times such as these–when you’re trying to market a book– that being an introvert is darned inconvenient.

For now, I’m still figuring things out. Meanwhile, if you happen across this post, look me up on Twitter or Goodreads. Friend/follow/fan me and I’ll friend/follow/fan you back if I can or should. Purchase a copy of Timecast for your favorite reading device (Kindle, Nook, Kobo, iPhone/iPad, PC, Mac) and provide a review, if you’re moved to do so. I’ll do my best to support your work as well.

I know there are many of us introverted, reclusive storytellers out there struggling to be heard. And the only way we’ll get heard is if we stick together and learn the promotional ropes because most of us will never, ever get a book deal that comes with successful marketing all gift-wrapped in a pretty box with a bow.

About Time

Five years ago, I set out to publish an eBook. The so-called eBook revolution was still a distant speck on the horizon. At the time, the Kindle had barely sparked. There was no Nook, Kobo, Sony Reader, or iRiver. I’m not entirely sure why I embarked on the journey, except that I had the idea for the story and it was burning a hole in my head.

I wrote and copyrighted the 10,000-word story. Upon completion, I discovered that I was uncertain of the exact type of work I had created. I originally called it a novella. Then I decided that it was much too short to be called a novella, so I called it a short story. Now I’m calling it a novelette based on the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA) guidelines for manuscript sizes.

With great anticipation, I "designed" the eBook (only to find out much later that what I created was an absolute abomination in terms of the true meaning of the word "design"). I generated a PDF and circulated it among a few close friends. Then I let it die undistributed.

Why?

At the time, self-publishing and distributing an eBook didn’t really seem all that easy to me. I researched it a little and gave up, choosing instead to submit the manuscript to a variety of traditionally published science fiction magazines. Inevitably, the manuscript either didn’t fit into the publication’s guidelines or was simply not what the editor was "looking for."

This Christmas, I was gifted with my first e-reader device (unless you count the e-Reader apps I had previously installed on my laptop and my phone). I love it. It caused me to immediately purchase and download the newest Stephen King work. Additionally, it inspired me to revisit my long dormant novelette. 

The process of self-publishing an eBook as been much simplified recently. It is as simple as uploading the book to the various eBook distribution channels (or using a service that does that for you). You can even upload your book if it is a design abomination. However, I chose to have my original manuscript professionally designed instead. Although an eBook is not the same as a print book, I still think it should be pleasing to and easy on the eyes.

Therefore, I am pleased to announce that my novelette will soon be available for download in Kindle and ePub formats from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, the Apple iBookstore, Kobo, and the Google eBookstore. I am also pleased to announce that the process (plus a little prodding from some friends and loved ones) has inspired me to renew my efforts to finish the second draft of my novel.

So, Happy New Year to all you budding authors out there. I’m going to spend 2012 writing. I hope you do as well.

Celebrating Freedom

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. –The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America

Somehow I missed the American Library Association’s Banned Books Week at the end of September. That unfortunate slippage of my middle-aging memory means that I need to slap a big old red letter F on my patriotism for that week.

For those who are not in the know, the ALA annually releases a list of the most contested titles on library shelves throughout the nation. I typically try to celebrate freedom of speech by choosing and reading a "banned" book from the list that week. This time, I missed it.

Oh, well. I suppose as long as we have a First Amendment I can look forward to a future Banned Books Week. And I must say that I am always amused and amazed by the strange alliances that surface whenever someone’s First Amendment rights are threatened. The most recent example, of course, is Jon Stewart, Whoopi Goldberg, and Joy Behar jumping into the fray over Hank Williams Jr.’s ouster from Monday Night Football as a result of his criticism of the president.

On a less controversial but still First Amendment-related note, I am happy to not have missed the Southern Festival of Books, an annual Humanities Tennessee event that will take place in Nashville’s Legislative Plaza this weekend. There’s more than one way to celebrate the freedom of the written word.

