Still, Again, and Always

I was always destined to be a cat person.  My mom is a cat person.  My grandmother was a cat person.  My dad has always claimed not to be a cat person, but was have definitely turned him into at least half of one.

I could say I don’t remember a time before having cats in the house, but that isn’t strictly true.  I have a very clear recollection of being a shy little five-year-old, taking a trip to the North Shore Animal League to adopt my lovely boy Solomon, who instantly adopted me back as his Person.

Long before I became a cliché thirty-something utterly lacking in the ability to form romantic attachments, I was whispering my little secrets into flicking, fuzzy ears over the sound of soft purring, confident in the knowledge that my adolescent heartaches would be safe and secure and somehow completely understood.

Cats governed pretty much everything I did as a child.  My sister and I didn’t play house: we played pretend pet grooming shop.  When we didn’t want to do our chores, “I can’t; the cat is sitting on me” became our automatic (if unsuccessful) excuse.

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When asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I invariably said a veterinarian…at least until about 7th grade when I realized how much math and science was actually involved.

If I stomped upstairs and slammed my bedroom door in anger, which happened more often than I care to remember during my terrible teenage years, Solomon would paw at the latch until I let him inside to sit next to me.

He would stare at me with his big golden eyes (maybe judging me slightly for being overly dramatic – but hey, he wasn’t wrong), and stay on my lap or curled up between my shoulder blades as I read a book until he was sure everything was all right again.

He was sweet and cuddly, curious and occasionally a little too adventurous, as he was wont to bolt from the front door or bust out of our screened-in deck to eat grass on the lawn and scare the living daylights out of me.

Once when I was still in grade school, he went MIA for several days – sort of a big deal for a cat who had been declawed – and all I remember about his return was that it was the happiest day of my young life.

I still have stress-dreams about losing him.  Even though we sold our house some time ago, I still occasionally get anxious that someone didn’t lock the screen room door.

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We collected several other cats when I was growing up, whom I loved dearly as well, but I was always Solomon’s and he was always mine.

Leaving him to go to college when I was 16 was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.  I knew he was getting older; that I couldn’t check that the doors were locked from my dorm room in Massachusetts; that I would miss having to squirm into the corner of my bed because he had decided to sprawl across as much of the mattress as he could manage.

I felt a little like I was betraying his steadfast friendship, and that I had somehow wasted our time together by being too young to understand how rare and precious it is to find anyone or anything so capable of unconditional love.

I was nervous, of course, about leaving home for the first time.  I was terrified about failing to succeed in my new environment, especially since I was veering sharply away from the traditional educational path by going to college earlier than my peers.  And I was still reeling from my parents’ unexpected divorce the year prior, which had redefined my world in ways I am still working to understand.

So naturally I projected my anxiety a little bit into the one thing that had always been constant in my life: the unflinching, immutable love of a cat who thought I was the best thing since sliced tuna and always would be.

He died at the ripe old age of about 19, after a long and slow decline that I was too selfish to end mercifully.  I couldn’t let him go – I couldn’t acknowledge the end of all the things I had turned the poor dear thing into.  We had spent three-quarters of my life together, and I couldn’t really understand what it would mean not to have him around for the rest of it.

At the time, I was in the midst of a soul-crushing, demeaning, and nightmarish job that had left me isolated and purposeless. I was living in the middle of nowhere and so far from home, with no friends within a three-hour drive, and no outlet for the despair that was building to the bursting point inside of me.

His passing, though peaceful at the end, was one of several catalysts for eighteen months of profound depression that saw me (thankfully) lose my job, get into therapy, and start a significant reconstruction of who I was and who I wanted to be.

Four years later, I adopted Oliver.

I saw his picture on a pet-finding website sometime before Christmas, and knew instantly that I had to make him part of the new life I was building for myself.  Three months later, I had moved to an apartment that allowed cats and brought him home.

He has been nothing but joy to me ever since.

Yes, he scratched my furniture, and woke me up early on the weekends for his breakfast. There were occasions when he would pounce on my feet as I turned a corner, and I may have a faint scar or two from his habit of affectionately wrestling my arm into submission with all 18 pounds of his fur and muscle.

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Of course he shed like crazy but never let me brush him – woe unto me if I tried to snip a bit of tangled fur from his back end – and if I accidentally approached him in a certain manner, intentionally or not, he would meowl and swat at me, afraid I was trying to hurt him.

Former street cats can be like that sometimes, of course.  They have hidden traumas and bad memories that they can’t share.

Oliver was adopted from a small rescue operation (i.e. the basement of a very nice woman with eight cats too many). While he had very good manners and clean habits, which means he must have been raised in a home at some point, the nicks in his ears and the bottom of one eyelid told plenty about what must have been a troubled youth.

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The worst relic of his transient period was feline immunodeficiency virus, or FIV.  Similar to the human version, it can be acquired through fluids or passed on at birth.  There’s no way to tell.

A positive screening usually makes a cat unadoptable.  Their compromised immune systems make them susceptible to gum disease, respiratory infections, and digestive problems – not to mention any other stray bacteria or viruses that happen to wander in.

And the relative ease with which they can pass the virus on to other cats through biting or scratching means they can’t live in a household with unaffected feline companions.

That part wasn’t a problem for me, since my lease stipulates I’m only allowed to have one cat on the premises. Let’s be honest: it’s the only reason I don’t already have two or three.

I was pretty sure that with no other cats, an indoor-only lifestyle, and my familiarity with caring for members of his species, Oliver had a relatively low risk of living a shortened life due to preventable illness.

I may have been right. He made a full recovery from a serious sinus infection during our first year together.  He got regular checkups, vaccines, and lots of exercise.  He ate quality food and gourmet treats, and received personalized drinking service from the bathroom tap every time he pleased.

He had full access to open windows when the weather was nice, and a warm bed next to the radiator when it wasn’t.  Occasionally, he even had the pleasure of a catch-your-own rodent buffet.

