Sci-Fi Story Elements That Really Hook Me!

For well over a year now, I’ve been spinning my wheels on a sequel to Red Soil Through Our Fingers. Despite the well-known writing advice that the first draft will be crap and you just have to power through it, somehow the three drafts I’ve started and scrapped so far seemed to have more wrong than merely being ordinary first-draft crap. Something really fundamental felt like it was missing.

So I finally took a break from trying to write the fourth do-over and decided to just freewrite about what I love in the sci-fi novels that I read. I analyzed my very favorite speculative fiction novels for common threads, and tried to distill them into individual motifs. The results were enlightening, and subsequent work has helped me re-plan and restructure the work-in-progress to better align with the elements of speculative fiction that I find exciting.

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My Indie Titles Will No Longer Distribute on Amazon

I have decided to pull Red Soil Through Our Fingers from Amazon’s e-bookshelves and refrain from allowing Amazon to distribute any of my future indie-published books for the time being.

Before I go any further, a word to Kindle users: You can still read my books! Buy from Smashwords, and you will be able to download the book in .mobi format. You will need to move the .mobi file to your Kindle (via USB), or you can read it via the Kindle Reader mobile or desktop apps.

My reasoning for taking this action is multi-fold. Most of my reasons break down into two categories:

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How to Submit a Short Story

A friend in my writer critique circle asked how to go about submitting short stories for publication. There’s a lot of information out there on this subject, but I thought it might be helpful to collate the information that has been helpful to me, as well as throw in some examples from my personal experience. In this post I’ll describe where I find markets, the submission process, and what goes into a cover letter.

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Finding My “Creative Mind” Again: Mindset and Writing

Photo via VisualHunt.com

Our move to Virginia from Boston about five months ago has had a hugely positive effect on my writing. That’s no slight to Boston, a creative city with a long literary history, that I do miss dearly. However, now that I’ve had some distance from the move, I’ve had a chance to reflect on the factors that have made a huge difference in my ability to regularly put words to page. I’ve discovered that specific mental patterns and habits have led to more creativity, and my hope is that others can find ways to carve out spaces in their lives for these ways of thinking as well.

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Camp NaNoWriMo: Red Soil II

It’s just a few days to July, and I’ll be using Camp NaNoWriMo to jump-start a first draft of the sequel to Red Soil Through Our Fingers. Having moved from Boston to a much lower-stress pace of life in Virginia a couple of months ago, I’m now through the post-move transition and ready to draft some fiction again! Incidentally, Camp Nano was what led to the initial draft of Red Soil as well, so it’s fitting that the sequel will begin its life the same way. I’m also excited that several members of my writing group are joining in, plus some friends of ours as well!

Here’s my working “back cover” premise:

Yoo Sun-Hee has been left in charge of Hellas-Dao, a Mars colony caught in a power struggle that now ripples across the solar system. Surrounded by enemies and unsure of her allies, she must somehow defend the colony against all comers and navigate a path to freedom. Meanwhile, the thousands of colonists under Sun-Hee’s watch don’t see eye-to-eye on the best course for the future. As governments and mega-corporations battle for supremacy of interplanetary space, those living on the red soil of Mars descend into infighting and faction. A single spark could set off violence that will destroy the colony — or its hopes — from within.

Questions I’d like to explore:

  • How do we construct a functional society from factions that vehemently disagree over fundamental values, to the point of active hatred and violence? Is separation the only/best choice?
  • When loyalty to principle conflicts with loyalty to those we love, how do we decide which takes precedence?
  • When is it morally permissible to disobey legitimate orders or reveal secret information you promised not to reveal? (Thinking about Ed Snowden, Reality Winner, et al here.)
  • What is the line between freedom fighter and terrorist, and who gets to decide? Is the difference truly just in the eye of the beholder? Are there ends so important that they justify morally questionable — or even reprehensible — means? (This is a touchy one… I’m by no means intending to justify terrorism, and I do believe there are both hard lines and gray areas. I find the broader question interesting though, from a social, political, historical, and not mention contemporary perspective.)
  • If we truly had an opportunity to “reset” a government/society and shed generations of precedent, what would we build?

