Saturday, December 26, 2020

Wait, What?

When you get old, your mind doesn't work the way it once did. This is not (necessarily) a sign of dementia, but rather a result of having piled up a lot of time consuming oxygen. I would call this phenomenon "Non-relativistic time compression." Days and weeks run into one another, and every year seems shorter than the one preceding it.

In a way, it actually is. The reciprocal of one's age is a diminishing quantity. 2020 has been a smaller fraction of my life than 2019 was. I would argue that it is perceptively smaller. Maybe this is just a result of my having done more in 2019 than I have this year, but I cannot say for sure. If I look at the past 11 and 24/31 months in terms of how much I might have done on a daily basis, did I really do less? I know I did something different.

The global nightmare of COVID-19 has been good to me in a couple of ways. It's led to an enormous spike in the demand for bicycles. People want to get outdoors, so they've been buying bicycles so fast the market can't keep up. They have also been taking their long-neglected bikes out of their garages. When they discover that the bikes do not work so well, they turn to me. Yes, me, Bob the Bike Whisperer. That title was bestowed on me by my brother-in-law, but it's stuck in part because of the exposure I've gotten from him and others on the neighborhood website.

About 3 years ago, I ran across a post from a neighbor who wanted a tune-up of his bike. The shops were all backed up, but he wanted to ride, like, right now. I know the sentiment well, so I responded, publicly, that I did that sort of thing. He brought me his bike. It needed some adjustments and a new derailleur cable. I turned it over the same day, and he was delighted. Not wishing to look the fool and give it back to him gratis, I decided my work should fetch $25/hr. - which is around a third what bike shops charge, and billed him accordingly.

He told some of his friends about me, and mostly by accident, I had a business. Fast forward to the spring of 2020, and all of a sudden, I was nearly turning customers away because of the demand for repairs. Although my infirmities keep me from working more than four or five hours a day, I had a steady stream of business throughout the spring, summer, and fall. My last paying customer came in on November 3.

Needless to say, my new career as the neighborhood bicycle mechanic had completely distracted me from my new career as an author. I thus failed to notice that, after a long period of dormancy, people were reading my books. Now, I am not about to crow that I have become the new James Patterson, but I have sold more books in the last three months than I had in the year preceding them.

I do not know, but I suspect that COVID-19 is the source of my good fortune as an author just as it has been for my bike repair business. After smiling at my latest sales figures from Amazon. I thought I should have a look at my site here to see when was the last time I posted something. I was rather shocked to see I hadn't been here since October 2019.

Non-relativistic time compression.

It has occurred to me that perhaps the same people who have been reading my books might be looking at my long-neglected website to find out a bit more about me. Well, here I am. I'm not working on any bikes at the moment, and I'm also sorry to say that I have no writing projects in the works right now. I did, however, come up with an idea for a novel after watching a Russian television documentary on WWII. I don't know whether I'll run with it or not, but it's been a while since I had an idea for a larger writing project. I'll let you know.

Friday, October 11, 2019

Friday Freebies

Today, 11 October 2019, and every Friday through 1 November, my novel Joshua will be available for free in the Kindle Store. Regular price $2.99 and always free to Kindle Unlimited members.

I guess I should be using my blog to plug my own books, right?

Friday, September 27, 2019

Testament Of A Bullied Child

It's customary of me to wait a few weeks between blog entries. I'm breaking with custom now so as to follow on to my last entry, in which I explained how I got the inspiration for my novel Joshua.

The blogger who emailed me about the story also told me, and her readers, that she believed the bullying I portrayed in my story was a little too brutal, a little over the top. I found this puzzling at first, as I did not believe that bullying was a central theme in the story. After giving the matter more thought, I realized she was on to something. Joshua is a bullied child, and he thinks like one even when no one is actively picking on him. That's the real damage inflicted by bullying. It gets into your head and sticks there long after the bully has had his fun.

Joshua finds the courage to confront his tormentors, and the story wraps up with a nice, happy ending. I've explained that Joshua is a lot like me as a child, but unlike my young hero, I didn't have so happy an ending. I just grew up. In time, I found my center, just as Joshua does, but it was as a grown man who'd spent too many years as a lost child, a bullied child. Long after I grew into a man, I remembered the shame and intimidation inflicted on me, not just by other kids, but by adults who thought it was the only way to knock some sense into me.

I'm an old man now, and I no longer cut such an imposing figure as I did in my prime. I walk with a cane and park in the handicapped spaces in the parking lots. You would think that by now I would have put all of that childhood torment behind me, but through my writing I discovered that it was still there, looking for a way to come out. The blogger I was corresponding with thought that maybe some of it was gratuitous. If she were to realize that I went through things I still can't talk about, she would see that I merely wrote those passages when the feelings were closest to the surface.

