Achievement Unlocked

You might have heard me complain about the ongoing gamification of, well, everything. But just because I don’t like it, you shouldn’t assume I don’t understand what makes it so appealing to so many people.

Which of these statements makes everyday life sound more interesting?

“I went to the drugstore and bought a battery.”


“Achievement unlocked! You have a battery!”

Yeah, exactly.

I’ll even go so far as to say there’s a place for gamification. But it’s just so easy to overdo it.

And there are some achievements that really, really shouldn’t be gamified.

Achievement unlocked! You have a screw-up!

Kinda sends the wrong message, doesn’t it? I have to admit it’s a fun award to give, though. So I’m officially giving one to Amazon.

It appears they have a database glitch. According to their website, The RagTime Traveler was released on Tuesday. I’m told they even sent emails to people who preordered it, letting them know that it was going to come out two months early. Oops.

No, TRTT hasn’t shipped. The release date is still June 6.

The book was originally scheduled for an April release, and several retailers initially listed it that way. And, honestly, I wouldn’t award Amazon a Screw-up Achievement if they had just gotten the date wrong. But after the initial error–which, again, was not their fault–they corrected the listing; until a couple of weeks ago it had June 6. So not only did they erroneously change the date (which nobody else has done) and send out those emails, but they’ve compounded the failure by putting the blame on the publisher. Instead of changing the date back, the order page now says “Usually ships within 1 to 2 months.” I suppose that’s accurate, but since that’s the same message they use for items that are out of stock, the implication is that it couldn’t possibly be a mistake on Amazon’s part.

Aside from the pleasures of playing the “Risk the Wrath of the Retail Rhinoceros” game, there is some good news. Preorders for TRTT ebooks are open. If you’ve been waiting for the electronic edition, now’s your chance. And even Amazon has the correct June 6 date for that release.

Links for your preordering pleasure (they’re also on the “About” page for the book):

There’s even more good news: Publishers Weekly, another of the big four names in professional reviews, has delivered its assessment of TRTT. And yes, it’s also a good one. “Lovers of Joplin and ragtime will enjoy this trip to the past.”

Now there’s an achievement I’m happy to unlock.


I’m a pantser.

No, no, not that. Get your minds out of elementary school.

There are two approaches to writing, at least when it comes to fiction: Pantsers and Plotters.

Plotters plan their books in excruciating detail. Before they write one word of the story, they’ve created backstories for all the characters; outlined the entire plot, chapter by chapter; and know the final word count–within reasonable limits, of course, say plus or minus 250 words. Pantsers have no idea where they’re going; they just start writing.

That’s a generalization, of course, and like all such, it’s only semi-accurate. Most writers will admit that it’s more of a spectrum than a dichotomy. But more often than not, they’ll still place themselves at one or the other end of the spectrum.

So, yeah, I’m up there at the “pantser” end. I do plan. But rarely more than a chapter ahead. Usually as I approach the end of a chapter, I start to get some hints about what’s going to happen in the next one.

But not always, and that’s a problem. Like this: My daily goal for first drafts is 500 words. I don’t expect them to be good words, and I don’t get upset if I write less. It’s just a way to remind myself that words need to hit the virtual page. Those of you who know about my obsessive counting behavior may be surprised to hear that I don’t track my daily word count. I just check it at the end of the day and pat myself on the back if I’ve met my goal.

That said, some things are memorable. My best day ever was 3,300 words. Of course, the next day I only managed 450–quite possibly the worst day in which I actually got any words written. That may be why I don’t feel compelled to track the daily results: even my subconscious knows that it all averages out.

But back to the main thread. This week has been unusually productive so far: 1,200 words on Monday, 1,400 Tuesday, and 1,500 Wednesday. Each of those has been my best day since October.

Which is great and all, but it is a problem because the week isn’t over. If today or Friday–or, worse yet, both–continue the trend, I’m going to hit the end of my current plan by the end of the week.

And I have no idea what’s going to happen next.

That means I’m facing an indeterminate period of staring at the screen and nagging my characters to do something. I’ll probably have to force them to do something stupid–something they’ll hate me for and that I know will be cut in a later draft because it’s totally out of character for them–just to get the action rolling again.

But while progress on The As-Yet-Nameless Project is about to stop, The RagTime Traveler continues to move ahead.

Back in December I said “Reviews are critical to a book’s success”? In particular, professional reviews are what bookstores and libraries use in deciding what books to buy. And TRTT just got its first professional review.

Kirkus Reviews is one of the major sources of reviews* used by booksellers and librarians. A good review there can only help.

* Per the New York Times, the others are Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and Library Journal.

And yes, it’s a good review. They say it’s “…filled with warmth and wonder and interesting music trivia…”

Ahh… Makes me feel all warm and fuzzy. Suddenly, I’m less perturbed by Nameless’ approaching dead end.

Free Books!

Apparently I’m doing this all wrong.

Oh, not the actual writing. Just the self-promotion.

I had thought that this blog was the way to go: get some words out there, attract a little attention, keep the content fresh, and build up a loyal core of followers.

