Monday, August 1, 2011

Author Interview with Sander Crane

I’ve done one of these where I was the author being interviewed (you can find it here) but I’ve never before been the one to interview someone else, so I hope this goes ok. Anyway, here is my interview with debut author Sander Crane:

Alright, so how is this supposed to work?

Just ask me questions.

Got it. First question: how exactly is this supposed to work?

Ask me questions about the book, you moron.

Oh. Yeah. Yeah, that makes sense. So tell me about the book.

That wasn’t a question. Regardless, Bits of Paper is a collection of six stories ranging from drama to action/adventure to high fantasy, all somehow connected to the disappearance of an aspiring Indie writer.


No, not me. If it were me I wouldn’t be here, would I?

I thought I was supposed to be asking the questions.

You are, but you’re not doing a very good job of it. In fact, the next time I see you I think I’m going to kick your ass.

Just try it, tough guy. I’ll break your glasses. Moving on, what made you decide to release these stories now?

I didn’t. This was your brilliant idea to put these stories out now, remember? Even though they haven’t been edited by anyone other than you.

Hey, I did a good job. Plus my sister went through and found all the typos. Besides, I am a professional editor.

Andy, you’re not a professional editor. You’ve edited one scientific paper, and it was about rabbit sphincters. I know this because you wouldn’t shut up about it for a week.

I got paid for it.

That still doesn’t make you a professional editor. Besides, you said yourself that editing scientific papers is nothing like editing creative writing.

Oh yeah...I did say that, didn’t I.

Do you have any actual questions to ask me?

Yes. Yes I do. So what do you think of the cover design?

I have no idea. You haven’t shown it to me yet.

Dude, it’s right here.

No. Please tell me that is not the cover you’re using. Honestly, do you want this book to fail?

Nah, I’m just messing with you. Steve is designing the cover. I’ve seen the initial sketches, and they look pretty good. I think you’ll be happy with it.

I’m still going to kick your ass.

Sure you are. Ok last question: how does it feel to be to be a fictional person?

I’m not a fictional person. Yes, Sander Crane is a pen name, but that doesn’t mean I’m not a real person. After all, someone typed these words right here.

Yeah, I did. Remember?

I hate you.

Bits of Paper will be available soon (as soon as I finish the final edit) for 99 cents from Amazon, Smashwords, and other participating ebook retailers.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Koalahipsters and the Melbourne Bar Scene

Special guest post by Melody-Ann Jones Kaufmann

Any night of the week finds the Silk Road teeming with a lively kaleidoscope of nightlife, the sights and sounds of which are as intoxicating as the drinks served. But something has been occurring in Melbourne of late. Something noticed more by the tourists than anyone else. Something is missing.

As one Melbourne bar patron put it, "I've been in Australia almost 2 months and haven't seen a koala yet. Apparently you can't find them in Melbourne bars. I've checked." He's right. You can hit up any of the well-known bars in Melbourne and you won't find koalas anywhere. This mysterious absence leaves one to wonder what happened to cause it. Was there some sort of anti-koala sentiment, or has the koala simply found a better place to drink?

One of the locals describes it this way: “Koalas were the biggest scenesters of all. Back when massive dance clubs were all the rage. Melbourne nightlife just isn’t what it used to be.”

Koala expert Dr. Sha’gie Fuhr points out "Clearly they saw a kindred spirit after interacting with several vegan hipsters. When your diet consists entirely of eucalyptus leaves it’s tough to find a group with whom you can really identify. While the brain of its ancestors was significantly larger—filling the entire cranial cavity—the koalahipster has a drastically reduced brain size; a degeneration that is likely an adaptation to leading a life of narcissism coupled with a diet that is low in protein.”

Fuhr further states that the koalahipster’s distrust of any mainstream commercially-promoted trend has lead to its increased absence in the well-know Melbourne bar scene.  Apparently, if you wish to drink with a koalahipster you are far more likely to find them at some of the watering holes generally only known to the locals who tend to shun tourists in an attempt to retain the culture specific to their area, rather than catering to what the koalahipster terms the “culturally ignorant” attitudes of the tourist industry.

