Greetings and Salutations!

Welcome to the longest-running* yet least-read** blog on the internet! Here you'll find me writing about all the things that I write about, which strikes me, just now, as somewhat recursive. In any case, enjoy :)

* not true ** probably true

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Free works: More thoughts and more numbers

Today, for the first time ever, Thagoth has broken into the Top 200 paid fantasy chart on iTunes. It has debuted at #159. Some of the titles it is, at this moment, outselling:

  • Changes -Jim Butcher
  • A Touch of Dead -Charlaine Harris
  • Moon Called -Patricia Briggs
  • Flirt -Laurell Hamilton
  • Dead Witch Walking -Kim Harrison
  • Bearers of the Black Staff -Terry Brooks
  • The Two Towers -Tolkien
  • A Hard Day's Knight -Simon R. Green
Why now and not in the previous months? After all, 'Thief who Spat' has been in the Top 10 free epic fantasy chart, usually at #1, for more than two months. The answer is 'more free' and 'wider market'. 'Waste Land' is a sci fi short story. It has introduced my writing to a wider audience. It has given more people a reason to take a chance on my not-free writing. It's currently #2 in the Sci Fi & Lit Short Story free category.

As a writer who wants to get read, and maybe even be able to earn a living writing some day, my task is to rid myself of the curse of obscurity. After nearly nine years of stumbling in the dark, I'm starting to see some glimmers of hope.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Anti-Gordon Gekko

Free, for lack of a better word, is good. Free is right. Free works. Free clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. -Anti-Gordon Gekko

So Mike, you say. It's nice and all that people are downloading your stuff. But how do downloads of free stuff compare to real, actual for-sale books?

Let me put it this way: In the fantasy category on iTunes (which includes contemporary, epic, historical, paranormal and short stories), there are 729 free titles and 14,910 paid titles. Total for fantasy, free and paid, is 15,639 titles. It's 20:1in favour of paid.

'The Thief who Spat in Luck's Good Eye' is #7 in the free fantasy category in the US right now. When you add free and paid together? It's #20.

Here are a few paid titles that are not being downloaded as much as 'TWS' :

  • The Hobbit - Tolkien
  • The Gunslinger - King
  • Living Dead in Dallas - Harris
  • The Wise Man's Fear - Rothfuss
  • Ghost Story - Butcher
  • Alloy of Law - Sanderson
And this, my friends, is why I'm misquoting Gordon Gekko. And lest anyone say 'if you were charging instead of giving away, you'd be making awesome money' -- uh, no. If I were charging, I would not be #20. Or #200. Or #2,000, in all likelihood.

Now I'm off to clean a hamster cage.

The Indie Author Files: Making your own luck

Right now there is a gold rush going on in terms of digital content. A lot of writers who have no business letting their work see the light of day are publishing willy-nilly, hoping to cash in. This does not dismay me: far from it. Those readers who have read terrible self-published hack-work have a greater appreciation for self-published work of a professional standard. I try very hard to only present the best work I'm capable of, and take pains to make sure it's as error-free as I can make it. And when I do catch an error and dread the thought of having to re-upload a corrected copy, I remind myself how infuriating it is that my ebook published by Random House - one of the largest publishers in the world - doesn't even get my name right. They mis-capitalized it. The lesson: Only you can make sure it's done the way you want it.


As has been preached night unto nausea by Joe Konrath, an indie writer has to get the fundamentals right to even hope to succeed. Decent writing. Decent editing. Decent cover art. Decent price point. These things are necessary - but not sufficient - for success. From there, he says, you keep at it and wait for your break.

Thagoth has been out there for eight years.It garnered zero reviews. A few months ago, in a fit of pique, I went on Amazon and committed a grave sin: I reviewed my own book, very forthrightly. A buddy of mine who had read and liked it kindly contributed his own review as well. In the following months, there have been no other reviews. Joe would likey say "You just haven't gotten lucky yet."

