November 29, 2012

Book stats and accidental cover reveal (blog), and a #nanowrimo WIN

On Wednesday I "won" NaNoWriMo, clocking 50,000 words in just 27 days on a new novel I didn't even know I was going to write until I thought it up in October. It's not done yet, but today I'm setting it aside because...

I am on the verge of publishing the sequel to SEMPER. I'll be posting details of the sequel, FORSADA, over the next few weeks until its publication in mid/late January.

I've also got a new cover for Semper. The current cover is not totally hideous (I did it myself) but it doesn't really scream out young adult science fiction post apocalyptic adventure page-turner, does it? Here's the current cover, which has served me well since publication on January 22, 2012:

It actually looks WAY better in print. Although I have not yet approved the new version through CreateSpace, Amazon is already displaying the new cover. So, my accidental "cover reveal" day is today. Here it is:

Writer and designer friend Wendy Russ built that. Nice, huh? She also built the cover for Forsada, which is not yet ready to be revealed. Stay tuned.

After an initial honeymoon during the first half of the year, the old cover was holding back sales. Still, with minimal promotion (less than $100 out of pocket, not counting copies I donated or gave away), the book did okay in its first year:
  • Over 400 total units sold (349 ebooks, 110 print copies)
  • 8,334 free downloads of the ebook
That means that in 10 months this book has over 8,700 copies in circulation. Of course I don't for a minute believe all those have been read. A free download is easy to get and forget. But the book also has generated
  • 29 ratings on Goodreads (4.14 average) with 7 reviews
  • 25 reviews on Amazon (4.64 average)
  • 2 independent reviews by book bloggers
  • 1 high school book report
  • 1 photo of a kid 30 feet up a tree reading it on a sunny Saturday
I can't wait to get Forsada out and hear what people think of it. Early readers give it high praise. Some even like it better than Semper. Either way, I can't wait to have two books published. Stay tuned for details.

November 27, 2012

Why I'm only giving advice on #GivingTuesday (blog)

I had never heard of #GivingTuesday until late in the day.

Keep in mind that my day job is helping people give money to charity. I enable giving. I encourage it. I spend a large portion of the professional me figuring out how to ask people to give. And, by most measures, I'm pretty good at it. (That is, if you consider raising $60 million, recording 1.5 million volunteer hours, and being ranked #1 in the country three years in a row a decent set of metrics.)

So hearing about #GivingTuesday for the first time after it was almost over was a little surprising.

And to be honest, I've had a very hard time getting revved up about it.

Maybe I'm just too cynical about Black Friday and Cyber Monday to give a flying meme about #GivingTuesday.

Or maybe Black Friday and Cyber Monday are just so oozy with the septic puss of unbridled consumerism that #GivingTuesday feels like an overreaction. Like naming the Saturday after Thanksgiving "Fitness Saturday"... the day you try to make up for the fourteen pounds of pumpkin pie you ate two days before. You feel guilty about your overindulgence.

Or perhaps the whole thing feels just a little too self-righteous. Like those parents who don't let their kids watch TV or play video games and only let them listen to NPR. "It's wonderful you let your four-year-old son play Call of Duty," they say. "Here, I'm not using this Beethoven for Toddlers CD any more. Maybe share it with your son," they say. They are disgusted by your overindulgence.

You need to give to charity on Tuesday because you just gorged yourself on consumerism, presumably maxing out your credit cards in the process. This is healthy... how?

Mostly, though, it just feels irrelevant. Or desperate. Like that forgettable guy you had your first date with last night who leaves nineteen messages on your machine the next day before noon, every one of which ends with, "Yeah, okay, so maybe give me a call some time. You know. If you want to. You don't have to. Just if you want to. Okay? So okay. Um, bye."

