Evolution of a story, part 2: How ‘Honey Bees & Blackholes’ became ‘Long-Term Storage’

Long-Term Storage was the third of my four drabbles published on the site SpeckLit in 2015. It?s only 100 words long (that?s what ?drabble? means, apparently). The story is about how a group of humans flee extinction by flying into a blackhole. Please read it before continuing (contractually, I can?t post it here yet).


How on Earth does one come up with a story idea like that?

Here?s how?

One activity that I find helps my creativity a lot is swimming. I happen to live in a very warm climate: Kuala Lumpur is only three degrees north of the equator. There was a span, back in August, when I would often find honey bees floating, and probably drowning, in the pool.

There are always a lot of leaves floating in the pool too, so finding one to get under the bee and place the bee on land was usually easy to do. Usually. Except for the bee that immediately flew back into the water.

Why would bees keep going for the deep water?

Yeah, that puzzled me. I got it back out, and this time it stayed. But our pool has gutters that are full of shallow water just as good as the pool?s. Why would bees go for the deep?

It got me thinking, but I didn?t have a specific story out of that incident particularly.

Then I read an article about Stephen Hawking?s new claims about blackholes*. They can store and preserve information, he hypothesizes.

Now I had a story idea and a bee puzzle. Was there some thing more in the pool that the bee was trying to get? What if technical information could be stored in a blackhole for future purposes? What if a race more advanced than us hid information in a blackhole? What if whichever species could retrieve it would gain some advantage over all others?

Maybe bees were trying to gain some information from the pool. Maybe they felt it was worth the risk?

The first draft of my story was over three hundred words (first drafts are always long) and threw you blindly into the middle of the scene – a captain asking what went wrong. The ship, attempting to glean information from the accretion disc of a blackhole had mysteriously bounced out, back to safe space. Was this a fluke of physics or a superior intelligence intervening – had someone scooped the bee out of the pool?

Was this a fluke of physics or a superior intelligence?

The only way to know was to try again and see if you got the same result. So the bee goes back into the pool. So the crew heads back in, to either die or gain prof of superior intelligence.

That was ?Honey Bees and Blackholes? but I didn?t like it – too much symbolism and layering for a mere 100 words to carry effectively. So I changed the premise, but not the locale. On the edge of a blackhole, a ship full of humans are about to try to touch the accretion disc, to meet the retrievable information, this time not with the intent of stealing info, but with the intent to join it, to find refuge from some great evil that was pursuing them.

And thus, ?Long-Term Storage.?

*I can?t find the original article, but this one appears to cover the same ground.

Self-publishing vs Traditional Publishing: A Career Decision

The hardest part of being a writer is finding the time to do a good job of it. Writing is much more than putting words down. It?s editing, it?s revising, it?s adding the details that make a story vivid, it?s removing the details that clutter a story. And it’s thinking.

Every storyteller wants to be a full-time storyteller, whether they?re in it for the love of stories or for the money. Those of us who are in it for the love of storytelling face the reality that if money doesn?t flow from it, writing will never get to be more than a hobby. For most of us, writing is our second, part-time job. What we want to do is reverse that so that it?s our full-time job and the other job becomes our second, part-time job, at least as an intermediate step toward becoming self-sustaining writers.

You?ve written your book. You?ve followed all of the advice that any new writer gets – both self- and traditional publish wannabes – and had it edited, beta-read and generally polished to within an inch of perfection. As well as years of your time, you?ve spent at least $1,000 with edits and revisions. So how do you get to that next level, being a full-time story-teller?

What works best for Stephen King might not work best for first-time authors.

Well, there are two paths, two schools of thought – roughly categorized as traditional publishing and self-publishing.

Recently, literary agent Janet Reid was asked why well-established writers don?t self-publish if to do so means making more money per book sold. She had an interesting answer, but possibly not the best answer if applied to new authors.  Janet starts from the top-selling author perspective (as did the questioner, so that?s fair) and throws around numbers like $10 million, then shows that it?s not cost effective for such a writer to self-publish.

