Thursday, 12 October 2017

Q&A part 3

This is the 3rd part (of four) articles from the Q&A I had with AndyK much earlier in the year. The topic this time: which character is most evil?

Spoiler alert!

Once again, because we discussed books 1 & 2, this contains spoilers if you haven't read them: i.e., it's only intended for people who've read Wild Thing and Harsh Lessons.

Which Character is Most Evil?

L: Harmon sees himself as logical, clinical, dispassionate, and sees those all as good things. He tells himself that shaping Leeth to develop magical powers is a great gift to her. (From what I've read, there are some psychologists in the real world who are equally blind to the human side of their science.)

A: Until the point where he put his dispassionate thingie into her panties. And generates stress by putting her in gags and schoolgirl uniforms.

It should have been obvious even to himself that he lost it there. And that their relationship is steering towards a big disaster.

L: Well, yes.  And he does know he lost it there.  Though he avoids thinking about that, and blames her for goading him to that point, and then avoids further thought on the subject.

And he also sees Leeth as resisting and obstructing and heading them towards disaster.  In his mind, if she just was a little more ‘sensible", it would all work out.

But Harmon is also consciously trying not to value their relationship, since that would make it harder to carry out his experiment.

But, wow, worse than Stalin — that's saying something!

A: Stalin loved his children. He adored his daughter. :}

L: Erk!

But it's an interesting question, I think: is everyone redeemable, or are some people beyond redemption?  My feeling is there are some people who are irredeemable, but they're a tiny minority.

I think much of what Harmon has done is inexcusable, and to the meagre extent he thinks about it, he irrationally blames Leeth for pushing him so far.

A: Yeah.. redirection and deflection. Again as a shrink he should be able to see the signs in himself.

L: He should be able to.  But I have read of psychologists who fail in exactly that way, in the real world. Which I think is classic rationalisation.

A: And that, yes.

L: I mean it's what set him on the slippery slope. And he completely misunderstood himself (thinking he could remain detached), and refused to see how much Leeth was in fact breaking down his detachment.

A: Lust and control... I don't see any emotional attachment there?

L: I'm offering that merely to explain my thinking, that I think what he did was plausible: not to defend his actions!

A: Of course. I know. I try to put myself in his head and I have trouble understanding his decisions. I don't have this problem with any other of your characters. To the extent I got introduced to them.

L: That probably means you're a lot more emotionally intelligent than Harmon.  I think a lot of people would have trouble getting inside his head.  And probably most people would be reluctant to even try.

Come to think of it, that may be the root of the horror from some readers: they may have hated being presented with the possibility of getting inside such a head.  Perhaps they felt it might pollute them. (For which I'm sorry.)

Leeth is incredibly stubborn, strong willed and self certain. She copes with stress to an astonishing degree. So to get her to a point where ‘something must give' requires torment way beyond what any non-psychopath would allow. Harmon knows he would never ever get permission to do what he's doing if he asked, or if anyone found out.

A: But this torture also means he is producing someone who hates and despises him. A mortal enemy.

He should know that and look for a better way if he isn't doing it because he enjoys it.

L: Not while she believed he was doing it for some good reason.  ‘For her own good.'  After that, yeah, it becomes close to impossible for him.

But I don't see how I could have followed the other approach: pretending to care for her while continually putting her under stress. Sooner rather than later she'd complain; and yet he would keep doing it, and so the pretence would break down.

The justification Harmon gives himself for doing what he did, apart from the ‘need' to prevent her acting against the Dept, was the knowledge that it will start generating pressure, and force her to ‘the next level'. It's probably lucky for Harmon that she escaped at the end of book 2 — too much pressure tends to end in a catastrophic explosion.

In my view, after magic returned, extra options appeared for some people when they are placed under unbearable stress. Disten (with Godsson's magical change) is exploiting one of these.  What he does seems to me far crueller than what Harmon does to Leeth.  Even I think it's utterly horrible.

A: You think so? I would STRONGLY disagree there.
This alien spirit or whatever it is, tries to better humans. By taking away their emotions. Okay, he kills without much hesitation but... In a twisted way it seems as if he actually wants to help. He is just.... alien. I don't know all that much about his motivations yet. I truly can't bring myself to see him as the main antagonist of the story. Even if he is some form of toxic/insect spirit who took over in a moment of extreme distress he still is not THAT irredeemable to me.

Harmon on the other hand, causes pain. Deliberately. And to someone who is dependent on him. Who is helpless. Who he should nurture and protect. He causes her suffering and uses her to satiate his sexual urges. So... I am neither particularly religious (nor particularly moral for that matter) but he is about the most irredeemable character I can remember reading about. And yes, I read ‘Mein Kampf' and a biography about Stalin.

L: The ‘choices' Disten offers his paired victims is literally the worst thing I can imagine anyone suffering through. He consciously does it to put them in a situation where the possible responses are madness or complete abandonment of the ability to experience emotion. With the result that most of them (are so decent and human) that they prefer a third option, and choose death rather than co-operation.

A: Hmm... vs. putting a compulsion on a young girl that forces her to do exactly what she does not want to do. Robbing her free will. Torturing her, abusing her, raping her. Well... I have a clear winner here.:}

L: To me, trying to force someone else to do even worse things than that, to someone they love, feels far, far worse.

For the human and emotional threads, Harmon and Leeth's awful relationship is at the heart of the first several books.  But a big theme is the importance of emotions.  The more I think about that, the more I suspect that emotions will be the key to the survival of our species in real life, in the long term. [Later note: We will need to create AI which has empathy and experiences emotions.]

A: Hmm… maybe this explains why we have such a different view of who the main villain is in your story.

Because it's hate and greed that drives us to do all the awful things humans do. Wars, environmental destruction... the list is endless.

And yes, I know, for all the dark emotions there are light ones. The question everyone has to answer for themselves is if the tradeoff is worth it.

L: See what you think of Harmon at the end of book 3.  I think Harmon is ‘blinded by science' — and he and Leeth are in many ways ideally unsuited: each provokes the other.  But he's shocked by much of what Leeth does, despite much of it being his responsibility.

A: ‘blinded by science' doesn't fly.... nonono  :-}
The Scopolamine I could understand. But he also used a rape drug on her to pretty much steal her virginity. He can't book that under science. And what he did to her in book two is just about dominance and control. About his own ego, his own lusts and not about science. Add these ‘games' he plays with her… if all this is science why did he go to such great lengths to prevent her from talking about it? If he could explain it as a scientific method then why hide?

I would seriously say if you wanted Harmon to be in any way a redeemable character you made him far too extreme.

It would be interesting to see a poll from all your readers how they see the antagonists in the story. Maybe I'm alone in my judgement. But I seriously doubt it.

#Harmon_must_die :-}

L: I'm sure you would be in good company! The aphrodisiac drug and sex are a total failure of ethics and morality: he fell to temptation; a temptation which he himself (subconsciously) engineered. There is no excuse for that. But his motivations were more complex than that.

Harmon would say Leeth's personality and her development is important, and he does not want to stunt it, just ‘direct' it. He wants her to grow, even though the decisions she typically makes are often enormously frustrating to him. But he admires her enormously, too. He wishes she would be more compliant, even while recognising that a compliant personality would be completely unsuitable for his scientific needs.

A: Well, of course she doesn't listen to him. As a shrink he should know that raising her in an emotional vacuum will also waste any possibility to ‘bond' with him. He wouldn't need to love her to hold her and comfort her. And this would build trust and a means to direct and control her. I don't quite understood why he wasted that.

By the time of his great betrayal in book two of course all those options were gone. By then he made himself into her enemy. Again something that seems short sighted to me.

I do understand Leeth's character and her decisions pretty well. They are plausible.

But Harmon's character... his decisions puzzle me still. Is he on the line of ‘intelligent people make dumb decisions too' or more ‘things get bad quick if you succumb to lust and animalistic desires"?

L: Partly it's a mixture of both. But more importantly, controlling her is only a means to an end for Harmon. His main purpose is to stress her enough to make her magic Unfold, as his theory predicts will happen.

Affectionate touching makes Harmon acutely uncomfortable. 

A: That is actually an important information. Leeth mentions it once if I remember correctly. But it didn't really register with me.

But it hints that something is pretty ‘off' with him...

