I was going through my long-neglected website this morning and realized it’s been just over a year since I last wrote a blog post, and remembered how I had restarted this blog with the intention of writing one pretty regularly.
That obviously never happened. In 2020 a lot of things ground to a halt, mostly due to the coronavirus, which I won’t bother going into because you all know the story. However, for my writing, it made little difference. Here in Japan we weren’t on major lockdowns like everywhere else, and—masks, plastic screens, and a couple of months off in the spring—things have continued not much different to usual.
The main reason I didn’t get a lot of blogs written was because of my day job. I work as an English teacher in Japan and in April each year we get recontracted and sometimes our positions shuffled. I was having a pretty easy time of it during my last couple of years, but this year English education got expanded further into elementary schools but—due to budgets—the number of teachers remained the same. Therefore, where before I would often have time to sneak off a blog post in the afternoon while still on the clock, now I found myself working with barely a pause, sometimes working late, doing preparation at home etc. Like a real teacher, ho hum. My writing didn’t suffer because that is done during my early morning sacred time, but a lot of other things fell by the wayside.
However, it’s been a solid year. The stats, as they will stand at the end of the year, are something like this:
New books published – 4
New paperback editions – 9
Audiobooks published – 1
Total words written (as of December 21st) 363,000 (I’m hoping to at least scrape 380k).
It’s been a decent year. I went direct to Barnes & Noble in February, then joined Google Play in September. While GP has yet to take off, for several months over the summer, B&N was my most profitable store.
There were plenty of mistakes. I had an audiobook done for Benjamin Forrest on the silly royalty-share plus system, which means I paid a bunch of money but still have to split royalties with the narrator. Due to that, it’s stuck on Audible, whereas now I’m looking at publishing all future audiobooks on Findaway, where I can control the price and access far more retailers. And I also grossly overestimated the popularity of the series. Despite the books being excellent (IMHO), they sell next to nothing. The audiobook has currently sold 12 copies. In addition, I also had it done just as Audible dropped its coupon code system. We used to be able to give away a bunch of coupon codes to reviewers and actually get paid when they were redeemed—in hindsight it’s ridiculous that such a system existed—but the BF audiobook was published the month after the system was changed. It’s frustrating, because the narrator did an excellent job. Buying him out of the audio and paying up front for any future books is definitely the way I want to go, but it’s expensive, and if the ebooks aren’t selling, the audiobooks most likely won’t either. Still, one of the plans for 2021 is a new BF book, so I’ll have to see how it goes. Back to the drawing board for sure on that one.
On the whole, though, it was a very good year. I'll talk more about that next time...
This morning I definitely had a watershed moment. At some time around 5.30 a.m. I finally achieved a version of Benjamin Forrest and the Curse of the Miscreants which I am fully happy with, five days before the pre-order upload deadline.
While I would certainly never consider writing a particularly difficult occupation—in fact, the writing part is, for the most part, an utter cakewalk, and anyone who moans about how hard it is should try drilling coal or shoveling shit for a living—but there is a certain amount of pressure involved with meeting a deadline, particularly four books deep into a series and with people waiting expectantly for the continuation of a story they love.
“Time” isn’t something us part timers with jobs and families have at the flick of a switch, so like many, my writing always gets done in the cracks, and I tend to run these pre-order deadlines a little closer than I’d like. However, thanks to some great input from a trusted proofreader friend, this book feels like the best of the lot so far.
It’s also my seventh published book of the year. I’ll likely kiss my own ass for this achievement more in a later post—at least part of it; my sales are nothing to excite anyone about—but I’m pretty pleased to have got to a point where I feel I’m going to satisfy a few reader demands rather than leave them wanting.
The year is not yet done, though. I have another challenge for the last ten days of the year. My total output of new words is sitting at 389,000, so 400k is the goal. It might be only ten thousand words, but little milestones are important. I’ll feel exponentially more pissed off if I get 398,000 than I will elated if I close with 401,000. And that being the difference of a single very short story.