I?m not sure I agree with her math (I think she over-emphasizes opportunity cost and downplays rate of return), but will bow to her expertise there, so let?s accept that as given for the superstar authors like Stephen King.

But what about the little guy, the first-time author? What works best here?

Do you know how much a first-time author makes from a full-length book (90,000-120,000 words) published through a traditional publisher? The answer isn?t as much as you?d expect. Most first-time authors get ?advances? of around US$5,000. For each copy of the book that sells, the author gets between ten and fifteen percent of the cover price (with first-timers getting the lower end of that scale). Think about that – you spent $15 on a book. The author gets $1.50, slightly more if it?s not their first book.

Now, this isn?t on top of the original $5,000. No, the publisher keeps tabs, deducting the $1.50 from the $5,000 advance until the total crosses zero (this is called ?paying out the advance,? something that most books don?t do). Then, and only then, does the author get any money from each additional book sold (after selling the first 3,334 approximately).

You spend $15 on a book, the author gets $1.50

Wait, wait, I forgot the author?s agent?s cut. A typical agent gets 15% of the author?s take, so the advance is reduced from $5,000 to $4,250 once the author finally gets it. The agent would also get 22.5 cents on $1.50 after the advance paid out, taking the author?s per book haul down to $1.275 per book sold from then on.

Can you live on that? Is that enough for you to be able to transition your full-time job down to part-time?

No. Of course not.

Please note that publishers aren?t going to publish more than one of your books a year – more likely one every two years at the beginning. They want time to judge how well your books sell and if they should continue working with you (The submission cycle: from author submission of completed manuscript to the book actually in stores is 8-10 months, cumulative sales figures [returns] is another six months. Then the process for book two begins, if your publisher still loves you) So $4,250 is all you?ll see for at least one year, maybe ever.

Many traditionally published first-time authors make $4,250 in total from their book.

You can help your publisher (you will be expected to help) by marketing your book – publicity appearances on websites, podcasts, TV and radio if you?re luck, travel to conventions (either try to get on panels or have a booth for book signings), etc – all out of your own pocket. How far is that $4,250 going now?

What does the publisher give in return for their 85-90% take on the cover price? Printing, distribution, hopefully a good edit and a cover that you may or may not like, but you?ll have no say over (also, publishers can change the name of your book against your will). If your publisher?s sales reps love your book, they may push it hard on bookstores, but a first book probably won?t get much attention from either the publisher?s reps or the stores.

Let?s compare to self-publishing.

A good cover is going to cost you upwards of $500, including typography and layout/design. There are stock covers that you can buy for much less, but you may not be the only one using that cover. You want a unique cover. Ebooks only need to be created once, and there are many websites that will help you format a word.doc into an epub or mobi file (Scrivener, which is an indispensible $45 authoring suite, will also do this for you).

First off, you won?t be in physical bookstores, even if you have a physical book made through CreateSpace or Smashwords. So your market is smaller, but not by much. Amazon will be your main base, with other places, like SmashWords and Apple’s iBooks, adding a bit of coverage.

Amazon, by far the largest bookstore in any country and in the world, allows you to sell your self-published works in return for a percentage of the sale. As long as your book?s price stays above 99 cents, you retain 70% of the cover price.

So your hypothetical $15 traditionally published first novel is self-published on Amazon instead, at a cover price of $5.99 ($7.99, $5.99, $3.99 and $2.99 are all common prices). Seventy percent of $5.99 is $4.19 – that?s what you take home from each book sold. Not $1.27. If you were able to sell that same 3,334 books, you would bring home $13,979.46 instead of $4,250.

Selling the same 3,334 copies through Amazon self-publishing would earn the author $10,000 more

Now that?s a big if. Many self-published books sell less than one hundred copies (so do many traditionally published books, however the trad author keeps their $4,250 advance.) To get to those sale numbers, you?ll need to make publicity appearances on websites, podcasts ? everything you?d need to do if you?re traditionally published.