I’m excited to begin!

If you still haven’t ever picked up a copy of Book 1, Red Soil Through Our Fingers will be FREE at Smashwords from July 1 to July 31 as part of their annual July Summer/Winter sale.

Panel Postmortem: Is Optimism Just Nostalgia in Disguise?

This post is the first in what I intend to be several recaps of some of the most thought-provoking moments during this weekend’s Arisia science fiction and fantasy convention.

First of all, I have to thank Andrea Hairston. As a panelist and audience member, moderators have consistently been the most significant factor affecting the experience of con panel. Andrea was our fearless leader during this panel and I think we all owe her thanks for her energetic and positive management of the conversation.

Panel Description: Is Optimism Just Nostalgia in Disguise? – Marina 2, Literature, Sun 11:30 AM: We are hearing, after a long sojourn in dystopia and postapocalypse, that optimistic SF is making a comeback. Is it really the case or is the optimism of yesterday just another type of nostalgia? When climate change, postantibiotic medicine, and resource depletion are major factors in our lives (topics that are not always as well addressed in optimistic SF), is there a way to temper our optimism and inspire those who might be able to face these problems? Panelists: Andrea Hairston (mod), N.A. Ratnayake, Matthew Kressel, T.X. Watson, M.J. Cunniff

I was happy that the conversation could begin with every panelist answering the titular question in the negative: no, optimism is not just nostalgia in disguise. We had different perspectives as to why and how to move forward, but it was great to have that connecting thread. I won’t (and really can’t) give a transcript or summary of the conversation as it happened, but here are some of my key conclusions that I took away.

[SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t yet seen Star Wars: Rogue One, skip the section “Positive Stories in Negative Spaces.”]

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On the Finances of Self-Publishing

Almost exactly two years ago today, I finished the first draft of Red Soil Through Our Fingers. As I talk to friends and family about my novel, I’ve encountered a recurring set of misconceptions around the finances of self-publishing a novel, especially an ebook. I admit I knew nothing about how book publishing worked before embarking on this adventure and having to learn about e-publishing the long way, so I am hardly surprised that few people seem to be aware of the costs.

I’ve also run into a few aspiring writers who seem to think self-publishing an ebook means they simply get to make their total sales number times their chosen list price. Spoiler: That’s really, really far from the truth.

So here’s me being transparent about my journey as a new and (hopefully?) rising science fiction author.

Some background: Prior to publishing Red Soil Through Our Fingers in January 15, 2016, I had published two short stories in professional paid markets. Red Soil was my first novel of any kind, and my first self-publication. The novel is ebook only — there is no print version — and I sell it through two major networks: Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing, and the Smashwords network (which includes most every other ebook retailer you’ve ever heard of besides Amazon, such as Barnes and Noble, Apple, Kobo, etc). The novel was priced at $0.99 as a pre-order through December and the first half of January, then released on January 15th at a list price of $2.99.

Also, it should go without saying that self-publishing involves a staggering number of diverse factors. I don’t claim that my experience is universal in any sense, nor that I’ve made the most optimal decisions. I’m on a learning curve myself, and I only hope that revealing some of the backstage data can provide some useful insight.

Sales

The great news is that 72 people have actually purchased my book to date. Thank you! I appreciate that you took a chance on a new author. If you bought Red Soil Through Our Fingers in the last few months, you are among the first readers ever to support my writing. Whatever that ends up being worth to you, I’m grateful you were able to share in my creative product.

12346589_982958841763352_7543731240419688299_nIn addition, I gave away 155 custom USB drives to beta readers and to fans at the two major science fiction conventions here in New England, Arisia and Boskone. I wanted to be able to hand out the book itself, something more concrete than a business card (which still requires the recipient to go out and buy the book). I also included a interview, a video introduction to the issues, and copies of my two published short stories to make it a commemorative “special edition” token. (People loved the concept, by the way).