Pulling Teeth

A word is not the same with one writer as with another.  One tears it from his guts.  The other pulls it out of his overcoat pocket. –Charles Peguy

Sometimes, a writer sits down in front the word processor and taps into a productive flow immediately, gliding into it as easily as soft butter oozes around the edge of a knife. Those are the times when the words seem to drip not from synaptic outlets in the right side of the brain, but directly from the fingertips onto the keyboard, as if some unseen force separate from the author is holding him by the wrists, guiding his hands.

The work is easy. It’s good. And it’s beyond the writer’s control.

Then there’s the other extreme; the times when it’s easier to stab yourself in the eyeball with an icicle or gargle a mouthful of sand and glass than to set your thoughts down in a hardened, printed form. Those are the times when you’d rather just go back to bed because the half-formed, symbol-filled, illogical, and cartoony world of your dreams seems to have a more cohesive reason for living than any of the plot twists you’ve tried to manufacture in your waking life.

I am happy to report that today I was fulfilled by the former state, the one in which the writing flows and works and feels satisfying. The down side? I was working on a project for my day job, not on my novel.

Oh, well. Someday I’ll get back to that second draft and feel that same sense of well-being, satisfaction, and accomplishment that I felt today from my work project.

Until then, I’m just glad I live in the middle of the Southeastern U.S., where the icicles are few and far between and it takes more than half a day to drive to a beach.

Of Inspiration, Motivation, Perspiration, and Irritation

Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration. –Thomas Edison

I’m about to say something that might sound wrong coming from the fingertips of a writer. Ready? Here it is: I don’t believe inspiration has so much to do with the process of creating a work of literature as I believe motivation does.

I know. I know. I’ll give you a moment to pick your jaw up from your keyboard.

I urge you to think about this, though. Inspiration is the stimulation of the mind, the forming of the idea. In the grand scheme of the process of creating your masterwork, the idea is only a beginning. And most of the time, it’s not a particularly good beginning. Many writers get rolling on a general idea that popped into their heads at some point and end up fully forming something completely different. Other writers tell the same story over and over again with different characters and a slightly different setting. Yet those stories still work, because it is the writer’s skill at storytelling rather than the idea itself that makes the work entertaining.

Motivation, on the other hand, is more a important force in the creative process because it’s the force that keeps the writer plugging away at the idea until completion. Many times, the external stimuli that is initially responsible for the inspiration can help fuel the motivation. Ever seen the training montage in Rocky IV and suddenly felt the desire to go work out? Ever follow up on that desire by listening to the Rocky IV soundtrack to help you fuel the desire to keep your legs moving on the treadmill? Come on, I can’t be the only one.

In any case, it is my experience that motivation is more important and, unfortunately, more difficult to summon than is inspiration. I have dozens of ideas (inspirations) for novels filed away on my hard drive in a little folder with the highly likely name of "Ideas." Yet for the past several years I have completed a first draft on exactly one of them. And I still haven’t completed the second draft of that.

I wonder what the Rocky IV soundtrack would have sounded like if Sylvester Stallone had been playing a novelist?

Stranger Than Fiction

You don’t need me to remind you that this coming Sunday is the 10th anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks on America. You know it. I know it. And if you don’t know it, you’ll be reminded of it on Sunday the moment that you login to any social network or tune in to any media outlet.

I’m always reminded on this date of how much more horrifying reality can be than anything even the most demented creator of fiction can conjure by typing words into a piece of software. Horror fiction, like most fiction, is an escape. We all know it is fantasy, that it is not really happening. We even enjoy the thrill of being scared.

All too often we want to live our real lives as if we were simply watching them through a lens, detached from the world by a technological or media barrier: the Web, social networks, television, books, magazines, and more. The rise of reality television throughout the past two decades is testament to that. Reality is no longer lessons learned through the process of living. It’s entertainment.

However, September 11, 2001, was not horror fiction, not entertainment. It was reality dealing a powerful upper-cut that knocked the majority of us American citizens off our feet. For a few short moments in my generation’s lifetime, the invisible barriers in which we shelter ourselves on a daily basis were shattered. The bubble burst, forcing us to briefly consider that we regularly live our lives in a state of passive receptivity, convincing ourselves that we are simply watching the events of our lives unfold before us rather than participating in them. We were reminded that we are human, that we are not here to simply be entertained, and that we truly can be hurt.

