I wish I knew how we met

September 29, 2014 — Leave a comment


Friday I listed my first ebook (300 Miles to Galveston) for free on Amazon. I’ve done this many times since it was published in December 2012. It’s the key reason I’m exclusive to Amazon; for five days out of every three months, I can offer my ebooks for free, to build readership.

Normally 50-100 people grab one of my free offerings, and then a handful buy the sequels. I’m content if I average selling a book a day, over the course of the month. I’m a new writer with no advertising, and I’m just trying to stay relevant.

Friday, September 26, during a one-day giveaway, there were 2,455 downloads.

Over the weekend, 81 people bought one of the sequels. I’ve never sold that many in a weekend.

At the peak, I was #55 — not in some obscure science fiction/post-apocalyptic sub-category, but across all of Amazon’s ebooks.

Of course, I’m thrilled… but I have no idea why this happened.

I didn’t put out an advertisement. I don’t have thousands of followers on this blog. My Google notification bot didn’t tell me of any new references to me or my books on some popular bookclub website.

So, thank you, new readers, for giving my work a look, and thanks especially to those who invested in a second book.

I just wish I knew how we met. :)


I have three dead friends on Facebook.

Statistically, this is not unusual. I’m middle-aged and have over 300 friends. A 1% death rate is pretty low.

My dead friend’s widows have maintained their Facebook pages as memorials. For one friend who died in a cycling accident, his page has become a site to promote driver awareness. For another friend who was a pastor, issues of faith are promoted. Another friend’s page is simply a collection of “miss you, man” posts.

At birthdays and anniversaries, I see updates. That’s six times a year, at a minimum, that I’m reminded of these three guys. This is more often than I’m reminded of my own father, who died before Facebook existed. I make a point to memorialize him on his birthday, in some way. When I lived in New York, I went to a Catholic church and lit a candle for him. When I was in California, I’d take a moment and say prayer of thanks. When I was in East Texas, I’d visit his grave and catch him up on what had been going on in my life.

We owe the people who love us a debt. I know that is not a popular thing to say. It runs counter to every notion of love and freedom that’s been promoted in America since the 1970s. I still believe it’s true. I’m also pickier about the notion of “love” than most people are, today. People who’ve loved you have sacrificed something for you. They have been there for you in your dark times, have forgiven you your mistakes, and have made an effort to remain part of your life. Mostly, they appreciate you for who you are, without expectations. This does not apply to over 300 people on Facebook. In my case, it applies to maybe 20 people outside my family — and some of them don’t use social media.

So why have I remained on Facebook?

I believe it’s because I’ve been applying the loyalty I owe true friends to everyone I know.

This is not a clever trick of Facebook. It’s human nature. Facebook just capitalizes on it.

On an emotional level, it can be hard for me to categorize people, even when Facebook allows me to do exactly that. You’re either a friend or you’re not. I don’t have a series of filters in my head that instantly sorts people into Family, Close Friends, Acquaintances, Dallas-area Friends, Co-workers, Book Club Members, and Fans of ELO. I either like you or I don’t. It’s a very simple list. But that way of thinking doesn’t work for 300 people. We’re not designed to manage that many relationships. Computers are, but not people.

On Facebook, if you have more than 20 friends, you have three options:

First option, sort people out. Otherwise your feed will be a mile long, and your conservative/liberal/religious/atheist friends will flame each other on your posts. (Maybe all your friends line up politically and religiously, but mine don’t.) The only other event I know of in life, where everyone who knows you can show up, is your funeral. There are two advantages to that situation: Everyone will try to be polite, and you don’t have to be there.

Second option, don’t sort people. Then, you either post nothing controversial (kid pics, pet pics, food porn), or say whatever you like and get unfollowed or unfriended by a lot of people. This option is fine for the confident and insensitive.

This is what leads me to the third option: Quit.

It’s not the solution for everyone. I don’t think Facebook is evil, or that people who use it are stupid. I think it’s bad for me. Those two words — for me — are important when talking about personal values.

What’s bad about Facebook, for me?

It leads to me comparing my life to my friends, and feeling bad when it comes up short.

It encourages me to promote a sanitized and idealized version of my life to earn other’s approval. That in itself isn’t bad — it’s good to have social skills, and part of that is keeping some things private — but in my case, it makes me want to be something I’m not.

I feel anxious when I post something which I think is sweet or funny or cool, and there aren’t as many Likes as I expected. That’s fine for a professional writer trying to get feedback on his work, but for a human being sharing himself, it’s awful.

