Monday, May 9, 2022

Waiting . . .

 By James M. Jackson

Being an author means learning how to wait. Say what?


Between the inception of a story’s idea and its publication are multiple points when we authors must (or should) wait. Often the brilliant idea must wait until the author deals with higher priority work. Only when time permits can she begin the first draft of the story. That’s why when some well-meaning soul tells me they have “the perfect idea for a story,” I listen patiently and then suggest they write their own story.

After completing the story’s first draft, many authors put it aside to give its words time to settle. This self-imposed wait allows us to view our story from a fresher perspective, to more easily spot plot holes, characterization issues, understand where pacing must change. And so we wait.

Other waits are not on us. If we use an editor (or editors), we send them our manuscript and wait for their comments, suggestions, concerns, and maybe even a little praise. My seventh Seamus McCree novel, Granite Oath, entered that state a week ago. The editor and I have agreed to a schedule, so this wait will not be long. And yet the wait can feel interminable because so much future work depends on what she finds lacking in the present story.


One of the most frustrating waits happens when authors seek representation for their work. We craft a query letter, add requested extras that vary by agent (e.g. first ten pages, a synopsis, a marketing plan, comparable titles) and make our submission. In olden days, we submitted by mail and included a self-addressed stamped envelope for the agent’s response. Now, everything is electronic, which only means our wait no longer depends on mail delivery times.

I have a project seeking representation. One agent responded the same day (a rejection, but at least that allowed me to cross that person off my list and spur me to send out a query to another agent). Agents routinely claim to take eight or more weeks to respond. If they ask for a manuscript, the reading times can be even longer. And some agents believe their time is too valuable to waste sending rejections—if you don’t hear from them, they don’t want you.

So, I wait.

Another indeterminate wait occurs when the author or her agent submits to publishers. Other time-outs can occur while waiting for a cover artist, manuscript formatting or conversion to an ebook. In traditional publishing, the wait times expand to accommodate the publishing house’s calendar, which books publication dates a year or more after contract acceptance.

Authors who publish their own work can eliminate many of the delays by doing the work themselves. They can create their cover, format the book, and publish on their timetable. But that means, while they are performing tasks someone else could do, other projects have to wait.

Wait, I hear you say, isn’t that where this whole thing started?

Yep, glad you noticed, and while I am waiting for my editor and responses from agents, I’m working on the next two books. And I have other ideas still waiting . . .

This blog was originally published on the Writers Who Kill blog.

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James M. Jackson authors the Seamus McCree series. Full of mystery and suspense, these thrillers explore financial crimes, family relationships, and what happens when they mix. You can sign up for his newsletter and find more information about Jim and his books at https://jamesmjackson.com.


Wednesday, April 6, 2022

Constructing a Subplot

Some people consider a subplot as simply a secondary story that parallels the main story. While that is true, a well-constructed subplot not only parallels the main plot, but it also supports and enhances it. At its best, the subplot forces twists and turns in the main plot that neither the characters nor the reader anticipates.

In some genres, the subplot concept is obvious. Labeling a novel a romantic suspense tells the reader the primary story will involve suspense and the subplot will be a romance. Easy peasy.

I write thrillers that explore financial crimes, abuse of power, family relationships, and what happens when they mix. For as long as I can remember, I have been interested in how people can (and do) take advantage of others in financial transactions. I want to understand how criminals put their thumbs on scales, water their product, illegally change odds in their favor. I’ll never run out of shady practices to explore.

Abuse of power takes many forms: economic, physical, psychological. Power between two people is rarely equal, and any inequality provides the opportunity for abuse. How those in power choose to use it, and how those exploited by the powerful respond, provide alternative story lines.

The term “family relationships” conjures both function and disfunction.

The novels’ main plots directly explore one or two of my three interests. I can choose the remaining area to drive my subplot. For example, in the seventh Seamus McCree novel, Granite Oath, the main plot follows events driven by Seamus’s promise to search for a child’s missing mother. The reader suspects some combination of abuse of power and financial crimes triggered the disappearance. Using family relationships to develop a subplot made sense.

