Tuesday, July 31, 2012

General Blogging Notes

I've been doing this blogging thing pretty consistently for the past eight months, and it's been a lot of fun.  That said, I'd like to share a few insights I have...or at least as many insights as someone with eight months of experience can have:

1.  Be careful how much consistency you promise.
I continue to believe that one of the keys to a good blog is consistently providing new information.  In my own experience clicking through blogs, the ones I return to the most are the ones with the most predictable schedule.  If I know there will be a new post each Monday, then I'll show up each Monday and faithfully read it.  It provides some semblance of comfort in an otherwise chaotic world.

That said, I think all bloggers should be careful with what they think they can do.  If you can only afford to post once a week, then stick with that.  If you can do it everyday, please do so(you'll get a lot more traffic if you're part of someone's morning routine).  But don't post every day for three weeks, then slack off to twice a week for two weeks, then back to three times a week, then go down to one post a week.  This will annoy readers who are used to getting fresh content each day and suddenly discover you're not there as often.  You can always increase posting frequency, but downshifting, especially without notice, can be a very bad thing.

Honestly, this is one of the main reasons I haven't tried to go to daily posting.  I have an exhausting schedule at times(which may get more exhausting in a couple of months...stay tuned).  When I get off of work, I have only a few hours to play with my dogs, spend time with my wife and daughter, do my daily chores(I'm the dishes and trash guy), etc.  I usually post later in the evening once my wife and little girl have gone upstairs.  On more than one occasion, I've said, "Would they really miss me if I didn't post just this once?"  While I know that I could do this once, maybe twice a year without giving notice, that kind of erratic posting would annoy people.

Doing a daily post borders on sheer insanity.  Those who can do it, like Sarah Hoyt, are superstars, in my opinion.  And although I could do it for a while, I don't have enough faith in my schedule or general work ethic to think I'd do it every day.  Three times a week is plenty for me.

2.  You won't blog as well as you can write.
Blogging is a very free flowing form of writing.  Most people that do it consistently shoot from the hip.  That's not to say we don't think about what we're going to write, but rather that we don't outline and plot out where we're going.  Also, due to the rapid fire nature of getting out a post, we don't always edit with the care we do with other stuff.

When I write a book, I edit meticulously.  I go over the manuscript at least three times myself before showing it to someone else for their input.  Plus, I put time between each point at which I edit.  This provides eyes that are more fresh and allows me to really dig deep.  However, you can't do this when blogging.  By their very nature, blog posts must be current.  Leaving a post for a month from now increases the odds that it'll be out of date when other folks see it.

This decreases the quality of writing.  That's not to say the writing in blogs is bad; I've seen a lot of great blogs that are very well written, but I think that just gives me a snapshot of what the person's edited work will be like.  I meander far more in a blog post than I do in my novels, and a great deal more adjectives and adverbs sneak in.  I don't have the time to strike them all out or condense them into more efficient words(ie - turn the words "ran quickly" into "sprinted").  I generally check a post for grammar and spelling, and perhaps I'll re-write a small portion, but it's nothing compared to the time I spend on a novel.

3.  Interact.
I have a strict policy that I will try to respond to every single comment I get.  I value interaction with the readers, and if they took time to comment, the least I can do is respond.  Some of the bigger blogs can't do this with every comment, or that's all they'd do, but those guys have enough people commenting to get a discussion generated without having to always inject themselves.

I might take a little bit to reply, but rest assured that I will do so once I become aware of a comment.  I get behind at times, but I check both this blog and my gmail at least once a day(assuming I have access).  When someone comments, I go there and reply, even if it's just to say "thanks for stopping by."  It's very frustrating to leave a comment somewhere and not know if the writer ever saw or cared about what you wrote.

Sarah Hoyt and JA Konrath are pretty good about responding and mixing it up with readers, even if they can't reply to every comment due to sheer volume.  Others, like Christine Rice, Karen Woodward, Kevin Hanrahan, and Ollin Morales are all usually pretty good about responding to most comments(if I didn't list your blog here, don't get offended - I can't list every single one), which drives me more to their blogs.

Lastly, speaking of comments, if you like anything you read on here, or even if you hate it, leave me a response.  Comments to a blogger are like crack to a hooker - it's one of the main reasons we do what we do.  So belly up to the bar and let 'er rip.
(Won't you leave a comment?  Pretty please?)

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Barbarians at the Gate

I've spoken a few times before about the indie publishing movement and its shift from the fringe into more of a mainstream phenomenon.  However, not everyone is thrilled with this change in direction and the results it produces.

This article in the British press, linked to through The Passive Voice, shows the attitude of a lot of both traditionally published writers and publishing houses(as well as a few agents).  The general tone, besides revulsion and condescension, is sheer horror that these independently published amateurs are damaging the wonderful world of literature...the same world that produced such awesome works as this one.  Why, those nasty independently published writers will get the country club all icky!

The way we read is undergoing the most tremendous change we've seen since books became more marketable commodities in the late 19th century.  Anyone with an Internet connection and an idea can upload their work to KDP Select and consider themselves "published."  And those with a little bit of money can go the print book route with print on demand publishers like Lightning Source and CreateSpace.  This has caused high pitched shrieks from the good old boys club known as traditional publishing.  After all, the pace of publishing change is supposed to be glacial, not moving at warp speed like it has the last couple of years.
(Ahh...that's more like it)
Yes, with so much access, there will be a great deal of rubbish that will make into the reading world, but so will a great deal of stuff that traditional publishers ignored.  These may not be the literary masterpieces that the traditionally published world is used to, but a lot of them are great fun to read, and now they can get a chance to find an audience previously denied to them.

However, judging by the reaction, you'd think the Visigoths are coming over the 7th hill and civilization itself is about to collapse.  It reminds me of a scene near the end of the movie The Patriot when Lord Cornwallis laments, "How could it come to this?  An army of rabble.  Peasants.  Everything will change.  Everything has changed."

To me, only the barriers to entry have changed.  People will continue to buy either buy books or not based on whether they're any good - it's just that there's a much larger selection to choose from(or weed through, if you prefer), and consumer choice is supposed to be a good thing.  The only way this can be viewed as bad is if you view book publishing as an exclusive club whose membership should only be determined by those already part of it.  Unfortunately, as evidenced by people like Scott Turow, too many on "the inside" see it as exactly that.

What makes me smile, though, is that these gatekeepers no longer control the levers of total power.  They can try and stand against the tide of change, but they'll be little more than a voice shouting at the wind.  Now that the cat's out of the bag, you can't reverse the course of history, and a lot of them think this is the end of their livelihood, so they're naturally scared.

Traditional publishing won't go away any more than print books will, but their share of the market will be severely dwindled.  Folks like JA Konrath and Amanda Hocking have shown how possible it is to make a good living publishing independently, without having to go through all the bullshit a writer does with a traditional publisher - you get paid more regularly, control your own cover, and don't have to wade through contracts so lopsided that they would tip over the Titanic.

The barricades are down and the guards have run for the hills.  The only thing left is for the peasants to take the city for their own.  Do you have the stomach for the assault?

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Book Categories

Where do you fit?  That's a question a lot of writers have been trying to answer since the dawn of the printing press.

I've touched a number of times on the fact that writing is a business.  As such, where we sell our books is key to getting our message out.  Booksellers need to know where within their stores they should place our work.

You've all seen bookstores and the way they are organized.  There's a mystery section, a science fiction/fantasy section, and a romance section.  When you're looking for something from Alexandra Adornetto, you know you have to head to the YA Paranormal section.  If you want Bad Dog, Marley!, you have to mosey your way on over to the children's section.

Shopping online is no different.  When one logs onto Amazon, one sees a list of book categories on the left side of the screen.  Clicking on these links takes you to the top sellers in those categories and gives you a more narrow search in which to find something that might interest you.  However, all this categorization can be very frustrating.

The reason for this is that what we write can't always be shoe-horned into a specific category, and this can hurt the book's marketability.  We're really left up to the mercy of the bookseller at that point, and sometimes the categories are too broad for us.  The most classic example of this is The Shack by William Paul Young.  Is it a Christian novel?  Spiritual?  Speculative?  Young himself ran into this issue when he tried to market The Shack and found that most publishers wouldn't pick it up since they couldn't figure out how to categorize it.