Most of the time, I forgot about the FIV all together.  It didn’t seem to matter much to him.  He was just a happy, silly, energetic boy with kittenish behaviors and a penchant for hogging the couch.

I would have spoiled him rotten no matter what was in his bloodstream, and I’m happy to say that’s exactly what I did.  All we can do is give them the best life possible during the time we share, and I am fully confident that I provided a very good home for him.

But not every illness is preventable, and the inevitable caught up with us sooner rather than later.

Kidney trouble is common in all breeds of cats, and renal failure is one of the top causes of mortality.  In FIV cats, the problem often comes in the form of lymphoma.  Most cats last less than a month after diagnosis.  While chemotherapy exists, it is a very expensive and not altogether practical way to gain little more than a few weeks, often with questionable quality of life.

I decided not to go the route that involved biopsies and lab work and half-hour drives to the specialty hospital in Woburn.  Even going a mile up the road to his usual vet was a trauma, and I saw no point in making his last days so stressful when it wouldn’t much improve the outcome or his experience of it.

Instead, we treated him as if he had a bilateral kidney infection, which was also a very real possibility, if a remote one.  A course of antibiotics is neither invasive nor prohibitively costly, and doing something always feels better than sitting back and just waiting.

In the end, it didn’t solve the problem.  But he did have another three weeks of enjoying his favorite things: stalking birds through the window, watching TV with me in the evenings, looking intently at the ceiling even though nothing is there, and following me around to supervise as I went through my morning routine.

He was always a very attentive, human-focused cat. Every time I looked in his direction, he would acknowledge me with a little “prrrrup,” staring straight into my eyes.

When I spoke to him, his tail would start tapping.  When I smiled and blinked at him, or told him I loved him, I thought it would thump its way through the floor.

If I was about to get up from the couch to get a snack or do a chore, he would jump off my lap and wait by the sofa until I came back and he resume his favorite cuddling position again.

If I collapsed into bed after a long day and a longer commute, sad and exhausted, he would do everything he could to get me up again by walking on my sternum, looking plaintive, or calling to me from the living room.

And the funny thing is, I would get up.  Almost immediately.

Unlike during the fallow period following Solomon, where I would sleep for hours after work just to make the day end quicker, I would pull myself together and dry my eyes because I couldn’t bear the thought of disappointing Oliver.

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People who are prone to loneliness or depression need that sort of wholehearted, pure belief that they have a place in the world and a role to fulfill, even if that role is to be a human can opener and living hot water bottle.

Well-treated cats (and dogs, too) don’t doubt that you can do what they need you to do.  They don’t doubt that you will.

Their trust is both humbling and uplifting; a pillar and a pedestal; a lifeline to tether drifting souls to the sense that something, anything matters – and that they have a clear and necessary purpose within it.

Cats are unwavering in their conviction that you will rise to this challenge.  The reward for meeting the terms of this simple contract is an unbreakable, unconditional love that can help carry you through darn near any of the petty frustrations and helpless heartbreaks that comprise human existence.

Say what you want about spinsters collecting cats after giving up on finding love with another person or a place in the world, but I don’t think that’s what happens most of the time.

Cats keep your heart warm.  They help you hold the door open to the future instead of shutting down and locking yourself away.  They compel you practice patience and understanding; to maintain your capacity for love.

They show you the epitome of what that can be: selfless, immutable, and blind to all the little faults of fashion or manner or politics or jealousies that can so often split two people apart.

The love of a pet is a direct connection to the best we can be.  A glimpse into the fundamental definition of joy. That’s something I aspire to achieve with other people, not something intended to replace a life of human friendships or relationships.

To love a cat is a privilege.  To be loved in return is an honor. Even through the pain of missing him fiercely and the grief of never seeing him again, I count myself so, so lucky to have been his Person for as long as I could.

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It’s too quiet in my apartment today, and I feel aimless in a way I haven’t felt for years.  He didn’t come to say good morning.  He didn’t ask for his breakfast.  He isn’t stretched out on the floor, tail tapping, watching me write.  He will never do those things again, which hurts more than I can express.

I feel confident that I did the right thing last night.  I knew as soon as I saw him that something bad had happened: his spark was gone, his body was failing him, and he was in pain.  He wouldn’t make eye contact.  He was too weary to move.

I won’t go through the details of saying goodbye to him.  Every pet owner knows exactly how heart wrenching that is.

The vet was very kind, my dad was there to drive me since I couldn’t see through my tears, and it was all over so quickly.  I feel as if the real Oliver had been gone hours before he stopped breathing, and I like to think that what I saw in his final moments was a sense of relief.

Taking a pet into your life is signing a contract with sadness, even if the terms of the agreement are more than fair.

It may be brutally bitter when the lease on happiness is up, but that isn’t going to stop me from adopting another cat some day, and another after that, and after that.

Our feline companions come and go throughout our lives, leaving gaping holes when they’ve gone.  But we have a choice of what to do when that abyss opens up underneath our feet.

We can let that grief defeat us, and shy away from future attachments due to fear of what happens when they end.

Or we can take hold of that lifeline, that thread of joy, light, and laughter they each bring with them, and let it stitch up our broken hearts and bind us together.

Still, again, and always I choose to keep myself open to that love. I will try to seek out joy.  I will aspire to stay worthy of a cat’s trust and affection and freely-given tummy rubs, because I can think of no better way to be.

I will never stop missing Solomon.  I will never stop missing Oliver.  I will never stop missing the other cats who have stayed a while in my life, each bringing something irreplaceable to how I experience the world.

I don’t know what the future holds, or where my life will lead.  But I can tell you this for certain: still, again, and always, there will be cats to walk those roads with me.

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If you are considering adopting a pet, hopefully a rescue, please don’t discount the ones who appear to have special needs.  They will give you just as much of their love as any other, if not more so for being so often overlooked. 

