Tag Archives: Shelter From the Storm

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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OSC Writing Class and First Thirteens

I had the good fortune recently of attending an Orson Scott Card writing class – I highly recommend it if you have the means and he happens to be holding one in a place you can get to. There were a lot of topics he spoke on that helped me think about my writing in a better light, but the issue I’m most compelled to talk about is that of openings, largely because it made the most dramatic impact on how I write. I’ve been a member of Hatrack River Forums (the OSC-sponsored writing forum) and they have a concept of a “First Thirteen.” What they mean by that is the first thirteen lines of your (appropriately formatted) story. The reason they place such emphasis on it is that an editor will often only look at the first page of your manuscript before deciding whether your story belongs in the slush pile or in the pile worthy of further attention. Editors are overworked and underpaid, and your story needs to fight for their attention. Thirteen lines is (approximately) what fits on that first page.

I spent a long time working on the first thirteen for my story to submit to get in to OSC’s Boot Camp. It was what I was going to use as the introduction to Shelter From the Storm. I didn’t need to worry about an editor (since I was my editor) on Shelter, but I did need to worry about getting people to buy it. That opening was still important.

I spent a long time doing everything I could to create the perfect first thirteen; these would be the best-written, most beautiful thirteen lines I had ever written and put at the front of a story. This is what I wrote.

Erica was cold, wet, and tired. Tired was a feeling she didn’t mind; it was only natural. Hiking seventeen miles in a day gave her no way to avoid it, particularly as the trail went up the slope to the plateau ahead. After a while, the gentle tug of fatigue at every step on the grimy, ill-kept path started to feel familiar. Her aching feet reminded her that she was alive. There had scarcely been a time in her life when she hadn’t felt tired. Tired was an old friend. Wet, though, was a feeling she hated. She’d been on the road for almost a week and had exactly one sunny day, most of which she’d been in a forest. Wet made her feet and thighs itch; it gave her blisters on her toes. Wet was an annoying cousin that ruined her socks, spoiled her mood, and made every footfall treacherous. Cold was worst of all. Cold made the wind bite through her leathers; it made the rain her enemy. Cold could be deadly if she didn’t keep her wits about her. Cold, wet, and tired. The life of a traveler.

The sun hastily made its retreat below the horizon, leaving her to make out the trail in rapidly dimming light. One more ascent stood between her and the plateau roads. If the stories were to be believed, roads on the plateau were covered in straw on the sides for those on foot and brick in the middle for carts. Half-true would be a blessing.

I loved it. It has rhythm. It has symmetry. It’s pretty. It was also rejected, and rightfully so.

It took me a while to really figure out why it got rejected. That first opening was beautiful, but it didn’t tell the reader anything about the story. What do you know after reading that? You know Erica is cold, wet, and tired. You know she’s on a long hike – you don’t even know where she’s headed, except “the plateau.” You know that things are slightly nicer there, or at least they’re rumored to be. You also find out it’s getting dark, and you get a vague impression that she’s had a tough life when I say “There had scarcely been a time in her life when she hadn’t felt tired. Tired was an old friend.”

A few weeks after I got that rejection, I finally realized that the opening to the first story I was ever going to publish was crap. OSC (and the other Boot Camp slush readers) were right. It’s fun for me now to look at the changes I made and look at whether or not I changed it for the better. Let’s see. Here’s the beginning of Shelter as it was published.

Nothing was ever as easy as it sounded. Deliver the letter to the Viscount – that’s it. That was the one and only task Erica’s half-brother Markus had entrusted her with, along with four coppers for lodging along the way. Maen wasn’t hard to find; follow the big road out of town. She’d know she was there when she got to the top of a plateau and found a huge city. Markus had even pointed out the trail on a map for her. Six days ago she had actually been excited to be finally trusted with something important for the family business. Six days ago she had been dry and the city guard had assured her that the road was safe and that it only took four days to make the trip. Five and a half days ago, a cold west wind had blown in and brought a storm that had yet to let up. Nothing had gone right since.