There’s probably more to it than that. I’m not a perfectly self-aware person. What I can say is that I’ve been happier, less anxious, and less distracted since deactivating my account a week ago.

What I’ve been doing instead is uploading my photos to a Shutterfly account. Once a month, I plan to order some prints. I’ll share them with the people who are in them, and build traditional photo albums at home. That’s as close to the old-school film development experience as I can get today — a little cheaper, since I can choose which images to order, rather than paying $20 to develop an entire roll and having only two or three good photos in the stack.

Each month, I’ll add to a photo diary of my karate class, shooting pool with my family, and finding interesting things on long walks. I hope I can look over that in a few months and say, “Hey, that’s a pretty good life.”

Isn’t that the thumbs-up that matters most?

When I started this self-publishing thing, my goal was to write one book a year. I thought that was enough to be a challenge, but not so much that I’d give up.

After finishing my first novel in 2012 — and at 40,000 words it’s barely a novel in length — I found writing the next one even more fun. The second novel (2013) turned out to be 60,000 words long, or about 300 pages. The third novella (2014) turned out short, only 20,000 words, about 100 pages. I went over it several times, and saw places where I could expand it, but I simply didn’t want to. I realize now that what I was doing was ending the tale like a Bible story — short, thoughtful, and not completely satisfying (read the Book of Job and you’ll see what I mean). Many readers enjoyed it, and I’m grateful for that. Some were irritated, and I understand why — but it’s not going to make me change it. There’s a holistic spirit to any work, and I don’t want to inject a bunch of steroids to beef it up. It is what it is. 

I hope to publish my next novel at Christmas this year. It’s a different story, not a continuation of The Displacement Trilogy, not even in the same genre, really. My first books are hard science fiction — I tried to come up with a rational, credible explanation for everything that the invaders are capable (and incapable) of doing. My next book is a work of supernatural horror, and I’m finding it fun, but keenly challenging, because I’m writing the story from the creature’s perspective — and I’m worried that it will be hard for readers to sympathize with him. He does awful things. The only difference between the protagonist and antagonist is, the antagonist does even worse things.

My hope is that readers can sympathize with his struggle, because what he does is a form of addiction — something many of us can identify with, either personally or through people we love. If you’ve had a spouse or parent or friend who’s been warped by addiction, I think the story will resonate. People can do awful things, yet still be loved, and their redemption still hoped for — even if they’re 99% likely to fail again. 

I think for a certain hard-line sort of reader, however, this won’t work. Cade is bad, and yes, Dani is worse, but they’re both detestable. Can you enjoy spending 300 pages with them? I don’t know. It’ll be fun to find out.

What I’ve enjoyed most of all about this whole self-publishing thing is this: I can write whatever I like and see if it sticks. I can turn the traditional zombie story on its head and talk about the joys and disappointments of religion, which is not something I see an acquisitions editor going “Oh boy, sign me up for that!” — and yet several readers have said, “I don’t normally like zombie books, but I liked this.” That’s very satisfying.

Now I’m writing about creatures who feed on people to live, and hate themselves for it. Maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t, but damn, it’s fun to try.

Along those lines, a recent article in the Guardian, You can try to be the next Hemingway — for $6,000, is a misinformed, propagandist piece of crap. My only investment in my writing has been sweat. I have friends (smart people, heavy readers, English teachers) who review my manuscripts, and I paid $24 for the ebook and paperback cover of my trilogy. I didn’t have to buy an ISBN; Amazon and CreateSpace give those for free.

Sure, it’d be great to have professional editors and high-end book cover designers, and some day I may invest in that — but that’s not mandatory to publish a good book. What’s mandatory? You need to be a good writer. You can’t buy your way into that.

The rest of it is support work, which can be attacked in ways that don’t cost thousands of dollars. If I had invested $6,000 in my first book, I would have lost $3,000, and I would have given up. That, I think, is the real goal of this article — defending the old way of publishing, which offers a 1% chance of success and 12.5% royalty. 

I say, do your best work, put it out there, and see what happens. Don’t let the obstacle-throwers talk you out of it. If it’s something you truly have a passion for, you need to do it. If you fail, so what? Most books fail. Try again. Nobody’s going to die on the operating table because your novel had a plot hole.

As Kurt Vonnegut said, “Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake.” Don’t let the professionals take that away from you. (And if you become one of them, remember this, and don’t turn into an ass.)