Paired Writing Techniques

The year is 202X. Technology and progress have advanced to such a point that two nerds can get together and create poetry from thousands of miles apart. What a time to be alive!

While solo writing will always be the norm, it’s easier and more reasonable to share the experience with co-writers than ever. The Expanse, a recent book-turned-television series phenomenon, is actually a team effort by Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck under the pseudonym James S.A. Corey. The San Cicaro series is no stranger to paired writing either. While working on Beasts of San Cicaro and Decades of San Cicaro (which is out this week by the way), Andrew and I got together to create the misadventures of one Olivia Murphy, the book series’ new hostess.

“By why?” the naysayers scream. “Why would I share writing credit with anyone? The glory is mine alone! There can be only one!

Eaaaaaasy Highlander… I can think of three good reasons.

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Genre “Experience”

Sooner or later, everyone in the biz is going to hear it. “But you’ve never done [genre/topic] before!”

For some reason, audiences get this ludicrous idea that writers, musicians and yeah, even artists, should “stay in their lane” regarding what they produce. I can’t say why this is the pervading wisdom, but being asked these questions feels like a job interview against (not with) an obstinate hiring manager.

I too have experienced turbulence when I made the transition from contemporary horror to low-fantasy. And again while introducing those familiar with my tie-in fiction to my original work. I’m not the only one. Other franchise writers have been miffed when their debut homebrew fails to make a splash, despite being published traditionally. Friend Manuel has faced similar problems as a graphic designer, for no other reason than never having worked with a particular product before.

As if new folks can’t or shouldn’t break into the field in question.

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“Fox Pockets: In An Unknown Country” Out Now!

Unknown CountryAt long last, my favorite contribution to Fox Spirit’s micro-anthology series is available now! Fox Pockets: In An Unknown Country contains “Stroppendrager,” a historical fiction piece by yours truly.

I love writing historic fiction. Based on information on hand, I do my best to try and concoct a story around the facts rather than try and warp facts to fit my story. This particular yarn tells the origin of the “Noose Bearers,” whom are celebrated every summer by their respective guild. The reenactors dress up in white undershirts, ropes hanging from their necks as they are escorted down Gent’s streets by pike-wielding guards. This act by the Guild of Noose Bearers recounts the Revolt of Ghent in 1539, when the entire city refused to pay the increased taxes following the Italian Wars. Unfortunately for the city’s guilds, the revolt came to an end once Charles V showed up with 5,000 soldiers under his command.

Since the manuscript was finished, more translated research material has become available. The new information would have peppered the story with more insight of the times, such as the guilds strong involvement in the uprising and the political maneuvering to try and maintain Ghent’s independence. However, I believe the story personal elements of “Stroppendrager” remain unscathed. The central themes function independently of these new facts and do not invalidate the plot. The main character’s patriotic views and his counterfoils theological concerns still serve a thematically satisfying tale that could adapt to the facts rather than the other way around.

“Things in the Dark” Out Now!

Things in the DarkAnother short by yours truly is available in Fox Spirit’s latest release, Things in the Dark, now available in print at Amazon.

There’s a bit of history behind “Selachiamorpha Caesar,” my addition to this anthology. Originally, I wrote a fairly different story to submit to Fox Spirit’s Under the Waves. That tale was a simple one about a boy who enjoys diving, having learned from his now-missing aunt. Originally I envisioned a two or three part mystery for inclusion in a few of the themed Fox Pocket anthologies.

That idea first came about more than two years ago, just before a trip to Australia. During that vacation, I (as an American) had a once-in-a-lifetime chance to go scuba diving in the Great Barrier Reef. The experience was my first time diving, overwhelming as I tried to take pictures, learn the art of breathing carefully, maneuver in a rubber suit and try not to touch anything.

All of this at the same time. It was quite a juggling act.

Before I boarded the plane however, I did a fair amount of research into scuba diving to get a grasp of the basics and the theory. That knowledge formed the basis of “Bottom Dwellers” which I submitted to Under the Waves.

Even as I clicked the send button to deliver that submission to Fox Spirit, I doubted it. Ultimately, there’s a point where knowing a good story from an uninteresting one becomes rather instinctive (although being able to explain why is an incredibly valuable skill). Despite knowing this, I submitted “Bottom Dwellers” anyway, in order to tell myself that I truly tried and failed rather than didn’t try.