Even well known authors run into this trouble.  11/22/63 by Stephen King is another example of something that's hard to categorize.  Yes, the main character travels back in time to 1958 in order to try and stop the Kennedy assassination, but the plot uses the historical setting as the main device and says very little about the means(something necessary to place it in science fiction).  Given the pace, is it an action book?  Or, since Jake Epping is trying to determine with certainty that Lee Harvey Oswald is the one who killed JFK, does this qualify as a mystery?  Given Oswald's monster-like appearance in the book depository, maybe it should be in the horror section.

Keep in mind that King isn't some new author who is unfamiliar with the necessity of categorization for sales - he's one of the top selling authors of all time.

When I begin a novel, I think about the story I want to tell, not, "Gee, I'd like to write a western."  Not getting pigeon-holed allows the story room to breathe and develop.
Both Salvation Day and Akeldama will be difficult to place.  Are they horror?  There's an argument to be made based on the mood and certain events.  Or, given the pacing, can they be called thrillers?  Science fiction/fantasy could also fit.  I like to call both "paranormal thrillers," but I haven't found that category on Amazon yet.

This is important because it'll affect sales and how people see it.  There may be people who would love the spiritual aspects behind Salvation Day, but perhaps they're not science fiction fans.  With Akeldama, maybe someone likes a fast paced action novel, but vampires and horror isn't their thing.  Getting pushed into a category could prevent a whole bunch of otherwise interested people from even seeing them.

I've noticed a few books in Amazon, like The Last Policeman, placed in multiple categories, which is what I think writers are going to have to do nowadays.  Subjects tend to stretch across the spectrum, and one category doesn't describe a book.

This is where indie publishing has helped authors.  In the past, a writer had to worry about appealing to the marketing department of one of the Big Six publishers, but with the explosion in the indie market, writers can expand into several categories and only have to worry about pleasing their readers, not some bookworm on the fifth floor of a building in New York.

It's a delicate game we play with this, where we want to get specific enough to draw in readers, but not so specific into old genres that don't fully capture the book's essence that we miss out on potential customers.  A lot of writers can fall into this trap, and it's painful to them and their careers when it happens, so a word of caution - be careful when categorizing and let your readers decide how you can best reach them, regardless of what the old social conventions said.
(Don't fall into the trap - it could hurt...a lot)

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Stop Daydreaming and Start Writing!

Those of us who write are usually also very good daydreamers.  In fact, some would say it's one of our best qualities.  Were it not for our ability to let our minds wander into uncharted territory, there'd be no stories for us to write, for it's only through the uncharted realm of the imagination that fantastical tales can be found.

Unfortunately, daydreaming can also be an impediment, and it can be so in multiple ways.  The first is that we'll find ourselves dreaming up story after story but never writing them down.  This would be wonderful if we could project our thoughts for others to buy, but technology just ain't there yet.  We have to remember to take what we see and put it on paper so that others can see it as well.

However, that can be a form of creative laziness, while the second kind of daydreaming can be both consuming and a much bigger obstacle than anything else, and that's when we succumb to the fantasies of our success.

Every writer I know or have even heard about fantasizes about what life will be like when they finally make it big.  Yes, a lot of writers will spin tall tales about how they're doing this for the love of the art or how they want to use their work to better the world, but don't believe them.  Sure, that may be true on a certain level, but deep down - or not so deep down for some - all writers want to be loved, and this usually comes in the form of visions of people fawning over us, with money as no object to our continuing careers.

I've been guilty on many occasions while walking my dogs in thinking about how much I'll have to sell in order to make a good living, or what it'd be like to walk the red carpet in Hollywood after my work has been picked up(in my dreams this is usually done by a Steven Spielberg type who just has to bring my book to life on the big screen).  It lets me feel good and gives me a goal to shoot for.  And if done in small doses, it can be motivating and allow us to knuckle back down to get to our dream.  Unfortunately, all too often this is as far as we get.

To reach those dreams, it'll take a great deal of hard work, and let's face it - dreaming is a lot easier than hard work.  Why spend 30 minutes staring at a blank computer screen when I could be envisioning my next book tour or practicing my signature for those who want an autographed copy of my work?

This happens far more often than non-writers think, and it's just human nature.  But we writers need to force - and I do mean FORCE - this stuff out of the way so we can concentrate on our book.  No matter how much we just know we deserve the accolades sure to come our way, we have to accept that such accolades aren't going to fall into our laps.  We need to outline.  We need to write.  We need to create a stable of books bigger than one.  This means sitting down at our computer and typing.  And not just typing, but putting effort into our story.  We have to figure out the wording, focus on showing instead of telling, and discern which plot points work and which ones, while nice, are superfluous and need to be axed.

Discipline is key here, and I'm as guilty as the next guy in adhering to it.  I started the sequel to Akeldama two weeks ago, got to 4000 words, and haven't done squat since.  I keep telling myself that I'll do 1000 a day(that should only take about half an hour), but I find that other things get in the way, whether that's the Internet, playing with my dogs, or just being tired.  I know what needs to be done, yet I have trouble doing it sometimes.  However, if I can't overcome it, I'll never have that 8-10 book goal complete before I publish, and that could create a serious supply problem since my time will likely be in even shorter supply once I have to sell in real time.

I've just got to force it, and if that means 30 minutes less sleep, or that I scarf lunch at my desk and eschew eating with everyone else at Chili's, then so be it.  I can daydream anywhere, but the dreams without the substance will do nothing but relegate me to the wreckage pile of 80% of the rest of folks who claim they want to write but never succeed, and that's unacceptable.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

A Picture Is Worth...A Thousand Buck(or more)

First of all, please check out a post from a friend of mine, Kanani Fong.  Her tips for writers post is excellent.  Now, on to the main post...

I'm sure several folks by now have noticed a mild change to my blog.  I used to have pictures all over the place, usually captioned by something witty.  It added some color to the site and made it so that I didn't rely solely on text.  However, I decided to change that on Saturday when I ran into this post over at The Passive Voice.  That led me to follow a series of posts, starting with this one, regarding the posting of pictures and the doctrine of Fair Use.

A lot of bloggers, myself included, go to Google Images to find pictures related to their post, and then they post these to their blogs.  Blogger.com seems to encourage this with the picture application on the toolbar.  My general thought was, Everyone seems to be doing it, so I guess it's okay.  WRONGO!

Fair Use is a moderately complicated legal doctrine covered by the Copyright Act of 1976 17 USC 107.  It discusses when you can and can't use copyrighted work in your own stuff.  At what point do you owe the original author credit, and at what point do you owe them monetary compensation?

Usually, if you excerpt something for further analysis or criticism, you're covered under the Fair Use Doctrine because what you're doing involves enrichment of the general public on the specific issue at hand.  This is usually the way news sources do it, and it's covered.  However, using an image without permission just to spruce up your site isn't covered and has been deemed by courts to be piracy, not Fair Use.

Not many bloggers are aware of this and use pictures at random to make a point or inject humor into their commentary.  Turns out this is a big no no.  The people who take these pictures own the copyright the same way an author owns the copyright to a novel he or she has written.  These people make their living from this stuff and people using their pictures without permission or compensation are taking food out of the mouths of their families.  The overwhelming majority of us who use(d) them aren't doing so with malice and generally don't even know they're violating the law - they just see a fun way to be entertaining.

We've justified this by saying we weren't making any money off of the images.  It turns out that this doesn't matter in the least.  It also doesn't matter if you did so in ignorance, credited the photographer, issued a disclaimer that the work wasn't yours, or took down the offending picture after being notified about it - you're still in violation of the law, and it can end badly.

A few folks have recently been sued over this and been forced to pay money they really couldn't part with in order to settle the issue.  This situation is analogous to the Recording Industry Association of America suing those who were swapping music over the Internet a few years ago.  The RIAA said they were losing millions on these file sharing sites and went to extreme lengths to stop the problem.  I even knew one of the people the RIAA had sued for $967,000, although his family agreed to settle for $6,000.

Now I'm personally thrilled whenever someone reproduces my work and shares it with others.  I kind of get a thrill off of it and enjoy a bit of an ego boost, but I'm also admittedly new to this.  Lots of photographers, however, don't share my affinity for someone using their stuff, especially if they didn't give permission to do so.  Not many are as heavy handed as the one Roni Loren ran into - most will issue a DMCA Takedown Notice and let that be the end of it once the offending blogger takes down the work(usually following a profuse apology), but the photographer is still well within his or her right to demand compensation, through the courts if necessary.

