Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Author Guest Post - Warren Bull

Warren Bull describes himself in five words as Persistent, Kind, Curious, Reliable and Funny. He describes his writing as Varied, Personal, Character-Driven, Surprising and Therapeutic. We'll learn more about that therapeutic in his answers, which follow below.
You have a table for four at your favorite restaurant and can invite any three people, living, dead or fictional. Who are your guests (and why) and where are you eating (and why)?

I would invite Abraham Lincoln because I am fascinated with him, Leonardo Da Vinci because I admire his art and intellect and my father because I would love to see him again. We would meet at McCormick & Schmick’s in Kansas City because the food is great and it is quiet enough for conversation.

Describe your most productive writing venue. What makes it best for you?

The best writing venue I ever had was in Christchurch, New Zealand because almost nobody knew me, the phone didn’t ring and I could devote hours of uninterrupted time to writing. Also when I stopped writing I was in a wonderful place.

What makes a great short story?

A great short story has a story arc and starts at the point in time after which the protagonist’s life will change forever.

Name three not well-known authors you would recommend and tell us what you like about their writing.

I am not certain about the “not well-known” part of the question but three writers who I predict will become even more successful as authors than they are at present are Linda Rodriguez, Jenny Milchman and Alex Grecian. All three write vividly with a real sense of place and time as well as characters I come to relate to and care about as a reader. All are professional in their approach to the business of writing.

What themes do you regularly employ in your writing?

I find that I often write with the idea of giving voice to a character who might be someone not usually noticed. I also write about choices and consequences.

What is the most challenging area for you as a writer? What are you doing to address the issue?

I often neglect some of the senses when I write. In self-editing I try to include all of them.

What motivates you to write?

For me writing allows the expression of emotion states and experiences that are not encouraged (or legal) in my life. It is therapeutic.

Name three writers from whom you have drawn inspiration and tell us why.

I have drawn inspiration from Abraham Lincoln as a thinker and a writer who gave us some of the language of democracy; from Ray Bradbury who reminded me of the joy involved in writing and Casey Dorman who I shared an office with and about whom I thought, “If he can write novels, so can I.”

Sixteen-year-old TOM ALLEN’s life is imploding.  His father has all but vanished from his life. Tom’s stepfather is entirely too interested in Tom’s behavior. Then Tom’s beloved grandmother suffers a stroke, which leaves his mother emotionally distant.  His sister is too sophisticated to worry about his concerns.

When Tom reads an old family memoir from his grandmother’s cedar chest he become intrigued with his ancestors’ accounts of their struggle to form one unified family from two shattered families. They face man-made and natural dangers while they battle to survive smoldering conflict in “Bleeding Kansas” that will soon erupt into the bloodiest war in American history — the civil war. With the help of family and friends, past and present, Tom gradually comes to terms with the pain and possibilities of his own family.

For more information about Warren and his writing check out his website

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Dumbing Down

I first published this blog on Writers Who Kill (1/18/15). That blog attracts mostly writers who were generally appalled that I sold out as I had. The My Two Cents Worth blog has a wider audience, and I'll be interested what the reaction is.
I recently sent my current WIP Ant Farm to beta readers. I wanted to know if they had any problems with the manuscript. I received a number of insightful comments and suggestions.

Fortunately none of them caused a major rewrite, but two of my readers commented unfavorably about my word choices. A reader of my earlier books had also noted that she needed to use the dictionary more on my mysteries than any of the literature she normally read.

They were telling me that my vocabulary was too complex.

My reading friends are of above average intelligence and understood many of the words they questioned. Their point was that to appeal to a large audience, I should keep my books at the seventh grade reading level.

I do not have a particularly large vocabulary as such things go. In high school my class schedule for all four years had me taking English in first period. That meant I memorized the vocabulary words during homeroom, aced the tests, which were the first activity of the class, and then promptly forgot the definitions. The result of that short-term solution to learning vocabulary was evident in my preliminary SAT exam English score, which was not up to my standards. I spent the next year actually learning a bit of vocabulary and raised my verbal SAT from the 75th percentile to the 95th. I have since forgotten most of those words.

