Sunday, 5 April 2020

A Novel Ending

A Novel Ending

A funny thing happened on the way to the ending…

I’m loving my new being-an-author career, despite my inability to earn a living from it. (Yet?)

One of the things I enjoy is that each book feels like it comes with its own unique challenges.  I hope that means I’m learning as I go along.

For the current book in my Leeth Dossier series, Lost Girl (#5), there were two challenges.  The first was my feeling that on the subject of plot, I fly too much by the seat of my pants, so the whole journey from start to end is like a billy-cart racing downhill out of control.  Exhilarating, but also nerve-wracking.

Looking back through my revision control files, I deduce I started writing the Lost Girl segment of the story back in Apr/May 2009.  I wrote a chunk more in Jan 2015 before posting the chapters for review on the Online Writing Workshop for Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror over a few months and receiving valuable feedback.  By Oct 2015 it had grown to about 25,000 words.  I think that was when I set it aside to devote all my energy to completing the earlier books in the series.

That took five years.

So, for book #5 I was starting with a broad idea of the story, 25,000 words of draft, and thanks to a discussion with Jon Marshall one night, a good feeling for the theme of the novel.  I also wanted to try a hybrid approach to plotting.

Pantser or Plotter?

I love the organic surprises and creativity that comes from flying by the seat of my pants, but at the same time, having watched his video Misconceptions About Rewriting, and from my own experience in algorithmic development, I deeply understood the value in at least high-level planning.  So I hoped that creating the bones of a plot might work well, since it would only be a sketchy outline and thus pretty painless to change it if the story started going in a different direction.

I started reading John Truby’s “The Anatomy of Story” in early 2019, reaching a quarter of the way through before getting distracted. (I see there’s also a video interview here.)  The book and advice is fine, but it wasn’t sparking any flames for me and I set it aside.  (I do intend to return to it and finish reading it though.)

I’d downloaded a free writing book from Daniel David Wallace titled “How to Write Better Sentences”, and watched some of his videos, and liked them, so when he offered a course on his character-driven plotting course in December 2019 I decided to sign up for it.  I did that diligently from mid Dec 2019 to end of Jan 2020, and was very happy with the outcome.  I had lots of ideas for how the plot would unfold, all of course driven by the characters, which is how I have to write.

The problem that remained was that I only had a satisfying end.  I think you also need the ending to be unpredictable.  I (still) don’t know how you plan that.  For me it’s just happened by luck or inspiration, and I was still in the same position, lacking that final piece of the puzzle.

As I’ve written on several occasions now, I’ve really come to trust Unconscious Thought Theory.  It’s an excellent way to use the full power of your mind and surprise yourself.  So I carried on writing, always with the lightly-plotted ending in mind, and things flowed along pretty well.

Now, because the World Science Fiction Convention was to be held in New Zealand in July/Aug 2020, a place I’d wanted to visit and a convention that seems exciting, I planned to attend.  I booked my travel and accommodation, with the goal of publishing the book late July and maybe even launching it or promoting it in some way at the WorldCon.  To do that I needed to send the MS to Dave at by E/April.

So I was trying hard to meet a deadline of E/March to have a good 1st draft of the MS.  I was extremely lucky to be little affected by the unprecedented Australian bushfires of 2019, but no one could remain unmoved by those events - from the heroism of our fireys and communities ( (even this Aussie speculative fiction anthology put together for fire charities: Stories of Hope), to the jaw-dropping failures of our so-called political leader to actually lead.

There was also the ongoing drama of the Democratic run-up toward the 2020 US presidential election, which I had grown addicted to (since the US has an inordinate impact on world affairs, and I could see what a turning point the 2020 election could be, with luck).  Then of course, the global pandemic of Covid-19 arrived, making the insignificance of my own efforts even clearer.  Now, I may not be as stubborn as Leeth, but I am stubborn, so I carried on.

Like the period after the death of my wife Stella in Dec 2014, my writing sustained me and kept me positive. So for that reason as much as any I stuck to my plans.

Which brings me to the part of the story which most surprised me — and in the end delighted me.

How did it go in the end?

Approaching my deadline, I had set myself a (120,000) word count limit to try to hold myself to, to keep the book a manageable size for all concerned.  And as the days fell away and March 31 approached, it looked like I might just do it.  But when the days dropped from three to two to one and I arrived at the cusp of the ending, I’d run out of time and still didn’t know fully what the ending would be.

Partly this was just having confidence in my unconscious to pull a rabbit out of the hat; partly it was the belief that if I didn’t know what the ending would be, it might mean that when (if?) it did arrive it would also surprise a reader; and partly it was having faith in my characters.  I also had an interesting mix of actors there at the ending.  There was the potential to have… (counting…) seven major players in the scene at the end.  Unfortunately that meant there was a huge range of ways the ending could play out.

So I think there was a certain amount of choice-paralysis at work, although it’s also possible my unconscious was simply beavering away at the complex problem I’d set it.  Of course I was also worried I might not be able to pull it off at all.  Would the ending be good enough?  I didn’t want just an exciting one, I wanted it to have emotional depth too.  So the stakes felt high to me.

