Tuesday, December 13, 2016

An Open Letter to President-Elect Trump and the Members of the 115th Congress (on repealing Obamacare)

An Open Letter to President-Elect Trump and the Members of the 115th Congress

RE: Repealing “Obamacare”

Beginning January 20, 2017 with the inauguration of President Trump, a vote to repeal Obamacare moves from political posturing to potential reality as the assured veto of prior bills by President Obama is no longer available. I urge members of the 115th Congress and President-Elect Trump to consider the real and varied consequences of any changes to the current programs.

Public reports indicate Congressional leaders are considering a sweeping repeal of Obamacare with implementation delayed until a replacement plan is developed. The uncertainty caused by such an approach will result in unintended negative consequences for the individual healthcare market.

Certain aspects of the current law function only because private insurers expect robust risk pools. The Health Practice Council of the American Academy of Actuaries recently sent a letter to House Speaker Ryan and Minority Leader Pelosi, expressing their concerns regarding a deterioration in individual health insurance markets if certain provisions of the Affordable Care Act are repealed without immediate replacement. You may find a copy of the letter at http://actuary.org/files/publications/HPC_letter_ACA_CSR_120716.pdf

I urge you to thoroughly understand the risks outlined in the letter before voting on any repeal measures. Unintended consequences can include significant premium increases by insurance carriers to offset increased uncertainty and reflect adverse selection in which younger and healthier individuals drop coverage. The adverse selection will quickly lead to spiraling premiums and contraction of markets as only high-risk individuals remain in plans and more insurance companies drop coverage. The number of uninsured would rise from current levels, leading to less preventative care and higher use of emergency services with their attendant costs.

I also caution you not to retain certain popular provisions of Obamacare without understanding the incentives necessary to make them work. For example, retaining pre-existing conditions protection without exorbitant costs requires either a very large enrollment base over which to the spread costs of that benefit or direct subsidies. Keeping the provision without providing appropriate incentives to provide one or both mechanisms will rapidly lead to a collapse in the individual healthcare market.

If you do not have sufficient experience with the actuarial and underwriting principles that underpin the individual insurance marketplace, I urge you to work with the American Academy of Actuaries to understand how those principles relate to any proposed legislation before casting your vote.

Sincerely,

James M. Jackson
Retired Actuary

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Six Pointers in Writing a Novella

Do you read instruction manuals before you start? After you’ve hit a snag? What are instruction manuals?

I know it’s a stereotype that all guys are loathe to read instruction manuals on the theory that they should know better. But stereotypes are based on observed behavior, and as the saying goes, “If the shoe fits, wear it!” I know what instruction manuals are, but often use them only as reference manuals to figure out where the leftover part belongs and how many steps I need to redo.

I’m in the process of writing my first novella. It’s intended for an anthology with the proposed title Lowcountry Crime: Four Novellas. I wrote the first draft, revised for a second draft, and sent it to an editor for her to work her magic.

As I sat down to write this blog, the thing that came to mind was to write about novellas, since that’s what I had been working on. At which point, I thought perhaps I should read the instruction manual. What, after all, is a novella?

Length:

A quick online search turns up a plethora of references for 20,000 to 40,000 words. Others take the top end up to 60,000. The Hugo Award for Best Novella uses 17,500 to 40,000. The stories in this anthology are to be between 15,000 and 25,000 words. Mine currently sits at 20,800; I’m safe under most definitions. Whew, but it illustrates my point about the dangers of looking at the directions after the project is complete.

Structure:

The word novella implies a shortened form of novel, but containing all of its elements. Rather than an extension of the short story, a novella will likely contain a traditional three-act structure.

Characters:

A novel allows for a leisurely reveal of characterization for a number of actors. A short story requires a precise cast and pinpoint characterization. A novella splits the difference, but when in doubt, err on the side of the short story. Take a short story’s approach and use the absolute minimum number of characters possible. Since I am a pantser, I don’t worry about this in my first draft, but in the first rewrite I look for ways to eliminate and combine as much as possible. The novella’s length compared to a short story does allow more space to develop the remaining characters to allow readers a more in-depth understanding of motivations.

Point(s) of View:

Novels often provide the reader with perspectives from multiple characters. This becomes much more difficult when dealing with a novella’s word-count limitation. Plan writing from one character’s POV and deviate only if you must to tell your story.

Subplots:

My Seamus McCree novels run around 90,000 words, which allows me to introduce multiple subplots that may involve crimes, family issues, love interests, personal growth along a multiple-book character arc, or some combination. Short stories have space for only one main storyline. While some suggest sticking only with the central conflict in a novella, I’d feel cheated if there weren’t an interesting subplot as well. However, care must be taken to limit the subplot’s scope to leave room for a complete telling of the central conflict.

Settings:

Each setting requires additional words to bring the reader along. After the first draft, consider both how scenes can be combined to accomplish multiple ends and how settings can be used for multiple scenes.