L: Yes. And tied in with that is his belief, as you say, that ‘things get bad quick if you succumb to lust and animalistic desires'.  I see him as not at all emotionally wise — perhaps what drew him to studying the subject of psychology: to try to make sense of people.

A: That is an interesting tidbit of information. Might not be a bad idea to weave that into the story. That Harmon is ‘damaged goods' himself.

Maybe that would make readers a little bit sympathetic for this character.

L: Deep down, he feels it's obvious that he knows what's best for Leeth, and she should just do as she's told by him.  So that's what drives the ‘intelligent person making dumb decisions' aspect.

A: Okay, I can get behind that. But the very essence of ‘intelligent' or ‘rational' is that he reflects on his decisions. That should result in the realization that his approach simply doesn't work and only alienates her further.

But I get it, he is the type of guy that doesn't use a chisel if he can use a mallet. And that's what steers him (them) into this disaster.

L: Perhaps the thing that most gets under his skin is having his advice (instructions) ignored or rejected.

A: Okay, this, again, makes sense for the character. But with all his education in this field he should understand the mechanics why someone (especially a child) accepts guidance. And under which circumstances it does not.

L: I agree that Harmon is quite extreme. Whether he's too extreme is something each reader of course judges for themselves. But in my view, even so, Leeth is more than Harmon can handle.

A: I am very curious to see that. Her breakout and rescue is a nice first glimpse…


And I think that will do for now. The final topic we covered, that I plan to share, was the darkness of the story. I'll leave that until next time.

Thursday, 5 October 2017

Correcting your book on Amazon

This is a short piece about correcting your errors and updating your ebook, mainly on Amazon. It's an interlude to break up the series of Q&A discussions about my 1st two books — this article is aimed at Indie authors.

Sigh. Well, I thought it would be a short piece. After all, the process can be explained in a few words: update/correct your MS. Upload it to Amazon. Contact them and ask them to offer the new version to people who have already purchased a copy.

Here's what Amazon say about the process: https://kdp.amazon.com/en_US/help/topic/A2KRM4C8E91086

But I remembered Stella (my wife) telling me how much feedback she'd had from very satisfied users of her technical manuals saying how valuable it had been to get step-by-step instructions. Somehow the article just grew….

So, yes: the mechanics of making the correction to the edition you have on sale is straightforward: update your manuscript and make sure the same changes are made to your ebook edition. If you're using Calibre to generate the ebook file, that's trivial:

  1. Save your MS as a Microsoft Word .docx file
  2. In Calibre, select your book and Choose "Add files to selected book records" (then select your corrected .docx file). If asked about replacing an existing .docx, of course choose that option, since that's the whole point!
  3. Still in Calibre and with your book still selected, choose "Convert books".
  4. Choose ".docx" for the input format and (for Amazon) ".mobi" for the output format. For other publishers, you probably want to choose ".epub" as the output format to upload to your publisher.
  5. Click OK. Calibre will spend a minute or so creating the .mobi file in your Calibre library. Upload that file to Amazon.

E.g. for me, under Linux:

$ ls -l "/home/luke/Calibre Library/L. J. Kendall/Shadow Hunt (99)"

-rw-rw---- 1 luke kendall 511043 Jun 9 17:33 Shadow Hunt - L. J. Kendall.docx
-rw-rw---- 1 luke kendall 1279081 Jun 9 17:35 Shadow Hunt - L. J. Kendall.mobi
-rw-rw---- 1 luke kendall 535810 Mar 26 2017 cover.jpg
-rw-rw---- 1 luke kendall 5658 Jun 9 17:33 metadata.opf

After the upload

This is where things get interesting.

What happens next is that Amazon will check your updated file before releasing it for publication. Basically, I think they check to make sure the book still matches its description and represents fair value, since Amazon has a duty to protect its customers. I imagine a small minority of shonky people try to use Amazon to scam or exploit people. Amazon works diligently to protect its customers from that.

This check can be quite fast if you're lucky, but may take up to two days (if I recall correctly).

At present Amazon provides no mechanism for you as an author to summarise the changes you made (for their staff who check your changes). I assume they have excellent internal tools for making the changes visible, though.

Amazon will send you an email when the updated file is released and available. On your Amazon Kindle Self Publishing page, under the Bookshelf tab, you'll see the book listing has changed back to LIVE

I think it's a good idea to have something like a revision number somewhere visible in the first few pages, so you can Look Inside to make sure the right version is there and available, and readers can also easily determine if they have the latest version.

Oh, and I strongly advise you to at least flip through the online preview of your uploaded content to at least glance at every page. This should pick up any outrageous things that have gone wrong — like blank pages, a shift into italics for long stretches, missing page breaks, illegal characters appearing instead as grey blobs… that kind of thing.

So, that's it — all done?

Nope.

Sure, people who buy your book from that date onward will get the new and corrected edition. But what about previous purchasers — won't Amazon distribute the corrections to them automatically? Or at least, offer it to them?

Nope.

The reasoning is that people might have made bookmarks and annotations, and preserving those when the underlying text shifts and changes is a tricky problem.

So, does Amazon at least inform existing owners there's a new version available?

Again: nope.

Well, at least you can inform people that there's a new version available, yeah?

No, not really. You don't know who bought your book. You can broadcast the news, but even if an existing purchaser goes to Amazon and re-downloads the book, they get the same version they originally purchased. Nor do they get the new version even if they delete the book from their device and re-download it!

Purchasers can only get the new version in one of two ways. One, by directly contacting Amazon and asking specifically to be given the new version. One of Amazon's people will then check and send them the new version manually. Which is a lot of effort for all concerned, right?

The other method requires no effort on their part, provided you do the right things. Using this second method, Amazon will send an email to all purchasers with a link they can click on to get the new content if they wish. Much easier. But you have to do some work as the author, to make that happen.

Have a look at what Amazon themselves say about this topic: https://kdp.amazon.com/en_US/help/topic/A1RGGPBKDR1BPZ

You may think readers can set the options to get automatic updates; perhaps this works only in the US. After I'd tried and failed to get the updated version of another author's book, that I had purchased, after I knew she had updated it (waves to Barbara Strickland), I finally gave up and contacted Amazon via chat, to get the new version. After a bit of back and forth, the helpful Amazon rep pushed out the new content to me. But I wanted to know why I couldn't get it myself, so the chat continued:

Me: Great, thanks. But *surely* there must be a way for customers to do that without contacting Amazon? I was hoping to blog about the correct way to do this...
BTW, the new version is on my tablet, so that's good...
[Amazon rep.]: Thanks for your feedback.
Luke, is the automatic book update option turned ON on your account?
Me: I believe so... I'll check...
[Amazon rep.]: https://www.amazon.com/mn/dcw/myx.html/...(See full link)
Under settings, scroll down and you can see Automatic Book Update.
Please confirm this option once.
We value your support and look forward to the continued opportunity of serving you. Would be there anything else that I can assist you for today?
Me: Thanks. Yes, it is turned ON.
So, why did it not update, given that Automatic Update was already turned on?
You can still help me by explaining what should have happened, or by explaining why it did not update automatically.
[Amazon rep.]: Luke, some Kindle book update can be initiated only from our end.
Me: I believe that even with Auto Update, updates aren't pushed out automatically by Amazon because Amazon worries that people will lose their bookmarks, reading position, etc. So I though there was some user action required, to get an updated version. (And then I couldn't find a way to do it.)
[Amazon rep.]: Yes, you understood it correctly.
Me: So you're saying that there is no way to get an automatic update to a new version, except by contacting Amazon and asking them to do it for you manually? (I know that if the author goes to the trouble of requesting updates to be sent automatically, and I am not asking about that. I am asking about the situation when the author does not do that extra step.)
(I am having trouble understanding that Amazon don't provide such an obviously-useful feature: an option to "refresh/update" the book to the latest version.)
[Amazon rep.]: I can understand your concern completely. However, currently we don't have an option to process the update automatically without the request made from author or customer.
In this case I take it as feedback and forward it to the appropriate team.
Me: Thanks. I will do the same, from my end. I will also blog about it.
[Amazon rep.]: Customer feedback like yours helps us continue to improve the service we provide, and we're glad you took time to write to us.
We're regularly working on improvements to your experience with Amazon.

Pushing out the update

You can get Amazon to offer your update to all existing purchasers, by contacting them and asking them specifically to do so. It does take some work, however. The main thing you need is a clear and reasonably detailed explanation of what you have changed. You contact Amazon, and provide that information, and wait for up to seven days (usually) while they check the changes and your explanation, and decide whether it is a good enough reason to offer the new version to existing purchasers.

