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Thematically Unfortunate

16 May

So you get to a point in your story where you run out of outline… and you’re still only at 40k words. I don’t want to stay in Novella, that great netherland of my writing, but I’m not sure how to expand it. Well, it turned out I just needed another storyline!

The story I’m working on–let’s call it “historical technothriller”–is mostly a spy novel. Which means that I’m following my two heroes, the bad guy, and the guys following the bad guy. But that left me in a terrible pickle; because that’s a lot of stories to balance out, but no where to expand. Then my writing partner came up with the solution; the political angle!

There is a major problem with adding the politics to a technothriller, and it’s a problem that any author in the genre faces. You can’t use real world people in those positions because… well, they can sue. So you can either use lesser politicians (who knows who the Deputy Director of Intelligence is at the CIA?) or you can create fictional people. The second you do that, though, you’re telling your audience that you’re in an alternate universe… and that might jar them out of the story.

So I want to avoid that. Thankfully, my writing partner also came up with more outline that allows me to continue the story without adding in yet another storyline. We both decided to save that for the 2nd Draft. But this story is really testing my ability… but thankfully I’ve got help.

Have you ever run into this situaiton before? Let me know in the comments below! If you want to see what some of my finished books look like, check them out! But if you’re not ready to commit that much, download one of my stories for free!

Working with Writing Partners

15 Apr

After talking yesterday about getting creatively burnt out, I met with my writing partner yesterday, and felt a lot better. Working on a project WITH someone is an unusual experience, but can be great… if it balances right.

I’ve worked on MANY collaborative writing projects. When I finished my first novel-length story–Manifest Destiny–it was because of me and my friend decided to work together on this massive outline that we had come up together. When it was finished, it printed out to 500 pages of glory, and… I discovered that my writing partner had stopped reading after 300. At that point, we were living in different cities, and I had to email new revisions. But… it’s really hard to read off the computer, so… he didn’t.

I love that man like a brother, and I’ve forgiven him for that, but I certainly haven’t forgotten. This was back in 1996, so it was prior to the self-publishing revolution, and so when I sent my magnum opus to publishers they said, “Thanks but no thanks.” I revised it into a 200 page book that just had the first part of the story and got the same result. Once I learned I could self-publish it, I’ve tried to go back and revise it again, but… for a technothriller, it is SO dated that it’s not worth publishing. Plus having to re-read your old work is a certain level of hell. Which is why you won’t see my first novella, Suicide Kings and Drama Kings, written when I was 17, anywhere on my available books page.

My second experience with collaborative writing was a play-by-email game called Tech Infantry. Now the problem I had with PBEM games is that you told the GM what you were doing, and the GM wrote several stories to each of the players telling you what you did. This is very time consuming on the part of the GM and leads to burnout… fast. So that first experience was short enough to get self-published later as The Daughters’ War.

When we did it again, this time, everyone got the SAME story, and you could follow everyone’s story. Then the players wanted to write much of their own material, with me editing for grammar and game play, so it became a collaborative writing project. So Rage Against the Dying of the Light became a HUGE writing effort, spanning 10 months, with a 20-page excerpt every week, and was rather enjoyable. Eventually, that burned everyone out. A couple years later we tried it again with The Middle Kingdom which was similar, except it lasted 5 months, and everyone rather enjoyed it. In that experience, I learned what it meant to be an editor, as well as having to balance your writing vision with other people.

However, I also learned how to crank out a lot of words in a short amount of time–it’s a pretty amazing experience. If you’re wanting to find out what this looked like, click here. Out of this project actually came a couple stories. Because this was a shared universe, there were a few GLARING plotholes, so I filled in one by writing my own novella called Prayer for the Technocrats, which you can buy now. My dear friend, Editor Ed, also took his story out of Tech Infantry, revised it heavily, and published Predatory Practices… which is one of my favorite stories (that I helped write). So I thoroughly recommend it.

Now I’m working again with another friend, but in this case, he wrote the outline, I’m writing the story, and he’s editing. I can’t go into any greater detail than that, because the novel is still gestating… one doesn’t want to announce anything until it’s born. 🙂

As long as you have clear expectations of what each other’s role is, then you’re more likely to be successful. In Tech Infantry, the players could write what they wanted, but they understood I had editorial control. In this, he has the background knowledge and the story idea… but can’t write. I can write, but don’t have the background, so he’s able to edit technical mistakes that I miss. Of course, our collaboration still leads into needlessly long discussions of gun calibers, how to build a Faraday cage, and bitching about the news… but a writing partnership is not just work, it’s a friendship. You’re going to get off topic.