Summary:

A novella’s reduced word-count requires the author to maintain a laser focus on the unifiers in the story: key characters, precise storylines, and multiple-use settings.


~ Jim



This blog originally appeared on Writers Who Kill 10/15/16

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Author’s Toolbox: The Auditory Read Through

Every author develops a toolkit containing writing skills and techniques, preferred software and hardware, and proven processes to develop a polished manuscript. I’d like to suggest authors add the Auditory Read Through to their stockpile of available tools.
If you are like most modern authors, you compose your first draft using a word-processing program, which means you first see your words on a screen. You may rewrite your manuscript using a screen to display your text, or you may print out a copy of your manuscript, make handwritten corrections and then convert those back to an electronic form.
Many authors have learned that they find different problems when they view their manuscript on the screen compared to what they find when using a hard copy. I suggest that you will also discover different issues when you read your manuscript out loud.
Even if on previous read throughs you silently sounded things out in your head, you did not fully utilize your sense of hearing. Before the written word, stories were spoken, and you should listen to yours to discover a few last issues you may have missed.
My approach to the Auditory Read Through
I print out the manuscript single-spaced applying the same font, type size, lines per page and page size as the publisher will use. As I read, I’ll see, for example, a long paragraph that needs splitting or dialogue that runs unbroken for two pages. [I am not worrying about exact layout, orphan lines, where words break on a line, or anything like that. 
What am I listening for? Anything that doesn’t sound right on a sentence-by-sentence basis, as well as considering a paragraph or page as a whole. Whenever I stumble or trip over a word, there is a good chance I need to rewrite something. This gives me the opportunity to straighten convoluted sentences and exchange flabby diction with precise wording.
Often on the read through I’ll discover I used a word several times within a short span. I never saw the multiple uses on screen or page, but my ear picks it up.
I pay particular attention to adverbs: are they covering for a flabby verb? Make sure every adverb is necessary. As an example consider the line “She quickly walked to the sidewalk.” With the multitude of verbs available to describe exactly how she moved to the sidewalk, this sentence employs a lazy approximation for what the reader should visualize as they read.
Where I used multiple adjectives, can I replace them with one perfect descriptor?
Have I noun-ized verbs (xxxxx-ness) or verbed nouns (xxxxx-ize)?
Are my verbs ending with “ing” appropriate?
Have I fallen into a repetitive pattern? Do too many sentences share the same form? Are sentences all the same length?
You can do as I do, printing out the manuscript and reading it aloud to yourself, or you can use software that reads the words to you. I’ve tried both and they both work well. Using software has the added advantage that you use only your ears, since you aren’t the one reading. Plus, it can be entertaining when the software butchers a word it doesn’t know.
Some people record themselves reading their manuscript out loud. While they are reading, they muzzle the internal editor. Once they start the playback, they are truly listening (since they are not also reading). I haven’t used this technique, but it is intriguing, although it seems like extra work—but folks swear by it, and I may try it sometime.
I find the best time in my manuscript creation process for the Auditory Read Through is once I think the manuscript is ready for a final nit check. You may want to wait until you believe you have polished the manuscript to perfection. Others may find it’s useful much earlier in their process.

If you’ve tried the technique, how did you think it worked for you? If you haven’t performed an Auditory Read Through, do you think you might?
~ Jim
This post first appeared 8/24/16 on the Lyrical Pens Blog

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

A Hybrid Author’s First Ad Buy

As I write this blog, my foray into hybrid author advertising has 19 hours remaining.* When I took back the publishing rights to Bad Policy I decided to (for now) exclusively sell the ebook on Amazon. That allows me to (1) participate in the Kindle Unlimited under which I am paid when people read the book through Amazon’s subscription service, and (2) retain a 70% royalty rate (rather than only 35%) when I run a sale and price the book at $0.99.

Bad Policy is normally priced at $3.99. I dropped it to $0.99 for seven days (the maximum allowed by Amazon for any 3-month period). I chose June 16 through June 22, inclusive. (Amazon is headquartered in the Pacific Time Zone and that is the time zone they use.)

A reduced-price ebook sale doesn’t work without advertising. I tried scoring a BookBub ad. They are believed to be the premier site to advertise ebook deals, but they are very choosy (without defining exactly what their selection rules are). The big publishers have discovered them, and it is now much more difficult for indie authors to score an ad. They turned me down. Based on research and availability, I chose to run three ads. With 19 hours to go, here are my preliminary results.

6/16 (Thurs) Many Books ($25) ad, FB Post, Tweets - sold 40
6/17 (Fri) Tweets - sold 4
6/18 (Sat) Bargain Booksy ($50) ad, Tweets - sold 16
6/19 (Sun) - sold 6
6/20 (Mon) Fussy Librarian ($16) ad, Tweets - sold 28
6/21 (Tues) Tweets - sold 8 (@4pm EDT)
6/22 (Wed) This Blog (which will result in a FB post) & Tweets - sold 11

Total ad cost: $91

Total sales: 113

Estimated Royalties earned: $69.