I’ll taper this off now, because I have writing to do. Onwards and upwards.
On the way to work this morning I began listening to a podcast with a writer called Kevin J. Anderson, a pretty big name in the SF field. I haven’t read any of his books but I’d heard the name about, and when I saw that he was interviewed on a podcast I sometimes listen to, I thought it might be worth checking out.
I used to listen to a lot of writing podcasts, but these days listen to very few. Most of them have reached a saturation point where they’re either retreading old ground, or offering so little in the way of new information that they’re not worth the listen. This one, however, came at a good time.
As an indie writer active (at least passively) in several large online writer communities, I often encounter writers who rise meteorically from nothing into bestsellers over a year or two, and quickly begin voicing out the rest of the community with their path to success. It can be interesting to hear but at the same time demoralizing, particularly when you’ve been in the game for a while (coming up to eight years for me) but still fail to see any great success. You follow the supposed branding and marketing rules, only to see things not work out as planned, and it can grind you down. Then you hear something from an experienced voice which gives you a boost.
I haven’t listened to the whole podcast yet, but I got to a point where Kevin mentioned that your writing was like popcorn in a pan: you never knew which piece would blow up first, but the more of it you had in there, the sooner a piece would. I’ve been struggling at the moment with this kind of system of diminishing returns, in that my sales have been so poor I’m starting to believe in conspiracies against my books. Last year my Christmas book did well, for example, so this year I wrote two more and linked them, yet almost no one this year is going on to read the two new books. In fact, the sell-through rate is so small that I’m tempted to check the files to see whether Amazon has auto-inserted a “the next book sucks!” notice just after the place where I typed THE END. It certainly feels like it.
What happened when I listened to the podcast this morning was that I was reminded that this is a longterm game, and that your career will go through cycles of peaks and troughs. I’ve felt over the past year that I’m not so much in a trough but in a long decline, but that’s irrelevant. The takeaway was that you just need to keep adding more popcorn to the pan.
I’m in the process of deciding strategies for 2020. Advertising on paid platforms is proving costly and pretty much pointless, so I’m considering going back to list building, which was my main aim in 2018. More than anything, though, I think simply building on the foundations I have is the important thing. That means more books in series, extending each series so that I can afford a greater loss on advertising the book ones. The writing output has always been the one thing I can control, so I need to focus more on that. Benjamin Forrest and the Curse of the Miscreants comes out on December 27th, and will my seventh novel release of 2019. Hopefully it’ll be the lucky one that takes off. Four pre-orders so far doesn’t suggest it, but there’s time yet.
This blog has suffered just like everything else writing wise over the last couple of weeks while I've been desperately trying to finish a reread of the first three Benjamin Forrest books before the boxed set (and subsequently Book 4) come out.
The good news is that I've finished.
More or less. There's always something else that could be tweaked, but I'm happy enough for now. Chances are I'll go through it again at some point in the future, but for now I'll let it go back out. I've nearly finished all the updates, just need to do the paperbacks for books 2 and 3 and its ready.
Some fans might be wondering what exactly got changed. Well, not that much. Mostly typos, a few things that got missed by the proofreaders (for example, in Bay of Paper Dragons, Benjamin starts out rooming at the Paper Dragon Bay Guesthouse with Cuttlefur and Fat Adam, only for a few pages later Fat Adam to become Snout.). Other things I did was cut off a few plot threads that went nowhere. I tend to write pretty organically and leave things in that feel like a good idea at the time, only not to close them off later. One, for example, was that when they meet Tania the ferrymaster in Lost City, Benjamin catches a glimpse of orange in her eyes and thinks she might be a ghoul. I never got around to following that up later in the book, so out it went. Another thing which did partially get left in, was when David rips up the fabric of the world and throws a robot into the reanimate river. He puts a message in the back, and I'd always planned to have Benjamin find it later. However, due to the end of the book, that wasn't possible, but I liked the concept and decided to keep it in for development in a later book. However, so as not to leave the viewer hanging, I changed the scene slightly to allow Benjamin a brief look at the message. Therefore, enough closure is provided for the reader, but the possibility is still open for it to be developed later. You know, because there might have been something written on the back ... ho hum.