Fuhr points out this drive for counter-culture progressivism has lead to the culturally sensitive koalahipster shunning mainstream societal conventions in favor of pioneering lesser-known cultural trends and ideals. The koalahipster defies the traditional "rules" of physical attraction—possibly due to the similar appearance of the males and females. The koalahipsters favor androgynous hairstyles that feature messy shag cuts and a similar manner of dress for both the male and female.

Koalahipsters have become the new trendsetters—morphing Melbourne nightlife as the industry tries to capture their elusive affections. The crowded see-and-been-seen clubs with their cacophony of overhyped house music and Ken-loves-Barbie clientele are giving way to muted coffeehouses featuring natural wood seating at varying heights that offer after-hours indie bands willing to entertain small-brained creatures that believe themselves to be intellectually superior to nearly everyone else.

The koalahipster impacts the Melbourne music & fashion concepts as well, with natural-grown fur trending up while those without the genetic predisposition to “grown their own” simply spouting anti-koalahipster rhetoric while listening to bands that have become successful due to the influence of koalahipsters—who seem to favor ensembles with low guttural tones that often sound like the snoring of a congested walrus. One would think that the koalahipsters have an agenda, for the moment a certain concept—be it of fashion or music—has been adopted into the mainstream of Melbourne nightlife, these fickle beasts move on to something else. For example, if you ask any koalahipster about eucalyptus leaves you can be guaranteed two things: 1) They know ALL the best varieties 2) you will never have heard of any of them.

Melody-Ann Jones Kaufmann is a member of the Sakai development team at the University of Florida. She is also the mother of two autistic boys, and an aspiring author currently writing the first book of her series, The Trinity Tales, under the pen name Safireblade.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Editing is hard

I’m a pretty smart guy. I know how that sounds, but it’s true. I have a PhD in computational biochemistry, which is, like, really hard, and stuff. I’ve also edited over a dozen scientific papers, and the most recent paper I wrote was accepted to one of the top journals in my field virtually without comment or correction. So I thought editing fiction would be pretty easy for me.

I was wrong.

Editing fiction is not the same as editing scientific papers. Not even close. For one thing, with scientific papers the bar is set pretty low. Many researchers don’t speak English as their first language, and as long as they can present their results with a basic level of coherence the paper usually gets accepted. The other option is to make it so convoluted and confusing that it’s published without comment because no one wants to admit they don’t understand it, but that’s a topic for a different time.

Regardless, the quality of the editing for creative writing is substantially more important. Because your work is in competition with all the other stories out there, and in the long run all the Tweets, Facebook likes, and 5-star reviews aren’t going to help you if your story reads like the literary equivalent of how sandals smell when you wear them too long without washing them.

You know that smell I’m talking about.

With the rise of “Indie” authors and the ability to bypass traditional publishing houses via Amazon and Smashwords, CreateSpace and Lulu, practically anyone can be a writer now at virtually no up-front cost to themselves. Which is why we’re seeing a deluge of wonderful, engaging stories hitting the markets from Indie writers.

So I think it’s time to start making a distinction between stories and books. Because I’ve seen a lot of great stories from Indie writers, but not a lot of great books. And at least in my mind, the difference between a good story and a good book is the editing.

And yes, I’m sure that there are a lot of really great books from Indie authors out there right now, but it’s hard to narrow down on the signal when there’s so much noise interfering, and often the best writers are not the best marketers.

One example I’ve found of a good book by an Indie author is The Well, by Peter Labrow. I bought his book after conversing with him on Twitter, and like so many others it has a great cover and plenty of 5-star reviews, but what sets it apart from the noise, what makes it a good book as opposed to merely a good story, is the editing.

