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A Week in Paradise

Sunday, October 25th, 2015


I had the good fortune to spend last week at the nineteenth Viable Paradise Writer’s Workshop, on Martha’s Vineyard. It was five days of classes, seminars, reviews, and insight, taught by some very talented people. The affair is by invitation, based on a work you submit, and I was actually quite shocked (gobsmacked, really) to have been invited. I didn’t realize that I’d progressed to a level where I’d be taken seriously, and seeing the work of the other students didn’t exactly help my confidence level – there were some VERY capable attendees there.

At a fundamental level, there’s probably not that much that I learned that I couldn’t have found in a book on writing, or eventually figured out on my own. And I’ve gotten useful reviews of my work both from my local writers’ group and online. However, I’m far more likely to retain something presented by a veteran author who also happens to be an excellent speaker, than if I skimmed over it in some ‘how to write’ book.

But more importantly, VP is far more than it’s classes. The event is designed to engender camaraderie in the attendees, partly through it being a high-pressure environment, and partly by cultivating a communal atmosphere – a sense that we were not kneeling at the knee of giants, but rather working collaboratively toward a common objective.  A core goal of the workshop is also to motivate it’s graduates to actually get out there, write, submit, and get published. And that particular kick in the tush was of particular value to me at this point in time.

So now the post-VP part of my writing begins. Like before, I’ve got the same challenges: time and self-doubt being the biggies. But I’ve also just received a first-class vote of confidence. Now it’s time to see if I can convince some editors as well.

Stalking the Wild Muse

Tuesday, April 1st, 2014

Being an engineering left-brain kind of guy, the whole realm of artistic inspiration and how to cultivate it is a bit foreign to me. The best advice I’ve ever heard, though, was to identify the time and circumstances when you muse is present, and try to replicate those conditions.

Your mileage may vary, but for me, it’s oh-dark thirty, first thing in the morning. There are no distractions, my mind is fresh (if not a bit foggy), and if there’s a flow of ideas to be had, that’s when it will happen. So, being blocked on a story that was about 90% done, I’ve been trying to get some traction on it on and off for the last few weeks.

And you know something? If you put your mind to it, you can still be distracted at six AM. Email, that news site you wanted to get a peek at, the client project that’s behind schedule and could use some extra hours… and so forth.

One of the things I have not seen mentioned in articles about creativity is the idea of traction. On this particular story, I was very happy with how it began, the characters, their tribulations, and how the story was flowing. Only one problem – I didn’t have the foggiest idea of how it would end. So I spent each night, as I was falling asleep, thinking about the final scene, where the protagonist, the Big Boss, and a few other had to resolve the core conflict of the story.


So I passed the first third to my writers’ group. The feedback was quite positive, and I got some good suggestions for improvements. I also now had an implied contact to finish the damn thing.

But one thing that also came out of the review was that Rebecca, a minor character, was a good one, and I realized I wanted her to play a bigger role. So I wrote her into the final scene… and all of a sudden, the scene congealed.


The last three thousand words almost write themselves. Sure there’s some fine tuning to be done, but I actually like the way it ends. And having reread it a bunch of times (a habit of mine with new works), I’m still happy with it.

It will be interesting to see how the writers’ group feels about it. But whether it stands as it is or experiences a major overhaul, the logjam is broken.



Dealing with ‘Creatives’, Part II

Sunday, January 26th, 2014

If you don’t remember part one of this, follow this link. Having been fired by my cover designer after only one cover, I was forced to hunt down a fresh one at elance.com. And after receiving fifteen proposals in less than a day, I was actually pretty encouraged. Sure, I wasted a month with the first artist, but at least there were more out there to choose from.

A bunch were easily eliminated (too expensive, irrelevant portfolio, etc.) My initial contact was a new artist in New York City, working to expand her portfolio. At first she seemed like a good match, but after some discussion she withdrew from the project, saying it was too complex for her to deliver at a reasonable price. That was pretty much the complaint of my first artist – not exactly an encouraging trend.

So I moved onto the next one, located in (of all places) Columbo, Sri Lanka. Former home of Arthur C. Clarke. An omen?

Well, maybe. I spent a bunch of time Skyping and swapping emails with someone who used just the nickname ‘Black’, describing in great detail exactly what I wanted. I also provided a good amount of information on the story and the characters.

Black took about a week to get back to me. And when he finally did, he came back with something that eventually evolved into this:


Which was, in my humble opinion, a beautiful piece of cover art that really captured the key elements of my story. Far more eye appeal than the first one. Utterly different from what I’d asked for. And almost certainly easier to execute, from a graphic arts perspective, than my original request.

Back in my real life as an engineering consultant, very often I joke about giving clients what they need, in contrast to what they ask for. And here I was, having that exact thing done to me!