Net loss, $22.

Takeaways: Since previous week sales were exactly zero, I am attributing all sales to promotional activities. (1) Based on timing, Many Books and Fussy Librarian paid for themselves. (2) Bargain Booksy, the most expensive, was the least effective.

Questions yet unanswered: (1) Are sales on weekends normally worse than weekdays and that is why Bargain Booksy was so ineffective? (2) Although I am a father, mine is deceased so I had no recollection this was Father's Day weekend -- did that also negatively affect weekend sales? I Googled to find out how sales on weekends compared to weekdays for other authors and came up with as many answers as there were people providing opinions. As a result, I don’t know if I made an unlucky choice for the Bargain Booksy ad buy, or they were not as effective for me.

Bonus: My KENP (Kindle Equalized Number of Pages Read—the way Amazon determines payment under the Kindle Unlimited program) skyrocketed from 119 the previous week (less than half a book) to 1,265 during the promotion week. That is worth another approximately $6 (WHEE!) and is probably attributable to the promotional materials. Revised net loss $16.

Other: Best Amazon Bestseller ranking 6,375. Best sub-ranking: #14 Financial Crimes / #61 PIs / #72 Amateur Sleuths. No discernible effect in sales for other books in the series (which I wouldn't expect until people have a chance to read the one they bought).

Was it worth it?

I think so. The purpose was less to make money on this particular week’s sales than to introduce readers to the Seamus McCree series. For the same cost, I could mail only two paperback books to contest winners. With this promotion, I am 113 books ahead.

I’ll try it again in the autumn, but Bargain Booksy won’t be part of my ad buy.


~ Jim

* Figures updated to reflect final promotion results

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Marian McMahon Stanley - Guest Aurhor

Marian McMahon Stanley’s just released Boston-based mystery about the murder of an elderly nun, is described by author Hallie Ephron as a “taut, character-rich whodunit”. She shares with me membership in the Guppy Chapter of Sisters in Crime and has been fortunate in careers – first at a Fortune 500 company, then at a university. She is delighted with this third incarnation.

Free print copy of THE IMMACULATE going out to a commentator chosen at random! (Who answers the question at the end,)

You have an all-expense-paid long weekend to spend with three guests. The Starship Enterprise has agreed to beam you to the place of your choosing, so travel time is not a consideration. Who are your guests (and why) and where are you staying (and why)?

Let’s see. Maybe in an old camper van driving along the blue highways or secondary roads of The US and Canada. Or actually two old campers to fit all of us. And, you know, we would be having so much fun that we’d start with a long weekend and just keep going for weeks or months.

John Steinbeck, accompanied by his standard poodle Charley, is driving Rocinante 1. In his book TRAVELS WITH CHARLEY, Steinbeck named his camper after Don Quixote’s horse Rocinante. Like Don Quixote, Rocinante “is awkward, past his prime and engaged in a task beyond his capacities”.

William Least-Moon, author OF BLUE HIGHWAYS, is driving the second camper, Rocinante 2. If we are lucky, we spend most of our time getting lost in interesting places.


 We need music, of course. I couldn't decide between two iconic folk singers who died too young – Kate Wolf and Canadian Stan Rogers, so I figured we’d all squeeze together and make room for both of them.

Riding along, we enjoy the stunning landscapes of this great continent and poke around little towns, taking in sights like the world’s largest ball of twine and the Dan Quayle Library. Steinbeck makes coffee in the morning and later we eat in four-calendar roadside cafes and diners. (Least-Moon judges that a cafĂ© or diner having four product calendars behind the counter has traveling salesmen who frequent the establishment, thus insuring decent food.)

Our West Highland Terrier Archie and Steinbeck’s dog Charley, of course, become fast friends. They ride along together with their heads out the camper windows, facing into the wind and occasionally barking at cows.

Every now and then, Stan Rogers bursts into song, and belts out “Barrett’s Privateers” or maybe “Northwest Passage” as we head west along Lake Superior. At night in the Rockies, Kate Wolf sings us to sleep under the stars with “Across the Great Divide” and “Unfinished Life”. Perfect.

(Editor note: as long-time readers of the blog know, fiction writers often feel unconstrained to stay within the guidelines of the question, but Marian is the first to over-invite and over-stay! Makes me smile.)

What is the background noise when you write and why is it there?

I grew up in a big family and was the working mom of four active, lively children. My last career was at a large urban university with thousands of young adults on its campus. As a result, I always thought that I could write and study in any kind of low-level pandemonium.

But, if it was that way then, it’s not now for some reason. I can’t handle the noise level in a coffee shop when I’m writing. Even with earphones on, I’m conscious of a hum of activity. I also get too interested in everything and everybody. Or, working in my own beloved town public library, a quiet question at the reference desk or a subdued conversation between library patrons tends to be too distracting for me to get any real writing or editing done. I’m embarrassed by this wimpy ultra-sensitivity but there we are.