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Water Usage Skyrockets as NaNoWriMo Novelists Take Extra-Long “Thinking Showers”

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Public officials brace for peak November demand as participants attempt to meet word counts.

BOSTON — Town and city water departments across the country have been unsuccessful in their quest to stop WriMos from overusing public resources during long, leisurely novel-plotting showers, news outlets reported this week.

With several regions of the United States suffering from drought conditions exacerbated by excess bathing and a marked increase in coffee consumption, officials in New England are even considering instituting mandatory restrictions.

“We would like novelists to limit their shower usage to one plot twist per day,” said the Boston Water Department in a press release.  “If you’re really stuck on how to get your main character out of a deadly situation, running a bath actually uses less water and is likely to produce the same ‘aha moment’ results.”

“But ideally, writers should consider procrastination and thought-generation alternatives like leftover Halloween candy binges, sitting sadly in the corner of a coffee shop staring at a blank screen, or deep-cleaning household items they wouldn’t ordinarily touch with a ten-foot pole.”

WriMos have lashed out at the recommendations, calling them creatively limiting and potentially catastrophic for earning their winner’s badge.

“I do my best thinking in the shower,” complained Harvey Purdue of Allston in a blog post.  Purdue typically grabs a towel and scurries over to his laptop while still dripping wet to sketch out his newest ideas before he forgets them.

“It isn’t fair to expect us to act like normal people during NaNoWriMo,” he said.  “Admittedly, it’s a stretch at any time of the year, but it really is different during November.”

Local businesses, like Wilson’s Bath Shop in Woburn, MA, are also opposed to the proposed reduction in shower-related thought time.  “We always hit our loofah sales quota by the end of the first week of November,” said manager Meghan Boyle.  “It’s really good for our employees.”

“And some of the scented shower gels just fly out the door,” she added.  “Outer Space Breeze, Triple Berry Mango-Dystopia, and Unrequited Love Triangle seem to be the most popular this time of year.  We don’t start selling too much of our Smell of Desperation product line until after Thanksgiving, but the lines wrap around the block when the holiday is over.”

In a statement released by non-profit organization WriMos for a Sustainable Future, spokesperson Cathy Georgio called for compromise.  “Just close your eyes and pretend you’re standing under the hot water,” she suggested.  “Think about it really hard.  You’re a writer, aren’t you?  You should be able to use your imagination.”

At the time of publication, neither Purdue nor Georgio had hit their wordcount goals for the day, prompting observers to question whether they had spent too much time procrastinating by drafting statements in response to a non-existent issue for marginally humorous effect.

Music to Your Ears: The Soundtrack of My Fictional Worlds

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Final edits are finished for Dark the Chains of Treason!  You can still pre-order your Kindle copy on Amazon, or you can snag a paperback on August 29.


There are two main types of writers in the world: those who need absolute silence when they are putting words on the page, and those who can’t create anything without a little bit of background noise, whether it’s coffee shop chatter or their favorite songs on repeat.

I say two main types, because I’ve actually been both.  Right now, I need a quiet environment to concentrate on my work.  But during my misbegotten youth, I couldn’t function without my carefully curated playlist.

When it came to writing creatively, I tended to listen to classical music – Beethoven and Mozart especially – or lose myself in the seamless, ethereal repetition of Gregorian chant.  I was a nerd, okay?  I’ve made my peace with it.

Music set the tone for my characters, inspired my landscapes, and soothed my anxieties when some bit of plot wouldn’t click into place.  Silence during the creative process seemed unnatural and unnerving in some way – like those moments in a movie when you realize the soundtrack has stopped, the only noise is the ragged breathing of the main character or the furtive footsteps of the serial killer, and something very bad is about to happen to someone you like.

The comparison to movies isn’t anything new, of course.  I know a lot of authors who listen to music while writing specifically because they view their novels like films that just happen to be printed on a page.

These authors would scribble song titles in the margins if they could – I’m sure some probably do in their rough drafts – and get frustrated when it becomes difficult to directly translate the sights, sounds, and unspoken gestures of a visual scene into a written one.

The difficulties of going the other way, from book to screen, are well-known to anyone who has been disappointed by a film adaptation of their favorite story.

The cinematic approach isn’t a bad thing at all.  It’s perfect for many types of stories.  Thrillers and romances, of course, rely on a film-like progression of actions and a sharply delineated character development arc that fits right in with what you would expect from the movies.  Certain sci-fi and fantasy styles also very episodic, and mesh well with visually-driven entertainment.

The serializable nature of many popular speculative fiction books and movies (and the many crossover content streams available from properties like the Star Wars and Star Trek universes, for example) shows just how must interplay there can be between media types.

Sure, many of the novelizations or TV pilots or seven-part film sagas are just about making money for the production company that owns the story rights.  I’m not saying it’s always a great thing.

But it speaks to the general cultural perception that many books could easily be movies, and movies are sometimes just visual books, and both types of stories often rely very heavily on similar conventions to highlight character traits, set up plot points, and prepare their readers/viewers for what’s going to happen next.

The point is that many popular fiction titles are very strongly informed by the way movies work, and that often includes the fact that authors tie particular songs to particular characters in order to paint a mood or capture a feeling.

I don’t think my novels are overly cinematic, but I do the soundtrack thing, too, even if I never meant to.

It wasn’t until I had written and published The Last Death of Tev Chrisini that I realized some of my new favorite songs fit in with certain characters so well that it was almost eerie.  I’m sure there was a subconscious thing going on, but it’s still weird to realize it.

After I wrote The Spoil of Zanuth-Karun, I came across a handful of songs that matched the plot and tone of the novel almost exactly, which further freaked me out.

By the time I got around to starting Dark the Night Descending, I had moved away from listening to music while writing, but also embraced the idea that collecting a soundtrack as I went on wasn’t such a bad idea.  After all, the title of the book was inspired by an Iron & Wine song, so it was only natural that music would play a role in the rest of it.