Browsing the Twitter feed for #GivingTuesday did not inspire me. It did not educate me. It did not make me want to continue reading the Twitter feed for #GivingTuesday. It did get me to click over to the web site once due to professional curiosity. The feed seemed to be filled with three types of tweets (my very unscientific vague impressions):

  • "Hey, I'm participating in #GivingTuesday!"
    Translation: I am tweeting but may or may not be giving any actual money. I am (a) appeasing my inner slactivist, (b) trying to look cool, or (c) hoping someone else will also give to my favorite charity.
  • "Hey, we're a charity! It's #GivingTuesday! Give us something!"
    Translation: Hey! We're a charity! We are desperate! We will take anything, even slightly used tweets!
  • "Top story of the day: #GivingTuesday!"
    Translation: I work in a charity-related job and all my colleagues will think that I'm well informed for tweeting this hashtag.
I'm really not this cynical about most things. Really. Ask anyone who knows me well.

On the other hand, I know #GivingTuesday will do some good. The #1 reason people don't give to charity is because no one ever asked them to. #GivingTuesday is that first ask for many people. And the best way to generate a positive cycle of giving is to get people talking with their friends and colleagues about their charity in an authentic, personal way. Also, exposure for nonprofits--especially when people are feeling guilty about overindulgence and generous due to the holidays--is not a bad thing.

I hope someone does some serious scientific statistical study about the real effects of #GivingTuesday. I would love to know if nonprofits saw a spike in web traffic, a spike in one-time donations, a rising tide of engagement, a lasting increase in their donor rolls.

For my part, I did not give anything on #GivingTuesday. I plan out my philanthropy as part of my family's annual budget, and I give to many causes mostly through automatic deductions from my paychecks.

#GivingTuesday is like the Twinkie of charity. Nonprofits and donors love that sweet, immediate rush. But you can't live on it for long. Nonprofits need sustained, rich relationships with donors who understand and appreciate the work their donations fund. If #GivingTuesday is an entree to a more healthy, sustainable relationship between nonprofits and donors, terrific. But if it's simply an instant gratification moment to capitalize on the tacky "special day" feel of Thanksgiving, Black Friday, and Cyber Monday, then I hope it disappears as quickly as it flashed into being.

November 21, 2012

people come to me when seeking stimulation and porn star (blog)

Periodically I remember that Google Analytics exists and knows things about my blog that I don't. It also knows many things about you that I don't. Which can be fun.

For instance, the #1 search term that brings people to my blog is porn star. Now, I'm not letting that go to my head because I'm guessing that's the #1 search term for every single blog on the planet. But the #4 search is stimulation and the #10 search is porno stars. Coincidence? Trend? New career opportunity? You tell me. You're the one searching for those things.

Stormy Daniels, candidate
I do know something about you that Google Analytics does not, however. You are likely to arrive here flush with the excitement of the chase and the anticipation of titillation. But you are even more likely to click away disappointed.

Did you come here looking for Stormy Daniels? Or information about an actual corner kick? Bounce rate for "corner kick" is 100%. I am unsure of Stormy's bounce rate, but I would be willing to volunteer to measure it.

Speaking of that, I'm not sure what it means that stimulation has the lowest bounce rate. If you come here looking for stimulation, you apparently bounce less frequently. I will have to keep that in mind the next time I encounter someone seeking stimulation.

BOUNCE RATE (bounces per day?)

But most troubling is the fact that elbow shows up in three of the top ten searches leading to my blog. Maybe because 50% of my family have broken an elbow in the past five years, according to Google Analytics. And most amusing to me is that someone actually searched for the term bottom of boobs.

And ended up at my blog.

That tickles me. (Besides, "Bottom of Boobs" would be a great name for a band.)

PS: Big thanks to Joni for being my #1 referrer during the last [mumble] days! According to Google Analytics.

November 20, 2012

A discovery on my way to 40K #nanowrimo (blog)

Oh, I was such a naive young thing back in October of 2005, ready to step into NaNoWriMo for the second time. I had already proven to myself that I could write 50,000 words in 30 days. A few months later I proved to myself that I could complete the whole 65,000 page manuscript.

I didn't yet know how much I had to mature and how much better my writing would get over the next seven years.