Have you had a writing partnership? Did it go well? Did it go badly? Let me know in the comments below! And after you type that, check our my books, some of which were collaborative, but many are not. However, if $1.99 is too high to pay for curiosity, go ahead and download one of my stories for free.

Stranger in a Strange Book

24 Feb

Who is John Smith? The protagonist in most books has a simple name, understandable motivations… in other words, forgettable. They are taking the place of you while you walk through the universe. Because there’s a price to be paid if your protagonist is too exotic.

After reading The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi, I realized that he rotates between three or four main characters, of which one is American, two are Thai, and one is Chinese. It’s set in Bangkok, so that makes perfect sense, and you’d think that a guy with a complicated Portuguese name is going to be comfortable with characters with strange names to American ears. But Paolo struggles with this same problem. When you have to crank out a last name like Chulalongkorn (actually the name of King Rama V), you start using nicknames or first names fast. When I lived in Thailand, it seems Thais understand that, and are comfortable being referred to by their nickname because their real name is so long.

However, it doesn’t have to be just names. For example, when I sat down to write Drag’n Drop, I thought I would make my main character the dragon, because… that sounded really cool. However, it quickly became clear to me that if I wanted a two-ton flying machine running around an alternate New York, and not have him be a shape changer… he wasn’t going to be in all the scenes. So I invented a guy and a girl to hang out with him to go to all the places where a big green dragon just wouldn’t fit in.

The more I thought about it, though, my main characters were generally white guys, but do NOT have easy names, because… well I’m a white guy with a slightly uncommon name. You would surprised how often Marcus Johnston becomes Mark, Marc, or Markus Johnson. I generally refer to my characters by nicknames. In Defending Our Sacred Honor, I thought it would be fun to call my main character Javier Jackson, but he became Jax instantly. Fatebane is the name of the main character, but it’s not the name he was born with, for reasons that are clear in the book.

Predatory Practices is the only book I was involved with that where there was a non-human main character. However, his name was Heth… because the complicated three name alien nomenclature wasn’t practical most of the time. Mind you, I wasn’t the main writer on that, but I thought Ed did a great job creating a believable alien culture that was still relatable to the reader.

In the end, though, I am an American, and although I reach out to readers all through the world, I’m sure when I slip, my references are uniquely American. Since I prefer to write sci-fi, I hope it’s more universal. However, I’ve read books that use references that are distinctly English or Irish or Japanese and my mind hits a speed bump when I read them. I remember reading an article by a Czech, and since I was working through Google translate, I didn’t catch an idiom when I was writing it down. It was only talking with my Czech friends that they explained the reference.

What do you think? Have you been taken out of a book by all the strange names? Or do you not mind a main character named Massaponax? Maybe it’s better if he goes by Mass. Let me know in the comments below!

Saving Mr. Crooked Nose

8 Feb

Last July, I worked on and finished a novel. The problem is on August 1st, I realized that when it was done, it was whale puke. How do I save this story and make it salvageable?

How this situation came about was that I decided to focus harder on my writing. I’ve found that doing NaNoWriMo is the most effective way to ensure that I actually get a novel done. So since I was starting in June, I enrolled into the Camp NaNoWriMo program so I do it into the summer instead of November.

So this was the “merchant ships in SPACE!” story that I named my fan club after. I thought this would be really fun – I did a lot of research into what merchant marines do today – and I managed to write 57k words of the novel and finished it on time! However, I realized within a couple thousand words of the end that… it sucked.

However, I don’t want this story to go to waste. The story of Cameron Crooked Nose (yes, that’s the main character – the naming conventions of this world is a little tricky) I know that part of the problem is that I tried doing the “flashback.” Problem: I really didn’t know where I was going with the story, so I didn’t really know where he’d been. Which is the primary problem – there was no plot!

You think I would have figured that one out, but I was so enamored with the setting that I just ran with it… and didn’t think about what story would actually be told. Whoops. Well, now I have a chance to fix all that.

Now that I’ve had enough time to think about it, I feel more confident that I can tackle this problem without beating myself up too much. Have you run into this before? Love a concept so much that you completely miss the flaws? Let me know in the comments below!