So that’s a total of 227 copies of Red Soil Through Our Fingers knowingly distributed over six months. Not bad at all!

In terms of revenue, you might think my book income so far might be 72 sales x $2.99 list price = $215.28. However…34 of the 39 sales through the Smashwords network were free or discounted by 50% through a promo code. Of the 33 Amazon sales, 16 were pre-ordered at the promotional price of $0.99, the rest were purchased at list price.

And let’s not forget fees. Sales directly through Smashwords return 85% of the list price, which is awesome. But most of my sales through the Smashwords platform have actually been through other retailers like the Apple and Barnes & Noble. In these cases, Smashwords takes a much smaller cut, but the retailer also takes their own cut, as much as 35%. Amazon takes 30%, unless I choose to opt-in to KDP Select, which has huge moral and practical costs which I decline to accept.

Oh, and there a transaction fee for processing each sale…

In the aggregate, about 38% of gross revenue was taken as fees for my sales through the Smashwords network as a whole, and about 39% for Amazon. That leaves $40.27 from Amazon, and $21.44 from all other retailers combined, for a total net sales income of $61.71.

(Incidentally, Amazon is currently 46% of total sales and 65% of net revenue… cold hard facts that explain why the evil giant can throw its weight around the publishing industry.)

Accounting for all the free copies I gave away, that’s an average income of twenty-five cents per knowingly distributed copy.

Again, I’m very happy that so many people are getting copies of my book… that’s more than most aspiring writers ever get to see. But if you’re one of those aspiring writers thinking that self-publishing is a quick way to make a few bucks… well. It took two and a half years to write and publish the novel. You do the math if you want to know the hourly rate.

Costs

So what did it cost me to get here? Self-publishing an ebook seems like it would be free to the uninitiated, but the costs can be much higher than one might think (and certainly higher than I expected).

First of all, your book needs an editor. I’m grateful to my network of fellow writers and readers who helped me collaboratively edit successive drafts of my first novel. Otherwise, that service could have cost me several hundred to over a thousand dollars for a novel-length manuscript. I was spared this time… I may not be able to get away with that in the future.

Secondly, a good book needs a good cover. The Smashwords Guides have remarkable data on the difference that a good cover makes in selling a book. But even without looking at the data, you already know… we all judge books by their covers all the time. In fact, when competing for reader eyeballs on a giant Amazon listing of potential books that is literally millions of titles long, a good cover is actually the only hook you have. I paid my cover artist $200 for an original design, a price I believe was fair and well-worth the amazing final result.

Thirdly, there’s marketing once the book is out. Those fancy USB drives? Very cool, but 200 of them at around $3.70 each is almost $750. My hope had been that an investment in interesting, unique handouts would get a lot of people to read and review the book, thus eventually leading to more sales in the long run. As I’ll get to in the next section, that gamble hasn’t paid off… yet. (Though I definitely think they made great thank you gifts to beta readers, and friends and family loved them… but I may not order so many next time.)

Along with the other miscellany I’ve bothered to keep track of, the total cost of publishing and marketing my first ebook novel so far is over $1000.

Reviews

The basic investment of marketing by giving away free copies is the hope that a) readers will be satisfied with the product they received for free, and b) they will then pass on their satisfaction by word of mouth and online reviews, thus eventually yielding many more sales than the initial cost.

So far, it seems that outcome (a) has been met. (Thankfully… seeing as that’s actually more important to me… see Concluding Thoughts below.) Red Soil Through Our Fingers has an average 4.3 /5.0 rating on Amazon, an average 4.0/5.0 rating on GoodReads, and a straight up five stars in the Apple iBook Store. Thank you! I truly appreciate those of you who took the time to write thoughtful reviews, including those with less-than-stellar ratings. Honest reviews help readers decide to take a chance on an unknown author like myself, convey an authentic reaction to the story, and help spread the word about the book.

