29 September 2010

The Penguin and Me

Tux PhonepaperAfter years - years, I tell you - of threatening Windows installations with Linux LiveCDs, I finally found myself without a choice Monday night. My Vista partition was strangely damaged 1, so I could pull files from it, but not resize or boot to Windows. Because of the strange partition problem, I couldn't even downgrade to XP.

So I went ahead and pulled everything off the drive, wiped it, and installed Ubuntu 10.4. No dual-boot; I just jumped right in. (It's purple? Purple? I guess it's better than the brown...)

I'm in the tail end of the project (just over 36h later), but let me break it down to you:

6 hours: Fighting to keep the old partition.
2 hours: Pulling data off
1 hour: Installing Ubuntu. Tweeting about it.
The rest of the time: Putting on software and tweaking. And tweaking. And tweaking. (Because I like to - this part is right on schedule for every other time I've changed an OS or shell/window manager.)

Everything has pretty good out of the box - so for the average (or new) user transition should be pretty easy. If you're not obsessive over "I have to use this Windows program" or have highly-specific needs like myself, you could be running in about an hour.

Everything Python I have is running SUPER fast. WINE is working well for most of the programs I really need it for. I've already been using open-source or crossplatform programs for a while now (VLC, Firefox, Pidgin, and an *box clone shell on my Windows system), so the transition wasn't bad at all. And Second Life actually runs more smoothly than it ever did on Vista.

I've had a few catches that took a lot more time, and they're worth noting:

1. My Nokia phone (6126) is effectively unrecognized by any linux software. (I can still do basic bluetooth file transfers.) Which sucks, because Wammu looks to be more robust that the buggy software Nokia provided. Time to resolution: 45 min - 1 hour, mostly searching HOWTOs.

2. Netflix streaming is incompatible with the Linux version of Silverlight or even Silverlight under WINE. I ended up having to create a virtual machine for it with Virtualbox and a minimal XP install disk I'd whipped up back in the day using nLite. A brief test showed that it plays Torchwood just fine. :) (Hint: Give it a crapload of memory, don't install anything else on the VM besides guest additions.) Time to resolution: 2-3 hours (remember, I had to install XP and get Service Pack 3 - that's what ate up the time here.)

3. My scanner was a little tricky to set up. This is largely because the scanner is a tricky beast. Don't get me wrong, I love my little ScanSnap S300, but it doesn't use the same kind of interface (TWAIN) as most every other scanner on the planet. I ended up installing the software on my kid's XP machine so I could get the firmware file I needed. Then it worked just fine. Time to resolution: 1 hour.

4. I have a few C (yes, there's no "sharps" there) programs I wrote in Borland C back in the late 1990's that I still use. They use all kinds of Windows-specific calls, and I'll have to rewrite those. Time to resolution: Unresolved, since I have to brush up my programming skills.

5. Tweetdeck was a little flaky to set up. I couldn't just click on it on the web page. I had to install AIR from the software center, then googled "tweetdeck ubuntu install" to find the direct download link for the .air file. Time to resolution: 5-10 minutes.

6. This didn't stop me, but I did stumble over it for a second: File permissions are important in Linux. It's not just "Read-only" anymore, kiddos! I used Unix back in the early 90's, and played with a VM of three different Linux distros over the summer, so these sorts of things aren't alien to me. Time to resolution: 5-10 minutes.

7. This is a good thing: HOWTOs are everywhere. With the exception of the Netflix bit, a minor amount of Google-fu got me the answer. For example, "howto install scansnap s300 ubuntu" got me to the ubuntu forums, where the answer was pretty well spelled out. When I ran into something else I didn't understand or remember (the terminal command to change permissions, for example), I opened another tab in Firefox.

8. Another good (mostly) thing: There were LOTS of little programs and utilities that I simply didn't need anymore. I really didn't realize how much time, effort, and energy was needed to make Windows do what it was supposed to do.

So, here I am. I leveled up in Geek yesterday. If you've got any Linux comments, suggestions, and/or comments, let me know.

1 Yup, I checked the HDD for errors, and everything comes up good.

27 September 2010

Zombies Made Sexy: Hungry For Your Love

About a year ago, the eBook version of Hungry For Your Love was published.

Since then, I've wowed audiences reading my story from the anthology, Kicking The Habit. I'm not bragging there; this is what other people have told me. Sure, I got their interest with my barker's cry of "Zombies! Romance! Think it can't be done? Come see at my reading!", but the story is what kept them.

Now for those of you who couldn't be at a reading and didn't want to deal with a PDF have another option. St. Martin Griffin picked up the print rights to the anthology, and that print version (along with the nook and kindle version) coming out tomorrow. Make no mistake, this anthology ain't for the kiddies (my story is "PG-13", but the rest hover somewhere around a steamy "R"), but it's an amazing variety of approaches. Humans and humans, humans and zombies, zombies and zombies, and every variety inbetween. Post zombpocalypse, pre-zombpocalypse, and more.

You can pick Hungry For Your Love at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or any major bookseller near you.

26 September 2010

Learning How to Write (and not) From Doctor Who

David Tennant and Catherine Tate in Doctor Who You can learn a lot about storytelling from Doctor Who.

Specifically, the 2005 reboot onward. Both good things - and bad things. I just finished watching season four, and though I'd been planning a post something like this for a while, I've just got to get this bit out now. Spoilers for season 4 come after the recommendations. And, um, some profanity shows up in that section as well.

So first, recommendations. There are some bloody kick-ass episodes; these are my favorites from the first four seasons. Interestingly, each of these is a contained story; while they figure into "continuity", they don't require much backstory besides "The Doctor and companion(s) travel through time and space in this box and keep running into problems."

  • S01E10/S01E11 - "The Empty Child" & "The Doctor Dances". Scary, brilliant, funny, and introducing Captain Jack Harkness.
  • S02E10 - "Love and Monsters" - A delightful and moving balance of silliness and emotion. I might never listen to ELO the same way again. Also, told from outside the POV of the Doctor or a companion.
  • S03E10 - "Blink" - I swear, I'm not picking the tenth episode of each season on purpose. Quite creepy, and yet touching. Again, told from the POV of someone outside the Doctor's normal travels.
  • S04E08/S04E09 - "Silence in the Library" & "Forest of the Dead". There is so much character development here, and such a tight, well-written story that it's just fabulous.