It's a little bit tricky, but not too bad.

For the explanation, they will happily accept very detailed lists of exactly what changed. E.g. for most of my (embarrassingly many) updates to Wild Thing after its initial release. E.g. for Release 5 (blush), my explanation to Amazon started with a summary:

Release 5: Based on reading the 1st (proof) printed copy: numerous small improvements (punctuation, word choice), several small continuity errors fixed, several typos fixed, changed to us US-style punctuation within quotations.

"Global" changes:

+1) Replaced all pairs of "<non-breaking space><space>" by plain "<space><space>" (7,000+)

+2) Fixed all wrongly-spaced chapter headings (approx 10)

+3) Changed from British/Aust style quotation-punctuation style ('He said "Yes, really", then…') to US/Canadian style ('He said "Yes, really," then…') in majority of cases (approx 150). (The remaining examples, for unusual situations, are deliberate!)

+4) Replaced all British/Au-preferred "towards" with US-preferred "toward" (approx 30)

Below, the underlined portions of the "before" (left text, Release N-1) and "after" (right text, Release N+1) are to highlight the specific changes. The page numbers refer to the page number in the 5"x8" print edition: they are given just as an approximate indication of the location for the ebook edition.

(Followed by the detailed list of every change:)

Prolog, p6,p7 (punctuation)
'Or might they not even seek → 'Or, might they not even seek
but I believe! → but I believe.

p9 (punctuation, phrasing)
a hammer blow on meat, signalling → a hammer blow on meat signalling
her elbow against his ribs → her elbow into his ribs
and Shining Hair completed her spin → while Shining Hair completed her spin
as if expecting → as if he'd expected

p10 (punct)
husband's chest each impact → husband's chest, each impact

p11 (clarity)
She lunged, grabbing → She lunged forward, grabbing

p14 (clarity)
the female figure → the adult female figure

p15 (punct, typo)
the rigging lines he → the rigging lines, he
But you will → 'But you will
swallowed the land yacht.' → swallowed the land yacht.

Chapter 1, p21 (word choice)
before collecting herself → and she collected herself

Chapter 2, p27 (word choice, punct)
wall of affection → wave of affection
to his office → to his office.

etc. etc. ad nauseam.

Only on one occasion did I have trouble with Amazon. I had found an appalling error in the conversions, that had been present for volumes 1 and 2 for some period. What had happened was that in every place where I had used a blank line as a separator, to indicate a small scene shift or a passage of time, the conversion to .docx and then .mobi had lost the blank line — so the two scenes were jammed together! (I fixed this by making sure each empty blank line contained a "non-breaking space" character. This prevented the automatic stripping of these blank lines.) I provided just a summary of this change, and a sample of the places where this had happened, and uploaded the fixed versions. However, I got back a peculiar message from Amazon asking (I thought) more detail about my changes:

For example:
&gt; Location 129**
&gt; Error: Her mother have tol me
&gt; Correction: Her mother has told me.

For months, as we went back and forth, the miscommunication continued. It was literally only while writing this blog article today that I realised they weren't quoting errors they had seen in my book and were concerned with, or couldn't find, as I thought they were telling me. I kept asking them to check the book they were looking at, and seeing the above errors, since those errors were not in my books — not realising they were giving me an example of the level of detail they needed, and were asking for additional specific examples.

Contacting Amazon

Okay, so, how do you contact Amazon to ask them to do this? First, login (Sign In) to your Amazon Kindle Select Program page:

https://kdp.amazon.com/en_US

Scroll down to the very bottom. You should see a small, pale grey link called "Contact Us":

Clicking on that will lead to lots of useful help topics, but for this task you need to select "Book Details" under the "How can we help?" list of topics, and under that, select "Update a Published Book" and provide the explanation of what you changed, that we discussed above. You'll see from the template text they provide, Amazon also wants the title of your book and the ASIN (e.g. for my 1st book, Wild Thing, the link looks like this: https://www.amazon.com/Wild-Thing-Leeth-Dossier-Book-ebook/dp/B019DQVR76/)

Click on the "Send Message" link after you have filled in all the details (it will be quite long), checked it to make sure you haven't got silly typos or errors in your message, copied it and saved it away for your own records in a file or into an email you send to yourself.

Then wait for the news from the approval from Amazon.

So: is that it? Is it done now?

Why, yes, Mr Jones. I believe it is. All that's left is to perhaps notify your readers in your own social media that you've fixed problems and they might like to accept the offer of an improved version, when Amazon emails them.

And I think this blog article is done, too. I hope it's helpful for a few Indie authors!

Next time, I'll continue with the series of Q&A discussions about the 1st two books in The Leeth Dossier.

Monday, 2 October 2017

Leeth Dossier Q&A part 2

This continues on the Q&A I had with AndyK much earlier in the year. The topic this time covers perhaps a key aspect of the series.

Spoiler alert!

Again, note that because we discussed the first two books, this article contains spoilers if you haven't read them: in other words, it's only intended for people who have already read Wild Thing and Harsh Lessons.

(As a small aside, in Kesha’s powerful song Praying, most of the lyrics sound to me like they could have been written specifically for Leeth to throw in Harmon’s face.)

Harmon and Leeth's relationship

A: I really hope you let poor Leeth break out of Harmon's Mind Control. It's horrific to read what she has to endure. That's what most reviewers are bashing at as far as I can see. And I understand that. It's beyond dark.

L: Harmon and Leeth are certainly the main two drivers.

A: Well.. Leeth seems to be a package on the back seat for much of the journey. During book 2 she mainly reacts. Except the end of course. There the victim finally showed claws. :}

L: I think you're being just a little bit mean to Leeth: learning to be a "super spy" is her dream career, so she was very much in agreement with that development.

A: I know. But Harmon turned it into an abuse spree she can't possible want to be a part of. By the end of book two that showed. To some extent. Also having her trust broken so awfully should leave impressions on her. Would be reasonable if she might even develop trust issues after that.

L: It would have to happen a lot more: she is fundamentally trusting. She'd have to have her trust broken over and over again before she'd decide that was normal, rather than blaming the individuals who'd betrayed her trust.

A: Okay. That is consistent with how she reacts with people. Also makes her more "loveable" for the readers I guess. But will also make her the victim in a harsh world. Curious how that will develop in future books.

L: She'll learn and grow.  Quickly.

A: Were you really afraid you wouldn't get enough sympathy for Leeth from your readers? That's puzzling. If I ever felt a character deserved sympathy and compassion it's her.

L: I'm encouraged and very pleased you feel that way.  That's of course my own feeling, too.  But I know some others don't feel the same way: they say so in their reviews. Even some of the people who liked the book found Leeth hard to like.  And of course the 1-star reviewers found both her and Harmon to be monsters. I found it uplifting to see her survive and defeat the odds against her.  But my perception is very much within the context of what I see developing in the future.  So your comment makes excellent sense to me.

A: Sure.. you see the story and characters in a holistic sense. I as a reader can only see what you presented so far.

L: It is a deep trap she's in.  In fact, she's trapped in several different ways.  Working her way to her best self will take a while.

A: I feared you would say that.

L: At least it suggests the situation and characters will be rich enough to sustain a lot of things to write about!

A: Come to think of it: There are two things towards the end of book two that I don't really get:

1) Leeth wants to actually kill him when he tries to set her to Zombie mode. She fails because of the compulsions. And then says she is sorry for knocking him out!? Why? After she admitted to herself she is controlled by a monster? That "Keepie is gone"?

2) Harmon making plans about after they got away from the Department. What a "great team they would be". Is he really so delusional at that point that he doesn't see where he pushed Leeth to?

L: Great questions!

1) She's still coming to terms with her new knowledge.  She's not certain that giving up on "Keepie" was the right thing to do: she can't help wondering if doing that helped kill the "Keepie" side of him. She wonders if she'd tried harder, could she have brought him back?

Partly, at that moment, she was tired: feeling she should have said more, done more.

Partly, too, she felt it would feel satisfying to appear polite while knocking him unconscious — just a touch of sarcasm in her words — though staring down at him afterwards, it instead reinforced her feeling she'd abandoned "Keepie".