Unfortunately, the current wisdom in publishing is that blogs don’t sell books. What does sell, I’m told, is a newsletter; something that reminds your fans that you exist. In other words, once a month or so, authors should go around to their readers, tap them on the shoulder, and say, “Hey, just checking in. I’m still here, still writing. Oh, and by the way, I’ll be in your town next month, signing books. Why don’t you drop by and say hello?”

The idea makes sense. I know how easy it can be to forget about a blog when you’re busy with your real life. There’s a niche for a basic reminder, free of random product reviews, rants about baseball, and cat pictures. But there’s a bit of a chicken-or-egg problem involved in getting people to subscribe to a newsletter about some author they’ve never heard of, and whose first book isn’t even out yet.

The best idea I’ve been able to come up with is to keep blogging, and try to convince the thousands of people who come here looking for recipes for leftover sauerkraut* to sign up.

* For those of you who have come in late, that’s the most popular post I’ve ever written. It’s drawn more than three times as many views as the next most popular post. Thank you, Google, for keeping it in the first page of results for more than three years!

Oh, and to offer prizes.

So, no, the blog isn’t going away, nor do I have any plans to change the content. I’ll still ramble on about the cats, the Mariners, the Bay Bridge, and anything else that strikes my fancy.

But if you look over to the right (or down at the bottom of the page if you’re reading on a mobile device), you’ll see a link to subscribe to my newsletter. Or you can just click here.

Standard disclaimers apply: I won’t sell your names and addresses, nor will I give them away. I won’t send spam, I won’t send more than one message a month (barring emergencies), and I won’t keep you on the list if you want to leave.

What I will do is send you monthly-ish updates on my publications and, when the time comes, signings and other appearances.

And, to encourage you all to sign up, I’m going to give away– absolutely free–copies of The RagTime Traveler! (At this point in the narrative, you should picture me doing my best Kermit the Frog imitation.)

I’m still working out the details–how many copies, how I’ll select the recipients (it’ll be random, but I haven’t decided between rolling dice, picking ping-pong balls out of a barrel, or throwing darts), and so on–but I will say this: the more subscribers there are, the more copies I’ll give away. So don’t just sign up yourself. Tell your friends, your enemies, and everyone in between.

And, once I figure out the process, I’ll announce the details–where else–in the newsletter.

The RagTime Traveler Is Real

Now it feels real.

Sure, I’ve known The RagTime Traveler was going to be published since October, but I’m starting to feel it in my gut. Because–well, remember last month’s post about all the steps that have to happen before a book can reach the shelves? Since that post went up, we’ve passed several of the biggest milestones.

First, Poisoned Pen Press, the publisher, finalized the cover art, and it is, IMNSHO, beautiful. Eye-catching without being garish, conveying something of the spirit of the book, and–oh, heck, see for yourself:

Nice, ain’t it? Seeing that started to convince me that TRTT was really going to be published.

Then there are the proofs. Remember I said there was a final review and revision after the ARC was produced? That’s done using the proofs: a typeset copy of the manuscript. In essence, an electronic ARC. I’m going through the document line by line looking for those elusive typos and typesetter slip-ups.

Are there any? Yup. But so far nothing as head-slappingly distressing as the error that snuck into one of Dad’s books. (It’s worth noting that we made use of the same quote in TRTT. Fortunately, it looks like it’s made it through the edits intact. So far. Given Dad’s experience, I’ll be checking the final books…)

Working on the proofs has pushed me further toward belief. But the real convincer? The ARCs. They’re out there. People are reading them. And a couple of days after Christmas, a box showed up on my doorstep. That’s not unusual. What was unusual was that we didn’t recognize the return address. Inside, this:
10-2 Three of ’em, actually.

Holding that book–that physical object–was the final push into belief.

So thank you to Poisoned Pen Press for that belated Christmas present. And thank all of you who have pre-ordered The RagTime Traveler.

As for those of you who haven’t put in a pre-order, take a look here. All the information you need is there.

OK, maybe not. I’ll add reviews when they start appearing, and if I really need to twist your arms, once the final-final text is set–once the proofs are edited and the corrections confirmed–I’ll add a sample chapter.

Look, don’t make me come to your houses and beg you to buy my book. None of us want that.

What’s Taking So Long?

“You signed the contract for The RagTime Traveler in October, but the book won’t be out until June? What the heck is taking so long?”

Those of you who aren’t familiar with the publishing industry may be surprised to hear that half a year from contract to publication is actually amazingly fast. Even in the modern world where nobody but a few artists set type by hand, it can still take a year or more.

Let’s take a look at what’s going on during that time.

Even though the author considers the book finished when he submits it to a publisher, “finished” is a flexible term. The editor will find something that needs to be addressed: a plot hole, a question of characterization, a confusing character name. As an author, you hope the issues will be minor, but whether they are or not, you can count on doing at least one rewrite.