I asked Peter about this (and I hope to interview him here soon) and he told me that he made the choice to take the long, hard road. Like me, Peter has experience with technical writing, but he realized that his eyes alone were not sufficient for the task. All told he went through ten revisions—and ten reviewers—before handing it to a professional editor. And the end results reflect that. Peter himself told me that aside from the technical and grammatical details, the book would’ve been much more shallow and na├»ve if he hadn’t gone through this process.

With this in mind, I took Jeremy Bates up on his generous offer for a free review of the first two pages of manuscript I’m currently working on, a high fantasy novella entitled The Heroes of Mithal. You can see the original version with his edits on his blog, Jeremy Bates Books, here. I’ve posted the revised version here. The difference is like night and day. And yes, you may argue that it’s still not perfect, but it’s a damn sight better than what it was originally.

So I guess what I’m trying to say here is that editing is hard, but it’s totally worth doing. And no matter how good you think you are, you probably do need to get someone else to do it.

[Update: Have a look at Peter Labrow's own thoughts on the revision process: Revision - the agony and the ecstasy]

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

How to self-publish a book

Write a book. Pretty obvious, but there are some points worth considering. For one thing, a traditionally published first novel by an unknown author should be right around 80,000 words. But for a self-published author it can be as long or short as you want it. Plus, when you don’t have to worry about impressing an agent or publisher you have the complete freedom to be as much of an “artiste” as you wish. You can write something as “unique”, “groundbreaking”, and “exceptional” as your heart desires, and you don’t have to worry about it being shot down by some stupid elitist agent or publisher.

Just don’t be surprised when no one wants to buy it.

Formatting. A traditional manuscript has fairly rigid guidelines you should follow. Double-spaced, 12-point font, 1-inch margins, a specifically formatted cover page, etc. Anne Mini’s Blog Author! Author! gives fantastic advice on formatting a manuscript for submission to a literary agent - and on every other aspect of submission as well, really. AgentQuery also has some good no-nonsense formatting tips.

Surprisingly, writers who plan to self-publish should also follow pretty strict guidelines - and not necessarily the same ones you’d follow if you were planning on submitting your manuscript to an agent. Whether you plan to self-publish your work as and ebook or paperback - or both - it’s best to format it the same way to begin with. Because you may change your mind later, and it’s a huge pain to go back and reformat everything, so you might as well start with a simple and easy-to-convert format from the beginning.

Mark Coker of Smashwords has written an excellent style guide for formatting an ebook. The Word for Kindle Guide is also extremely useful. For the paperback, CreateSpace has excellent resources on their site, and I’d also recommend reading this.

Editing. Professional editing is one of the major advantages of going through a traditional publisher, and like it or not the reputation of self-published books is that they’re a mess of poorly-edited nightmare fuel. You can hire a freelance editor even if you self-publish.

The Cover. Even an ebook needs a cover. If you have access to an artist, utilize them! A self-made, amateurish cover makes potential readers cringe instinctively, and since you’ll be self-marketing as well as self-publishing, you want your cover to look as professional as possible.

Publish! Well, self-publish, anyway. Once you’ve got your manuscript formatted and edited and your cover is ready to go, it’s time to pick your means of sharing your creativity and awesomeness with the world. Amazon and Smashwords are the big names for ebooks (as far as I know), and Lulu and CreateSpace are the big names for paperbacks (again, as far as I know).

Both Amazon and Smashwords give you 60-70% of the profits from every sale, which is a damn good deal considering how they basically host and catalogue your books for free.

The deal with paperbacks is slightly less good. You get to set the price, but you're required to set it at above $14.00 just for the publisher to break even. If you set it at $14.99, you make 25 cents per copy. If you set it at $15.99, you make 85 cents. Don’t ask me how that works. [Note: this was just for my book, and without paying for the "premium" update, or whatever. Your results may vary.]

Shameless Self-Promotion. The other big drawback to self-publishing is that you are 100% responsible for getting people to buy your book. Which means you have to be getting your message out there constantly, with Facebook, Twitter, blogging, book bloggers, forums, email signatures, lurking in alleyways, etc.

