Web Site Update

On MarsIt’s been a little longer than usual since my last blog entry. This was primarily due to the fact that I was busily upgrading this web site. I’m now using WordPress 3.5.1, the latest version (with all of the latest security updates). I’ve updated the Akismet plugin, which prevents this site from being inundated with spam comments, and I’ve updated to the latest version of the Magomra theme (plus I fixed a bug in their theme, and then added my own customizations).

Behind the scenes, the site is now under source code control, which means that I can track all changes to the site’s underlying code, and back out changes if necessary. Equally important, it’s now possible for me to easily install the site elsewhere, where I can experiment with new features without compromising the “production” site that everybody sees on the Web. So, expect more new features in the future.

Meanwhile, the new background shows a couple of people in environment suits walking on the surface of Mars. I like the way that the background is immobile — you may have to expand your browser window a bit to see our hapless wanderers.

Posted in Creativity | 2 Comments

Hugh Howey’s Advice to Aspiring Writers

Wool by Hugh HoweyHugh Howey has a great new blog post available with advice for aspiring writers. For those who have been living under a rock, Hugh is the author of the self-published SF bestseller, Wool. The novel is an omnibus of five closely-linked stories that were self-published by Hugh. It became an Amazon bestseller, often out-selling George R. R. Martin’s most recent novel, A Dance With Dragons (the fifth novel in the series that began with A Game of Thrones).

Hugh’s notoriety was further assured when the novel was optioned by famed director Ridley Scott (well-known for ground-breaking films like Bladerunner, Alien, Gladiator and the recent film, Prometheus). More notoriety ensued when Simon & Schuster, a traditional publisher, signed a lucrative deal to publish Hugh’s book in print without any involvement in electronic sales — a truly ground-breaking deal and one that validates self-publishing as a viable strategy for writers.

Having met Hugh in person — I had dinner with him and some of his fans at Worldcon 2012, his experiences in self-publishing have already influenced my own strategies for building a writing career (as seen in my blog entry, My Indie Publishing Strategy). Check out Hugh Howey’s blog post. It makes fascinating reading.

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Television Interviewer

I recently had the chance to be an interviewer during a segment of the television show, Mastering Business Communications. The show is run by Toastmasters District 29 in northern Virginia, and appears on Comcast Channel 28 in that area. It’s taped monthly at the Comcast Studio in Herndon, VA.

I was impressed with how efficiently the show was managed. We managed to tape a fairly complicated show with a number of diverse segments in just a few short hours. The studio was awesome — truly a professional, working studio. I was also very pleased with the show’s production values, including the lighting, the deft camera work, and the top-notch editing.

Overall, my second bout at being a television interviewer was a smashing success (as an aside, my first interviewer role was with Arlington Independent Media in 2010). Everybody involved with the production had a lot of fun (and then we went out drinking).

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Smash and Nashville

I’ve been getting teased a little bit lately because my friends know that I like the TV shows Smash and Nashville. For those who might not be familiar with the shows, let me provide a brief overview before I explain why I like them.

SmashSmash, now in its second season and struggling for ratings, follows a group of people as they try to develop a Broadway musical. Key characters include:

  • Eileen Rand, Producer: She has tons of experience working on Broadway plays with her philandering husband, a ruthless, rich and successful producer. While going through a bitter divorce, she’s looking to step out of her ex-husband’s shadow and make a name for herself.

  • Julia Houston, Writer: She’s part of a highly successful Broadway writing team with Tom Levitt. She’s come up with the idea of making a musical about Marilyn Monroe’s life.

  • Tom Levitt, Composer and Musical Director: He’s part of a famous Broadway writing team with Julia Houston. He’s been partnered with Julia for a long time, but is he ready for something new?

  • Derek Willis, Director: A brilliant but difficult director, with flaws that may either sink the production or propel it into the stratosphere.

  • Ivy Lynn, Actress: An experienced actress, singer and dancer. She’s worked in the business for a long time and she’ll do just about anything to land her big break, a starring role in a major Broadway production.