You?ll also need the things you control (quality of writing, cover) and intangibles that you don?t – people finding, liking, and giving positive reviews to your book. But that?s also the same for traditional publishing.

It?s not a lot more work on your part, but the take home is almost $10,000 higher for the same sales.

Also, Amazon doesn?t care how often you publish (but you should care – quality is key, and quality takes time). Some authors publish four or six books a year (I couldn?t do that, again, the quality issue comes into play for me).

So if a self-published author can achieve the same level of sales as a first-time traditionally published author, but can publish two books a year, said author should be making around $28,000 a year. Is that enough to switch your careers around, make writing full-time and your other job part-time? Maybe, that depends on how you’ve structured your life.

But, if you can do that, then perhaps you can redefine your life so that your part-time job is marketing your books, and your full-time job is writing them. You still have two jobs, but only one combined paycheque. This may be idealistic (some may say naive), but it?s something to aim for, or at least think about.


Flash Fiction – the challenge of 100 word stories

There is a branch of fiction writing that is getting more and more popular: Flash Fiction. These are complete stories written to a predetermined length. This length can be quite short (6 words) or quite long (600 words), but most Flash Fiction is 100 words – exactly, no more, no less (well, sometimes less).

Lately I’ve been exploring the challenges of writing a complete story to such a short length. I’ve submitted a few to contests, and even submitted one for professional publication (but I can’t show that one here).

Here are links to a few of my 100 word stories:

Shakespeare’s Last Stand

Fortunate Waze

Uncertainty Persists

Toto Was Wrong

Crossing Porous Borders

I grew up in Canada with the firm belief that borders were sacrosanct. You couldn?t treat them lightly. Then I moved to Africa? Namibia, specifically. My teaching post was about 10 kilometres south of the Angolan border.

The first friday that I was there, I got taken out drinking by my co-workers. We went to a shebeen (bar) in the middle of a forest, about halfway between our school and the Angolan border. There we met up with a larger group, including one very friendly giant of a man (I?ve lost his name now, sorry). On his arm was a scar from a recent cut of some kind, a very long and thin cut, as if from a knife.

He offered to smuggle me into the country to see where his friend had been killed by Angolan police

He told me that he stole cars for a living and that he could get one for me if I wanted.

Then he started on a long story about how his friend had died recently, just across the border. He offered to smuggle me into the country to see where his friend had been killed by Angolan police — right then. The border between Angola and Namibia isn’t open at night, and even if it was, my passport was safely locked away somewhere else.

He wasn’t going to listen to my objections, telling me that he would smuggle me across the border and not to worry. At the time this challenged my sense of propriety on a number of levels. You can?t just walk across a border. Also, he was pretty drunk – they all were. I was desperately holding on to sobriety so that I could drive us all home, if i could figure out where that was.

I guess I objected enough, as eventually he got bored of the topic and  moved on. Later, I did get us all home, but not without some ?fun? as the passengers kept grabbing the stick shift, trying to change gears on me.

A few months later I learned just how insecure the border between those two countries actually is. There?s a river called Kunene that runs through Angola and into Namibia at a scenic waterfall called Ruacana. The river then takes a sharp right and becomes the boarder between the two countries.

You walk through a hole in a small fence, and voila, you?re in another country.

The base of the waterfall, the Namibia side of the border, is infested with crocodiles. At the top of the falls there are some nice swimming holes. This is the Angola side. You walk through a hole in a small fence, and voila, you?re in another country. They even put a nice marker there for you to see. We all took our pictures at the marker, mine is above.

I think we went there four or five times in my two years in Namibia, not once worrying about entering Angola without our passports or permission. Further west, it?s not uncommon for people to wander across the border, as families often live divided by it. There may or may not be a police officer sitting at a table under a tree. If there is, you?re expected to check in, otherwise, carry on.

Near the end of my time in Namibia, i did some white water rafting on the lower Kunene River (crocs don?t live near rapids). Our hosts thought it?d be a cool experience for us to have lunch on the Angolan side. We were all ?phfft, been there.? They were disappointed.