2) I feel that if Harmon completely reformed, and was genuinely remorseful, in time Leeth would forgive him: she's that desperate for love. She desperately wants to be needed, or even wanted.  Harmon, knowing that, knows it could be used, merely psychologically, but also (he would believe) he could use his magic to block some memories and implant more compulsions and ideas.  He believes he could manipulate her that way, through varying means that range from truly despicable and evil (the easy way, for him) to good (though that would require spiritual pain and a lot of emotional growth on his part, which he is not very open to).

On top of that, he genuinely admires her, and respects her, and knows he could give her opportunities to express herself that she would relish.

A: Yet he never showed her that, did he? That he admires her or even respects her?

L: A few times he did, yes.  Not often.  But there are probably ten or twenty instances in the books; and Leeth could list them all: because each one, each tiny crumb, meant so much to her.  Harmon himself would probably be surprised by the length of the list.

He knows he could give her opportunities to express herself that she would relish.

A: Again, did he tell her that? In book 2 I mean? Instead he did something that truly destroyed every bit of trust she had left for him.

L: In book 2?  There were far fewer instances; though given it spans only a few months, perhaps the frequency didn't change much.
A: Which again, as a psychiatrist, he should have realized right then, that there is enough to control her right there in her emotional attachment. "Come on girl. This is important. Do it for me. For us."

L: But if he took that approach, she would feel it only fair to be able to use the same argument, and that's not something he wants to allow. It would be a two-edged sword. And he himself wants to suffer no cuts.

A: Well, without some form of control for her or choice for her it was always destined for contest, rebellion, controversy and finally animosity.

L: We as readers can see that.  Even Harmon, too, probably.  But partly, he's not (yet) been honest enough with himself to admit that he cares; but mainly, he believes the experiment is more important than his or Leeth's happiness.

A: So you developed Leeth's character beautifully along those lines. Which makes perfect sense in this environment.

L: So I don't think he's being entirely delusional.  He is, however, seeing a rosier picture than is likely, given their personalities and how the two of them interact.

A: [Re 1:] But after he programmed her and used that trigger she did realize he betrayed her trust, right? Then he started to torture her and humiliate her in public (which she obviously abhors more than the pain). So her realization that there is only a monster left controlling her makes sense. "...and she had enough". I didn't see much doubt in her after that point?

L: True.  But she has had years of memories and shared history opposing that.  She can even pick out nice things he's done for her.  In her heart she knows she can't trust him.  I think that would be a hard truth for her to accept.  And she still wishes things weren't like that. Besides, sadly, in real life many women stay in abusive relationships for a whole range of complex reasons.

A: [Re 2:] Okay, I guess I could rationalize and understand such a development.
But there is not even the slightest hint that he even considers he might be in the wrong. And it's an even longer way to remorse from there.
And it shows she is desperate for emotional attachment. But she should also have realized she is more likely to find it anywhere else but Harmon.

L: If she were older, or wiser, yes, she should have.  She's trusting by nature, though.  Which I think makes his abuse worse. And she is reaching out: to James, Emma, Dojo, Eagle, Father….

"She desperately wants to be needed, or even wanted.  Harmon knows that could be used..."

A: But he never did! That's what I meant in my previous question:  he could have used an emotional bond to steer her. Even if the emotions are mostly "faked".

L: Yes, it would have made things easier for him, and worse for her, if he could have brought himself to do that.  But he can't bear to start down that path.  It's why he reacted so strongly against what he'd learned from that first mind probe in the Institute, when he felt her overwhelming need for love drawing at him: and "ran away" from it by terminating the spell.

A: But by the end of book 2 it's too late for that. Seriously, do you see an emotional bond between them that would allow them to reconnect? After everything he did? After she realized what he did? I can't.

L: Their relationship is deep, and badly messed up, and damaging them both: her much more than him.  So I do see it as a possibility, but it's not an end I'm steering towards.

Their relationship will continue to be important, and will continue to change and affect them both.

L: "he could use his magic to block some memories and implant more compulsions and ideas."

A: If he erases her memory all the time she can't actually learn and develop.

L: Agreed.  But he wouldn't erase it all.  But not erasing it all would likely leave loose ends that might then be probed at to find inconsistencies and cause problems...

A: And he already put so many compulsions on her she is becoming an automaton quickly. And it's doubtful she can actually work under that condition. She definitely won't progress and develop and he probably would have to admit the experiment failed.

L: I don't agree that she couldn't develop in those conditions; but I think he could easily end up in a situation where unless he has her tied up with compulsions and behaving like an automaton, she'd be too dangerous to him personally.

But again, that's not something the story is heading towards.

A: I am just still so puzzled about Harmon's short sightedness. But again, this is the makeup of an interesting character, too. A pretty fatal flaw. Just because someone has power doesn't mean he has wisdom. And he is a poster boy for that.
It's just puzzling he actually could keep the upper hand for so long. Considering the amount of mistakes he made.

L: The mistakes come mainly from his character flaws, and to a lesser extent to Eagle's very subtle manipulations in the background.

And yes, by the end of Book 2 Leeth realises she can't trust him.

A: Also I don't quite get how he supposed her personal development should progress if he so totally controls her. The only thing developing there can be resentment.

L: Her development would be stunted if he controlled her to that extent. But even he knows that.

More importantly, her development doesn't depend on him. So I don't think he's being entirely delusional.  He is, however, seeing a rosier picture than is likely, given the way the two of them interact.

A: Well...  it is consistent with his personality. I can't argue that :}

L: The point they've descended to in their relationship — what you're calling the fire — I see more as the two of them now being a long way down in a deep pit.  I see the changes coming more as an attempt to climb back out of the pit (for one or both), rather than as putting out a fire.

A: Okay, I'd say both are fitting metaphors. Leeth realizes she has to do "something". And he should realize by now he pushed her to that.

L: Yes.

L: If not for Marcie's situation, Leeth would have stayed, directly confronting Harmon, fighting the problem head on, until something catastrophic happened. If she had run away for herself, or run away just to escape Harmon, she would consider that a massive "loss of points" in their unacknowledged battle.

A: ???

He just switches her into Zombie mode and she has to do whatever she does not want to do. Obviously she wants to fight this torture and abuse. But it doesn't look like she has any chance there. It's what made his betrayal so monstrous after all. And why I can't see any productive way those two actually work together. You already described her breakdown. And her realizations that "Keepie is dead and she had enough"

Running away was the only reasonable choice I'd say.

L: I can see other options.  But none that Leeth would have seen, or could have carried out plausibly at that point.  She could have chosen to stay and endure it: but when I peer into that alternate future, I see disaster and blood.

I think the running away was a wise choice for her.


Again, I think that will do for now. The next Q&A topic: "Who is the most evil character in the series so far?"

Although before that I may write a quick article on updating your ebooks at Amazon, when you have post-publication corrections you want to make.

Thursday, 28 September 2017

Blog changes, status, Q&A part 1

First, a tiny status update and some news about the blogs.

I'm working on book 4, and I think progress is good. But I've also been too quiet on social media, so I'll return to blogging as often as I used to. I think part of the reason for my near silence is that I got a little burned out. And at a suggestion from a writer friend, Barbara Strickland, I've re-thought my idea of running two separate blogs. This one has until now focused just on what I've been learning about self-publishing. The other, All About Leeth, focused on the writing side and the books themselves. But the two do blur together a little, and I can see several advantages (for me and my select group of readers) in merging the two.

So, this blog post will be the 1st one using the new, merged scope.

Back in December 2016 I received my first email from a reader of The Leeth Dossier. AndyK had reviewed the first two books and asked for an advanced review copy of the 3rd. From there we moved on to a deeper discussion. Feeling that other readers might be interested too, and with AndyK's agreement, I thought I'd try to summarise it into a sort of question and answer format. We covered a lot of ground, so I'm breaking it up into several articles.

This 1st one covers: the Shadowrun connection; the series as a whole; and plots, pacing and story arcs.

The 2nd will cover Harmon and Leeth's relationship.

The 3rd will discuss the question: which character is most evil?

The 4th (and final?) will cover the topic of the darkness of the story.

If there's a demand for it, I'll finish with our discussion on the topic of how explicit the stories are, but only if there's demand for it. I think four articles will be more than enough, myself!

Spoiler alert!

Note that because we discussed the first two books, this will contain some spoilers if you haven't read them: in other words, this article is only intended for people who have already read Wild Thing and Harsh Lessons.