Apparently a few stuck, including these highfalutin word choices from the beta version of Ant Farm:

Cacophony, affect, prevaricate, gawp, suss out, Circean, macadam, tympani, arpeggio, conflated, cockup (English slang), penurious, Mesozoic, epigram, dendrite, diurnal, malapropism, victuals, incipient, peregrine, coterie, and puerile.

Most of these words have close enough synonyms that I could make easy substitutions. To remove others required me to do a bit of sentence reworking. A few words I left in. For example, I have a character whose essential being is to use phrases like “penurious skeezicks.” I now have another character define the term.

This paucity of vocabulary by ordinary readers was not always so. Tomorrow is the anniversary of Edgar Allan Poe’s birthday. Here are a few words he used in his works (taken from http://poestories.com/wordlist.php ):

Abase, abstruse, AEgipans, aigrette, apothegm, appetency, asphaltum, asseveration, athwart, avoirdupois, axiom

Those are just the “A” words.

Latin was required at my grandfather’s high school. He proclaimed those classes were the most useful ones he took. Knowing Latin roots and a spattering of Greek ones, he could figure out the meaning of most words. He did not graduate from college, but he would routinely correctly answer at least 90% of the monthly Reader’s Digest “Word Power” quiz.

Now, even though most of my readers are college graduates, I must temper my vocabulary. Steven King in his On Writing suggests that vocabulary is the top shelf of a writer’s toolbox. He stuck grammar on the same shelf, but we’ll leave that discussion for another day.

King says “the first rule of vocabulary is use the first word that comes to your mind, if it is appropriate and colorful.

Therein lies my problem: each of my highfalutin words was my first choice. I didn’t use “lie” in draft one and gussy it up to “prevaricate” in draft two. Nope, prevaricate is what I wrote from the get-go and that’s no lie.

As I was thinking about my problems with obscure vocabulary, I had a brief moment of relief (I wrote “respite,” but changed it to “moment of relief,” because of, you know, what I’m hearing about my word choices). Most e-readers have built in dictionaries that allow you to hold your finger over a word to automatically generate a pop-up with the definition.

My relief was short lived. I am the kind of guy who schleps to his Funk and Wagnalls’ 1600+-page dictionary to learn the meaning of an unfamiliar word and check its etymology, but we live in a world where instant gratification is the norm. Most of my readers do not have the same interest as I do in words and do not want to stop reading to learn something.

All of which explains why “cacophony” became “noisy” and I replaced “speaking with a flat affect” with some other set of words that indicate a lack of tonal expression. I can’t remember exactly what I wrote; I’ve blocked it out.

On this issue of vocabulary, I’ve sold out, I have. I’m okay with that. I’ll still get to use my twenty-five cent words in my first drafts, but from now on, I’ll start modifying them in the second draft.

~ Jim

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Author Guest Post - KB Inglee

KB Inglee describes herself in five words as someone who "loves history, animals, writing, knitting." For her writing she chose "Historical, American, mystery, short fiction."

Without further ado, here are her answers to her choice questions.

You have a table for four at your favorite restaurant and can invite any three people, living, dead or fictional. Who are your guests (and why) and where are you eating (and why)?

Mary Francis, the wife of Dick Francis, because I would like to know more about their collaboration
Conan Doyle, so he could tell me how and why he came up with Sherlock Holmes

The miller's wife at Newlin Gristmill, circa 1739. We don't know who she was, but I have so many questions for her. I'm not sure she would enjoy the company, so I might have to ask her out by herself.
We will meet at my favorite Greek restaurant in Cambridge MA, because Delaware doesn't have any good Greek restaurants.

Describe your most productive writing venue. What makes it best for you?

I write at my dining room table. Radio playing classical music. I use a lap top so I could work anywhere in the house, but this fits me best. Maybe because it is close to the kitchen. Dog is asleep on the chair in the corner, in case I need her to help solve writing problems.

Name three not well-known authors you would recommend and tell us what you like about their writing.

Kaye George: She is really funny but her serious stuff is well researched. Who would think to set a murder among mind readers as she did in Death in the Time of Ice?

Edith Maxwell: Her settings are so vivid, I read with map in hand. She is very careful to get the historical stuff right.