Using Amazon Keywords the Right Way

22 Jan

Today’s blog is brought to you by Editor Ed, a small-press publisher, editor, writer, and a good friend.

As an indie self-publisher, I’m ashamed to admit I didn’t understand how to use Amazon Keywords correctly for years.  I’ve only recently begun learning how to use them properly, but I’m already seeing results.  It’s not a magic bullet for more sales by any means, but it does seem to help, at least a little.  And all it takes a little time and effort.

Now, I’m NOT an expert on Amazon keywords, which is a huge and complicated topic.  There are ntire books, blogs, and YouTube videos about them.  But hopefully I can offer a few tips and point you in the right direction to learn more.  And, since this is Marcus’ blog, I’ll use his recent-released book Drag’n Drop as an example.

FIRST: An Amazon keyword is not just one word!  Seriously, I’ve seen experienced publishers make this mistake. You have 50 characters to play with, including spaces.  In fact, the most effective keywords area usually phrases, not words.

SECOND: Keywords aren’t descriptors, they’re search terms.  Therefore, it’s best to use keywords that people actually type into Amazon searches.  But how do you know what people type into the Amazon search bar?  Actually, that’s fairly easy: type a word or two in there yourself, let the auto-complete kick in, and see what comes up.

Next, do a search on some of these terms that describe your book, and see how many results come up (be sure to select the category “Books” or “Kindle Store”, or you’ll get a LOT of irrelevant results).  For example, Marcus’ Drag’n Drop is a fantasy novel, so let’s try searching “fantasy.”  Whoa.  Over 50,000 results.  That’s a LOT of competitors!  That’s where the next tip comes in…

THIRD: Be specific! The more specific you are, the less competition you’ll have for each sale.  For example, Drag’n Drop is not just Fantasy (a very broad category), but specifically an Urban Fantasy—so let’s try searching that.  Hmm… over 30,000 results.  An improvement, but still a LOT of competitors.  But now I’m remembering Marcus describes Drag’n Drop as an “alternate history urban fantasy”… so let’s try that!  Whew, only 2000 results!  Now we’re talking!

“But Ed!” I hear you cry. “Why would I want fewer searches to find my book!?”  Well, just because your book comes up in a search doesn’t mean the customer will actually see it.  The unpleasant truth is that if a first-time self-published author’s book is included with 50,000 other search results, it’ll probably be somewhere around 49,990 on that list. At sixteen results per page, a customer will have to click through 3,125 pages before they get to that book, and the chances of that happening are… well, I hate to say impossible, but… yeah, it’s pretty much impossible.

On the other hand, if you only have to compete with 2000 other search results to get your book in front of a customer who’s specifically looking for that type of book, the chances of your book being seen (and purchased!) are a lot better.

For example, I recently released the sword-and-sorcery anthology Sorcery Against Caesar.  Unfortunately, 50,000 results came up for the search term “sword and sorcery,” pretty much guaranteeing the book would rarely be seen by customers.  However, when I switched the keyword to “sword and sandal” (a sub-genre of historical sword-and-sorcery in the ancient Greco-Roman world), I only had 130 competitors—and now my book is on the first page of results for that search term, and sales have been better than I expected!

Keep in mind that all this work and experimentation merely identified one good keyword—and you’ve got six more to go!  As you can guess, finding seven good keywords can take time and effort.  Is it worth it?  That depends.  Your mileage may vary.  But I’d argue it never hurts to try.

Have any blog readers out there had any personal experiences (good or bad) with tinkering with their book’s Amazon keywords? Let me know in the comments below!

The God of Continuity

28 Dec

Plot holes can go undetected for years or covered up rather clumsily. They can throw your audience out of the moment and you may never get them back. So how do you avoid that problem?

The easy answer? Get someone to read your story before you publish it. There are so many things that can be caught by having a fresh pair of eyes. For example, in my most recent book, Drag’n Drop, I thought I’d throw in something really cool for the villain to say: “And then I will become the singer and not the song.” To which my friend, “What on Earth does that mean?” Whoops–not everyone got it. So I actually included my friend’s quote in my hero’s response, which allowed my villain to explain what the heck he meant.

