Friday, May 12, 2017

The making of: The Garrison Project



I still remember: I was standing in line at the Toronto International Film Festival, when I received the email from Wattpad. The crowd and the street noise fell away as it sunk in that they were asking me to write a story for a Paranormal Activity promotional campaign. Standing there hastily reading through the details on my phone, I knew there’d have to be something horrifically unfair in the contract to refuse. It hardly mattered that it was an incredible offer or that it would be my first paid writing gig, the idea forming in my head was a story I wanted to write.

The offer came in on Friday evening, which gave me the weekend to flesh out the concept and submit a proposal and outline on Monday. What followed was a frantic three weeks of writing and editing the colossal fifteen thousand word tale. Colossal, if only for the short amount of time I had to complete it. I was used to posting something new to Wattpad every week, but this meant  tripling my normal output. All while working against a strict deadline.

Looking back, it seems like a fever dream. Personal time vanished. It was a continuous chain of write, edit, and repeat. There was a trip to visit family back home, planned long before this job came up, and I brought my laptop everywhere, writing in the hotel room, coffee shops, my mom’s dining room table. As hard as it was, it was also exhilarating. When the dust settled and it was done, there was an immense sense of accomplishment and a great deal of pride for the story I had in front of me.


I’m sure most of you have seen at least one of the Paranormal Activity movies if not all. This story was to be a tie-in for the sixth installment in the series, The Ghost Dimension. My contract specified an original story containing certain details such as found footage, a family, and demon possession. But the “original story” part made me take a big step back from the films. It would be far too easy to slip into imitation if I wasn’t careful. So I needed to take those elements and take them in a different direction. Make them my own.




As it happened, sitting on my bedside table was the Penguin Horror re-release of The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, containing the incredibly insightful essay, Haunted Castles, Dark Mirrors by Guillermo del Toro. This is one of the best essays on the subject of classic horror out there ,and along with the six books it accompanies, it has the makings if a great college literature course (or two). On that first weekend, as the story of Molly Haywood was forming in my head, I went back and reread del Toro’s words. In the process, The Garrison Project become an homage to all the ghost stories I love so much.

The opening scene with Molly in the Italian restaurant reciting urban legends with her friends is my take on the "club story,” the classic setup of so many ghost stories, including Henry James’s The Turn of a Screw. And any Hill House fan will notice Molly channeling Jackson’s Eleanor on more than one occasion. There’s also a nod to The Shining as Molly’s obsession gets her watching the tapes frame by frame and diagramming every movement, much as people do in Room 237, the documentary about fanatic viewers of Kubrick’s film version.

In the milieu of the ghost story, I found a perfect outlet to examine some of my favorite bugaboos: perception (and its child interpretation), obsession, and the horrors we are all capable of with the wrong motivation.

From TIFF's Kubrick exhibit 2015



It’s a year and half since the October when The Garrison Project was first made available on Wattpad, and here it is again — the same but different. Although I was happy with the finished product, there were some things that could have been improved. For one, the ending was too abrupt. This was the result of coming up against the contract’s word cap in the eleventh hour and not having enough time to re-work the earlier sections to create a better pace. Another issue was the Garrisons weren’t in it enough. They only appeared in four scenes and although those scenes were critical, they failed to give the sense of a continuous presence that was needed for the story. And then there was the editing. As much as I tried to make the submission to Wattpad perfect, there was only so much that could be done in that tight time-frame and with only one set of eyes. This new version goes back and fixes those problems. New scenes with Molly and the Garrisons have been added and the whole thing has been extensively edited. I went through it so many times, I began to feel like Molly in her re-watching of the videos, loosing track of what was the beginning and what was the end, as it looped over and over again during my revisions.

I also brought in professional help and was very lucky to get Monica Kuebler to edit the manuscript.

Monica is not only a friend but someone with extensive experience behind her as the onetime owner and editor for an independent horror press and as a current contributing editor for Rue Morgue magazine. She also runs the not to be missed blog, Library of the Damned. Monica not only cleaned up all the little messes I missed, but she pointed me to the things that weren’t working, the passages needing more love, and sloppy crutches all us writers go blind to in our own writing.