Sure, there's other good episodes, but if you only have six hours and want to know why I love the show, there's your reasons above. Study the techniques used to convey tension (and relieve it), the ways that character development is done quickly and well. Learn the good things to do.

Right, spoilers ahead.


Any second now...

Right. What are my least favorite episodes?

Every season endcap written by Russell T. Davies.

Oh, yes. That's all of them through season four.

Yes, Doctor Who is full of deus ex machina. But for two (or three, depending on how you count it) episodes, Davies shoves it into our faces. When Davies hits an emotional note right - usually between supporting characters - it's done damn well, but the rest of the time... well, I'm reminded of someone thinking they're clever, and having to point out how clever they are being. "Oh, look, I brought back a villain from before! Aren't I clever?" "Oh, look, a villain's shown up again! Recurrence is the same as plot progression, right?"

But I could have forgiven it. I really could have. "Midnight" wasn't bad at all. And for all the cheesy tropes pulled out in "Turn Left", Catherine Tate really frickin' nails the performance of Donna Noble. Sure, I'd always liked Donna since "The Runaway Bride", but this episode just completely nailed it. She'd become my favorite (modern) companion.

And then, Russell T. Davies, you had to fucking cheat your audience.

This isn't a "Oh, how could you do this to my favorite character" screed. Oh, fuck no. Yes, I gasped in shock when Wash died in Serenity. It hurt... but it was damn good storytelling. Hell, for all the overwrought music and Billie Piper kind of overdoing it in "Doomsday", I still shed some tears. It was tragic.

But really, none of that compares to "The Stolen Earth" and "Journey's End". Hey, we'd done the "people of the Earth appeal en masse to the Doctor" schtick (clap for Tinkerbell, kiddies) at the end of Season Three - so let's do it again. And we did the "companion melds with something in the Tardis and it's bad for them" schtick at the end of Season One, so let's do it again.. And while we're at it, let's do an end-run around the entire sacrifice made at the end of Season Two.

Oh yeah, and then once we've seen Donna Noble grow and mature, to become "brilliant" and really believe she is, she is cheated of the entire experience. Oh, and her family's gotta be on the plot too. And if anyone tries to end-run around this, it'll kill her. Oh, the Doctor can bloody well suck "The Heart of the Tardis" (near-infinite power) out of Rose Tyler, but he can't just pull part of his "Time Lord mind" out of Donna's head so she doesn't die?

Fucking really?

It's a cheat. It's a cheat for the audience - sloppy writing and explicitly reusing old plot elements. It invalidates all of the character growth Donna had, that was evidenced so strongly in "Turn Left". It is NOT a sacrifice - because she does not choose it. That would have been tragic, if she'd actually had to choose forgetting. Or if she'd been killed - that would have been tragic.

Instead, she gets set back to (apparently) even more shallow and annoying than she was when we met her. After spending an entire episode showing us both how much Donna meant to the world and how much she'd changed and actualized her own potential, it was stripped away by a deus ex machina.

And that does nothing but piss off your audience.

As a writer, don't do that. Kill your characters, be mean to your characters. Do that left and right, and while your readers may not love you for it, the character's struggle and sacrifice will mean something... and be memorable.

Suddenly erase all the growth and change your characters have undergone, and your audience will be wondering why they bothered watching or reading your work in the first place.

24 September 2010

More on the Call for Freelancers

The other day, I posted my Big Idea of starting a freelancer resource page (if you didn't see the original post, you can get background here). So far, I've gotten several responses, suggestions, and questions. Thank you so much for everyone who's helped this project along so far!

Here's the suggestions (and answered questions) so far:
  • Can I forward this on? Absolutely! That's absolutely essential. One thing I've noticed is that there are definite "circles" in the author/publishing community; an implicit goal of this project is to let people reach outside the circle of people they already know.
  • How fancy is this going to be? The answer - not very. Again, think arrangements more like Ralan than Duotrope. I'm looking for a directory, not a search.
  • Why are you doing this/ how are you qualified? I'm doing it specifically because it's my idea, and nobody else wanted to run with the ball. I'm qualified only in the sense that I've been around the block once or twice and I'm an author as well.
  • Additional positions Two other sections were suggested, and they're both good ideas. First, voice talent and processing. More authors are interested in doing their own audio - whether as short promotions or full-length podcasts. If you are willing to read, list yourself as talent. If you're willing to serve as a consultant for getting started podcasting, then list yourself as voice processing (or something like that). Second, freelance authors. Both fiction and non-fiction. Sometimes a magazine editor has a story fall through, etc, etc. Who you gonna call? Now we can answer this question.

Please keep your comments, suggestions, information, and questions coming!

23 September 2010

I am a fraud. I am the best. And so are you.

2nd Anoniversary 13"I can do this!" and "I feel like a fraud!" are not usually seen as similar phrases.

But they are - two sides of the same proverbial coin.

This is really clear in writing. Many of us started writing because we read a story or article and said, "Holy crap, I can write better than that."

There's a bit of a shock when you realize it's not quite as easy as you thought, but that initial euphoric annoyance will buoy you through the edits, and rewrites, and rejection letters. (Well, maybe some of the rejection letters.) And it's a beautiful thing, a deep dark slice of schadenfreude pie when a work panned by a professor or critic or even family member sells.

Then you find yourself wondering when they're going to find you out.

Maybe it's with publication. Maybe it's your first panel, or the first time you talk shop with the other authors you respect, or when a reader tells you that a bit of prose you thought was crap was their favorite part.

Regardless when, you suddenly wonder if you're a fraud.

They'll find you out. You won't be able to produce again. They'll find you out.

But it's all the same thing. You're amazing - just like everyone else. Because you can do it. Everyone - everyone - feels like a fraud at least part of the time. Be honest about what you do know and don't know, what you can do and can't do, and then just go with it.

And sometimes, if you don’t know what you’re capable of, if you don’t know if it’s possible, just go and do it anyway.