So, what does this all mean for this site?  It means I've taken down all pictures and cartoons in order to avoid any possible issues.  I intend to better research the issue to see if there's a way to do this without violating copyright law.  There are a few sites out there that offer free images, like Creative Commons, but even these offer a few obstacles(like you can't use the images to make any money whatsoever...and if you use your blog to promote you writing career, that can be deemed to be "making money").  One can also join certain sites that offer use of their pictures for a fee, but I'm kind of cheap and not really looking to pay for these things, which is one of the big reasons the use of photos from someone else on here can be problematic.  The best solution seems to be exclusively using photos I've taken.  Now I've just got to find ones that match the material or go out and take some new ones.

In summary, I know that posts that rely largely on text can appear vanilla, but better to try and be brilliant in prose than to worry about paying several thousand dollars because you innocently used a drawing of Snoopy that you shouldn't have.  As much as I love pontificating to the masses, I'm not going to risk my family's financial future to do so.
(The only people I'll risk my future for, because they ARE my future)

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Future Is Upon Us...

I saw this headline on an Internet news source this morning about ebooks outselling hardcover books for the first time ever in 2011.  Although trade paperbacks and mass market paperbacks still brought in more in total sales than ebooks, you can't conquer the world all at once, and the fact that ebooks brought in more than $2 billion last year is remarkable, and it's only likely to grow as time goes on.

I've spoken before about books in transition, and this is further evidence of a massive shift in how we get our reading entertainment.  According to Reuters, although overall sales of books decreased by 2.5% last year, ebook sales jumped by over 15%, demonstrating further shift in the market.  Several other blogs have picked up this story, continuing a trend that many writers are beginning to capitalize on.

So where does this leave the industry?  Does this mean that within 15-20 years we'll be able to kiss those print books goodbye, that everyone will have a Kindle, Nook, or Kobo?  Doubtful.

To begin with, have you checked out the prices on these devices.  Even the most basic Kobo starts the bidding at $60, and it goes up from there.  I couldn't find a single Kindle priced under $119.  Yes, a large portion of the audience can buy these things, but not all.  I'm not even sure a majority of readers will be able to do that.  There are loads of people out there who won't shell out over $100 for an electronic reading device; they either can't afford it or they're too cheap.

Next, no matter how much the format for reading books advances, there are simply too many people who still prefer the visceral feel of books.  I happen to be one of them.  Granted, that's changing a little - the books I want to hold onto are the ones I buy in print nowadays, while the ones I'm not sure of are the ones I buy in digital form - but the habit has been too deeply ingrained in people to banish overnight.  Besides reading something weighty, a lot of us take pride from a bookshelf full of books.

What's likely to happen is that print will become a bit of a niche, albeit a big one.  I estimate that at least half of what we read will remain in print form for the foreseeable future.  However, that still leaves a great deal of growth potential for the digital market.  And as we older dinosaurs disappear, so will a portion of the print market.  I don't think e-readers will get as popular as smart phones since fewer people read than text, but more and more people will be carrying around their device as time progresses - it's just more convenient to store 50 books on a thin pad than to lug around four or five books the size of The Stand.

It's an exciting time to be in the digital marketplace.  Traditional publishers are slowly starting to realize the potential for the ebook, but they're still trying to price them like paperbacks, a price many won't pay, leaving a big opening for the independent author.  I wonder what the landscape will look like in 20 years, and whether we'll just resort to just swallowing book pills or something.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Writing is Work

Most of the writers who visit this site will understand this, but most of my non-writer friends need to hear me say it - writing is hard work.  It might be exhilarating, joyous, and rewarding work, but it's still work.

It takes dedication to write, for a couple of reasons.  First, you need to craft the story itself.  What goes at the beginning?  How do I develop the main character?  What's the main plotline I need to resolve?

Then you need to write something of sufficient girth.  Sure, I know what happens in the story, so I can take some elements for granted when reading it, but my readers can't.  There should be enough "meat" in the story so it satisfies the reader's curiosity.  Too many books I've read end too early and forget that I want to read a complete tale, not just a snippet that sounded good in the author's head but doesn't translate to the page.

Finally, the story has to sound good.  It needs to be both interesting and well told.  I doubt World War Z would've done very well if Max Boot had started with something like, "A little boy got bit by a bad fish and turned into a zombie.  Sure, his mom could've killed him, but she wasn't that mean."

Most writers don't do this on a full-time basis.  Instead, we write on our spare time - during a break at work, while the chicken is cooking, or after the kids go to bed.  And a lot of the time, we just don't feel like writing.  No, scratch that - we don't feel like getting started, because once we're off and running, the joy returns and we wonder why we ever stopped.  However finding the time in between other commitments means we're cramming in our writing wherever we can and have to do it in snippets.
Most of my friends understand it up to this point.  However, they tend to view writing as a one step process.  "You've finished!" they'll exclaim.  "Now just go get that massive author's advance."  Unfortunately, for those of us who want to do this for more than a hobby, less than half the work is finished at this point.  I've discussed editing several times, and it is a lot more involved than writing the first draft.  The initial spewing of story is the fun part, but now we have to labor over every...single...word until we get it just right.  Then we do it again.  And again.  I don't know any decent writer who doesn't go through their manuscript at least three times, and most do it more often.

Then there are things like brainstorming and outlining.  Some people I know can write a perfect, 110,000 page novel based on what comes out of their head, but I'm not one of them.  If I don't outline, my work ends up terribly short.  I have to envision, in advance, the general framework of the tale.  True, I don't stick strictly to this or go into too much detail(except when I want to capture something specific), but I have to see some of that level of detail or it'll blow over like a house built from straw.
Developing a great piece of writing can be draining from a mental standpoint.  It's not as physically demanding as pouring concrete or banging out sheet metal, but the mental toll can be completely exhausting.  A friend of mine told me a long time ago to get over myself on this, but I ignored him.  Then, after a particularly grueling research project, he came back to me and said he finally understood what I meant.

This post might come across as either whining(which I'm not) or snooty(which maybe I can be at times), but I also hope it helps folks understand that writing isn't all about tweed jackets and warm beaches.  It's about work, and lots of it, if a writer wants to be successful.  Hopefully some people remember that before they see a writer and think that person is goofing off.

Sunday, July 15, 2012


I've shared stories for almost as long as I can remember.  The first real memory I have of writing something down and then telling it to others comes from 4th grade where we'd write stories in a journal and then read them to the class.  Mine were usually some strange amalgamation of Star Wars - Return of the Jedi was coming out about that time - although I'd put my own spin on it.

In 6th grade, a few of us got together to write about alien invasions and ninjas that took over America(V and The Last Dragon were big then).  These tales never went anywhere, of course, but they felt good to write.

Round about 11th grade, I suddenly had this burst of ideas.  I remember sitting in English class and wondering what would happen if there was an alien attack.  This morphed into, what if it's not just an attack, but these aliens want to wipe out humanity?  Why would they do that?  I know - because we're too smart and they want to get us before we advance further and overtake them!  Yeah!
It wasn't enough that I came up with these crazy stories, but I had this insatiable urge to share them with other people.  I talked during lunch, and later at college, I talked about them during those late night dorm room philosophy sessions that college is so famous for.  In the alcohol induced haze that everyone was in, some people would even say something like, "That sounds so awesome!"  Of course, they'd pass out moments later in a pile of their own vomit and not remember saying that the next day, but it assuaged my ego.

As I entered my current career, I continued to spin yarns about fantastical people in far away lands and told them to whoever would listen.  I shared the background for Salvation Day with a buddy during an all night session, and his response, besides "wow," is something that has stuck with me to this day.

"Damn, you're nuts."

This caused me to go back and think about it, and I recalled several other people making this observation.  I wondered for a few seconds if I really was crazy and how many people thought so.  Then I figured it out:

Who cares?

