Saturday, November 1, 2014

The Value of Hard-Earned Money

I just canceled my smartphone’s wireless internet package. I’ll still be able to connect through my home wifi, but no longer will I be able to browse the net and buy and download eBooks while on the road. My phone’s GPS is also gone, meaning I’ll have to rely on paper maps again. Undeniable inconveniences, but I lived the first quarter century of my life without these technologies, so I’m sure I’ll survive it.
Financially, it means 65 dollars less per month on my phone bill. That, I finally came to the conclusion, was worth the inconvenience.
What made me see this light was, strangely enough, the mild increase in my book sales this year.
My series isn’t selling at any rate good enough to quit my day job even if I wanted to (which I don’t), but nevertheless it is selling much better compared to last year. And I think that watching these sales have made me much more tuned in to the value of money.
Even after I quit my previous job and went into self-employment, running my own EFL school, I was nevertheless getting a single salary at the end of each month. A lump sum of money from which I would pay my utility bills and mortgage, save a bit and squander a lot.
I’m not the most mathematically oriented person around, so as long as I stayed in the black, I was never too aware of how much money I was really spending on entertainment and conveniences. 
Entertainment and conveniences are important parts of modern life too, and I don’t feel particularly guilty about spending money on myself. But still, 65 dollars a month for wireless internet begins to feel a little too far on the extravagant side when you break that down into numbers of books. Considering that eBook novels these days cost an average of something like 6.50 dollars or so, that’s 10 books worth of money. And looking from the royalty receiving point of view, I’d have to sell more than that since Amazon and other stores take a (justified) cut of my sales.
Maybe I’m just getting stingy in my old age, but that’s not such a bad thing in the modern world’s increasingly unstable economy. I live in Japan, arguably one of the richest countries in the world, but that doesn’t make me personally a rich person. Living costs here are pretty steep.
I just never expected my self-pubbing side business to open my eyes to my personal finances in a way that, in all these years, my main day job couldn’t.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Halloween in Tokyo

Nearly two years into this publishing-under-a-penname thing, I’ve decided that it’s finally time for me to come out of hiding and post a picture of myself on this blog.
So here it is:
Yeah. That’s me in the gorilla suit.
Some kids kept their distance, but most came up to me and shook my hand, while a few even gave me (or rather, the gorilla) big bear hugs. Yes, it’s all cuddly, fluffy fur on the outside, but in the suit I’m a sweaty, sticky, yucky mess.
But hey, it’s Halloween.
No, it’s not the 31st. Not yet. But here in Japan, we don’t have any trick-or-treating like I enjoyed back when I was a kid growing up in rural California. There are plenty of Halloween costume parties for teenagers and above, but younger kids can’t go candy hunting on Halloween night. 
Therefore, in order to allow our students, their friends, and the local community to get a mild feel for the American Halloween culture, every year my EFL school hosts a kids’ Halloween event on the last Sunday of October. The teachers all dress up for a day. We block traffic out of the main shopping street nearest our school and ask the owners of the various little shops to let the kids trick-or-treat at their doors. In addition, we run Halloween-themed crafts, story-telling, a short parade, and even a very small haunted house.
This year the event fell on the 26th, a cloudy but nevertheless warm, windless day, not at all conducive to wearing a fur jumpsuit, thick gloves and a stuffy plastic mask. But last year I wore a giant banana suit, so this year I was determined to play the gorilla. (First-world problems, I know...)
Our Halloween event has gotten progressively bigger each year, and this year, though I wasn’t counting heads through the slits in my mask, I would guess that more than 300 kids took part. Aside from a few tears in the haunted house, everyone looked like they had a great time. And despite spending four hours in a sauna suit, I did too. So a few more pictures from the event:
There are so many writers out there hoping to someday quit their day jobs and make a living writing full-time. While I fully sympathize with this sentiment (some of these people have absolutely horrid day jobs), nevertheless I am not one of them. I enjoy my day job too much for that. Not just events like this, but my day-to-day as an English teacher is lots of fun too. Anything can and does happen.
So will I ever start writing again? Well, that’s a post for another time.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Two Fantasy Series

I was cleaning out the attic the other day when I came across a box containing two sets of Japanese novels that I had read in my teen years. Two series of books, both set in fantasy worlds.