In all the years that I’ve entertained myself by reading horror fiction, I have never yet read any so terrifying that I had to look away.

I cannot say the same about the real world.

Looks Count

Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works. –Steve Jobs

Would you want to read a book that is typeset in 18-point cyan bolded Comic Sans with all the "important" words (and sentences…and paragraphs) in all capital letters, underlined, and italicized? 

If you say "yes, I would indeed enjoy reading a book formatted that way," then I shall label you a spiteful teller of tall tales. Take that!

If you really want to tick off an editor or an agent and have them immediately toss your hard work into the recycle bin, submit an improperly formatted manuscript. What’s an improperly formatted manuscript? Anything that doesn’t fit the submission guidelines of the publication or agency to which you’re submitting. Always read the submission guidelines before you send a manuscript.

Barring that, an improperly formatted manuscript is anything that doesn’t fit within the generally accepted standards of manuscript format. Generically, a standard manuscript should have the following characteristics:

  1. one-inch margins all around
  2. an easy-to-read typeface, such as 12-point Times New Roman or 12-point Courier New
  3. left justification, not full and not center; the words on the right side of the page should form a ragged pattern as you scan down the page
  4. a half-inch indent on the first line of each paragraph
  5. double-spaced paragraphs, which means that the lines of text on your page are separated by a full blank line that is generated by your word processor’s paragraph formatting function (not the Enter key); it also does not mean that you should manually include a blank line between paragraphs
  6. your name, the shortened title of the story, and a page number in the upper right corner of every page except the first/title page
  7. your name, address, email address, and telephone number in the upper left corner of the first page of the manuscript
  8. the approximate number of words in your manuscript (your word processor’s word count rounded to the nearest 100) in the upper right corner of the first page of the manuscript

Admittedly, the above guidelines were created before we regularly communicated our thoughts as bits over global network media, so they probably seem dated. Editors stick with them because not everyone’s standard of "looks good and is easy to read" is the same. The guidelines ensure that writers do not try to become graphic designers and that the quality of the written work takes center stage in the mind of the agent or editor.

You’re a writer, after all. You should be painting pictures with the meanings of your words, not with fonts, italics, bolds, colors, justification, and other word processor magic.

Headline TK

I suppose some editors are failed writers; but so are most writers. –T.S. Elliot

An acquaintance of mine recently lamented that we now live in a "first draft society." To protect the bottom line, newspapers have slashed editorial roles the same way that the folks who formerly filled those roles slashed unnecessary commas and participial phrases. As a result of these cutbacks, my friend is noticing more mistakes in his daily fish wrap.
 
Writers–especially beginning writers–can be a sensitive lot. Often we display an aversion to constructive crticism that causes us to dismiss it out-of-hand. Why have an editor when you have a non-judgemental word processor that has built-in spell-check and built-in grammar-check? Why pay someone to catch a misplaced comma that only the most pucker-mouthed of English PhDs would ever notice?
 
The answer is simple: editors are the writer’s conscience and voice of reason. They’re not there to simply bleed red ink (or Track Changes comments), cutting up our work in a fashion similar to the way Sweeney Todd gives a shave. They see our mistakes in logic. They point out paths we started and never followed. They see the obvious forest in our work that we often cannot because we are so entrenched among the trees.
 
When you’re trying to get a newspaper out the door to the printer, it’s important to have someone examining that forest. Otherwise, that scandalous front-page story about a well-respected politician could be received by readers in a way different from the way you intended because beneath the most shocking of the story’s accompanying photographs will be these two words: cutline TK.
 
For those who don’t know, cutline is another word for a photo caption. TK is an editorial abbreviation that means "to come." If you see cutline TK anywhere in a newspaper, the subtext of what you’re reading is this: "I don’t have enough information to finish this cutline right now and there are other things on my plate that have to get done before we can send the paper out the door. I’ll just type cutline TK here and move on to my other duties. Hopefully, someone will notice it before we go to press and call me after I’ve forgotten about it and headed down the street to pound a few beers."
 