The Paderborn Chronicles are a little darker and grittier than my first books.  I started the series after a very rough period in my life, wherein I lost some of my illusions about the fundamental goodness of the human spirit and gained some new perspectives on what purpose novels should serve in the grand scheme of things.

These books address some difficult themes for me, and there is plenty of brutality to go around, both given and received.  It’s a very dangerous world filled with selfish, cruel, ruthless people (and not-quite-people), and happily-ever-afters are not easy to come by.  That isn’t to say no one can find redemption, but it’s a little harder than in some of my earlier works.

The music is a little sharper, too.  So as I get ready to release Dark the Chains of Treason, I thought it would be fun to share a few of the songs that have shaped the series so far.

In no particular order, here are a few of my favorites:

Bilgewater – Brown Bird (Salt for Salt)

Freedom Hangs Like Heaven – Iron & Wine (Woman King)

Beat the Devil’s Tattoo – Black Rebel Motorcycle Club

It’s Only – ODESZA (In Return)

Whistles the Wind – Flogging Molly (Within a Mile of Home)

Wake Up – Arcade Fire (Funeral)

All these links will take you to Amazon’s music service, which will only let you hear a preview (unless you’re a Prime member) instead of the whole song.  As an independent artist myself, I like to make sure people get paid for their works, please do buy them legitimately from Amazon, iTunes, or elsewhere if you decide that one of them strikes a chord.

Happy listening/reading/watching!

Five Questions to Ask Yourself before Committing to Self-Publishing

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As some of my long-time readers might know, I started my self-publishing journey on a whim in 2012.  I had written a book two years before, a few friends who were interested in reading it, and I had a vague remembrance of reading something about a new-fangled publishing platform from Amazon that would let you share content easily.

The first time I uploaded a (pretty rough draft) of The Last Death of Tev Chrisini, my heart almost stopped when I saw my name on a real Amazon page.

The cover image was garbage, the PDF sloppily formatted, and the metadata clumsy, but it was my name on Amazon – the biggest bookseller in the world! – and strangers could now find and read something that I had written: a world I had created, inhabited, and loved.

It was thrilling, frightening, and frustrating in equal measure.  Sure, the book was there, but no one other than those few close friends had purchased it.  Sure, I had a weighty CreateSpace paperback in my hands, but my design abilities were rubbish, I couldn’t get the formatting just right, and I kept finding typos.

I had published a book, which is certainly a milestone.  But in the early days of the publish-on-demand industry, I was among thousands of curious new authors who had a lot to learn.

Had I planned my entry into this strange new world a little better, I might have implemented a different strategy.  I might have been more successful right off the bat…or I might have been so overwhelmed with the prospect of committing to this massive undertaking that I may never have gone through with it.

After several years of experience, including some notable high points and more than a few disappointments, I think I have a better idea of how new authors might want to approach their own first taste of self-publishing.

Any commitment should start with a cost/benefit analysis, and these are the top five questions I would ask myself if I could go back in time and do it all over again.

1. What do I hope to get out of this?

What are my goals when it comes to self-publishing?  Do I want to share a particular skill or knowledge base?  Do I want to create a revenue stream I can live on?  Do I have a unique perspective that I must share with the world?  Do I want to use self-publishing as a springboard to a traditional publishing career?  Do I just want to write for my own fulfillment?

ThinkstockPhotos-490243498Everyone has a different reason for wanting to self-publish, and I don’t think there are any invalid motivations.  Some want to write the books they wanted to read when they were kids.  Some are aiming for the money or the fame; some just like the idea of sharing fanfic stories with their chosen fandom.

It doesn’t matter what the reason is.  You just have to know why you’re doing it.  When you establish a clear idea of what you hope to accomplish, it will help you set up a platform, focus your outreach efforts, and ensure that you are not wasting your precious time and energy on activities that won’t get you to your chosen outcome.

2. What skills do I have and what do I need from others?

Let’s face it.  We’re not all experts at everything.  Yeah, that includes you, okay?  We all need a little outside help to fill the holes in our game.

Self-publishing requires a lot of specialized skills, and a lot of back-end production work.  Editing is a different competency than writing.  Web design isn’t easy.  Cover art creation isn’t for everyone.  Putting together a perfect template for publication?  Man, that still trips me up sometimes.  And when it comes to marketing…well, let’s just say I wouldn’t mind a little help in that department.

In order to bring a high quality product to market, you might have to enlist the skills of people who have expertise in one or more of these areas.  And in order to know who you need to ask for help, you need to honestly assess where you might fall short.

Understanding your strengths and recognizing your own limitations before you begin will save you a lot of frustration in the long run!  Trust me on this one.

3. Do I understand my market and the options available to me?

Market research isn’t just for smarmy guys at big corporations who try to get you to buy stuff you don’t really need.  It’s an essential part of any sales gig, and it’s vital for self-publishers.

Not only do you need to understand what the different available publishing platforms offer their authors, how to manage your rights and permissions, and how to navigate each company’s unique process for bringing a book to life, but you also need to have a clear strategy for selling the finished product.

You wouldn’t try to sell a cookbook to the same audience as a memoir or a young adult sci-fi thriller.  You wouldn’t use the same strategies to appeal to middle grade readers as you would use for erotica aficionados (I hope).

And even within your chosen genre, there are nuances and subdivisions that no outsider could ever comprehend, let alone leverage.  Vampire lovers may get miffed if they’re being offered a zombie tale in disguise.  Space opera junkies don’t want to read about…whatever the opposite of space operas are.  You get the point.

Before jumping into your first en masse Twitter following spree or joining a million reader forums, take some time to identify your perfect reader.  Find out where those people hang out, what they’re looking for, and what strategies appeal to them.  That’s going to be important for deciding how to deal with the next question.