Only one farm that she passed would even let her stay the night – and they had demanded a whole copper! She didn’t know whether to count herself lucky or cursed that she hadn’t found another place to stay on the road. The cold and the rain was miserable, but it was free, and she’d have to make the trip back with just the three coppers in her pack. Five and a half days of constant marching along a road that was rocky at the best of times and a soupy mess now was beginning to wear on her. She’d been through worse. This, at least, was only physical discomfort.

The opening of a story is all about making a contract with the reader. What is the story about? Why should he care? Let’s look at Shelter’s new beginning and see how I improved it.

In the first two sentences, you know Erica’s objective. It’s all she’s trying to do for the first story, and (not a huge spoiler) it is the task she completes at the end of the first issue. What else do we know? After the third sentence, we know she was sent on the trip by her half-brother Markus. We know why she’s going. We know she was given four coppers. We don’t know whether or not that’s a lot of money, but we get the impression that it isn’t, especially later.

In three sentences, I’ve made the story more interesting than I did in the entire opening that I submitted for Boot Camp. Shelter was improved by this change – it is a much, much better story after having been rejected by OSC. I thanked him for that personally. I don’t think I would have seen how horrible my original beginning was without his input.

osc

Let’s keep looking at the second opening to find out what else we learn. We learn she’s been walking for six days, and that the trip was only supposed to take four. Things have gone very wrong on her trip; it had been something she was really eager to do. We find out how short her money supply really is; the first place she stayed charged her a quarter of her funds for a single night’s stay. We also find out that she wasn’t expecting it; four coppers is a lot of money to Erica, but not to the owners of that farm.

We learn a few other things by implication as well. Markus had to point out the route on a map for her, so she either isn’t very familiar with how to read maps or just plain can’t read. We’re also left wondering – why is Markus sending his half-sister out on a four-day journey by herself? This implies she’s an adult or that Markus is a grossly negligent caretaker. We also are left with the somewhat vague statement that she’s had a tough live, but we have something more to go on here than we did in the first opening. “She’d been through worse. This, at least, was only physical discomfort.

One big takeaway that I got from OSC’s class was that the worst sin a writer can commit is to withhold information from the reader. Tell the reader what the story is going to be about. You gain nothing by leading him along bit by bit, because he only ends up feeling cheated at the end. If Erica knew what was in the letter she was carrying, it would be pointless of me to hold that information back until it was crucial. It violates that contract that you make with the reader, that if he is in the mind of a character, he knows what that character knows. The reader should never be operating blind.

So what contract have I made with the reader? What is this story going to be about? Just from the intro, we know it’s a story about a journey. We have a sympathetic female protagonist. We know she’s had a tough life, we know things are all going horribly wrong, and we know she’s got a lot to overcome. We know she’s trying to deliver a letter for her family. All of these are important to the plot as it moves forward, so I think I’ve done a fairly good job of giving the reader a reason to care. Having taken the class and had the “no withholding” concept drilled into me, I probably could have improved it, but then again a story can always be improved. There’s no such thing as a perfect manuscript. One of the other big points OSC made in his class was that you shouldn’t tinker. You will rarely improve your first draft – that is the only living draft of the story, and aside from copy editing (correcting your grammar, fixing misspellings, etc.), there’s not a lot you should do.

If I were writing it again, I don’t think there’s much I would change. I might do away with the first sentence, or perhaps transpose the first two. I would probably mention that she knows the letter has something to do with taxes, since that’s the extent of her knowledge. You don’t meet Lear for five more paragraphs (about two pages), so I might bump that up, but I don’t think I would put the wizard in the opening. Erica doesn’t know Lear when the story starts, and the story is her story, no matter how interesting the land of the wizards is. She is the woman trying to find her place in the world, no matter how hard it tries to reject her. Those Who Die Young is now and will always be a single viewpoint story. I don’t always write single viewpoint stories; City of Magi jumps around from chapter to chapter, and I think it works beautifully.