Book Bloggers. Book bloggers are, as the name implies, bloggers who read books and then blog about them. This is great for a self-publisher, as the New York Times isn’t exactly going to be reviewing your unedited self-published masterpiece any time soon. Surprisingly, positive reviews from book bloggers actually can skyrocket you to fame and fortune. That’s how Amanda Hocking did it. Unfortunately, most book bloggers aren’t too keen on reviewing self-published books either because of their reputation for lack of quality. As far as I can tell, the only way around this is to join a lot of reading and writing forums, make personal relationships, and then gently broach the subject. Basically, whore yourself out. Metaphorically.

Or literally, if you think that would work.

Note: DO NOT get your friends to give you 5-star reviews on Amazon. People are catching on to this. When a self-published book has twelve 5-star reviews from people who haven’t reviewed any other book, it’s pretty obvious what’s happening. And this can backfire on you big time. Don’t do this. Trust me.

And finally….

Write your ass off. Some people seem to think that anyone can bypass the traditional publishing industry and rocket to million-dollar stardom through self-publishing. Hell, a 26-year-old girl did it in a year. Well, apparently these people didn’t read the fine print. If you read Amanda’s own account, she’s been writing for as long as she can remember, and sometimes she writes 9-12 hours a day. And no, she didn’t really just do it all in a year. She took writing classes, she submitted her work to agents, she took the advice agents gave her along with the rejection letters they sent, and she constantly worked to improve her writing ability. She’s also hired professional editors and cover designers. And now, in spite of all her self-publishing success, she’s signing on with a traditional publisher.

So yeah, you can have a lot of fun with self-publishing, but it’s not some kind of magic ticket to success. A lot of people have tried to do exactly what Amanda’s done, and still they toil in obscurity. If there were a single guaranteed route to success, everyone would be taking it. There are a lot of factors you can’t control, and for sure not everyone will succeed.

But if you want to maximize your chances, you have to read a lot, write a lot, edit a lot, and take a lot of criticism.

And you should probably be reading someone else’s blog besides this one.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

An Interview on Twitter

Author Will Bevis thought it would be a cool idea to have a 'flash' interview of me on Twitter. It didn't quite go as planned.

WillBevis WillBevis
It is now one minute to the first ever FLASH Interview. Get a beer. Pull up a chair. This is live. We don't know what is going to happen.

WillBevis WillBevis
Are you ready interviewee?

WillBevis WillBevis
Oh, yeah, the interviewee is hanging me out to dry!

VizProd Andy Christofferson
@WillBevis Sorry, your tweets weren't showing up on my feed! I blame the time difference. And Australian beer.

WillBevis WillBevis
OK, I think we are finally ready to begin. The interviewee has finally showed up. He is in Australia and I am in Alabama...

WillBevis WillBevis
Ladies and gentlemen - the first flash interview known to mankind on Facebook - I give you VizProd - better known as Andy.

WillBevis WillBevis
Uh, say hi, Andy.

VizProd Andy Christofferson
@WillBevis (Psst! It might help if you mention me in your Tweets!)

WillBevis WillBevis
Or, uh, don't. There seems to be a huge transmission time gap between the Aussies and us.

WillBevis WillBevis
@Vizprod OK, Andy, you have lived on five continents, right? My first question is WHY? Isn't one good enough?

VizProd Andy Christofferson
@WillBevis Well, how do you know your place is the best if you've never been anywhere else?

WillBevis WillBevis
Man, this is giving me a helll of a lot of time to think about my next question!

WillBevis WillBevis
Because we're AMERIKUNS, that's why. I think. Hey, don't answer a question with a question. I'm the interviewer!

VizProd Andy Christofferson
@WillBevis Good point! I guess I never thought about it like that. Hey, I guess that means I can come home now!