The first was the Record of the Lodoss War by Ryo Mizuno. It was a fairly serious-minded sword-and-sorcery tale of warring nations featuring everything one could ask for in the genre, from high-elves to dragon riders.

I had originally seen the animated series, and that led me to the books, which I enjoyed far more, not only because of its greater depth, but because it was one of the first fantasy stories I read that truly sympathized with the “evil side.” There were a number of related graphic novels, video games and table-top RPG replays, though I never read/played any of these. Actually, I think the games and RPG replays might have come before the novelizations, but I’m not sure. In any case, the novels were enough for me, and I feared that reading this story in other formats would hurt my internal images.

The second set of novels in my old attic box, though also from the fantasy genre, was a far more light-hearted series: Mishio Fukazawa’s Fortune Quest, which is the story of a band of misfit adventurers who consistently fail to seek out danger while traversing their fantasy world on a rundown mechanized hippopotamus with a toddler elf and puppy-size baby dragon in tow. No, really.

In many ways parodying the high-fantasy setting, nevertheless this series had its special moments among the oft-comical plots. I had read this series after Record of the Lodoss War, and compared to Ryo Mizuno’s somewhat darker tale, Fortune Quest was a breath of fresh, fun air.

Two series of books that had inspired me to write my very first novel.

A high-fantasy novel.

In Japanese.

Japanese isn’t exactly my first language when it comes to writing. Oh, I can speak it well enough to hide my American side on the phone, but writing is a different matter entirely.

But at that age (I believe I was 16 when I started writing), it didn’t matter what I was good at. It only mattered what I wanted to do, and I wanted to write it in Japanese. It wasn’t like I was planning on getting it published or anything. I just wanted to write the story for myself.

The result was a mish-mash of Ryo Mizuno and Mishio Fukazawa’s worlds: part serious, part light-hearted high fantasy. This might have been a nice mix if only I was a more experienced writer. Alas, I was right: the story would never be published. It was an unoriginal good versus evil tale that read like it was written by a teenager who didn’t have mastery of the language.

But writing that story, which in length would have been about 200 pages, taught me something very special. It taught me that stories are written. This may seem like a fairly obvious revalation, as everyone knows that stories are written. But to experience that firsthand was something entirely different.

Writing that novella prepared me for the day, more than a decade and a half later, that I would start writing my first novel in English.

And so I owe a fair bit to these two authors whose fine works helped pave my path.

Yet, as I look up Record of the Lodoss War online today, I see that while the graphic novels have been translated into English, the actual word-novels are nowhere to be found. Most mentions of Record of the Lodoss War in English center around the anime series and manga. And of Fortune Quest, almost nothing. It doesn’t even have a Wikipedia entry in English mentioning its existence.

Kind of sad, really, because I think a western audience would have enjoyed them very much.

I certainly did.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Steven Whibley’s Impact

According to Amazon, the latest installment of Steven Whibley’s Dean Curse Chronicles, Impact, was released at the end of May of this year. The only reason I hadn’t read it until now is because I was unaware that it was already out. After reading and enjoying the first two books immensely, I had been eagerly awaiting this third book, and I ended up reading it in one sitting.

It’s not often that I write about another author’s book here. I haven’t posted anything about the first two Dean Curse books. After all, this is my writer’s blog, not a reader’s blog.

But Steven Whibley’s Impact has a special place in my heart, and not just because I’m a fan of Whibley’s writing. The book covers of The Dean Curse Chronicles and my Psionic Pentalogy actually share the same cover designer, Pintado. And this is no mere coincidence: Back in 2013 when I was looking for a professional designer to remake my book covers, I had come across Whibley’s Dean Curse series, and seeing the amazing artwork on those books, I instantly knew that I had to get the same designer for mine.