What’s ironic about it is that if either of the first two artists had made that leap, I’d be working with them instead of reaching halfway around the world (10.5 time zones) to get an e-book cover made. Now, in both cases, I began my interaction with “…I’m new at this, so I need you to educate me on what’s reasonable to ask for and what’s not.” But neither of them took the initiative to do exactly that.

So it would seem my disdainful attitude about learning how to ‘deal with Creatives’ needs a reassessment. The solution was actually for me to be educated by a Creative.

So pass the humble pie. And, given the end result, actually I don’t mind the taste at all.

By Rote

Sunday, January 5th, 2014

There’s a book called The E-Myth Revisited, by Michael Gerber, that talks about the dilemma small businessmen run into when trying to grow their business. The book runs 268 pages, so it may be a bit challenging to summarize it in a paragraph, but I’ll have a go at it anyway.

People who start a business generally do so because they love creating something that they think others will want. This applies to any business, but as the author talks about a baker, I’ll use that example here. So the baker opens her new bakery, everyone loves her pies, and she’s happier than a pig in you-know-what. And she’s making money. Long lines wrap around her bakery every morning, and Life is Good. So she decides she’ll open a second bakery on the other side of town. Pretty soon she’s spending her time running back and forth between the two places, quality of her product is suffering because she can’t supervise both operations, bills aren’t getting paid because she has no time for it, the board of health is sending threatening letters, and her best baker just quit because the place is so chaotic. She’s working sixteen hours a day, but seems to be slipping further behind each week. That’s the point at which she hires Mr. Gerber to help her out of the mess she created.

There, I just saved you reading the first few chapters. And now I’ll save you reading the rest of the book.

Mr. Gerber’s solution to the ‘Baker’s Dilemma’ is process. Put in place a documented process for everything involved with running the bakery, from how to purchase the flour to how to measure the ingredients, to how to arrange the currency in the register to how to which edge of the cake boxes to fold first. With all this in place, the bakery can run with any staff that can be trained to follow the process, and the proprietress will no longer have to always be present.

In the audio book version, the proprietress experiences an epiphany, when she realized she can now grow her business indefinitely and be freed from the mundane parts of the operation so she can focus on finding new recipes and so forth.

Or at least Mr. Gerber meant it to sound like an epiphany. To me, it sounded more like a psychotic episode, as she chants “… a process for this, and a process for this, and a process for this…”

You see, I’m not a big fan of process. I think it stifles creativity and doesn’t deal well with exceptions. From my perspective, process is great if you’re manufacturing nuts and bolts, or opening a McDonalds. But it’s useless if you’re a sculptor or an artist. My real-life profession, engineering, falls somewhere in the middle.

So I never had much use for Gerber.

But lately, I’ve been thinking more about how to get the germ of a story into a form that worthy of publication. It’s tough to get traction, especially in the beginning. Whether you call it lack of motivation, writer’s block, or something else, it’s still tough.

Recently, I learned something from someone in my writer’s group who I’ll call Sue (because that’s her name), about a way to get some traction. She provided me with a three-page questionnaire to be filled in for each major character. The questions range from simple ones like the character’s name and age, through more complicated ones like ‘What sexual experience most haunts your character?’, or ‘If you met your character in a bar, what would he/she think of you?’.

Filling it in can be pretty challenging, but once it’s complete I have a pretty good idea of the character I’m dealing with. And if I do it with two or three more characters, how they would interact becomes pretty obvious. Once there, the first draft almost starts writing itself.

But it’s still only a draft. So off it goes to my writer’s group, for commentary, critique and refinement. And after that, to an online writer’s group that I recently joined, for more of the same. At that point, it’s been seen by somewhere between ten and twenty sets of eyes, and while it may not be as good as it can get, it’s almost certainly as good as I can get it. So off to the copy editor, a final local edit, and it’s ready.

(pause, step back, and catch my breath)

You know, this is starting to look an awful lot like a process. Interesting. I never thought process was even remotely useful for creative activities.

Perhaps I owe Mr. Gerber an apology.


You’re Fired!

Sunday, December 29th, 2013

Well, actually, it seems that I was. By my graphic artist.

One of my inspirations has definitely been Hugh Howey, a self-published author who has been quite successful. And one of Mr. Howey’s core tenets is that those who succeed at this are those who treat it like a business. So I’ve tried to do that, at least to the extent that someone who must engage in other activities in order to eat regularly can.

Like any other business, it’s inevitable that there will be setbacks. And I ran into one last week.

I’ve decided that the short stories I offer for sale individually should have covers. In reality that’s not quite a necessity, but despite the proverb, people do judge books by their cover. So I went out looking for a graphic artist.