The new novella version of The Garrison Project will be released in both print and ebook on June 23, 2017 at pretty much any online book retailer you can name. If you’re interested in receiving a free advance reader copy (ARC) of the ebook, in exchange for a fair review, please contact me at DavidJThirteen@gmail.com.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Here We Go Again... (Tales of a De-Published Author Part 3)



For those of you following the saga of my de-publishing, it is finally over (I hope).

To recap: in April my publisher, Booktrope, announced it was going out of business and on June 1, 2016 my book Mr. 8 was pulled from all retail outlets. I was faced with many choices. It became clear to me that the best thing for me to do was accept the fact that it would no longer be available and take some (considerable) time rewriting to produce a better (my writing has improved since it was first put out) and unique version of the story. Since sales had stagnated prior to Booktrope's decision, a new version along with a well planned re-launch might create increased interest. But there was one major problem with that option: time. There are other projects I was hoping to move forward with before the end of the year, projects that would have been postponed if I went forward with a full on rewrite. Setting these projects aside to go back and work on a "finished" book was all a bit heartbreaking.

So I compromised. I've re-launched the same book that Booktrope had published. I did give it another proof read to tidy up a few typos my proofreader missed, but otherwise it is the exact same book. The pros of doing this was that it only ate up a month of my spare time, it keeps a presence in the retail world, it allows the few readers who want a copy the ability to get one, and it leaves open the possibility of doing a major rewrite and re-launch at a later date.

Doing it indie style

I started out greatly ahead of most self-publishers. I had a fully edited manuscript, which had been formatted for print and ebook publication. I had a professionally designed cover. And the book had already been registered with the Library of Congress. What I didn't have was an ISBN or the rights to the photography used in the cover. These were owned by Booktrope and weren't transferable. Also, I had no means of distributing the book.

In my research, I learned that an ISBN is not very important these days if one is planning to sell exclusively online, although it does limit your sales channels. Luckily, being a Canadian resident (this will come back to haunt me, see below) meant getting an ISBN was both easy and free. Unlike in the US, where ISBN numbers are controlled by a private company, the government controls them in Canada. I filled out an online form, waited two weeks to have an account set up, and now I can generate ISBN numbers for my self-publishing whenever I want.

The photo art wasn't much of a problem either. It was obtained through ShutterStock so I just needed to setup an account with them and purchase the most basic package, which included the rights to two photos. The package normally cost $30 but as a new member I got the discounted price of $23.

The big decision and hassle was distribution. This is a complicated web. I read several articles talking about ways to maximize profit. This involves setting up accounts with multiple retailers and print on-demand companies and reading all the fine print to make sure your book is being sold at each location with the lowest fees and percentages being taken off. However, this works alright in the US, but as a non-US resident (see, it came back to haunt me) this strategy opens up a myriad of problems.

Take CreateSpace, one of the most common print-on-demand companies you're likely to use. It's owned by Amazon so it grants you the best opportunity for profit with that mega-retailer. But their payment plan for non-US residents is beyond disadvantageous. You can only set up direct deposit with them if you have a US or EU bank account, everyone else gets paid by check (or cheque, if they're sending it to Canada). But they will only cut those checks once you've reached one-hundred units of whichever currency the sales are in. Sell a book in the UK, then you'll have to wait until you've earned 100‎£ before you get paid. Sell in Japan, wait to earn 100‎¥ and so on. Then they'll send you a check in that currency, which will me paying foreign currency fees when you try and cash it. And if you never earn a full one-hundred units of a currency, guess who pockets the money.

There's probably a way around this and I'm sure more industrious and business savvy people have worked their way through it so it is not so onerous, but I'm not expecting to get rich off sales and I wanted things to be simple. So I decided to distribute solely through Ingram Spark.


Distribution Lite

Ingram Spark is the junior arm of the huge book distributor Ingram designed for very small and self-publishers. The pros of going solely with them were: it was one stop shop, they have a expansive global distribution, they offer the option of receiving payment through PayPal, and unlike Amazon and CreateSpace (and many of the others) they don't treat earning like royalties so they do not withhold US income tax at source.

But there were a few cons as well. There's a fee of $49 per book, which is minor but more than the free services like CreateSpace and Lulu. There is also a huge learning curve for getting a book's setup files in the format they accept, as well as for understanding the whole distribution price and discount system.

The bulk of the time I spent in republishing Mr. 8 was spent getting those files just so. It took a lot of trial and error partially because I had no experience using tools like inDesign and Photoshop. I was tempted at a few points to pay someone to do it for me, but I got it done in the end.