And still I couldn’t seem to make much progress.  Here’s how the last several days went:

March 29: Had reached the climactic scene — I mean, all the players were on stage together.
March 30: Wrote 3700 words of the scene.
March 31: Day off, visiting Mum.
April 1: (astute readers will see this is after E/Mar) Strangely blocked, until I forced myself to design the physical location. Then: +600 words.
April 2: Wrote 3,600 words and halfway through the “action” part of the ending.
April 3: Finished the “action” part (wrote 1000 words).
April 4: Still didn’t know how it would end. I simply considered each actor and let them do their thing. Various agendas in play, conflicting, and stage fully set and conducive to just letting the movie roll. Each one being clever and true to themselves, a dramatic rife to the finish with real challenges and emotional drama. At the very end of the day (11:50pm), I felt delighted. My characters had thrilled me and moved me. I’d been biting my nails more than once, and in tears more than once. 5,100 words and the MS was basically complete.

I’ve never experienced anything like that last day.  My feeling was one of excitement and satisfaction.  I made some small additions while cooking dinner (9pm), and when I sat down with it I realised I didn’t want to watch any TV as I ate, I instead wanted to dwell on those final scenes, to savour and digest it all.  I suppose it felt a bit like I’d just stepped off an emotional roller-coaster!

I still have thirty one small gaps to fill or issues to check, and then lots of work to polish it up enough to be ready to send to my editor, so I can’t really relax much yet.  But the weight on my shoulders of finishing that critical 1st draft, and perhaps as importantly, writing a ‘good’ ending, is over.  So a lot of unacknowledged stress has fallen away, and I must say I’m looking forward to the next few weeks.

I’ve written this because the experience felt really special, and I wanted to capture it. It was nothing like I’d had for the previous books.  Once again, I feel I learned a lot.  My fingers are crossed in the hope that readers will have the same opinion!

Sunday, 8 December 2019

Overcoming Obstructions to Writing

(Photo by Travis Saylor from Pexels)

Just a quick post to share something small I learned about how my mind works when it comes to writing.  For the last week I’ve made no progress on Lost Girl (Leeth Dossier #5).  There were everyday tasks which I felt needed to be done (like coffee: harvest time won’t wait), but that wasn’t enough to explain it all.  Those tasks only took up the time and energy for a portion of each day.

I’ve written about the Unconscious Thought Theory several times now, and I know for certain it’s heavily involved in my own creative process.  (I strongly suspect it’s true for everyone, but I don’t know that.)  So I know a lot of the work happens in the unconscious.  I also noticed previously that I was blocked when my conscious plan for how a story would unfold didn’t agree with what was developing in my unconscious.  In hindsight, I felt my unconscious threw up obstacles to stop me heading down that wrong path I had consciously planned.

I also know the neuroscience says the unconscious parts of the brain have something like fifty ‘processing units’ running in parallel. That sounds like a lot, but it’s a finite number.

Anyway, what happened was that tonight I tackled a task that had been weighing on my mind for a couple of months now.  (Selecting and booking a hotel for the world SF convention next year in Wellington, New Zealand, to be precise.)  I felt some relief as soon as I’d done so.

What I realised later however was that when I started to think about the next scene in Lost Girl, my mind didn’t instantly shy away and offer up a distraction.  Then I recognised that mental shying away was something I’d learned to do a long time ago to protect myself from worry about a situation I had no control over.  At that point I finally put two and two together and realised my unconscious was trying to solve the hotel booking problem and didn’t want to spare time for book creation.  Each time I tried it distracted me in a non-creative direction.  Sneaky, wise unconscious!

So, if you’re finding yourself blocked, go looking for a cause and then tackle that.  There’s probably a lot of different things that could be the issue.  Two I’ve discovered are 1) your plan is wrong, and 2) you have something else that needs your unconscious attention first.  The unconscious is great at making patterns and weighing up combinations of possibilities, but it has limits!

Friday, 11 October 2019

Leeth’s Journey So Far: “Four Books!”

Chatting to an author friend today (Barbara Strickland), about what lay ahead for Leeth, she asked whether my idea for the series in the longer term was to pursue the action path or the emotional side of things?

I’m four books in now, and so far I believe I’ve delved deeply into both sides.  I had to stop and think though, to consider Barbara’s question.  Thirty years ago, I thought the series would be a sci-fi/fantasy action series, but when it came down to it, I couldn’t tell the story without honoring the depths of the characters.

(Because I love Mirella’s cover designs, let me just brighten this short post by including them here:)

Anyway, I realised my answer to Barbara’s question was “both”, even though it means I’ll need to continue a tricky balancing act.  I mustn’t let the excitement of the action elements of Leeth’s dramatic life distract me from the compelling human and emotional side of her story as it unfolds.  There’s no chance of losing sight of that in Book 5, Lost Girl, but in later volumes it may be something I’ll need to keep in the forefront of my mind.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

I’ll finish with a quick status update.  In August, Galaxy Bookshop hosted the launch (see the video) for Violent Causes (The Leeth Dossier Vol. 4): all my books are available on the shelves there!  As well, I’ve been learning bits and pieces about book marketing.  I’d much rather be writing, so I plan to go back to devoting myself to that — soon.  Maybe I’ll spend one day a week on the marketing side.