The plot of “Bottom Dwellers” started by establishing the boy’s love of diving, then flows into a trip to Sydney to celebrate his birthday. His mother helps him dive in an area his aunt loved to explore, where he finds a long decomposed body. The police autopsy confirms the corpse is not his aunt, but was meant to add an element of mystery to be unraveled later.

Though I trusted that the technical details were there, I suspected the plot just didn’t have as much punch as I’d hope. It was one of those situations where the ending was probably the most interesting part, and everything that led to the climax seemed… perhaps a bit cookie cutter. If I rewrote it, I might have begun with the discovery of the body, filled in the emotions and details after the fact, and concluded by definitively connecting the corpse to the aunt in some way.

However, it was not a wasted exercise. The story itself was excellent practice. And I took the research and combined it with two different ideas into a completely new and unrelated tale which found its way into this anthology.

Spoilers follow. 

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Open Source Thinking: Author Pay Rates

The Good Fight

Super Hero Monster Hunter: The Good Fight from Emby Press is now available in print as well as for Kindle. Check it out for several amazing stories by yours truly and many other great authors! It’s the start of something big.

So in light of the post yesterday, I’ve been thinking some about how much we would be paying our authors for their work. But I’ve been thinking more and more about the slog to earn our stripes as a professional publishing company.

As I’ve noted before, being a professional author is harder than ever. And the joy and joke is that publishers need to pay off their starting cost debts and return to black on top of the need for authors to get paid. Granted, the debt isn’t much to surmount and people often supplement themselves with another career.

But let’s do some quick math here. E-books typically sell for either 35% or 70% royalties. Some may rush to point out the changes to Amazon’s royalties, but I would counter that it only applies to Kindle Unlimited and Lending Library. For the sake of argument, let’s say that the listed price is $5. Thus, at best we’re earning $3.50 and at worst, $1.75, and none of this includes printed royalties.

On the costs side, let’s focus strictly on what we’re paying the authors. In the past, the anthologies we’ve released have used pure profit sharing. This “nonprofit” (no entity keeps the money, just the creators) approach gave authors incentive to keep pushing the book after the release, and we had no real start up costs to worry about—we used the “free” ISBN from Amazon, and everything worked via a private contract rather than officially starting a company. There was no reason to preserve income because the project was never in the red.

This time around, we would have a minor debt to pay off and need additional capital to grow.

If you’re not willing to pay your authors what they’re worth, someone else will.

The usual approach for small press publishers is to compensate authors with token payments, exposure and a free copy of the book. Overall, not a bad package in lieu of professional pay for a fledgling writer. Let’s say that a publisher pays its authors $15 per a short story. A twelve story anthology costs $180 for the authors alone. And this doesn’t include cover art or editing (for which the business owners will probably be responsible.) If the sales are fifty-fifty on the 70% versus 35% royalty rates, that’s around $2.62 per sold copy.

That means to cover the authors alone, the book has to sell 69 copies. If you optimistically sell just 70% royalty stories, you can actually earn that cost back in 48 sold copies. If just the 35% rate, 103 copies.

So that is the most basic model. Lower the price of the book and you’ll have to increase sales. It also doesn’t cover the cost of the cover art, which one can technically do if they use a public domain image (possibly acceptable) or no cover (not recommended).

Now here’s the secret about artists. The average price of cover art is roughly $500. This is a stiff price to beat in the sales, but there’s actually some economic flexibility if people don’t mind paying for the difference in time.

Explained, a professional artist might have a back list of interested clients willing to pay $500 or more around the clock during the best of times. But on occasion, there maybe a lull in the number of demanding jobs, during which time it makes sense for an artist to take a lesser paying job as long as there is a very distant deadline and a patient customer.

So if you go to an artist and ask them, “I have a limited budget for this, but I’m also in no rush. Can we work out a lesser rate with expected delivery in 9 months? I understand if higher priority jobs come along in the mean time.”

And chances are, you can probably work something out depending on the artist’s schedule and professional philosophy. It helps if the artist is interested in the work you’re doing, because their muse needs inspiration too. But if you go rushing to them, exclaiming that you need this image and you need it now, now, now… well, have five Franklins ready at the very least. Because exposure doesn’t fill the pantry.