22 September 2010

Call For Freelancers

If you decide to become an independent author - even if you're just offering stories where the rights have reverted to you after publication 1 - there are some things that you simply have to do. Editing. Cover art. Finding good (and cheap) printing services. eBook conversion. Setting up a webstore. Doing these things badly reflects poorly on your work, even if your prose is wonderful.

ParentsPstcrd_091409.jpgYou might not have the skills (or time) to do these things, so you'd like to hire a freelancer to help. But it can be hard to find freelancers willing to do these things for you - especially if you're either new, or if you've always relied on publishers to take care of it for you. Add the fact that there are scam artists wanting to take your money, and it’s a dangerous world. (Note: I’m pretty open about who I am; I’m also an associate member of SFWA and HWA. That’s no guarantee of course, but it helps demonstrate that I’m not just “some guy”.)

So here's what I hope to do: Create a list of freelancers in these areas who would be willing to work with (or even focused on) independent authors.2 This would be more similar to Ralan's guide to markets rather than Duotrope's. No warrantee express or implied, caveat emptor, due diligence is yours. 3 The idea here is to reduce search costs, not remove risk.

With any degree of luck (and spreading the word), this will become a win-win situation for everyone.

So first, spread the word. If you know freelancers who fall into the below categories, send them a link to this page. If you are a freelancer, the information I'd want to put on the page is below. (Just cut and paste; when this starts to take off this will be moved to a real webmail form.) The information you give me will be used to create and populate the above-described page. This page should go live before World Fantasy at the end of October) 4. I will send you an announcement (and I'll announce it on this blog as well). Do not send confidential information. I will obfuscate your e-mail address using javascript on the page to thwart spambots. (See the example from my e-mail address below.) If you have been the subject of an alert from Writer Beware or are rated "not recommended" by Preditors or Editors, don't bother.

Send me your questions and suggestions about improving this project in an e-mail. steven {dot} saus [at] gmail {dot} com
Once they're answered, cut and paste the form below into an e-mail to me steven {dot} saus [at] gmail {dot} com
.

===FORM TO SEND STEVE===

Name:
E-mail:
Website:

Services I can provide (check as apply):

[ ] Copy editor
[ ] Line editor
[ ] Art design (Cover design, layout, procuring images, etc)
[ ] Artist (Create original art)
[ ] POD / Printing service (We all know about blurb and lulu, thanks.)
[ ] eBook conversion (indicate formats)
[ ] Document preparation for conversion (e.g. Amazon's Kindle converter)
[ ] Web Store setup
[ ] Web Store hosting
[ ] Other (please explain)

Prior experience (include links to samples, if possible):

Estimated Charges:
[ ] The estimate above is negotiable and/or variable

Average turnaround time:

Additional information you'd like authors to know:

======================================================

1 For example, rights to my story "Memories of Light and Sound" in the DAW anthology Timeshares revert to me March 2011, and then I am freely able to do anything I want with it - including offering it as a standalone eBook.
2 This is the key distinction between this project and the other lists I'm aware of. I'd like to also draw in people who would otherwise be excluded; I'm thinking of graphic artists and academic folks who might have never otherwise considered working with authors.
3 I might mark people I personally know and trust, or who are recommended by people I personally know. This is a slightly different emphasis than the ratings scheme used by P&E. Recommendations will not be given lightly (but your mileage may still vary).
4 If for some reason it doesn't, I will still tell you.

21 September 2010

A Fed Hater Walks Into A Coffee Shop...

California Federal Reserve BankSo an anti-Fed activist walks into a coffee shop...

No, really. He later described himself as "a self-taught economist", and was a young, clean-cut boyish looking man. He happened to choose the table beside me. He had a clipboard, presumably with a petition. And he had a massive hate-on for the U.S. Federal Reserve.

This isn't a bad thing, in and of itself. Good criticism of any structure of power, critiques of the way they use that power, and generally keeping them honest is a good thing. Telling untruths and half-truths in order to get fearmongering support? That is a bad thing, in and of itself. And sometimes a good thing - transparency - can be bad. (If you're interested in this sort of thing, and learning more in a entertaining way, I highly recommend Planet Money.)

So when a guy's claiming knowledge of the conspiracy of New York Bankers to profit themselves by creating the Fed in the 1920s (thus ignoring the prior central banks or bank failures) as a justification for requiring public transparency or dissolution of the Fed now... well, he met my criteria for Saying Something:
  • Loud enough to be clearly overheard.
  • Factually wrong.
  • Actively soliciting support.
I usually require two out of three.

To the credit of the guy being harangued, he listened to me and listened to the Fed-hater. He asked questions of me to verify the other guy's veracity, and so on. He asked me hard questions, and didn't just give me a pass either. That part was pretty cool.

I think it should be a footnote to the "we don't talk about politics or religion in public" rule: If you're going to do so, be prepared to back up your statements. And if you're doing it loud enough for other people to hear, then expect your conversation to be intruded on. And those of us who know the truth of things should intervene.

Why? Because extremists (on all sides) over-estimate the amount of public support they have. Period. When we're quiet, when nobody talks about this stuff - in a civil manner, respecting differences - then the nutjobs think everyone else has their back. When extremists think the public supports them, they feel empowered to act more and more extreme.

A big case in point was in Rwanda, and documented by E.L. Paluck.
This study examined the utility of using mass media in an attempt to reduce racial prejudice by evaluating the effects of a radio drama in Rwanda. The radio drama New Dawn was explicitly designed to address the discrimination and mistrust between Tutsis and Hutus by weaving educational messages into the storyline. The researchers used a group-randomized experimental method to determine which groups heard the drama and which heard an unrelated program. Pretests were administered, and interviews, focus groups, and behavioral observation constituted the post-test. The researchers saw little change in personal beliefs, but significant change in perceived and exhibited social norms.

Point being that I don't expect to ever change the Fed-hater's attitude. But I can sure communicate that mistruths and fearmongering aren't okay around here. And I will.

1 Paluck, E. L. (2009). Reducing Intergroup Prejudice and Conflict Using the Media: A Field Experiment in Rwanda. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96, 574-587.

