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Where I’ve Been

This picture will now accompany every post that’s all about me. That should keep people from reading it.

When I initially built this website I had a goal to update the blog twice per week. I (mostly) kept to that the first year. Now halfway through my second year of maintaining the site, my goal was to just update once per week, as I knew balancing a newborn, my dayjob, and my actual writing would be a challenge.

For a while I was doing okay. But then… well… choices had to be made.

Writing blog posts is actually a lot of work for me, and I don’t think I’m particularly good at them. I’ve spent a lot of time recently reading through Chuck Wendig’s TerribleMinds archive. His archive begins around 2012 and at that point he had already been blogging for something like ten years. Amazingly, for years he had new posts up five days per week. A combination of writing advice, life events, personal news, opinion, and guest posts. While he did that he wrote several novels, started self-publishing, wrangled an agent, got traditionally published, and had a kid. The sheer amount of work he put into his success is impressive. It’s taken me a while, but I’ll never be that prolific.

There are lots of reasons for that. I don’t find myself all that unique or interesting, so throwing up blog posts I find worthwhile is a struggle. I’m not as transparent about my opinions as other bloggers (although I probably should be–to this day the two most frequented blog posts are Is the Forever War Homophobic? and Christopher Nolan and Smart Movies for Dumb People). And, most importantly, I can’t justify the time it takes me to blog over writing short stories and novels, spending time with my family, or going out to experience the world (inasmuch as one can experience the world during a never-ending pandemic–get your shit together, America).

This isn’t a blog post to announce I’m no longer blogging. I’m just re-prioritizing and holding myself less accountable for constantly missing my weekly deadlines. If an opportunity presents itself where I can get back on that schedule, I absolutely will. I have enough data now to know what youse like to read from me (mostly hot takes and the “My Favorite Stories” series). In the grand scheme of things, though, blogging isn’t as important as storytelling. So that’s where my focus is for now.

Along those lines, I hope to have some exciting announcements soon. I just finished editing a short story collection, am in the midst of revising a novel, and hope to have two more works ready for publication next year. I do plan to start posting vignettes again. I owe you twelve on the year, which means I’m five behind right now. To catch up I’ll need to post two or three per month the rest of the year. That will be a fun challenge. I may already have a few primed for launch.

Self-Publishing: The Cover

This is the final cover. If you like it, why not own one? It comes with words behind it, which is a great value.

Probably the most frequently heard advice in self-publishing circles is that you need a great cover. Something that stands out from the crowd. People are, after all, visual creatures. The first thing anyone will notice is your cover. In that sense, it should be eye-catching as well as communicate tone and some sort of substance. That’s why, for ANH NGUYEN AND THE DISCORDIAN, I worked with Damonza to create the cover seen above.

As a reminder, this is the cover my wife and I created last year when I put a few chapters on Wattpad:

I mean, eh…

It’s honestly not an awful cover. It’s visually interesting and communicates a bit of the substance of the novella. However, the tone is all wrong. The title and cover design would make one think this is some sort of thriller, not a satire with elements of magical realism.

When I reached out to Damonza I had to fill out a questionnaire about my book. To even get started they needed the following:

  • Description of the book
  • Key elements of the book that might be a part of the cover. For this I wrote, “Discordianism and Buffalo, NY, are major aspects of the story. I prefer symbolism and a minimalist design and would like to avoid using models on the cover. Key elements include: Five Fingered Hand of Eris; Buffalo, NY; Hodge Podge; smoke illuminated against neon light
  • Links or examples of other covers I like. I sent three alternate covers for Haruki Murakami’s AFTER DARK, which was a big influence on my novella.
  • Blurb for the back cover.
  • Paperback trim size.
  • Final formatted page count. I didn’t have this available right away, and actually screwed it up when I did get it.
  • Paper color.
  • How I’d be printing the paperback.

This is a lot of information to know if you haven’t done this before. I wasn’t familiar with trim sizes, had no formatted page count, and hadn’t written a strong blurb. So I had to get to work before even submitting the application.

I was able to figure most of it out except for the page count. This will come back later, but I hadn’t formatted the book and since I own a copy of Scrivener, wanted to do it myself. I told this to Damonza, and the designer that was assigned to my book (Robynne) said that it wasn’t necessary for the front cover, but they would need it for the paperback cover.

Within a week she got me two covers to choose from:

I liked both, but felt the one on the right better matched the tone and content of the book. So we set about revising it. I asked to pull back the focus on Buffalo as a whole, and to narrow in on the specific locations that Anh and Amy visit in the story. Then, I asked that the red from the first cover be incorporated into the second cover somehow. I also asked to see variants on colors and fonts, as I wasn’t quite sure what I was looking for. Robynne was great throughout and provided me with plenty of options to choose from while we narrowed down the look.