It's difficult for me to admit that I was bullied. It's easy to say that it wasn't my fault, but when you do admit to such a thing, you're taking a risk no matter how old you are. The bullies are still out there, looking for any vulnerability, any opportunity to ridicule. And they're not just looking, they're looking hard. Well, here I am, scars and all. I am, however, not so easy to intimidate these days. I've known for some time now that these situations can almost always be dealt with by remaining cool under fire, letting the other guy make a fool of himself until he realizes he's not going to get what he wants from me.

This is, however, a luxury afforded to an adult. It's not so easy for a child, or even for an adult who is so damaged and vulnerable as to know to avoid taking the bait. Just seeing it now makes my blood boil, so I suppose that if you want to get to me, all you have to do is pick on someone else.

Also posted on Medium

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Whence Joshua?

I got an email yesterday from someone who'd read my novel Joshua.

She wanted to know where I got the name and why I chose it as the title. I told her, truthfully, that the names of my characters just pop into my head as I start writing about them. She thought the title was not something that would reach out and grab readers, but to that, I answered that Joshua is a quiet boy who doesn't like to draw attention to himself. Perhaps this isn't a good way to choose a title for something you want to sell, but I don't think I could have given it any other title, and if I could, what would it be?

This leads to the question of where I get the ideas for my stories. This takes a bit of introspection. I have a pretty good idea of where other authors, many of them, get their ideas: from other authors. I don't have a problem with this; nothing succeeds like success, and if you can ride an idea that has captivated other readers while making the book your own, that's fine. It's called writing in a genre, and it's pretty much expected of you.

Let's look at a genre that's very popular right now. It's called Vampire Romance, and at its root is the novel Twilight by Stephanie Meyer. The novel itself is the first in a five-part series – I'll get to series later – but it has spawned hundreds, if not thousands, of derivative works. Vampires in general have been in vogue for a while, in large part because of works like Interview With The Vampire by Anne Rice. Ultimately, all of these works stem from Bram Stoker's Dracula, first published more than 100 years ago and immortalized by the 1931 film of the same name. Vampires themselves, however, come from folklore that originated centuries earlier.

Other authors, in particular Jeff Kinney and James Patterson, gave me my initial ideas for Joshua, but as the story developed, it resembled the works of those authors less and less and started to look more and more like my own life as a child. There were clearly a lot of emotions in me that were looking for a way to surface, and when I started to write a few stories about a 12-year-old boy, they found their way out.

A few of the scenes in Joshua were taken directly from my own experiences, but most of the story arose from feelings about my experiences, rather than the experiences themselves, and the empathy I feel for other children who struggle as I did. My brief experience as a high school teacher provided some of the ideas, while my experiences as a parent provided others. The story is fiction, but the feelings, my own and the feelings I've sensed in others, are real.

As I look back at other things I've written, and at my ideas for things I have yet to write, I realize that all of my stories have some basis in my own experience even if I have borrowed an idea or two from the works of others. For example, my character Spike Bike is loosely inspired by the films Mad Max, First Blood, and Robocop. What Spike feels, however, is all me.

I think this is a good explanation of why I'm not more prolific as an author, and why my stories may seem unusual to some. I think I have the mechanics of writing down well enough that I could write in a popular genre, telling stories that people want to hear even if they've heard some variations of them before. Were I to choose such a path, it would be a simple matter to create a single character in a single setting and write an entire series of books with the same theme. The most successful authors of our time have followed this formula so consistently that it's almost an expectation.

My life, however, isn't part of a series unless you believe in reincarnation. I've lived a long time and I've done a great many things, but like most other people, I don't have an unlimited number of stories to tell. I am still building new experiences all the time, learning about the lives of other people all the time, but it's only rarely that I'm inspired to write about any of it.

This goes against the grain in contemporary literature, and because of that, I don't expect to make a lot of money or to garner a lot of fans. Most people would rather read spy thrillers, romance (with or without vampires), science fiction, or historical dramas, to name just a few of the more popular genres out there. That's all right with me. I read fiction, too, and most of it is the same stuff lots of other people like. Nevertheless, I never feel like I can do justice to any popular genre when so many others have gone before me and have done so well.

While my life experiences are not altogether different from those of other people, it's a fair bet that no one else has perceived them and felt them in exactly the same way. This is what makes us individuals. When I am inspired to write about something, then, a reader can be assured that it won't be a story they've read before. If they find my writing entertaining, or if it touches them in some way, then I'll have written something successful even if it never becomes a best seller.