Cindy Callaghan: She writes kid's books, so I probably wouldn’t read her under normal circumstances, but she is in my critique group. Her work moves along fast and the settings are done with care. She is a wonderful critique partner as well as being a terrific writer.

What is the most challenging area for you as a writer? What are you doing to address the issue?

The middle of a short story. Once I have the first paragraph and the ending, I don't allow myself to give up on the story 'til it is complete. I have a whole folder of first paragraphs without endings. Sometimes I ask the dog but she isn't very helpful.

What motivates you to write?

I have no notion. Perhaps it is the ideas that come bubbling up all the time. Often it is a call for a short story. Though I have a giant stack of stories, I usually write a new one for each call.
How did you develop the idea for your most recent work?

A call came in for a short story with a given setting. I'm not going to be more specific until I finish the story. I picked an event appropriate to the setting and began to research. I write the first paragraph or so, then I come up with the ending. The stuff between the beginning and the ending is the hardest work I do.

I once wrote a locked room mystery after hearing a presentation on locked room mysteries at a conference.

Name three writers from whom you have drawn inspiration and tell us why.
Dick Francis for exciting writing. He was the first writer I remember reading who had compassion for the victim.

Arthur Conan Doyle introduced me to the mystery story.

Sue Grafton because while reading her work, I though "Hey, I could do this."
KB Inglee writes historic short mystery fiction set in the Mid-Atlantic and New England from the early colonial period through the end of the 19th century. When she started writing she found that doing the things her characters do made the writing both easier and more realistic. She has operated a water powered gristmill, driven oxen, plowed with horses, fired and cooked in a wood fired oven. She is an interpreter at two living history museums, and tends a flock of heritage sheep.

She lives in Delaware with her family and too many pets.

Her most recent story, "The Devil's Quote" will be published in And All Our Yesterdays by Darkhouse Books, due out in March 2015.

You can find her at her website

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Introducing Author Guest Blogs

Those who have followed me for a bit know I am willing to try experiments, adopt them long-term if they work, and abandon them if they don’t.

What is it?

Coming soon (maybe as soon as next Tuesday?) I will start sharing guest blogs of other authors. I thought of calling the day “Tell-all Tuesday.” While a titillating title, that wasn’t exactly accurate since my guest authors will be responding to a menu of questions. I thought about “Tenpenny Tuesday.” Surely if what I had to say was worth two cents, guest blogs would be worth at least a dime. Or maybe a title promising quality, such as “Tip-top Tuesday.” Maybe “Take-out Tuesday” to reflect the guest blog nature of the endeavor. I’m open to suggestions, and look forward to them in the comments.

I enjoy learning personal bits about authors. While I don’t mind a short blurb about their most recent or upcoming book (in fact I’ll request that and a headshot and a book cover), other blogs do the pure promotion thing already. I chose a Chinese menu approach to presenting questions, which will allow lots of flexibility but maintain consistency.

Every author will have two required questions limited to pithy five-word answers. I’ll use those ten words in the author’s intro.

Required Questions

(1) Five words to describe your writing (no elaboration, just the words)
(2) Five words to describe you (no elaboration, just the words)

And then each guest will choose eight questions (some have multiple parts) to answer, four from column A and four from column B. They may answer the eight questions in any order that makes sense to them.

Choice Questions

Column A

(A) You have a table for four at your favorite restaurant and can invite any three people, living, dead or fictional. Who are your guests (and why) and where are you eating (and why)?

(B) Describe your most productive writing venue. What makes it best for you?

(C) What makes a great short story?

(D) What is your most productive time of the day (and do you need caffeine)?

(E) How many books do you read in a typical month? Do you read in your genre while you are writing? What’s your most recent “great” book?

(F) Name three not well-known authors you would recommend and tell us what you like about their writing.

Column B

(A) What themes do you regularly employ in your writing?

(B) What is the most challenging area for you as a writer? What are you doing to address the issue?

(C) What motivates you to write?

(D) How did you develop the idea for your most recent work?

(E) What motivates your protagonist (if not a series, then use the protagonist of your most recent novel)? What influenced who they are today?