Ingram Sparks allows you to set the price for the physical book and ebook in every major market they distribute to. This took a little finagling with currency exchange to ensure I was earning a little profit in each of the areas but wasn't too bad. The choosing of discounts was another matter and something I made a misstep on. The recommended retailer discount is 55%. Most retailers will not stock books in their brick-and-mortar stores with any discount less than 55%. I selected this discount because, hey it was recommended after all. But until I actually started visiting stores and pitching my book to the manager, it was highly unlikely any store would ever choose to stock my title. So by offering such a large discount, I was essentially giving away a huge percentage of my profit to these internet retailers. Shortly after the launch I figured this out and updated it to offer them the minimum discount of 30% or 35% (depending on the region). Should in-store sales ever become an issue, I can change it back for that particular market.


And that's it

So now Mr. 8 is self-published. It no longer has a publisher behind it, but it is now available through many more retailers than it was under Booktrope, including the Canadian giant Indigo (having a foot in the local market feels good). One of my biggest concerns was the cost would far outstrip any potential revenue, but the whole business of self-publishing cost me a grand total of $72(US). I will still need to pay a percentage of future earning to my cover designer, editor, and proof reader as per the team contract we signed, but if I keep payout to once or twice a year through PayPal it shouldn't be a labor intensive endeavor.

And now that I've done it and have self-publishing experience, I have more confidence moving forward with one of those other projects I mentioned earlier. Hopefully, soon I'll be putting out a novella to join Mr. 8 on the electronic shelves.
















Saturday, May 7, 2016

Tales of a De-Published Author (Part 2)



It has been a week since the announcement about Booktrope closing their doors was sent out to their community of authors and publishing professionals. A lot more is known now than seven days ago. Information has been flowing out in a flood after the initial, worrying trickle. Booktrope has not issued a press release concerning their decision to terminate operations at the end of the month, and they have stated that they will not release one. They have given a very precise account of the state of affairs which led to the decision to their community, but I'll respect there wishes and keep it confidential. For a public statement they are pointing people to an article on Geekwire, even though they say it was written without “any input from Booktrope.”

On Twitter, the hashtag #BooktropeSuvivor has been gaining popularity as the members of the community reach out and share their feelings and experiences in this challenging time. I’m not alone in blogging about it. I have read several articles from authors and in one case editors affected by Booktrope’s decision. Reactions very widely. Some writers feel biter disappointed. Others sadness, one blogger compared Booktrope to Camelot—too good to last. In Ally Bishop's in depth blog, they talk about how they saw this coming and that the business model was never a viable one.

There is definitely a divide in the community, which has been exasperated by the stress of the situation. Some writers always saw Booktrope as a family. Some never did. Personally, when I signed on, they were growing rapidly and the dozen or so employees weren’t enough to offer personal service to the hundreds of writers in their stable.To me it was very much an online publishing service. Read the PDFs, follow the checklist, and only contact someone when there’s a problem you can't solve on your own.

But just because Booktrope was never a home for me, doesn’t mean I have anything less than complete sympathy for its employees and owners.This must be no doubt harder on them than those of us with books in the game.This is their vision and livelihood that’s ending.This is the business they put blood, sweat and, tears into that's closing. This is hard for me as one of their writers, I can't even imagine what they are feeling.

In the mass of bulletins and FAQs, Booktrope has been sending out, they are encouraging writers to self-publish or find a new publisher for their books. Since there is little that they can do to help authors find a new publisher, most of the information has been oriented toward flipping the books back onto the market.

There is certainly a strong incentive to do so since the author reclaims Booktrope's 30% of the profit and very little work is required. The major downside to it is that the author has to shoulder all of the self-publishing expenses. And they have to front this money on books, which are not receiving a launch buzz or are in anyway are expected to perform differently in sales than they are today. For books with steady sales, this makes a lot of sense. For others where the sales are flat, like mine, it is a harder choice to make.

To get the book back up may cost anywhere between fifty up to four hundred dollars or more. I haven't had time to do the research to know exactly what I'm looking at. If it's fifty bucks, then it's pretty easy to swallow. If it's, say, three hundred, that's three-hundred dollars that would likely take years to recoup, if it ever does.