I wrote three more NaNoWriMo novels, twice getting more than 60,000 words written during the month of November. Each novel got progressively better, and the fourth one was actually quite good. After a few years dabbling in short stories, I wrote Semper over the course of an entire year and spent another half year revising it. Forsada, the sequel to Semper which I will publish in January 2013, also took a little over a year to write.

This year I plunged back into the NaNo madness. So far: 20 days has yielded 40,000 words, plus one big lesson about my creative process.

As I'm writing this book, I'm making great word count. Some of the scenes are exquisite--tight, active, lucid, brilliant. Others wallow in stagnation. I find myself having characters recapping the action so far to other characters, as happens so often in HGTV shows or The Da Vinci Code. When I notice this, I force the characters to move, to go do something. The problem is, the story is stagnating because I don't exactly know what should come next.

You see, my modus operandi is to journal my story idea and character sketches, longhand, while commuting on the train to and from work. I'll journal the hell out of it until I feel like I've got realistic characters, a strong plot arc, good themes, and as few plot holes as I can manage. That's when I let myself start writing. I'll get maybe ten thousand words in and find I need to let the ideas simmer some more, let the next episodes take shape in my journal. Often I'll sit at a word count for a few weeks while I work out the next sections and any other big changes.

Ideas are like that. They get better the more you exercise them (unless you exercise them to death).

The problem with NaNo is that there is no time to stop and mull over this new secondary character that's inserted himself so dramatically, or to figure out just how the main character extracts himself from an inescapable chamber, or what the landscape looks like in this mythical place my characters are about to enter for the first time. No time to journal it. No time to let it simmer. Gotta turn up the heat and cook.

And that's okay. Pushing forward, torpedoes be damned, is a great way to get a first draft written. My first drafts of Semper and Forsada were very strong, very tight. Revisions still necessary, of course, but most of my revision was done in my journal before I ever wrote the manuscript.

This draft of this new NaNo novel will be a good story. But it will be loose, and the writing will need a lot more trimming and rework. The only difference is that I'll be doing that rework after writing the first draft rather than before it. For Semper and Forsada, I did previsions, then writing, then revisions. For this NaNo book, I'll write, then revise, and revise again.

Same destination, same amount of energy expended. Just a different route.

And that's not only okay, it's a revelation for me about my own creative process. I'm finding my strengths and learning to exploit them in different environments. And that, I think, is the essence of NaNoWriMo for me.

 And just because you read this far, a couple of kittens.

November 16, 2012

for Christmas all I want is fewer dead children

The holidays are approaching. Oh hell, they're here already.

This means relatives visiting, tight travel schedules, crowded supermarkets and honking horns at the mall, office parties, and end-of-year deadlines. It also means we're approaching the darkest day of the year. What does this all add up to?


Every red light seems to last longer, doesn't it? Every dinnertime seems to bring more telemarketer calls. Every commute seems to have twice as many idiots in twice as many cars.

Am I right?

Yesterday, a child riding his bike to our middle school got hit by a car. The kid went to the hospital but will be all right, thank goodness. I wasn't there. I don't know what happened. But I do know from personal experience how distracted parents get this time of year and how impatient they are behind the wheel.

Your kid is slow to wake up, slow to get ready for school. He'll still be barely on time, but now you're five minutes late and that means you could miss the start of your 9 o'clock call. Or your yoga class. Or your coffee date. Or your housecleaner's arrival. And there are all these people driving slowly in front of the school and just freaking hurry your ass up you morons!

Or maybe you're approaching the school and you just found out Johnny left his all-important history presentation poster at home. What do you mean I have to go home and get it? I've got things to do!

A few years ago I volunteered as a crossing guard at our elementary school. You'd be shocked at how many people make illegal and ill-advised U turns during the busiest pick-up and drop-off times. And how many drive 35 or 40 miles an hour through a crosswalk when kids are standing at the curb. Normally sane and intelligent people suddenly decide traffic laws are more like suggestions and don't really apply when you're in a hurry anyway.

After all, 11 year old kids are so aware and responsible and careful. Right? What could go wrong?