  • Karen Cartwright, Actress: A young, naive actress who’s also looking for her big break. But how badly does she really want it? Is she willing to do what’s going to be required in order to make the new production a hit?

There are numerous other supporting characters, but those are the main ones.

Nashville - The TV ShowLike Smash, the new show, Nashville, follows the trials and tribulations of a group of creative professionals, this time in the competitive field of country music.

Key characters include:

  • Rayna Jaymes, Singer: A legendary country music superstar possibly facing the long, slow twilight of her career…unless she can re-invent herself.

  • Juliette Barnes, Singer: A young superstar who has achieved fame as a teen sensation. But now she wants to transform herself from a teen fad into a serious country singer.

  • Deacon Claybourne, Guitarist: A top country guitarist and former lover of Rayna James. He’s sought after by both Rayna James and Juliette Barnes for both his penetrating musical insights and his superb guitar work.

  • Scarlett O’Connor, Singer, Songwriter: The niece of Deacon Claybourne, and an unexpectedly talented entertainer in her own right. Is she ready for the spotlight?

  • Avery Barkley, Singer, Guitarist: A bad-boy aspiring musician and the boyfriend of Scarlett O’Connor. If there’s a wrong turn or a bad decision to be made, he’ll probably find it.

  • Gunnar Scott, Composer, Guitarist: Scarlett O’Connor’s friend and musical partner. He’s a nice guy, but does he have what it takes to launch his musical career and win the love of his musical partner?

Like Smash, this show also has a ton of supporting characters.

I’ll be the first to admit that both shows have their flaws. There are soap opera aspects to the lives, and loves, of many of the characters from these shows. But what the shows both do very well is to illustrate the joys, and perils, of creative careers.

Let’s contrast this, for a moment, with a show like the new Dallas, where most of the main characters are young, beautiful, smart and rich. They seem to spend all of their time scheming, back-stabbing and sleeping around. Although some of them are characterized as “brilliant,” you don’t really see any of them actually doing any work.

In Smash, the writers struggle to find the heart of the story that they want to tell about Marilyn Monroe. The two main actresses, both extremely talented, each compete with all their heart for a role that only one of them can win. The producer struggles to fund the production of the show, while dealing with treachery from both within the crew and from outside the production.

These people are working. They are hustling. They’re trying to bring something into existence that didn’t previously exist. They’re struggling to beat the odds. That’s…not something you generally see on TV, people actually working (you certainly don’t see it on Dallas).

I feel similarly about Nashville.

The aging country singer, Rayna James, is trying to be true to herself, while struggling to produce music that’s relevant both to herself and the audience. The upstart singer, Juliette Barnes, whether she realizes it or not, is trying to transform herself from a bubblegum teen sensation into the next Rayna James.

All of the singers and musicians in the show are struggling to produce quality music and to transform themselves in various ways. They are working, and struggling, in a creative profession.

Yes, there’s glitz, glamor and soap opera aspects to both of these shows, but I find it invigorating to watch shows about creative professionals…working. It’s such a novelty.

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My Indie Publishing Plan: 5 Key Strategies

I was talking with my friend, Don Anderson, at lunch today about the state of the publishing industry. I’ve been doing a lot of research lately into this subject because I’m trying to jump-start a second career as an SF writer. Frankly, publishing is in turmoil — and any time an industry is this disrupted by new technologies, there are opportunities to be seized.

My first strategy is simply … writing. Writers write. Everything else is extra.I’ve wanted to be a writer for almost as long as I can remember. Now, it’s time.

But how?

I did a lot of research to try to figure out what was going on in the publishing industry. Along the way, I discovered a number of key blogs that have dramatically influenced my thinking. Some of the best blogs are listed below:

  • John Scalzi: Favors traditional publishing because it’s worked so well for him, but he’s intelligent and reasonable about discussing the current state of publishing.

  • Kristine Kathryn Rusch: Serious advocate for indie publishing, and she practices what she preaches.

  • Dean Wesley Smith: Husband of Kristine Kathryn Rusch, and advocate of indie publishing, and an experienced and prolific writer of media tie-in novels and original works.

  • Michael Stackpole: A former traditionally published SF/Fantasy writer gone mostly indie now.