Which brings us back to the original point. Yeah, cover art will add more to the cost although as I said, there maybe room for some flexibility on that. Yet here’s what I suspect a lot of small press companies face—costs (should) inevitably grow.

Why are they growing? Well, the biggest reason would be author pay rates. If you find a good author who is willing to work for $15 a pop, they’ll probably be ecstatic to be published for the very first time. After a few more stories, they’ll start to wonder if maybe they could earn a bit more, so they start searching. Are their short stories worth $25? Yes, so what about $50? Sometimes? Can they get 1 cent a word? 2 cents? Always hunting for that professional rate of 5 cents a word.

At a 5,000 words pay cap at 5 cents a word, that same twelve story anthology suddenly costs $3,000. Chances are, that cover artist cut you a deal before because you were a small company. But if the authors are earning that kind of money, then the artist will probably want the average professional rate of $500. That means a game of professional ball costs you a minimum of $3,500. And there are bound to be additional costs I haven’t factored into the equation.

If you’re not willing to pay your authors what they’re worth, someone else will. If your readership base isn’t large enough to support higher rates, then your writers will start seeking a company who pays better and has a larger audience. If you’re not paying attention to the market, it’ll kick your ass.

A blog post I once read mentioned that large publishing companies seldom cultivate writers anymore. It took me less than a minute to realize that major publishers really don’t need to, not when you have hundreds of small companies willing to gold pan for them. Even if the little guys don’t realize it until they back a winner who brings in the readers… and then gets poached.

It’s a ceiling that stops many small press companies. And something every publisher has to bust through to join the major leagues.

The Home Stretch

Yeah, I really hoped that the novel would be finished by now. But it isn’t.

I wrapped up the first draft, then proofed it. A good friend edited and returned it to me, and I improved it based on his invaluable input. After which, the draft was submitted to the beta readers and the major sponsors whose blessing I need.

And yes, they’ve provided their feedback.

A few canonical corrections are needed, and some improvements to the logic. But there are no more bottlenecks, so any delays are entirely my own. This would be the third round of editing. I guess I dread the possibility of a fourth round, as there will be at least one final party (beyond those already mentioned) who needs to provide approval before my work goes to print.

Is an author’s first novel always the hardest? The entire process has been a learning experience, and although I was able to apply a great deal of the hard earned experience from my previous anthologies, there was plenty of new lessons, new discoveries, and new stumbling blocks.

I have a rule that I don’t read the blogs of other, more established authors unless they’re a carefully cultivated platform for advising authors, like Anne R. Allen. There are two reasons for this. First, I don’t want their views to spoil my enjoyment of their work. And second, some of them cruelly and intentionally make the process sound more difficult if not impossible, to ward away competition.

But now I wonder if perhaps they could have warned me how hard being a writer can be, or perhaps provided valuable tips to help. I want the emotional explanations, wisdom and the insights they gained without ranting or venting frustrations or being put down for “threatening” their position. It has made me more thankful towards the few authors I’ve grown to view as mentors, and the handful of my writing friends I’ve picked up along the way.

So I intend to have the third and hopefully final draft complete by June 6th, and refuse to post another blog entry until then. Even this post was written on Friday and programmed for release today, just to provide some news and explain my upcoming silence. That is how badly I need to put off further distractions.

Spring 2015 Catalog

The small press publishing game is a very slow one. It’s easy to assume that last sentence is a complaint, but rather it’s insider knowledge of the challenges it takes to publish a good book.

msjWith multi-author anthologies, the biggest delays are obtaining rights, editing, and checking the changes against the authors’ permissions. Another time sink is the formatting, when one realizes the spacing between paragraphs and sentences is not uniform, or various word processors or fonts apply their own twist on the appearance of quotes and apostrophes. With electronic books, a relatively centered body of text is usually fine. But print has to account for the left-versus-right spaces between the pages themselves, lest words sink towards the spine.

I’ve been through the process enough to know.

Sorry, I’m digressing. But with good reason. I’ve been glancing over my bibliography and find it unfortunate that several of my tales have gone out of print with the closing of Cruentus Libri Press a year ago.