For real writing, I like to work in very early morning pre-dawn or dawn silence with only quiet house or nature sounds. When I’m in a certain kind of a roll, usually editing some mess of scribbles I’ve made in the earlier hours, I listen to Celtic music – the tin whistle (Sean Potts or Joanie Madden) or the fiddle (Martin Hayes or Eileen Ivers) are favorites.

Are you a plotter, pantser or something in between and why?

I guess in between – though perhaps more toward a pantser. Anything tighter than a broad loose idea of where the plot is going makes me feel a little claustrophobic.  I once had an excellent teacher who said he couldn’t start a story without knowing the end of it. I could have wept for him. Where’s the fun in that? But, to each his own.

I don’t write scenes sequentially. I usually write scenes out of order for various points through the course of the book. When I’m forward writing with these out of order scenes, I kind of think of it as throwing out markers – like those little stone cairns you might see on hiking trails. I write scenes further and further out and then come back to fill in the gaps. Perhaps in some odd way, this is my own version of an outline. Again, each to her own.

When you start reading a book do you always finish it? If not, what causes you to permanently put a book down?

I’m too old to finish books that I’m not enjoying, though I might give a book an extra chapter to be sure I’m not being too quick to judge.  I‘m not sure I can always tell you what makes me stop reading. Perhaps I find the writing flat or the book too formulaic with stereotypical characters, or maybe the pace of breathless action is just unbelievable and getting a little silly. All of this reflects my particular taste, of course. Another reader may enjoy the book.

Do you read reviews of your books? Why or why not?

Right now, I’m in that rosy period of bringing out a first book to the sweet accolades of friends, family and colleagues. If they don’t like THE IMMACULATE, they have been too kind to tell me. However, this won’t last and I do plan to read reviews of my book as it heads into a somewhat wider market. Having been through many frank, and occasionally merciless, experiences of “workshopping” a manuscript in various classes and forums, I think I can handle the reviews with some equanimity. We’ll see. What I look for in critiques is a pattern – more than one person mentioning a point. Then, I’ll examine that point or insight and see if I can learn from it.

What do you do that you suspect causes your copyeditor to pull her/his hair out?

I don’t know why I use the English spelling for certain words – “acknowledgement” or “afterwards”, as opposed to American and Canadian usage – “acknowledgment” and “afterward”. Perhaps it’s a New England thing, perhaps it’s because of the time I spent in the UK as a student and later for work. Anyway, usage corrections were all through my copyedited manuscript this time. I still write that way, without even realizing it, so I imagine that the copy editor for my next book will be equally annoyed.

What language error, when you hear or see it, grates on you like the screech of fingernails on a chalkboard?

I make enough of my own language errors (always have to look up “lay” and “lie”) that I tend not to be too uptight about other people’s errors. I also find some old rules arbitrary and annoying. How many awkward sentences could be written just to avoid ending with a preposition? “With whom did you attend the party, Miss Glamorous Suspect?” (Editor’s note: this reminds me of Winston Churchill’s retort which goes something like: “Ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I will not put.”)

I break certain rules all the time and am sometimes tempted to put in a little footnote, “I know the rule, I know the rule. It’s a dumb rule and this reads better.”

That being said, I get a teeny bit on edge when subjects and verbs don’t agree or when “I” is used as a direct object instead of “me”. Then, I just take a deep breath and remember that it is, after all, only grammar.

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

I’m very fond of Louise Penny’s books for her storytelling talent and her sense of place, of course, but also for her skill in representing the human character. I love the way she brings out small and large personal failings even in her most beloved characters. She is quite funny too, always a blessing.

Tana French and Benjamin Black (John Banville’s pen name when he’s writing mysteries) are two Irish mystery writers who influence me most. The way they use words and images as they are telling a story is like water to a thirsty soul. I still chuckle recalling Black’s description of a difficult old man as having a face “like a carp” and Tana French’s description of a reluctant character’s having “silence so stubborn that you could feel it elbowing you”.

What is a piece of writing advice you think is worth sharing?

The best advice I’ve gotten – especially helpful to women with our family commitments and caretaking– is to take our writing seriously. Find a place to write and have a regular time to write. It’s okay for us to have a passion for this creative art and to carve out an important space in our busy lives for it. Even to think of writing as a serious vocation.

I’d like to turn it around on this one and ask readers what mystery writers inspire them and why.

Free print copy of THE IMMACULATE going out to a commentator chosen at random! (Jim will contact the winner and obtain your mailing address.)

You can find out more about Marian on Twitter, LinkedIn or Facebook (Marian McMahon Stanley Author) or her website www.marianmcmahonstanley.com.


Friday, April 22, 2016

Time to Lighten Up on U.S. Stocks?

As those of you who follow my financial blogs know, I am a believer that the largest component of long-term investing results is one’s asset allocation. To maintain a proper allocation, one must periodically rebalance portfolios.