For me, the critical difference between Amazon and Apple's iTunes store is that iTunes allows uploads of free books. Amazon supposedly price matches, but only when they feel like it. You can't plan a marketing strategy on the back of somebody else's whim. So Joe is right, when it comes to Amazon: I haven't gotten lucky. Sadly, infuriatingly, 'get lucky' is the only plan available when it comes to Amazon.

Apple is another matter entirely.

I've said many times before, and I will say it until it isn't true anymore: As a writer, I am at war with obscurity.

In the past, a writer was at war with indifference: the indifference of agents and of editors who were inundated with submissions and queries. Those days are gone for those who choose to indie publish. It's no longer about them. It's about getting noticed by readers. And readers, my friends, are not indifferent. On the contrary, they are excited and hopeful. 'Tell me a story,' they say. 'Tell me a good story. A story that will make me forget for a while my jerk boss or the bill for my kid's braces or the fact that I've got an exam coming up that I am woefully unprepared for.' God bless the readers; they're you and me, and they want you to be good. They are looking for you, for what you create, and if they find you and like what you have to say, they'll come back for more. You disappoint them at your own peril.

These are the people you are trying to attract. That's the good news. The bad news is, they've got to find you, and that's a bitch, both for them and for you. Once they do find you, they have to be given a reason to take a chance on you, you obscure unknown quantity.

Apple, via Smashwords, has allowed me to give the reader that reason. It's called 'free'. Amazon hasn't. I got lucky with Apple because Apple allowed me to make my own luck. Enough readers felt they got lucky with  my free writing that some of them have taken a chance on my writing that isn't free. On Amazon, Thagoth has two reviews; one by me and one by a friend of mine. On Apple, Thagoth has fifteen ratings, all by people I have never met. And they came to Thagoth by reading the free novelette 'The Thief Who Spat in Luck's Good Eye' and liking it.

I'm at war with obscurity. Free, properly applied, is the greatest weapon in my arsenal.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Indie Author files: The State of Play

Have you noticed how nobody - and I mean nobody - talks about Borders bookstores anymore? Have you noticed how little press Barnes & Noble has got about their plans to sell off their Nook business? It's freaking eerie.

Here's how the fiction food chain used to flow: Writers wrote 'x' and tried like hell to get an agent. Agents tried like hell to get an editor to look at 'x'. Editors who like 'x' tried like hell to get their publishing company to buy 'x'. (Here's where things got a little bit wonky) Publishers tried to only buy 'x' if they thought it was going to be a smash hit (Snooki anyone?), but grudgingly published things they thought would at least do decently. Then they sold all their 'x' to bookstores, mostly bookstore chains. (Here's where things really went off the rails) Bookstores, especially chains,  started selling their premium floor space to publishers, who were pushing the 'x' they thought would do really well, or that they'd paid a stupid amount of money for and needed badly to make their money back on. Bookstore chains didn't care; one book was much like any other, and it was all about margins. It was all just 'units' and 'product' (which is why Borders in its waning days was selling things like designer spatulas).

Turns out readers like what they like, not what publishers want them to like. Turns out readers stopped putting up with chain stores not having what they wanted, and stopped accepting increasingly long waits for special orders. Why? Because readers were, and increasingly are, able to download what they wanted in seconds rather than waiting for, on average, weeks to get their 'special' orders in. And usually they can get it cheaper.

No bookstore can carry every title. Borders stopped even trying to go the extra mile for their customers. Borders, it must be said, deserved its fate.

Barnes & Noble is next.

Borders sold away its digital future to Amazon, then tried far, far too late to replace it by partnering with Kobo. B&N wasn't quite as short-sighted. They got the Nook up and running, and are essentially preparing to enter a metamorphosis stage. If B&N brick and mortar stores are still open in five years, I'll buy you a donut.

In five years. No B&N, no Borders. Book stores will be specialty stores and second hand shops, not chains. Them's the breaks. Who do the publishers, great and small, sell 'x' to then?

To digital content purveyors, that's who. Amazon and Apple.