In my earlier post, I made a big deal about continuing the profit sharing with my editors and designer, but upon further reflection, I have come to realize that would only be an issue if sales were outrageously good. And if they were, I would cheerfully cut the checks. So I no longer see that as a drawback. But there is still an attraction to doing a full rewrite and re-launching a brand new addition. At least that would put a better product on the market and perhaps hit the reset button on the whole thing.

As far as finding a new publisher goes, does anyone know of a publisher willing to put out a previously published book, which had lackluster sales? And a publisher that would actually be more beneficial to sign with than self-publishing? If you do, I would love to know who they are.

There are still twenty-four days until Mr. 8 is pulled from the shelves. The only decision I have to make in that time is do I want to try and self-publish it and have it up in early June, to minimize the time it's off the marker, or do I wait.

I'll keep you posted on that decision and on anything else I learn.





Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Tales of a De-Published Author (Part 1)



If you follow me or if you follow the publishing industry, you have probably heard that Booktrope has decided to close their doors and call it quits, pulling all their titles from the shelves.

If you'e not familiar with Booktrope, it utilized a new model they called team publishing. They created a community of authors, editors, cover designers, and publicists, who would come together and publish a book. It was hybrid publishing with many of the DIY aspects of self-publishing, but it was a system where the author didn't have to pay upfront for their own editorial and design services and where they had a company backing them with expertise and protecting them with their legal team. The idea was that everyone worked on the projects for free in exchange for the percentage of the profits.

Booktrope hasn't announced what precisely led to their decision to close. Although its easy to speculate that they were not getting the market share they needed to survive in the highly competitive publishing world. I could also further speculate that, they were a victim of their own model. They grew a very large community and produced a large volume of titles each year (several hundred in the past year alone). It is easy to see that this wasn't be something that could be easily scaled back, like a small indie publisher might be able to. And it wasn't a company that could be "restructured" like a big publishing house, which had room for streamlining.

The news of their closure came as an extremely disappointing shock to me. As readers of this blog know, I had a lot of regrets about things I wish I had done differently with Mr. 8, but that didn't mean I wasn't proud of it. I was proud of the accomplishment and I was proud to be able to say I had a published book for sale. To find out that this was no longer the case was a biter pill. Not to mention, in the world of a writer, having a book published is the only point you can truly put it behind you. It's done Sure, the marketing never ends. But you'll never have to think about changing those words again. To learn it was being handed back to me felt like a huge step backward.

But the truth is compared to many of Booktrope's writers, I am very lucky. There are writers with many books published through the company, sometimes entire series, many of them profitable. Their books generated an income and they were given just one month's notice that all of those books were being de-listed. Then there are the editors and cover artists, who may have been signing onto a book a month or more, with he expectation their work would be paid for in the future. Now they might not see another cent for their labor, depending on how things shake out.

So what is next for them? For me?

Right now, all that is known for certain is that ll of Booktrope's titles with the possible exception of those listed in Amazon Encore are being pulled form the stores on May 31st. On June 1, the copyrights go back to the authors and each team member retains ownership of their own work.

That last detail makes things very unclear. And makes the way forward (from an author's perspective) murky. In the initial announcement there was some hint that authors could just put up the books as self-published. But there is an overload of questions that surround what that process would look like. And this question of ownership is not the least of them. I hardly want to be playing payroll, dividing up royalties among five different parties spread over three countries. Not that they don't deserve payment for the good wok they've done. But it a hard enough challenge finding spare time to write, never mind figuring out exchange rates.

For the time being, we are all waiting to hear more. There are a lot of blogs who write about the experience of getting published. If you're interested, stay tune and I'll tell you all about my saga of being de-published.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Three Lessons from the King





I'm currently about halfway through Stephen King's Revival. In my younger days, I read a lot—let me repeat:a lot—of King. And then one day I didn't. Part of it was my tastes changed, or rather broadened. I was no longer focused so tightly on horror. And part of it was, because I had read and reread his books so much, they felt like well covered ground.

Now that I'm writing myself and in a similar genre to the great man, I felt the need to revisit him. It didn't take many pages before I realized I had been cheating myself. Stephen King is undeniably a master storyteller. And I haven't just been enjoying this book, I have been dissecting it and trying to learn as much as I can.