One subplot in Granite Oath involves Seamus’s granddaughter, Megan, and the missing mother’s daughter, Valeria, training a family of bald eagles to “catch” fish. This little tale is an amusing interlude readers will enjoy. It’s cute, and it serves to break up the major action and release tension before adding more. Worthwhile results, but introducing the girls and their eagles provided me the opportunity to dig deeper.

I rewrote the novel to use the eagles (and/or the girls' interactions with them) in multiple ways to:

  •     cause a key item of evidence to disappear (delaying the time until Seamus discovers it),
  •     assist Seamus out of one bind and mire him in a second one,
  •     provide an opportunity to describe the relationship of two settings,
  •     physically remove a threat to Seamus,
  •     create a larger obstacle for Seamus to overcome, provide the reader insight into several human relationships, and
  •     act as a symbolic gift of thanks.

(I know the specifics are vague, but I do not want to include spoilers.)

With the rewrite, the “training the eagles” subplot integrates with the main story line, affecting it at least seven different ways. That’s exactly what I want my subplots to do.

Readers, what are your favorite subplots?

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James M. Jackson authors the Seamus McCree series. Full of mystery and suspense, these thrillers explore financial crimes, abuse of power, family relationships, and what happens when they mix. You can sign up for his newsletter and find more information about Jim and his books at https://jamesmjackson.com.

* Originally posted on the Writers Who Kill Blog

Wednesday, March 2, 2022

Obstacles

 In February, I taught a class for the Guppy Chapter of Sisters in Crime, Inc. to help students learn how to revise and self-edit their novels. In one lesson, I challenge the students to take a scene and brainstorm for five minutes on how to ramp up the stakes for the protagonist.

And then, I lived my homework assignment.

I own 80 acres on an inland lake in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. (Fact check: Seamus McCree, the protagonist of my series, claims he owns the same property. In fiction, he is correct; but if you check the register of deeds, it belongs to me. But I digress.)

My bucket list includes me producing maple sugar from the sugar maples on my property. I’ll spare you my enthusiastic and long-winded discussion of what that will entail and instead mention that ticking that off my bucket list meant I need to arrive at my camp many days before daytime temperatures rose above freezing. My home is 15 miles from where you can buy anything. Fourteen of those miles are logging roads. Because of where the timber companies were logging this winter, they were not plowing the last 2.5 miles of my journey.

I had arranged for someone who lives six miles away to keep those last 2.5 miles open, which he had done, until a week before I planned to arrive, his snowplow broke. (Increased obstacle #1) And then it snowed 10” (0bstacle #2). My neighbors who were coming up just for the weekend (because I had kept the road open, so why not?) contacted a business who agreed to plow the road—at a cost six times what I had been paying (obstacle #3). A shared expense. It only hurt a little.

My original plan was to arrive on February 24, but looking at the snow forecast, I decide to drive up instead on Saturday, the 20th to arrive before the snow. Driving the last 2.5 miles, I note several places where the road is just wide enough to get my truck through.


I arrive at noon and snowshoe my driveway through thirty inches of snow, sprawling several times (a minor additional obstacle). My neighbor follows behind to help me reinstall my water softening system. We were halfway down the driveway when he spots my first problem: the platform we had installed on my garage roof to hold the Starlink dish, has toppled onto the roof. (Obstacle #4). I still have a week of teaching the revision and self-editing class. If the Internet is out, I’ll have to drive twenty-five miles to gain internet access to post and respond to class assignments.

My neighbor returns home to get a plastic snow shovel to clear the roof without damaging it so we can reinstall the platform. I plod to my generator shed to turn on power to the house and garage and discover my inverter has no power. (Obstacle #5) The generator kicks on, and I bypass the inverter to provide power directly to the house, which I need to run the well-pump.

But before I deal with the water supply, I need to light a fire in the wood stove. It is ten degrees outside and twenty degrees in the house. I place crumpled paper and kindling in the wood stove, click the fire starter—and nothing. Okay, we’d used that one last year. I had spares. I try the spares—same result. It is too cold for the fire starter to work. (Obstacle #6) I eventually find matches and light the paper. The thirty-five-foot stove pipe and cold temperatures require several efforts before the stove creates a draft, but finally, the wood stove is operational. Yay!