I've come to realize that all writers have a touch of insanity, and that's probably a good thing.  Not many stable minds can come up with the kind of shit that runs through our heads, and certainly those stable minds can't tell those tales with such fervor that it entices others to read them.  When I look back at Lewis Carroll, Charles Dickens, and Stephen King, I see things that would get you locked up in a loony bin if they weren't published and recognized as "art."  What sane person thinks up a story about a psychic hotel that tries to kill a boy with an imaginary friend?  Who in their right mind could devise a story about a bunch of child geniuses that are able to fend of an alien attack from a group called the buggers?  Is there any way a mind with all its faculties generates a magical world where the most popular game is played on broomsticks?


Insanity, if harnessed and controlled, can be a good thing.  It spins us off into realms that society tells us we shouldn't go.  Most people will push such thoughts aside as either for children or not worth their time, but writers embrace these things.  Further, through our zeal, we allow others to join us in La La Land and feel okay about the journey.  Normal folks won't let their minds go there because the world tells them they shouldn't, but if someone leads them through the door, they'll happily follow, justifying it with, "Hey, I didn't dream this stuff up - I'm just an observer."

I don't think I could come up with the stories I do if I didn't possess a touch of insanity, and I think most writers will agree with me.  The ones that protest, "I'm not crazy!!!" are the ones whose stories fall flat and entertain no one.  Only through the crazy power of letting your imagination go into places we usually shun can you develop something that interests people.  After all, isn't reading really about escape?  Don't we read about Shane Evert and his travails against the Aalag to get away from our problems?  We can look at Katniss Everdeen and take heart that no matter how much of an asshole our boss is, at least we can't be made to compete in the Hunger Games.

Writers embrace their inner insanity.  It makes us strong and helps us understand our own psyche, as well as gives us therapy in the form of telling our warped tales to others.  As a bonus, it also keeps people away from us so we can continue to write.

No matter what happens to me in life, I hope my insanity remains with me.  Without such loony tunes singing in my head, life would get real boring, and who wants that?

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Never Perfect

There have been several posts as of late discussing the long overdue idea that your work doesn't have to be perfect.  In fact, it'll never be perfect because we can always find a way to make it better.  There's always one more tweak we can make.  Unfortunately, it's this relentless drive towards perfection that can hurt writers.

Now before you get all in a tizzy, I'm not saying that writers shouldn't try to improve their work or hone their craft, but there comes a point at which you have to let your baby go.  Voltaire, in his moral poem La Bégueule, noted that perfect is often the enemy of good.  Noted philosophers like Aristotle and Confucius have argued against extremism in any endeavor and in favor of the Golden Mean, a philosophy of achieving a desirable endstate without going to the extremes of demanding perfection.

Good writers tend to be perfectionists.  We agonize over every word, trying to make sure that we've achieved just the right level of nuance so that the reader obtains maximum benefit and doesn't waste time better spent on other parts of the story.  We play with phrases, torture ourselves over plot lines and character development, and twist ourselves into pretzels trying to evoke emotion in our readers, and we wonder the whole time if our efforts will be appreciated by those who read our stories(half the time, we're convinced they won't be).  This level of dedication is what makes us such good storytellers, and it separates the true author from the hack.

However, this can lead to a story that no one but the writer sees.  We'll get so scared that our work could be better if only we made just one more adjustment, that we don't let anyone else look at it.  We convince ourselves that it can't possibly be good because there's always something more to fix.

In my family, this is know as "driving my wife crazy."  "Just let me read it," is a cry I've heard more than once.  Sometimes we seem so concerned with validation that nothing but total perfection will do.
I'm here to say what those other bloggers have said - it's okay if you think your work isn't perfect.  In fact, it's preferable for two reasons:
1.  Someone besides yourself finally gets to read your story;
2.  Your ego won't be quite so crushed when you receive the inevitable criticism.

Number two on that list is just as important as number one.  Every story, no matter how imaginative or well thought out, is going to have flaws.  If you've spent every piece of your soul making it just right, and you finally become convinced it couldn't get any better, you're going to be devastated when someone points out flaws.

I'm not talking about flaws in grammar and punctuation.  Those are easily fixable.  I'm talking about in the story itself.  Anyone who has ever watched a movie or read a book has come up with a way to make it better.  This is due to individual tastes and is as inevitable as the sun rising in the east.  Sure, your loved ones may try to be easy and just respond with, "Perfect!  Couldn't possibly be any better," but others who aren't related to you are going to make suggestions, no matter how much they liked it.  This is going to be when you'll either begin your new career as a serial killer or go off to cry in your closet and never see the sunshine again.
We have to shelve our egos and insecurities sometimes and put ourselves out there.  This means accepting that things could be better.  However, above the 80% "good" mark, the amount of time required to reach each additional point isn't worth it.  It also means that we have to do the unthinkable - accept that not everyone is going to like our work, and isn't this where a lot of our own insecurity comes from?  Don't most writers want the entire world to adore them and fell they'll just die if people think we're less than perfect?

Put yourself out there.  Allow yourself the luxury of not being blemish free, with the understanding that it's your best effort.  In the end, this is what separates professional writers who can make a living at this craft and those who have a nice hobby no one but themselves will enjoy.

Go on - be imperfect.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Writing is a Business

Okay, time to piss some people off again…
Last week I put up a post about how I planned to proceed with Akeldama – that it’s going to be a while before it comes out and that I’m currently building an email distro list so I have a base of people who are willing to buy my book.  I also mentioned that one of the reasons for holding off was so that I had a healthy stable of books to bring out once I began this venture in earnest.
You’d have thought I’d started lighting puppies on fire.  A lot of folks berated me for not throwing caution to the wind and publishing now.  JUST DO IT!!!  YOU HAVE NO EXCUSE FOR NOT BEING A PUBLISHED WRITER RIGHT NOW!!!
I got excoriated for focusing on the business aspects of this whole thing.  Some people felt I was taking the “art” out of the process, and more than one accused me of being a scared little girl, afraid of what people might think of my work.  Why, if I didn’t go ahead and get with Amazon RIGHT THIS VERY SECOND and publish, then I was obviously too timid and would never be a great author.

There’s a difference between being bold and being reckless, and it’s unfortunately a difference that a lot of writers don’t seem to understand.  If you’re in it just to see your name in print, then fine, go ahead and throw out your work the moment you’re satisfied with it.  I’m sure it’ll get some good reviews, and you might even make a couple of bucks from it.  However, should you do so, you need to accept that, barring hitting the 50 Shades of Grey lottery, this whole writing thing will be little more than a hobby.  If that’s what you want, then I’m happy for you and I wish you well, but I’m trying to build a business here.
My goal isn’t just to put something out there and have people fawn all over it(okay…having people fawn all over my work would indeed be a dream come true, but that’s tangential to my point).  In the end, I want to be able to earn a living from writing, and I can’t do that with nothing but a book and some starry eyed dreams.  This is where a number of writers fail, because some don’t want to get into the weeds of what’s necessary to build a successful brand.  They’d rather wake up when the sun is warm, pour a steaming cup of java, and bang out their next masterpiece, confident that the masses will flock to Amazon or Barnes & Noble based on an intrinsic understanding that the work is awesome.

First, you need a diverse line of goods that you can roll out in a predictable manner that encourages people to try other things you have.  McDonald’s has the best fries in the world, and I’m sure people yearned for more of them once they had a taste.  However, the Golden Arches wouldn’t have gone anywhere if once people had shown up, finished their fries, and asked, “What else you got?”, that McDonald’s responded with, “That’s pretty much it for right now.  However, if we ever get inspired again, we might think about producing something else.  We just don’t know what that is yet.”  No, they needed to have the hamburger and chocolate shake ready to go.  As time wore on, McDonald’s needed to roll out things like the Big Mac, the McRib, Chicken McNuggets, and the Egg McMuffin.
What usually happens when people read a book they like is that they check to see if the author has anything else out, or if they will any time soon.  My current plan is to publish twice a year, on a predictable schedule – probably at the end of April and the middle of November – so that I can strike while the iron is hot.  Readers who are late to the party will be able to go back and see what else I have to offer, thus increasing my sales potential.
However, I don’t plan to flood the market with ten books at once.  That kind of glut will overwhelm too many folks and they’ll write me off as a hack, so it’s imperative to find a balance.  Once every six months, for at least the first five years, will be just short enough for my previous work to not grow stale, but long enough that it can be savored before moving on to the next one.
But there’s more to this than just producing books.  I have to build a full business plan, something, again, that a lot of writers are loathe to do(and what a few people who told me to just PUBLISH, PUBLISH, PUBLISH decided to ignore).  Creating and then implementing a business plan is dull and frustrating because it’s not writing.  There are reviews to solicit and book tours(whether through bookstores or through blogs) to arrange.  There’s the logistics of putting together an address list for those who’ve bought and then making sure the product gets to them.  You have to pay attention to quality control(like getting a good copy editor and finding a graphic artist who know what they’re doing).  And after a long and frazzled day, you still have to sit down and knock out 500-1000 words for your next work so you can do fun things in the future like eat and have shelter.  Although there are some good writers who can do this, like JA Konrath and SarahHoyt, a lot of people just aren’t up for it, and that’s why they’ll ultimately fail in turning writing from a hobby into a business.
Not everyone is a caution-to-the-wind fool, which is why I didn’t use the words all or most, but many are.  I’ve never been one to just jump into the lava pit without a fire retardant suit, and although that might make me a bit boring, it’s also responsible for why I’m where I’m at in my current job, which is to say more successful than most(but not all) and can say in good conscience that I’m doing well.  For every Robert E. Lee who looks great with a bold move, there are ten John Bell Hood’s who leap in and get smashed by their own lack of planning.

