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.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Counting Down (from 30,000 feet)

It’s hard to believe that it has already been 26 days since Lester Smith’s Kickstarter began, but here we are on the last 24 hours to the project deadline. I was somewhat skeptical about the goals when this project started, but I’ve got to hand it to him. The total amount of pledges was pretty much exactly what his original projection prophesized: 10,000 dollars in 26 days. At the time of this writing, it’s at $9301, but I’m pretty confident it’ll break the 10K milestone before the deadline, and hopefully hit a few more milestones beyond that.

And so I’m tickled pink to prematurely announce that my Psionic Pentalogy world will be joining many other talented authors’ worlds in this D6 game book which will be released sometime later this year. (As to the milestones that unfortunately won’t be reached by tomorrow’s deadline, it appears that many or all of these worlds will still be released as separate packages at a later time.)

This was my first time to watch a Kickstarter campaign run, and one of the things that really caught my attention was the geographical locations of the backers. Not all participants reveal their locations, and the majority of those that do are in the USA, but pledges have come from just about everywhere, from Chile to Slovakia to Taiwan and everywhere in between and not in between. The list even shows at least one backer right here in Tokyo (besides myself).

And with the funding campaign drawing to a close, I look forward to the next step of this journey: writing up my world for the game book and awaiting its publication.

Will Lester’s book look something like this?

Probably much better, actually, especially the hardbound version.
Normally, I would wait until AFTER the project ended and the final numbers were in before posting this victory dance, but I won’t be able to post anything on this blog immediately after tomorrow’s deadline because I’m currently on another almost-as-exciting countdown...
I am now also less than 24 hours away from a flight to the UK: my very first trip to Belfast and London.
Last-minute summer plans have me working one week as a traveling translator for a small team of Japanese researchers who want to visit a number of locations in the UK. Among our scheduled stops is a place I’ve always dreamed of going: Stonehenge.
More about this trip when I return. Back to the Kickstarter project.
Lester Smith has announced that he will be hosting an online countdown party on Google Hangouts from 2 hours before his Kickstarter deadline. Though I’ll be westbound in Russian airspace, belted to a middle seat in an aged jumbo’s economy cabin, I’m still hoping to join in the text chat if I can somehow establish an internet connection.
And once I’m back in Japan, I hope to work out the details of my contribution to the Core RPG world settings with Lester and his team.
So again, a big thank you to Lester Smith and Popcorn Press for including this still largely unknown author in this project!
See you at the party tomorrow... very hopefully.

Friday, July 18, 2014

The Limited Kindle Unlimited

Amazon recently announced their Kindle Unlimited program, in which US customers can read an unlimited number of books on Kindle for a flat $10-per-month fee. This is basically the same system as Scribd’s online library system. Authors whose books are read by Kindle Unlimited users are paid from Amazon’s global fund, much like it was with the Kindle Owner’s Lending Library (which allows 2 free reads a month and is still available for all non-US locations).

For voracious readers, Kindle Unlimited will be... well, feel free to fill in the blank with something very nice. And this is potentially good for indie writers too, because by allowing readers to read books at a monthly rate instead of making purchases, largely unknown writers (such as me) would get more readers willing to try out their books, which could lead to greater visibility and much better sales.

There’s a catch, however: For books to be included in Kindle Unlimited and the Kindle Owner’s Lending Library, they must be titles exclusive to the Amazon store. This is where Kindle Unlimited differs from Scribd, which does not require exclusivity to join.

This means that if I wanted to enroll my books in this program, I would have to pull out of all other sales channels first. Of course, this is exactly what Amazon wants: to utterly dominate the book market even more than they do now. But if I were to pull my books from other stores, readers who are currently in the middle of my series would suddenly be unable to get the rest of my books without switching platforms to Amazon. Again, this is what Amazon wants.

And the current reality is that Amazon already dominates the ebook market. From a royalties perspective, I make far more from Amazon sales than I do from all my other sales channels combined. Thus, pulling out of other stores and going all-in with Amazon could be a very profitable move for me too. Yes, Amazon and I could be very good buddies in this program.

Alas, sorry, but no. At least for the present time, my books won’t be a part of this deliberately limited program. Few though they may be, as long as I have people buying my books on other reading devices, I feel it would be an insult to my readers to coerce them into a different sales channel.

I am absolutely grateful to Amazon for its KDP program, which has allowed me to directly reach my readers in a way that was impossible during the not-so-long-ago days of traditional publishing. Nevertheless, I don’t owe Amazon any favors, and they’ve never done me any. We are not buddies. It’s a business relationship, nothing more.

Someday, if Amazon really does succeed in taking total control of the ebook market to the point were I’m not making any sales on other stores, then that’s when I’ll join.