Since the beginning of the year, the S&P 500 has risen about 3.9%, which does not seem like a huge change. However, the year started off with a sizeable correction, so from its low this year, the S&P 500 is up over 14%.

And since it’s low in 2009, the S&P 500 is up over 200%, demonstrating why bailing on stocks when all seems gloomiest is exactly the wrong approach. And, I would argue, so is going all in on stocks as the markets continue to appear rosy. (That would be now.) Rebalancing forces one to sell off relative winners to buy relative losers.

If you haven’t rebalanced in a few months, it might be a good time to determine if your portfolio needs attention.

Only rarely do I change the allocation percentages of my various investment categories. Now, however, is one of those times. My sense is that U.S. stock markets are overpriced. As noted, The S&P 500 has already risen over 200% in the last seven years. That’s past. What matters is the future, and current price has everything to do with collective future expectations.

My expectations are a bit gloomy:

The bull market is already seven years old, but still propped up by expansive fiscal and monetary policy. The Fed still keeps interest rates artificially low. The U.S. Federal government stills pumps money into the economy. Its projected deficit for the year is $500 billion. Continually applied, these types of polices lead to bubbles.

Interest rates are much more likely to rise than decline (a negative to both stocks and bonds), unless a recession occurs.

Commodity prices have fallen substantially, temporarily boosting profits (consider airlines, for example). The five-year decline is likely to reverse.

The dollar has risen substantially over the last five years compared to major currencies (Euro and Yen by 30+%). This means U.S. based exports are more expensive and foreign earnings for U.S. companies have less value.

Much of the U.S. unemployment slack has been erased. This means corporations will have to pay more for talent they need. At the same time, much of the increased profit margin they have wrung out of labor costs by converting full-time positions into part-time and on call employees, outsourcing, and eliminating defined benefit pension plans and the like has already been fully reflected in earnings.

When (not if) the next recession occurs, the Fed will have fewer resources to counteract the liquidity crises that will surely occur because it has kept interest rates artificially low. Similarly, with the U.S. debt at record levels, Congress will be unlikely to approve appropriate economic relief measures.

Thus, the next recession will likely last longer and be deeper than would be the case if the U.S. economy were not starting from a position where expansionary measures are constantly in effect.
All of which says to me that U.S. stocks are riskier than usual in my portfolio. Recall that I am older and retired, which means I have fewer years to recover from any bear market and (worse) I do not have the ability to purchase more investments through savings from future earnings.

So my situation is different from yours, as may be my analysis of what to expect. But I figured I’d share my thinking and maybe learn something from everyone’s reactions.


~ Jim

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Second Edition - Chance for a do-over

This past Wednesday, all the rights to Bad Policy officially reverted from my publisher to me and the second edition went live using my publishing company, Wolf's Echo Press. I’ve already discussed the self-imposed angst I generated by reediting and reformatting the book. Today I want to talk about one of the things independent authors often say they most cherish, the ability to choose how to price and promote their books.

The print decisions were fairly easy to make because I’ve had practice when I developed the print edition of my Kindle Scout winner, Ant Farm. I use CreateSpace to prepare the print edition for sale on Amazon and IngramSpark for all other distribution. The reason for the two versions is the difference in royalties CreateSpace pays for Amazon and all others.

Here’s how royalty works at CreateSpace for Bad Policy:

The list price is $14.95, of which they take 40% off the top if the book is sold on Amazon or 60% if sold in “Expanded Distribution” (any Amazon competitor, whether online or bricks and mortar). That leaves $8.97 (Amazon) or $5.98 (Other). From that, CreateSpace deducts both a fixed charge per book ($0.85 for books with 110-828 pages) and a variable charge of $0.012/page (for Bad Policy this comes out to $3.19) for total per unit deductions of $4.04. My payment (combining my roles of publisher and author) is what remains, $4.93 if the book sells on Amazon and $1.94 elsewhere.

As an aside, note that even if we assume there is no profit for CreateSpace in the $4.04 fixed costs of producing a book, they and Amazon still make $5.98 (before shipping costs) per book sold on Amazon, compared to the publisher’s and author’s combined take of $4.93!

At IngramSpark, the royalty calculations are a bit different because the publisher determines the wholesale discount. I set mine at 40%. My thinking is that bookstores will be ordering this book because of customer request, not to stock their shelves. Therefore, the standard discount makes sense. Starting with the same $14.95 with 40% wholesale discount, leaves $8.97. Ingram has a higher charge to print the book ($4.84), leaving $4.13 for the publisher and author.

That’s eighty cents lower than what CreateSpace pays for Amazon sales (so I use CreateSpace for that sales channel), but a whopping $2.19 higher than CreateSpace when it comes to any other sales channel. Another reason for using IngramSpark for bookstore sales is I have had bookstore owners tell me they will not carry or order a book published by CreateSpace because it is owned by Amazon, who they see as an unfair competitor.