When I mentioned to OSC what a positive change his rejection had made in my story, he said that was the first time someone had ever thanked him for rejecting them. Aside from taking it personally, I see no reason not to learn from a rejection. It’s an objective evaluation of whether or not your story (or portion thereof) is good – you need to improve it. The matter is settled. He also suggested I submit it for IGMS, now that I had improved it, but of course I couldn’t do that because it had already been published. Also, it’s 37000 words, a bit longer than that which is usually in IGMS. I will, however, be submitting something for IGMS, having had such a great time in the class, and I can’t wait to send it in. Maybe it’ll even get rejected.

PS – For the curious, the short story I’m working on will be set in the City of Magi universe, and I’m actually really psyched about it; it’s turning out to be really interesting and very well-suited to short story format. I’ll keep you posted about how things go. And don’t worry about Bearers of Bad News, that’s in copy-editing and final revisions stage already. It should be ready to go by the planned release date of September 24th.


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Time to Breathe and Reflect – the Frantic Art of EPublishing

Wow. Just wow. This week has been a blitzkrieg of editing, formatting, reformatting, pouring over documentation, and last-second editing again. Publishing takes a lot out of me. It’s finally done, though, and Shelter From the Storm is live on Smashwords now. It’s eligible for the premium catalog, and will ship to iBooks, Nook, Aldiko, Sony, and Stanza after that. It’s not quite live on Kindle yet, but it’s in the “publishing” phase where it is reviewed for about 24-48 hours, after which it will be available there.

Now that I finally have something in the market I can look back and think about what was hard, what was easy, and things I could do better. The first thing that stood out for me is that I was still editing – but I don’t think that was from procrastination. I got lots of reviews and crits on Shelter. It was a constantly morphing, breathing work that it immensely better now than it was a month ago, and light years better than it was a month before that. I’m proud of it. Despite all that prep work, I was editing right up until the final check-in. I was well beyond the point of spelling errors and such, but nontrivial changes were made in the story on publication day. I like all of the changes that went in, and I’d make them all again. Why did those particular changes wait so long? I really can’t say. They came to me as I was doing final formatting edits, and they were worth the hassle of making the changes. Shelter is 2000 words shorter because of the last change I made, and any time you can cut from your book, you should. My philosophy of self-editing has long been that if you catch yourself explaining the point of the scene as “it really shows the characters’ feelings/development/interests” then you need to cut it. Every scene should advance the plot somehow. Show those feelings as you’re moving along; don’t make the reader stop so you can beat him over the head with them.

Somewhere in that paragraph I went out on a tangent… but the point I was getting to was that I edited up until the last minute because (I think) you can always edit. There’s no such thing as a perfect work. I probably should have come to a “ship” date earlier and had a code freeze where I was only doing formatting and bugfixes (spelling, plot holes, anachronisms), but I’m not upset with myself for making the story better even at the last minute.

Formatting was another thing entirely. I had two very different experiences in the two places I published – Kindle and Smashwords. Both places had very powerful strengths and very powerful weaknesses. I’ll start with Smashwords.