Despite my fashionably reflective orange vest and the huge STOP sign I was holding and my very cautious nature, I was nearly hit four times as a crossing guard. Once, a huge SUV barreled through the crosswalk at about 30 miles per hour while I was standing on the double-yellows with the STOP sign out. The mom was looking behind into the back seat at her kids, yelling at them as she pulled from the curb and into traffic. Had there been a kid stepping off the curb at the same time he'd have been killed. Had I been two feet more to my left, I might have been killed.

Seriously, people. Slow down. Pay attention.

November 9, 2012

election and politics

This political season (in the US), my politics thoughts have gone mostly to Facebook or Twitter, not here. But it's been such a big part of 2012 that I have to post something.

Y'all probably already know I lean liberal and identify Democrat despite being a balding white male living in a wealthy suburb and working at a big bank. (Turns out these characteristics do not cause a spectacular explosion like mixing matter and anti-matter.) I am very happy Obama won and very sat Prop 8 has not yet been relegated to the political garbage heap of history. In case you were wondering.

Today I had a chance to listen in on a private analysis of the election by a non-partisan, independent and unbiased party. (Yes, really. It was not on the news. It was not over a beer. It was a real pollster from a real polling organization.) The analysis only scratched the surface, and the phrase "emerging wisdom" was used frequently (i.e. the wisdom from this election has not yet fully emerged despite what many tweeters and some cable TV people seem to think). Here are some of the things I took away from this discussion:

  • Obama's approval rating was 52% running up to the election.
    This is quite high for an incumbent running for reelection. Since Richard Nixon's 56% approval rating 40 years ago, only Reagan and Clinton had higher ratings in their reelection years.
  • This election was the most polarized since this organization started measuring this particular data point. Among Democrats, Obama had a 90% approval rating; among Republicans, only 8% (an 82 point gap). Even W had a higher opposition approval rating at 12%, resulting in an 80 point gap.
  • The electorate is divided starkly along racial lines. Obama won over 75% of the vote of people who identify themselves as non-white. Among those identifying as white, Obama won such categories as people with post-graduate education, nonmarried women, and non-religious people.
  • In general, national polls were correct throughout the campaign, within a 2-3 point margin of error. They all pretty much said it was too close to call, and it was.
  • Historically, Republicans are much more likely to vote. The Obama campaign's Get Out The Vote efforts likely had a big effect on the outcome. (One of those pieces of emerging wisdom.)
  • When asked, "Is it more important to stick to your beliefs or to reach compromises," 40% of conservatives said stick to beliefs even if it means nothing gets done, while 60%+ of moderates said compromise, as did 60%+ of liberals. Which, when you think about the meaning of the word "conservative," makes total sense.
  • A majority of the population thinks government should do less, not more, to solve the country's problems. Also, a majority think that people rely too much on the federal government. (I have no idea what people mean by that in real terms. But it's interesting that Romney had that going for him in a significant way, yet he was unable to capitalize.)
There were quite a number of other interesting observations, but ultimately this call left me with the impression that our country is very starkly divided, with only a very small number of people truly in the middle. This is not a shocking conclusion to anyone who has paid attention over the past 12 years, but what I did not realize is how starkly divided we are along racial lines.

As the country's population darkens (and it is getting less white, which I think is a good thing), Republicans will have to deal with the problems facing those demographics if they want to continue to be elected. Circling the wagons around a right-wing, Christian, morals-based agenda and calling it a "big tent" is unlikely to win over the non-white votes they already don't have. (The linked FOX news article talks about "all slices" of the "big tent" Republican pie on display at this year's convention: fiscal conservatism, Ron Paul supporters, and right-to-life. Yup. HUGE tent there.) At some point, the Republicans will have to put forth candidates that can legitimately speak to and deal with the issues facing the non-whites in this country.

Even so, Obama's 2-point popular vote advantage illustrates how evenly divided this country is. Neither side can ever claim a "mandate" in any kind of a win. The only mandate the elected have is to make progress on solving this nation's problems. Unemployment, an education system in free fall, an aging Boomer population, dependence on foreign oil, the insane costs of health care, etc.