Another reason why the read-through was extremely useful was that I had forgotten what happened at the end of Lost City, and found out that the beginning of Curse of the Miscreants lacked consistency. For example, early on, Miranda is identified by a label inside her gym shoes. However, in Lost City, she lost her school uniform late on, and presumably her shoes. That will get fixed before book 4 goes out.
In addition, there were lots of little concepts which I'd forgotten about which I've now made notes of. It's always put me in a really good frame of mind to start book 5, which I've begun planning. Looking forward to starting soon.
Some readers might wonder about the ethics of changing a book in this way. Well, most writers do it, and the ones that don't probably would if they could. At one point, for example, Tube Riders: Underground was 6000 words longer, roughly 30 pages. I just went back in and cut out a bunch of unnecessary fluff. Some writers do complete overhauls, and I think if it makes it a better book, then all well and good. In any case, you can always do the get-off-my-land method and just say my book, my way!
In any case, I hope you like the new directors cut! Don't forget, the new boxed set is out on December 4th. Book 4, The Curse of the Miscreants, will follow sometime around Christmas.
I love this season. It's just absolutely the best. I took a short walk after work yesterday out into the rice fields behind the school, and from there I could see the ring of mountains that completely surround Nagano. The air was a little chilly, but the sky was clear, the sun just about to dip below the hills. Even in the middle of the city I felt like the only person in the world. Just divine.
Not long after, I was back on the road, on to the evening job, before returning to the mayhem of family. I need those few minutes of calm and peace, phoneless, contactless, away from people and their constant needs and requests and demands ... it might only be for a few minutes here and there, but its so important. I think more people should try it, just leave everything behind and step away for a few minutes. Take a November walk and realise that in the great scheme of things, you're nothing, and none of your problems matter.
Back to the real world ... I've pushed all other writing stuff aside this week to tackle a complete read through of the four Benjamin Forrest books back to back, something which is brutally daunting for a reader of my tortoise speed ... especially when the blocks of time required to fully get into a book are few and far between. Sell-through has never been as high as I would like for these despite their merits, and I don't think any proofreader should ever be fully trusted. So, halfway through book 1 I find small things which might make a difference - Benjamin's Secondary changes from Burnton to Burton, the orange sun becomes red for a time ... the pacing is off in a couple of chapters and at one point Benjamin goes off on a complete tangent about something otherwise unrelated to the ongoing story.
All easily fixable, of course, and things that wouldn't even be there were it not for the relentless pressure to publish and publish fast. And for what? Six weeks before Christmas and my sales are nowhere, ads aren't responding, free-first-in-series aren't achieving follow up sales, and I'm really wondering where this leaves me. I decided to leave a Facebook ad for the Christmas book running, even though I'm making a loss, hoping that things pick up. A thousand free downloads of The Man by the Sea has so far resulted in no sales of The Clockmaker's Secret, something which I find incredibly surprising considering the reviews, but maybe people are being tight with their money in the run up to Christmas. Still, I will do what I always do, and plow on ahead, hoping that somewhere along the way I pick up a bit of luck and momentum.
I had one of those days the other day, where I mess around online and look up all the writers I remember from when I started out in 2012, the ones whose posts I read on Kboards, whose tweets I retreated, whose books I occasionally bought because they seemed to deserve a bit of support. A few have gone on to bigger and better success, but the vast majority have vanished, given up, moved on.
That, in the least, is enough to spur me on. I'm still here. And I'm not going anywhere. Might be time to take another walk, though.
The heartbreak of the title refers to my view of the World Cup Rugby final. Heartbroken, gutted, disbelieving, angry even, that we played so poorly. Of course, had I been South African, all those feelings would have been the opposite. Joy, elation, surprise, excitement.