These are three lessons I've picked up on so far. In terms of creating an engaging story, they are incredibly obvious, but they fact these techniques aren't more widely used shows how ingenious they really are.


Once more with feeling


It's no secret that emotions are important, but it is easy to get caught up in the mechanics of writing and maneuvering the characters through the plot points—I know I do. Yes, the character is happy or sad but it becomes secondary to getting her from point A to point B. One of the first things that jumped out at me was how Stephen King relates it all back to the main character's emotion. Or to put it another way:

It's not about stuff happening. It's about how characters feel about what happens.

It can be about big emotions like sorrow or anger but it can also be about wonder, curiosity, nostalgia. In the end, it isn't simply about how the main character perceives the events but the inner response to them and this gives the plot an immediacy and makes them personal.


The breadcrumb trail


Foreshadowing is a key to any novel, but (good Lord!) Stephen King foreshadows everything. Every single plot element is telegraphed ahead of time.There is more teasing going on than in a burlesque dance. These hints at future events provide a breadcrumb trail for the reader to follow. It stirs curiosity and also makes the reveals that much more gratifying.

It can be such a simple thing. At one point, while relating an incident, he drops: "This was while my mother was still alive." Suddenly as the reader we know the narrator's mother will die. And then a few chapters later he gives us the scene in the hospital and there's this eager anticipation. An "aha" moment as the reader realizes that the full story is coming.

By dropping these small teases, mini-mysteries are created in the reader's mind.

I do admit that the structure of Revival favors this approach, as the narrator is relating events that he has already lived through. I'm still trying to work out how to achieve it when events are unfolding in present rather than retrospect, but this is just too good of a technique not to put the effort into figuring it out.


The Contract


Stephen King makes you want to know what's on the last page. This is so basic. How did I not know this? Of course, you want the reader to be anxious to get to the end, right from the start. As writers, we need to find a way to get the reader to commit to the story.

It's all about getting your reader to want to find out what's on the last page.

Part of this is related to the second lesson. It's about teasing the reader enough for them to want to know more. But it's also more than that. It's a promise—a contract. Somewhere on those pages, there is a silent promise that the ending will knock your socks off. Will it? I don't know yet. At the halfway mark, I'm only beginning to grasp the direction of the story. But I only needed to read the first couple of chapters to know that I needed to find out what happens in the last one. 

This promise comes from the confidence in his narration, between the words it says: this story is going to be worth your time and there is something amazing, thrilling, surprising waiting for you at the end.

How does he do it? I still haven't worked that out, but my main question right now is, how can I do it?


Conclusion


What I believe is so beautiful about these lessons are that they should be obvious but they aren't. I don't see these things done that often, certainly not to the extent that it is in this book.

I started to read Stephen King again out of the curiosity of re-familiarizing myself with an old favorite author I hadn't read in while. I didn't expect to learn so much, but I did. I will be pushing myself to use these lessons in my own books.

Monday, January 11, 2016

The Gift of Sound and Vision



The world awoke this morning to the tragic news of David Bowie's death. In his sixty-nine years on this planet, David Bowie influenced countless musician, artists, writers, and filmmakers. Inexplicably, he constantly seemed perfectly of his time and ahead of it. 

For myself, I look back and see many pivotal points in my life where Bowie's music shines out: lying in bed listing to FM radio and Modern Love coming on to introduce me to his magic for the first time; long, energetic talks with my first, big crush about the genius of the man's music, conversations that are more clear in my memory now than any other part of that relationship; going to the Glass Spider tour the night before I started college. But then there are the other less distinct moments, numbering too high to count, where his music inspired me or put a smile on my face or a dance in my step. And there are all those times when I came across his influence in the works of others, sometimes blatantly, sometimes subtly. Each time calling to the part of my soul that his music and words helped shape.

David Bowie contributed to the soundtrack of not just my life but to our entire culture. His presence is intertwined with our collective dream, and even though he left us a parting gift with the new album Blackstar, the future is poorer knowing we won't have him to help shape it any longer.

I have read many tributes today and  have seen many people quote his amazing lyrics. This was part of his magic: I could fill an entire blog with lyrics that would be appropriate to this moment, just as I could fill volumes with my favorite lines from his songs (or my favorite songs for that matter). But the most appropriate quote that came my way was: "Planet Earth is blue..."


David Robert Jones 1947-2016