So what, increasingly, does the fiction food chain look like today? Like this:

Writers write 'x' and publish it directly on a digital platform such as Kindle Direct Publishing, Apple, or Smashwords. Control, be it creative, business or editorial, is almost entirely in their hands (for good or ill). It is available for purchase within days at most. It sinks or swims on its own merit, of course, but per unit, the writer will receive a greater percentage of each sale than they ever would have with a traditional publishing contract. And every day the potential audience grows as people buy kindles or nooks or iPads or kobos in the millions.

But of course the devil is in the details. More about that another day.

Waste Land iTunes debut: numbers and thoughts

So 'Waste Land' has been live on iTunes for roughly a day, in the free science fiction short stories category. As of right this minute, it is:

#7 in Canada
#7 in the UK
#10 in the US
#23 in Australia

Them's the numbers. Now for the thoughts:

There's an old Russian fairy tale called 'The Three Ivans'. In it, the main hero, Ivan Gardener's Son, fights three ogres, each more powerful and hideous than the last, on the banks of the River Sorodin. Before each battle there's a bit of back and forth smack talk. After each ogre has his say, Ivan basically tells them to shut up and get on with it. His name for each is as poetic as it is descriptive - he addresses each as 'Unclean Strength'.

Now besides the fact that I'm definitely going to steal that for a story title at some point, 'Unclean Strength' resonates with me because that's how I view an indie writer's struggle. Each of us stands on the banks of the River Sorodin, as it were, and each is confronted with our ogres. Which is all a long-winded way of saying it's not enough to write a decent story, have decent formatting and a decent cover. These things are necessary, but not sufficient, to cut off Unclean Strength's ugly head(s).

You can facebook and twitter and blog all day long, but it's not enough. It doesn't get your writing into the reader's hands. Forget trying to sell -- your battle is getting noticed.

So. For me, for my battle with Unclean Strength, also known as obscurity, the weapon I've chosen is 'free' and the only place with a platform worth fighting for is iTunes. (Kindle may be a bigger market, but good luck getting anything on there for free.) 'The Thief who Spat' has spurred sales of Thagoth. I am hoping 'Waste Land' will spur sales of The Sorcerer's Lament. And as the months and years roll on, I will continue to offer free content, linked in some way to an additional, moderately priced book. As more titles are added, my thinking goes, it will serve to strengthen, deepen and broaden a virtuous circle of downloads and purchases.

For those writers who measure success in terms of sales, I urge you to take a longer view. Look to the horizon. If you can't see a horizon for your writing, it's probably because there's an ogre blocking your view.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Thief Who Spat In Luck's Good Eye: The latest update

On iTunes, in the free epic fantasy category:

#1 in the US
#1 in Canada
#1 in Romania
#2 in Australia
#2 in Luxembourg
#3 in the UK
#3 in Greece
#3 in Switzerland
#4 in Germany
#4 in Spain
#9 in Sweden
#11 in France

To which I can only say, Romania? It must be much cooler there than I  ever imagined.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

On Writer's Block

There is a disease, my friends, that affects all creative types - the inability to create. For writers, it's known as writer's block. Some people will tell you it doesn't really exist. Some people are lying sacks of shit.

After the publication of my first book, the world looked like it was my oyster (man, was I a naive writer). I mean, I'd found the shortcut to literary success, right? No years of toiling to find an agent, no years of waiting for an editor to fall in love with my writing. I wrote, was selected to enter a competition, I won said competition, my book was published by a Big Six publisher. The fact that it was published only as an ebook, in 2003, didn't phase me. I knew - knew - that people would love it and it would be a big success and a representative from Random House would come to  my door with flowers and a big Ed McMahon-sized check and a new contract detailing how my book would lovingly be printed in hardback and Darrell K. Sweet or maybe Boris Vallejo was going to do the cover art.

Yeah. Well.

Truth is, Thagoth did do relatively well, for an ebook in 2003. About 300 sales that first year, lots of good ratings. But Random House had zero plans or interest in doing anything further with it. My editor was gone, casualty of a regime change, and my book was an orphan. I didn't really understand any of that for a while, and happily went on writing some fairly decent short stories, starting some interesting novels, and starting and discarding stories I knew, even as a young, inexperienced writer, weren't up to snuff. All very healthy and good and normal for a writer learning their chops.