When my well pump hasn’t run for months, the water in the well can become sullied with iron-oxide particulates. I let the well pump run for an hour and by then, the water runs clear. I have a drain to the outside in the basement floor where I can dump the water. The well pump starts like a charm. Water fills the pressure tank. I open the spigot at the bottom of the tank so the water can run out through an attached hose to the drain.

Except, the drain is frozen. Water pools onto the basement floor. (Obstacle #7) I shut the spigot and wonder what else could go wrong.

Upstairs the answer is clear: the woodstove fire has gone out. I have been home for an hour, and other than starting the generator, have accomplished nothing.

I restart the wood stove fire, babysitting it until I am sure it takes. My neighbors return with a snowblower to cut a path down the driveway (they don’t want to wade through that snow) and set about restoring the internet platform to its correct position. My fears that when the platform tumbled it cut the cable turn out unfounded (best news so far).


We turn our collective heads to figuring out why the inverter isn’t functioning. I flip every switch I can think of off and on to reset something—anything. No success. No inverter. No solar power. No functioning batteries. I think to test the voltage of the batteries. My 48-volt system is measuring around 12-volts. My batteries are frozen. At least I have electric when the generator is on.

The neighbors decide to snow blow the driveway so I can bring my truck down rather than schlepp everything in by hand, and I return to the water situation. Although it would take less time to run a hose from the water tank outside, that requires me to crack a door to the ten-degree temps. Instead, I plan to run water into five-gallon buckets that I will throw outside until the well water runs clear. I take the bucket to the basement and discover most of the spilled water from my first attempt has frozen on the basement floor.

I skate to the pressure tank, turn on the water pump, open the spigot, and nothing happens. Not only is the water on the floor frozen, but frozen water also plugs the hose. I no longer have access to any water. (Obstacle #8)

No problem, I begin to melt snow on the wood stove. It’s not fast, but I can create a sufficient supply of fresh water and eventually enough for a flush toilet. And, because I don’t want the water that is freezing in the hose at the bottom of my water tank to break something else, I use a portable propane heater to (hopefully) warm up the fittings.

Day turns to night. I cook dinner, wash the dishes, read a little, and clamber into bed. The house has warmed up to 50—perfect sleeping temperatures, but every time I wake to use the bathroom, I add more wood to the stove.


Sunday arrives with bright sunshine. I sweep accumulated snow off my larger bank of solar panels, continue to run the generator to create a hothouse to warm my batteries, and melt copious amounts of snow. The basement makes it above freezing and the directed heat on the water tank thaws those fixtures. I start my project of getting clear water and can stop melting snow. I run ten gallons of water through my pitcher with a Brita filter to create drinking water. The house reaches sixty degrees by noon.

A local friend who is an electrician at the open pit iron ore mine stops by to look at the inverter. He flicks some switches and first the solar panel controller comes alive and then the inverter. All switches I had tried before, but we conclude that the power from the solar panels was enough to allow the controller to reboot. Progress, but the batteries are still very frozen.

That evening the snows begin, dropping 4” by morning. My Bobcat works like a charm plowing the 2.5 miles. I need four passes and spend time in a few areas getting the road wider where it is drifted in. I’m a happy camper. However, Jan, who has wisely stayed behind until I have camp opened, wants certain conveniences, like running and hot water. I don’t dare put water into the pipes until I know the basement will stay above freezing on a -16F night. Otherwise, I risk freezing the indoor plumbing.

I try using fans to push warmer air down the basement stairs. It works, the basement warms to 42. I turn off the fans, and the temperature drops. I turn them back on.

Monday night into Tuesday it snows another 7”. Wednesday morning, I fire up the Bobcat, pull it out of the garage and the rope attached to the garage door becomes entangled with the skid steer, pulling the door down. The Bobcat cracks into the partially closed door, pushing it off the track and wounding the bottom section. If I can’t get the Bobcat out of the garage, I will quickly become snowed in. (Obstacle #9)

I wrangle the garage door up enough to slip the Bobcat out and leave that issue for later. The skid steer plows, but because the snow walls are so close, it is hard work to get rid of the new snow. I make it out the 2.5 miles and notice a grader has gone up the next road. (Logging companies use graders to plow roads.) I wait and flag him down on his return. It’s a guy I don’t know, but he stops. (Out in the near wilderness, we always stop to make sure people are okay.) I ask how much it would cost for him to widen my 2.5 miles. I agree to his $300. (I’d spend at least that in diesel to widen it with the Bobcat.)