Things I’ve been learning about are Facebook ads from Mark Dawson and Nick Stephenson, Amazon ads from Bryan Cohen (I even created some ads), drawing up a far too exhaustive marketing plan, and learning bits about getting reviews and starting up a mailing list.  I also set up my Facebook Author Page (which I gather if you Like it, you’ll be notified when I post something there).  I also 99% converted my Blogger blog site into a kind of web site, only to stumble at the final hurdle.  Two days before I discovered how to overcome that last problem, I gave up and recreated my website in  It’s in pretty good shape, though I still have a small list of things to do.  Via my hairdresser Sebastian I discovered the talented Kellie M Davies and through her, the Aussie Speculative Fiction (ASF) FB group.

I also sent some books down to Bendi-con as part of an ASF contingent, and some are on their way soon to Supanova Adelaide and Supanova Brisbane with the same group of Aussie authors.  (We also had a small get-together in Sydney CBD, which was a great evening.)

Roger Patulny kindly agreed to shift the meeting date for our local writers’ group Authora Australis to a Wednesday that didn’t clash with the Sydney Mediaeval and Renaissance Group’s monthly meetings (thanks, Roger et al!), so I can attend regularly.  And this Sunday (Oct 13) Kristyn M Levis will be talking to our Book Marketing discussion group about Instagram for Authors.

I also created my first NielsenBook2Look” book widget (“biblet”) for Wild Thing.  Biblets let you look inside a book, share it on social media, find out where to buy it, and more.  Oh, and I had a flash fiction sci-fi story accepted by Antipodean SF magazine, called Dangerous January (which will be available there for a limited time).  Which also reminds me: I completed the Neil Gaiman Master Class too, and enjoyed it!

I guess I have been working hard after all (but not with blogging — shame, Luke!), even though there’s been far less writing than I like.

Thursday, 4 April 2019

Sleeping Giants

I don't think I've written a social blog post before, here, but I read the article Why the Anglo World is Collapsing by Umair Haque today (Thursday, 2019/4/4) and felt it was important and valuable, but also not quite on the mark in every respect. So I wrote this response. (This is a slightly expanded version of a comment I left on Umair's article.) I encourage people to read the original article.

I share Umair's deep concerns, but I think assigning the cause to the ‘Anglo idea of superiority’ is off the mark. As others have commented on the article, the US and Britain are not the only countries facing very similar problems, and I’d note that Australia, which is another ‘Anglo country’, though more multi-cultural, is not in such dire straits. The imminent Federal election here will likely determine whether we follow the US down its current path, or stay true to our own ideals of mateship and a fair go for all.

I read a fascinating essay by the biologist Stephen Jay Gould, titled “Kropotkin was no Crackpot”, in which he noted that for many people, only the “Nature red in tooth in claw” message in Darwin’s Theory of Evolution was absorbed, elevating the concept of competition to stand alone on the peak. Western societies largely overlooked the part of the theory that noted that co-operation frequently occurs in nature, too. The Russians, perhaps having more experience of living things surviving in harsh conditions, were much more attuned to the idea that co-operation is often necessary for survival.

Around 2010, I saw a study which compared Japanese, Australian, and US business cultures, along multiple dimensions. One stand-out fact was that in the areas of the individual vs the group, and co-operation vs competition, Japan lay near one end of the spectrum, the US at the opposite end, and Australia was about halfway between. I think a reasonable mix of the two is far healthier than valuing one and disregarding the other.

I have heard it argued that toxic capitalism is the cause of the problem (not Superiority), and that capitalism only emerged as a result of the religious idea of Predestination — that God knew each individual’s destiny, and what happened in their life was not something that could be changed. So success and failure was not something that could be altered by helping (or hurting) another, and that in turn led to the concept that fair compensation for work done was unnecessary. That divorced labour from a fair share in the profits of that labour. The extreme end result of this is the situation we find ourselves in globally, where a tiny percentage of the population owns the vast majority of the world’s wealth, despite the fact that that wealth was created by the efforts of billions of people over centuries of effort. It can only be rationally accepted if the wealthy believe, however falsely, in their innate superiority over others.

Anglo societies also place the rule of law above all, education for all, and equality. So do many other societies (all other healthy societies, I would argue). That these values are being eroded nowadays is not due to an Anglo belief in superiority. They’re being eroded by greed; by powerful elites who have been co-operating among themselves to “Manufacture Consent” among the majority (thanks, Noam Chomsky), and to influence policy and law makers to tilt the playing field in their favour (read “Winner Take All Politics” — it’s a heartbreaking eye-opener).

Personally, I think the problem Umair has written about has several causes, and he has attributed far too much to a single one of those.

I also think that Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are right in saying that courage can fix this, in our lifetimes (within ten years?) — though it will need “Moon Shot” levels of courage, determination, and effort. I also agree 100% with Umair (and AOC!) that the zero sum thinking is a big part of the problem. How anyone can believe that zero sum conditions apply to social systems, or the world’s wealth, boggles my mind. Billions of people around the world are building and creating and inventing and helping one another. Humanity is fantastically wealthier than it was a thousand years ago, a hundred years ago, twenty years ago. It sometimes seems not so, because the 1% have taken so much of that for themselves. So, new thinking, like the New Green Deal, or Kate Raworth’s economic Donut Theory, Modern Monetary Theory, is needed to solve the problem.

