Tag Archives: serial

Math, Writing, and the Great Big Why

I’ve been putting in a lot of extra hours recently to get things together for the publication of Bearers of Bad News this Saturday, and in doing so I’ve had to think a lot about why I do what I do, and what I hope for it to become. I certainly didn’t start writing for the money. Protip to those thinking about going into writing for the money: you’re doing it wrong. For a more hilarious take on that, see the number one item on the list I link to just about every third post: Cracked’s How to Become An Author in 5 Incredibly Difficult Steps.

I did, however, have actual monetary goals when I decided to really put myself out there. Of course I want to be a mega-millionaire, but I also had a few concrete goals when I started publishing serial fiction. The number one goal was that publishing my works shouldn’t cost me money (My wife supports this goal). I’m not talking about time. I love writing; I’d do it for free – and in fact I am doing it for less than that right now. I have sales that I’m proud of, but they aren’t greater than the price of five covers (three for TWDY, two for Joyriders) and the cost of this site, this WordPress theme, and a handful of programs that I like to use as I write. I had also seen this post by Dean Wesley Smith on math and making money writing before. Suffice to say, the man doesn’t believe in selling your work for $0.99. I agreed with him, but only for full length novels. There is no way I’d sell City of Magi for a buck – but that took three years to write. Each issue of TWDY only takes about a month and a half… but… it’s really more than that.

TWDY has averaged about 35K words an issue, which is about a third of an average adult (non-YA) novel. I write something on the order of 1000 words an hour, usually one hour a day in the mornings. So that’s something like thirty hours of my time writing. It takes almost as long to edit it as it does to write, not to mention the crit input of several of my wise readers, the editor I’m trying out to save me time on the copy editing… and I think DWS might be on to something. Something that’s relevant even for me.

Re-reading DWS’s post made me really ask myself: do I believe in what I’m writing? Is it worth someone’s money, even a little bit? I absolutely believe that. But there’s another question – is the serial format worth more than a dollar? These aren’t short stories and they aren’t chapters of a book. They are individual issues, each with their own story belonging to a greater arc. I had to wonder if I would buy episodes of a television show I liked and couldn’t get for free on TV. I think I would – but I’d pay more for the hour-longs than I would for the half-hours. It just feels right. Well, TWDY is about 100 pages an “episode.” I’d pay probably two or three dollars for that.

Well, it just so happens that $2.99 is the magic price point at which all online retailers decide the author can have a big-boy cut of his sales. The magic range on almost all retailers is between $2.99 and $9.99. If you hit that, you can get something like 70% of sales. Outside that range, you get in the neighborhood of 35%. That makes the choice between two and three easy enough. Then comes the $64000 question. Would I buy it at three bucks?

My Xoom (and yes, I have a Xoom… I was an early adopter that got burned) isn’t overflowing with serial fiction, so I don’t have a guide to go by or any evidence as to what the answer to that question is. I believe the answer is yes. At a publication rate of one every month and a half to two months, three bucks a pop, quick (but not too quick) fiction, well-formatted and easy to read… I think so. The proof will be in the pudding, though, as I’m going to go out and do it.

As of September 24, Shelter From the Storm will be priced at $2.99, along with Bearers of Bad News (which hits the e-Stands that day). I will, however, be offering discount coupons for a limited time to get them to commenters on this page – provided everything works with Smashwords coupons. I love hearing from people reading the words I toss out there into the electronic ether on a regular basis, so if you’d like a coupon (and it’s before October 15), leave a comment and I’ll email you a coupon to pick up a copy of Shelter for the original price of $0.99.

I’m both excited and terrified about the change. This is the sound of me really believing in my work. I have evidence that it’s worth believing in, and I think you’ll feel the same way. Enjoy a brand new issue of Those Who Die Young this weekend. It might just blow your mind.





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Argumentum – Previously, on Boston Legal…

Besides giving a shout out to one of my all-time favorite TV shows, I actually have a point, talking about this now. In particular, I need to talk about it before September 24th. That’s because it is (in theory) the first thing someone might read of TWDY.

I went on and on months ago about the nuances of writing a work of serial fiction rather than a book. The truth is, I’m making this up as I go along. That will continue to be the case until serial fiction writing is a class taught in the 10th grade. That being said, I constantly remind myself as I’m getting each issue ready that I’m comparing TWDY to a TV show. In every episode of Boston Legal, they didn’t take ten minutes at the beginning to re-introduce Alan Shore and Denny Crane. You just knew them – or you didn’t. A new viewer would have to get to know them fresh. They also didn’t re-hash the entire plot of the show going back to the first episode. They would have a quick scene at the beginning with a voiceover, “Previously, on Boston Legal…” and they would show you the crucial details relevant to the episode you were watching. In short, they were giving you the Argumentum.