As unromantic as it is to say, being a professional means being deliberate and understanding the whole picture rather than just jumping in and making it up as we go.  Amateurs jump in, and while some make it, most don’t because they didn’t fully realize what they were getting into.  I don’t plan to make that mistake.  That may delay my forays into the market, but I think such delays will lead to greater success in the long term.

Those who took umbrage, I’m sorry, but I can’t sugarcoat this.  Now I’m left to wonder how many people will flip me off and vow to never come back…


Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Show Must Go On...

I finished Akeldama about six months ago(including first, second, and third edits).  Since then, I completed the first draft of my YA paranormal, Wrongful Death.  I plan to begin editing that one sometime in the next month.  So what does that mean I should do with my free time?  Of course I should start another book.

I'll do a post next week on writing as a business.  So, in that vein, since I plan to build something beyond a single book publication, I need to build a stable of publishable novels.  Akeldama has always been built as part of a series, and I've had the broadest notion of what its sequel would look like for years.  However, I've now got to move beyond daydreams and into the more practical aspect of putting words down on paper.

First and foremost, it's got to be a good story.  I can't stand it when an author takes his or her audience for granted and just slaps something mediocre on a page while throwing in familiar characters, hoping we'll scoop it up because it's a world with which we're already familiar.  A lot of books in the Star Wars universe are like this, and it's a big reason why I stick mostly to stories written by Timothy Zahn.  If you can't at least make an attempt to recapture the old magic, you shouldn't even write it down until you're ready to put forward better effort.

Akeldama has paranormal elements, but at its heart, it's an action/thriller.  I view it as something like Taken or Die Hard with a bunch of vampires.  The types of creatures in the story matter, but only as a vehicle to advance the overall plot.  Well, this next one will incorporate a few more paranormal pieces, but they too are only present to add to the story.  Although it'll take a while to get a real title, its working one is Paciscor Per Diobolus, and it's a mystery/thriller.  Most of the cast from Akeldama  is back, and they're charged with solving a series of murders that link to a larger plot on behalf of one of the antagonists from the previous novel.  That supernatural monsters are central to the plot doesn't mean that one needs to be a lover of monster to enjoy the book.
Much like in Salvation Day, I know the beginning and ending of this story, but I don't know the meat in the middle.  The opening has been a scene in my mind since I first thought about what should follow Seth Gendrickson's battles with the original vampire, and the ending is intended to set up the third book along the George Lucas formula for The Empire Strikes Back(put everyone into an impossible situation, and then spend the third story getting them out of it).

My plan is to have the first draft written by the end of the year, and I'd like that draft to come in around 120,000 words.  I know I'll end up cutting about 25% of it, so I'd like to have a nice 90,000 word tale(although my last work reminded me that a story will end when it's ready to end).  I've got the first 20-ish pages outlined, and I want to get into it even further so I can find out what happens.  I think most writers are just as surprised as the readers when the story takes unexpected twists and turns, and while a general path is known, there are too many things that can happen for us to see the full story before it's written.

Since I know who the main villains are going to be in this story, I've already begun research into what they're like.  Yesterday, I printed out 18 pages of material for background and read them while sitting in my TV room(much to the chagrin of my wife).  These pages now sit in my outline book, and I'm sure they won't be the last I'll download.  Apart from the creatures themselves, I've got to get a lot more familiar with police procedures than I am now.  Sure, in Akeldama I could get away with surface work because there were only a couple of scenes where even the most peripheral knowledge was necessary, but it's going to be a staple of this book.  That means presenting a credible front that won't be taken down except by the most obnoxious pricks, and they're not really my target audience anyway.
I won't post a synopsis on this one yet, mostly because doing so would give away too much from the first book in the series, and I don't want to spoil the suspense.  However, just to have some fun and see if I have any chops at all at this query business, I do plan to enter the synopsis I wrote a couple of months ago in a query letter contest to see what happens(no, this doesn't mean I'm abandoning indie publishing, just going on a validation crusade to see if I can get anyone's tongue wagging).

Part of me wishes I could tamp down on the gusher of stories I have within me, but that'd require a complete personality overhaul, and I'm too old to start over.  Since I'm looking at this through a business lens, it's probably a good thing I'll produce enough stock to have enough on the shelves when this takes off.  For now, it's simply time for another crazy story to begin, so sit back and enjoy the ride.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Point of It All

Over the last few posts, I've talked about my reasons for going the indie route.  As I've done this, a few folks have asked, "What's the point, Russ?  I haven't seen your books out there, so are you just a big tease?"

After all that lecturing, I suppose I owe you an explanation.  Bottom line is that the first novel in the queue of my writing business is well on its way.  It's been written, edited, and revised.  However, it's not going to be out for a while, and there are several reasons why.
The biggest reason is that I'm not yet at a stable point in my life.  No, I don't mean I'm mentally unstable - although several folks who know me might disagree - but rather that I'm not geographically stable.  My job moves me around a lot and can pick me up at a moment's notice.  That won't last forever and is on the downhill slope, but it makes planning out a few parts of marketing very difficult.  Therefore, I want to be settled in a location before I start this crazy race.

There are a few more things that also need to get accomplished before I put it out.  Most are mere housekeeping tasks, like the need to get a copy editor and make sure my work isn't garbage(from a spelling and grammatical point of view).  I'm reading a great book now, but it was edited very haphazardly.  I've found many mistakes, from spelling to grammar to the misplacing of quotation marks, and it's annoying.  I don't want my own sloppiness to get in the way of the story, so I need to make sure it's right.

I also need a cover.  I know exactly what I want the cover for Akeldama to look like - a black and grey smoky background with a dark brown cross on it.  A pair of fangs will drape over the arms of the cross, with the title in white at the top and my name in white on the bottom.  However, I don't know if that means I go through DeviantArt or Extended Imagery or what, so I have some research to do.

Part of my marketing plan includes "striking while the iron is hot."  I want to have several books ready to go so that I can publish one every six months.  My current schedule won't allow me the kind of free time I need to accomplish that, but once I'm more geographically stable, I can match it, plus I'll have a cache of novels to put out.  This will grant me the freedom to be looser with my time, a necessity at first since I'll need that time to build my brand.  Were I to simply put Akeldama out now, those who liked it would soon become frustrated that it's the only thing I have out.  Its sequel is my next work(to begin within the week), but I don't feel good about tossing it out there and then leaving folks to wonder about when the next one will be out.  By the time this is a reality, I should have at least eight ready for primetime.
So, why tell you all about my desire to indie publish and then let you languish?  Well, it's not like I'm doing nothing.  After all, I started this blog as a way to reach out.  I'm forming a business plan that even now is being implemented.  Once geographically stable, I plan to file as an LLC(still thinking of names...Creative Thoughts Publishing has stuck with me for some reason).  I'm also reaching out to others in the industry for guidance in pursuing the craft.