At heart it’s so simple, too. Co-operation and respect is all that’s needed: for each other, and for this precious planet. Do Unto Others As You Would Have Them Do Unto You. Basic goodness. How can that message still not have sunk in, after two thousand years? It’s because of the power of stories.

If you’re in one lifeboat, where everyone is paddling in their own direction, where are you going to be compared to a second lifeboat where everyone has agreed to paddle in the same direction?

Another thing, too: one of humanity’s greatest strengths—the desire to socialise and belong to a group—is also our biggest weakness, when we exclude others because they’re not enough like us to be included in our group. And stories are the basis of the group identity, determining who is inside, and who is outside and alien.

The Pen really is mightier than the Sword. The stories we tell ourselves control our fate: and if we believe lies that destroy our societies rather than truths that lift us all collectively, then we have only ourselves to blame. (I remember an advanced driver training course instructor saying: “If you’re ever sliding, out of control, and see a tree ahead, don’t look at it. Look at the gap you need to get through. If you look at the tree, that’s where you’ll end up.”)

So, the stories we tell ourselves, and the fact that a powerful few have been actively co-operating to push down the majority to better themselves. In my experience, 5% of people are bad. They will take what they can without respect for others, and we let them creep into power and poison our institutions at our own risk. That’s why the US founding fathers said “The price of Democracy is eternal vigilance.” Because there really are some bad people out there, and some of them are smart, and charismatic. If we don’t oppose them when we find them, they institutionalise their mindset and corrupt all those around them.

It’s time for the sleeping giant of the vast majority to wake up and step onto the playing field.

Thursday, 6 December 2018

Withdrawing My Books from Kindle Select

This is just a quick post to announce I will be withdrawing my books from KU/KOLL, in response to Amazon's algorithm changes that mean the KU money is largely now being shared by just two classes of people:
  1. unscrupulous people who game the system
  2. best-selling authors who get millions of pages read per day
My books will still be available for purchase from Amazon, and in print as both A-format and B-format paperbacks. They simply won't be available for free once the Kindle Select renewal periods ends.

For me personally this will drop the royalty payments for the ebooks from 70% to 35%, so I will also be increasing the prices in the next week or so. (I've also been thinking for a long time that I may have been pricing them a little too low.)  This should have a negligible effect on sales, because I am not competing with the scammers to pay for ads, so my books are not being bought.  Very few are even found by people borrowing them (perhaps one or two books per month).

So the ability to borrow my books will end, for each, on the following dates:

Wild Thing - Feb 26, 2019 (The Leeth Dossier #1) (Wild Thing paperback)
Harsh Lessons - Dec 21, 2018 (The Leeth Dossier #2) (Harsh Lessons paperback)
Shadow Hunt - Jan 19 2019 (The Leeth Dossier #3) (Shadow Hunt paperback)

Once my ebooks are no longer exclusive to Kindle Select I'll be able to enrol them in all the other ebook distribution platforms, which do not appear to suffer from the same problems Amazon has engineered for itself.

I doubt I will be returning the books to Kindle Select because I anticipate Amazon will fail to take effective action until the average quality of books available there has fallen noticeably.

For any other authors who wish to withdraw their books, the process is quite simple, as described in the relevant KU help page:
  1. In your KDP Bookshelf page, next to the book you wish to withdraw, click on the "..." (ellipsis) button beside the "Promote and Advertise" button.
  2. In the menu that pops up, click on the "KDP Select Info" item.
  3. On the page that leads you to, clear the tick from the "Automatically renew this book's enrollment in KDP Select for another 90 days" in the panel that pops up. (You might need to click on the Manage KDP Select Enrollment button to get that panel with its check box.)

In happier news, I hope to put the finishing touches to Violent Causes (The Leeth Dossier #4) by mid December (about a week), and launch it a couple of months after that.  I'm pleased with how it has turned out -- with Dave's help (and Jon's) as usual!

Saturday, 3 November 2018

Amazon is failing its authors, its readers, and itself

There’s a growing awareness that using computer algorithms to handle decisions — from debt assessment or even being fired to self-driving cars — can have unexpected and even disastrous effects. Around October 2017, Amazon joined those unfortunate ranks.
Sounds scary? It is, when you dig below the surface a little.
Over a million new books are now published each year. Over half of those are in English.
I started publishing in December 2015, using Amazon exclusively for my eBook editions. Sales and reviews were low but showed a steady growth. My approach was to concentrate on writing each new book and do the bare minimum on the marketing side.
For almost two years that seemed to be working — until October 2017.
At that point, sales plummeted. Had I done something, or said something to upset people? Highly unlikely, since I’d been silently working on the current book. I assumed my silence was the cause. But after discussing sales with a few other authors who used Amazon ads and active marketing, I changed my mind. They told me that from around October 2017, they found if they pay $X to Amazon for ads, they came out ahead by about 10%.
What happened? What follows is my best guess. There are three parts to it: book discovery, Kindle Unlimited, and unscrupulous people.

