writer

Near Miss #17 (Or Why ‘Distractions’ Aren’t What’s Keeping You From Working)

This was originally posted on 12/11/10 on a different blog. I still love it.

Oh my gosh, guys. There is such an intensely strong correlation between lack of clarity and distracting myself with internets. I’ve started paying attention, and it is practically one-to-one. When I know (e.g.) the next thing that needs to happen in my story, I make it happen. When I’m not sure yet, I open a new browser window and check something. Anything.

It’s kind of blowing my mind. Every time I hit Ctrl-N on pure instinct, I stop myself for a moment and pay attention to how my story/planning/life is progressing. Every single time, it turns out there’s a question I’m too chicken to face. I’m never just bored. I’m not even distracted. (!) I’m scared of uncertainty. New rule? Brainstorm, don’t evade.

Is this just me? (Seriously. Leave a comment. I’m curious.)

Case in point. For an upcoming DWC episode starring Summer, I had a rather obscure planning note: ‘Near miss with Alex.’ I don’t even know what that means, much less how to do it. Suddenly the internet blossomed before me. But I fought it. Opened a blank document and, before sense could catch up to me, typed “Seventeen kinds of near miss with Alex:” and started a numbered list.

Rrrgh. Seventeen is an insane number of kinds of near misses. I ran out of ideas after number 3 (and checked 43folders). Then I ran out of ideas again after number 5 (and checked my e-mail). Then I ran out of ideas again after 7 and 8, which were both lame anyway. (I quote: “7. He asks her out but she’s not feelin’ it. 8. She asks him out but he’s not feelin’ it.”) Then a bookshelf fell over for number 9. Then I ran out of ideas again and checked Penny Arcade. Not kidding. I ran out of ideas after numbers 10, 12, 13, 15 and 16, and checked some website every single time.

Lesson: If you’re like me, you’re never “getting distracted.” You’re not sure what to do next, and you’re trained to dodge the question instead of answering it.

Incidentally, numbers 11, 14 and 17 were were worth something.  Side lesson: You don’t actually run out of ideas. Just keep punching your brain. Training yourself to dodge that painful moment of effort is very comfortable, very easy, and totally deadly.

Absolutely Critical Miscellany. Well, Miscellany, Anyway.

All right, guys. Not much new to report and I’m severely feeling the itch to get my actual word count up, so just a few quick news items and a mysterious noise today.

Readers! Only a couple days left to pre-order Kara Jorgensen’s The Winter Garden for $0.99. I ordered mine today. You can get yours here. Congrats, Kara!

Writers! Joe pointed me to a pretty cool-looking new writing tool at Novlr.org. I haven’t done much with it yet but I’ll be trying it out and will report back if I find new value in it. Or you can just try it yourself. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Night Vale Listeners! What was that noise? There. There it was again. That silent, brooding noise in the back of your mind, like a heart beating a little too slowly, like the sound of still, cold air. There! Did you hear it that time? No? Well. It’s probably nothing.

Brilliant Friends! New section of The Dream World Collective should be up to read for free later this week. A problematic offer of free beer. Simmering romantic complications. And Otto tries to gather some intel. Hilarity ensues. In the meantime, catch up here or start with Chapter 1.

Also? The Stone and the Song is still regularly selling copies! It’s been three weeks, people! I didn’t expect this sort of thing until I had a critical mass of at least 3 books out, maybe 5. Many thanks to everyone who’s buying, reading, sharing, and reviewing. You are making my days figuratively magical. Maybe even literally. It sort of depends on what ‘magical’ means.

Cheers!

—Ben

Secret PS – Yay! Hi, Ivy!

Milestone! My First (Sort Of) Negative Review!

Ok, so I’m probably weird to be excited about it, but The Stone and the Song just got its first 2-star review on Amazon, and I’m actually feeling kind of bubbly. Am I crazy? Here’s what I’m thinking:

1. It’s a review. Right now my big goal is to get 25+ Amazon reviews. While I obviously prefer good ones, every Stone and Song Cover 4 - High Resolutionreview adds weight and validity to the book’s presence on Amazon. Every review is a visible indicator to every future reader ever that someone read it and cared enough to talk about it. And, while it’s probably a bit of a fallacy, I think every review adds to the invisible implied crowd of many other readers who didn’t review it.