However, the biggest thing I'm doing is building an email distribution list for those who might be interested in purchasing Akeldama.  I began adding names at the end of May and am now up to about 70.  At 100, the list goes active and I begin sending out periodic newsletters to the folks on it.  The people on this list will get a discounted copy(somewhere around 25-ish% off), as well as first crack at the rest of my inventory.  I don't yet have pricing down, but that's coming.  Digital books will, obviously, be much lower than the paper book(probably around $2.99), but I'm still working all that out.

This may sound like a shameless book plug, and I guess it is, so anyone interested in signing up, please let me know through either the comments or an email to the address at the top of the page.  I need a personal email address and your first and last names.  If you're at all interested, I'm hoping you'll contact me.  I'd love it if we could grow this venture together.  I will indie publish, regardless of how many sign up, but I could sure use your help.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Indie versus Traditional - Part Three

The biggest thing about indie publishing is the level of control you have.  If you can get past the stigma that's still associated with it, and likely always will be, the power you gain over your own creation is awesome.  However, it also means one other thing...

It's all on you.

All the stuff involved in the production, editing, pricing, marketing, accounting, and every other thing revolving around your baby is now on your shoulders.  You have no editor you can blame your typos on, no accounting department to handle the books.  From start to finish, the task is yours alone.

And this is where most writers fail.
To an extent, this is understandable.  I don't know about you, but I got into writing to write.  I wanted to share my stories with the world, not figure out where the breakeven point was or worry too much about the strategy to publicize my work.  Most just want someone to tell them where and when to be so they can show up, greet their legions of adoring fans, sign a few books, and then go back to creating their next masterpiece.

Back in the real world, folks won't knock down your door and beg to read your work.  Further, if you price your book below the point where you have a good profit margin or fail to do the books properly and don't pay your taxes on time, no one is going to swoop in at the last moment and hand you that pile of cash you know you so richly deserve.

Going the indie route is about so much more than writing a novel.  If that's all there was, there'd be millions of folks out there who would be fawned over by the public.  However, going indie means starting a business, which also means spending a bunch of your time doing things that aren't composing your novel.

Most folks who go the indie route are happy with getting a few copies out there, and if that's all you want, then I'm happy for you.  However, you won't be successful in the conventional sense where you can "write for a living."  Making an actual career out of it means going above and beyond uploading your work to KDP Select.  You have to do some analysis on where you want to price your book - is the price too high, meaning people will look past your book and buy something else?  Or are you pricing too low, where people will automatically assume your stuff is trash?  If you want to print paper novels, how much does each one cost, and what's your desired profit margin?  Have you factored in shipping?  If people want a signed copy, have you factored the extra shipping in of getting it to you and then putting it in a flat rate box?  Who will address the labels, and what's your hourly capacity for that?

At a traditional publishing house, most writers have next to no control over the cover.  Sure, we'll gripe and bitch about that, but we also know that, in the end, the publishing house will produce something.  On the indie route, you need to find a graphic artist and those who will put it in a format that you can upload to Lightning Source, CreateSpace, Lulu, or whoever else you're looking to publish through.  If you get burned and get a crappy cover, are you willing to pay for a complete re-do?

When it comes to marketing, you have to decide which routes to go.  Where can you get reviews necessary to put your name out there?  What kind of advertising will you use?  Will you rely on word of mouth, or do you want to go radio and print?  How will you handle a blog tour?  Publishing houses have the media contacts you need to get noticed, so how does the indie author build that kind of network?

On the last point, there is a silver lining(or a dark cloud if you're in traditional publishing).  Traditional publishers expect most newbies to do their own marketing.  In the old days, new authors would slog it out in obscurity for a few novels until the publisher thought they were ready, and then they'd help the author out with a breakout marketing campaign designed to bring him or her into prominence.  However, unless your name is Brown or King, publishers are becoming less willing to expend limited resources on you.  Even the push that folks like Stephanie Meyer and Nicolas Sparks got a few years ago would be unheard of today.

In other words, you're going to be scheduling your signings and prodding book reviewers, not the publicity department at Simon & Schuster.  It's up to you to determine which bookstores to try and plead with for signing events, which libraries to try and horn in on, and which college campuses to try and build a following at.  Your publicity schedule will be your spiral notepad, or, if you're well organized, an Excel program on your laptop.

All of this sounds very daunting, and if it sounds like a lot of work for an indie author, that's because it is.  Those afraid of doing all of this themselves should forget it and either give up or ascribe to the life of a traditionally published author, one where you could find yourself fighting for that 12.5% royalty or begging to get your rights back because the publisher decided not to do another print run after the initial 5000 copies.

Here's the thing though - I want to do all of that.

By doing this, I can control it, and the onus for success or failure is all on me.  If I make it, I can continue to operate this way and expand in any direction I wish.  If I fail, I have no one else to blame, but at least I won't ever worry about those two most harrowing words in the english language - what if...

This path requires drive and work.  It'll take patience, as well as the knowledge that going fully independent, where I can get all of my income from writing, will take time.  I can't expect that one book will get me there(although that'd be nice), but rather that I'll have to build up a base of readers and probably publish twice a year.  In addition to being good, I'll have to make sure folks spread the word on my books and encourage others to read them.

I've seen a lot of indie authors fall short, but I've seen as many traditionally published folks struggle as well.  The typical observation is watching authors gripe about their royalty rates and long travel schedules, but they won't do anything to break free.  And these are big authors who have fan bases I'd kill for.  However, I pity them, for if they're so afraid to do the work themselves to ensure their success, they'll stay in the same rut they complain about forever.

It's going to be one hell of a challenge, but it's one I relish facing.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Darvaza - A Horror Short Story

Earlier this year, I won Honorable Mention in the Writer's Digest Horror contest, judged by Joe R. Lansdale.  It's always nice when someone of note thinks your work is passable.  Since the May.June 2012 issue of Writer's Digest, has come out, I can now print the story in question.  I hope you enjoy it.

The chilly October air clung to Andrei Radik’s shoulders, his breath creating a small fog bank around him.  He pulled his cloak’s hood closer over his face and set out for the next group.
There were about 50 of them, mostly from Western Europe and the United States, with a smattering of folks from South America - true believers all.  They huddled around the front steps of the monastery, eagerly looking at Andrei.
“We have a long trek ahead of us, my friends,” Andrei said.  “The roads in Turkmenistan aren’t well developed, so we’ll have to walk.  I expect the journey to take several hours, and we’ll arrive near sunset.”

They nodded or murmured assent, and Andrei started down the path, a walking stick his only aid.  Only years of taking religious tourists to the Darvaza Gas Crater kept him from snickering at them.  However, at $200 a head, there was good money to be made.
The journey was mostly silent.  Andrei could see several fingering prayer beads or muttering nervously as they got closer.  Andrei had trouble understanding the superstitious hubbub since he didn’t believe in any of this himself, but he was an accomplished actor and could play the part of pious monk well.
The crater wasn’t hard to make out as dusk fell.  It had been burning for years, ever since a drilling accident in the early 1970s collapsed the ground and the old Soviet Regime tried to burn the gas pocket underneath.  Its pale orange glow lit up the ground like a miniature sun trying to break through the Earth.
Andrei stopped at the edge of the pit and turned to face the crowd.  “This is the end of our journey – the Darvaza Gas Crater, known the world over as the Gateway to Hell.  Hopefully, this is the closest any of you will ever have to get to the place of the damned.”
A few tentatively stepped forward to take pictures, while others recoiled at both the smell and the visage.
“Is it true that you’ve heard the damned screaming from within?” asked a chubby red haired woman.
“Yes,” Andrei said somberly.  “Many scientific expeditions have lowered microphones into the hole and heard ghastly sounds.  It’s apparent that those are the sounds of souls being tortured by Satan himself.  Please listen to a copy of the recording.”
Andrei pulled out an iPod and hit play.  This was always one of the parts he liked the best, where the gurgles and noises frightened folks into silence.  Andrei thought the tape had been made on the set of a TV show, but they didn’t need to know that.