To provide some context, here is AndyK's review of book 1 (Wild Thing):

4.0 out of 5 stars - Shadowrun reimagined!
Describing the Leeth Dossier without mentioning the strong connection to the Shadowrun world would be hard. Pretty much all the premises of Shadowrun are here as well.
BUT that is not a bad thing. There is enough world-building here to stand on its own and it is always better do do a great copy than a bad invention.
That said I'd like to just list the pro and cons that caught my eye:
(***SPOILERS***)
The good
+ It's a world that is vastly different from ours but feels very alive and "real"
+ Very good editing and hardly any spelling mistakes (which is pretty remarkable for self-publishing)
+ strong and very engaging characters. You WILL start to feel for the main heroine!
The bad
- The main heroine is abused, raped and mind-controlled. Tortured and abused. Alone and desperate. She goes down a slope of pain and suffering. And then the book ends. Everybody who knows the Shadowrun magic system realizes the "escape" won't last.
- There are story threads that just end. Like Berlusconi and his former partner meet to investigate the murder. And are never heard from again....
- Her "Uncle" turns into such a monster that you will start rooting for the "Alien Spirit" and hope he receives Leeth. Simply because he actually is less bad. Which results in the suspense being a bit off during reading.
- If you get emotionally attached to your protagonists then this is not for you. Plain and simple. There is too much suffering and pain and no light at the end of the tunnel.
So, yes, Shadowrun was always a somewhat dark and dystopian future. But this is FAR darker still. Also I like dark and dystopian stories this one is too much so. It will cause you actual emotional pain. Which of course speaks for the talent of the author.

Various threads of discussion started from there, so I'll pick the ones I feel may be of widest interest.

The Shadowrun connection

L: Leeth was created for a Shadowrun campaign. I'm writing the series to bring Leeth to (public) life, and to find out for myself how her story ends.

I won't be drawing any elements from the campaign until book 6, probably.  I'm acutely conscious that re-tellings of a role-playing game campaign are generally awful as novels, so I'll be taking just bits and pieces.

L: In the youtube video from my series launch, I spoke a little about the Shadowrun genesis for the story: how I basically tried to keep the general feel of that world (the key element in my view being the mix of near future with magic), and altered the magic system to make it different, by mixing in more of what people who believe in magic down the ages think is real. I also invented the whole world future history, keeping equivalents of some of the Shadowrun species.

A: I played an elven hermetic mage in SR 2nd edition for like 10 years. So the magic system in SR is second nature to me. And the descriptions of magic felt very familiar. "Mind Probe" and "Suggestion" I could instantly recognise. Also "The Deeps" I recognise as the Metaplanes for Initiates.

But again I see that as something positive since I adore the SR magic system and building on that was a great decision on your part.

The history you built around it is one of your great achievements. The Enemy of Mankind, The Dragon Emperor, World Storm and your Melt Virus explanation for Metas really makes this stand on its own outside SR. That was really well done.

L: Thank you!

The series

L: I think Books 1 and 2 will be the darkest in the series — at least for a good while: I myself don't entirely know what will happen.

A: That is good to hear. Having a main character that is totally at the mercy of a sadist the whole time is an emotionally taxing read :-}

And I do ask myself the same question Leeth asked "How can it be that none of the agents realized what goes on?" How can Eagle be clueless what Harmon does to her in his own base? How should an agent ever be effective if all she thinks about is escape?

L: Neither Leeth nor Harmon ever discuss it.  Harmon had the Dept disable the cameras in their rooms.  Mother is emotionally stunted; Father a little less so; Nelson... !; Preacher has more enmity than sympathy for her; James and Emma are in turn manipulated by the Dept.  Emma suspects something is going on. Dojo intuits that something is not right. I think it would be defensible for Eagle to be unaware; but I don't want to say too much about his position on that topic.

A: He doesn't care as long as he gets his operative?
But he isn't stupid. So I guess he should be able to put one and one together and realize that what happens there can't possibly lead to an operative who is actually useful.

L: He would certainly take a close interest.  A lot more of this begins to be revealed in vol 3.

A: And of course they did disable the cameras, right? o.O "Nelson! Get rid of that damn camera. And plant a few without that stupid autofocus!"
Also, what about the microphones?
I mean… top secret facility… questionable new recruits… wanted for murder… no way out anyway…

L: But Harmon is insightful enough to be aware of that possibility (and prone to casting Mind Probes), so if the Dept did learn what was going on, he would know they knew.  So, I feel Eagle would give them the privacy they demanded.

I also see Eagle as at least as insightful as Harmon, however.

A: Well... "murder", "accessory to...", "obstruction of...", the list of crimes Eagle can pin on them is endless. They are in no position to demand anything. Obviously Eagle likes to be in control. So why should he have the two newest wildcards completely without surveillance?
But of course I take your word for it. It's your story after all and Eagle has a right to make mistakes for the greater good! :))

A: Also Eagle directly confronts Mother at the end blaming her for driving Leeth away. Okay, she denied her request like everybody else. But the one who drove her away was Harmon so I'm a bit puzzled there.

L: Mother has never believed Leeth would be an asset, thinking her much more likely to expose them and cause other problems.  And has not been shy in hiding that from everyone.

A: Mostly because he demands that Mother "restore her faith in us". Which sounds like he wants Leeth to work for them of her own free will. Which makes sense since she obviously was head over heels for all the spy stuff when she came to them. So obviously (for him) something went wrong. But I can't see his reasoning there with Mother....

L: Cool: you're more insightful than Mother, then!  It seems there may be something more going on there, in that case?   Again, this aspect of the story is developed a bit more in vol 3.

A: Really curious where this leads. I do have the impression you wrote yourself into a bit of a corner but I'm curious how you will get out of it.

L: It's a constant question: pull back to make things easier for Leeth, or make things hard as possible for her and see what she comes up with to deal with it.  So far I haven't had to try the first approach.

Later books will start resolving the four longest arcs (two of which, as you thought, are the Dragon Lord and Godsson).
A: So much to look forward to and so long the wait.

L: Well, my plan is to keep working full time on being an author for the next 20 years.  Fingers crossed!  I'd like to get to the end of the longest story arc within 5-10 years. I want to find out how her story ends, for myself.

A: I'm VERY curious about that, too. How many books do you have planned?

L: I can't see myself getting to the end of Leeth's story in under ten. When I first "finished" the MS, I thought there would be about five. But that MS will end up turning into the 1st four books — so I'm very uncertain.  If I can manage to wrap up one major plot per book from now on, it should be about ten or twelve.  But I wouldn't be surprised if it was more.
Hopefully, the fact that Harry Dresden and Anita Blake and Joanne Walker have been popular means some readers enjoy what I think of as "long form" fiction.  It's also possible — after I wrap up all the major plots — that it might change into something more episodic and self contained (like the Modesty Blaise books, or Sherlock Holmes).
That said, there are a couple of other much shorter stories I want to write, in worlds related to ours, but not to Leeth's — probably only a book each.

I'm aiming for a dramatic, satisfying, and happy ending. Though I doubt it will be completely rosy.

A: Wow, you are picturing the ending already? Even though it's a dozen books away?

L: In broad terms, yes. The details however are completely unknown. Just the general shape I'm hoping for.

A: So no Caribbean island where she enjoys her life with all the other Shadowy People who made it? :}

L: I honestly don't know: even that might be possible.  A lot of my pleasure in writing the series is seeing what evolves as the characters act true to themselves, and face the obstacles coming (some as yet undreamed of).

A: It makes the stories feel natural and it's evolving realistically. But I really hope you don't corner yourself in the process :} Or lose important threads.

L: I feel pretty confident I won't corner myself.  And I'm a pedantic and careful person, so I'll be tracking all the threads carefully.  It is possible I might slip up, but given I'm using an external editor (Dave Taylor) and I feel strongly about producing high quality work, I would consider any such errors to be a failure.  Which I hate!

A: Do you outline?

L: Mostly not.  When I wrote the 1st draft, I had outlined the Dept, the Institute, and Harmon for the SR campaign when I generated the character.  But when it came to writing, I had no outline at all: I just started with the scene between Harmon and the Mother Superior, and wrote.

And somewhat bizarrely, half of each of the 1st four books looks like they will have come (with little change) from that 1st draft.

A: That is really a unique approach. I always hear of authors using a somewhat top down bottom up method.