19 September 2010

Pirate Day - A 100 Word Story

It's yet another drabble! (And yes, it's Sunday - because it's bloody talk like a scallywag pirate day...) You can vote for this one at the Weekly Challenge (and read and hear the other entries as well). If you just want to hear it alone, you can use the player below, or if it's borked (like in some feed readers), you can use this direct download link.

Stacy & Steve Birthday Party
The first defendant wore a "home taping is killing the music industry" shirt. "Plea?" I asked.

"Not guilty! Information wants to be free! "

"Innocent by reason of insanity." I said. "Ideological idiots. Next!"

The man had candles in his black beard. "Yarrr, me letter of mark from the Queen here says - "

"Dry him out in the drunk tank. He reeks of rum. Next!"

The third defendant wore a suit and tie. "I don't understand. I just ran the subprime CDO desk at an investment bank."

I leapt up. "Hang him. Hang him by the neck until he's dead, dead, dead!"

If the end of this story doesn't make sense to you, check out this story at Pro Publica, which will explain all.

17 September 2010

Case of the Manager-Snatchers

Manager - Visual Psychology - A3I think someone's brainwashed middle managers. Or maybe the pod people have taken them. Or they're aliens in disguise. Something.

Case one: 1
Me: I don't understand why your restaurant charges extra on your "meal combo" when I bring my reusable cup. I thought this reusable cup was supposed to reduce waste.
Manager: The reuseable cup is larger.
Me: But you offer free refills.
Manager: Only in the dining room.
Me: So I buy the "meal combo" with your disposable cup for less cost, fill up my reusable cup using free refills, and then throw away the disposable cup. I don't see how that helps the environment or helps your company make money.
Manager: Have a nice day. Next!

Case Two:
Manager: The survey shows that we're doing poorly.
Me: That survey has major methodological problems.
Manager: This is the survey the industry uses. Our scores are normalized to everyone else's.
Me: So if another site has a bad month, our scores could go up? Or vice versa?
Manager: So let's start getting those survey scores up!

Oh, and let's not start mentioning things like having managers quote the anonymous employee survey (recently lampooned in Dilbert, but all too real).

What bothers me about all of these things is that they don't even make sense from a short-run point of view. They all seem to indicate that the managers - and perhaps even the corporation - are working toward different goals than those publicly stated.

And that makes me very, very nervous.

Corporations are inherently sociopathic. They are beholden to create short-term wealth for stockholders. No individual bears any consequence to their actions. Even long-term consequences are not held by the stockholders - who can just as easily move to a different company.

That's not capitalism. In capitalism, the society - and social shunning when businesses are unethical - are supposed to act as a check and balance - but that doesn't happen anymore. It's at the core of our frustration over the financial collapse - it was all freaking legal, and nobody was "really" responsible.

Who knows when we'll wake up to all of this. I just watched "Planet of the Ood" last night, and this quote really struck me:
Donna Noble: A great big empire, built on slavery...
The Doctor: It's not so different from your time.
Donna Noble: Oy! I haven't got slaves!
The Doctor: Who d'you think made your clothes?

Indeed.

1 Details changed to protect the guilty.

16 September 2010

Tip Jars: An Alternate View

tip_jar_sm[1]The other day Jim C. Hines talked about why he doesn't use tip jars on his website. You might guess - from the coffee cups over there in the sidebar - that I like the idea of tip jars. But the reasons - and reality - of my experience are different than Jim's in a number of ways. 1 Go read his blog if you haven't already (it should open in a new window), and then read mine. As always, take what works and makes sense for you.

First: I agree wholeheartedly that tip jars should not be "conscience jars". If you pirate a book and like it, buy the damn thing as soon as you can. (This was a key point in my pirate posting.) Jim makes the point that buying the book supports all the other people in the publishing industry, but I'd like to also add that buying the author's books makes it more likely the publisher will buy a new one from them. Case in point: J.C. Hutchins. While his podcast novels were wildly popular, that didn't translate to... no, wait. Let me be blunt: Not enough people who got the content for free bought his books. 2 The contract was canceled, and J.C. Hutchins found himself in a bad spot. Not only that, but it'll be harder for him to sell his next books to a publisher. Even if authors don't make a lot from each book sale, publishers gauge success solely by book sales, not by tip jars. But is this a problem for me? Not at this point in my career.

Second: People in different places in their career use the web and make money in different ways. I don't have any books out there to sell, aside from a few small bits. Nothing like the six novels that Jim has, for example. While there's a market-building and relationship-building aspect to these blogs (and my Facebook fan page, etc.), the reality is that I'm in a very different place in my writing career from Jim. I've gotten one-time payments for nearly all of my work that's appeared, no matter how many people read it. He gets royalty checks. Therefore, the way I use this blog (and tip jars) is going to differ from his.

Third: I spend quite a bit of time and effort trying to make these blog posts useful in and of themselves. That is, these are not merely me blathering (though they have that role as well), but I hope that they're actually useful as standalone bits. (You might notice that I tend to mention the tip jars with informative posts instead of opinion or just random blathering posts.) And really, that's the main reason I have the tip jars. I'm taking a bit of a lead from Kristen Kathryn Rusch's experiment with the excellent Freelancer's Survival Guide. Donations are supposed to reflect value. Will I end up gathering some of these postings and essays and offering them as regular commercial work? Yes, at some point. In the meantime, if you've gotten some insight or value out of my posts on piracy, or web-fu, or any of the rest - drop me a buck or so.

Fourth: Writing is a business. Do I need money? Only in the "first-world problem" sense of the term - which means, "I'd like it but will survive without it". Would it make it easier for me to write more? Probably. Since (again), I'm not in a position of getting regular royalty checks, getting a few bucks here and there to defray server costs and college loans would be a great boon. A while back, I ran a donation drive for my resource list and managed to pay server bills for several years, which was something I really couldn't afford at the time. But y'know, this is a business. I'm working to make writing - fiction and nonfiction - a bigger part of what supports me and mine. Whatever works to further that goal is worthwhile to me. But...