Once he shut off the iPod, a shivering man in a bulky sweater asked, “What temperatures have been recorded in there?”
“Thermographic imaging has shown temperatures ranging from 1800 to over 2000 degrees,” Andrei replied.  “That’s the hottest recorded temperature on the planet and shows the agony that awaits those who stray from the Word.”
Many in the crowd nodded.  Others just shook their heads and mumbled in sadness about the lost souls who would never know God.  However, a muscular man with dark stubble and wild hair spoke from the crowd.
“Are you sure that’s the temperature of Hell?” he asked.
Andrei’s brow furrowed.  He was used to the religious crowd simply gawking in wonder.  “I beg your pardon?”
“How would you know the temperature of Hell unless you’d been there?”
“Of course I haven’t been there,” said Andrei.  “But this is the gateway.  We know that from the screams of those trapped inside.”
“You made that up,” snapped the man.  “Those noises were recorded on a sound stage.  They have nothing to do with the agony of the damned.”
Please don’t ruin my business, Andrei thought.  Aloud, he said, “How would you know?  You seem to be a skeptic who doubts our Lord.”
A pause.  “Would you like to truly hear their agony?”
Andrei felt his heart flutter.  “What?”
Another pause.  “Would you like to see their faces as they’re twisted into all sorts of perverted shapes?”
The air ran thick with silence.  Andrei figured that maybe he could reason with this skeptic and get him to stay quiet, or at least not cause Andrei to lose face – there was a lot of money at stake.
Andrei walked to the man and leaned in close.  “I don’t know what you’re pulling, but these people are trying to have a moving experience, and you’re intruding on that.  Please be quiet and we’ll refund half your fee.”
As the man’s voice came, Andrei felt a scorching wind against his cheek.
“You understand nothing of Hell.”
As he turned to look in the man’s eyes, Andrei drew a sharp breath.  The man’s(?) teeth were bared, looking sharp and needle-like through the beatific smile.  It reared back and tore a chunk from Andrei’s neck.
Andrei gurgled and collapsed.  A woman screamed as the crowd began to realize what had happened.  The brown sands around the crater ran red, and the demon turned to face them.

“You can stay and die now, or you can run and die later,” it growled.  “But know this – we have returned to reclaim our world.”  It picked up Andrei by the hair and drug him to the edge of the crater.  Its voice hummed on the wind.
In Inferno eieci te; nobis paritura mauris.”
As Andrei tumbled into the pit, his body exploded in a shower of black dust that erupted into the sky.  Heat from the crater rippled into the air and a loud gong reverberated through the landscape.
Screams ran through the crowd as they broke and tore into the surrounding darkness.  The demon raised its clawed hands into the air.  “This is our world once again.  Your pathetic and alien God has abandoned you.  Witness now our wrath.”

The demon shot chains from its hands and impaled a dozen members of the group.  As the rest continued to run, the demon welded his victims together into a tight ball and flung them into the smoldering crater.
“At last!” it screamed.  “At last we’re free!”
The black dust rising into the sky grew thicker and oily rain began to pelt the desert.  Mushrooms sprouted spontaneously across the landscape and the air shimmered with heat.  The crowd’s screams continued as the demon followed the rain into the night.
Cardinal Giuseppe Rossi looked out at the Council of Bishops.  His lined face had hardened in recent days as reports from Turkmenistan poured in.  The head of the Roman Curia, he knew he couldn’t show fear, but it affected him just as much as it apparently did the delegation that had assembled.
“We need to take a recommendation to His Holiness,” Rossi said.  “The decay surrounding Darvaza has grown and we have no way of knowing the damage until we send a team ourselves.”

The Archbishop of Paris, Julienne Dubois, said, “Our presence in Turkmenistan is limited, but every report I’ve seen talks of the demon influence spreading.  I suggest we coordinate with the Russian Orthodox Church and try to form a coherent response before the situation gets out of hand.”
“It’s already out of hand,” said Salvadore Batista, Archbishop of Rio de Jeneiro.  “We’ll have to call the Hunters we’ve trained and give them every tool at our disposal if we are to hold back the threat.  We should also consider notifying the various governments around the world – if the situation is as extreme as reports suggest, we’ll need all the help we can get.”
“Notifying the world at this stage is premature and possibly detrimental,” said Rossi.  “Knowledge of the demons could lead to societal collapse.  As to the Hunters, their expertise exists mostly in the realm of supernatural creatures that have to mask themselves through humanity.  With this threat being more open, I don’t know if they’ll be effective.”
“What choice is there?” asked Batista.  “They may be able to buy us time to develop a better response.”
“Do the Archives have anything that could explain this?” asked Archbishop Keeler of Baltimore.
“Perhaps,” Rossi replied.  “Several of the more ancient tomes speak of demons swept away by God, but they are incoherent.  Etchings taken during the Crucifixion make little sense without context of the time.”
“Time isn’t a luxury we appear to possess,” said Dubois.  “By some accounts, the plague is spreading 10 to 15 miles a day.  The town of Darvaza has already been overrun, and only its location has kept the western media from noticing.  That won’t last.”
Rossi exhaled slowly and steepled his fingers.  Finally, he said, “Very well.  I’ll recommend to the Pontiff that we send in an expedition of Hunters to buy us time while we scour the Archives for better insight.  We will also make preparations to notify various governments in the event that becomes necessary, although I pray God we won’t need to do it – the consequences of such could forever alter our society.”
Pete Rosenberg looked through his binoculars at the town of Ghadazakh.  Across the top of the buildings, flames lapped the horizon, and the screams were audible even at this distance.  The figures scurrying around the town were barely visible, but it looked like someone had kicked over an anthill.
He handed the binoculars to Charles Godwin, one of the other 40 Hunters the Vatican sent.  Pete couldn’t recall the last time that so many Hunters had been in one place.
“Think this is the real deal?” Pete asked.

Charles put the binoculars to his face.  “I don’t know.  They don’t call in such large numbers if it’s not something big.”
“They’ve never called in such large numbers,” Pete snorted.
“True.  I hope our weapons will work.  I’ve never taken on a demon in the open – they’ve all been in possessed bodies.  I’m used to dealing with normal minions like werewolves and the like, so this is a whole new ball game.”
Pete nodded and checked the clip of silver bullets for his M4 assault rifle.  It was full.  He also ensured the water level in the tank of holy water on his back was full, which it was.
Charles stowed the binoculars and said, “Let’s go.”
Their group made its way down the mountain road and through an ever thickening oily rain.  Pete felt like he was being caked in warm mud and kept his mouth shut so he wouldn’t swallow any.  As they got closer, the screams got louder.  Pete could see people running from whatever was in the town, including a woman who’d been stripped to nothing but torn underwear and was bleeding from her chest.

It didn’t take long for them to find the first demon.  It was perched on top of a fountain in the city square and hurling balls of fire at people as they ran.  Its needle-like teeth were evident when it smiled, and steam came from pores in its skin.

