On being an SME

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No, the other SME.

What is an SME?  It’s a business acronym (and companies loves them some acronyms something fierce) for Subject Matter Expert.  I’ve been labeled one at my Day Job thanks to my expertise regarding check printing and OFAC regulations (w/r/t checking accounts).  How did I get there?  Well, I’d originally been a Jack of All Trades in my position, but over the years I’d become more and more knowledgeable in this sort of stuff, to the point where I could write FAQs and easy to understand How-To’s for my coworkers and new hires.  I’ve had managers from other departments requesting my input on related things.  And to add to that, I can also go on vacation like I did this week and not have to worry about my team completely falling apart trying to do my job in my absence.

Granted, I didn’t learn all this over the course of a few weeks.  I started working specifically with checking around 2008 and OFAC around 2012.  Some of it was learned via outdated documentation, and a lot of it was learned on the fly.  In short, I decided that this was a narrow-focus subject I could pick up on and get to know in detail.

So what does this have to do with writing?

Good question!  Right about the same time I started learning more about OFAC, I’d made a conscious decision to become an SME on writing novels…at least to the level where I could feasibly do it myself instead of farming it out to someone else.  It was twofold: I really did want to know more about the process, and I wanted to see if I could pull it off.  So over the next five years, I dedicated myself to learning as much as I could about the writing and self-publishing process.

I wouldn’t say I’m an SME at all facets of the writing business, far from it.  My focus is deliberately narrow: I know a goodly amount about novel writing, self-publishing, self-editing, cover art production, and so on.  I’m still a n00b when it comes to the marketing and promotion side of it, though I’m making an effort to learn more about that as well.  And most importantly, I enjoy being at this level of knowledge.  Writing is one of the few creative avenues where I’m able to think multiple steps ahead and see all the moving parts of the whole.  Knowing what to do with all those parts makes me a better writer.

There’s also the fact that I’m a huge fan of Paying It Forward.  This is why I post entries like this…I like the idea of helping out other writers, clearing the path for them so they can see where they need to go.  If I can take what I’ve learned and make it easy for others to pick it up as well, so much the better.

Does an author have to be an SME?  Another good question; and I would answer that by saying ‘only to the level they need to be at.’  You want to know how to write in your specific genre, of course, and you want to be good enough at it so your readers won’t feel cheated by a poorly written story.  You may farm out the editing and the cover and the distribution (or that may be left to your publishing house), either because you’re not good at it or you’re simply not that interested in taking the time for it.  Nowadays you might want to have at least a moderate amount of knowledge about promotion, considering the current state of publishing.  [As an aside, it never hurts to know a bit about the various parts of the process anyway, so your conversations with editors/cover artists/etc won’t be as confusing and/or scary.]

Think of it this way:  when you bring your car into the shop, you can either trust the mechanic, or you can also understand what the mechanic has to do.  There’s no right or wrong here; it’s all about how much you want to know about the moving parts.  For some it’s advanced algebra, for others it’s utterly fascinating.  It’s completely up to you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Am I a Professional Now…?

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Our local bookshop…where my trilogy is available in e-book form!

Don’t laugh; I’d been asking myself that question since September 2015, when A Division of Souls first went up for sale online in e-book form.

Can I call myself a real professional writer at this point?  Well.  Depends on who I ask.  And I’ll get positive answers, indifferent answers, negative answers, ‘you’re not there yet’ answers, ‘oh bless your heart’ answers, pedantic answers, and everything in between.

I’ll be honest — I haven’t asked anyone that, and I don’t plan to.

Sure, I’ll ask people for their opinion on works in progress.  That’s what beta readers are for.  I’ll ask for creative advice if it’s needed and/or warranted, because I want the end result to be done right the first time.  I’ll definitely ask for advice about self-promotion, because it’s one of my weaknesses.  I’m doing all the homework expected of me to make sure I’m doing it all correctly when it comes to the legalese and financial stuff.

But I decided pretty early on that asking someone else about my professional status is kind of self-defeating.

Again, I came to this conclusion by comparing my own writing career to that of a musician’s.  I understand that particular field reasonably well because of my lifelong obsession with music and my willingness to read all kinds of music bios and academic texts (and meet the musicians if possible!) to learn even more about it.  I find that putting my writing life into this kind of perspective has made my choices so much easier and less painful.

But my point being:  Sure, why the hell not call myself a pro now?