(F) Name three writers from whom you have drawn inspiration and tell us why.

(G) What was the best piece of writing advice you ever received and why was it so valuable?

What’s Next?

That’s the theory; we’ll see how it works in practice. If it has worked well for a year or so, I’ll change the questions to allow repeat appearances.

Are You Interested?

Interested or intrigued authors can get more information by sending me an email at blog@jamesmjackson.com Note this is not my regular email. I have a separate mailbox to keep the blog stuff all in one spot to make sure I don’t lose anything.

I’m open to start a week from today if anyone is interested, and hopefully by then I’ll have settled on a catchy name for the occasion.

~ Jim

Saturday, January 10, 2015

The Effect of Amazon’s Subscription Service

Kindle Unlimited (KU) has interesting features for readers and authors. To summarize the basics of their subscription service:

As a reader you have unlimited access to download and read (but not keep) any of their listed books (~700,000 available) for $9.99 per month.

Amazon pays authors an unspecified amount each time a KU subscriber selects (and at least partially reads) one of their books.

Which Readers Will Choose KU?

Which readers will utilize this service? After the thirty-day free trial, only readers who expect to obtain greater value by purchasing the KU service than the $9.99 cost will continue in the program. That only makes sense. If the average Kindle book available for KU retails for $2.99, it only takes four books a month to be ahead of the game. Of course, if you select books listed for $0.99, it requires ten per month to be worthwhile.

Ah, but national bestsellers often cost more than $10.00. Just a single one would make it a valuable program. Problem: the big five publishers have chosen (correctly, from their standpoint) to withhold most of their titles from KU.

Regardless, let’s assume Ms. Reader pays Amazon her $9.99; how is her behavior likely to change?

(1) Any book not in KU has an added cost; any book in KU is free for the month. All other things equal, Ms. Reader chooses books in KU.

Author implication: Those who choose KU are less likely to buy books not part of KU.

(2) All things equal, we all like a bargain. That suggests Ms. Reader will choose more expensive books. She’ll “save” more. Free books are no longer as attractive—all KU books are the same “free.”
Author implication: The cachet of “free books,” already diminished in value by the sheer volume of available books and the large percentage of free books that are not worth reading because of inadequate editing and poor formatting, will further decrease. Why read a free book when I can read one that costs $2.99? Why try a new author when I can read all the backlist of an author I know and like?

Authors will need to evaluate whether maintaining the first in their series as a “perma-free” book is still the best strategy. Will it be better to price that book at (say) $2.99, but periodically have advertised promotions to provide free books to those not participating in KU?

Amazon’s Author Payment Mechanism

Amazon pays authors for loans from KU from a pool it sets up. What is the size of the pool? Here’s a quote from Amazon’s Q&A: 

We review the size of the KDP Select Global Fund each month, in order to make it compelling for authors to enroll their books in KDP Select.

I read this statement as “We’ll find the lowest possible payment that keeps authors in the program.” Each author receives a proportionate share of the fund based on loans of their books once the reader has completed 10% of the book (first time only). I know Amazon supporters will consider that a jaded statement. The proof will ultimately be in what happens to the level of per loan payment after Amazon has fully marketed the KU program.

Author implication: The Amazon formula does not consider book price; therefore, on relatively high-priced books the author will lose money compared to an equivalent sale. For lower-priced books the opposite is true. Of course, that assumes a book loaned through KU has reduced books sold one-for-one. Early anecdotal evidence was that more books were loaned than were lost in sales. More recent anecdotal evidence is that total author income has decreased.

Bonuses for Top-selling Authors

Amazon also pays top-selling KU authors a bonus. Whether Amazon pays the bonus out of a separate fund or the same “global fund” is immaterial. Money is fungible and Amazon is the only one who decides the size of the global fund, so it is only a question of pulling the money from their right pocket or left pocket.

In business a useful rule of thumb is the “80/20” rule. For example, many businesses find that 80% of profits arise from 20% of their customers. I am guessing Amazon finds that roughly 20% of its authors account for roughly 80% of revenue. Keeping these 20% happy is much more important than keeping the folks who sell a few books a month.