  • The Passive Voice: A blog from David Vandagriff, a contract lawyer. He provides a survey of external articles about publishing, and adds commentary concerning legal issues.

  • J. A. Konrath: A blog from author J. A. Konrath, a top-selling indie-piblished writer in the mystery, thriller and horror genres. He’s got a lot to say, and he’s remarkably honest about his sales numbers and corresponding dollar amounts.

Check them out, they all have extremely interesting, and informative, blogs.

Based on my research, I came up with the following five strategies, which I have already begun to execute. I’d love to hear what people think about my approach.

Strategy 1: Writing  My first strategy is simply … writing. Writers write. Everything else is extra. I’m trying to write a short story every two weeks. It doesn’t matter how long the story is, it just needs to be complete.

Strategy 2: Free Stuff  OK, so what am I going to do with what I’ve written? Well, my initial stories have been short shorts (mostly because I’ve been trying them out as short speeches, between 7 and 10 minutes, for my Toastmasters club). And believe me, you will discover if a story works when you try it out on a live audience.

So, these stories are longer than so-called flash fiction (which is typically under a 1000 words), but too short to be viable for sale at places like Amazon or Smashwords. I’m going to make those stories available for free on my web site. Everybody likes free stuff.

I’m going to license these stories with a Creative Commons license. Specifically, I’m using the license listed below:

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. To view a copy of this license, visit http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/us/ or send a letter to Creative Commons, 171 Second Street, Suite 300, San Francisco, California, 94105, USA.

The Match - by David KeenerStrategy 3: Make It Professional  Look, there’s a lot of dreck out there when it comes to stories in digital form. A year or two back, anything might sell, even if it had a crappy cover image and poor editing. Now, there’s a lot more content available, and the ones that are most likely to be noticed are the stories that are professionally presented.

There’s a reason why people like Kristine Kathryn Rusch are spending money on producing good cover images, paying copy editors to detect/fix grammar issues, and making sure their stories look good on diverse reading devices. If you want to compete with these people, then you need to be playing the same game.

This isn’t too much of a stretch for me. I come from a web designer background, and I can do my own graphics. Every one of my stories will have a cover image, even my free stories. The cover image for my free story, “The Match,” appears to the right.

Strategy 4: See What Sticks  Write lots of stories, and make them available on numerous platforms. Let your audience tell you what resonates with them.

Hugh Howey has a bona fide bestseller now with his “Wool Omnibus,” which collects the five stories (each of increasing length) that made up his original story arc. But when he wrote the first one, it was just another 20-page story with a downbeat ending. He had no idea it was going to prove so popular. The fans clamored for more, and he gave it to them.

I want to write a bunch of fantasy stories, all set within the same continent and featuring different characters — a bounty hunter, the bodyguard of a princess, a demon hunter, the female captain of an aerial war ship, a mute knight, a dragon warrior, etc.

I’ll initially make the stories available for $0.99. Yes, I know, on Amazon that only nets me 35% of the cover price instead of 70% if you price it at $2.99 or higher. I want these stories to be an easy entry for readers.

If the readers like particular stories, I’ll write sequels…for $2.99. I’d also hope for some synergy, i.e. — “I liked that story set in this world, so let me try another one.”

Strategy 5: Go Wider  Seek out new paying venues for the stories to appear in, such as print magazines, SF web sites, etc. These publishers usually buy a limited set of rights for a period of time, after which you can continue to do what you want with a story.

There are certain advantages with working with magazines and online fiction sites. They typically have professional editors. Don’t underestimate the impact that a good editor can have on helping you to improve your work. They can also introduce your work to a wider audience. Finally, they add a certain amount of street cred. You were good enough to get published in a professional venue. Your work was bought by a professional editor. It’s not just bragging rights, it’s a way to start widening your audience and enhancing your reputation as a professional writer.

These are my strategies for embarking on a writing career via the indie-publishing path. You may rest assured that I’ll continue blogging about it as a I go, so stick around. It could get pretty interesting around here.