Book Discovery

Readers can discover books on Amazon through various searches, but in addition there are three important ways Amazon promotes books:
  1. Emails from Amazon to you suggesting books you might like.
  2. Suggestions for other books based on your searches, on Amazon web pages.
Note: included in these recommendations are books that have paid to be promoted.
Best-seller lists. In each category, a list of the books that have earned the most revenue in the last 48 hours.
Popularity lists. Like the best-sellers, but across the last 30 days.

Kindle Unlimited

Readers who pay the monthly subscription fee can borrow books from Kindle Unlimited (KU) at no extra cost. Some of the subscription fees go into a pot of money paid to the authors.
This ‘Cockygate’ article by the Verge notes: “There are over 5 million books available via Kindle, with over a million books available on the Kindle Unlimited system. Amazon is currently paying out approximately 20 million dollars every month to authors on Kindle Unlimited.”
U$20M lying on the table: does that sound like a tempting target for unscrupulous people?
At first, Amazon divided up the pot based on number of books sold. Absurdly short ‘books’ started appearing. Amazon changed the algorithm to count ‘pages read’ instead of ‘books read’. Scammers started stuffing books full of ‘bonus material’ to dramatically boost their number of pages.
It’s been an arms race between scammers trying to grab money unfairly from the pot, and Amazon trying to counter them. This article by Derek Haines argues Amazon’s algorithms can’t count pages or words, but he goes on to add:
KU scammers and ebook stuffers are not the real issues here.
[…] Until Amazon can find a better system to track and record KU ebook reading correctly, the scammers will keep finding ways to make money, and honest authors will lose out.
Or be terminated.
But wait, there’s more…!

How recommendations used to work

Before Oct 2017, Amazon’s algorithms recommended books based on some score related to average review rating, the sales rate, and purchase by other people of similar books. (“People who bought TitleX — as you did — also often bought TitleY.”)
I think this system is still used for the 30 days after a book is released, perhaps extended if the book hits a best-seller list or while it is earning high revenue.

How they work, post Oct 2017

The only books being promoted were those from paid ads. At first, I guessed that Amazon had changed its algorithms to only promote advertised books. There are so many authors publishing, Amazon can profit from authors buying ads.
Amazon don’t disclose how their algorithms work, and rightly so. They’re in a war with those who try to game the system to make money. I have a lot of sympathy with Amazon and what they face.
But since October 2017, the KU pool of money has been paying large sums of money (perhaps most of it) to some unscrupulous ‘authors’. I say ‘authors’ because some are not authors: they are business people who pay ghost writers for content.
The result is, only books with paid ads are being promoted.

Unscrupulous People

David Gaughran’s Kindle Unlimited -- A Cheater Magnet and Kayleigh Donaldson’s Book Stuffing, Bribery and Bullying articles were eye-openers for me — I recommend them. The problem is that payments to unscrupulous people has a terrible effect on honest authors, harms readers, and has started damaging Amazon’s brand (and, I assume, the revenue from self-published books).
The effect on the readers is the smallest: the unscrupulous people can’t afford to annoy them too much, since readers determine the KU payouts. But even for readers, it’s making it harder to find and read books they’ll enjoy.
The unscrupulous people spend big, buying Amazon ads to turn a good profit, paying for those ads from the profits. If collectively they spent 18 million dollars for a 19 million dollar payout from KU, they’d be happy — and hey, that even leaves a million dollars to be divided amongst the remaining 500,000 authors! <sarcasm off/>
The greatest harm is being done to the honest self-published and indie authors. Like most skills, writing follows a Bell curve. A minority are really good; a minority are really bad; and there’s a big spread in the middle between those extremes. (The true picture is more complex, because everyone’s taste differs. But that’s not important for this argument.)
But most good and great writers have no interest or skills in marketing, nor in spending time and effort on it. So most authors can’t compete when it comes to marketing.
If you’re an author selling via Amazon and your readers have declined and your income has plummeted, take heart at least in knowing it’s likely not any indicator of how good your book is. Your small voice is being drowned out by the people gaming the Amazon system. The unscrupulous are producing ten or fifty books to your one, and paying for vast numbers of Amazon recommendations of their books, rather than a meagre few algorithmically-generated recommendations that yours are getting.
Writing a book is hard work. A lot of writers manage one. Producing a book proves to an author they can do it. But without a lot of luck, or a big and skilful marketing effort, few readers will discover the book, so the return is low in terms of money and in appreciation. And with Amazon’s ineffectual response to the cheaters, a lot of new authors will try, but won’t find out if they are great or even good. Unless new authors stumble over this article or one like it, they won’t know the failure may well have been Amazon’s, not theirs.
On top of that, the Amazon algorithms only seem to promote books for the first 30 days. This of course encourages writers to produce shorter books and pressures them to cut corners. For the unscrupulous, it actually plays into their hands since producing content quickly is something they can pay or cheat to produce — they just need to keep one step ahead of Amazon’s lacklustre attempts to rein them in.
By inducing many of the good and some of the best new authors to give up, while still ‘feeding the scammers’, over time the overall quality of Amazon’s book marketplace will decline. At first, not massively. Just a little. But the trend will continue, and in the long term will make Amazon the place for second-rate books which are clearly lower quality than those from other publishers.
The Amazon book marketplace will swell with the people who pay for the ads, and the people with good marketing skills. There’ll be some very good books in there, but on average, the rewards will go to the best marketers and to the scammers, not to the best writers.