Also published on Medium

Thursday, September 12, 2019

привет всем моим друзьям в россии

According to the stats for this blog, I have far more fans in Russia than anywhere else. Спасибо.

Unless, perhaps, you're just looking at everything published on Blogger, trying to find vulnerabilities, like personal information that could lead to identity theft.

Trust me, you don't want my identity.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

The Witches Of BookBoggin

It's been a while since I wrote any short fiction, save for the new episode for my Spike Bike collection that I published last spring. Back in the days of Usenet, I wrote a lot of it, more than I can remember, much of it now gone to the Great Bit Bucket In The Sky. One thing I do remember well, however, was that even in those early days of what is now the Internet, there were trolls. I knew even then that the best way to deal with them was to ignore them, but once in a while, my temper would get the better of me, and I'd blunder into a hot mess that at the end of the day wouldn't matter to anyone.

My favorite tactic for dealing with the trolls that I did not or could not avoid was to write caricatures of them into my stories. Being able to laugh at them, and myself, always proved to be a tonic for any residual resentment I might have felt–particularly if I could get a chuckle out of my readers.

It is in such a spirit that I have written The Witches Of BookBoggin. Since it's in the tl/dr category for a blog entry, you can read the story on Medium. Should you find yourself paywalled, use the contact form to your right, and I'll send you a link.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Reviews And The Tyranny Of Averages

I've recently encountered a couple of articles from bloggers decrying the damage 1-star reviews can inflict on a struggling author. You can find one of them here and another here.

Both bloggers find fault with the reviewers themselves, a point of view I can mostly agree with. Many are just trolls, Others are trying to stand out as contrarians, while all they are actually doing is making themselves look petty and mean. Both bloggers also mention that their opinions of 1-star reviewers stir up quite a bit of controversy on social media. Evidently, some folks think that these people should be able to speak their minds no matter the consequences, even if they are petty and mean.

When a book has hundreds or thousands of reviews, as best-sellers do, a smattering of one- or two-star reviews is to be expected, but they're not going to have much of an effect on sales. But when a book has very few reviews, a serious and widespread problem for unknown, self-published authors like yours truly, even a single bad review can have serious consequences. This is not, however, because of the review itself, but because of the effect it has on the author's average star rating. This is the first thing you see when you land on the product page for the book on Amazon or Goodreads.

Let's say a book has a total of five reviews that break down like this:

  1. Five stars - 1
  2. Four stars - 3
  3. One star - 1
OK, that's four good ratings and one zinger. No problem? Not quite. The total number of stars for this book is 5+4+4+4+1=18. This makes the average star rating for the book 3.6, which Amazon will round down to 3.5. That looks like this:

Three and a half stars. If you are a reader browsing titles to buy, are you going to look any further than this? Probably not, when there are so many other titles with better ratings to choose from. This will lead to fewer sales of the book, which means fewer reviews, and the thing becomes a death spiral. Thus the solitary 1-star review this book received proves to be its undoing.

Now, our inquisitive book-shopper will also see that the title has a total of five reviews, but there's no help here: "Oh, it's a three and a half star book only five people have bothered to review? I'll pass."

I call this the tyranny of averages. It's a cruel fact of life that mostly affects struggling authors, but even best-sellers by well-known authors are somewhat affected by it. For a case study, I chose Isaac Asimov's The Gods Themselves. Asimov was one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, known for some of the most enduring works in all of science fiction. Although The Gods Themselves is somewhat lesser known than Asimov's classics like I, Robot, it won both the Hugo and Nebula awards for best novel in the year following its publication. In the sci-fi world, these are the equivalent of the Oscars and Golden Globes for movies.

I reasoned that such a title would have close to a five-star average, but when I headed over to Goodreads to check, I discovered that the Good Doctor's masterpiece is barely in four-star territory, with an average rating of 4.09 stars across over 48,000 ratings. What gives? To find out, we have to dig into the details, something few people will do when they're just browsing titles looking for something to read.

As a lifelong Asimov fan, it's astonishing to me that over 2,000 people rated this book negatively. It's even more astonishing that over 9,000 people rated it as just OK. An overwhelming majority of readers gave it 4 and 5 star ratings, so does it seem to you that this is really a 4.09-star read? Let's see what we can find over on Amazon:

Only 4.2 stars? Not much better, but at least Amazon doesn't make you dig for the histogram. Here, we can see that the skew is a little more favorable, but the all-important average is still dragged down by the 1, 2, and 3 star reviews. 

If an award-winning, best-selling book by an iconic author can be hurt by a relative few bad reviews, what's a struggling indie author to do?

Cross-posted to Medium