  1. I’ve got three completed novels out, released through well-known, respected independent avenues.
  2. I’m already working on my fourth, with future books at pre-planning stages.
  3. All parts of the production have been done by my own hand — editing, cover art, formatting — mainly because I wanted to do it that way.  I want to learn the business.
  4. I’m still learning the fine art of promotion, but I’ve already done a lot of homework on it and am now acting on it.
  5. Same with the legalese and the economics side of it.  Both are definitely daunting, but I’m willing to learn so I can do it right.
  6. I’m now attending conventions not just as a fan, but also as a panelist.
  7. I set myself some high standards from the beginning, so as to not make my work look like I’d thrown it together at the last minute.
  8. Importantly: I know I’m not a commercial writer.  I tried writing that way, and it didn’t pan out.  I’m fine being a college radio author instead of a Top 40 radio author.  In fact, I kind of prefer it that way.
  9. Most importantly:  This is a life-long career goal of mine.  I’m duty bound not to do it half-assed.

Sure, it’s all DIY, but it’s a professional-level DIY.  This is me being inspired by the American punk bands of the early 80s putting out their music on their own, passing out cassettes or starting labels like SST and Taang and Alternative Tentacles and Ace of Hearts.  They were never going to hit the charts during their heyday, and they usually had a small following…but they had a STRONG and loyal following.  They also all had a very strong bond with each other, like an extended family.

Once I realized the writing field works in almost exactly the same way, I knew I could do succeed as a professional author.

An indie author, but a professional one.

And I’m fine with that.

On Writing: Unlearning the Process

I subscribe to a handful of writing magazines, many that I’ve been picking up for a good few decades.  Over the years, they’ve helped me rethink how I look at my stories.  Sometimes they’ll point out the blatantly obvious that I’d been ignoring for one reason or another (weak prose and word repetition for a start).  Sometimes they’ll provide insight on what agents and publishers are looking for and how to contact them.  It’s all helpful, and over the years their advice did help me get a lot farther than just guessing or assuming I was doing it right.

On the other hand, I’ve been quite contrarian lately, and I’m not entirely sure why.

Well, maybe I am sure; I think it has to do with self-publishing my work.  Also that I’ve been a nonconformist at heart since I was a kid.

Thing is, lately I’ll read these advice articles and think, ‘well, why can’t I do it that way?’  For example, I saw an article earlier this morning regarding a novel having too much plot.  I get where they’re coming from, don’t get me wrong; the example they used was bombastic and ridiculous (some litfic plot regarding way too many characters causing way too many plot twists and coincidences that even reality gave it the side-eye), and in that instance, it’s probably for the best that you back it up a bit and maybe narrow the focus.  My reaction, however, was this: well, how is it that apparently readers don’t like way too much plot, and yet we love reading doorstop novels from George RR Martin, Kate Elliott, Neal Stephenson, and so on?  How can I write the plot-heavy book and still make it readable and enjoyable?  The kind of doorstopper that makes readers go ‘damn, that’s some great world building!’  In other words, the kind of books I love to read.

That’s when it dawned on me: it’s not that the writer of the article is stifling creativity; they’re just trying to keep your novel’s highway from gridlocking.  If you’re going to write a doorstopper, just make damn sure it’s navigable.

 

Getting back to my bit about nonconformity, here’s an ironic admission: I’m also a pathetic conformist as well.  Let’s just say that even though I touted my individuality in my high school years – sometimes to annoying extremes – and tended to question authority when needed (again, usually in the form of “well, why can’t we…?”), I also found myself desperately trying to fit into the status quo at the same time.  I’m a proud self-contrarian in that respect.*

[* – A good example of my proud self-contrarianism:  Yes, I am aware of the irony of using a Psykosonik song in a blog entry about writing my sf trilogy, considering that one of the band’s principal songwriters was one Ted Beale, aka Vox Day.  I’m not a fan of his politics in the least, but I did love the Unlearn album when it came out in 1995, so I’m fine with keeping the two separate.]

 

With regards to my writing, I went through quite a few phases of trying to shape my novels into something that agents and publishers would enjoy.   The truth is out: one of the reasons it took me so long to self-release the Bridgetown Trilogy is that I spent a good number of years trying to figure out how to revise it so that it was more commercially acceptable to agents and publishers.  Suffice it to say, I never successfully figured out how to do it.  I didn’t want to give up on the Mendaihu Universe, I just wanted to make it marketable.