How Amazon Could Fix This

It’s in Amazon’s interest to fix this, despite what some cynical people argue. Like other observers, I believe the problem lies as much with Amazon as with the scammers. Amazon seem determined to address the problems with technology (algorithms), not people, and I can see the sense of that: the solution must scale to handle millions of books, hundreds of thousands of authors, as well as defend against sets of active and inventive scammers trying to snatch an unfair share of the money available.
Taken together, this also means that until Amazon develop a solution to the problem, the company appears disinterested and unsupportive, damaging their brand even as the quality of their content declines.
So here’s my set of suggestions for Amazon (the first two of these I owe to a friend, Geoff Dash).
Follow the money. The problem of the scammers is proportional to the amount of money they’re taking. So audit the highest-earning authors in order of the revenue they earn. Examine their books to ensure they’re meeting Amazon’s Terms of Service rather than gaming the algorithms. Add legitimate authors to a register of Verified authors (and even mark their books as such). Add scammers to a list of banned authors and remove them from Amazon.
Suspect the absurdly productive. Amazon could reduce the number of authors they need to Verify by examining them in order of productivity: the authors producing the most books per year (or, per month).
How to Verify. It doesn’t have to be done manually, although the above two principles make that feasible. Instead, deep learning algorithms could be trained with examples of scam content and genuine content. Amazon could use the Mechanical Turk to help examine the books selected for audit. It could build a set of trusted Verifiers. It could use some of its own people to examine the books and explain to the algorithm developers what patterns and qualities to look for.
Only Count Content Once. Use its internal plagiarism detecting algorithms to identify content so that when a reader ‘reads’ a book, that content is only counted once. I imagine something like MD5 markers for a book, stored in a reader’s account. That information could even improve the user experience, by offering the reader a chance to skip the previously-read content.
Be more Transparent. It’s fine to have algorithms making decisions for you, and you need to keep their workings secret to make things harder for the scammers. But have a good and fair system for resolving disputes. Amazon needs to do this because its record of hurting good guys with bad algorithms has damaged its reputation in this respect.
Algorithmically select for quality. By this I mean, engineer algorithms that over time will encourage high quality work by offering reasonable revenue to the author. At the least, stop using algorithms that encourage low quality. The current system that only seems to recommend books published in the last 30 days encourages ‘publish fast’ over ‘publish high quality’. Blocking reviews from professional bloggers and reviewers who are gifted with so many books they don’t spend over $50, is another algorithm that does not select for quality.

What Will I Do?

At present, I see no value in being in Kindle Unlimited, and little value in selling your books through Amazon at all. Being exclusive with Amazon is worthless after the first three months. I recommend anyone who has currently chosen exclusivity with Amazon, to terminate that exclusivity. You may need to wait three months for your current exclusivity period to end, but when your sales are zero there’s no difference in revenue between 35% or 70%. Start publishing your books elsewhere, where you won’t be drowned out by ads and scammers.
If enough authors take this step, it will also send a signal to Amazon. Hopefully, such a market-savvy company will recognise and react to that. Certainly, from reports I’ve read, Amazon doesn’t appear to react to any other signals.
I'm quoting from the Verge’s ‘Cockygate’ article, in which Zoe York (romance author) notes:
“All of these people, without exception, all of them, publish exclusively on Amazon,” she said of the book-stuffers. “This is not a problem on iBooks, on Kobo, on Barnes and Noble, or on Google Play, which are the other major ebook retailers.”

Amazon did a wonderful thing in basically creating and nurturing the ebook marketplace, and through that, stimulating the self-published marketplace. It would be sad if it misstepped now and its know-how and support became irrelevant.
Amazon now rewards good marketers (honest ones, but also the scammers), not good authors. That needs to be fixed, or it will likely lead to the collapse of Amazon as a reputable self-publisher.

Friday, 3 August 2018

Writing, Editing, Creating

I wasn't planning to write a blog article, but felt after yesterday I wanted to make some notes while the recent events were fresh in my mind. I'm not sure what this piece will be about, but I guess it's going to touch on creativity (also see The Creative Process and the Unconscious, Where Ideas Come From) and An update on Creativity and the Unconscious), blocks, editing, and book 4 progress.

Yesterday was one of those wonderful writing days that sometimes happen, so this is partly about what led up to that.

I haven't written any articles for a while because I feel I'm way behind schedule on where I wanted to be for this fourth book. I had felt pretty comfortable that I could have it ready about mid-2018, but that turned out to be wildly optimistic. I'll lay out the reasons why, and let you see what you think of them.

I think I started writing the MS in 1991, and completed that 1st draft near the end of 1993. I just realised that might be a fun image to share… here's a photo of the MS.

I used mostly used sheets of paper that had been printed. In fact, on the left you can find a draft of a page from my wife Stella's PhD thesis on the Percy Folio.