The bonus program is a way to entice those authors into the program.
Author implication: Two major decisions an author must make are traditional publishing or indie publishing, and if indie publishing, whether or not to go exclusive with Amazon for ebooks. (I can see no compelling reason to be exclusive with any other retailer; Amazon has approximately 70% ebook market share.)

Since the bonus program is determined monthly, the group of “hot” authors will rotate. However, it will always favor those with large lists in the KU program over newer authors with a small number of titles.

Writing more and faster is a winning strategy for authors if they can keep the quality of their product high.

Other Predicted Effects on the Publishing Market

Assuming Amazon can retain popular indie authors for KU, I anticipate more readers will decide $120 a year is a good deal even if books by the major publishers are not available. The three most popular genres for ebooks are Romance, Mystery/Suspense/Thriller, and Science fiction/Fantasy.
Younger adults are accustomed to subscription services for audio and video, and also more accepting of new technologies. This combination makes them receptive to subscription services for ebooks. I expect people who heavily read indie published authors will rapidly gravitate to the subscription service.

Readers will join a subscription service for only three reasons: (1) it is the only way to receive the goods (not applicable for books) or (2) it saves them money or (3) the convenience is worth the extra cost. Amazon has made it so easy to download an ebook onto a Kindle or app, there is very little additional convenience to be had. Therefore, Amazon’s subscription service will survive because it saves customers money.

If readers are saving money, it means authors will earn less.

This may not happen immediately; Amazon has shown that it is willing to invest to gain market share before reaping profits. But Amazon did not introduce KU to lose money long term. By the end of 2015, I predict those who exclusively rely upon Amazon will earn less than they would have before the introduction to KU.

That said, it does not mean those authors will be economically better off leaving Amazon’s exclusive products in order to sell across multiple platforms. Remaining solely under Amazon’s banner with its additional benefits may still be the best decision, but by the end of 2015 significantly more of the publication profits will flow to Amazon than to the author.

~ Jim

[This blog originally published on Writers Who Kill 1/2/2015]

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Goals: 2014 Results & 2015 Plans

Let me wish all my readers a spectacularly positive 2015.

I am looking forward to a great year. You may recall from previous blogs and Facebook posts that I used the potential of embarrassing myself as motivation to obtain two of my 2014 goals. I wanted to lose and keep off twelve pounds, and I wanted to maintain a certain level of exercise through the year.

Weight – Mission Accomplished

The chart demonstrates that when I put my mind to it, I can lose weight, although I struggled while we were on the road. By the end of September, I wanted to maintain the fifteen pounds I had lost and so set that as a revised goal for the remainder of the year.

Exercise – Mission Mostly Accomplished

I had set an objective of earning at least 250 “Cooper Aerobic Points” each month. That I did not do. I found it easy to blow off exercise while we were on the road in May, June and July. The good news is that while not consistent, I did average 255 monthly points during the year.

The longer picture

Because I inherited my love of data-retention from my father, I can show 2014 as part of a longer perspective. The picture below suggests my 2015 weight goal.

This chart (looking a lot like the Himalayans) shows the up-down cycle of my weight since the middle of 1989. Long flat stretches on the graph do not mean I enjoyed amazingly stable weight during the period; they indicate I was not weighing myself.

For the entire period, my average weight was 191.4 (red line). The green line shows a running ten-year average weight, currently sitting at 194.2. For 2014 I averaged 186.8.

All of which is to say that my biggest problem with weight is not the ability to lose it, but once lost to keep it off.

My objective for 2015 is to avoid a weight gain. I have not averaged less than 180 pounds for a calendar year since 1994. I have set as the 2015 weight goal to average at most 179 pounds. Would I like to average less than that? Absolutely. The main task, however, is to avoid the bungee cord rise that has followed previous weight losses.

My exercise statistics since I retired do not exactly look robust. If I continue my goal of 250 aerobic points a month, I will be well ahead of the average year. Before I went back to the data and put this chart together, I planned to increase the goal to 300 points a month. Looking at my history, I’ll be fine at the 250 level and much less likely to injure myself.

I will post results periodically during 2015. If things are going well, I’ll bore you quarterly. If they aren’t going well, I’ll fess up monthly.

~ Jim