Mark Coker & Co. over at Smashwords have the best-documented, most delightfully user-friendly site I’ve ever seen for publishing. You have a convenient Dashboard that you can always look at to manage all your books on Smashwords, edit which channels you want to be distributed through, and handle book updates, coupons, price changes, and basically anything else you want. Their tools to manage your works are powerful, easy to figure out, and wonderful to have at your fingertips. The ability to upload once and have your book be distributed to so many different locations is simply amazing – and the even better part is that at many of them you can get paid more if you distribute through Smashwords. This is particularly true on Nook; Nook has a 40% commission rate on books priced below or above the magic $2.99-$9.99 range that gets you the higher rate. I’ll be taking home nearly 60% via Smashwords even though Shelter is $0.99. That is a very important point, so I’ll say it again: you can get paid more (sometimes) if you distribute through Smashwords. This is the #1 reason I’ll be switching to distribute my Amazon books via Smashwords as well as soon as they can distribute through the Kindle store (which is already in the works). The #2 reason I loved publishing via Smashwords is that you get a FREE ISBN. That one was so important I had to put italics and make it all-caps, and I hate all-caps. ISBNs are required for distribution in iBooks and the Sony store. Neither of those markets are as large as Kindle, but I’d hate to miss out on them. ISBNs are really expensive, upwards of $100 for a single book, unless you want to buy them in book (get 1000 for $1000 at that site… egad). If you’re spending $100 on your eBook and you’re an indie author, you’d better be spending that on a world-beating cover artist (and you can get great stuff for much cheaper – I did).

Other things I loved about the Smashwords experience so far: thorough, detailed instructions on how to get things formatted and set up for publication in the premium catalog, clearly explained legal rules, and a generally friendly and beautiful site. I say this as someone who designs software user interfaces for a living – Smashwords has a fantastic and useable interface. Better than Kindle by a long shot.

Where Smashwords fell short was in the lead-up to one of their strengths; formatting for the Meatgrinder, their signature file.doc – to – file.*  converter. To be clear, the instructions for formatting your document are first-rate and easy to follow. The process itself, though, still takes a long time. I’m thankful I was doing this with a 39K-word serial issue instead of a 150K-word novel. The safest way to get things started is to use “the nuclear option,” which is to copy your entire book and paste it into Notepad, then take the raw text and put it back into MS Word. The worst part about this is that you lose all in-paragraph microformatting, like italics for emphasis. You lose macroformatting as well, but it’s easy to fix your chapter headings again. Hunting down every place you used to have italics is a painful time sink. The most disappointing part about the Meatgrinder experience is that you can’t force page breaks. I used the triple paragraph return followed by “****” and another triple paragraph return (recommended in the style guide), but all that had the effect of doing in the ePub file was to put awkward spaces between my chapters. My ePub I created using Scrivener looked much better. To be fair, Coker mentions on Smashwords that they are going to have a Meatgrinder-bypass soon, so those of us who have invested in useful writing tools like Scrivener can just use the pretty formatting that they come up with instead. At the end of the day, I’m not angry at how it turned out format-wise, but it could have been better. I would prefer to have the ability to format on my own using tools that don’t rely on starting with a manually formatted Word document.

I did my Kindle publishing second, and it felt (at first) like it was a much better experience for one and only one reason – you can upload your own damn .mobi file if you want. Scrivener compiles to .mobi. Click, boom,  upload, DONE. I almost couldn’t believe it. Seriously, Smashwords – If I could get your attention for a moment – You absolutely positively need this feature. It is absolutely worth the $50 for a fantastic tool like Scrivener that, besides being awesome as a writing IDE (Integrated development environment – give me a break, I’m a software guy), has the ability to very carefully format everything you need, and can do so from a place that Meatgrinder never can, a carefully formatted set of classes that it creates. Don’t get me wrong – Meatgrinder has a massively more difficult job than Scrivener – but Scrivener takes advantage of its resources to format better. I think it would be well-worth Smashwords’s time to implement even a weak version of the bypass as soon as possible, perhaps one that only works for low-to-no-images all-text no-tables works, a sizeable chunk of their portfolio.