It's all a matter of perspective. Well played in the end to South Africa, although I'll long after be disappointed that the England team who first thumped the Australians and then shut out New Zealand so well was nowhere to be seen. There was a lot of talk that we'd played our "final" in the semis, and while of course it was denied, pschologically some of the players had the feeling that the game was already won.
Still, congratulations to South Africa. Worthy winners.
Yesterday we had a very cultural event in Japan, the 3-5-7 festival. On this day, three and seven-year-old girls and five-year-old boys all dress up nice and go to a local shrine to pray for future health and happiness. We managed to get the munchkin into a kimono but smiles came only when she was tricked into it. Still, it was an interesting day. The picture below is of her peering into the pond at the shrine we visited.
Writing wise, things have been slow over the last few days. They usually are when I'm busy with childcare as I don't have a lot of energy left. I have finished reading over Coming Home to Me This Christmas, in which I picked up a couple of small typos which I'll correct before uploading the file again later this week. By tomorrow or Thursday review copies should be available.
Slim 5 has now reached 53,000 words, which is the longest of the five books so far. It's moving along pretty well and I'm hoping to finish it this month.
And in the remainder of my spare time I've begun reading through Benjamin Forrest and the Curse of the Miscreants. Unless I come up against any sections that make no sense whatsoever, I'm hoping to have it out by the end of the month. I'm really keen to start writing another book in the series too. I have a title, and i'm mulling over ideas.
Sales-wise, things have flatlined again. I really don't know how people make money doing this. Waiting for the Christmas rush. Waiting ... waiting ...
Split my time this morning between final proofreading for Coming Home to Me This Christmas and continuing the story of Slim Hardy in The Angler's Tale. One of the tweaks I made for Coming Home was changing Tesco's (as in the supermarket) to Tesco, which is apparently its proper name. I've always called it Tesco's, and perhaps the proofreader has as well, but I thought I'd fix it as sometimes readers pick up on the strangest of things (had a reviewer complain once about my use of "cookies" instead of "biscuits", which apparently pulled her out of the story).
The Angler's Tale continues to move forward well. It's over 50,000 words now and I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. At the moment I'm estimating it to run to about 65,000 words, but we'll see.
And this morning I got my file for Benjamin Forrest and the Curse of the Miscreants back from the proofreader. Very excited. And she said the parts that I thought sucked didn't actually suck, so that's even better. Very happy, looking forward to getting this out soon. Thinking about mid-December at the moment, because I already have a release next month, plus I have a 1-3 Benjamin Forrest boxed set to come before then, which I need to finish messing about with and get out. It's going to be quite a busy few weeks, and I'm already excited about starting the next book, as the Benjamin Forrest world of Endinfinium is one of my favorites for sure.
I've been quite the churner this year. This year's releases look like this so far:
The Games Keeper (Feb)
The Dark Master of Dogs (April)
Slow Train (May)
We'll have a Wonderful Christmas (Sept)
Coming Home to Me this Christmas (coming Nov 15th)
plus there was a Crow 1-5 boxed set in June, I think. Not bad for a part timer, and to think people spend years sitting on a single book. Just get it out there and write the next.
On a downer, I filed my taxes in the UK for the 2018-19 tax year a couple of nights ago, and when you offset the income to the costs of ads and production it makes for depressing reading. I made money, woo! But hardly any. I could do a couple of extra private lessons per week and probably make the same amount with a fraction of the effort. Still, got to play the game, got to be in it to win it.
On another downer, in the outside world, one of my cats has now been missing for two weeks. The one in question, Kiki, is a bit of a roamer, living mostly outside in the shed (he has a nice igloo-like box and I put floor warmers in it in winter, but he's scared of my daughter so doesn't come in the house much), but he's now been gone for the longest I can remember. He's vanished for a week here and there, but never this long. The last time I saw him he was full of beans, so who knows what happened. We don't live near any major roads, but he likes a fight from time to time. On the plus side, there are lots of old people who put cat food out in my area, so he might have gravitated somewhere else for a bit. I'm holding off building his winter bed for a while, to see if he comes back or not.