Fifth: Tip jars usually only work if they're coupled with active reminders to use them. This is why NPR's model - the one I borrowed for the resource list - is comparatively successful. That's why Escape Artists mentions donations at the end of every episode. Just leaving a tip jar up there and not saying anything about it doesn't work well as a business strategy. Even mentioning it on a regular basis is vaguely annoying (though Escape Artists - especially on Pseudopod - do their best to make fundraising as entertaining as possible). So I don't do it much. That's my comfort level. While donations worked well for my fundraiser for the resource list, they don't garner me a ton of money. I substituted the tip jars for the advertisements because I think it's a less obnoxious model - but the ads weren't covering a tank of gas either. Your mileage may vary.

Sixth: Tip jars often - but not always - result in price points lower than what you'd like. This seems to be the case across media types (games, books, music, video). I'm not sure why that is, but that's the way it goes. Keep this in mind if you choose to use tip jars. They're not the end-all-be-all of economics.

Seventh: Tip jars let those who don't have a bunch of cash still partake. One of the broader eye-openers I've had during this con season was meeting so many people who manage to scrape and save and volunteer thier way into cons. People who just lost thier job, or are stuck in a minimum-wage job, or are warming couches in a friend's apartment because they have nowhere else to stay. They were great people, and I know at least some of them are reading this. (Hi everybody!) Putting all of this content behind a paywall - even a dollar paywall - might mean that they'd lose out. Since most of those people I met are also trying to create writing careers, it'd be a major asshat if I profited off people who couldn't really afford it. So, um, if you can afford a small tip, then do so. If you can afford a bigger one, then do so.

So there's my additions to Jim's well-thought out points. Read 'em both. Try different things and see what works. But above all, be true to what you're comfortable with.

1 If you haven't followed me or him for a while, you might not know that Jim & I are friends, or that while we sometimes disagree on methodology, we usually agree on principle. And even when we disagree on principle, that I can trust Jim to talk about it rather than react. Which is why I'm using him (when needed) as a counterpoint throughout.
2 Mr. Hutchins does not say this, by the way. He's much kinder about it than I am. And it's worth noting that I've actually never read - or heard any of it, FWIW. And as an aside, even though the content was legitimately for free, the principle holds for piracy as well. And even though I'm using publishing as an example, this holds for other content too.

15 September 2010

Web-Fu

Hispanic individual practices martial arts at Morro Rock, MorroI call it web-fu.1

It's the ability possessed by Neil Gaiman, boingboing, slashdot, or lifehacker. When they mention or recommend something, servers fail under the load.

All of us have some bit of web-fu (or its real-life equivalent). But how much? When is it worthwhile to seek out?

While at GenCon, I witnessed this conversation (summarized a bit):
Webdude: I run book reviews on my blog, and I'd like to get a review copy of your book.
Author: Oh? How many visitors do you get?
Webdude: About fifty uniques a day.
Author: Perhaps you should talk to my publisher; they're over there.

There was a lot of guesswork - on everyone's part - about how much influence the webdude wielded. Would a good review mean fifty sales? Or ten? Or none?

Nobody's really sure. There are too many variables. But when The Burning Servant went live, I was really paying attention. So let me share a few insights (I've normalized numbers to the maximum number of per-day hits, presented in chronological order 2):

Release date on Chain Story Website: 0.6
Day after release, when I mentioned it on blogs, Twitter, FB: 1
Baseline after release (pretty constant for two weeks): 0.05
E-mail promotional blast (everything I've had out over the summer): 0.1
Jim Hines mentions in a list of "Friend Promo": 0.1

This is in contrast to when Jim Hines mentioned my work on the First Novel Survey results (numbers again normalized to the same standard):

Jim mentions me: 0.6
boingboing mentions me: 2

Because the Burning Servant was never part of the blog, it never showed up in RSS feeds which makes things a little easier to parse as well.

So, what do we have? When a bigger site mentions you specifically - and individually - it has more web-fu than a smaller site, or the same site when you're part of a list. When I mentioned it to people who bothered to follow me on Twitter or this blog, they also seemed to respond more. This isn't anything new, right?

Here's the new wrinkle: When Jim mentioned me as part of "what my pals are doing", the people who came stayed and read lots of my stuff. When the recommendation was topical - such as from the Chain Story site or any of the coverage of the First Novel Survey results - I got more hits. When the recommendation was personal, fewer people came to my website, but those who did, stayed.

When you evaluate whether or not the "exposure" is worth seeking, don't just consider how many people lay eyeballs on your work for a brief period of time. Consider how many are interested. For the latter, a personal recommendation seems to have far more power over time than any server-crashing load.

1 The irony, of course, is that Jim - who I reference throughout - practices martial arts. Consider it a homage.
2 For example, if the most per-day hits was 100, then that would be "1", 50 would be "0.5". That is not the formula though, because I'm not comfy presenting exact numbers in public. Let's just say I've not broken five hundred uniques ever and let it go. Raw numbers also distracts from the point I'm making here - it's proportionate gain that I'm talking about.

14 September 2010

The Zen of Twitter

My design for Twitter's "over capacity" screenI'm surprised when I see people still overwhelmed by Twitter 1. I'm surprised when people reply to tweets two or three days old. I'm shocked when acquaintances get upset that I didn't see a tweet.

There are some key terms in the above that describe the relationship I have with Twitter - and I think it's about the only kind of relationship you can have with a social network without being overwhelmed. Sure, I use Tweetdeck 2 with columns and groups and such. There's my "Friends" (everyone I follow), "Literati" (writerly types), "Dayton" (local folks), and "Peeps" (people I actually know IRL). But even that's not the biggest division.

The vast majority of people - even several in my "Peeps" column - would barely rate above "acquaintance" in the real world. Sure, we'll retweet each other and enjoy seeing what the other person has to say… but we're not real friends. 3 I'd be pretty delusional to think otherwise. But I still don't go back and read timelines, except for a very, very few people.

See, Twitter's like a big party. There's lots of folks there, talking and having a good time. In a real life party, I might float from conversation to conversation. When I'm talking to Bob and the people geographically near him, I'm missing out on what Bobbie (and everyone else at the party) is talking about with the people near them.

Twitter's like that… except that you need to substitute time for geography.

I have a day job, so I miss out on a lot of the daytime freelance writing conversations. But I also get to see (and chat) with people who are relaxing after work, or getting ready to go out for the night. I schedule some tweets, so the daytime folks know I'm there, but I don't worry about it much.