Sure, editors won’t catch everything. And many, many times writers will disagree and argue with them over trivial things. But they’re an important bridge between the information the writer is attempting to communicate and the audience for whom that information is intended. Without an editor, a writer’s best work is perpetually TK.

The Waiting

Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience. –Ralph Waldo Emerson

Time and technological progress sure do change things. Twenty years ago, I had to wait until I received a paper statement from my bank to balance my checkbook. Now I can just download transactions any old time I want. Back then, I had to wait until a television show that I missed showed in a rerun unless I had the foresight to record it on my VCR. These days, I might just be able to stream an episode of my favorite show any old time I want.

I also remember submitting short story manuscripts to magazines back in the late 80s and early 90s. Very few publications accepted electronic submissions at that time. And even if they did, you couldn’t email them. You had to copy them to a–gasp!–floppy disk and drop them at the post office [cue a toddler asking "Mommy? What’s a floppy disk?"]. Worst case, you typed or printed the manuscript and paid the postage to mail it along with a self-addressed stamped envelope to ensure its safe return when the publication rejected it. (Did I say when? I meant if.)

Once your manuscript was loaded onto the postal truck and en route to its destination, you could wait anywhere from six weeks to six months to a full year for a response–if you received a response at all.

The best you could do to mitigate such delays was to cull through the most recent edition of the Novel & Short Story Writers’ Market, hoping against hope that you’d find a market that accepted your genre, accepted your word length, accepted stories from your region, happened to be open to submissions at that particular time of year, and promised a reply in less than six weeks.

Thank heavens for progress! These days you can often submit a manuscript to a magazine in a few seconds (any old time you want), just by clicking your email client’s Send button, or by filling out a form and uploading the document through a Web browser. After much anticipation, you can expect to receive your response… in six weeks to six months to maybe even a year! If you receive a response at all.

Oh.

I guess some things don’t change after all.

What’s more, that process of submission and acknowledgement probably won’t change much. The slushpiles on the desktops (real or virtual) of agents and editors might decrease a bit as a result of the new popularity of self publishing. Still, they’re called "slushpiles" for a reason. They’re massive. They’re hard to drive through. And they sit there forever, not melting away.

So, here’s one writer that you won’t typically find complaining about the length of time it takes to get a response on a manuscript submission, even if it’s a rejection (and most of them will be). Honestly, I’m happy if someone at a publication I submit to actually takes the time to pick up my submission and read through the whole thing.

Besides, our new culture of immediate gratification wears on me.

It’s kind of nice to wait for something for a change.

The Stuff of Nightmares

Writing a novel is like making love, but it’s also like having a tooth pulled. Pleasure and pain. Sometimes it’s like making love while having a tooth pulled. — Dean Koontz

Ever had a nightmare?

I’m not talking about the uneasy "I went to school in my underpants, whatever will I do now?" types of dreams. I’m talking about a full-on, dear-God-in-Heaven-where-am-I-and-how-am-I-ever-going-to-get-out-of-this-alive-and-where-is-everybody-and-what-the-hell-is-that-crawling-up-my-leg type of nightmare; the ones where you wake up sweating, screaming, kicking, running, or any combination of the four.

Sure you have.

We all have.

Know what’s potentially more frightening than your own nightmare? Experiencing someone else’s. If you’ve ever been startled awake in the dead of night by someone you love screaming in her sleep, you know what I mean. Your first instinct is to leap out of the bed and scream along with her. Next, you struggle to to clear enough of the fog of sleep from your head to put together exactly what’s going on and to fix it, to rescue her from whatever’s "after" her and bring her back to safety.

Writers, especially beginning writers, put quite a lot of stock in dreams as a plot device. Even experienced professionals rely on it from time to time as a means of prediliction, psychological evaluation, or–in the case of 1980s nighttime soap Dallas–erasing an entire plotline.

As a result of its commonality, writing a dream sequence is something I mostly try to avoid in my own fiction. That’s not to say I’ve never written one. I have. And I was never happy with it. Besides, I find experiencing a dreamer’s nightmare from outside their head much more terrifying.

Perhaps I’ll write about that experience the next time I feel the urge to use a dream sequence as a plot device.