But between those stories and the expiration of publishing rights for The Black Winds Whispers, I now have a flash piece, three short stories and a novelette for republishing. Material enough to cobble together a low cost, personal anthology.

The central theme of this potential anthology is horror, but the sub-genres are more eclectic. I have a mystery and detective piece that takes place in London during the 70s. I have a World War I story between France and Germany, a psychological-medical tale, and the short, “The Child of Iron” which seemed a favorite amongst the beta readers. A fine mix of various forms of horror.

GuardiansWhile this is a very good start, I feel the need to provide a little more to make a satisfactory book. I’ve been glancing through my old drafts for any works I could dust off and improve. There is a World War II horror tale that certainly has promise.

I also realized that the rights to Welcome to Hell have ended. Which means that my horror western “The Rusted Star” can now be used. That makes for six pieces. I think that’s a solid measure.

There are also quite a few dark fantasy pieces (including one with Cthulu mythos in the Indus Valley civilization), but I feel that fantasy would be a theme-breaker for this anthology. Everything else is either current or historical, so I’d rather reserve those fantasy works for something else. I’ll see what I can find.

I’ve already contacted Manuel about a book cover and plan to take some time to review the old work throughout next month.

Because the majority of the manuscripts are finished and have been edited once, I think it’s reasonable I can have the entire thing complete and available by Halloween of this year. In the mean time, my faithful readers, here are a few other titles to check out.

“Favours the Prepared” from the Fox Pocket: Guardians.

To the outside world, Marissa is a reclusive shut in, remaining in her apartment and never showing her face. In truth, she is awaiting visitors.

The Good Fight“Sins and Dust” from Mad Scientist Journal: Winter 2015.

A historical-horror tale of genuine mad science that takes place during the Dust Bowl storms of the 30s. A gut wrenching look into the emotional toll of the Great Depression, and the desperate lengths we would go to for our loved ones.

“The Beast in the Beauty” from The Good Fight.

Coming soon from Emby Press is our (yes, our!) biggest and best tale yet. Sara is a high school student with a bright future. But her graduation plans are dashed when she discovers that someone she knows has broken into her school and violently slain several people. But the truth changes the course of her life forever… and launches her into a war behind the scenes, taking place in the same universe as Jonathan Ward’s “The Falcon” and A.R. Aston’s “For a Fistful of Diamonds” which both are in this anthology.

The Good Fight is the prologue to Outliers, a superhero epic quarterly series we’re developing with a few other authors. So don’t miss it!

Tough Times For Authors

A BBC article has reported that 5% of authors made 42% of income from published works in 2013. The number of authors who can make a living writing has dropped from 40% (back around 2003) to 11.5%. I strongly recommend you read the article yourself.

The news made me grimace a little. Something like this wasn’t entirely unexpected by any means. A first hand look at sales reports illustrates how difficult it is to earn much. But seeing one’s fears in the raw numbers does give me pause.

When someone encounters a disheartening situation, it pays to take a pragmatic glance at one’s goals. My personal objective was to build my name enough that perhaps I can comfortably write full-time when I retire. As it stands, my retirement is no less than 30 years away, and a lot can happen in those three decades. This report proved that the market has changed, and is probably preparing itself for a kind of bubble in the next couple of years.

marchingtimeBubbles, at least in the context of markets, are never fun. Amazon’s e-publishing services are a blessing and a curse in this regard, for they opened the flood gates and removed barriers to entry. I can’t complain, because if Amazon hadn’t offered these services, our anthologies like Far Worlds and Marching Time would never have been published. And some of the publishing companies I’ve worked with might not exist either.

But as Amazon has removed our inhibitions, they’ve also gone on to inflame our passions. Although not the only company to do so, Amazon’s print-on-demand service CreateSpace is a proud contributor to National Novel Writing Month. In 2013, there were over 310,000 contributors to that and more than 42,000 winners. Even if as little as .5% of just the winners decided to push their work onto Amazon in the next year, it creates a deluge of new titles for sale. And that doesn’t include the other 268k non-winning contestants who could finish and submit later.

The pressure is not going to alleviate for a while. It will eventually. There are many of folks who will realize that they only ever had one story in them. Others just wanted to crank out a novel for the sensation of accomplishment. And still others may realize that being a full-time author was not quite what they hoped to be their calling.