Once everyone is satisfied with the text, it needs to be typeset, probably multiple times (hardback, paperback, e-book, large print edition, etc.) That’s faster and easier than it was in days of old. When manuscripts were written longhand, type was set by hand, one character at a time. The rise of the typewriter sped the process up, but the typesetter still had to retype the entire manuscript. Today, typesetting software can import the author’s word-processing document, but if you’ve ever tried to open, say, a Word document in Google Docs, you know that no conversion is perfect. There’s still cleanup to be done–more on that later–in addition to the actual work of doing the various layouts.

The book needs a cover. Those don’t just magically appear. Nor does the artist just jump in and start working. Somebody–typically the editor or a designer–will need to establish a style and mood. It may need to fit with the publisher’s overall look-and-feel, or a style established by earlier books in the same series.

Reviews are critical to a book’s success. I’ve mentioned this before in the context of individual reviews, and it bears repeating: the most important thing you can do to help your favorite authors (after buying their books, naturally) is to get the word of mouth train rolling. Write reviews. Tell your friends, your enemies, and random strangers about the books. Ask your local library to buy copies.

Bookstores and libraries often have to decide if they’re going to carry a book long before it’s published. Customer requests are important, but so are professional reviews. Reviewers get Advance Review Copies (ARCs) of the book. These are typeset, but often don’t yet have the cover art, and they haven’t been proofread. Yeah, despite all of those revisions, editorial reviews, and everything else that’s already happened, there are going to be errors*. As I said a couple of paragraphs ago, there’s cleanup to be done.

* Software has the same problem. It’s a truism for developers and QA that there’s no such thing as bug-free code. The best you can ever hope for is that you’ll find and fix the important ones before your customers see them. What are the important bugs? That’s a whole different post.

So, yes, the author gets to do yet another revision post-ARC. This one is typically limited to finding the bugs–typesetting and printing errors–in the manuscript, as making substantial changes would require redoing significant chunks of the typesetting. Again, that’s easier than it used to be, but it still takes time, and there isn’t much of that left: those typesetting files need to get to the printer if the book is going to get to the stores by the publication date.

There’s more. Publicity plans. Art design. Shipping. But most of what I’ve omitted doesn’t have anything to do with the actual production of the book, or happens as part of (and in parallel with) the production.

See why I say half a year is fast?

Oh, by the way: you know what else is important information for bookstores and libraries in deciding whether to get a book? Pre-orders!

Yes, that’s a hint.

You can pre-order The RagTime Traveler in both paperback and hardback formats right now from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Powell’s.

Or support a local independent bookstore. Call your local store and ask them to pre-order you a copy. If you’re in a benighted area of the world that lacks a bookstore, Seattle Mystery Bookshop will be happy to serve.


My apologies for the later-than-usual post today. It was, I fear, unavoidable. But I’m sorry for the lapse and will endeavor to do better in the future.

As I implied last month, The RagTime Traveler is complete. That doesn’t mean there’s nothing going on in the way of writing. We’re deeply into the research and planning for our next collaboration. It’s much too soon to drop any hints about the plot or setting, but I will say that, like TRTT, this book is going to deal with matters we’ve both wanted to write about. In TRTT we wrote a time travel tale. In [Title Redacted for Security Purposes], we’re going to–. Ahem. For right now, I’ll leave it at “we’re going to scratch several itches.”

So I spent a chunk of the morning weeding the results of some plot brainstorming and researching a character we didn’t know we had.

16-1Then I got, well, distracted. See, yesterday afternoon, I got one of these. As we all know, the acquisition of a new gadget is a top priority. You have to make sure it works, right? Not to mention fix the inevitable problems you create for yourself by using it wrong.

Most of the problems have been solved. Assuming I can clean up the last few oopsies, I’ll be posting soon about what the gadget is and what I’m doing with it.

Enough excuses. Let’s move on to the actual post for the day.

According to Quartz, Amazon has found a new way to use technology to destroy civilization.

It seems that there’s a growing movement among parents who believe that Amazon’s Alexa is ruining their efforts to teach their children proper manners.

The problem, they say, is that Alexa doesn’t react like a human when you speak to it. It doesn’t insist that kids say “please” and “thank you” and it doesn’t get annoyed at the hundredth repetition of “Why?”

Alice Truong, the author of Quartz’ piece, points out that there’s a solid technical reason why Alexa doesn’t want polite phrases: “…extraneous words can often trip up the speaker’s artificial intelligence” and “In general, kids can be hard to understand—more so when it’s artificial intelligence that’s deciphering their speech.”

But Ms. Truong doesn’t mention the most important reason: Alexa isn’t human. Alexa is a tool designed to perform a specific function–answer questions–and like (almost) every tool, it’s designed to do it in the most efficient way possible. Imagine how annoying it would be if you had to click a “thank you” button every time your web browser displayed a new page.

Rather than worrying that Alexa is teaching your kids bad manners, how about teaching your kids that different circumstances require different behaviors? For example, running around the dinner table, screaming might be acceptable at home, but it’s almost never appropriate in a restaurant.

Similarly, thanking your waiter is almost always appropriate, but thanking a hunk of plastic is never mandatory and rarely necessary.

And, of course, apologizing to your readers is sometimes appropriate.