Elance is really pretty amazing. In less than 48 hours, I received close to twenty replies from artists on every continent except Antarctica. I picked one in Serbia initially, but the language barrier made it difficult for me to express abstract concepts. Possibly this was my own limitation, but it was a limitation nonetheless. So we moved onto one from the states.

Communication went well initially. The artist had the required credentials, seemed to understand what I was looking for, and offered a reasonable price. This being the first time I’d ever tried this, I was surely a bit clumsy in communication, but there still seemed to be some rapport. I was surprised at the amount of guidance I needed to provide, but seeing as this was the first time around, I assumed that both I and the artist would be better at it for future covers. An acceptable final product was delivered, money changed hands, and I was ready to move onto the next one.

But apparently the artist wasn’t. I was told that the work took nearly ten times the anticipated effort, and that she had no interest in repeating the experience.

Given that I specified the task, and the artist specified the process and the price, I’m really not sure how I might have managed this differently. Could I have been clearer on what I wanted? Could I have managed the process more closely, and identified that we were off track earlier on? Or is this just the nature of working with ‘Creatives’, as they call them on Mad Men?

One thing I was definitely disappointed in was that I was left hanging for a week before the kiss-off. It’s the artist’s right to not take a project she doesn’t want. Good business practice dictates that the bad news should be delivered in a timely fashion. So does good manners. And in addition to the week lost, I’ve lost whatever time it will take to identify a replacement and bring them up to speed.

So I’m back to Elance. The effort I made bringing this artist up to speed on my likes, dislikes, and means of communication is lost. What I learned about the process, though, is something I get to keep. Hopefully it will be helpful the next time around.

And I’ll also admit that I’m curious to see how the next experience compares to the first. Maybe the third time will be a charm.

(In case you’re wondering what all the fuss was about, here’s the cover for Saimon’s Gift, planned to be released as a Kindle Short by the end of January (It was going to be mid-January, but, well… see above).

Saimon's Gift_small

Cranking up the presses… slowly

Sunday, November 24th, 2013

Yes, I know, I could upload a copy of Saimon’s Gift to Amazon tonight and become a self-published author almost immediately. But I want to do this with at least a little bit of class and style. That means copy-editing, finding a cover artist, and tweaking the manuscript to make the story as good as… well, maybe not as good as possible, but certainly as good as I can make it. That will take time, and more beta reading. There are also the small matters of writing a blurb for my author’s page, a dedication page for the story, buying ISBN numbers, and on and on. It can be a bit intimidating. But no piece by itself is particularly challenging, and I’m confident that once I establish a road map, the second, and third, and (so) forth will come relatively easy.

The first cover artist I found had a promising portfolio, but the combination of a seven time zone gap and a language barrier made it difficult to get anything accomplished. Probably I could have made it work, with enough effort, but I’d rather spend that effort elsewhere. I’ve identified one closer to home who is more expensive, but has other powers and abilities that I think will make it worthwhile.

ISBNs are another issue – I can’t quite bring myself to pay the absurd small quantity price, but I can’t quite bring myself to spring for the total cost of a large block of numbers either. Hopefully I can find others interested in sharing the burden,. so we can form an impromptu publishing company, and share a block.


Yes, lots of trivia. In a way, it’s kind of like manufacturing a high-tech product. The design is one thing. But then there’s manufacturing, distribution, packaging, materials, inspection, and on and on. I’m slowly getting to understand what Mr. Howey meant when he said that those who treat self-publishing as a business are succeeding at it.

Silly me. I thought the hard part was going to be the actual writing.


The Perfect Is the Enemy of the Good

Sunday, November 17th, 2013

When Voltaire said that, more than two hundred years ago, he surely wasn’t talking about self-publishing. Or maybe he was. After all, the guy wrote more than 2000 books and pamphlets. They couldn’t all have been perfect.

For me, what it means is that after collecting a double handful of rejection letters, I’ve decided its time to try self-publishing. The reasons are many. Part of it is I’ve got a belief that in most creative endeavors, there is a lot more talent out there than there is bandwidth in the traditional distribution network. Take music for example. There are probably hundreds of great songs being written every week, but only twenty slots in the top twenty. That means lots of losers. One of the great things about the Net is that all those other songs can be heard. I think the same thing may be true for the written word.

Another factor is that for the average writer, a first-time book contract may not be such a good deal. The advance will only be a few thousand dollars, and the publisher will do little if any promotion of the book. Six months on the shelves of the major chains and, if it doesn’t turn into a best-seller by then, onto the $1 discount rack. Meanwhile, the author has already spent his $4000 advance and in all probability the book hasn’t earned out; that is, its royalties have never reached $4000. Now the book is in a weird state of purgatory; It’s still ‘in print’; owned by the publisher, who has no interest in doing any thing with it, and the author is pretty powerless.