Back then, only the first two books of Whibley’s Dean Curse Chronicles had been published, but Whibley already had Pintado create the covers for his third and fourth books, Impact and Plunge (not pictured above because it’s still prerelease). I loved how Pintado handled the silhouettes and lighting effects on all of the Dean Curse covers, but particularly Impact. When I contacted Pintado about making my covers, we discussed the Impact cover at length because I was looking for a similar feel for the cover of Wild-born.

I wasn’t looking for a carbon copy, though. Far from it.

To me, the cover for Impact has a strong “hero” feel to it, which is certainly right for Whibley’s book, but for my Wild-born, I wanted a more desperate look, so I asked Pintado to draw the children running away from the camera, not toward it. I also asked for a redder hue instead of Impact’s orange, but this was mainly because my mind was already set on red for the Wild-born cover. And, of course, the background was a forest as opposed to an exploding fighter jet.

The end result was so different from Impact that probably no one would see these covers as related in any way:

Though my Wild-born cover went live first (as Impact hadn’t been published yet), nevertheless Impact was the starting point for Pintado’s Wild-born design, and looking closely, you might see some mild similarities remaining in the lighting effects and placement of the elements.

As to the actual content of Impact (which I just finished reading) I can honestly say that I enjoyed this third book at least as much as the first two. At a print length of just 140 pages, Impact is a short read, action-packed and unrelenting. You know it’s a good book when your only upset is that there aren’t more pages.

Unlike many paranormal books (including mine) that feature many different psychic powers, the entire Dean Curse series revolves around a single power, if it can even be called that: the ability to see - and possibly prevent - impending death. Those with this gift have no other special abilities, paranormal or otherwise, to help them save lives. This is in no small part what makes this series so special. And Whibley pulls no punches in his storytelling. For Dean, who is still new to his unpredictable power, failure is as frequent as success, and with each potentially savable life lost, he and his friends are faced with that most agonizing question: what if?

But amidst the tragedies, they also have their successes: lives saved that would, without their intervention, have no doubt been lost. And Whibley manages to put a fair bit of mild humor into his teenage characters without letting their antics become annoying, adding just enough comic relief to balance the oft-desperate action sequences. This is probably what I find most enjoyable about Whibley’s writing: that most delicate balance that makes for an exciting, serious yet wholly enjoyable ride.

I tend not to sign up for mailing lists, so I’m going to have to be more attentive to Amazon next time and get Plunge as soon as it comes out.

Find all of Steven Whibley’s books on his Amazon author page here.
And Whibley’s blog here.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Two Years Ago, This Month

Give or take a month, it was around this time in 2012 that I finished writing Guardian Angel, and in doing so brought to a close the Psionic Pentalogy nearly five years after I first began writing Wild-born.
I still remember how utterly fulfilling it felt writing those very last lines of the final, final chapter. And how devastatingly empty. For something in me had ended along with the series.
Or so I thought until I began the next journey: that of proofreading, editing, and publishing this series. Weeks of rewriting lines and paragraphs to deal with inconsistencies between the books, closing plot holes and weeding out typos were then followed by learning e-book formatting and designing covers (yes, those horrible self-made ones that my series began with). 
And then, in December 2012, with little fanfare, I began releasing the books on Amazon.
From then until now, I have been much more a publisher than a writer, scouring the internet for free sites to advertise my books and working to gather those all-important first reviews which would allow me to get featured in larger book advertising sites. Being an indie doesn’t mean you’re a writer without an agent. It means you are the agent, and you have to be willing to learn that side of the business as well.
Fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately), I had time to be my own agent because after all those years writing the Psionic Pentalogy, I was (and still am, to some extent) all written-out. 
Oh, I absolutely enjoyed writing those books, no question about that. But at the same time, my writing years were both physically and emotionally draining. Physically because I lacked sleep and frequently overate, emotionally because the darned story often stayed stuck in my mind when my mind should have been elsewhere, namely focused on my EFL students.