I could never figure out why nobody was biting, though — and that’s the downside to the form rejection letter.  No one is telling you why.  I understand the reason behind the process…most agencies and publishers are actually quite small in crew and literally can’t respond personally to thousands of submissions.  At the same time, though, it doesn’t help the writer one bit.  It’s like being trained at your workplace for a new system, and when you’re baffled and stuck and ask for clarification, the trainer responds with “Well, what do you think it does?”  My initial response to that kind of question is almost always “How the fuck should I know?  That’s why I’m asking you!”**   I get that they’re trying to make you think it through, but some need a frame of reference first before they can answer that question.  If I’m not doing it right, I want to know how I should be doing it to your specifications.  I’m a writer: asking that question of me provokes about 3,425 different responses.  I have no idea which one is the right one or which would bring me success.  I have nothing to base it on.***

[** – Yes, this has actually happened at one of my day jobs.]

[*** – I am aware that this is what writing groups and beta readers are for, but they’ve never quite worked for me.  They’re great for talking out ideas and suggestions and I love the camaraderie, but more often than not they end up doing little more than confirming problems and issues I’ve already noticed and hadn’t yet acted upon.  I’ve come to the conclusion that I just happen to work better solo and should trust my instinct more often.]

 

And the nonconformist in me, after so many years, finally decided that DIY seemed like a more viable and entertaining option.  The time was right, the field has been quite strong, and I’d already done my research on it.  This time I listened that rebel in me.

I’ve mentioned here before that music is an incredibly huge influence in my life, and I took that to heart this time out when I chose to rethink how I viewed publishing.  I’ve read so many music bios about punk bands scraping by on a meager pittance and a beat up van yet absolutely loving the lifestyle; I’ve read about their wonderfully creative ways of getting their singles out to radio stations and audiences.  There’s a reason why the image of a telephone pole covered with the bark of a thousand nightclub flyers is so iconic; that was punk’s social media of the time, to let all and sundry know that you were in town and were going to play at some seedy bar close by.

So this is what happened in 2015: I chose to unlearn the process of publication as I knew it.  I already understood it all too well…if I want to publish commercially, I already know what steps I need to take, and I think I have a bead on how I can make my lighter stories marketable.  What I had to do for my self-published work, though, was think like a nonconformist: what makes sense to me, first and foremost, and be consistent in that belief.  I taught myself to react to moments of weak prose and plot.  I learned to completely trust my creative instincts.  I taught myself the mathematics of creativity (thanks again to music), of being aware of what makes a pleasurable work.  And most importantly, I taught myself to ignore any self-doubt that popped up.  I’m proud of the creative things I can do; I love writing and drawing and playing music, always have since I was a kid, so it was about damn time I followed through with those long-held dreams and make them realities.

I won’t lie…sometimes the DIY route can be daunting.  It can be emotionally nerve-wracking.  It can also be expensive.  But I really do think unlearning the process of trying to be a commercial writer was one of the best moves I’d ever made.  I’ve never been happier and more excited about being a writer.

 

Physical Book Status: Almost There!

The trade edition flat, before a bit of back cover text tweaking
The CreateSpace trade edition flat, before a bit of back cover text tweaking.

[x-posted at GoodReads]

The physical book version of A Division of Souls is coming along, and let me tell you, formatting the text for physical consumption is a LOT different from ebook formatting.

Put it this way: With e-books, the text is a little more elastic. The book can be X number of pages long, but when the reader looks at it on their own hardware, that may change depending on a few things such as font style and size. While flipping pages, you may see “Page 3 of 500” three or four times before it finally ticks over to “Page 4.”

Physical books are different, and here’s why, especially if you plan on doing it DIY through something like CreateSpace: WYSIWYG. The text you format is the text you’re going to see on the printed page. It might be simplistic, in Times New Roman double-spaced and left-aligned with the page number in the top right corner, when you save the file, and that’s what will show up on the printed page.

Which is kinda not what you want in a print book.

You want the following:
–Page numbers on the outside of each page (left side for the left pages, right side for the right pages, natch), and starting at the right time
–Interesting and readable font and line spacing (I chose Garamond 12pt, 1.05-spaced and justified)
–Any text tweaking (size, shape, justification, etc) done correctly
–Any hyperlinks in the ebook taken out for the print version

…and so many more little fiddly things that can easily get forgotten.

This is why it’s taken me longer to get the physical book out. I’ve lost count how many times I’ve uploaded the file to the CreateSpace platform, only to find yet another formatting error that needs fixing.

So where am I now? Well, I’m currently awaiting a UPS box that should contain a few galley copies of the novel. Having that in my hands, aside from the excitement of it being MY FIRST PUBLISHED BOOK OMG, I’ll be red-penning it for any last minute fixes that I’ll need to make, if any. And only then will I finally hit that “Publish” button and it’ll be available to everyone.