When reality started to sink in, it was at the worst possible time. I was already sinking into the depths of clinical depression due to other stresses in my life; my writing career that wasn't pushed that decline into a nosedive.

All my projects came to a screeching halt. And stayed halted for about eight years.

Oh, I started quite a number of new things. Over the last few years I've gotten much more confident when it comes to the old Act I of storytelling. And editorially, I can polish the first third of a piece of writing like nobody's business. I can edit and revise and polish like a boss. But finish something?

Well. You know. All stories have the same general form, right? And the middle ground is a slog, and the ending either predictable or artificially forced. Who needs to finish anything? The beginning is where it's at, right? Right? Easier to pretend to feel this way than to face yet another abandoned project, anyway.

My point here being, every writer's block is personalized for that writer.

Some can start, but not finish. Some can't start at all, and the blank page or snowy-white screen are like some insurmountable curse. Others can write, but every word written or typed gives off a rancid stench. Yet others get lost in the process, the orderly world of words suddenly turned in to some cursed forest with no path out.

If you ever have writer's block, and somebody tells you 'just' to work your way though it, you have my permission to call them very bad names. If anyone ever tells you writer's block doesn't exist, go right ahead and punch them in the gut. If anyone, heaven help them, tells you writer's block is all in your head, smile and say to them 'yes, it  is indeed in my head, which is also where the WORDS are, you cretin' and then taser them (I suggest the genitals).

Ah, you ask, but Mike, how do you defeat/cure/get rid of writer's block?

Your disease is personalized, my friend, and so must be the cure. I could give you a bottle of snake oil, with predictable results. But I can give you a little advice that might help:

  • Stay the fuck away from negative people. Good general advice, critical for a writer.
  • Don't think you're going to outwit writer's block. It's exactly as intelligent as you are.
  • You only lose when you quit. Yes, I know it sucks -- eight years worth of suck for me, remember?
  • Don't try to be too ambitious. It's much better to write something that sucks ass, but is complete, than to start your magnum opus and have it die on page 30, reinforcing the feeling of failure.
  • Remember, when writing garbage, that you can always revise.
  • Remember, when writing garbage, that you can always delete.
  • Follow any spark of interest or creativity to see where it leads. Try very hard to have no expectations.
  • Keep idea notes as they come to you. 
  • Realize that the desire and urge to write will flee as soon as you sit down to do it, and reappear as soon as you have to go to work.  Realize that this is just your subconscious fucking with you. If you called in sick, you almost certainly would not have a breakthrough.
  • Learn to listen to the small voice in your head that says 'hmm, that's interesting'. Learn to nurture that germ of an idea. It might sprout. the sprout might take root. It might grow a story. Don't try and force it; you wouldn't try and force a seedling to grow into a tomato.
  • Periodically read really, really terrible writing that managed to get published. Make notes on why it was awful and how you would have done it better.
  • Make an effort to experience new, different things. Feed your soul and your psyche.
  • Know you are not alone.
Good luck, my friends, and remember to be kind, both to others and to yourself.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

So what sort of writer are you?

Deborah Walker asks an interesting question over on her blog about short form writing vs long form. Am I a short story writer or a novelist? Is one predisposed to be one or the other? If you just consider the numbers, I have a lot more completed short works than long ones. I don't really consider myself a short story writer, though. I never really thought about my writing that way, to be honest.

I dunno. Besides the fact that a novel is a much greater commitment, time-wise, I don't really think of writing projects in terms of length. There is a story. May be it's short, maybe it's long. Maybe it revolves more around a character, maybe plot or setting. Maybe I know how it will end before I sit down to write (rare) and maybe It starts with a single scene, or even a single image, and I write to find out how-what-who-where-why.

Sometimes the *ideas* are too ambitious for me, and sometimes they simply aren't ambitious enough, and the story dies (or at least slips into a coma; I've got stories a decade old that I still think of as works in progress). Sometimes what I think will be fairly short turns out to be quite long.