Figuring out what to do with print was the easy part. How to price the ebook and where to sell it required (and will require in the future) considerable thought.

The original ebook price for Bad Policy was $5.95. Cabin Fever’s ebook still has a $5.95 price tag. Kindle Press priced Ant Farm at $3.49. Amazon, gorilla of the ebook market with a roughly 70% share in the U.S., pays royalties at a 70% rate for books priced between $2.99 and $9.99, provided the books comply with a few rules that are easy to follow. Prices outside that range qualify for a 35% royalty.

I like 70% better than 35%—about twice as much.

I did a scientific survey of 1 person (my life partner, Jan). She said to price it at $4.00. The marketer in me changed that to $3.99 and that is its price.

We now arrive at the decision point over which much ink has been spilled: go exclusive with Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) or sell across multiple platforms. There are excellent arguments for both sides. I looked at my past sales for guidance. Amazon has sold over 80% of the ebooks for Bad Policy and Cabin Fever even though the publisher made sure the books are available everywhere.

The KDP exclusivity period runs for ninety days, when it can be renewed for the next ninety days or not. The biggest advantage for going exclusive with Amazon is to have the book available in Kindle Unlimited (KU) and the Kindle Owners Lending Library (KOLL).

Thirty percent of Ant Farm ebook sales have come through the KU and KOLL programs. Yes, if a book is not available on KU and KOLL, some people will buy the books, but those folks have already had three years to purchase Bad Policy. Consequently, I decided to start Bad Policy’s rebirth by going exclusive and trumpeting to KU participants that for them the book was now free. Of course, they have to read the book before I see any royalties!

I’ll do the experiment for ninety days, evaluate it, and then decide what to do for the next ninety days. That’s life in the independent author lane. Oh, and here's the link to Amazon if you're interested in in the Seamus McCree novels.

~ Jim

This blog originally appeared on the Writers Who Kill Blog 4/17/16.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Northern Lights

As many of you know, Jan and I recently embarked on a nearly two-week vacation with the primary purpose of enjoying ourselves in new territory and experiencing the aurora borealis. The pictures decorating this blog are ones I took on this trip. Neither of us had ever been to Churchill, Manitoba or anywhere on Hudson’s Bay, and we enjoyed the two-day train ride up from Winnipeg. Jan had never seen the northern lights, but I had seen them on several occasions in the vicinity of our camp in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The most recent had been more than a decade ago.

I had stood on a low hill in a clearcut (now filled with twenty-five-foot larch) with open northerly views and watched a shimmering of greens appear with a fleck here and there of red or purple. Each time I had seen them, I had prior notice because the experts had detected a major solar event that they expected would trigger excellent displays.

It turns out those northern light views I experienced were akin to the blast of newfound love: brilliant, colorful, shimmering in excitement, leaving me breathless and a bit dizzy. What I came to realize on this trip is that, unless one is exposed to a major solar occurrence or one has prepared themselves to see the colors, we witness the more typical aurora borealis (in its long-term love affair with earth’s magnetic field) as silver.

Our visual hardware causes us problems in our quest of magnificent colors in auroras. Our eyes have two sensors, rods and cones. In a simple model of sight, rods allow us to see in low light levels. Cones are effective in brighter light. Rods do not provide color vision. Cones come in three flavors and generate electrical currents that allow our brains to “see” color.

That’s the problem: at night, we have low light. That requires rods and yields no color. To get our cones involved and generate color, the light must be brighter—or we need to have sensitized our eyes to the darkness. For the impatient among us who would like to rush out from our well-lit houses to see the aurora, our cones have no chance to acclimate.

As an example, think of what happens when we rush in from the brilliant sunlight of the beach and enter the dark of the men’s or ladies’ room. We can’t see a thing. Our cones are still stimulated from the sun bouncing off sand and water, and all we see is a smear of white. Our rods are still on break, off smoking a cigarette or chatting up the lovelies at the concession stand because, as far as they knew, there was nothing for them to do.

My few experiences with northern lights in Michigan had been on evenings when the lights were bright and my cones were able to paint the scene in color. Our first night in Churchill, we had a very nice display—and for me (and everyone else) it was all white. After that experience, I now believe many of the times I went out to look at northern lights in Michigan and believed I had not seen them, I had in fact witnessed the display without realizing it. I thought I saw only patterns of high cirrus clouds and did not recognize them for what they were.

On our second night in Churchill, Jan and I were two of only four in our group of twelve who stayed up late enough to witness the northern lights. Around 12:30 a.m. this aurora borealis started very softly, but soon built into a rollicking dance of light, some of which was bright enough (and I had been outside for over an hour) that I once again saw patterns of dancing greens.

That aurora spanned the heavens with an arc I’d estimate at almost 1200, and reached high into the sky. It was so massive that even with my 17mm lens, I could not catch it all in one photograph.

The third night it snowed. The aurora may have been burning bright, but we weren’t about to see it. Having been up two nights in a row until after two in the morning, I took it as a sign that I had nurtured my soul the previous evenings and that going to bed early was appropriate to nurture my body.