WillBevis WillBevis
OK, Andy I've got my next question. Do you think there is a spam bot writers us on twitter, that just keeps on plugging their books, always?

WillBevis WillBevis
N@Vizprod No you can't come home now. Not til you clean up all the koala bear mess. Then tell us. We'll let you know.

VizProd Andy Christofferson
@WillBevis I wouldn't be surprised. I saw one guy linking a site that offered thousands of Twitter followers for a dollar amount.

WillBevis WillBevis
I think you could yell out, Hey! Twitter is on fire!" and the spam bots would keep on plugging their books, cause the writer is in Malibu.

VizProd Andy Christofferson
@WillBevis Ahh, Malibu. That sounds nice. Hmm, I wonder how hard it is to set up one of those spambots....

WillBevis WillBevis
Let's try an experiment during this interview. I'll pick someone and you pick someone and just ask them. Are you alive? Or are you a robot?

VizProd Andy Christofferson
@WillBevis Alright, I'm going to try this Charles Bivona guy.

WillBevis WillBevis
@Vizprod Ready, go! @ihavehope Dear Ms. Hope, are you alive and tweeting, or are you using some kind of product promoting mesaging device?

WillBevis WillBevis
Here's another, a great person I have talked to. But is she really here tonight? Or just her promoting bot:

VizProd Andy Christofferson
@CharlesBivona Are you alive, or are you a robot. This is important. It's for science. Or something.

WillBevis WillBevis
Melissa_Foster - are you really here tonight.?

WillBevis WillBevis
@Vizprod Oh my God! Are you getting the feeling we are the onlly two people actually alive here?

VizProd Andy Christofferson
@WillBevis I am now....

VizProd Andy Christofferson
@WillBevis Either that or everyone just thinks we're jerks.

WillBevis WillBevis
*Twitcleaner Are you there? Are you real? Your post sounds real!

CharlesBivona Charles Bivona
I live. =)

WillBevis WillBevis
I think twit might be our last hope!

VizProd Andy Christofferson
@CharlesBivona @WillBevis He's alive!!!

CharlesBivona Charles Bivona
Was there some doubt?

WillBevis WillBevis
Andy, just like the guy who invented peanut butter but was trying for hair spray. We tried something, and discovered something else!

WillBevis WillBevis
I don't think that's it, cause one of them surely would have said by now, "Hey! You're jerks!"

VizProd Andy Christofferson
@CharlesBivona Will seems to think there's a scourge of spambots on Twitter. I just picked you at random to see if you'd respond. You did!

VizProd Andy Christofferson
@WillBevis Would they? Or would they just keep ignoring us in the hope that we'd go away...

WillBevis WillBevis
The big question is now - how can we get in on this action! Where can we buy the robo promotion planting software?????

VizProd Andy Christofferson
@WillBevis Ah, but the price, you see, is your immortal soul. And $19.99 a month. I checked.

WillBevis WillBevis
Look at the posts, Andy. It's ALL about promotion! It's a machine! And everyone here has one but us. @Vizprod

VizProd Andy Christofferson
@WillBevis But not @CharlesBivona. He's real. I checked.

VizProd Andy Christofferson
@WillBevis Ever read 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest'? Twitter is the Combine.

VizProd Andy Christofferson
Wait, do cuckoos tweet?

WillBevis WillBevis
Andy @Vizprod We have seen the future. It is machines placing promos. And they don't read other promos. Twitter must surely know about this

VizProd Andy Christofferson
@WillBevis I did get a personal response from NYT Bestselling author Harlan Coben once. That was cool. Or a very sophisticated bot.

WillBevis WillBevis
OK, are you ready to exit the space ship? Three. Two. One. Now escaping the twits of the bots. See you back on messages.

CharlesBivona Charles Bivona
Happy to help. =)

VizProd Andy Christofferson
@WillBevis Alright. That was fun. For us anyway. Don't know about anyone else.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Supporting Information

Are authors using their websites and blogs as effectively as they could be?