L: For the rewrites for books 1-3, I did need to outline the new plot threads (more so for books 2 and 3 than 1) - that helped me add the completely new stuff without the result looking like Frankenstein's monster (I hope)!

A: I haven't felt any of the plot threads being out of place so far. Just that the focus and intensities might be a bit off in my opinion. But I know I am pretty biased in that matter.

L: That encourages me.  I felt for many years that plotting was my weakest point.  But I feel I'm getting a handle on that, as well as beginning to grasp pacing and focus and intensity.

L: I've converted the existing "half a book" (which will become the 4th one) from troff/mm to RTF to LibreOffice. I'm re-reading and editing it, to load back into my subconscious to see what needs to be added to turn it from a story into a plot.  There might not be much extra needed, as the stuff I've woven into the 1st three seem to have aligned perfectly.

A: You seem to have a pretty unique workflow…
L: (grimace) I hope to settle down into a more normal model for the later books!

L: For the idea I'd had, of Leeth dealing with mean girls in a drama school: Marcie was invented simply as a target for the mean girls. Her name started as a pun on Mousie (for the insult value), but she blossomed into a really important character.

And I love seeing that happen.

A: And it was a good idea to let Leeth out of that swamp of abuse at that point.
But also it was a bit cut short. You know it just had to have a first boyfriend kind of thing. I waited for that the whole time. But then that probably would have kicked the story and characters out of whack.

L: Heh. Yeah, I think Leeth's first romance(s) will hugely derail whatever agenda other people are running for her.  I think it will come in due course. I have a few ideas in mind.

Plots, pacing, and story arcs

A: There are story threads that just end. Like Berlusconi and his former partner meet to investigate the murder. And never heard from again....

L: That plot thread largely resolves in book 3.

A: I expected as much. But.... I am a big fan of self contained books. You know.. the story resolves at the end, and the big questions get mostly answered. A sense of closure. That's why I am not really behind the arc in Harsh Lessons. Things only go downhill and at the end she still is under total mental domination. So there is no sense of closure. But I understand it directly continues in book 3 and you split the story up there.
The first book had a better and more satisfying arc in that regard.

L: Fair comment.  But I like to have several plot arcs running simultaneously, of varying lengths.  At least one arc that started in book 1 won't resolve until the end of the series!  I suppose I'm still learning how to flag to the reader which plots will wrap up in the current book, and which ones they'll need to be more patient for.

A: What I would definitely find important is to quantize the sense of urgency for the different arcs correctly. You don't fix the fridge while your house is on fire.

L: I split book 2 mainly because of length: the mass of the story as it was made the pacing too slow. So I had the choice of deleting half the book, or breaking it in two and adding something to each part to make them satisfying in their own rights.

A: Okay, makes sense. But had its downsides.

If I had to guess I'd say the Dragon and Godsson will be around to stay?

L: Yes. And there are more hints in vol 3 (small developments) of a couple of the other long running plots, too.

My original plan, before I had to split book two in half (aargh!), was that the Disten plot would be the main arc.

A: Yep. Introduced in the first book and then clearly came to the foreground in the second.
The only little problem I had there is simply a matter of priorities. That's what I wanted to express with my burning house and fridge analogy. Nobody cares about the fridge while the house is burning. And who is interested in a hunt for a strange spirit while the life of the hero is made a living hell by a maniac with delusions of omnipotence?

L:  Harmon's treatment seems to have lead to a magical Unfolding, however. So it does seem to be effective, if you can ignore the morals, ethics, and humanity!

A: Which begs the question: why did you split that book up? Forgive me for saying that but looking at book two… that seems to have been not the best choice. So many things seem to be left hanging. Most of all the Harmon-Leeth-Department dynamic. Her running away showed she can't continue like that and also no resolution of this arc.

Overarching story lines are a good idea in serials but usually that means you have arc(s) developing in the background and the most pressing main arc finds some resolution. Book two brings some pressing stuff into the foreground but doesn't resolve much.

L: I'm reluctant to allow the plot to steer the characters — constructing the plot to allow Leeth to resolve her biggest personal issues — and I also see the Leeth-Harmon dynamic as a key element in the series as a whole. That's a larger arc, in my view, along the "character development dimension".

A: As I am experiencing it, it is the very heart of the book. No question. What I mean is they are at a point in their relationship where something has to give. It's not simmering, it's boiling. And water does not boil forever. Either it cools or it's… gone.

Also "She does whatever he says because he can set her to Zombie mode" will get quite… stagnant I guess.

L: Don't underestimate her determination to achieve what she sets her mind to.

For the plot side of things, Harmon and Leeth's relationship is an important input — obviously, since it's shaped Leeth's development.  But there are a lot of other important inputs, too: like the return of magic, Godsson, the Dragon, and other things.

A: I saw those more as a frame for the story. The center stage is Leeth and Harmon and how he makes her life a living hell. Especially in the second book everything else is on the sideline. At least that's how I experienced it.

The first book had this Godsson dynamic which was rather strong. The alien spirit didn't deliver that in book two. And with the direct mind control and torture (and humiliation) the Harmon-Leeth dynamic became nearly unbearably intense.

L: Fair comment!  What Godsson created is a key element in book 3.

For the ethical threads (and character development), their relationship is also extremely important.

For me, I intended the surface stuff in Book 2 — learning to become an assassin/secret agent and learning how to be a bit more like a normal person, and the school abduction — to be the main plot arc. The character development stuff adds depth. Their relationship, and Leeth's own morals, are still developing.

A: I can see that. And it works to some extent. It's just the problem [analogy] with the house and the fridge again.

Also I think it would have been a good idea to expand on the school plot a bit. Provide some more much needed relief on one hand and some "normal" on the other. Add some fun. It felt somewhat cut short. But that might be just me.

L: I don't yet have a good feel for how much is right to add; and I do think different people like different amounts of it. As for relief, I think Leeth stopped being a victim in its purest form once she realised she was being manipulated. Another big step for her was his betrayal when he implanted his magical controls...

A: Weeeeelll... She made a desperate gamble and completed her selfless goal (saving her friend). But she still has all of Harmon's compulsions and controls active. And actually no real way to get away.
If I would play Leeth in a campaign I could only see like 3 faint possibilities to get rid of the spell construct (provided you do hold onto the SR canon in that regard):
1) Find a mage or shaman who is willing to make a brute force attack on the spell construct. With all the negative side effects that might cause. I could only see Berlusconi as that option. But all in all… unlikely
2) Get to Godsson. He is obviously a powerful hermetic initiate. So he probably can simply dispel it. But I guess her visit to the Deeps (metaplanar projection) was by chance so it is doubtful she can reach him again that way so soon. And getting to him physically… well that would make an interesting arc in and of itself I guess. But also unlikely because too difficult.
3) Find and hire a (good) wet-worker. It's SR-ish after all. Problems get fixed by putting bullets into them >;] She wanted to kill him but couldn't because of the compulsion. So why not find someone who can. Probably the most promising way.

L: It will be interesting to see what people think of Vol 3. And there could be other approaches too.  Who knows what Leeth could come up with, if pushed? (smile)

A: I am really curious how that resolves. The preview chapter you posted doesn't leave much hope for her to be honest…. It shows she got caught, is back in the Department and works the mission as planned. As if nothing much happened.…

L: Fair point; it does look that way (smile). For a while, it was looking like that preview would have to change, or even be cut.  But in the end, I found a surprisingly plausible and satisfying path that let her pursue her dream career — at least for a while.



I think that's amply long enough for now. Next time, the topic is Harmon and Leeth's twisted relationship.

Saturday, 29 April 2017

Stuffing things up

Well, this is a pretty embarrassing blog article to be writing, but it's an important public service announcement. I stuffed up.

Here's the executive summary of how it affects people who want to read Shadow Hunt (vol 3 in The Leeth Dossier): please wait an extra day before you start reading it. If you pre-ordered it, please wait for an email from Amazon telling you that a new version is available.

Here's why….

I made Shadow Hunt available for pre-order on Amazon (April 30th, 2017), uploading the draft I had a month earlier (March 26th), while I was working through my editor's 2nd and final critique. (Or 3rd, or 4th, if you include the two earlier book splits!) I thought five weeks would give me a comfortable period — comfortable enough to even allow me to attend the sci-fi/fantasy convention SwanCon, in Perth, and spend a couple of days extra seeing the sights.