In my old writing circle, all of us had one superpower that helped out the rest of us. For example, one of my friends was the Technobabble God. He was more interested in science than the rest of us, so if you had trouble with a particular technology that you were trying to make sound believable, he could give you a line of BS that sounded good, and you put that in your story.

I was the God of Continuity; I found your plot hole and ensured that whatever wacky #*$&@($ idea that you got in your head to put your story that somehow, someway, it would makes sense as part of your plot. You happen to use a digital gate in your story, because you just read Piers Anthony, and thought that turning a ship into an energy signal, and then rebuilding it on the other side was a cool idea. And it is… except that you’ve already established that we use hyperspace gates. So… why another method of travel?

The answer–the digital gates were an experiment by the government to improve space travel. However, they were so expensive that they could only be used on one established route. Duh-da! Your prayers have been answered, writer!

For my father-in-law, he built a world where the colonists had been medieval reenactors who wanted to get away from the modern world. It happened to be a world where psychic powers could be mistaken for magic. So when you run into a ghost of one of the original colonists, and he sees this computer, he didn’t know what it was. Except he should have–and one of his fans pointed this out. So in the prequel, he had to put in a bit about erasing their memories, so that the original colonists wouldn’t be having second thoughts about leaving. Plot hole closed.

If a friend won’t read your book, then it helps to wait a while between finishing your story and publication, then come back and read it again. Sometimes, just giving yourself time to breathe between finishing the first/second/fifth draft and getting it ready for print that you can realize, “Oh, Sancho Panza disappeared for two chapters!”

Is there an easier way to detect (and close) plot holes? Do you have an army of beta readers who can figure these things out? Can you lend them to me? 🙂 Let me know in the comments below!

Drag’n Drop is now available!

24 Dec

Through much trial and tribulation, I’m proud to announce that Drag’n Drop, my most recent novel, is now available for purchase on Kindle or in paperback through Amazon, for the low, low price of $1.99! If you ever wanted an alternate history urban fantasy story, now is the time!

A dragon should be able to go wherever he wants, right? But in modern-day Nieuwe Amsterdam (you’d know it as New York), magical creatures are hidden, and citizens of the Staats-General von Amerika aren’t interested in such nonsense like wizards, orcs, elves, dwarves, fairies… and most importantly, dragons, coming to light. However, magic exists and it changed history. For four hundred years, the European colonists have only managed to cling desperately to the coasts, outnumbered by the native tribes that threaten to push them back into the sea.

Caleb, a big green dragon who’s been living in New Amsterdam has seen native invasions come and go, but this time, something’s different. The united tribes have burst through the Cordelyou Line–a massive defense work built along the western border–with a new magic that should be impossible. Now they are threatening to finally destroy the European Settlements once and for all. Threatened with the loss of his home, he gathers his friends–a washed-up wizard and an arcane librarian–to travel across Amerika. His hope: find the source of the natives’ new power, gather an army of magical creatures, and destroy it… before it’s too late.

I’m very proud of my new book–considering it took ten years to come to the light of day–and hope you’ll enjoy it as well. Keep supporting independent authors!

This is Why You Hire Staff

22 Dec

Just when you think you’ve done it all before, what should have taken a half-hour ends up taking all morning. So I’m getting my new book, Drag’n Drop, ready to go on the Amazon site and… hilarity ensues!

Now here’s what really chafed my heinie–I actually got all the formatting done on my book text two months ago! Thanks to my generous (and good-looking) brother-in-law, Editor Ed, he actually had a professional artist make my cover. This is a new experience to me. I tried making my own cover for Defending Our Sacred Honor and I thought it came out good… but the more I look at it, the more it looks terrible. So I was rather grateful that Ashley Cser took the commission.

As mentioned, graphic design is really not my thing–which is ironic, because video production is my day job. But composition and performance are two different skills; just because I can find all this cool pictures and video and put them together doesn’t mean I can draw worth crap.

Speaking of which, I’ve got Kindle’s own e-book creator (Create), which works very well, and plugs everything exactly as I need it to. That worked fine. However, when trying to make the paperback version–because to stroke my own ego, I need to have them on my bookshelf–there was one major problem. The cover and the map weren’t fitting within the guidelines.

Getting the cover to work was understandable–after all, it’s the first thing that anyone sees. Ash had drawn the cover; after all, that’s what I paid her for. However, then I had to write the teaser text on the back, and put it all the other graphics. Took me an hour just to get that correct and then manipulate it so the picture appeared in the correct fashion. On the plus side, this will be the first book of mine that has the Albigensia Press icon on the spine!