When I first started writing, I thought I was a plot guy. As a reader, exciting, intricate plots were what drew me in. I'll skip through some boring-@$$ pages of description in a heartbeat to get to the next interesting bit. And I *do* write like that. A friend joked that I am the anti-David Foster Wallace. Then I wrote my first novel, and was sort of stunned to discover I was a character guy. Yes, Thagoth is a plot roller-coaster; too much so at times. But what drives the story and keeps people reading isn't the plot, really; it's the main character's voice. Amra owes as much to Travis McGee as she does to Conan or Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser.

But as I get older, I like to think I get subtler as a writer. While the short story 'All the World a Grave' is also character driven, and I am proud of the structure and pacing of the story, it's about as subtle as an M-16. That's fine; that's the way it was meant to be. The latest one up at Smashwords (free!), 'Waste Land' is a very recent story. Besides being my first ever sci-fi tale, I'm also proud of the light touch I was able to give to the love story sub-plot. It's there, but I'm sure many readers will miss it. If they do, they don't really miss out on the meat of the story, but if they catch it, it's one more satisfying element that serves to deepen the story.

If I am a short story writer in some genetic sense, rather than a novelist, it has less to do with some innate attraction to short stories, and more to do with an inability to focus on long-term projects. In essence, I'm a short story writer by default, not in a determinist sense.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

2012 - The year ahead

2011 definitely had its ups and downs. I'm not gonna lie. I don't talk much about personal stuff on this here blog anymore, but for the year that was, the highs were high, and the lows were low. To be honest, all I've ever wanted was a nice, quiet life. Well, that and a t-rex. That I could ride like a pony.

Writing-wise, 2011 was the best year I've had in quite a while. Two stories published in anthologies. Completely new stories written and completed, for the first time in a long time. And of course the iTunes success of 'The Thief Who Spat in Luck's Good Eye' which honestly took me wholly by surprise. The first time I noticed it was #1on the US free epic fantasy chart was November 22nd. Today is January 14th. It's #1 on the US free epic fantasy chart. It hasn't stayed at #1 the whole time, but it's never gone more than a couple of days out of the #1 spot.

Holy hell.

So now literally thousands of people have read it. as of this writing, 79 of them have given it a starred review, and the average review is 4 of 5 stars. Not bad. It's led to greater sales for Thagoth as well, probably in the low hundreds. I won't know those numbers until Random House deigns to send me a royalty statement.

Success in ebooks is never assured, but the more you have to offer, the more likely it becomes. Which is why I've also published a book of short stories, called The Sorcerer's Lament and Other Tales. Short stories don't really sell all that well, but hey, that's what I've got right now, and I like 'em. Hopefully some other folks do, too.

In 2012 I need to decide a few things: Do I take Thagoth back from Random House, since the rights have reverted to me? Do I seriously seek representation and a traditional writing career? Or do I continue on as I have begun in 2011, on the wild and woolly indie author route? Or some combination thereof?

Right now I'm pursuing all avenues.

I've queried a handful of agents. One has responded, and is taking a look at Thagoth. We'll see how it goes. If experience is any guide, most likely the response will be 'thanks but not for me and good luck'. That's the response I'm prepared to receive. If that's the one I get, then I take back Thagoth from Random House, edit it with the benefit of nearly a decade's more experience, and re-release it as an indie. If on the other hand I get a 'hey, let's get serious' response from the agent, then all bets are off.

I'm not betting on that. We'll see.

If my future is in indie publishing, then there are many things for me to get done in 2012: The prequel to Thagoth for a start (The Blade That Whispers Hate), and then to kick off my Singapore-based urban fantasy series starting with a free novelette titled 'Hell Notes' that leads into the first in the series, titled Joo Chiat Blues. I'm working on all three, you know, in between my actual, pay-the-bills work.

So. I know making plans makes the Big Guy laugh, but those are mine for 2012. Such as they are.

Unless I get my T-Rex pony. Then all bets are off.