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Free Story: The Match

The Match - by David KeenerMy new story, “The Match,” is available for free on this web site. It’s a historical story set during the Great Depression, but I’m particularly proud of it. It’s based on a true event.

The description of this story is:

The Match: A man engages in an unusual high-stakes wager in order to support his family during the height of the Great Depression. Historical, based on a true story.

The story is slightly over 1200 words, which translates into about 5 pages if published in a book. It’s slightly longer than flash fiction, which traditionally uses a limit of 1000 words. This story was crafted specifically to facilitate storytelling — it can be delivered to a live audience in about 8 minutes.

I have told the story to a live audience twice now, and it has been tremendously and surprisingly effective each time. It is easily the best speech I’ve ever given. I think that the approach I took with the story really helps the audience feel like they’re present in the moment.

The story is available in HTML and PDF forms. I’m scheduled to present this story again on March 19th, and plan to record it on video at that time.

[Editorial Note: It’s now available on video.]

Posted in Toastmasters | 2 Comments

First Check from Google

Woohoo! I got my first check from Google, $102.24, for advertising on my web sites. Currently, I’ve got advertising on KeenerTech.com, my technical blog (I’m a web architect for my day job). I will eventually have some advertising on this site, my creative blog, as well, in addition to the Amazon links to purchase the books that I mention in my various articles.

My First Google AdSense Check

What this means is that my various web sites are verging on being profitable by themselves, and therefore virtually self-sustaining. How cool is that?

Posted in Internet | 2 Comments

My Winners from the 2012 Worldcon

I attended the 2012 World Science Fiction Convention, or Worldcon as it’s usually known, in Chicago. It was held at the end of August and extended into early September. At Worldcons, authors are on display. It’s their chance to hobnob with fellow professionals, do some wheeling and dealing, and, perhaps most importantly, connect with the fans who buy science fiction and fantasy books. Impress enough fans, and you might just kick-start enough word-of-mouth about your books/stories to propel your career to the next level.

I thought I’d blog about my winners at the Worldcon, the writers who hit my radar screen in positive ways.

For the 2012 Worldcon, the four writers that were my biggest winners were:

  • Hugh Howey
  • Seanan McGuire
  • Jo Walton
  • Kij Johnson

Wool by Hugh HoweyHugh Howey: I saw Hugh Howey on my first day at the conference. He was participating in a panel called “To Indie or Not Indie,” which basically turned into a debate between several indie-published writers and a more traditionally published writer of a military SF series (Mike Moscoe, who writes as Mike Shepherd). Having successfully sold a number of indie books previously, Hugh was starting to have what looked like some break-out success with a book called “Wool.” It had even been optioned by Ridley Scott, the director of such famous SF films as Alien and Bladerunner.

I ended up having dinner with Hugh and a bunch of his fans at a meet-up that he’d scheduled online earlier with his fans. I had a great time, and Hugh even bought dinner for everybody (something I certainly wasn’t expecting). The next day, I had no trouble plopping $20 down for the trade paperback of Hugh’s novel, “Wool,” which had been recommended to me by all of his fans as “his best book.”

When I subsequently had a chance to read the book, I was pleased to discover that it was, in fact, a very good book. Equally interesting, it had been indie-published in five parts, some of which even featured different viewpoint characters, all of which slotted together nicely to form one highly coherent novel with numerous plot twists and surprises. The novel that I bought was, in fact, an omnibus of those five original stories.

Since Worldcon, I’ve had a chance to publish a review of Hugh’s book on this site, as well as mention him in several blog entries. “Wool” has indeed become Hugh’s break-out book; he recently signed a lucrative deal with traditional publishing to augment the indie sales of his novel, and is currently indie-publishing a prequel to “Wool.” I feel like I’ve helped discover one of the field’s up-and-coming writers.

Deadline by Mira Grant (aka Seanan McGuire)Seanan McGuire: I discovered Seanan McGuire because of her pseudonymously published “Newflesh” trilogy, a horror series that takes place twenty years after the human race has successfully survived a devastating zombie plague. Under the pseudonym of Mira Grant, her second novel in the series, “Deadline,” was nominated for the 2012 Hugo award for Best Novel.