If you don’t think that’s cool, you can instantly tell which books are professional or not by the publishing house icon on the spine. Interesting side note: All the hardcover books have the publisher icon at the bottom, all the paperbacks at the top. Weird.

Of course, once I conquered that hurdle, then there was that map. Considering I’ve blasted the last three authors who didn’t include a map in their book, I figured this was pretty damned important. However, my original map was pretty low quality, and it was drawn for a standard 8″x11″ page… and my book is 5″x8″. So I had to redraw it, left out a lot of the detail I originally included to fit it on the page, and thought I had it down. Nope. It took multiple tries to get the stupid thing in the right place so it wouldn’t get cut off by pagination.

However, four hours later, I think it looks great. Once you get a chance to see it on December 24th, I think you’ll agree. Yet I wish I had staff I could pay to do this for me–oi! I can’t be the only one who has this trouble. What issues do you have in your workday that you wish you could pass off to someone else? Let me know in the comments below!

A Dragon is Coming For Christmas

19 Dec

I’m happy to announce that my new book, Drag’n Drop, will be coming out next week–right in time for Christmas! If you ever wanted to read an alternate history urban fantasy novel (and who hasn’t), now is your opportunity! 🙂

Okay, now that I’ve piqued your interest, what is it? Imagine an America where magic exists–not openly, but in the shadows there are wizards, orcs, elves, dwarves, fairies… and most importantly, dragons. Now imagine how that would have changed history. Europeans still colonized the continent, but only the coast, because the natives had their own medicine men to fight back. England didn’t conquer New Amsterdam, but instead was repelled. Pushed back against the sea, the colonists were eventually forced to unite together, and formed the multicultural Staats-General von Amerika.

So in the modern day, Caleb, a green dragon who’s been living in New Amsterdam (you’d know it as New York) has seen native invasions come and go, but this time, something’s different. The united tribes have burst through the Cordelyou Line–a massive defense work built along the western border–with a new magic that should be impossible. Now they are threatening to finally destroy the European Settlements once and for all. Threatened with the loss of his home, he gathers his friends–a washed-up wizard and an arcane librarian–to travel across Amerika. His hope: find the source of the natives’ new power, gather an army of magical creatures, and destroy it… before it’s too late.

I’ve had a lot of fun writing it and I hope you enjoy it when it comes out! I’ve got a great cover–which you can see–and it’ll be available at the low, low price of $1.99! Right in time for you to use all those Amazon gift cards you got for Hanukkah. 🙂

There’s a dragon on the cover my book…

6 Dec

My brother-in-law gave me an early present this year–a professionally done cover for one of my books. It’s a great gift, but it introduces a new level of complexity that my simple brain has never dealt with before.

I’m planning on releasing my new book–Drag’n Drop–this month. This is my alternate history urban fantasy book that I actually wrote ten years ago, but never felt like it was ready for primetime. (This is another reason why I’ll never to go mainstream… or sell books, apparently.) The book is done, the formatting is done, but I’m waiting on the cover to be finished.

Thankfully, there is a dragon in the book–he’s one of the main characters. The first obstacle you realize is that… you don’t really have a good idea of what you want on your cover. In self-publishing, I’ve gotten so used to “I’ll just grab an eye-catching picture and throw it on a glitzy-looking cover” that I don’t even have a clue what I wanted on the cover. So I threw out an idea and the artist drew it.

It looked… really good, actually. However, she also did me the honor of actually reading the book, and gave me two more sketches from other scenes in the book that she thought might do better. And she was right! So I went with Option 3, which comes from a big fight scene, and the dragon is coming in and it’s looking cool.

Then we put in the text and… here’s where I have definite opinions. You can tell instantly from a cover whether the author themselves made it or not just based on the font. If it looks I could do it on my software, it’s not that good. However, if you’ve got wordwrap, or unusual fonts, it makes it more glitzy as a professional book and more likely to be bought. The “nothing attracts the crowd like the crowd” theory.

So I never imagined I’d have so many back-and-forths with cover artists, but I guess when you put in more money, you get more problems. Have you had any troubles with covers as a reader? As a writer? Have you had trouble finding these pictures that get thrown onto blogs? Let me know in the comments below!

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