My other cat, Miffy (in the picture below), however, seems delighted at his disappearance, and celebrated yesterday by catching a mouse, bringing it into the living room and then scoffing it in front of me. To make me feel better, she then came and licked my face.
Twas an interesting weekend. Chucked down with rain yet again, so a few of my soon-to-be-dried persimmons have got mould on them. Some students suggested I'd hung them too early, but I don't get a lot of free time during daylight hours, so I have to do them when I have a chance.
What a great rugby result! Very happy as an England to see the All Blacks beaten. Will be a tough final against South Africa (I was rooting for Wales, the home nation), but if we can put in another performance like Saturday it'll be hard to beat us. Still, we're probably due an off day so I'll be on tenderhooks throughout the whole game.
Got my proofread back for Coming Back to Me This Christmas, so it's now been loaded onto my kindle for a final check. I have to have the final file uploaded by November 11th, but of course I want to finish it earlier so I can get it out for the reviewers. I tend to take my sweet time about this part so will be trying to push myself along.
The last three or four mornings I've been sat quietly with my phone (and usually the cat) while working on Slim 5. Progress, now I've been devoting some real quiet time to it, has been good. It's close to 50,000 words and I'm on chapter 51. I got 1300 words this morning which is brilliant because I average about 250 a day on Slim books. Still, I'm not convinced by this book yet even as the end starts to unfold, so I'll probably try to find some trusted beta readers to give me an opinion. I'm actually confident I can finish it sometime soon, however. Fingers crossed.
Yesterday I was looking after my daughter, so took her up to the Fairy Tale Museum at Kurohime. It's a place near the ski resort which is dedicated to children's books and in particular to Michael Ende, writer of The Neverending Story, who apparently lived there for a while or something. In any case, it's pretty much just a couple of rooms of old kids books behind glass displays and a small, very expensive gift shop. The outside is much more fun, with great views of the mountains and space to run around.
However, by the time we got there it was absolutely chucking down and we could barely see the road for the mist. My daughter got scared by some puppet display and so after a forty-five minute drive up there, we left after half an hour. Disappointing, but you never know until you try these things. Below is the view you should be able to see, from when I was there three years ago.
Yesterday I put my third Christmas book up for pre-order (you can find it here). Release date is November 15th, so it needs a bit of a quick turnaround but it shouldn't be too hard as its went off to the editor in pretty good shape this week. I'm anticipating it back on Friday so next week will be about tweaking.
This morning I enjoyed my best period on Slim 5 in a while, getting half a chapter or so, which I then uploaded from my phone to the computer. The manuscript is sitting at 44,236 words, which is actually close to the length of the other four books already (44k - 54k), although it feels like there's a way to go in this one. I'd like to keep it to under 65k if possible. If it ends up at 90k or something it'll be way out of proportion to the rest of the series.
I actually started trying to reorganise it again by making notes on each chapter, before thinking, screw it, and just picking up where I'd got to. It's way easier to edit a finished mess than half a finished mess, and only an amateur throws away 44,000 words. I've done it a few times, but not often since I started self-publishing. Once you have a certain amount of experience (my own is over 30 completed books now) you understand that you're going to get sticky sections, but if you can just keep the new words coming you'll eventually figure it all out.
Actually this morning, I was thinking about how people must perceive me, with all this talk of Christmas books and mysteries. I've long felt pigeonholed as a science fiction writer, but the truth is that I don't belong in any particular genre. I only gained that label after the Tube Riders series was a minor success, but Underground was actually my first science fiction novel. The six or seven I'd written before that were everything from horror to psyche drama to comedy. I'm not really sure what is even my preferred genre anymore, I just like telling a good story. One thing I do feel though is that I much prefer writing one-offs. The series thing is 100% about trying to make money in self-publishing. Exile would probably never have come along if I hadn't self-published Underground. I see people with 30+ books in the same series and I wonder how on earth they can maintain the interest. I like to tell a story and then say goodbye to the characters, not dig them up over and over again.