Quoting the free dictionary: "Argument – a summary or short statement of the plot or subject of a literary work.” I’ve been told by the nice people over at the Latin forums that Argumentum is the right way to describe this same concept in Latin, and as the language of the people of Ratio is basically Latin (note: I’m hardly the first person to make up a pseudo-magical language by “just using Latin”), I thought it was appropriate to title my “previously, on Those Who Die Young…” section Argumentum. It also goes well with “Dramatis Personnae,” which is more familiar as many plays and novels have adopted that Latin title as the section containing just a list of the characters (literally translated, it means “the people of the drama”).

I honestly have no idea whether or not this will work, because I’ve never really read something like this before. I am determined, however, to do everything in my power to make Bearers of Bad News theoretically independent of Shelter From the Storm. You could enjoy Bearers even if you haven’t read Shelter, but reading Shelter absolutely makes Bearers better. I’m aiming for that same balance found in TV shows. You don’t have to see the episode where Alan and Denny, both older, single, successful lawyers, start having sleepovers like children because they’re fun just to enjoy their back-and-forth, but it makes every joke that much funnier if you have. It also makes the episode where Denny saves Alan’s life that much more powerful if you have also seen the one where they are sleeping in a cabin in the woods in British Columbia, and Denny mumbles “Denny Crane” right before he farts loudly. Some things you just have to be there for.

If I really do it right, someone who picks up Bearers of Bad News will feel compelled to go back and get Shelter From the Storm so he can see how it all went down.

Denny Crane.

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Work and Homework

August 30, 2011 10:31 am by MRM in serial, Writing

Ugh. Homework. Even students who are excited about class hate homework every now and then, and I’m groaning because it’s time for me to get to it. I’ve written before about the “joy” of editing in the Iterative Process. Right now it’s time to get the Bearers of Bad News ready to roll out on September 24th – it’s been complete for a while, but I need to tighten it up. I need to make sure the Argumentum et Dramatis Personnae section is ready, and I need to update pictures, previews, and God knows what else. Sadly, it feels like homework.

Issue 3 (as of yet untitled) is near completion, and it’s just so much more fun to plow ahead than it is to fix up the places you’ve already been. It’s the contrast of work versus homework, and every writer needs to do it. OSC told me that the only living draft is the first draft, and I do understand what he’s getting at. I’m not going to rewrite the whole thing. I do need to fix up inconsistencies, though, make sure the plot leads where I want it to go, and make sure that my characters are developing as I want them to be. One of the advantages of only being one issue ahead of where I’m publishing is that I have a much lower chance of introducing a “logical bug” by making a substantive change. If there are seventy chapters and I change something in chapter 2, there is absolutely no chance I can remember every time in those seventy chapters where that particular fact becomes important. If I make a change in Issue 2 while writing Issue 3, it’s easy enough to fix.

I’ll chalk that up as one of the few easy parts about writing serial fiction. It’s still a learning process for me, and I’m hoping that it doesn’t feel too chopped up. I want this to play out like a good television series, with each issue having its own story arc that has closure at the end, while leading naturally into what comes next. My hope is that someone could pick up Bearers of Bad News and enjoy it without having read Shelter From the Storm. That’s the point of the Argumentum section – it’s similar to a “Previously, on Boston Legal…” segment just before the episode begins.

Besides just TWDY, I’m editing my Magi Rebellion short story before I start shopping that around, and September is the month that I’m going to go back to City of Magi to prep it for submission. It should be an exciting time. I’m also participating in the Platform Building Campaign, so I don’t plan on sleeping a lot. Later this week I hope to post a primer on the social networking bonanza of marketing my work, the steps I like, the steps I don’t, and all the craziness that goes into an online presence, but we’ll see how that goes. Right now, I’ve got (paying) work to do, and after that… ugh… homework.

As I leave – some words I’ve had imprinted on my brain for the past few months (and quoted before):

Learning to edit is, quite simply, learning to hate yourself word by word.

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Deadlines, plot, and action

July 18, 2011 11:13 am by MRM in Uncategorized

Epublishing is a funny game. At the moment I have a certain amount of freedom in my "deadlines." I consider my web site as being in beta, although it is certainly available for all to read. Without anything in the market, though, I can safely assume that changes aren’t going to be noticed. My original slide said that Shelter From the Storm would be out on July 14th. As you may have noticed, it now reads August 2nd. I expect to actually meet this one.