A real professional writer could no doubt deal with these things a lot better than I did. But I’m no professional. I’m just a hobby writer, and incapable of separating my writing from the rest of my life. For me, it was the psychological equivalent of being stuck on a roller-coaster ride 24-7.
So after that experience, I was in no hurry to start writing again, and so I had the time to take on the agent-side work, which, though not as fun, was easier on the heart.
But now, two years after Guardian Angel, I find myself feeling another story bubbling up inside me. 
Alas, it is not another “psionic” novel. Though some readers have expressed their hopes that I will write another book in this world setting, for my part, the story has ended where it should. While I can’t promise that I’ll never expand on the Psionic Pentalogy world, if ever I do, it will probably be with an all-new cast, with perhaps a few minor appearances by the previous characters. Those that are still alive, anyway.
Instead, this new story that has been bugging my mind for the last few weeks is more of a fantasy, not urban or paranormal. It’s still generally YA, but for the moment, it feels lighter and freer than the Psionic series. More episodic, far less desperate. I really can’t say any more than that at the moment. I can’t even promise (assuming I actually write it) that I’ll publish it under this pen name, which, after all, is inexorably tied to the Pentalogy.
For me, writing is a bit like falling in love. You can neither choose to nor choose not to. It happens, and when it does, you have to be willing to go with it and possibly suffer some heartache. Because if you don’t, you’ll definitely suffer even more.
So if and when this new story bugs me enough, I’ll have no choice but to write it. And I’m sure I’ll enjoy it as much as (and hopefully more than) the last one.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Good News and Other News

It has rained off and on for the last week in Tokyo, and I feel so much better for it. The summer heat has, for the most part, dissipated, though the screaming cicadas don’t seem to notice. Oh well, their time is almost up anyway.
Just dropping in some bits of personal news, both good and... not-so-good, though I won’t go as far as to say “bad.”
Let’s see... September 1st is the day the Kindle Book Review announces its category finalists for their 2014 Best KindleBook Awards contest. I’m sorry to report that no, Wild-born didn’t make the list two years running. 
Though I’ll admit that I’m disappointed, it’s not all that bad, really: I can still keep the badge from the 2013 contest, and I look forward to reading some of the winning titles on the 2014 list.
Meanwhile, I’m happy to report that I’ve finalized my contract with Popcorn Press for the creation of the Psionic Pentalogy chapter setting to be included in Lester Smith’s D6XD6 game book, to be published later this year. My only current worry is that the chapter settings are limited to 2500 words including a sample adventure, and that doesn’t sound like very many words to me. But I’m sure it’ll be fun to write, and perhaps working within the confines of a small word count will help me further refine my writing.
And one more piece of good news: I recently got my second acceptance from Bookbub for promoting my permafree Wild-born.
At the present, Bookbub is arguably the hardest promotion to get, and hands down the most effective. A single Bookbub ad can easily net 20 times the number of downloads on a freebie than other promotional sites, but their selection process is highly... selective.

Many writers have to apply multiple times before their books are accepted, and I was no different in this regard: I was rejected repeatedly during 2013, and I only landed my first Bookbub placement on March 18th of this year. It took a fair number of good reviews as well as my new custom-made book covers to convince Bookbub to take a chance with me, and thanks to their ad, my book sales picked up very nicely over the next two months as readers worked their way through my series.
But Bookbub will only feature the same book once every six months. My first ad with them was on March 18th, so I was counting the days to September 18th when Wild-born would be eligible again. Getting restless, I applied a few days ago, asking Bookbub to put my ad any-when they liked after the 18th.
But the thing about Bookbub is that having a book accepted once is no guarantee that they’ll take it again. I had been bracing for the rejection email, which, in accordance with their reapplication policy, would mean I’d have to wait another four weeks before trying again. But lo and behold! I was accepted on my first try this time.
The new ad is scheduled to be included in Bookbub’s September 26th email, which is only one week over their once-every-six-months policy. For this I count myself exceptionally lucky, as this puts my book right at the start of the winter reading season.
Between Bookbub and the cross-promotional effects of Lester Smith’s upcoming game book, I have a feeling my works will reach a fair number of new readers. Of course, in my world, a “fair number” is whatever number I get. Though sales have picked up this year compared to last, I’ve yet to confirm 1000 sales on Guardian Angel, meaning that perhaps fewer than 1000 people have read through my entire series. But I’m getting pretty close to that number now, so hopefully sometime this year.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Returning to Japan