As you can see, we went through quite a few variations on the idea until I was able to settle on the final cover. Once we got there, then it was time to do the back cover. Again, this was an iterative process, with my mostly asking for elements to be added until we got here:

Looks great, right? As far as I was concerned, we were done. But there was a problem–I had formatted the paperback version of the book wrong and so gave Robynne the wrong page count. Which meant that the cover was the wrong size. The error I made was compiling the book as an 8×11 document instead of the 5.25×8 paperback book I wanted. When I reformatted properly, I nearly doubled the page count.

Which meant Robynne had to resize the cover. But, because the book was now well over 100 pages, it meant we could do a spine. In all, things worked out, but it was a dumb mistake that led to extra work for all of us.

I’m ecstatic about the cover. I think it works perfectly for the story, is eye-catching, and does a great job selling the story. In all, I’d highly recommend Damonza if you decide to go the same route.

Self-Publishing: The Editor

As an aspiring author, it’s difficult to know how good your work actually is. There are writer’s groups and beta readers, but you’re generally reliant on your peers (i.e., other unpublished authors or non-writers) for that, which can lead to mixed results. I knew that if I wanted ANH NGUYEN AND THE DISCORDIAN to be as good as it could be, I had to hire a professional editor.

In early April of 2019 I had submitted my query for THE INHABITORS, my first novel, to a Twitter competition called #RevPit. Essentially, #RevPit pairs aspiring authors with seasoned editors. Everything is done on a volunteer basis for the editors, which is pretty amazing to be honest. That’s a lot of time to work with someone for no real gain.

Anyway, I found out about this near the deadline and threw together a pitch for my three chosen editors. I wasn’t picked by any of them, but one, Sione Aeschliman (pronounced Ash-lemon) did send me a few paragraphs of feedback on my query. Not expecting anything, I was surprised to receive it. The feedback, as short as it was, really helped me to think about the story. I kept zir in mind for when I knew I would want to work with a professional editor.

Last year was that time. In November I reached out to Sione and asked if ze’d be willing to take me on. After reviewing my logline and the first ten pages of the manuscript to get a sense of whether or not ze would be a good fit, Sione agreed. Ze sent me a contract that outlined zir rate, what to expect from the read, and the timelines with which I could expect feedback. Once I agreed to those terms I sent off the novella.

I was nervous. I really felt like if Sione hated it, or felt like it wasn’t well written (considering ze was reading something like the fourth draft), then I’d have to at least consider whether or not to continue pursuing this dream. It’s unlikely I’d have given up completely (I don’t think that’s in my nature), but it would have given me pause.

Within a month I received Sione’s edit letter–10 pages of detailed feedback. Ze broke it out into three major sections:

  • General thoughts on the story and a list of zir favorite lines. I really appreciated this, as it did wonders for my confidence that I’m not actually a terrible writer.
  • Must-do suggestions to improve the story. Obviously, any suggestions from an editor to an author are just that–suggestions. But Sione felt strongly that these things needed to be addressed in order for the story to be as strong as possible. I agreed with zir and did my best to address those concerns.
  • Nice-to-have suggestions that Sione felt would improve aspects of the story, but weren’t as critical as the “must-do” ones.

Once I had a chance to review Sione’s feedback, we scheduled a one-hour video call for me to ask questions and seek clarifications. I sent over my list of questions in advance, broken into questions pertaining to this story and questions that I wanted answers for pertaining to my career (after all, I’ve never even met someone actively working in the publishing industry before). Sione answered all of my questions to the best of zir ability, bounced around ideas on how to fix some of the issues ze pointed out, and ended the call by getting to know me a bit.

What I found most valuable about this process was the way in which Sione identified my strengths and weaknesses as a writer. Ze understood what I was trying to do and tailored zir feedback to that. In the process ze helped me to realize areas of my skillset I need to pay more attention to. For example, because I come from a screenwriting background I emphasize visual and auditory description over any of the other senses. There are five in total, did you know that? Prose benefits from a sense (pun intended) of them all.

I don’t believe Sione is taking clients at the moment, as ze is busy on zir own project: Inclusive Future Magazine. I recommend you contribute to the Kickstarter. You can also follow Sione on Twitter @writelearndream.

Why I Self Published

Buy my book. (Please.)