Anyhow, that single luxury alone made Kindle feel much easier. It’s a gold star and a half that nearly gives Kindle the edge all by itself. That being said, Kindle has some drawbacks. There is no free, universal equivalent of the Smashwords Style Guide for Kindle that tells you absolutely everything you need to know. Now, Kindle has huge forums support and I doubt if it would be difficult to find all that information, but the fact was that for a first time author like myself, it was massively easier to find the directions on how to do everything just right on Smashwords than it was on Kindle. In particular – Kindle’s directions never say what to put on your copyright page. Do you need a licensing statement? Smashwords provides one for you. Is it important to say Kindle edition? What are the rules to linking out of the book to your other Kindle books? To your own blog? How do you edit your Kindle profile page that the public sees? All of these questions have answers that can be found with patient googling and searching through the forums, but searching forums and googling is harder than reading a single, clear, authoritative guide that tells you everything you need to know.

The other big place that Kindle looses out on is their royalties. If you’re outside the magic price range of $2.99-$9.99, you can only get 35% of the purchase price. Period. If you are in that sacred range, you can get up to 70% (though they then may take off some for “delivery” which may actually be a valid bandwidth charge, but who knows). Kindle can do that, though, because they are the biggest game in town, and that isn’t changing anytime soon. If you are an indie publisher, you would have to be insane not to be on Kindle. You don’t need an ISBN to publish on Amazon, nor do they give you one for free.

At the end of the day, both systems had their strengths at weaknesses. Kindle felt like a breath of fresh air when they didn’t make me go through formatting hell again, but their help sections were harder to find and their royalty rules weren’t as generous. I haven’t looked hard, but I didn’t see any way to give Kindle coupons for your works (it’s probably there, but the point is that it isn’t as blatantly obvious as it is in Smashwords). Kindle is also a little less clear about the rules of publishing – what is allowed and what is not? Again, all of the information is there, but they really need one style guide that is the authoritative guide to publishing on Kindle: do this and your book will be fine, do that and your book will get bounced.

Take it for what it is. I like the Smashwords interface, but I’d give my left pinky to be able to utilize Scrivener to make my Smashwords experience better. Still, I’ll probably move all my publishing over to the Smashwords system when they get integrated with Amazon; the convenience is too much to pass up. I just hope they let me do my own formatting when that time comes.

Update – One killer feature that Amazon makes easy and Smashwords lacks: the ability to group books into a series. Amazon has a nice little check box asking whether or not the book is in a series. If so, what is the title of the series? What is this book’s place in the series? It’s simple and incredibly useful. Shelter From the Storm is Book 1in the series Those Who Die Young on Kindle. Smashwords… completely lacks this feature. I was actually a little confused as to what I would consider Shelter’s title. Is it Shelter From the Storm? Those Who Die Young Issue 1 – Shelter From the Storm? I ended up going with Shelter From the Storm, which makes me ever so slightly nervous about the “rule” they have where your title page must match the title on your cover, as mine technically doesn’t (the series title is bigger on the cover and sits on top of the issue title). Hopefully the human reviewers will understand what I was trying to do.

 


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Victory is mine!

August 3, 2011 12:33 am by MRM in Uncategorized

Shelter From the Storm is officially available for download in friendly DRM-free format on Smashwords. I’m getting the Kindle formatting up and ready to go; there aren’t too many kinks left to work out.

I only barely met my goal; it was first available just before midnight on the 2nd. Smashwords does a lot of wonderful things for you, but you have to pay attention to all the little formatting details, and you absolutely have to do it in MS Word format, which renders Scrivener (my preferred writing software) considerably less useful. Fortunately, Amazon appears to take .mobi files, so I should be able to have things up and running there without too much fuss.

Been a hectic week getting this thing ready for the final push, but I can now happily say I’m out there. I’ll have it in the Kindle store soon, and I should be distributed (via Smashwords) just about everywhere ebooks are sold, including on Nook, iBooks, Kobo, Stanza, and all the usual suspects. You can even read it in your browser (just go to the book’s Smashwords page and buy it in that format) if you are particularly cruel to your eyes.

I’m sticking with $0.99 per issue for now; we’ll see how things go at that price point. Everything’s up in the air (including any sense of writing style I have in my blog – it’s after midnight and I haven’t seen this early in the AM since grad school).


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