4. How much am I willing to invest when it comes to time, money, and effort?

Self-publishing can be hard on the wallet, and it can be even harder on your initial bubbling enthusiasm.  Building an audience takes lots of time and dedication.  It can require weekends at conferences, or hours in front of the computer writing blog posts (ahem), replying to conversations in communities, and creating a presence on social media.

Buying ads, web domain names, subscriptions, contest entries, and a box of books to have on hand can easily run into the hundreds or thousands of dollars before you know it.  And there’s no guarantee that you will receive a return on your investment.

But there are some steps you can take to minimize waste and maximize your potential for seeing some fruits from your labors.

First, create a budget and stick to it.  Make a list of your possible expenses, prioritize the essentials, tailor your spending to your targeted audience, and do not spend a single penny on any product, service, or offering without reading the fine print.  Twice.

Do not sign any of your creative rights or content rights away without being 150,000% sure you understand what you’re doing.  There are unscrupulous people out there who are more than happy to promise you the impossible.  Be careful.

Second, be flexible and be willing to make changes.  If the Facebook ads aren’t generating returns or the dealer’s table at LocalCon was a bust last year, then screw ‘em.  Find something else to spend your budget on.  There’s no set path for success in self-publishing, so remember that the strategy that works for your friends may not work for you.

Third, be mindful of your limitations, obligations, and expectations.  Ambition is a fine thing, but maybe you can’t spend every Saturday and Sunday traveling around the country to every writer’s convention without stretching your bank account or your relationships to the limit.  Maybe you’re an introvert who hates networking in person, so you shouldn’t spend $500 on a ticket to that fundraising brunch.  Maybe you’re better off putting that money into a blog redesign or a copyeditor instead.

5. How good am I at dealing with disappointment?

This is a downer of a question, but it’s something you absolutely have to think about before embarking on your self-publishing career.  There simply isn’t room for everyone at the tippy-top of the charts, and chances are that the vast majority of people will not make it as far in real life as they do in their daydreams.

ThinkstockPhotos-504860101It’s okay to acknowledge that.  It’s good to understand that life is hard, and things don’t always work out the way you hoped without some struggle, some pain, and some determination.  Realistic expectations are healthy.  They keep you from overextending yourself, and they allow you to look at too-good-to-be-true possibilities with a critical, rational eye.

The publishing industry is especially good at forcing you to practice these skills.  It’s an industry based on luck, chance, preconceived notions, and first impressions.  At times, its capriciousness can seem downright cruel.

You need to be able to handle losing that big contest or never getting that phone call.  You need to have the strength to accept the fact that not everyone is going to like everything you write.  That doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer.  That doesn’t mean you’re a bad person.  It just means that you have to try again next time.

If you accept that disappointment is going to be a part of this process from the get-go, you’re going to be better equipped with the fortitude to take your knocks and shake them off.  It’s hard.  It sucks.  It happens to everyone.  But you need to ask yourself if you’re going to be able to pick yourself up out of the dirt and keep swinging.

Yes?  Then welcome to the club, self-publisher.  You’re going to do fine.

Smashwords Shares 5 Ways to Succeed with Self-Publishing in 2016

Self-publishing is a pretty tough game for most authors, but as the industry matures and best practices start to emerge, we’re starting to learn more about what makes a self-published title sell.

Each year, Smashwords parses its sales data to give the rest of the world a little glimpse into what works for its best-selling authors. To absolutely nobody’s surprise, the fifth annual survey revealed that romance, erotica, and young adult fiction are the top sellers for the digital self-publishing platform.

These categories are so popular, in fact, that romance titles (adult and young adult combined) make up more than seventy percent of the top 200 best-selling titles, Smashwords CEO Mark Coker said.  Seventy percent.  That’s a pretty steady paycheck for the seamstresses that have to repair all those ripped bodices.

Fantasy clocked in as the fourth most popular fiction category in 2016, which I can only assume is due to the fact that we’re the only other genre that talks about bodices a lot.  Fantasy novels made up 4.22 percent of the best sellers this year.  Meanwhile, Sci-Fi titles only scooped up a measly one percent of the marketplace.

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Source: Smashwords 2016 Survey

This may seem kind of depressing for those of us who are not big fans of the romance genre, but there are some concrete reasons why these authors have such huge success.  And, as Coker points out, it’s possible that the wild success of these authors can teach us some lessons about how they garner such legions of loyal fans.

“Romance writers are typically ahead of the curve when it comes to adopting new best practices,” he said, “and certainly this is underscored by their early adoption of series writing, free series starters and preorder usage.”

So what are some of the key tactics that best-selling writers employ, and how well do they work?

Racking up sales before release day

Preorders are especially important for boosting a book’s chances of success, the survey found.  Average earnings for books that were available for preorder were 6.7 times greater than books that only banked on a big release day.  More than half of the top 200 books in 2016 were available for pre-order.  Of the top 200 pre-order books, 78 percent were romance titles.

“Every preorder gains you incremental benefit in terms of expanded readership, and over the course of years this incremental benefit compounds upon itself like a great investment.  This is because the more readers you gain, the easier it becomes to gain even more readers because fans breed more fans through word of mouth,” said Coker.

That’s also why social media is so important.  Unsurprisingly, the top 100 authors were much more likely than others to have a good website, a Facebook page, and a Twitter account.

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Source: Smashwords 2016 Survey

But this may be more of a correlation-not-causation scenario.  I know plenty of authors who tweet like crazy and constantly post to their Facebook pages but remain unsuccessful – and that’s probably because they don’t know how to use social media wisely.  Spamming your Twitter followers with cringe-worthy self-promotion tactics won’t get you anywhere.

Balancing price and length

When it comes to generating sales, pricing is probably even more important than Facebook likes, says the survey.  The data uncovered this shocking fact: if you want to get your book in front of lots and lots of eyeballs, don’t charge anything for it.