I soon learned that the first novel in the trilogy, “Feed,” had likewise been nominated for a Hugo award the previous year, and that the concluding novel, “Blackout,” had just been published. Oh, and her related novella, “Countdown,” about how the zombie plague began and propagated, had also been nominated for a Hugo for Best Novella.

Before the end of the conference, I owned the entire “Newsflesh” trilogy, and even had them signed by Seanan McGuire. She also publishes fantasy under her own name, most notably the October Daye series, so I bought some of those books as well. Since the convention, I’ve been gradually buying all of her books. She’s a multi-talented writer with a wicked sense of humor that often comes through in her writing. She’s now pretty much on my must-buy list.

Among Others by Jo Walton, Hugo winner, Nebula WinnerJo Walton: Jo Walton’s “Among Others” was nominated for, and won, the Hugo award for Best Novel. It also won the Best Novel Nebula award as well, making it one of only seven novels to accomplish this feat.

It’s an odd, but strangely mesmerizing, coming-of-age story featuring magic and the discovery of science fiction by a traumatized teen-age girl. It may not be for everybody, but I thought it was a carefully crafted gem of a novel. Jo Walton may never be the type of writer who hones in on the SF bestseller list, but she’s certainly willing to push the boundaries of science fiction and fantasy to attempt something new. She’s a brave, unflinching writer who deserves more readers.

Since reading “Among Others,” I have begun picking up all of her other books. “Farthing” was equally delightful, albeit in much different ways, and “Tooth and Claw,” a semi-Victorian story featuring dragons, is next up in the queue.

The Man Who Bridged the Mist by Kij JohnsonKij Johnson: Kij Johnson authored the novella, “The Man Who Bridged the Mist,” which I thought was easily the best novella of the year (and it did, in fact, win the Best Novella Hugo). I’ve been advising all of my friends to read this story. I think it’s a legitimate classic. Since then, I’ve begun reading other stories that she has available online. To my knowledge, she has not yet written any novels.

While these were the four writers who dominated my attention the most at Worldcon 2012, they weren’t the only ones that I noticed:

  • Jack McDevitt was impressive on panels; he’s a gracious panelist, as well as a consummate craftsman as a writer. I’ve been gradually working my way through all of his novels, most lately with “Eternity Road.”

  • Neil Gaiman was very nice to talk to in person, and even let me get a photograph with him. I already own most of his works (both graphic novels and novels), which is the only reason why he’s not one of my “winners” this year.

  • Mary Robinette Kowal’s Hugo-nominated novelette, “Kiss Me Twice,” was excellent. I checked out her web site, and it turns out that she’s written two novels: “Shades of Milk and Honey” and “Glamour in Glass.” Both have been well received by critics, and look interesting to me, so they’re both on my “to buy” list.

  • Carolyn Ives Gilman’s Hugo-nominated novella, “The Ice Owl,” was very good. Accordingly, she’s on my watch list, and I’ll be checking out more of her stories.

  • B. A. Chepaitis was impressive on a panel about storytelling, as well as one on screenwriting; I have since picked up one of her books second-hand to “try her out.”

  • Lyda Morehouse and I had a surprisingly witty exchange during a long and crowded elevator ride; I was left thinking that if she writes nearly as well as she speaks off-the-cuff, she might be worth checking out.

  • I accidentally discovered Laura Mixon’s new book, “Up Against It,” written under the pseudonym of M. J. Locke. Her best book yet, and set in one of my favorite venues, the Asteroid Belt.

  • It was also nice to discover that the influential “Bordertown” series is alive and well.

Writers, don’t discount the impact of the Worldcon. I, like many other readers, vote with my wallet. If you can get my attention in a favorable way, I will spend money on you. And if I like what I find, you may very well become part of my own personal SF subscription, as did my own personal top four winners from Worldcon 2012.

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Islands in the Mind

When life doesn’t go the way you want, haven’t you sometimes thought that, well, reality sucks?

Well, you’re not the only one. We’ve all had those moments.

Have you ever wondered why some people seem to be more effective at dealing with reality than others? Why some people achieve success, and others don’t?