It’s a bit terrifying to realize that once it’s out there, I’ll actually have to stick to it. People might even care. If I do my publicity right, people will really care.

So why did I change? My target for what’s important in a serial changed. I was okay with the pace of the story. It was roughly equivalent to the pace of my novel, and in many ways was a fun and action-filled introduction to my characters. The problem was that in that first issue, the big plot of the story didn’t get advanced very much. You met people. Stuff happened. It was interesting. But I realized that the ending of just that section wasn’t particularly satisfying. You didn’t get to see the really big plot point move forward. It happened about 7000 words later.

The solution, of course, is that I needed to move those 7000 words into the first story. Stuff the reader needs to see now happens in that part of the story. And that’s what I’ve decided is a key to serial fiction. Every single part absolutely needs to have a portion of the central plot of the whole story. Just because a section is interesting, funny, or action packed isn’t enough. It needs to move the story forward. This is the difference between chapters in a book and issues in a serial. Chapters in a book should move the plot forward as well, but you have more time to expand upon your characters. You can be forgiven for showing this really interesting part that truly defines the protagonist because the plot-moving happens only a few pages later. If something happens in the next issue of TWDY, the reader might decide that it isn’t worth buying and never find out. With a book, you have that same reader “captured,” in that she already has the whole thing. You’re not counting on her to keep coming back to the well.

You also need to treat your readers differently. I’m not just chopping up a book and selling the chapters the at a time to make more money. Each issue has its own arc, tells its own story, and could (in theory) stand on its own. A serial has the added advantage of being able to change directions mid-stream. Reader feedback could very well change the outcome – I don’t know how it ends.

That’s the big one. I know the future of the tale, but nothing is written in stone. A hundred comments for more Quinta and Roland could result in more Quinta and Roland – it’s interactive in a way that a full-length novel never could be, and I hope to connect with my readers that way. That’s what this story is all about, and I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

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Ship It! The Rookie Writer’s Dilemma

When I’m not fighting crime writing fiction, I’m writing code: good old-fashioned, rocket-fast, wicked cool code. Also, sometimes boring code and long tech specs. There are a startling number of parallels I’ve found between writing fiction and writing code, and one of the biggest ones of them is the “Ship It” urge. Some background is perhaps in order.

I used to work for a little software company in Redmond. You may have heard of it. That company is known for a high level of polish on its code; say what you want about its programs, haters, but for huge software products that are used by almost everyone on Earth, very few real bugs are found. They have perfected an iterative cycle of code and test, code and test, code while testing, that successfully cranks out very solid products. To give you an idea of how big a deal this is, imagine publishing the most popular book in the world. Imagine that it’s over 1500 pages, and before you ship you need to know that there are absolutely no typos, no logical flaws in the story, that you got every detail about ships and horses right, that there are no anachronisms (Anyone have zippers on pants in the 1700’s? You fail.), and that the style is consistent and engaging throughout. Now imagine that half the planet is going to read your book, thousands and thousands of people are going to critique its every nuance, and the future of your company depends on you writing that solid a book. It can be done, but it’s not easy. It takes a process, and my old company has one.

Most other software companies imitate that company’s software engineering method to a degree. It is very deliberate, and I learned early on that the biggest “company secrets” I was ever privy to were planned features and release dates. If you are selling software, those are the last two things you ever want to tell the public (if they are paying attention to you). Another little software company in Cupertino has perfected the art of telling the public nothing until the product is already on the assembly line. They do this for a reason – if you say you’re going to have feature X in the product shipping in October of next year, it may be the case that come next May, you find out that feature X is very, very hard to do, and the product needs to go on without it. Feature X may cripple your product because of how big or slow it is, or it may not be as cool as you thought, or you may just not be able to figure it out. All of those things happen in software. Hence, the process goes like this. On day one of product planning, you (or a room filled with blind monkeys marketing professionals) make a list of all the features you’d like to have in the next release, and pin a date down for when you’d like to release it. You also pick a series of “measurement dates.” As you get to each of these, you look at your progress and find what is and what isn’t working. For the things that are behind where you’d like them to be (and again, you can often only guess at how hard it is to write a feature, much like in fiction you can only guess at how easy writing that fight scene will be), you ask yourself – “Do I really think I can catch up?” Better yet, you assume you can’t catch up, and instead you ask yourself, “Is it worth delaying either the release or other features to get this done?”