2. It’s a rite of passage. Since I’m breaking into the publishing world after self-publishing became really viable, I have pretty minimal experience of getting rejection letters. My plan back in the day was to collect them and set goals to reach a certain number. I never got that chance, so a negative review is one small way to join the universal brotherhood of authors in facing rejection graciously. (My writer character Zen, in the meantime, does collect his rejection letters, and writes thank-you notes for them along with his next submission.)

3. It adds legitimacy. Because seriously, as good as it is to have all 4- and 5-star reviews, until you hit some pretty serious numbers that just looks like you got a bunch of friends to say nice things about you, even if that’s not at all the case. Or, as it may be, only sort of the case.

4. My rating can take it. If most of my reviews were negative, it would be getting pretty hard to take around now. But Stone & Song had a 4.8 rating before this and has a 4.5 now. For a minor, early work, I’ll really be satisfied with anything above a 3.5. Well, ok, anything above a 4.0. But still. I admit I’m a little sad this took the visual down from 5 stars to 4 1/2, but xkcd is a comfort in times like this.

5. For a negative review, it’s pretty positive. The main thrust of the review is something like, “Seems like he’s trying to do something interesting here, but I didn’t really get it.” For a bad review, that’s not half bad. If that’s the worst thing a reader sees when she checks the negative reviews, I’m in good shape. Especially in the context of the other reviews which, if I may paraphrase, say something like, “He’s doing something really interesting here!”

In short, many thanks to Voracious Reader for taking the time to read my story and leave a thoughtful review, and thank you to the (so far) 10 other reviewers for your thrillingly kind words. I deeply appreciate it.

Cheers!

—Ben

PS – If you haven’t read The Stone and the Song yet, you can get it here. If you have read it, it would make my day (and help other readers) if you add your review: Amazon | Goodreads. Thanks!

Origami Lunchbox: Butt-Kicking Thoughts on Life, Fear, and Creative Work

Hey everyone! It’s been a crazy day, so this will be quick. My friend, sounding board, and unofficial publicist Joe recently launched a very stylish site that I think you’ll enjoy. It’s called Origami Lunchbox and it’s—well, think inspiration the way it should be. Not fluffy thoughts about imagining success and feeling good, but honest, no-nonsense, and surprisingly vulnerable advice and reflections to get you pointed in the right direction again. If you’re an idea person or do creative work, check it out.

OrigamiLunchbox

Sometimes you need a kick in the butt, sometimes you just need a reminder that others are in this with you. Origami Lunchbox will give you both.

Cheers!

—Ben

Stylish Games for Font Geeks and Budding Designers

Self-publishing has vastly sharpened my focus on typography, layout, and other elements of visual design. Designing your own book covers is, by all accounts, a don’t-try-this-at-home endeavor. With sober self-evaluation and much fear and trembling, I’ve started designing my own anyway. Method of Action was (and continues to be) a huge help in evaluating and honing my design skills.

Test and refine your eye for color, kerning skills, font design, and more with these quick yet surprisingly absorbing games. If you’re anything like as geeky as me, you’ll have a great time.

Method.ac

Snow Day! Commence the Hubris!

Baltimore is partway through the process of receiving somewhere in the area of a foot of snow, and I got a half day off of work! Sort of a test run of the full-time writing life. Can I actually be productive with large chunks of free time?

Phase 1 says yes. Bill and I got together and sketched out season 1 of Hubris Towers. Overall arc, eight episode summaries, and hooks for the future. And while I can’t give too much away yet, it’s killer. I don’t remember the last time I’ve laughed so much. I seriously cannot wait to start getting this series out.

Phase 2 is a little iffier. Once he went home I had about 45 minutes to write more words on Frobisher. I’ve written this blog post and watched some Comedy Central clips. Not a great sign, because now I have to go be responsible. Still, day’s not over yet. And the snow’s not either.

Snow day tomorrow? Please?

In the meantime, here’s a neat article about a Chrome Extension that lets you see the way your writing in a Google Doc progressed, one keystroke at a time: http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/watch-me-write-this-article/

Cheers!

—Ben

February in Review + March Goals

Some pretty cool writers I follow are writing month-end reviews and goals. It’s a great idea. I might make a practice of it, too. Certainly last month was great and this month is exciting, so I’m going to try it out today.