People can disagree on how to solve those problems, but obstructionist politics designed to wall off one side from the other will never solve any of them. Hopefully, all our elected politicians will refocus on progress.

We will see. I am glad Obama was reelected. Not because I want to "tax the rich and feed the poor until there are no rich no more" but because Obama's is a message of inclusion. Ensure every voice is heard and respected. Listen to opposing viewpoints and try to find solutions. The Republicans have hunkered down in the bunker of obstructionism for so long, I wonder if they will be able to participate, or if they will continue to kick and scream while our country falls apart around them.

And there, that's my political post for this presidential election cycle. We now return you to your regular programming.

NaNoWriMo Update
Another 1900 words today, which puts me over 20,000 and on pace for over 65,000 by month end. If I keep up my pace, which seems unlikely. Especially since I've gotten to that point in my story where I don't know exactly what happens next, and usually I have to let things simmer for a week or two before moving on. Not this time. This time, I have to turn up the heat to boil and keep rolling.

November 7, 2012

Oh boy, I'm glad I didn't quit

I got an email yesterday from someone I didn't know. It said, "I loved your book. Please let me know when you put out your next one." This person went out of her way to find my web site, find my email address, and call attention to her email with a subject line that would make sure I didn't mistake her email for spam. That's pretty cool, right? Totally made my day.

This afternoon I followed a link on Twitter to Rachelle Gardner's blog of November 7th, which presented a succinct collection of writerly roadblocks, along with a pithy collection of ways to avoid falling into despair when confronted by them. You should go read it.

An optimist by nature, I tend to look at life as a huge pile of opportunities, a pile so big I can only experience a tiny fraction of them during my lifetime. Despair is not something I experience often because I simply dump the un-fun activity and go do something more worth my limited time.

Writing a book takes tons of time, but it's also really fun. Navigating the cruel and merciless publishing industry? Not fun. Rejection is a "rite of passage," if you get any response at all. Acceptance is usually just another step on the path to a different type of rejection. And at the end, two years later if you're lucky, you get three months to prove that your book was worth that measly advance you got.

After I'd written Semper, I held my completed manuscript and stood between two options. On one side, the publishing industry. On the other, my huge pile of opportunities (like exercise, traveling, reading, time with my kids, etc.). I just about tossed the manuscript aside and dove into the pile. Why jump into a pit of despair when life could be full of fun things?

Even so, I did despair for a while. I didn't want to give up writing, or my life-long dream of publishing a novel. And here I stood, with what I thought was a pretty darned good one. On the verge of quitting writing altogether, I started discovering, on my own, the other truths that Ms. Gardner describes. I had options. I could take control. I could carry through my dream in a different way. So I published Semper myself.

Had I quit, I would never have written the sequel (due out in January 2013). If I hadn't written the sequel, I would never have gotten these notes from the friend of a beta reader who also read the draft:

I started reading the book Monday and couldn't stop reading. So, I finished reading tonite (Tuesday) at about 7:30pm. ... That book was gooddddd. I need him to get that 3rd book out. How in the heck did he get his ideas of this book on paper. What an imagination. WOW!
Now, is that the best review in the world? Naw, of course not. But it's a validation of my decision not to quit. It's a validation of everything Ms. Gardner says. Do not despair. Things might not work out the way you initially envisioned, but things turn out best for those who make the best of how things turn out. And there are more options for writers today than ever before. You may need to reexamine your goals as I reexamined mine. But never despair. If you truly love writing, there's no need for despair. Certainly, life is too short for it.

NaNoWriMo Update
As if I weren't busy enough, I've committed myself to a NaNoWriMo novel that is totally unrelated to Semper. It's a middle-grade fantasy novel. After six and a half days, I'm over 16,000 words into it and having even more fun than I expected. I am so glad I didn't quit. I spend half my day wishing I could find more time to work on it, and half the night trying not to think about it so I can get to sleep.

Are you doing NaNo? If so, leave a comment or drop by the nanowrimo site and friend me. On the NaNo site, I'm PJD.