In my first draft of the start of Leeth's story, it opened on the scene where Dr Harmon is in the office of the Mother Superior of the orphanage, looking for a suitable subject to adopt.

Anyway, the MS went through many stages — the next one being typing it up on the computer, in the troff/MM markup. I worked on it and polished and edited it, sending it off to little or no response to publishers, and then about ten years later realised the whole second half was full of story — but no plot. So I bit the bullet and cut it in half. Then it seemed a little short, and I still felt it was lacking something. The Godsson-Disten idea came from somewhere to fill the gap, and I developed that and wove it in to the story. At the end, the MS was back to its original, pre-halved size.

I still kept editing and polishing, improving my craft. I fed that whole MS, chapter by chapter, through the Online Writing Workshop for Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror, and learned so much from the many very helpful reviews I received, and equally, from writing reviews of other writers' submissions there.

Learning your craft by writing a long novel is a hard way to do it — you need to fix stylistic errors through a much larger mass than a short story — but I rarely enjoy reading or writing short fiction. So I kept at it.

The point of this historical digression is to explain the first couple of special problems I faced with book 4. The first was that I hadn't touched (even read) this half of the original MS in about 15 years, so there was a reasonable amount of work just to apply what I'd learned in the meantime. A bigger problem was the lack of plot. Now, the large anti-emotion plot arc definitely helped, and tied nicely into what was already there — but even so, it needed more. There was also the fear that maybe the old MS simply might not be good enough? I had little idea what to expect when I sat down to read it again, but found myself pleasantly surprised: it was kind of nice, I felt. Leeth had grown and changed more, however, thanks to all the additional trials I'd put her through while developing the 1st three books, so stretches had to be rewritten: what was there was more the Leeth you saw straight out of the Institute: no d'Artelle spirit confrontation, nothing with Disten, and, a really huge difference — no Marcie in her life.

Due to the need to write a short piece for my local writers' group, the Marrickville Writers Corner, I thought that one incident briefly passed over in the MS deserved some expansion: the heartbreaking Luiz assassination. And while writing that piece, while Leeth crept through the dark apartment in shock at what had just happened, she heard a creepy scratching coming from a drawer in Luiz's desk. I had no idea what was coming, just that it connected to Luiz's nasty past, but that led to the black dagger. That tiny seed germinated into the other major plot element for book 4.

The title came surprisingly easily: Violent Causes having several meanings, all of which were applicable for this book, so that was one element that I didn't have a big struggle with. But with all the things that needed addressing, and my desire to keep as much as I could of what was there, somehow even getting to the stage of the MS ready to send off to Dave at seemed harder. I'd arranged a slot, and as the deadline approached I found I was struggling to meet it. In the end I sent it off before I'd done my usual 2nd polish, which was stupid. I'd told myself it would make it easier for me to cut things if I hadn't made over-polished them. Instead, it just made more work for poor Dave.

And when I received his detailed critique, he had some big issues with some of the early sections, and lots of the early chapters had a lot of small issues, too. (Oops: note to self: never skip the polishing!) After some very fruitful discussions back and forth, we got a handle on them and a plan for what I should adjust, and I carried on. And after a month of hard work, I was halfway through Dave's comments, and it was the end of July. Sigh.

There was also one major extra piece of plot to work in, involving Marcie, and a key point in that was to be Marcie's inclusion into one incident. The problem was, that incident was kind of tightly scripted, dramatic, and I could see no way to work Marcie in without disrupting a sequence I'd been looking forward to making concrete, for at least fifteen years. In fact, this scene actually blocked my writing for a whole year, as I wanted to work it out so I could then move on to the next piece of the story. This was before I understood the role of the unconscious, and the simple trick of just writing it down, or skipping past the block. Instead, I'd sit down, and try to work out the scene in my head… and eventually fall asleep, and have used up all the time I'd set aside for writing, with visible results of zero.

Yet here I was, in 2018, with that scene looking and working like a dream — I think it would make a great piece in a movie — and now I needed to add Marcie, in a significant way. So I worked my way closer to this with, not exactly a growing fear, since I had confidence in UTT and my unconscious… but some trepidation, let's say.

And then on Monday I was at the brink: the next thing to do was what I had begun thinking of as The Marcie Problem. Tuesday I visited Mum, and saw the Equalizer 2 with her and a friend (hi Jacqui!), and then had afternoon tea and dinner with Mum, and watched an episode of The Avengers (courtesy of my brother Jonathan: B&W, John Steed and Honor Blackman as Dr Cathy King, not the Marvel Avengers), followed by the Hammer Horror film The Hound of the Baskervilles with Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. (He seemed tall. I looked him up: he was: 1.96m, 6'5"!)

So, no writing on Tuesday. A whole day with ‘no progress'. But I wasn't too worried, since panic and fear are your enemies and I knew I was just giving my unconscious more time to come up with something good. And it's always a great day, visiting Mum; not to mention, relaxing and having a great meal to boot!

So, Wednesday arrives, and still no breakthrough. I could also tell I wasn't going to get it without a bit more positive action. And now we come to the nub of this article, and what drove me to write it. Because this time, I was more sensitive to what was going on in my own mind.