February Accomplishments

  1. I released my first story,The Stone and the Song, on Amazon. Lots of work, but a smashing success!
  2. Released 2 more sections of The Dream World Collective.
  3. Launched my mailing list and got 2-3x industry average open and click rates. Because my people are awesome. Sign up here for friendly notes and mysterious missions.
  4. Wrote more of The Unaccountable Death of Derelict Frobisher. Uncharacteristically, I’m not sure how much.
  5. Recorded about half of the audiobook version of The Stone and the Song.
  6. Established rough concept for Hubris Towers, an upcoming serial fiction collaboration, with Bill.
  7. Wrote a blog post every week day.

March Goals

  1. The Unaccountable Death of Derelict Frobisher – Current word count: 96,642
    • Minimum: Write 12,000 words (avg. 3,000/wk)
    • Target: Write 22,000 words (avg. 5,000/wk)
    • Stretch: Round it up and hit 120,000 words total. (That’s my projected total word count! Could finish the rough draft this month! That’s crazy!)
  2. The Dream World Collective
    • Minimum: Release 2 sections on Patreon
    • Target: Release 3 sections and overview remaining rewrites needed before launch
    • Stretch: Release 4 sections and overview
  3. The Stone and the Song
    • Minimum: Keep encouraging readers to leave reviews
    • Target: Release paperback
    • Stretch: Release paperback and audiobook
  4. Hubris Towers
    • Minimum: Sketch characters, setting, and rough arc for Season 1
    • Target: Above plus sketch concept for each episode in Season 1
    • Stretch: Above plus write partial episode to test process and develop speed projections
  5. Write a blog post every week day.

Oh, man. This is such an exciting time! Let me know in comments or at byfaroe at gmail dot com if you’re interested in beta reading, collaborating, or chatting about the art and business of writing. I love this stuff and I love finding other writers who are serious about making it a career and/or lifestyle.

Cheers!

—Ben

I’m On Restriction (But It Did Get Me Writing)

I’ve now spent two days this week meaning to write 1,000 words or more and writing none instead. I mean, I wrote a lot of words on blog posts and marketing stuff and posting story chunks after final edits and all, but that doesn’t count. I mean real words, new word count on novels in progress.

Now that all of the new release hullabaloo is over, I’m really feeling an urgency to get back to regularly producing lots of word count. I’m more excited than ever about the great stories I have in store, and while marketing and publishing are key parts of the work, and I find them rather fun, my single top metric for success these days is new word count.

More than that, I want to become the sort of person I can trust to hit word count goals like a clock, absolutely reliable regardless of circumstances. It’s going to be a while before I can go full-time with my writing, but in setting up milestones or benchmarks that will help me decide when it’s time, I’m beginning to formulate a new one in terms of reliable writing streak, something like “Can’t quit the day job until I’ve logged six months of 5,000 words each week without exceptions.”

Marketing and publishing and “research” and fun ideas and future planning will all still exist when I’m writing full-time, and there will be a lot less of the artificial structure and boundaries that force me to write fast in rare little bits when I can, so it’s absolutely critical to get the patterns of reliable production firmly embedded now. Counterintuitively, it may actually be easier at this stage, when my entire livelihood isn’t resting on it and I have long patches of my day taken up with other occupying pursuits so ideas can simmer and develop in the background for my rare patches of writing. Or maybe not. We’ll see.

But anyway, in the meantime I do need to write, and my target is 5,000 draft words per week, and I dropped the ball the last two days, so for today I put myself on restriction: no blogging or marketing work until I’d written 250 words. Because for me it’s really mostly about getting started. I didn’t finish those 250 until halfway through the day even so, but the last 130 were in a single 3-minute burst. Let’s see if I can catch up for the week, or at least hit my thousand for today. I’ll report back tomorrow.

Do you guys have any tricks for getting writing (meaning new actual story material) when there’s other stuff vying for your attention?

Cheers!

—Ben

Author, Geek, Game-Maker

I’ve got a ton to work on today, so I’ll try to be quick, but I wanted to get you guys in on some fun ideas I’m playing around with. I love the idea of gamification—structuring regular pursuits into well-designed incentive structures with quick feedback and a sense of fun and/or competition to induce a state of flow.