Which would have been all well and good if I hadn't made a couple of other errors. The first was not checking the details of when I needed to upload the final version of the book: I assumed the day before. In hindsight this was remarkably stupid, because naturally Amazon needs extra time to check the book carefully before launch. (In fact, they need 72 hours.) My second big mistake was a really stupid failure of basic arithmetic: 30 minus 3 = 27, not 28, right? Yeah, well my brain did the sum this way instead "Let's see: 30, 29, 28: that's three days. So, April 28 is the deadline."

Don't ask. Even I don't see how I could have made that error. Partly it was wishful thinking that the time counted from the end of April 30th, not the start of the day! D'oh!

Maybe by this time I was getting tired, too, because my editing of vol 3 was taking longer than I had expected. Anyway, I completed all my edits and did my 1st polish of the new parts, and then the 2nd polish (a bit rushed, I admit), and sat down one hour before the deadline (I thought) to convert the book to Amazon's format and upload it. I finished that with ten minutes to spare (again: I thought) and then tried to upload. Bzzt: "locked for pre-order release checks."

Uh oh.

It was only then that I realised my stuff-up. I contacted Amazon, but there was nothing they could do: my choices were either to cancel the pre-order at the last minute (and thus prove I couldn't be trusted with the ability to manage a pre-order for a period of 12 months), or upload the revised version with the usual detailed description of changes, and request Amazon to push out an offer to all existing purchasers that a new version is available.

So I chose that 2nd option. This means that the draft copy will only be there for a short period after the pre-order date (a day, I hope), and that people who pre-ordered will soon get the updated version.

The draft version that ‘escaped' can be distinguished from the final version in many ways:

  • At the end of the table of contents, the release version is noted as "pre-4" — not "1".
  • The Prologue is inside Part I — instead of coming just before it.
  • The book is 141,854 words long — not 149,450. (Yes, this is despite cutting about 10k words, too.)
  • The draft version has 79 chapters (+epilogue) — not 82 (+epilogue).
  • Something like 2,000 other changes, big and small. I won't enumerate them here, but one small example in the prologue is the changing of the sentence that begins "Yet thanks to it, no one would expect to find human remains" to "Yet thanks to it, with no bodies to be found".
  • I'm not going to mention any of the bigger changes, because they'd be spoilers, but for the 30 days or so following my upload of my late draft version to Amazon, I think I averaged about 9-10 hours per day working on improving the book. The changes were based on Dave's critique and some extra Q&A with him, an early beta read by a friend as those changes neared completion (thanks, Jon!), and feedback from two beta readers (Sandra, AndyK) to try to resolve a key point. So parts of the plot are strengthened, there are fewer errors and questionable parts (it all makes more sense), and is just generally vastly improved, thanks to all the feedback.

    At this point I should also add that on one point, Dave and I couldn't agree (but neither of us were sure any more who was right). I also couldn't reach consensus by the beta readers. I vacillated for a while, but in the end, trusted my gut. So don't blame Dave if there's some thing (or things) about the book which you feel could have been improved: you've no doubt found a place where I didn't follow his advice!

    Tuesday, 18 April 2017

    Publishing: Where to Begin

    For my first large sci-fi/fantasy convention, I travelled across the country to Perth — another first, for me. SwanCon is Australia's longest running speculative fiction convention. In this, its 42nd year, the background theme was honouring the work of Douglas Adams. They had wonderful guests of honour (Michael Troughton, Joyce Chng, Traci Harding, Sean Williams, Alan Baxter, Davina Watson, and Wesley Chu via Skype). The SwanCon committee had organised a huge range of panels and activities — generally about four talks on at the same time across each day from 10am to 11pm or later; along with four or more activities running in parallel — from board games, to live action role-playing, to console gaming to children's and family activities.

    (Michael Troughton and Sean Williams holding up the SwanCon costume party sign)

    SwanCon 42 was held at the Metro Hotel, Perth, which did a heroic job to support the convention (and feed a large crowd several times a day). The hotel strained at the seams, but in my view can be proud of the job they did.

    I was also impressed by the dedication of the organising committee, and their ability to fix things and cope when things went unexpectedly wrong.

    This is just a short piece to record and share some notes I made as homework for one of the two planned panels I was on. It's a companion piece to a related panel focussed on writing your story (and hence, is over on All About Leeth). (I just intended to type up my notes, but thought they'd be a bit too cryptic if I had done literally just that.)

    The topic of the panel discussion (organised by Michael Cogan, I think), was "Publishing: Where to Begin".

    "Do you have a really awesome story and need a way to get it out to the masses? Come and hear from some who have been there and done it before."

    My most excellent fellow panellists were Amanda Bridgeman, Satima Flavell, and Glenda Larke.

    I think we collectively provided good information, and there were excellent questions and comments from the very engaged audience. Please understand this is not a record of what we all said, but merely some notes I made beforehand as a memory jogger. Some of these points were made by other panellists independently, in their own words. Because we had only an hour and there was a lot of ground to cover, only some of my notes were covered in the talk.

    The following applies after you've written your story.

    Before publishing, you need to have put in the effort to make it the best you can. This is critical for your first published work, since the biggest problem for new authors is being discovered and tried by readers. If you make a bad first impression, there are so many new stories coming out all the time that readers may not come back and try you again.

    So it pays to invest in your first story. By all means get friends or family to read your story. Note though that you're putting them in a difficult position, especially if you take criticism personally: criticism of what you've written is not a criticism of you. And if your story is not the sort of story your reader would normally read, don't ask expect anything other than finding typos and bad grammar.

    You're much more likely to get insightful criticism from other writers, and from avid readers in your genre. Having portions reviewed by other writers will be especially valuable to you, as will feedback from beta readers.

    Neil Gaiman said "When more than one person tells you something you've written is wrong or doesn't work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong. You are the creator: only you can know how to fix it."

    Most valuable of all will be a paid-for critique by a good professional editor who understands the story you are trying to write. And if you only spend money on one thing to help publish and sell your book, spend it on that, even if you have to save up for it.

    You learn writing by doing. When you think your work is good enough, invest some money in getting a good professional editor to critique it. It's an investment in yourself. And unlike other such professional development courses, the "practical exercise" from this "training course" directly contributes to making your story the best it can be.

    But you need to do the homework to get to a stage where the editor will be helping you make it the best it can be, rather than spending your money having them teach you how to write! (A good editor would not agree to take on work that's not up to that standard, IMO.)

    And you need to find an editor who ‘gets' your work and is willing to explain why they've advised what they have, and will listen to you when you explain why you did what you did. You need to be able to discuss and things when your opinion differs. Usually, then, you'll reach some agreement — often, some blending of both points of view, or some other wording or approach or scene that you can both agree on. I highly recommend ThEditors.com. They even offer a free assessment of the 1st 3k words of your work.

    Regarding editing, I've blogged about it here. And this article I stumbled over looking for that Neil Gaiman quote is pithy and wise.

    So, let's go:

    Traditional Publishing (including Indie-publishing) and self-publishing have a lot in common. If you are being published by a company, you'll also need to write a "pitch letter" and/or an outline and/or a synopsis. These are all different kinds of writing, and require time and practice to learn how to do well. They each serve a different purpose, related to making the publisher's (or agent's) job easier. Those people have hard jobs, so these communications have evolved to tell them exactly what they need to know, as clearly and succinctly as possible. There are books on the topic and web-sites, including examples of Things To Do, and Things Which Will Instantly Get Your Story Rejected If You Do Them. A key thing to know is that the people who will be reading your words have very little time and are under a lot of pressure. Try to put yourself in their shoes, and think about things from their point of view, so you can tell them what they need to know.

    But the other panellists (and some audience members — Alan, Sean, Bec…) know much more about that than me, since all my attempts to follow that path went nowhere!

    For self-publishing, you don't need to write those things, though you will need to write an excellent blurb, and ideally a tag-line for your book (the snappy/intriguing teaser line that may appear on the cover), and also "the elevator pitch".

    Be aware that these things, though very short, are very difficult to do and you're likely to go through hundreds of iterations before you get each of them "right". It's because they're like poetry in a way: you're trying to pack the maximum impact into few words. You have to distil everything down to its essence. However, for these far shorter pieces of writing, you can pester anyone you know for their opinion!