Well, I have. And so have phsychologists around the world.

Now, as we all know, phsychologists are diabolical. They love to run experiments. Is anybody here a psychologist?

Oops. Alas, my statement still stands.

As you might expect, there’s an experiment that directly addresses this issue. Now, I confess, it features rats, but I think you’ll find that the results are directly applicable to us humans.

The Experiment

Ratus ExperimentusPicture two tanks filled with water, right here in front of us. Let’s make the tanks four feet high, four long and three feet wide. In the second tank, the experimenters place a metal stool, which is set up so that the top of the stool is about four inches below the water surface.

Now, they add milk to both tanks, so that the water is opaque. The stool in the second tank is no longer visible.

Next, dump 10 rats into each tank.

In the first tank, the rats swim around and around until they get tired. Eventually, they get too tired, and one-by-one they slip beneath the surface. Whereupon an experimenter leaps into action with a little net to rescue each rat before it drowns.

Things are a little different in the second tank. The rats swim around for a while, but then one of them discovers the stool. It figures out that it can stand on the stool and keep its head above water. Pretty soon, all ten rats are standing on the stool.

This is Day 1 of the experiment.

On Day 2, the experimenters set up the two tanks just as they did before. Except that they remove the stool from the second tank. I told you, psychologists are diabolical.

Then they dumped the same two sets of rats in the tanks, just as they did previously. What they discovered was that the rats in the second tank swam for twice as long as the rats in the first group.

How About Those Soggy Rats?

I know what you’re thinking, what can a bunch of soggy rats tell me about dealing with reality?

Well, think about it this way. The reality was the same for both sets of rats. But the rats who thought there might be an island were twice as effective at trying to survive than the other rats. In other words, how they perceived the world, regardless of whether they were right or wrong, affected how well they could deal with it.

Islands in the mind” equaled enhanced survivability for the rats.

How you think about reality affects how well you can deal with it. This is powerful stuff. Let’s apply it to humans.

My wife is a lovely person. But she can’t swim. She’s had swimming lessons. She knows about the Deadman’s Float, which anybody can do to survive in the water. But deep down, she thinks she can’t swim.

And she’s right. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. She can’t swim because she believes she can’t swim. Her mind won’t let her be a swimmer. She’s successful at many other things in life, but she’s programmed herself to fail when it comes to swimming. In the water, she’s like one of the rats in the first group.

Um, it would probably be best if nobody mentioned this speech to her, by the way.

Anyway, let’s contrast this with a lawyer who once lived in Mississippi, working for relatively low pay at the Mississippi state court house. He’d always wanted to be a novelist. He spent years writing his first book. People laughed at him when he showed it to them, asking for their input and advice.

That book was published … and it sank without a trace.

But traditional publishing is really slow, so he’d already completed a second book. By the time that was published, he was already done with his third book.

Well, that second turned out to be, very possibly, the top-selling book in the entire world the year that it was published. It was made into a very profitable, but otherwise mediocre movie, starring Tom Cruise. His first book was eventually made into an excellent film with Matthew McConaughey and Sandra Bullock.

Anybody want to guess who I’m talking about?

John Grisham.

His second book was “The Firm,” which was made into a movie with Tom Cruise. The first was “A Time to Kill,” which starred Matthew McConaughey and Sandra Bullock.

Islands in the mind. He believed he was a writer. He didn’t let reality affect him, even when his first book tanked. He just kept writing.

Islands in the mind.

This is what Toastmasters is about. Toastmasters teaches us that you can be a better speaker. You can become an effective leader. You can stand in front of a crowd … and entertain them. You have the capability to organize events.

You’ll need to work hard to achieve these things, but Toastmasters teaches you that it’s possible.

Islands in the Mind: Achieve or Fail!Islands in the mind.

Has anybody ever heard of Bruce Barton?

He was an ad executive and a politician, but he’s primarily noted for being one of the first really successful self-help writers. He said:

“Nothing splendid has ever been achieved except by those who dared to believe that something inside themselves was superior to circumstance.”

Island in the mind, folks, islands in the mind.

Posted in Toastmasters | 2 Comments