I’ve been playing around with ideas for a long-running game-like system for my readers and fans and fellow writers. On the idea side, here are a couple possibilities I’m throwing around:

  • The Obvious Baseline: Players can earn points or tokens or whatever for buying and reading books, spreading the word on social media or otherwise, becoming patrons, etc. These tokens let them level up, get badges, place on leaderboards, get fun prizes, upgrade their virtual flying fortresses, or whatever.
  • The Fun Co-Op Element: Large-scale cooperative goals that let players band together to achieve milestones that will unlock new content, accelerate book launch dates, or trigger fun events or prizes for everyone.
  • The Writers’ Guild: Throw in some challenges for fellow writers. Let people earn tokens for building word count, commenting on each other’s work, publishing books, etc. Set up competitions or gentlemen’s bets where authors can go head to head or try to meet a challenging goal with tokens at stake.
  • The Monte Carlo: Set up a pretend casino and/or racetrack where players can bet their tokens on games of skill and chance whose outcomes depend on story elements or writing progress. Post odds on the outcomes of cliffhangers, the number of appearances a character will make in the next episode, or which author/project will increase most in word count.
  • The Wall Street: Let players invest their tokens in different stories or projects and give dividends as word count increases, sales rank improves, or specific milestones are reached. I find this one extra-interesting because if we set it up right it could actually start guiding production and/or predicting success.
  • The Grand Adventure: Create a series whose actual storyline depends on the game. Players who earn more tokens have more sway over the characters’ decisions and/or the success or resources of different factions or characters in the story.

On the implementation side, I was playing around today and discovered that you can set up a Google form to take information in, feed it to an online spreadsheet, have the spreadsheet make any relevant calculations or transformations, and then publish the relevant parts of the spreadsheet to the web with automatic updates.

Throwing in Google Fusion tables opens up even more powerful options. If I continue I will geek out and bore everybody to death, so I’ll leave it at that for now. Point is, that’s enough to get a basic setup for a fairly scalable interactive system with minimal setup and decent capabilities. I can work with that.

What do you think? Does this sort of thing interest you at all? If so, what sort of game would you find most engaging? Badges are fun, but I think it would be really cool to give it some real-world significance and (ideally) even take it beyond just me and my books. Any ideas?

Cheers!

—Ben

Book Launch: Detailed Breakdown + Debrief

Kara Jorgensen, author of The Earl of Brass and The Winter Garden, asked about how I marketed The Stone and the Song during its recent launch. (For those just joining, this was my debut launch and hit the top 10k in Amazon paid rankings, selling nearly 100 copies in the first ten days with no budget and no pre-existing mailing list.)

My reply got way too long for comments, and I’ve been wanting to share this anyway in case it’s helpful to any other authors out there, so here it is.

Results

  • Nearly 100 sales in first 10 days
  • 4 days on the Top 20 Amazon Best Seller list in Fairy Tales
  • Broke the top 10k in Amazon paid rankings
  • Multiple five-star reviews on Amazon within first few days of release. (It appears a couple have since disappeared. I’m looking into this.)

Wave 1: The Big Facebook Bonanza

For this launch the announcements went in two waves. I announced the pre-order on Facebook, and a bunch of friends were really excited and shared the announcements and/or made announcements of their own. I probably had around 10-12 friends who shared/announced at least once, including 3-5 friends who went crazy and put it up once or twice a day or more for the first few days.

The Stone and the Song, coming Feb 21, 2015 (!)

I’ve lived in multiple cities and have always been working to become a professional author, so I had a pretty wide base of friends excited for me. I think the great cover and professional presentation helped push a lot of people into taking the book seriously and being genuinely intrigued or excited about it, not just casually happy for me, and the pre-order discount (99 cents) made it pretty low-commitment.

So people started ordering, which gave me an early surge in rankings and Hot New Releases, and I shared screenshots (on FB) to keep the excitement going and help legitimize the book as a serious endeavor, not just a “cool thing my friend did.” Then my crazy-cool friends shared those, etc. This first burst lasted 2-3 days, during which I got 50-60 pre-orders.

Wave 2: Building A Mailing List

A few days later, I launched my mailing list (more details here) with a broadcast to 420+ old friends and acquaintances. Of these about 60 bounced, and of the rest about half opened the note and 30-40 signed up for my mailing list. During the day or two after that email my total pre-orders went a little above 80, with a few more trickling in since then. By then I’d fallen far off in rankings, but this second The Stone & the Song hits Amazon Hot New Releases!surge pushed me back up into the Top 12k-15k in Amazon Paid (and top 15-25 in Fairy Tales, and Hot New Releases again) for a couple days.