He does a fine job and now I don’t have to worry about the road closing in with a major snowfall. And I’m thrilled when I check and see the batteries have thawed enough that the inverter can control their charging. I remove the bypass, hold my breath, and am thrilled when the inverter turns on the generator and the batteries charge.

Things are looking up, big time.


When the grader pushes back big snowbanks, some snow will tumble back over the blade. I decide to be a nice guy and clean up the road now before my neighbors will be up tomorrow for “Girls’ Weekend.” At 2.25 miles from my house, I veer too far into a snowbank, bury the Bobcat, and because at that point the road slants, I cannot extract it. I will need to tow it out. (Obstacle #10)

I walk home, which I don’t mind, and after consulting with my neighbors, decide to leave the skid steer in place until they come up because it will be much easier to extract it from the snow with one person in a truck and another in the Bobcat.

Thursday arrives with more sun, charging batteries, neighbors arriving safely, and late that afternoon, we extract the Bobcat with my truck.

Friday the house has been warm enough for long enough that the basement is staying over 40F, and I risk turning on the water. It is always a worrisome time because if I didn’t successfully drain the house of water the previous fall, I learn I screwed up when I hear water flowing from the middle of a burst pipe. Everything works. I soon have hot water, too, and celebrate with a shower.

We had minor bobbles installing the water softener system (and need an O-ring to complete the task), but as of this writing, the systems all work. The house is a comfy 70F and Jan will arrive March 1.

Next time I teach, I think I’ll try something like writing dialogue without the use of “said.”

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James M. Jackson authors the Seamus McCree series. Full of mystery and suspense, these thrillers explore financial crimes, family relationships, and what happens when they mix. You can sign up for his newsletter and find more information about Jim and his books at https://jamesmjackson.com.

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This first appeared on the Writers Who Kill blog.

Wednesday, February 2, 2022

Why Amazon Must Change Its E-Book Royalties to Indie Authors

 Indie authors have had a love/hate relationship with Amazon for years. Circa 2011–12, Amazon decided as a market strategy that e-books should cost between $2.99 and $9.99. This strategy is outdated and harmful to Indie authors.

 Amazon formed their theory as part of their battle with the major publishers about Amazon’s right to discount e-books regardless of publishers’ list prices. At the time, Amazon was trying (and succeeding) to build market share and was willing to sell e-books at a loss. This blog focuses not on Amazon’s turf war with large publishers, but on how Amazon applied their vision of e-book pricing to the detriment of Indie authors.

 I don’t know the exact date, but by 2012 Amazon set the royalty rate for Indie authors at 70%, but only if they priced their e-books in the golden window of $2.99 through $9.99. If an author priced an e-book outside of that preferred range, Amazon dropped the royalty rate in half to 35%. Amazon presented a rationale that went something like this: because there were no production costs, no storage costs, and virtually no return costs, e-books should cost consumers significantly less than print books.

If one only focuses on manufacturing expenses, Amazon’s analysis is correct: e-books cost less to produce per copy than paperback and hardcover books. However, authors sell more than a physical product; they sell hours of entertainment (or perhaps education for non-fiction works). Amazon ignored this inconvenient fact and relied on the cost of production analysis to set $9.99 as an appropriate top price. Perhaps not coincidentally, $9.99 is an attractive marketing price point. It ends in ninety-nine cents and the dollar amount is one digit, not two.

At the low end, they arbitrarily proclaimed that anything below $2.99 was discounting the value of an author’s work below what it was worth, or words that affect. Even if you bought their general philosophy, they left mammoth holes in their logic. For example, they made no differentiation between short stories that could run, say, 5000 words, and multiple-book boxed sets whose total word count could easily exceed 500,000 words.