On a similar theme, I saw the new Star Wars trailer yesterday, and while I'm looking forward to seeing it, I wonder at the point of reviving Palpatine. Sure, he was a cool bad guy, but you know, he died. It feels like he's only been brought back to life in order to untangle the unholy mess that was made of Last Jedi. Still, one way or another, it'll probably be entertaining.
Outside the writing, I've started getting my dried persimmons peeled and hung. I'm more of a Japanese grandmother than most Japanese grandmothers, and as far as I can see I'm the first person on my street to do some. I just feel that its a shame to waste the fruit on the massive persimmon tree which overhangs my garden, even if I'm the only one who ever eats them. Lucky escape yesterday though - I was out picking a few more when I looked down to see something moving on a squashed one on the floor below me. It was a giant Japanese hornet, all of a thumb's length long. I was too scared to pick any more after that...!
First up the book news - I finished my first (and probably only) edit/read-through of my third Christmas book this morning, so it'll be going off to the editor today. I'm planning on a mid-November release which I'll probably put up on pre-order today or tomorrow. I'm pretty proud of it really - it's a fairly simple story (as most Christmas books are) but flows okay and captures the spirit of Christmas well enough, which is pretty much its main function. I'm sure readers of my other Christmas books will like it.
On the bleaker side, after switching off my last Facebook ad I've since had no Amazon sales at all in two days, and only a couple of hundred page reads on the last two books I have in the Kindle Unlimited program. Not surprising, as Amazon is pretty much pay-to-play these days and it tends to sink any books not in the Kindle Unlimited program. So that'll be about $1 profit over two days across 28 novels, three boxed sets, two collections, and a dozen or so short stories and novellas. Damn glad I started in 2012. It must be brutal for newcomers coming in now with their single pride and joy novel and hoping to make some money off it. Good luck with that.
The weekend was tiring but fun. Managed to get out for a couple of hours to a mate's on Saturday to watch England thrash Australia at rugby (always a wonderful thing), but otherwise it was pretty much all daddy/daughter time with my wife either at work or doing stuff for her parents. She likes animals so we took in both of the bigger zoos within driving distance (we also have a little free zoo nearby).
Sunday was interesting because we went to Suzaka Zoo which is pretty much off the national radar apart from a kangaroo called Hachi which liked to punch a bag hung from a rope in his cage. However, Hachi died ten years ago and is now remembered for the fleeting fame he brought the zoo with a large stone memorial and statue. The zoo also has a large display of stuffed former animals from the period 1970 - 1990 (after which they presumably decided it was getting to be a pretty morbid pursuit). My daughter was fascinated by it, but she would only let me hold her at a distance just too far for me to read any of the signs. At three years old, her most common word now is "why?" and I found myself repeatedly having to answer why the animals were indeed stuffed, bleached from the sun, and still standing inside a glass display perhaps fifty years after they died.
"So we don't forget them," was pretty much my repeated answer. Then later, I had to explain why the boxing kangaroo had a big stone memorial. "Because he brought happiness to a lot of people, and when we see the statue, we remember that happiness."
I thought this concept might be too much for her, but later, while watching her play in the nearby kids slides and swings area, I briefly lost sight of her, before spotting her moments later, wondering off in the direction of the statue, where she stood for several minutes without being aware I was watching her, lost in some personal revelation. Later, when we left, she wanted to see the statue from the car window one last time before we drove past. Not the animals themselves, but a statue of one of the animals.
I often wonder what's going on in my daughter's mind, but there's clearly something profound about the way she is learning to understand the world and the meaning of various human activities. I often wish I could still summon that sense of wonder, instead of the overwhelming jadedness I often feel. Still, my daughter brings me a sense of joy unlike little else, and for that it was worth every moment, every repeated explanation.