Note: I’m not keeping the huge list. I may send one reminder, but otherwise I’m only emailing the people who actually opted in.

I was also fairly shameless about telling relevant friends and coworkers about my book, but (hopefully) without being too weird about it. It’s tricky riding the line between helping people find it if they’d be interested but not making them feel obligated or awkward if they’re not. Main thing there is to think from their perspective. I try not to spew my announcements to everyone, but to think about who might genuinely enjoy what I’ve got and let them know it exists.

Initial Follow-Up

My real goal from this launch is to get 25 Amazon reviews by March 7, two weeks after release. With over 85 sales, a ghost army of amazing supporters appearing from nowhere, and consistent messaging that this is the best way for readers to help me, I think that’s realistic. These reviews will harness the goodwill and momentum of the launch and put it in a lasting form that (I hope) will drive Amazon to start putting the book in also-bought lists and recommendation emails and convince new readers to buy it.

I contacted my shiny new mailing list with a last-chance reminder on the final day of pre-orders. Going forward I’m going to send an intro email describing some exciting upcoming projects and ideas, but mostly the goal is to figure out cool new ways to delight my list. I’ve got them preliminarily self-segmented into readers, writers, adventurers, enigmas, etc., along with asking who’s interested in what (updates, collaboration, friendly notes, experiments), and my philosophy is that the list is more for them than for me. More to come on that. Sign up here if you’re interested in joining in.

The book itself has an unobtrusive sign-up link on the copyright page and some pretty carefully-thought-out calls to action in the back, inviting people to sign up for my mailing list, support me on Patreon, or email me. It also has a sample of my next novel followed by links to where you can read it free for now and a reminder to sign up for the mailing list. The goal is to find those who liked my story enough to read it to the end, give them a taste of what else is available, provide an overabundance of fun and value, and get a way to stay in touch. I’m excited to see how this develops over the next couple weeks as my 80+ initial buyers get time to read and finish the story.

Lessons Learned

This was a test run and I’ve learned a lot. Knowing what I know now, I would have done it a little differently.

1. I’d just release directly (with a limited-time discount) instead of making a pre-order. I could have had readers leaving reviews on Amazon or sharing their thoughts about the story on social media throughout the launch week rather than just going on hearsay and product description.

2. I’d have been ready to send out the email as soon as momentum started dying down. I was still figuring out mailing lists and refining my contact list, and ended up having about a 2-3 day delay between the two big surges, and my sales rank dipped to 100k (and even, briefly, close to 200k). I think if I’d timed it better I could have had a sustained 10-20 sales/day for 5-6 days in a row. I don’t have details, but I get the impression that’s getting close to where Amazon’s algorithms would start picking it up a little more seriously and it might have started getting some organic sales and building on itself a bit.

3. I’d have contrived a way to keep up the engagement on FB through the day. I have a day job (and no smart phone) so wasn’t able to respond to peoples’ shares, encouragement, questions, etc. during the day. My bitlinks and my friends who were watching corroborrated that the action fell off around 11am. My wife and I have since realized that she can help keep things going from home while I’m at work :]

4. I’d have proofread a little more carefully. I ended up getting a little impatient and loading the final compile at 2am a day or two before deadline. It turned out there were still a few typos. Luckily I was able to fix some of these early on and upload the fix during the pre-order period. A hard lesson was that Amazon freezes the design 2-3 days before launch. I had a couple final adjustments to the manuscript that unfortunately didn’t make it to the pre-order customers even though I uploaded the changed version within minutes after Amazon unfroze the book. Not critical, and they can set their accounts to get the updated version, but it bothered the perfectionist in me.

5. I wish I had figured out a way to get a list of people who bought the book. It would make it really easy to express gratitude, remind people to leave reviews, check for interest in future releases, notify buyers about the changes in 4 above, etc. Anybody have a good way to do this?

It was all a ton of work and a ton of fun. I’m trying to mostly put it behind me and get back to work on actual writing now. This has more than ever driven home for me how good it will be to have a catalog of other books I can direct eager parties to.

Any ideas on things I could have done better? Questions or experiences of your own you’d like to share? Leave a comment! I’d love to hear from you.

Cheers!

—Ben