We left Churchill the evening of the fourth day and were treated to more northern lights as we awaited our plane. I stood in the airport parking lot, lit by sodium lamps, and once again saw splashes of color in the aurora. As an extra treat, we saw the aurora (back to silver) from the airplane as we flew to Winnipeg.

So what did I learn?

My camera sees much better in low light than I do. Its cone-equivalents can gather light for twenty or twenty-five seconds before rendering an image. My eyes can’t accumulate light in the same fashion as they are required to report to my brain on a continual basis. Patience is indeed a virtue. Some nights the aurora did not start until quite late. Often the initial burst of aurora activity would die out, only to return much later with an even more brilliant display. Even though I had read a book on auroras and understood how and why they are created, I had not considered how my eyesight would affect what I would and would not see.

I am a really, really lucky person. I appreciate that and do not want to forget it.


~ Jim

P.S. Here's a picture of a boreal chickadee and his reflection for those who might think I only looked skyward on this trip.


This blog originally appeared on the Writers Who Kill blog, 3/20/2016

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Six Steps to Help Prevent Financial Abuse of the Elderly

I have been working on two short stories this month. Although the stories are very different, they share two similarities. Both involve my series character Seamus McCree and crimes against the elderly or mentally diminished.

Fellow Writers Who Kill blogger Tina Whittle and I are writing one of the stories together. That one is for an anthology expected to be titled 50 Shades of Cabernet. The co-authoring thing is a new experience for me, and I am enjoying it. (I hope Tina is, too.) The second story is my planned submission to the fourth Guppy Chapter of Sisters in Crime anthology titled Fish Out of Water.

This need of mine to write about financial abuse of the elderly is not new. Perhaps it stems from my current responsibility to handle my mother’s finances, and I am more aware of the potential. Maybe it’s because I write about financial crimes. Criminals always follow the money, and today’s retirees as a group have a lot of money. Maybe it’s because news articles have suggested the way we now treat elder abuse is similar to the way we used to treat child abuse: severely underreporting the extent of the crime, blaming victims, allowing institutional practices to remain unchallenged. Whoa! That’s a charge.

Consider these facts:

Much as child abuse often happens within the family, according to AARP, nearly 60 percent of the Adult Protective Services cases of financial abuse nationwide involved an adult child of the elderly person.[1] According to a study sponsored by the Journal of Internal Medicine, friends and neighbors account for another 17%, and paid home aids 15%.[2] In this study, only 10% of the reported cases are perpetrated by strangers.

We don’t know for sure what percentage of total financial abuse is reported. Victims are often unaware. When they do realize they are victims, they are often too embarrassed to report the crime. Sometimes they are afraid to report the crime, fearing physical or psychological abuse from the perpetrator. Those suffering from dementia, depression, or disabilities are most at risk.

Sometimes the abuse is hard to catch, taking the form of “loans” that are never repaid, cheating not only the victim, but others who should have shared in the estate. Often the crime is simple theft, extracting money from an ATM, writing checks to themselves, buying stuff with the victim’s credit cards.

Taking a few simple steps can make it more difficult for perpetrators of elder financial fraud.

(1) As early as possible make sure you (and your parents, if alive) have an estate plan in place, including a will (and/or living trust) and health directives. Discuss your wishes with family so everyone knows what is to happen if you can’t take care of yourself in the future. This may be an uncomfortable conversation with your loved ones, but bright sunshine on your finances helps makes it harder for the mold of later abuse to take hold.

(2) Be wary when “new best friends” enter the life of a loved one. Any hint of “sharing” finances or the new friend “taking care” of finances should shoot off rockets of concern.

(3) Institute checks and balances wherever possible. Only a small percentage of lawyers and financial advisors are crooks, but alarm bells should go off if your lawyer recommends a financial advisor or vice versa. Independently verify referrals. Conversely, you may be able to use a lawyer or financial advisor as a resource to help prevent financial fraud.

(4) Use technology to help monitor spending. Credit card companies provide transaction alerts, which can provide early warning of a stolen number. If you worry about a relative who is still independent but potentially at risk, you can purchase monitoring services to spot unusual activity. An example is EverSafe.[3] (I mention them only as an example of what can be purchased. I have not used them and have no personal knowledge of how well they perform.)

(5) If one family member is responsible for a parent’s assets, make sure a second person has the ability to review transactions, asset statements, etc. I use DropBox to store my mother’s credit card, bank and mutual fund statements so one of my sisters can look over my shoulder. This protects Mom and also allows my sister to easily take over if something happens to me.

(6) If anything seems suspicious, ASK QUESTIONS.

Is financial crime against the elderly a concern for you, either for yourself or a relative? What have you done about minimizing risk of abuse?