I remembered my own advice, of using pencil and paper to write stuff down so you're not wasting mental energy juggling ideas in your mind while trying to create new ones. So I took my little hand-made A6-sized notepad with its 4-leaf folded ‘pages' clipped to it, and my trusty propelling pencil. There are some nuances there: that style of pencil, using 2B leads, means your letters are crisp and sharp and the physical act is effortless; and the hand-sized pad means it's not flexing and flopping and you're fighting to support it. It just fits in your hand, you can lie back on the sofa, comfy and warm, and think, and write as ideas spring to mind.

All trying to make it as frictionless as possible when the ideas start flowing, you see?

But I still didn't have my idea. What I did have was some issues. So I started writing down stuff, and also thinking. Not rushing myself. Not stressing myself because I wasn't actually writing the story. Just trying to make the solution coalesce out of whatever soup of ideas was floating around in my head.

What started happening was somehow like doing a jigsaw puzzle, except the pieces of the picture didn't exist until I thought of them, and it wasn't two dimensional but three. The depth part is not especially important, but the time dimension was critical. I started with asking "How would Marcie plausibly end up in this scene?"

(By the way, I'm going to avoid talking about this in a way that gives any spoilers.)

Marcie's appearance needed to fit in with a major plot strand we'd agreed on, that involved Harmon. But how would he know? So, that meant Nelson gave him the info. And then Harmon needed to persuade someone else. And that was kind of interesting. And then Marcie herself needed to find out enough to wind up in the scene. So I wrote that little sequence, which worked very plausibly and nicely I felt, and did good things for the plot, tension, and pacing. I now had the background of my jigsaw, in the sense of both the chain of events that led up to it, and of course I already had the tightly-written scene where Marcie would appear.

Her appearance also had to be significant: it'd be pretty weak if she just waved from the sidelines. Dave had suggested Marcie's appearance should cause problems for Leeth, so that was kind of the ‘shape' of one piece. But I still didn't see how to fit her in.

Now, I'd had one thought, too, that disturbed me: "if Marcie is here, and X is here too, then Scary-Y could easily result, and blow everything to pieces." But at the same time, they say you're supposed to place your characters at risk. Yikes! So that was percolating in the back of my mind.

1st Wednesday of the month was my MWC meetup, so I gave a quick polish to a scene I'd written the week before, and headed off for a very convivial and inspiring evening at Where's Nick. But I still didn't have the Marcie Problem solved.

Thursday arrived, and I kept feeling, for some reason, that Marcie wasn't going to go alone into this scene. I kept imagining someone with her. Which just complicated things, I felt, and I didn't want to do it. But in the end, since I was just lying on the sofa and not exactly making massive progress, I shrugged and decided to explore that. I asked myself "How does Marcie go from where she is, to here?" and just started imagining and jotting down some points. That all seemed pretty natural, and that would put Marcie at the required place, with this other person. And their reaction to my smoothly-scripted scene would definitely fit into new-Harmon-plot-item-Z, and advance that.

Then Scary-Y idea popped back in my head.

And I suddenly saw that Scary-Y could easily unfold after the smoothly-scripted scene. And with that, the problem was solved. The solution wasn't to force Marcie and her scene to meld into the existing scene: it was to let that follow on and develop from the scene!

This definitely felt a Eureka moment.

So then I just let the characters do their stuff. All the different parties with their own agendas, colliding and reacting. Let me just have a count ([Spoilers stripped out]): total of 9 parties. And so events flowed, and the drama climbed, and Leeth pushed back, and things started spiralling into dangerous areas. Maybe half of it was just in my head, the other half the occasional explanatory note written down so I wouldn't forget, or a line or two of dialogue. My notes occupied less than two A6 pages of my tiny writing, but I had enough to set off and I was eager to do so. I broke for dinner, but basically wrote from 4pm till 1am, a bit over 4k words. Sitting back, I summarised it in the flush of excitement as "very plausible, didn't change the existing scene much at all, upped the tension, fulfilled more expectations, causes more troubles down the track, and also has some laughs and more character development, all while advancing the plot!"

And it was time for bed. Looking at the page, I saw that I just needed to write the emotional aftermath, and in due course explore the repercussions of what happened. "I'll just write a little bit, to start that," I thought. Then sat back and saw it was 2am. I'd summarise that effort as taking what had happened to a whole new level. Leeth once again surprised me; but this time, herself, too, and even scared herself.

So I ended the day feeling high, extremely pleased with how it all worked out, and of course relieved to have the Marcie Problem solved and the pressure/stress removed.

I won't have a chance to do any editing or writing today, and I'll be taking a day off tomorrow, so no progress then, either. And I still have the other half of the MS critique to work through. But I'm feeling much more relaxed now. Hopefully, there should only be small bumps in the road ahead.

So, what's next? I hope to have my editing and polishing done by around the end of August. Hopefully I'll find a slot in Dave's schedule for a 2nd round critique, and then with any luck a much easier job for both him and myself following that. Mirella is on the job with the cover design (again, with another idea mainly from Dave), and then I need to try to do some proper marketing for a month or two before releasing this one. So my guess is it will be ready near the end of the year.

Better late than half-baked.