See, the real triage isn't setting up columns in Tweetdeck (or the app of your choice). It's those few whose profile page you load up separately, or whose updates come straight to your phone. Those very, very few people are the ones whose tweets I always want to see.

The next level down? That's the folks who you like seeing every tweet from (for me, mostly twitter fiction like @feministhulk , @definethis, @outshined and @Nanoism) but who don't tweet regularly or you don't want to see on your phone. Use your RSS reader to subscribe to their tweets from their profile page. (Google Reader is perfect for this.)

Everyone else? I either see them or I don't. If it's something I need to be sure people know, I send them an e-mail, a real text message, or call.

Real-life example. My grandfather died over Labor Day weekend. I tweeted it. You may not have seen it. That's okay. If you'd run into me on Labor Day, you would have heard me mention it. If not, you wouldn't have. Same thing with Twitter.

A few people I called (or at least tried to). A few people I e-mailed, because the logistics of the situation impact real-world events.

And that's it.
I have nearly 700 followers on Twitter (I cleaned out some spammers and bots last night, so it's 680-something, but you get the point). Bog only knows how many are real people, but I really, really doubt that all 700 people read every tweet.

Why should you feel obligated to?

Similarly, someone who expects you to read every tweet (or blog post, or notecard) is being just as much a jackass.

It's called a stream for a reason. Dip a foot in, splash around. Have fun. Don’t worry about the water molecules that passed before you arrived or that will flow by after you're gone. Instead, splash someone, skip a rock across the surface, and wade in the stream.

Have fun.

1 The same thing goes for Facebook's News Feed, or FriendFeed, or… well, you get the idea. I'm going to use Twitter as an example; substitute your favorite social network.
2 To the person who is about to tell me about their great client that isn't Tweetdeck: I'm sure it's wonderful. Keep using it. I'm comfy with Tweetdeck, thanks. App wars are just as dumb as OS wars.
3 I do have a few real-life friends in the "Peeps" column… and they're still the exception.

13 September 2010

Books - a 100 Word Story

It's yet another drabble! You can vote for this one at the Weekly Challenge (and read and hear the other entries as well). If you just want to hear it alone, you can use the player below, or if it's borked (like in some feed readers), you can use this direct download link.

"So, you've had some stories published?" I hate the old, quavering sound of my voice.

"Yes, grandpa." I still think of him as the boy, though he's older
than me when I'd married Martha. He's holding his book behind his
back. "I've got a chapbook of short stories."

"Oh," I say, and nod. "Good job. Can I read them?"

"They're... not really your speed." I see the knife and blood on the
cover. "Thanks, though. Gotta go, grandpa."

I shake my head as he leaves, and try to decide between the Poppy Z.
Brite novel or the Clive Barker one.

10 September 2010

The Errata of the Week....

Various random errata:

For those of you who didn't see the tweet yesterday, try to identify the two problems with this "study" (opens in a new tab) of what people of different ethic groups like. (Without reading the comments, mind you.) For former students of mine, this is why I teach you to critically evaluate studies reported in the media. (The answers are below, don't cheat!)

There's all sorts of strange, wonderful, and interesting things going on with electronic fiction. For example, Daily Science Fiction is (somehow) paying one and a half times pro rates for a free e-mail subscription 1.

Tying in with both of the above errata, Tim Pratt's story "Unexpected Outcomes" was recently on Escape Pod and totally kicked ass. While it has a little bit of NSFW language, I really, truly believe that all researchers who work with human subjects should give it a listen.

I mentioned a while back that my story "…and I Felt Fine" appeared in Everyday Weirdness. What I didn't mention was that there was another completely freaking awesome story there last month. Sure, nearly every story on Everyday Weirdness is good. For example, "Oh, How She Changed!" was a cute, fun tale with a nice unsettling note. I really enjoyed it. But both my story and Jonathan Pinnock's pale in comparison to the sheer magnitude of awesome that is "Believing" by Mary Ness. It is such a magnificence of awesome that Norm Sherman should immediately buy it for the Drabblecast.

No, really, Norm. Buy the thing.

And holy crap, is Changes a payoff for fans of Harry Dresden. Without spoilers, all I can say is: This is a fun book. This is not the book to introduce people to Dresden with. And finally, book thirteen better come out damn soon.

Anyway, that's my errata for the week. Next week, I've got a new project for you, plus flash fiction, and more about writing. Stay tuned, true believers!

1 I want to see your business model. Seriously. I’m curious, because I can't figure it out.



The two problems with the study: The first problem is that there is a huge amount of selection bias going on. The sample only includes people who 1) are comfortable using computers, 2) rich enough to be able to use computers, 3) looking for a partner, and 4) using online dating sites at all (and OKCupid in particular). While the population is large, the results only describe people who meet all of those criteria. The second problem is that the study confuses what people say they like with what they actually like. In reality, people are often unable to reliably report what they actually like. On a dating site, there is every reason to list what you think will make you look attractive to potential mates. (Or in other words, the finding that African-American women list "soul food" so frequently may have less to do with what they like than what they believe African-American men like.

Remembering is Living

Visiting the Tennants I remember.

I remember you singing "How Great Thou Art", with no regard to how off-key you were.

I remember you taking me in the old truck, riding in the front seat to your garden so far from your house, to an electrician job, trying to impress upon me how important being an electrician was.

I remember you smacking my sister once for something she'd done, and me rallying, roaring to her defense. I remember your indignation at my anger, and the stupid silent judgment I held against you, even after my sister stopped talking to me for the wrongs I'd done her.

I remember you telling me about the giant slingshot you made as a child. I remember that you thought of the turn signal first, though you didn't know - didn't bother - to patent it.

I remember the first time you told me of what you did during World War II, well after I'd gotten out of the Army myself and gone to fat. I remember the regret in your voice at not being able to fight overseas yourself.

I remember the childhood annoyance at you watching football when I wanted to watch cartoons.

I remember you driving up the hill, out of Morgantown as I rode in the back of the truck, delighted that I didn't have to sit in the cab and feeling the angles of the road as a purely physical thing.