Just got back to Tokyo yesterday. Wow, what a week!
Through some connections at the English school where I used to teach, I was asked to accompany a medical doctor and his wife to the UK as a Japanese-English translator. The doctor wished to visit several important locations in and around Belfast and London to do research on... well, I’m not sure it’s okay for me to talk about that on the internet before the doctor writes and releases his own research paper. But without going into details about his work, I can say that our trip included a visit to the Ulster Museum in Belfast, the Armagh Observatory, the British Museum and Natural HistoryMuseum in London, and Stonehenge. Additionally, in our free time we visited a number of art museums and tourist spots.
Talk about a dream job!
Hour-wise, I only worked about two days worth. For this, I was paid the equivalent of 150USD a day for eight days, and all travel expenses fully paid, including some very nice restaurants and four-star hotels, and even a chauffeured Mercedes for our day-trip to Stonehenge.
The airplane seats were economy, but I’m used to that. In fact, the economy-class seats were the only part of this trip that felt normal for me. Everything else was a dream. This was my very first trip to the UK, and it was everything I imagined and much, much more. I wasn’t exactly culture-shocked, but there were some things that took a little getting used to, such as the self-service cash registers.
A couple of random pictures I took:
Something was wrong with the display on the flight in, but I didn’t call the flight attendant over it.

The first day was a near-full day of translation at the Armagh Observatory. Though I had a number of shorter translation jobs throughout the trip, my work at this observatory was the primary reason I was asked to go on this trip, so despite my jetlag, I gave it my very best efforts. My employers later assured me that they were happy with my performance, which greatly eased my mind considering how much they paid to have me here.
Later, in London and off-duty, I finally got to see this one up close.

And this one too.

And Stonehenge. Still can’t believe I got paid to come here.

Or to see this. Wait, is that me in the reflection?

Never mind the lions. What’s with this chicken in Trafalgar Square? One mystery I never solved.

The weather was apparently warm by UK standards for this season, but a couple of notches down from Tokyo’s temperature, which was a most welcome respite. On our last day in London, I had a full day off and was free to explore at my leisure. And that was the first day of the Prudential RideLondon event that turned the whole of the city into a massive cycling course.

 Wish I had brought my recumbent...

And then, the next day, after 11 straight hours jammed into another economy seat, the hot, humid blast of air on my face at Narita International Airport reminded me that summer in Japan is far from over.
I will truly miss the UK. The people are friendly, the cities and towns as clean and safe as any human-populated place can get, the country scenery and cityscapes truly breathtaking.
But in the end, Dorothy was right. There really is no place like it. As long as I have air-conditioning.
I’m also very happy to finally report some slightly older news: My plane didn’t have WiFi capabilities so unfortuntately I couldn’t join Lester Smith’s kickstarter countdown party, but nevertheless the project ended with an amazing 11,456USD in pledges for the creation of Lester’s D6XD6 CORE RPG game book. I am now in the process of working with Lester to set up the chapter setting of my Psionic Pentalogy to be included in this project. More about that in weeks to come.
And finally, on a much sadder note, I read today that one of my all-time favorite actors, Robin Williams, died in an apparent suicide. There’s not one performance of his in drama or comedy that I didn’t love. I could write a separate and very long blog post just about Robin Williams, but the internet is churning today with people doing just that, and I believe everything that needs to be said is being said, so I will keep it short. His passing is a painful reminder of how deep the trenches of depression can run. I can only wish him peace and his family the strength to overcome.