So yeah, I’m getting there. Slowly but surely. 🙂

On Doing It DIY

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Courtesy of Etsy

Back when I first started taking my writing seriously — I mean, as in thinking “Hey, I kinda like doing this, I could see myself doing it professionally” and setting out a goal to actually finish a full novel, way back before I actually knew how to do it — was in the mid to late 80s when I was in my mid-teens.  Out of that came the Infamous War Book (basically a Red Dawn pastiche), which took me three years to finish, in between false starts, obsessive planning, revisions, homework, and hanging out with friends.  On the one hand it was kind of expected I’d be a writer, considering my dad was a local reporter and historian, and well known in the area; many adults would not have been surprised if I followed in his footsteps.  On the other hand, though, I was following a path I didn’t think any other kids my age would have followed.  I knew a handful of kids who wrote stories alongside me, but I think their interest was more on what many nowadays would consider the fanfic level.  A fun thing to do as a hobby, but their career paths lay elsewhere.

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Courtesy of Etsy

Around the same time, I’d discovered college radio (which I still go on about to this day, as you can tell from my other blog).  After years of listening to commercial radio and being fed a cross section of classic rock and pop hits, the college radio thing hit me like a revelation:  you don’t have to be commercial, you know.  I was completely drawn to the DIY aspect of it all; they weren’t exactly writing and recording music for the fame, they were writing and recording because they wanted to.  And I had a real respect for that.  It was a real inspiration on multiple levels for me, from my clothes to the way I thought and acted.  It also inspired my writing quite a bit — in the latter half of the IWN, you can really see a change to a much darker mood and style.  I may not have been the leather-and-mohawk punk; I was more the Morrissey, hiding in my bedroom with my books and my music and writing the most brilliant things.  I eventually grew out of the self-important lifestyle, but the thirst for creativity remained.

I was thinking about this the other day while listening to an 80’s-themed radio show (on a college radio station, natch).  In the late 80s I had a huge burst of creativity that lasted from about 1987 to when I graduated in 1989.  Having finished the IWN I quickly wrote a silly little screenplay (basically a John Hughes pastiche), taught myself how to play bass, started a band with a few friends and wrote many of the lyrics, started writing another novel and other small bits and pieces, and started writing a LOT of poetry.  I knew a lot of it was going to be crap, and I totally understood that if I was going to release any of it, it would need a hell of a lot of revision and rewrites.  But the most important thing was that I had a goal:  I was going to get these things out into the wild, one way or another.  My life’s career was going to be as a writer!  The major goal was to try to get my writing released by a major publisher, but barring that, I could always go indie.  I came to know about vanity publishers, small independents and print-on-demand, thanks to years of studying Writer’s Market and seeing all kinds of punk zines in record stores.

Courtesy Wikipedia
Courtesy Wikipedia

The decision to go DIY for the Mendaihu Universe stories was always there, it was just that I wanted to try my hand at the pros first.  One of the reasons for that was to learn and understand how it works on that end of the business.  I wanted to see what they accepted and how it went from manuscript to printed book.  I’d even submitted it to a small number of agents and publishers over the years.  But after finishing the trilogy and a few years of further revising and rewriting, I knew I was at the point that they were ready (or closer to that point than ever before), but did not feel that I wanted to spend even more years trying to sell it to an agent or a publisher.  It was high time to put them out there before I ended up over-revising and ruining them.  Going DIY meant that I was going to do a good chunk of the “backstage” work myself, and I was up for it.

I’m lucky in that this is a perfect time for it.  There are legitimate self-publishing companies out there like Smashwords and BookBaby and CreateSpace, who do all the technical bits and bobs while you focus on the creative end of things.  You can hire a cover artist (or buy a stock photo and fiddle with it on Photoshop if you have the ability and the inclination).  You can hire an editor.  You can even find a few authors you can hire to critique your work.  And with the help of social media and the internet, you can even give yourself a bit of promotion.  The only prerequisite is that you have an understanding of what you want and how you want to get there.

Not gonna lie, seeing this still makes me giddy.
Not gonna lie, seeing this still makes me giddy.

Every step so far for me has been DIY, from the story, to the editing (with the help of a few beta readers and a partial critique from a pro), to the cover, to the formatting and uploading to Smashwords, all the way up to this blog.  Hell, even my picture in the About the Author link here was done using my nice camera set on a timer and a slight touch-up on Photoshop.  The promotion will be a little trickier, because I’m still trying to find what works, but I’m taking the Indiana Jones approach on it (“I dunno, I’m just making it up as I go”) and remaining aware of any potential avenues that might pop up.  It’s definitely been an interesting couple of months, but I’m having a hell of a fun time with it.  I’m almost tempted to make this my primary avenue for my writing.

I’m certain that’s the alternageek in me saying that, reveling in the nonconformity of it all.