I remember you explaining that you revved the engine and raced down the hill at an insane speed to "blow the carbon out". Now I know enough to know that it was a justification, and the thought makes me smile.

I remember the first time I noticed you repeating yourself during the same visit. I remember my older son being exasperated by it, and my patience in trying to explain it to him.

I remember you continually confusing me for a radiologist, even though I've never had a medical degree.

I remember you starting so many conversations by saying "Now, you tell me if I’m wrong," and your patience when you were.

I realized, on the drive to your funeral, that you wouldn't be sitting in your chair when I came in. That I stalled and delayed, and generally got so damn busy that I wouldn't ever get to hear you say those things again.

I hugged my grandmother, and asked her how she was, and didn't believe her for a second when she said that she was doing fine.

Still, I remember.

We are - are in a very literal and real sense - the interactions in our lives. We are the conversations we have, the touches, the screaming, the kisses, the hugs. We are the memories, and the effect we have on people.

So I remember, grandfather, as we hold the funeral service for you. I remember the interactions between our lives. I pass them on, both explicitly and implicitly. You were a part of who shaped me, so your influence spreads, rippling over human consciousness to everyone I've spoken to, everyone who has read a word I've written.

And so I speak, and I write.

And so it doesn't matter that your body lies in a coffin.

Because in these words, you still live.

Tennants

Editorial note: The grandfather figure in "Memories of Light and Sound", my story in Timeshares, is partially fiction, but partially both of my grandfathers.

08 September 2010

Fast, Good, I'm the guy at the QuickieMart.

GroovyThere are two major ways that you get charged for services: by transaction and by duration. I'm not talking about how employees get paid. Instead, it's all about how you, the customer, pay for services.

For example: I was waiting in line at a QuickieMart today 1. The only reason a line existed was due to one woman. She required the cashier to tell her all the kinds of cigarettes available. She forgot to get something, so made the cashier stop mid-transaction to go get a plastic geegaw for a relative. Just before she paid - but after the cashier totaled everything - she decided to add on some lottery tickets, but didn't want the geegaw.

You get the idea.

That's a transaction-based service. The transaction is simply "checking out". When you go out to eat, the transaction is "ordering and eating a meal". The business is built around an expected degree of turnover, because things like "available seats" are not billed separately.

Duration-based services are ones where you are billed directly for your time. Talk to your therapist about the latest webcomics or the dark trauma in your past - you're still getting billed the same. When you're being charged for the time you use, a lot more inefficient or demanding behavior is tolerable. You want to hit the restroom for twenty minutes at the beginning of your one-hour massage appointment? Have fun with that! That kind of behavior, though, would be completely unacceptable in a transaction-based business model.

And that highlights the potential problem: Businesses don't always recognize which model is more important for them. Imagine for a second, that a fast-food burger joint tried to maintain the high turnover (transaction-based) while at the same time emphasizing sit-down dining, quality foods and waiters. The reverse would almost be as bad - can you imagine someone telling Chef Ramsey to churn out shepherd's pie faster?

Sure, you can mix and match. Businesses in the same industry might have different priorities to differentiate themselves. But ultimately, one of these priorities must win out over the other.

Choose one. Stick with it. Go succeed.

1Yest, that is the entire reason for the picture of Ash. Shop smart, shop S-Mart!

07 September 2010

Muffin Basket - A 100 Word Story

Yup, after the Labor Day holiday we're picking up the drabbles again. You can vote for this one at the Weekly Challenge (and read and hear the other entries as well). If you just want to hear it alone, you can use the player below, or if it's borked (like in some feed readers), you can use this direct download link. The intro to it mentions The Burning Servant - if you've not taken a chance to read that free fiction of mine, do so now!

Red Hot Riding HoodHansel shoved the girl up against the rough tree. "This ain't what I wanted."

"I don't have anything else," she whimpered, the red fabric of her cloak draping over her eyes. "Grandma just made the muffins. No cookies. No cake."

Hansel looked back toward his sister. "Whaddya think?"

Gretel walked out of the shadows. "I think we have a little girl who brought the wrong gift and now can't find her way home."

"Oh," Red Hood said, "all I have to do is take a left here and-"

Gretel drew her knife. "Not can't. She won't find her way home."

02 September 2010

10 Keys to Digital Publishing Success

Keys Of LifeThe digital marketplace is changing, and the print marketplace with it. You (or your publisher) should already be working with digital publishing in some way1. There are no formulaic sure-fire solutions, but there are definitely ways to stand out from the crowd.

I firmly believe these ten tips are, as an old drill sergeant used to say, key.

The following are compiled from a mix of business sense 2, advice from other digital publishers, and observations of both creators and consumers of digital publishing. I believe these tips apply to independent authors and big publishing houses alike (with two exceptions). My focus is largely on making money, because authors need to eat too.

(You all know that Castle isn't real life, right? Yeah…)

A Big Honking Disclaimer: None of these is a substitute for good writing. Following all of these does not guarantee you success. Unlike some of my other advice bits, feel free to pick-and-choose among these tips... but consider all of them. Follow my advice: Don't blindly trust and follow anyone, including me. Right. Now on to the tips:

1. Lead people out of megastores. Oh, sure, sell your stuff on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. But offer more content on your website. Give them a reason to bother to check your store out and go through the bother of loading it from your site. For example, offer the story on AMZ, but put a link to the "behind the story" on your website. The big stores are offering the hardware in an attempt to lock readers in through convenience. But it's easy to get eBooks - bought from anywhere - from your PC onto your eReader. Once you give readers a reason to, they'll discover for themselves how easy it is… and then they'll come back to your store - and you won't be giving a significant amount of your profit away.

2. Sell your backlist independently, let publishers sell your new work. Okay, this one is mainly for authors, and probably the most controversial of these. Publishers - even small presses - currently have distribution channels and contacts most authors can't rival. Use them. Sell your short stories to a magazine market. They get you audience. Then when the rights revert to you, sell your back catalog digitally (cheaply). Even if your old stories are only making you $5 a month, that's money you didn't have before. I do NOT recommend new and fledgling authors going entirely independent at this time. Work with publishers, but remember that you're a freelancer, not an employee.