You do these measurement steps as often as you can (though there is a point at which measuring is taking more time than it is saving), and eventually you’ll find that you can’t quite get to all the features you had planned for the next release in time for your target release date. You then decide to either delay the release or drop/pare back the feature. When your release candidate does roll around, you almost always find that 1) it took longer than you had hoped, and 2) it doesn’t have all the features you planned. This is why you never tell the public which features you are adding (unless you really need to, and then those features can’t be dropped, which is a dangerous attribute for a feature) and you never tell them when you plan to release until you are really, really sure that you can make the date. This should generally be whenever development is winding down and you are mostly in bug-bashing/user testing mode.

If this sounds complicated and easy to screw up, that’s because it is. Companies do it all the time. The company I worked for doesn’t do that very often, and the result is that when a product ships, it is a Big Deal. You have parties. If your project is big enough, you have parties that include people only tangentially related to the product, because, hey, you just shipped a terabyte of working, awesome, cool code that consumers are going to love. Often you’ve spent the last N years of your life working on just that code. It’s a good reason to have a party. When you “Ship It,” everybody involved gets a Ship It award. When I was there it was a cool plaque with the CEO and company founder’s signature on it next to your name. It’s a nice touch to celebrate a genuinely huge accomplishment. Shipping code is always an accomplishment.

Similarly, “shipping” fiction is a Big Deal. I worked on my novel for three years. There were points at which I didn’t think I was ever going to finish. There were other points where I thought it was crap that wasn’t worth finishing, and there were some where I just thought I was wasting my life. After all of that, though, I stuck with it and put together a novel that I am really, really proud of, and this past February, I got to write “The End,” (and then promptly delete it because nobody actually writes that in a book any more). City of Magi has been sitting on my virtual shelf ever since then, waiting as it cools for me to get some distance so I can come back and mercilessly edit it. I can’t deny, though, that there is a huge part of me that wants to just “Ship It.” I want to get to the stage where I’m shrugging off rejection letters, checking my mail hoping for that one agent to say that they’re ready to represent me, or better yet a publishing company that wants to put what I wrote on real, live bookshelves. But the fact remains, City of Magi isn’t ready. It needs an edit. And after that, it needs an edit. Maybe, maybe, after that it can go out to agents and publishers, who will of course say that it then needs an edit. I can resist the Ship It urge because I worked on City of Magi for three years and it is the coolest thing I’ve ever written.

While my novel is cooling, I decided to write serial fiction to be published in the great new world of epublishing, and that took off much faster than I ever figured it would. Now I’m sitting on two complete-ish issues of Those Who Die Young, and wondering… do I Ship It? How polished is polished enough? That’s the truly terrifying thing about epublishing: you are the publisher. Is it ready? Who do I ask? Ultimately – no one. I decide. And that authority is terrifying. The software engineer in me wants to cut any scenes that I’m not 100% sure of and publish, but there’s a risk. This is my first major foray into publishing fiction. Everything I do from here on out will be partially colored by this first attempt. Every rookie writer faces this dilemma. We want our names out there. We desperately cling to the idea that when our work hits the shelves, virtual or otherwise, it’s going to set the world on fire and we’ll be celebrity authors extraordinaire.

The realists among us understand how rare it is for that to occur. It’s actually quite difficult to make a living as a writer, even if you’re good at what you do and sell well. Books just don’t pay that much. The digital book revolution isn’t going to change that. Still, we do our due diligence and join writing groups and get all the feedback we can, and when we really think we’re ready… we’re not sure what to do. Say what you will about how unfair the traditional publishing industry can be. Plenty of great talent goes unnoticed, you’re never sure if you’re being paid what is fair, hell – you don’t even always know how many of your books are sold if you’re in print. Meanwhile, Pamela Anderson can “write” a book and it becomes a bestseller. No matter how difficult, at times insulting, unfair, and in many ways degrading to the writers the traditional publishing industry can be, it has the gift of telling you when you’re ready to be out there. More often than not, that answer is “oh hell no,” but you have an authoritative answer.

Enter the Kindle, et. al. Now I decide. Is 50000 words a good length for a 99-cent serial fiction? Is it enough to feel meaty, but not so much that I spend years of my life on it and sell it for less than a buck (and only get paid between 35 and 40 cents, depending on where you buy it)? I wrote each of the drafts for TWDY in a month, and I’ve spent about another month editing each. Is one a month a good rate? Can I keep that up when I start editing City of Magi next month? (Answer: no.) Should I have a bigger backlog of issues to keep me on a regular pace for a while?