    The text of your book must be proofread before publication. This is the easiest and most straightforward kind of editing there is. Unfortunately, it's also hard to do yourself since your mind has stored the words you intended to write, and you'll tend to read those rather than the words you actually wrote. This includes punctuation, too. But few errors will throw a reader out of a story like typographical or grammatical errors. (Unless it's a glaring continuity or plausibility error: they're probably worse!)

    Book cover. Unless you're a graphic designer, preferably with some background in book cover design for the genre of your story, pay for a book cover design. You can get super-cheap cover designs via web sites like fiverr, or others that will have people bid for your job. There are sites that offer pre-made book covers across wide ranges of genres, requiring just the text to be supplied (Title, author, etc.), and who will sell you exclusive use of a design for a relatively low cost ($100 — $200). You can also look for good book cover designs in your Twitter feed, and contact the author to ask for their cover designer's details. (That's how I found my cover designer, the wonderful Mirella de Santana)

    An audience member asked if we each would recommend trying to go via the Traditional or Indie route for their first book, or just self-publish? The other panellists made excellent points, and observed very correctly that you'll get a lot of support if you're accepted for publication (especially with a small, independent publisher): you'll get an advance, they'll provide the editor, whose services you won't have to pay for, they'll write or help you write the blurb, they'll design the cover, and best of all they'll handle the marketing for the book's launch period. They all, I think, said "On balance, yes, it's probably a good idea."

    I however think the decision is not so clear-cut. If you self-publish, you are indeed taking on all that extra work: that of a whole publishing company — and you're probably unskilled in most of it! Admittedly, all that work is just for your story alone.

    But if what you're writing is the first volume in a series, the balance shifts so that it's probably better in the long run for you to self-publish, in my opinion. That's because the first book in a series is a really powerful tool for marketing. Having complete control over the cover, the blurb, how and where it's sold, and most especially, the ebook price (so you can greatly reduce it, or even make it free for short periods), is enormously helpful in getting your work found by readers, and generating follow-on reviews (typically, only something like 1% of readers will also review your book).

    Another reason to opt for self-publishing is my belief that we're currently only about halfway through a tectonic shift in the book publishing environment, which in future will be more like self-publishing. With self-publishing, the authors and the readers are in pretty direct contact, via social media, blogs, review sites, Facebook groups, and mailing lists. This interaction will be mediated by giants like Amazon (who are in business to make it easier for authors to sell and publish their books, and readers to discover and buy books they'll enjoy) and other ebook publishers and distributors, as well as the social media companies and purpose-built web sites that help solve the "discovery" problem.

    Even traditionally-published authors need a social media presence these days, since companies can only afford to market their work for roughly the "two week launch period", unless you're one of the super-star authors.

    Of course, you should produce an ebook version of your story! It will be your best marketing tool, and probably also generate you the most income. And producing and publishing it will cost you nothing except a day or so of time (including time spent learning). If you choose to distribute exclusively with Amazon, you will earn 70% royalties provided you stay within their recommended (and sensible) price band. If you choose Amazon exclusively, also sign up for Kindle Unlimited and allow borrowing. I earn more from my share of Amazon's subscription-model payments than I do from individual ebook sales. (I earn least of all from my print book sales.)

    Produce a print edition, too. If you produce a PDF file, that will be exactly what you'll get when you print. Though for colour parts (the cover and back), you'll need to be aware of CMYK colour and how to produce a PDF/X file with the right profile. I've blogged about that in too much detail here.

    Decide how you'll publish. If you're accepted by an Indie or large publisher, they'll tell you. Otherwise, you get to choose.

    If you're self-publishing, I think it's wise to buy some ISBNs. In Australia, you buy ISBNs from Thorpe-Bowker. One ISBN costs $125; if you buy ten, that costs $250. One hundred costs $575. Book distributors' databases tend to see contiguous ISBN numbers as belonging to a specific publisher (in this case: you).

    It costs nothing (or next to nothing) to apply for an ABN (Australian Business Number), too. You just fill out some forms on a government web site.

    Smashwords will make your ebook available to Amazon, Barnes and Noble, iBooks, and I think all or most of the major players. This will save you the effort of producing an ebook in each of the formats they all require. (Though with the exception of Amazon, my guess is that they'd all accept epub format, or else Word's .docx format. Amazon prefers Kindle/.mobi format.)

    Producing the ebook is very easy if you do it the right way. There's some wonderful free software called Calibre for managing your ebooks, including producing your own. It's amazing. The first time you use it, it'll probably take you some hours to learn it and set up the couple of options you'll need to alter.

    Each time you add a new book you've written to Calibre, it'll take you about an hour to enter in all the book's metadata (Title, Author, series info, ISBN, keywords, blurb, cover). You produce the ebook by choosing "convert to ebook" and selecting the appropriate input — typically Word format — and output: e.g. .mobi. Click Cobnvert: it will take about a minute. Replacing the book with an updated/improved version will take a few seconds; generating the new ebook version will take a minute, again. It's really that easy, thanks to all the hard work by Calibre's creator, Kovid Goyal, who has also produced heaps of good tutorials for using it (also free). I've blogged about that, here.

    Then, basically, you'll upload that output ebook file, and a separate cover file, to your publisher's web site.

    If you've chosen Amazon, or are using Amazon at all, you should register with them as an author and create your Amazon Central Author Page. Provide bio details and so on in the online forms they lead you through. You need to "Add" and link your books explicitly, manually, to your Author Page.

    For each edition of each book that you add and link to your Author Page, you inform Amazon of its ISBN. If you don't have one, they'll provide you with one. Though if you choose to publish them elsewhere, you'll need to use a fresh ISBN, not Amazon's one.

    Oh, and Amazon also make it super-easy to register that you are overseas and only 5% tax should be subtracted and handed to the US government (as long as you live in a country like Australia, that has a reciprocal tax arrangement with the US). You just fill out a form, and provide your Australian taxation number, and which bank account they should pay the royalties into.

    You can choose to create a print edition via Amazon, through their CreateSpace subsidiary.

    For my print editions, I chose a larger publisher/printer than Amazon, that also uses Print On Demand, called IngramSpark. I think it costs about $50 to sign up with them (once-off), and then it costs US$50 each time you upload a new edition/version of your book. ($25 for the cover, $25 for the contents.) So if you can get it perfect 1st time, and don't need to upload a corrected edition, you'll minimise your cost there. There's also a one-off cost ($80, IIRC) per book that you can opt-in to, to "advertise" your book. I think this just pushes your book's metadata out to all the book distributors' databases, which therefore makes your printed book available across about 29,000 stores, worldwide. Not bad, eh?

    One trick/note: don't tick the box that says book stores can return unsold copies. The downside is that almost no book store will stock your book on its shelves, for fear of not selling them. The up-side is that you won't lose potentially large sums of money paying for the shipping back of unsold copies if a store over-estimates how many they'll sell. They'll still order your book in, though, if asked. And of course, online booksellers in each country will happily order and ship your books to readers. You will need to set your discount to around 40% so the book store can make a profit. IS provide tables so you can work out costs and thus set your price so you make at least a small profit on each copy.

    I chose IS to reduce delivery costs, since the books will be printed in or near the country in which they're bought. This is in contrast to Amazon, which prints only in the US (and maybe UK)? Also, IS supports a much wider range of print edition sizes and bindings.

    You should inform the National Library of Australia of each edition of each of your books. It is I think worthwhile to also apply form and get a Cataloguing in Publication (CIP) entry for your book. And remember to send off a print copy (and the ebook) to the NLA after publication.

    I think it's also worthwhile joining the Australian Society of Authors (ASA). They've recently upgraded their infrastructure. (Remember, Luke, to re-upload all your author details into the new system.) And the Writers' Association for your state, too.

    Social media. The big problem for new authors is being discovered. You need to use some social media to make your presence known. Be authentic, is my advice. Be yourself, and offer useful and interesting content. Don't just repeat, in various forms, "Check out my book". But don't let social media dominate your time or energy. Limit yourself to at most an hour a day, is my own rule of thumb.

    Use free give-aways to attract new readers to try your work. The first book in a series is ideal for this. Never try to trick/cheat/deceive/coerce a reader. How would you feel if that were done to you? Good reviews will hugely increase your visibility, so write the best book you can. And make sure the book description sets the reader's expectations correctly: most reviewers who don't enjoy a story will give it a low rating even if they think it was really well-written. You want the people who will enjoy your book to be the ones reading it.

    The best thing you can do to increase your sales is to write more good books.

    Go to it!