However… I should note that these ratings come from a total of only fourteen reviews. That means that, despite an average rating that is very positive, only 6% of distributed copies so far have actually resulted in a review.

Now, there could be many reasons for that low percentage, including:

  • Maybe a lot of people who received a copy of the book simply haven’t gotten around to reading it yet. (Likely… I buy books in the moment because they look interesting, but often keep them for months and sometimes years before getting around to actually reading them. Sometimes I even forget about them altogether. I get it.)
  • People have read the book, but forgot, or haven’t gotten around, or perhaps never intend to write a review. (I buy tons of things all the time and just archive the stupid Amazon Marketplace emails asking for reviews the instant I see them. Who wants to take the time right? Well, here I am on the other side, asking you to please write a review.)
  • Reviews for anything tend to be written by people who either loved or hated the reviewed thing in question. Maybe my book is kind of “meh” for most people and they don’t feel motivated to write a review either way. (If this is you, please write a review! Even two and three star reviews help build exposure if honestly and thoughtfully written.)
  • Maybe reviews are just like that. After all, the Divergent series sold 6.8 million copies in 2013 alone, and the three books combined have 53,843 reviews on Amazon, which is only 0.8% of sales. (There’s problems with using those figures, I know, but just looking at a rough cut.)

Whatever the case, the numbers are what they are. It would be nice to see more reviews of the book, but that said, I’m very happy that what reviews I have received are overwhelmingly positive.

Concluding Thoughts

From a purely financial perspective, to-date I’m still in the hole $964.61 on self publishing my first novel.

Now, let me state here that I’m not actually trying to make money on my writing. I have a day-job that pays the bills and no intention of either A) trying to write full-time at any point in the near future, or B) giving up writing because it doesn’t make any money. I write as a hobby… because I love making up stories, exploring the intersection of ideas and people, and sharing those discussions with other people, hopefully toward the end goal of making the world a better place.

Though all that said, it certainly would be nice to recoup the cost of producing the thing in the first place, and thus enable the hobby to continue more sustainably. (I estimate that breaking even would need another 850 list-price sales.)

(If you want to help that goal, it’s pretty simple. Buy the book, encourage others to buy the book, and leave reviews everywhere so that people you don’t even know can be persuaded to take a chance on… well, buying the book.)

Obviously, I plan to keep talking about Red Soil and seeing where it goes, even while I work on the next novel (as yet untitled, but look for details on the blog and on Facebook as the ideas take shape!). It was a great personal accomplishment for me, a huge confidence boost to my writing, and of course a serious learning experience. At the end of the day, I’m very glad I did it, and I’m very grateful to all those who helped me reach this milestone.

Here’s to the next writing adventure…

Writing Resources

I recently published my first novel, Red Soil Through Our Fingers, which was a major personal accomplishment. In the aftermath, I’ve been looking back on the process, and trying to determine what practices I should carry forward and try to improve and which practices hindered my progress. In addition to thinking about my overall writing process, I’ve also been reflecting on the resources and supports that helped me start, sustain, and finish my first novel.

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My Writing Process

Image credit: freeimagrs.com/spydermurp

Image credit: freeimagrs.com/spydermurp

I recently filled out an author interview at Smashwords, and one of the questions had to do with my approach to the writing process. I’m posting the answer to that question here on the blog, since there was some interest in the question after my commentary on the release of Draft Beta. I answer this and nine other questions in the full interview, so check it out!

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First Draft Novel Complete!

One week behind schedule for Camp Nanowrimo, I have finally completed a first draft novel, tentatively titled Red Soil Through Our Fingers! This is a major milestone for me. I’ve tried many times, via Nanowrimo and otherwise, to finish even one draft of a novel, but have never made it through the “murky middle”. Having made it to the other side, wow. It really does get better after roughly the 80% mark. Here’s what it means for what I’ve got and where it’s going.

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