As for me, I’m not in it for the money. At least, not for now. Would I like a $4000 advance? Well, sure! But after taxes it would be considerably less, and from what I’ve read of the state of the industry, the whole experience would be too much like selling my soul.

Short stories? Again, it seems like there are an awful lot of stories chasing a very small number of slots in Analog, et. al. So the chances of a successful sale are not high. And a successful sale might net a per-word value of about $0.07 per word, so a 6000 words story would fetch $420. Sold on Amazon for $0.99, that same story would need to sell slightly more than 600 copies to reach the same profitability. Is that reasonable thing to strive for, over the lifetime of a story?

I don’t know. Ask me in a year; by then this experiment will be more completely underway.

So what does it take? Well, getting the printed word onto Amazon doesn’t seem to be that big a deal. But, like anything else, its the details that get to you. Details like:

  • Cover Art
  • Copy editing
  • ISBN numbers
  • Typesetting
  • Etcera

So there’s more to this than just dragging a file over to www.amazon.com and clicking ‘publish’. At least if you want to do it right. But like any other overwhelming problem, it can be broken into smaller pieces. Take cover art, for example. A quick (and free) post on elance.com yielded a dozen graphic artists, in everywhere from New York to Bulgaria, ready to create my cover, at price ranging from $60 to more than $500. With plenty of examples of their work. There are lots of copy editors out there, too, including the one recommended by a member of my writing group. (And even as I was writing this, an email popped into my inbox, from a friend about to start a copy-editing business.) The proper application of money will easily solve the ISBN problem. And so forth.

So, graphic artists at the ready. Copy editors on hot standby. ISBNs entering the pipeline.

Let the Adventure begin.


The Demise of the Book, Again

Thursday, August 15th, 2013

A recent blog entry by someone better-known than me forecasts the end of books and bookstores as we know them. Perhaps. But perhaps there’s more to it than that.

The highest-profile evidence of change in the air was surely the demise of the Borders Bookstore chain, but I’m certain you’ve witnessed the end of booksellers closer to home. One sad note for me was reading that Lorem Ipsum Books (great name, no?) in Cambridge was up for sale, with the article I read mentioning that it was historically a labor of love, and never really gained any traction financially. Great place to browse, though.

And I’ll admit that I’m part of the problem. If I told you I never browsed a book in a store and immediately reserved it at the library, I’d be lying. I’m also guilty of supporting the market for used books, at the expense of new ones.

What does it all mean? Well if Mr. Godin is saying that the classic bookstore with its huge stacks of musty volumes, a schoolmarm-ish lady behind the counter, and a big cat sitting on an upholstered chair nearby is on its way out, I’d have to agree. But I’m less willing to believe that twenty years from now paper books will be obscure museum pieces. I love my Kindle. But I also love to hold a paper book in my hand. I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive.

So what might a bookstore look like in 2040? Well, it will be doing a lot of things besides selling books. What? Well, think of the things that avid readers enjoy besides books. I could imagine playhouses, meeting places, hosting traveling museum exhibits or guest speakers, providing classes, and so forth. The local bookstore might be where you go for the recitation portion of a college class, after receiving the lecture portion online. Or pretty much anything else that involves both the mind and physical presence. Will they charge à la carte, or offer memberships? I don’t know. I’ll leave the specifics to the attention of tomorrow’s entrepreneurs, except to say that maintaining the status quo would be suicidal.

Libraries? Same thing. Already, they’re becoming social places, bridging the gap between the online and physical community. In the cities that value them, they’re not going away any time soon. In the places that don’t, it probably doesn’t matter much.

But what about the paper books themselves? Dated anachronism, or timeless store of value? Ebooks offer immediacy, ease of transportation, and democracy of access – freedom of the press is no longer limited to those who own one. In contrast, the traditional edition offers tangibility, reliability, resistance to alteration after the fact (1984, anyone?), and resilience against theft – which would you rather lose, your iPad or that dog-eared copy of 50 Shades?

Set your WABAC machine to the beginning of the twentieth century. We’re all riding around on horses and bicycles. You pick up the newspaper and read this editorial:

Exciting technological breakthroughs over the last several years have made the automobile even better and more reliable that it already was. Despite the initial expense, traveling by car is faster, more comfortable, and far more practical in bad weather than any other means of transportation. At first the auto appealed only to the mechanically-inclined, but in just a few more years, the bicycle will be gone completely from the public scene, except for the occasional die-hard. And once the last of them pass on, the only bikes will be in junkyards and museums.

There were over 100 million bicycles manufactured worldwide in 2012.

Ebook versus the Dead Tree edition? It’s a big world. There’s room for both.