There are a thousand questions that (should) come with the decision to publish, and none of them is more important than “Is this good enough to publish?” Am I ready to Ship It? We’ll see. I can still tweak; I can still rewrite. Unlike software, though, it’s never good form to publish “patches” for a book. Would you be happy buying a copy of Windows that can never get updated? I know I wouldn’t.

Shelter From the Storm will be out soon. But it’s terrifying to have that decision looming over me. Sooner or later, I have to pull the trigger and Ship It.

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Adventures in Serial Fiction

June 10, 2011 9:53 pm by MRM in epublishing, serial

Starting a serial fiction work has been a devilish adventure in absolutely none of the ways that I thought it would be. The part I was most worried about – making the actual writing work in the episodic format – was the most natural part of the process. I fretted to no end as I was writing the first two issues of Those Who Die Young that the pacing would feel off, or that it would just feel like a cut up book with no beginning and end to each issue. Much to my surprise, it just seemed to flow. Part of this is no doubt due to the fact that I’ve had this idea kicking around in the back of my head for a long time, so it exploded out of the gate as soon as I put the first words on the electronic page, but the rest just came from the story feeling fit for the category. Formatting for epublishing ended up being (mostly) a non-issue as well, thanks to my decision to go whole hog and just buy full-featured writing software, Scrivener from the good people at Literature and Latte. A few clicks and a little experimentation are all it takes to get decent-looking epub and mobi files (and if you’re paying someone else for that privilege, you’re getting hosed).

Deciding on a length was easy as well – it mostly just happened as I wrote. Twenty-five thousand words (approximately one hundred pages) ended up being the sweet spot to get a full story in that could entertain on its own, yet still feel like it was connected to the issues before and after in the sequence.

No, the difficulties were in two areas I really didn’t see as roadblocks going forward: Latin and Nomenclature. Latin seems obvious in hindsight, but as I excitedly rushed forward with my drafts, I never thought it would be a big deal. A large part of the story in TWDY has to do with the traditions, lives, and mysteries of people living in a city called Ratio. It’s a fantasy story, and the wizards of the world live there, speaking an isolated language that I modeled off of Latin. The protagonist, however, is not from Ratio, so when she hears spoken “Rational,” it sounds like gibberish. The language of her people (Feccish) is loosely derived from the much older language of Ratio, much as English is from Latin, and so I thought I may as well use Latin than try and go full Tolkein and invent my own language. Now, I’m not so foolhardy as to have long stretches of text in a foreign language in my English-language fiction, nor would I dare use it in big heaps given that I never studied the language myself. In the first two hundred pages of TWDY, there are exactly three sentences, each of which is (quite coincidentally) three words in length. Surely Google translate would be sufficient to get fine translations for such a small amount of short text, I thought.

Long story short (too late)… just… no. Don’t do that. Don’t ever do that. It took about two hours with the Complete Idiot’s Guide to Learning Latin to realize how horrible my first two three-word sentences were. Alas, the googleplex failed me, but I wasn’t about to panic. I spent nine damn years in colleges of one kind or another, and friends of mine study all sorts of useless things. If you ever want to hear an astounding assortment of utterly useless but highly esoteric crap, play a few hours of poker with a bunch of math grad students. On top of that, I’m a member of a couple of online writing communities that I post to regularly. Surely someone, somewhere would have both the means and the time to assist me. Surprisingly, this was not so. I’ll have to earn my Latin, and I’ll have to sweat every letter of it.

Like I said, I never planned to use it extensively – it would annoy readers to death. Just the same, a real language is one of those things you don’t want to mess up. You will piss someone off if you get the details too far wrong, just as it’s always dangerous to write anything that involves horses, guns, sailing, or computers without knowing anything about them. Idiot’s Guide and abbreviated history of Rome in hand, then, I marched on.

The second unexpected gotcha of publishing serial fiction has been nomenclature. What do I call the issues? Are they issues? Episodes? Novellas? Issues sound like things for my psychiatrist, stories sound like I should be reading them to my niece around a campfire, episodes are of Seinfeld, and novellas should be self-contained. My serials are none of these. I settled on calling them issues on the covers of the individual (purchasable) things, and books or series otherwise, the reason being that the most appropriate parallel I could draw between what I was writing and something that actually exists was comics. You know, except for the part where there are comics in them. I’m honestly still not sold on that particular issue, but we’ll see how my opinion changes as P-Day (publish) gets closer and closer.

Issues and all, it has been tremendously rewarding to put TWDY to electronic paper and prepare to put it out there in the world. I love doing something that just isn’t out there. Having a unique format may destine my stories for the digital dustbin, but it has been fun to do nonetheless. I hope they are as much of a joy to read as they were to write.

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