In the end, the situation only serves to reinforce the same rule that being a writer is tough and persistence is the only way it can pay off. I guess it finally makes sense of that old phrase how the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Anthology Publishing Theory

An idea came to me during the day. My friend sent some flash fiction to edit, which was intended to go between the stories of a new anthology we’re working on.

The flash was great, but diverse. Some were happier endings, some comical. Some were darker. They hit a wide range of emotions in anywhere from a paragraph to a page in length.

As I finished, a thought occurred to me. In my opinion, the grand problem with anthologies is that their nature doesn’t permit them to be page-turners quite like novels can. A story comes to an end, and you say goodbye to the characters, the setting, the events and plot. You have to start something new.

Every tale has an emotional impact associated with it. So when it ends, I suspect that most people shut the book and set it aside to digest the ending. We’ve made some effort in the past to be careful with the order of our tales, trying to keep similar stories apart.

But as I thought about it, what’s the job of a DJ? To come up with a playlist of songs to keep people dancing, to maintain a kind of energy high so people don’t want to leave the dance floor. If the music doesn’t keep up the pace, people start to hit the bar. (And if the music is bad, people leave.)

A flash vignette is tempting however. If the reader sees that there’s a short passage just after a short story has ended, I suspect that they’d want to read it just because it’s so simple and brief. So could there be a way to balance it? If the short story ends on an evil note, could a hopeful and uplifting flash fiction piece help the audience carry onto the next story more readily?

More initial instincts say that the emotions should contrast to find balance. If something is sad, make it happy. If something is depressing, give them hope. If a tale ends with the bad guys winning, have the next piece contain an outlet for the reader’s anger.

Will have to try it…

Book Marketing and the Future

If I have any regrets the last year, it was that I didn’t start using Twitter until very recently.

Fact is, Twitter is a better marketing tool. Brief, to the point, easy to interact with. It can be linked to Facebook. Rather than engaging in “mutually beneficial” friendship arrangements, you simply have followers which you must attract. There are fewer walls and the actual spread of information is way more open, where as Facebook applies an algorithm to reduce clutter on people’s walls (which can filter you out).

Twitter is actually kind of essential for those reasons. Without walls, fans can connect readily with authors and creators. Although one can get in trouble with the platform, there is quite a bit of power to be harnessed if used carefully.

As I move forward with the anthology, I’m also hacking away at other needs to promote it. I’m examining advertising costs on Facebook. But more importantly, I’m looking at various book reviewing bloggers. Although there are “big name” critics out there in the newspapers, these smaller guys often tend to be quite niche, and really hit the reader bases that we’re writing for. In a way, the smaller guys can be a lot more powerful than the big names, because they know what they want.

This is why, despite an age where anyone can publish anything thanks to Amazon, publishing houses are not going away. They have the power to provide advertising and superior editing services. They usually know their market, and can tap top talent if need be. Self published success have occurred and will continue to happen, but there are services that publishers provide that simply aren’t available to the average author.

Business is really all about networking. Knowing the guy who can do what you can’t, knowing the right people for the job. All of us, especially writers, have to be in business for ourselves. And despite potential competitive aspects of business, a lot of it is also about working together.

Speaking of business, I’ve been thinking about what I’ll be doing next year. I’ve mentioned trying a few drafts against Everyday Fiction. But Narrativium will be in charge of the next anthology, Marching Time. Besides that, there will be the Black Library submission window, of which both myself and several of the Boltholers will have our strongest chance next year to be published.

The major question is whether to attempt my first novel, or self-publish an anthology of novellas. The latter is very tempting. My approach to being published has revolved around an “evolving plan” of difficulty. Flash fiction and short stories started it. There has been at least one novella thus far.

An idea is to go ahead and write more novellas, and get used to longer tales before attempting a novel-length story. Length is a major factor. 300 pages is nothing to sneeze at. My approach has really allowed me to gradually increase the difficulty, while building on the skills I’ve learned in the previous steps.

What I learned from short story telling can be applied to novellas. What I learn from novellas could evolve into a novel. Thus far, that idea has been working. While I don’t want to be complacent, this approach is working thus far.