The only way a short story author could earn seventy percent royalty on their work product was to either charge $2.99 (generally considered way too expensive for an electronic version of a short story) or combine multiple short stories into an anthology. A boxed set containing 500,000 words is the equivalent of five 100,000-word novels, each of which Amazon believes should not cost less than $2.99. Amazon should encourage a minimum price of at least $14.95, but if the Indie author charges that amount, Amazon subjects them to a 35% royalty rate

Amazon retains its right to discount an author’s e-book whenever they chose (and keep paying the normal royalty rate). But if the Indie author discounts their e-book below the $2.99 minimum, their royalty rate drops.

In 2014, Amazon created Kindle Unlimited (KU), a subscription service for readers. Indie authors who choose to list their e-book exclusively in KU have several perks that lessen the financial burden of pricing e-books priced outside of Amazon’s golden window. Two key features are (1) the ability for Indie authors to periodically run promotional sales and keep the 70% royalty rate, and (2) in KU, since it pays authors based on pages read not books read, boxed sets and short stories are on the same footing as regular novels.

Yeah, Jim, I hear you. But it’s been ten years since Amazon created the golden window of pricing, and seven years since they introduced Kindle Unlimited. This is all old news. What has changed?

Inflation.

In the decade since Amazon introduced its golden window of e-book pricing, prices as measured by CPI–U rose 23.543%. (The December 2011 CPI-U of 225.672 increased to 278.802 in December 2021.) Amazon’s golden window of e-book pricing rose exactly 0.000%.

Even if we assume that Amazon’s heavy handed royalty rules were appropriate at the beginning of 2012, they are outdated now. Amazon has not suffered by their lack of action, but Indie authors have. To reflect the overall level of inflation in the decade, the $9.99 maximum should now be $12.34. The inflation-adjusted equivalent of the $2.99 “minimum” is $3.69.

Keeping the $9.99 maximum becomes another method for Amazon to exploit its position as a dominant player in the U.S. e-book market to disadvantage Indie authors.

Since I think Amazon should pay 70% royalties on any e-book, I’m not advocating for them to increase the $2.99 minimum to $3.69. However, Amazon must increase the top end of its golden pricing range from $9.99. I suggest $12.99 as a minimum to accommodate expected inflation during 2022.

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James M. Jackson authors the Seamus McCree series. Full of mystery and suspense, these thrillers explore financial crimes, family relationships, and what happens when they mix. You can sign up for his newsletter and find more information about Jim and his books at https://jamesmjackson.com.

This blog first appeared on the Writers Who Kill blog 2/1/22

Friday, January 7, 2022

Training my Dragon (Or how I learned to mumble less)

 In mid-December, I took the plunge and downloaded Nuance’s Dragon Individual Professional 15.0 model (here’s a link to the discounted deal I found on Amazon). If you haven’t heard of Dragon, it’s a sophisticated dictation program that uses artificial intelligence to learn users’ individual speech patterns and usages. At least, that’s the claim by both the company and its many proponents. As with most pieces of software, there is a learning period with lots of “ah-ha” moments.

(That last sentence forced me to learn something new. In that sentence, when I dictated the word “period,” it recorded it as “.”, which isn’t exactly ideal. I looked online for proposed solutions and decided that the British had this one covered. Instead of saying period when I wanted to signify a sentence end, I now say “full stop.” That works. Of course, now I must remember to say “full stop” at the end of each sentence. As I am editing this a few days later, I do remember 95% of the time.)

That situation above is an example of why it is necessary for me to train my Dragon. I just wasted invested twenty minutes coming up with a solution. An easier approach might have been simply to go back and edit the first “.” into the word “period.” But I’m still in the experimenting stage, and we’ll see if this fresh approach works for me. I can already see that at some point I may have to similarly deal with “,” “;” “:” and “?”. (I left the symbols, but you read them as words, right?)

Having dealt with that minor little aside, let’s cycle back to why I spent my money purchasing Dragon and then invested time training it to learn my quirks. I had become frustrated with my writing process. At times, I felt as though I were writing things twice: once inside my head; the second time, typing on my keyboard. I taught myself touch typing in the summer between eleventh and twelfth grade. I’m a decent typist, but not great. But when transcribing from brain to screen, I frequently leave out words or misspell them.