No, really, I'm honestly asking here.

I've been thinking about this because I recently had a paper accepted to the Journal of Physical Chemistry. With scientific publications there's often a lot of supplemental or supporting information that could be interesting to the journal's readers, but adding it to the main text of the paper would disrupt the logical flow and bog things down, so the information is available as "Supporting Information" on the journal's website.

Seems to me that writers in all genres could be doing this sort of thing effectively as well.

For example, I wrote a book about my experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Africa, conveniently entitled The Peace Corpse: Misadventures in Love and Africa, and I created a blog to help market it, But I can't help thinking that there's a lot more I could do with the blog aside from just using it as a platform for promotion. So I've decided to add pictures from my time in Africa, a collection of funny quotes from my fellow Volunteers, and a deeply disturbing play my students wrote. I put a link to the blog in the back of the ebook with the idea that people who enjoyed the book might also enjoy the pictures, quotes, and play as well. I also plan to add a few other essays and assorted bits of writing that didn't make it into the book. And while in a way this is sort of "bonus material" for anyone who has already purchased the book, I still think it could be interesting to someone who hasn't yet read it, and may even entice them to go out and purchase a copy.

But that's just one example. I think particularly for fantasy and science-fiction a writer could benefit a lot from having a website with plenty of supporting information that helps to explain the history and setting their stories take place in. Star Wars has Wookieepedia and Star Trek has Memory Alpha, and I can't help thinking that it would help a lot of writers to have this sort of information available on their website. Imagine if Tolkien had made The Silmarillion a website with clickable links. You could learn about the Valar and Maiar, who the other wizards were (besides Gandalf and Saruman), and so on, skipping around as you wish, with everything clearly indexed and easy to access. And yeah, a lot of casual readers don't care about this kind of thing, but a significant number of people do, I think, and by having it all there on your author website it gives people a reason to keep coming back. And isn't that kind of the point of the website to begin with?

Oh, and if anyone knows of any authors with this sort of information on their website already, please leave a comment with the name of the author and a link. I think it would be pretty interesting to see how different people approach it.

[Update: Robert David MacNeil's site is a great example of what I'm talking about]

Saturday, July 2, 2011

The Last Old Man

Andy said I should add some "content" to his blog. I'm not sure exactly what he wants, so here's a story I started a few years ago, but never finished:

He wasn’t really the last.
There were, in fact, a handful of people still alive that were older than him. A fraction of those, as well as a few born after, had also chosen not to undergo the procedures that would erase the ravages of time, but he was the most famous; the only one actually referred to as The Old Man. Some said it with reverence, most with derision, but all used it as a proper name: The Old Man.

The yellowed, brittle newspaper clipping he had been using for a bookmark fluttered to the floor as The Old Man opened the book. He had a name of course - Dr. Jared Winkle - but even he referred to himself as The Old Man. With only a few wisps of snow-white hair on his head and a wrinkled, clean-shaven face, he appeared to be in his early eighties. But he was much, much older.

He bent slowly to retrieve the clipping, grimacing even before he felt the twinge in his back, so accustomed to it was he. His hand pressing against the cold metal of the desk to support himself as he straightened, The Old Man held the clipping almost at arm’s length so he could read the small print. An ironic smile spread across his face as he suddenly recalled why he had kept that particular clipping in that particular book.

It was an editorial, published in the early 21st century, warning of the problems that would arise because the number of people that would be retiring within the next twenty or thirty years was much greater than the number of people that would be entering the workforce.

His smile faded as his eyes wandered across the room to the picture of himself on the opposite wall, and his mind wandered back to the memory of that picture being taken.

The picture showed The Old Man smiling triumphantly as he received the Nobel Prize in medicine. He was an old man even in the picture, but although it had been taken only a few years after the article in his hand had been published – and many years had passed since then – he looked exactly the same as he did in the picture. He looked exactly the same, because he had won the Nobel Prize for discovering the ‘cure’ for aging.