On average, readers downloaded free books 41 times more often than priced titles.  That’s a lot of books.

Just like in previous years, the “sweet spot” for sales seems to be around the $2.00 to $3.99 mark.  While a 99 cent book might seem suspiciously cheap, readers aren’t willing to spend more than 4 bucks to experiment with a new fiction title.

If they do spend their pennies on your book, however, they’re expecting to get their money’s worth.  Lengthier books still sell better than shorter titles.  The average top 100 seller is around 112,000 words – but again, be careful here.  Writing a 400,000-word epic isn’t going to make you the next Stephen King if the story is incoherent and the writing quality is low.

A series of fortunate events

 If you want to gain fans and sell books, don’t stop your stories, Coker says.  Even though literary agents are constantly asking for more stand-alone titles to sell, a series is still the best bet for self-publishers.  The majority of top performing authors bank on series to give them long-term sales, and it seems to be a good bet.

The top 1000 series titles show an average 195 percent sales increase over the top 1000 stand-alone books.  And if you want to get your readers hooked, you should consider offering your first book for free.

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Source: Smashwords 2016 Survey

Series with free starters earn an average of 83 percent more than series with priced first entries, the survey shows.  More than half of the top 200 best selling series offered their first installments for free, including 80 percent of the top 10.

Putting the data into action

So should we all start writing paranormal romance series with ten books’ worth of teenaged angst?  Please, God, no.

Romance is always going to dominate everything, because it’s romance.  And there will always be a market for stories about impossibly beautiful and mature teenagers doing impossibly world-altering things, because…well, I’m not really sure why those have such appeal, but apparently they do.  Someone will have to explain that one to me some day.

The most important takeaways from the survey probably aren’t about genre, but are more about strategically positioning your book, whatever it may be, to generate the maximum number of sales.

Regardless of your subject matter, you can try to implement the five strategies that seem to work for the majority of best selling authors:

  1. Establish a strong but savvy social media presence
  2. Consider the $2.00 to $3.99 bracket for pricing
  3. Think about offering pre-orders
  4. Invest the time and effort into creating series that capture reader attention
  5. Hook readers with a free first installment

While Smashwords – and life in general – make no guarantees that these techniques will launch you into the rarified air of the best-selling self-publisher, it can’t hurt to experiment with some of the things that have been proven to produce sales.

Have you had success (or abject failure) with adopting some of these tactics?  Let me know in the comments!

Characters of Chaos: Crafting Responses to a Crumbling World

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Late last month, right before I took my trip to Las Vegas, I hit a milestone in my life.  I turned 30 years old.

I’ve never been someone who’s been that obsessed with my age.  People generally think I’m older than I am – the copious amounts of gray hair might have something to do with it – and I’ve always been perfectly happy to let them.

Being young is no fun.  Your opinions are dismissed and your experiences trivialized.  You don’t get any discounts on stuff between the time you forfeit your student ID and the time you join AARP.  Strangers think they can tell you what you should or should not be doing at your age, and give you unsolicited advice about a future that looks absolutely terrifying at the best of times (thanks, Baby Boomers).

I’ve always wanted to be a grown-up. I’ve always wanted to do grown-up things like buy small home appliances and have a reason to hand out business cards.  My teenage years were tough, and my 20s were even tougher – I’m not that sorry to leave them behind.

One of the (many) reasons why I struggled with my youth was my absolute faith in institutions.  I was raised to respect authority, which is a good thing, but I also read way, way too many Victorian-era novels that also made me afraid of it.

Pro tip: don’t let your seven-year-olds read abridged versions of Dickens unless you want them to grow up with an unshakable fear of getting caned for speaking out of turn.

Teachers and professors, doctors, bosses, older colleagues or peers, rules and regulations – they were all infallible.  They all said and did things for a reason.  A good reason.  A reason that must have been thought about and examined and tested and passed down as the wisdom of the ages.  And I, young and naïve and painfully sheltered, must be the one who was getting it wrong.

The world had a lot to teach me, but not in the way that I first thought.  The more I learned about institutions and authorities and experts, the more I realized that the people in charge were winging it almost as much as I was.

Not all rules exist for a reason.  Saying something with confidence doesn’t make it correct.  Even if you read it on the internet, it may not actually be true.

That can be a pretty big shock to someone who used to plan out her birthday party schedules down to the minute and is still deeply uncomfortable with the idea that anyone would call a college professor by her first name.

I like order, and I like feeling as if things make sense.  I like institutions, and evidence-based decision making, and I like data.  I don’t like that the world is, fundamentally, an unstoppable whirlwind of pain, loneliness, confusion, and chaos.  I’d rather believe that someone out there knows what they’re doing, and that there’s a possibility that I might be able to do the same thing.

The notion that things happen for a reason – or happen according to reason – is a comforting one.  It gives us a sense of belonging and purpose, and cushions our shortcomings when something goes awry.  A black and white existence is a simple one.  Simple can be good.

And that’s where you start a fantasy novel.  In a world that makes sense.

Whether it’s on the family homestead with your adolescent hero or in the halls of a king presiding over a golden age of peace, most stories start at the breaking point, when the good king dies and leaves his country without an heir, the princess realizes that her intended is a traitor, or the Sherriff’s men destroy the village and leave shattered innocence in their wake.

The beginning of a good story rips away those false foundations of false surety and throws the main character into an unfamiliar and dangerous world.

A good character is built on how he or she responds to that.  And that is, fundamentally, what all stories boil down to.  What do people do when faced with bad things?

I think we’ve all seen the charts that divide characters by the influence that they exert on the world.  Chaotic neutral, lawful good, true neutral, lawful evil: this is a great way to codify how they impact the plot.

But it doesn’t specifically show why they act that way.  What makes them believe that there is good in the world?  That people are fundamentally bad?  That there is a god(s), or that there isn’t?  To do that, we have to move beyond the basics and take a deeper look at their response to the realization (or lack thereof) that the universe is a big, scary, chaotic, anarchic place.