“Time to find out what effect we can have,” Pete muttered.  He carefully shouldered his weapon, aimed for the thing’s chest, and pulled the trigger.
It tumbled backwards over the fountain.  Pete ran through the crowd with a tube in his hand, ready to rain God’s sweet nourishment on this hated minion.  It was unconscious and lay at a distorted angle as Pete showered it with holy water.
He waited for the creature to dissolve, melt away, or otherwise disappear as others he’d used this on had done.  However, it simply lay motionless and dripping wet.  Pete started to bend down and find out if it was dead when he felt a sharp pain in his ankles.  He looked at his legs to see the demon’s claws piercing his skin.  When he peered into its face, he saw something that made his heart jump even further.
It had opened its eyes and was now smiling at him.
“Surprise!” it screamed.
Pete could feel blood flowing into his shoes as the demon withdrew its claws, stood up, and picked him up by the ears.  The last thing he remembered before passing out was the ashy color of its eyes.
“Wakey, wakey.”
Pete shook his head and tried to clear the fog in his brain.  The room was dark except for a single candle in the far corner.  There was a musty smell, and Pete felt a draft from a nearby broken window.  Ropes dug into his arms and legs from the chair he was tied to.  In the candlelight flickered a face from his nightmares.
The demon had needle-like teeth and stringy hair that looked like it hadn’t been washed in a month.  It popped its knuckles and smiled, ashy coal stare forcing Pete’s eyes to try and retreat further into his head.
“Where are my friends?” Pete demanded.
“Oh, those losers you brought?  Most are dead or running like scared rats.  Did you really think that your little toys stood any kind of chance against us?”  It chuckled.  “Maybe you were able to banish us or something when we couldn’t fully present, but the landscape has changed my friend, and your superstitious nonsense no longer has an effect.”
“Others will come for me,” Pete said, a little more bravely than he felt.  “Even if it’s too late for me, they’ll come for you.”
The demon’s voice was soft.  “I really hope so.  We need more blood to advance towards the next gate at Karymshina.  Let’s be honest – Turkmenistan ain’t the best place to find sacrifice, but we didn’t get to choose the location of the first gateway, so we’ll just keep drawing you in and use your blood to fuel our assault.”
Pete shivered in a way that had nothing to do with the draft.  He haltingly said, “God will stop you.”
Now the demon laughed hard and long.  “God?” he spat.  “You really don’t know what’s happened, do you?”
When Pete cocked his head at the demon and furrowed his brow, it continued, “You should learn what lies in the Archives of your Vatican.  Our history is etched in the Grimoire of Honorius Thebes, although probably of little contextual value to you.
“This was our world long ago.  We ruled the darkness, and creatures here bowed their will to us.  We’d even begun evolving our own native master race until your usurper of a God threw a rock at us and killed what we’d created.  Then he put you talking apes on top, and when we started showing you the way to greatness, he sent a carpenter to block our access and sealed us in the pits.  But you guys proved too much for even Him.”
“What are you talking about?” Pete asked.
The demon smiled again.  “He abandoned you.  He finally saw that you were a useless failure and not worth His time.  He wasn’t native to this world anyway, taking only what others had built.  However, He’s moved on to other pursuits, cracking the door for our return, which, of course, means the end of you.”
“I don’t believe you,” Pete stammered.
“That doesn’t matter,” snickered the demon.  “All that matters is the current state of affairs.  We still have a vision for this world, and it only involves humanity at the edges.”  It paused, firelight dancing in its eyes.  “Your souls will be the fuel used in our engines to re-master Creation.  Even at the maximum rate of 50,000 per day, it’ll still take us several centuries to undo the damage you’ve done to our planet.  A fortunate few will be consumed quickly and their suffering will be short, but those who aren’t yet ready to burn will wait in Hell, marinating so to speak.”
It pulled out a blade from its pocket and reared back.  “At least with God gone, you’ll know where your immortal soul is headed.”
Before the demon could strike, the roof exploded and a brilliant white beam of light focused on the creature.  It screamed, and the demon eventually crumbled like a pile of burnt leaves.  In its wake, a gentle looking man with a large forehead and shimmering white robe appeared.
The new arrival looked at Pete and smiled.  “I’m Stenorius, and I’m an angel.”
Pete stared at the angel, his faith returning.  “Thank God,” he breathed.  “I was beginning to worry.  Can you please cut me loose?”
Stenorius waved his hands and Pete was free.  He wanted to rush over and hug his savior, but Stenorius held up his hand.
"Don’t thank me yet.  The infestation has spread further than we thought, and there is hard work ahead.”
“What took so long?” Pete asked.
“Once God left, it took us a bit to figure out that the gateway at Darvaza had been opened, and even longer to determine the level of the demon advance.”
Pete felt his heart skip a beat.  “What do you mean God left.”
Stenorius looked ashamed but finally spoke.  “The demon wasn’t lying – God has become disillusioned.  He’s not so cruel as to exterminate you, but he’s apathetic and no longer wants to be involved.”
“So He’s just going to let the demons take us?  I thought He loved His children!”
“He does, but He doesn’t think He’s having an effect any longer, that His experiment in creating intelligent life has failed.  Humanity’s actions have given Him doubts, and He thinks that by continuing His association, your spirit will infect Him further.”
"If God left us, why are you here?” Pete asked.
“We’re here because we believe that humanity still has potential, and because we believe that a full display of that potential, as evidenced in this crisis, can draw God back to you.  He defeated the demons once, and He can do so again.”
“The demons mentioned something about that.  What did they mean?”
Stenorius looked back at the door.  “We need to go.  The battle will soon be joined.”
Pete pressed.  “Please.  I need to know.”
Stenorius exhaled and finally said, “He’s not from your world.  Your world was abandoned long ago by an unknown creator and the demons moved in.  But God saw what was happening and decided to create a better place.  He swept away the demons and placed Man at the top.  However, despite repeated chances, you’ve strayed from what He wanted and He has decided to move on.  If we can defeat the demons here, He may reconsider.”
Pete’s mind was swimming.  He paused to catch his breath, but Stenorius pulled him to the door.
“We need to go.  My brothers will be stronger than the enemy, but they have a great advantage of numbers.  We have to seal the first gateway and prevent others from being opened.  There are six remaining doors to Hell located around the world, from Toba to Yellowstone to Karymshina.  If the demons reach those portals and bring in more, the game is over.”
As they got outside, Stenorius picked Pete up and they began to fly over the towns burning below and towards a set of mountains in the distance.
“Where are we going?” Pete yelled, wind rushing through his hair.
“To make our stand,” Stenorius shouted back.  “We’ve picked up as many of your church’s Hunters as we could, but the towns here are lost.  Once we slow them down, we can come back and re-focus on Darvaza.”
Pete waited in a rock crevasse and watched clouds roll in on the horizon.  He could already see the oily rain in the valley below and the mushrooms springing up in its wake.  What looked like a dust storm followed, but as it got closer, Pete saw it was thousands of demons charging.
The angels concealed themselves in rocks, clouds, even inside the Karymshina Volcano itself.  As the enemy moved up the mountain pass towards their objective, the angels struck.
A sheet of lightning came down at the back of the demon’s formation.  Bodies flew into the air as the enemy fell.  Next, angels hidden in the clouds hurled spears, impaling hundreds.  But they kept coming.
Pete stared at the demon approach, his heart plummeting at the sight of their numbers.  The other Hunters had been armed with technology beyond their understanding, and Pete knew they were mostly a symbolic presence.  Still, he’d take out as many as he could.
With as much strength as he could muster, Pete stood and hurled a golden spear at the approaching horde.  It flew further than Pete knew he had strength for and impaled a demon through the chest.  He pulled another golden pebble from the pouch Stenorius had handed him, watched it transform into another spear.  Once again he hurled it again at the enemy.
However, the demon numbers were simply too great and they scampered up the sides of the mountain.  Stenorius grabbed Pete by the scruff of his neck and threw him into the air where he was caught by another angel headed away from the battle.

In his head, Pete heard Stenorius say, “We’re going to collapse the volcano and try to kill as many as we can, but it’s going to take angelic sacrifice to create the necessary power.  Rally your nations and prepare them to fight.”
The last thing Pete saw before Karymshina faded into the distance was a bright burst of light as the side of the mountain caved in.  A moment later the sky lit up in bright orange.
The battles had been long and fierce, from Taupo in New Zealand, to Kagoshima in Japan, and across the Baekdu Mountain in China.  They were always preceded by the strange oily rains and the mildew and fungus it created.  Mankind rallied desperately to fight off the advance but seemed like it couldn’t even slow down the demonic horde.  However, in the waning days of the campaigns, the demons just seemed to stop and melt into the Earth.  Thunderous earthquakes shook the locations around the remaining gates, but the supervolcanos nearby didn’t erupt.  It appeared humanity had risen to the challenge, and many dared hope that God Himself had finally interceded.
As the battles died down and the demons appeared to be gone, the Pope announced he would hold mass in St. Peter’s Square with an important message God signaled He would be sending.
The Pontiff laid the Papal Tiara on the stand in his room.  He waited patiently for God to appear.  A nearby stand of candles was the only light.
The Pope kneeled at his alter and prayed, and he began to hear a triumphal chorus.  Soon, bright light from a source he couldn’t identify lit the Pope’s face.  The light coalesced into a shimmering ball of energy, and the energy took on the shape of a kindly old man’s face.
“Souls of Man,” the light intoned.  “You have fought bravely.  Your reward is at hand.”
The Pope gazed into the light.  “Is this the voice of God?”
“I am your Lord,” the voice said simply.
“What would you have me do Lord?”
“Draw closer,” it beckoned.  “I have instructions for you.  It is time we finished our work.”
The Pope gingerly approached the light and reached out his hand.  He felt a gentle tug as the light leaned in close.  Its breath touched the Pope’s cheek but suddenly felt like a scorching wind.  When the Pope drew back, the new face he gazed into wasn’t what he expected.
“Surprise!” said the demon through needle-like teeth.
The Vatican exploded in a shower of oily black smoke, and darkness fell across the planet as the remaining gateways opened.