I thought the process of dictation might eliminate the double thinking issue. I speak and Dragon types. So far, that seems to be the case. I think it has to do with not having to use my fingers, although perhaps it is only the novelty of the situation. It could also be the placebo effect: I’m told Dragon will improve my writing, and it has—but because I am more focused, not because of the software.

I can talk faster than I can type, and I worried Dragon might not keep up. That has never been a problem. From the recoding words aspect, at worst, using Dragon is a draw, and most likely it is an improvement. Even if it were only a draw, I enjoy an enormous benefit from not using my hands and fingers repetitively. I do not suffer from carpal tunnel syndrome, as many of my author friends do, but I have felt twinges of pain from time to time after long sessions at the keyboard. And, despite my wish that it weren’t so, I’m more liable to break than I was a few years ago.

Dragon does not make typos. Dragon does, however, have difficulty with homonyms. Sometimes it figures out (or guesses—how would I know?) the correct word from context. Often, it comes up with the wrong spelling. Since I use the program only for first drafts, it’s not a huge problem. When I leave out words or create new ones with my typos, I am often left wondering what the heck I intended to say. So far with Dragon, I have always figured out the correct context with a misspelled homonym.

Unfortunately, Dragon does not always correctly interpret my speech. The artificial intelligence aspect of Dragon has a mechanism that allows you to correct transcription errors. Early on, there were a lot — no, a lot is insufficient — there were way too many errors. If I couldn’t get Dragon to interpret my speech with significantly better accuracy, our divorce was inevitable.

I learned to enunciate the endings of words more clearly to Dragon to better differentiate between “boo,” and “boot” and “boot” and “booted.” The AI aspect of Dragon began more accurately recognizing my speech patterns. And I learned to work with a few of its idiosyncrasies.

It has only been two weeks, but I consider Dragon to be a great success. Prior to using Dragon, a good day’s writing for me was 1,500 words. My average for days when I was engaged in writing my first draft was under a 1,000. My peak daily output was 2,390. With Dragon, I now average over 3,000 words a day. My highest output for a single day is now 5,135 words.

There are authors who would look at my best day and consider that a poor day for them. I’m not trying to compare myself to someone else, only to my former self. I estimate that before Dragon, I averaged 500 to 600 words an hour. With Dragon, even after including the time it takes for me to correct the dictation errors, I have roughly doubled that output.

I’ve learned a few tricks that make my life easier. For example, I don’t bother correcting homonyms unless they make it into the second draft. Dragon does fine with some personal and place names and not so well with others. In my current work in progress, I have a girl named Valeria. When I try to pronounce it correctly, Dragon types “Valerie a.” Now I just say Valerie. When I complete dictating a scene, I do a quick global search and replace.

My main character’s name is Seamus. Naturally, it wanted to spell the word “shamus,” Yiddish for detective. Although I use the Yiddish expression from time to time, it’s much more likely when I say the word Seamus, I mean my character. Dragon allows you the opportunity to add words to its dictionary and tell it how to pronounce them. That’s what I did with Seamus. So, my Dragon spells Seamus when it hears me pronounce the word (Shay-mus).

Unfortunately, I learned the hard way that Dragon uses a lot of computer resources. Sometimes it stresses those resources past the point where the computer can function correctly. When that happens, it has the nasty habit of closing without saving its work. After twice losing many hundreds of words, I now save my work every few paragraphs.

At this point in the first draft of this blog, I stopped and checked for Dragon mistakes. Of the 1,200 words I had written, I found nine errors (not counting the period issue that I subsequently addressed): three homonyms, two possessives without apostrophes, and four mumbles. That’s a success rate of 99.25%.

What have you done (or think you should do) differently to shake up your writing routine?

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James M. Jackson authors the Seamus McCree series. Full of mystery and suspense, these thrillers explore financial crimes, family relationships, and what happens when they mix. You can sign up for his newsletter and find more information about Jim and his books at https://jamesmjackson.com.

[This post was first published on the Writers Who Kill blog 1/4/22.]