So here are a few character archetypes I’ve come up with based on their response to chaos.

The justifiers

The ingénues

“Ignorance is bliss” would be the motto of these characters, if they even knew they were being ignorant.  Children too young to form rational thoughts and spoiled pets are the only ones who can really fit into this category.  Someone who has never experienced any sort of unpleasantness, conflict, or misfortune is rare, and usually unbelievable.  Most characters who seem this innocent are either hiding something or willfully ignoring something, which tends to put them in one or both of the next two categories.

The faith-driven

Faith is a powerful force for a whole lot of people.  Entire societies are built on it.  Entire eras have revolved around it, and it’s one of those basic tenets of pre-modern societies that play a major role in the fantasy world.

Faith-driven people believe that there is a greater force watching over them, guiding them, and laying out the rules.  They may believe that there is chaos in the world, but it is often the work of a single great adversary (the devil or other dark spirit).  Everything happens for a reason, but that reason is usually unknowable.

While this can be frustrating to those who think differently, it can be a great source of comfort to the faith-driven, who may look beyond the suffering of the mortal worlds towards the promises of a glorious afterlife.

Faith-driven people can often have a lot of experience with pain, poverty, grief, stunted freedom, and/or helplessness.  Their choice to believe that there is a greater purpose – that happiness is achievable and the chaos can be conquered by their deity – is how they cope with that.

The law-driven

Law-driven characters also turn to an external concept to find comfort and make sense of their world.  They may also have strong faith in a deity, but their primary god is duty and honor.  They may be strongly attached to a monarch or other figure of authority, or they may make the abstract concept of “the law” or “the right thing to do” into their primary motivator.

They may believe in adhering to this code of ethics no matter what the consequences, and might think that they will be rewarded for loyalty and honor in the long run, even if it’s in the afterlife.  On the flip side, they could be cowardly and blindly obedient, unable to reason for themselves.

They can be stubbornly rigid in their view of how things should be, which can make them unpopular, or they can be genuinely eager to make the world a better place.  They believe in solutions of one kind or another, and they want to fix things according to their own notions of right and wrong.

A subset of the justifier archetype is the love-driven character.  They may include elements of both the law-driven and faith-driven person, but their object of orientation is a romantic relationship.

The observers

The jaded

This is where a lot of modern heroes and heroines live, I think, since moral ambiguity is all the rage these days.

The jaded are those who might see the chaos, recognize it exists, but just try to do their best to get on with their lives.  They are neither strongly faith-driven nor overly concerned with adhering to the precepts of another person.  They are not actively evil, but they are generally not spotlessly good, either. They might believe in right and wrong, but they can fall on either side of the line – or ignore the line all together.

They might rely strongly on luck, happenstance, or good fortune to explain why they haven’t been totally annihilated just yet.

Whether they’re soldiers of fortune, fallen angels, wandering samurai, or disgraced civil servants, these are people who have probably tried to follow the herd, but have failed to find fulfilment or success in a normal life.

They can be interesting characters, and they may claim that they hold no allegiance to anyone other than themselves, but at the end of the day, they have to make a choice or a sacrifice that sticks them on one side of the good/evil divide, and could determine the outcome of the story.

The opt-out

Those who don’t make the choice – or made the wrong one and want to lament about it for a few pages so your main character will learn from the mistake – might fall into this category.  These are your hermits, your mad monks, your wandering wise women, and your myopic scientists.  They might care about the chaos, but only because it’s statically significant.

Honestly, these characters aren’t really that interesting on their own.  They may serve to give help, information, exposition, or insight to the main character, and they make great plot points but people who don’t make choices don’t have much of a reason to be a sustained player in the story.  If you rely too heavily on these people to drive your plot or provide a running commentary, it’s going to end up pretty weak.

The manipulators

The puppeteers

Now we get to the fun part.  The bad guys.  These are the people who know the world is going to hell in a handbasket and love every minute of it.

The puppeteers are primarily concerned with manipulating the chaos for their own selfish advantage.  The scheming courtier; the traitorous servant; the lieutenant who will stop at nothing to drive the hero to madness.  The one with the evil plan that may or may not get away from him.  The second-in-command to the really big boss who hopes his nefarious activities will net him some coveted reward.

These are great supporting characters, but when it comes down to it, the puppeteers usually find that their own strings are being held by someone even worse than they are…

The masters of darkness

…like the pure evil of the master of darkness.  Now you’ve got your dark wizards, your warlords, your Queens of the Underworld, and your dastardly masterminds.  These are people to beat.  They don’t just accept that there is misery and evil in the world – they want to set it free to consume all that is good and holy just because they like to watch things burn.

Adding nuance to these characters can sometimes seem difficult, especially since they often only exist just to give your hero something to do with his life.  But if you think about them in terms of input in addition to output, you can create a backstory that is a little more elegant than just saying, “Well, someone has to be the bad guy.”

The agents of entropy

On the far end of the scale is the agent of entropy.  These are not evil characters, exactly.  They just exist to mess things up.  The meddling mother-in-law, the trickster god, the unlucky peasant pushed out of the way of the prince’s runaway horse by the hapless heroine.

Sometimes these are quick encounters that serve only to move the plot forward.  But other times they are a force to be reckoned with.  A best friend with a penchant for getting in trouble after a night out isn’t just a one-and-done plot device.  The whole story could be about the main character wrestling with the boundaries of friendship, or getting deeper into some kind of mess when trying to fix whatever their friend broke.

Entropy is required to drive the story forward to its crisis point, and these characters often cut across other archetypes as they move the plot along.  I think these can actually be really interesting, especially as someone who doesn’t really understand people who love chaos for chaos’ sake.

As far as my own character type goes, I’d call myself a jaded but law-driven observer.  I want things to make sense and to obey the rules; I want to try to make the world better, and I want everyone to be wonderful all the time, but I don’t necessarily think there is any surefire strategy people can use to ensure that they will get their happily ever after.