3. Support the big three formats. Ignore the rest. The big three are: PDF, ePub, and Kindle (sometimes called Mobi, sometimes called AZW). More than that is wasting your time at this point. To the best of my knowledge, if you offer your story in all these formats, every reader will be able to handle it. That said, PDF is not an eBook format. Sure, the eReaders can handle it - but the text is tiny and makes your work look sloppy.

4. Professional look. Your website looks clean and professional. Your eBook should too. Proofread! Test your documents with real eReaders. Make sure there's a Table of Contents, whitespace looks the way you want it to, and so on. Use public domain divider images. In my experience, the online converters are horrid, especially if you have a complex document. It is easy to make an eBook. It is more difficult to make one that looks good. If you're worried about doing it well, I do professional, freelance eBook conversion (there are others, of course…). Even if you don't use me, there are some screenshot examples of the differences, or you can directly compare a machine conversion and mine for the eBook of my analysis of Jim Hines' First Novel Survey.

5. Skip DRM. Really, just don't bother. It's a farce and annoys your customers. Schemes like imprinting the text with the purchaser's name or e-mail is a nifty trick too, but also annoying and aren't going to stop dedicated pirates. When the most difficult step in breaking DRM is installing Python… yeah, it's useless.

6. Instant gratification. Your store needs to be available and purchase be as simple as possible. Website load times matter. For example, I've never had Smashwords take less than ten seconds to load (and it usually takes longer). I don't know why, but it sure means that I'm wondering if they're really professional. I just ditched one webstore setup for a much simpler one that loads a LOT faster. (Really, check it out. It's a lot cleaner-looking too.)

7. Cheap or free samples. The digital market is a wide market, not a deep one. Sell cheap, and sell a lot - especially as you're getting started and building an audience that will keep returning.

8. Get in with a "gatekeeper" or create your own. There's always a question of quality when it comes to this stuff, especially for independent authors. Cheap and free samples help a lot in making your own name be a gatekeeper (it's often called "building your brand", and is the same thing). My weekly flash fiction, or the free-to-read copy of The Burning Servant (donations appreciated) are other examples.

Another way to do it is to have a gatekeeping mechanism that delivers you to an audience. This is the role that magazines often play, and that publishers have started to actively promote in the last decade. So find an imprint or magazine and work with them.

The final idea is the idea of creating a consortium of independent authors. Let's say you get five authors who all like each other's work who team up. They do a shared world project (or something like The Chain Story to share audiences. It's much like your buddy telling you to try out a new author - except it's the authors themselves saying "If you like me, you should try this author too."

9. Ignore the "tipping point" and other people's sales. Track your own. Seriously, betting on when publishing is going to irrevocably change is a fool's game. (I think it will change, and soon, but that's not the point.) Ignore the hype. Ignore what other people are saying about their sales (good or bad) and decide what you think is right for you.

Mind you, check out what the good and bad sellers are doing that might contribute to their sales numbers - but do not believe either group's hype and do not blindly emulate either.

10. If it doesn't work, change it. This is really the key to your business. If you spend a bunch of time and money doing banner ads and don't see an increase in sales, stop. If you see a lot of hits but no sales, examine why you're losing sales. Don't fix things that aren't broken - but change everything that's not working. Maybe podcasts are something that works for you and drives sales. Great! Maybe 100 word stories are more your speed for samples. Great! There is lots of room to try new things and see what happens.

What's important is that it's good, fulfilling work and that money keeps flowing toward the author.

Speaking of, if you've found this useful, I'd appreciate you tossing me a buck or three over there in the tip jar to the right. Every little bit is sincerely appreciated.

Super Bonus Tip Know your contract. Mike Stackpole recently wrote 9 Must-have Clauses for Digital Rights Contracts, and he's spot on the money. Read it, know it, and know when to walk away from a contract.

1There's as many ways to do digital publishing as there are digital publishers. I primarily mean text documents like short stories and novels.
2As opposed to common sense, which usually is neither.

01 September 2010

Useful tips to avoid less-useful publishers

funpanelI mentioned yesterday that I'd heard a few "publishers" say frightening things over the course of this con season. Let me clarify something: Those few (three, remember) folks self-identified as publishers on panels or in a dealer's room. They could have been vanity presses, POD presses, or outright scammers. (Most of them were out-of-genre for me, so I didn't sweat it too much.) They were a distinct minority. But they somehow managed to get themselves in a position where they looked like professionals, even though they didn't act like it.

So let me throw a few other quick tips at you.

  • When in doubt, check Writer Beware and Preditors and Editors.
  • Ask what the prospective publisher is (and is not) willing to do for you. Have some reasonable expectations of what each of you is bringing to the table.
  • Remember Yog's Law: Money flows toward the author. Paying a freelance editor to go over your work is an investment. Paying someone to publish your book is a rip-off.
  • Be aware of the resources that are out there. Contact other writers. Take a look at the resources that the writer's organizations (SFWA & HWA for two examples) have to offer. There are often many resources that anyone, member or not, can utilize.

But really, the take-home here is that just because someone presents themselves as a publisher, or as a "writerly resource", or they're on a panel at a con 1 does not mean they're legit. Take the time to evaluate the source on its own merits.

For example, the swag bag at CONTEXT contained a flyer from "Writer's Relief" and "Bowker Manuscript Submissions". I don't fault the organizers for this - they were given free stuff to hand out, and besides, the swag bag also included books!

I held up the flyers at each of my panels and told folks to recycle them. Writer Beware has some good advice on these "services" and why to avoid them. 2

I really enjoyed my time at CONTEXT, and there was a lot of great information in panels and workshops. But it's not up to a convention's organizers to vet panelists and flyers. They have more than enough work without doubting everything a potential panelist claims. It's our responsibility as authors and content creators.

And before anyone asks, yes, my first "publication credit" was a vanity press publication of a poem in one of the "Treasured Poems of America" (buy a copy, we'll print your poem). It happens… but then you move on and learn from the experience.

And hopefully, help someone else not be taken in by the same scam.

1 That guy on the far right of that picture? I mean, who the heck is he? 3
2 I find it amusing that there's a special caution warning about
ChristianManuscriptSubmissions - which the Bowker flyer says that it's modeled on.
3 Yes, that's me.