~ Jim

This post first appeared on Writers Who Kill 2/21/16




[1] http://www.westernjournalism.com/elder-financial-abuse-near/
[2] http://www.springer.com/gp/about-springer/media/springer-select/older-adults-are-at-risk-of-financial-abuse/30696

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Deepening Character

Sit back in your chair, put your coffee or wine or whatever to the side, and close your eyes. Picture a good friend. Could you describe the person sufficiently well so a stranger would recognize that individual in a lineup? Good writers often provide a single telling characteristic that uniquely identifies a character whenever readers meet them. Jug ears, a stutter, a limp, a Jersey accent in Mississippi; all could be unique traits.

Some authors provide long and detailed descriptions of characters, sometimes stretching to paragraphs. Do we remember those details? Let’s check: I say Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz, what comes to mind? Ruby slippers. Pig-tails? Probably not a long description that the pig tails were only braided half-way, tied off with white ribbon and curls left loose to flutter in the breeze. That’s all accurate, but really, who cares?

Now let’s consider whether we are interested in more or less information when it comes to motivations. I suspect readers often become dissatisfied with a story because the motivations and actions do not seem consistent to the reader. How can that happen? Probably because the reader hasn’t learned enough about the real character to justify the actions the character takes. That may be because the author does not know the character at a deep enough level.

I can’t count how many times I have heard authors say something to the effect that “my character just wouldn’t do what I wanted them to do; they insisted on doing X.”

Okay, second time to close your eyes. How well do you know your good friend? Do you know her deepest secrets, her fears, her desires? Really? Turn it around: does a good friend know EVERYTHING about you? Of course not, we all hide parts of ourselves from others.

When I teach an online self-editing course for fiction authors, one of the assignments I give is:

Choose a character and have them reflect on a secret or a fear or anxiety. Have them tell you about it. How did it come about? What does it feel like? What might make it go away? This is like brainstorming: all ideas are welcome, no censuring or self-editing as your character blathers away. Remember to write in first person present tense.


When authors really let their characters tell them what they feel and fear and want and why, the words flow out onto the paper and often they are a huge surprise. The result provides the author with a deeper understanding of why that character does what she does. And, the author now has the wherewithal to give the reader enough insight so the reader also understands.


Authors: Do you think this exercise would help you understand one of your characters?

Readers: Does this make sense from your perspective, or is this a bunch of academic mumbo jumbo? Or are you someone who relishes the long, detailed descriptions of Thomas Hardy and is willing to take character actions at face value?

~ Jim



Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Whimsical Math Poem

Fellow Kindle Press author Cindy Blackburn asked me to write a whimsical poem for her blog http://cueballmysteries.com/blog/. It appeared last week and I am reprinting it here today for those who appreciate numbers as I do.

Let’s talk numbers, you and me.
Six: it’s as perfect as perfect can be.
Take its divisors: one, two, and three,
Add them together: six again. See?

Can you find the next one all on your own?
No fair cheating: Googling on your phone.
No rolling your eyes and letting out a groan.
Here’s a hint: weight in pounds of exactly two stone!

A stone equals fourteen pounds, multiply by two,
Gives you twenty-eight; let’s see if it’s true.
One, two, four, seven, fourteen make up our queue.
Twenty-eight is their sum; perfect numbers, adieu.

Are you up for a math trick designed just for you?
Multiply the first digit of your age by five –please do!
Now add three to that sum and multiply the total by two.
Check your work carefully to avoid a boo-boo.

Time to please add your last digit into the mix.
Remember that perfect number – the first one, you know, six?
Subtract it from the total and your age should appear.
But really, you don’t look a day over twenty-one, my dear.

Just in case my math did not translate well,
I’ll do it myself, just so you can tell,
If the trick really works without a headache.
Here’s the arithmetic I would have to make:

Sixty-five is my age, so multiplying six by five
Equals thirty. Plus three is the next piece of jive.
That sum times two is sixty-six, to which I add five
For seventy-one. Now less six and , sixty-five!

Here’s a trick with number reversals you might know.
I’ll give an example to help you follow the steps below.
Take any three digits zero to nine
And reverse them in order to make our design.

So 567 becomes 765; no need to curse.
Subtract the smaller from the larger: 198 in this verse.
Now reverse that number (981) and add them just so:
I guarantee the result is 1,089. What do you know?

An asterisk is needed to make the rules clear.
Leading zeros are necessary to include, I fear.
Start with 028 and the formula will steer
You to 1,089, if to the rules you adhere.

028 from 820 (its reverse, do you see?)
Yields 792. Add 297 and 1,089 it will be.
If the difference in numbers is less than one hundred
The leading zero is needed (in case you wondered).

For example, 574 reversed gives you 475.
The difference (99) needs the zero to survive.
Reversed it’s 990, now add them together.
Once again 1,089. We’re rolling in heather!

I see your eyes glazing, so I’ll stop this whimsy.
I know the rhymes were forced, and the rhythm was flimsy,
But admit in the comments if you were entertained.
Or tell me if you think this whole thing was harebrained.