In any case, I hope that looking through this particular lens can help you view your characters in a different way.  If you think I’ve left anyone out, or you just want to share what type of person you think you are, leave a comment!

A Ride Through the Desert

Hello, everyone!  Yes, it’s me again.  I told you I’d be back after my trip to the Southwest, and so here I am.  And let me tell you, it was a whole lot of fun.

Flying has never been my forte – I prefer to be a little bit more in control of my transportation methods, and something about being thirty thousand feet above the surface of the earth has never quite computed with me – but I braved the sunny skies to fly out to Las Vegas on a Friday.

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Bright and early the next morning, I jumped into my rental pick-up truck (yes, really) and headed out into the desert, where it took me just under three hours to cross into Utah and reach Zion National Park.

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The Court of the Patriarchs

It’s really pretty there.  Really, really pretty.

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The Virgin River, which takes on a beautiful jade green tone as it cuts through the valley, has carved down the rocks for millennia, resulting in the quintessential Southwest stratification that we all know and love.  The weather was relatively cool, due to the time of the year and the elevation, which made exploring easy, even for a (very, very, very) novice outdoorsperson like myself.

Unfortunately, I made a bit of a mistake with my directions.  Anyone who knows me at all will be aware that this is not a surprise.  My navigation skills are less than perfect in familiar environments, let alone new ones, and I probably should have figured that I would get lost even in such a well-marked and busy park.

In any case, I ended up leaving the main trail road, which wanders smoothly through the valley and stops at each of the major sites, and found myself going 20 miles an hour up a series of tight hairpin turns on my way to Nowhereville, Utah.

See that road with all the squiggles? That was my road.

See that road with all the squiggles? That was my road.  See the nice, straight, flat one going off to the left? That’s the one I should have been on.

Despite the fact that there was nothing but gorgeous vista after gorgeous vista, I eventually figured out that I was headed the wrong way.  After making it through the 1.1 mile long Zion-Mount Carmel tunnel, built in the 1920s, I decided it was best that I turn around and see if I could spend the afternoon in the rest of the park before continuing on my way to Arizona.

I think it was a good decision.

Beneath the Great White Throne

Beneath the Great White Throne

Another long drive before sunset brought me south and east to Page, Arizona (and yes, I now realize I could have continued on Route 9 to get there, but I would have missed the rest of Zion).

It’s a little town on the shores of Lake Powell that obviously depends highly on tourist dollars, but everyone was friendly and the hotel was perfectly nice.  I spent a cool night sleeping off the travel dust before getting up, with the help of jetlag, a little before dawn.

Why so early?  Well, I had a date with the Colorado River.

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This is Horseshoe Bend, a kink in the same watercourse that runs through the Grand Canyon.  With a wide-angle lens and a precarious spot right on the edge of the cliff, I was in perfect position to catch the morning glow as the sun peeked over the mountains behind me.

It’s an awe-inspiring place to be.  There’s no other way to describe it.  It’s hard to capture just how enormous that rocky outcrop is, but it’s about 1000 feet from the lip of the canyon to the water below.  Truly spectacular.

But I couldn’t stay long, because I had a tour booked for somewhere just as magnificent.  Antelope Canyon.

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This water-carved slot canyon is the most photographed of its kind, and it’s easy to see why.

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Located on Navajo tribal land just outside of Page, the Upper and Lower Canyons were formed mostly by flash flood waters running through the sandstone, carving away wave-like forms of rock which are mostly open to the sky.

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The Upper Canyon site is only accessible with a tour group led by a Navajo tribal member. We piled into the back of a converted pick-up and raced down the floodplain, bumping and jostling and holding onto our tripods for dear life.

I paid a little extra to get on one of the special photography tours.  That meant that our guide was allowed to hold back other groups so we could get clear and empty shot of the formations.  With exposure times of up to 30 seconds, this was really important for getting excellent pictures.

In the summer, the famous light shafts can hit the smooth, sandy floor of the canyon, but the sun doesn’t get that high in the winter or early spring.  It does, however, occasionally slant up against the walls, and we were fortunate enough to get a glimpse of a little ray of sunshine just before we were about to leave.

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The guides quickly cleared the room and started throwing handfuls of fine dust in the air to help illuminate the beam – great for pictures, but not so great for my lungs.

In any case, I was completely enthralled with the experience, and highly recommend it to anyone who happens to be in the area, whether or not you have an interest in photography.  It’s just such a beautiful, peaceful, fascinating place to be for a while, even when surrounded by tourists wielding selfie sticks.

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I would love to go back again, and maybe try getting to the Lower Canyon, too, which is less popular and a little more challenging, but just as interesting.

But that will have to wait for another trip.  Sunday afternoon, I had to rush back to Vegas for my conference on Monday, which meant a five-hour drive from Arizona to Nevada.

I arrived after sunset, tired and a little sore but absurdly happy…just in time to come down with a nasty, wretched cold that has plagued me ever since.  I don’t know what it is about healthcare conferences that always make me so sick, but let me tell you.  It was hard, hard work to power through those three days.

Nonetheless, the conference was a great editorial success, and every member of my team knocked it out of the park.  I couldn’t enjoy Vegas quite as much as I wanted, but it’s still a fun town even if the DayQuil costs twelve bucks a pop.

I may have been lightheaded, sniffling, and sleepwalking my way back to the East Coast, but I made it with little further ado.  I stayed in bed all weekend, and I’m just now starting to feel like my normal self again, but it was worth it for such a great trip.

So that’s what I’ve been up to.  As I get back on my feet and sort through all the work I built up during the show, I’m hoping to get back into my writing rhythm, finish up editing on Dark the Chains of Treason, and maybe even have a publishable book at some point this year.  That would be nice, wouldn’t it?  Stay tuned!