In 2019 I wrote a novella. It was a fun little project based that I wasn’t sure I’d do anything with. But, as I wrote and rewrote and edited and then rewrote some more, I felt like I had something pretty good. Last year I decided to play around with Wattpad, so I posted a few chapters (until I realized that I needed to rewrite some of it again and stopped).

The story was never meant to be more than ~25,000ish words. That posed a problem for me. It’s probably the most publishable thing I’ve ever written in terms of quality if not content (it’s not exactly mainstream–I was heavily inspired by Haruki Murakami’s brand of weird). But something that short as a debut would never gain traction with agents or publishers. So, already that pushed me toward self-publishing as my only real option if I wanted to get this in the hands of readers.

But I also saw it as an opportunity. For a long while I’ve wanted to be a “hybrid author,” or an author that is both self-published and traditionally published. My thinking is that I would write stand-alone novels and maybe short story collections for the traditional market, and release weird little novellas and less mainstream series as a self-published writer. So, with this novella that I’m quite proud of I decided to take the opportunity to learn how to self-publish.

It’s not hard! It’s also not super easy, and I made a few mistakes that cost me time and money. I’ll go into more depth about those in upcoming posts on working with an editor, working with a cover designer, and working on Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing platform.

My ultimate goal is to put myself in a position where I can be a full-time writer. As I get older that gets more complicated. I mean, in just the past year I’ve added a house and a child to my life. Who knows what’s next? Author Nicholas Erik has a great resource on his site on book marketing for self-published authors. There, he describes his theory of the “Indie Trifecta of Success.” Essentially, it’s a pyramid where the base is productivity (how much content are you generating?), the middle is craft (how good is your writing?), and the tippy-top of the pyramid is marketing (how are you finding readers?).

The common wisdom is that to be a successful indie (re: self-published) author you need a huge backlist of work that is available to buy. You want someone to read your work, like it, and look to see what else of yours they can buy. For the past year and a half or so a large focus of mine has been just that. The vignettes I write every month help me to hit the bottom two tiers of the pyramid. I’m generating content I can reuse later while also practicing my craft. ANH NGUYEN AND THE DISCORDIAN is my first attempt at generating income from my writing. The key now is to up the productivity while continually improving my craft so that I can publish more in the future. At that point, I’ll have multiple products with which to market.

In short, self-publishing ANH NGUYEN AND THE DISCORDIAN is the first of many steps toward becoming a full-time writer. I’ll still pursue traditional publishing as part of my goal of being a “hybrid author,” but for now going indie gives me the most control, most ROI, and is the most fun I can have with it.

Why Is My Protagonist Vietnamese?

It’s long been a topic of discussion in literary circles: Should a straight white man (hey, that’s me!) write about other races? Is it cultural appropriation to do so?

I had to ask myself (and my wife) this question while writing ANH NGUYEN AND THE DISCORDIAN. My wife was uncomfortable with the idea until she read the most of the book, and there was a period of time when I considered trunking the manuscript out of fear that I’d fucked up.

Writing about races and experiences outside of your own is a tricky thing. It’s difficult to do and has been done poorly too many times to count. For a long time white people have been the dominant voice in our culture and, because of that, have often misrepresented or straight-up villainized other races and cultures.

Despite my own misgivings and worries, I decided to go through with writing my novella with a Vietnamese protagonist. There are a few reasons why:

  • Diversity matters. I want to see books in the world that are about people other than white guys. Does that mean I should be the one writing them? Eh… maybe, maybe not. I think it depends on how I approach it and how respectfully I execute. In Anh’s case, he is a mixed first generation American (like my own son), and I purposefully played down the “otherness” of his nationality.
  • There are themes I want to explore in my writing that can’t be done with a White protagonist: Without making Anh a race other than White I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to discuss racism as I do in the novella. His companion throughout the story, Amy, is a White woman who isn’t racist herself, but enables racism by turning a blind eye to it. If Anh was also a White person, he wouldn’t be able to point out the micro aggression and ignorance that follows minorities around.
  • I want to write about Americans. To my point above, I feel it’s okay to write about any race from the perspective that they’re American. Now, does that mean the experience of a Creole-speaking African American in Louisiana is accessible to me? No. Not at all. And I wouldn’t attempt that without a lot of research and sensitivity readers. Even then, I’m not sure I’d be comfortable. That said, there are plenty of American experiences I do understand that need not be bound by race. Those stories are accessible to me and ones that I want to tell.
  • Anh’s full name is a pun. This was important to me. Amy’s name is a pun, too.

I’m still learning about how to approach writing about people and experiences outside of my own. I’m probably not always going to get it right, if ever. But I also think it’s important to try for the reasons I described above (except the last one–that’s a one time deal).

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