Oddly enough, even though I was still hung up on borders when I arrived in Namibia, I?d crossed into a country ?illegally? once before. I walked into North Korea. It?s not hard to do, and relatively safe, as long as you do it properly.  Panmunjom is a small, deserted town on the border between what is now North and South Korea. During the Korean War, it was the location of a number of talks that lead to the signing of a ceasefire agreement (but not a peace treaty, it must be noted).

The building where these talks were held was arranged so that half of it is in each country. The main negotiating room is likewise set up, with small flags on the table demarcating the border between these two less-than-friendly nations. I?ve been in that room, and I?ve walked around that table, putting me in North Korea for perhaps a grand total of two minutes.

Later in my travels around southern Africa, I spent some time in Zimbabwe, visiting the beautiful Victoria Falls. Like the Kunene river, the falls starts in one country (Zambia) and ends in another (Zimbabwe). It also then becomes the border between the two. In this case, the river has cut a deep gorge and crossing it means walking a large bridge. So we did. At the other side, there?s a very typical guard hut and gate, but no guard.

So we walked in?

? About 20 metres before a guard opened the door of an outhouse, shouting at us to get back to the gate and wait for him. So we walked back, and kept walking across the bridge back to the Zim side.

The funny thing is, while considering writing this, I remembered that years ago I?d seen a tv show called TV Nation, and in it, Michael Moore had demonstrated just how insecure the Canada/USA border was by having a hockey team roller blade across the border. I?d forgotten about that until just now. Fortunately YouTube remembers it, and you can watch the clip below.

What Can Scalzi’s First Novel Teach New Authors?

Whether you love him or hate him, John Scalzi is incredibly influential and is probably the highest-paid science fiction writer today. in 2015, Scalzi signed a ten-year, 13 book, $3.4 million deal with Tor publishing.

Me? I?m an unpublished writer. At this point in my career, I like to refer to myself as a semi-pro writer. I?ve sold a few small stories, but nothing big enough to a SFWA qualifying market, so I?m not in the pro leagues, and even beyond that, am certainly far from making a living from my writing.

Part of my learning process is to deconstruct successful novels to see what I can learn from them. It makes sense to look at John Scalzi?s first book, Old Man?s War.

The plot is pretty simple: Man joins army, goes through basic training, fights a few battles and gets promoted. There are some twists on this premise: the man is 75 years old when he enlists; his essence is transferred into a younger, modified clone of himself; and along the way he meets a clone of his dead wife. They kind of fall in love.

Now, as a writer trying to learn the craft, I?ve found that there are ?universal rules? to story writing, but I had a hard time applying them to this story. Everyone agrees that a story needs an ?inciting incident,? an event that propels the story and character forward, and that incident must happen early in the story. While revising my current work in progress (or WiP), I?ve been trimming chapters form the front of the story because that incident occurred in chapter 7 – far too late.

But what?s the inciting incident in Old Man?s War? Joining the army? That?s hardly compelling. The protagonist?s wife?s death? That happened two year before the book opens. According to ?Narrative First? an inciting incident is the event or decision that begins a story’s problem.

But Old Man?s War doesn?t actually have a problem. Not here anyway. Later, there?s the kill-or-be-killed of combat, but that?s much later.

That same website says that ?Stories are about solving problems,? but again, Old Man?s War isn?t. There is a need for soldiers to fight a war, but it?s a war that doesn?t impact Earth, where the recruits are from. It only impacts the colonies, which are secretive, exclusionary, and treat Earth with some contempt. It?s NOT the protagonist?s war!

Again, Narrative First claims that stories are about ?The two central objective characters, Protagonist and Antagonist, battle it out until approximately one-quarter of a way into a story? But Old Man?s War has no Antagonist. It has a series of aliens that offer some not insurmountable threat to humanity, but never gravely. And each case, we are introduced to them as they engage in combat – there is no real overarching threat.

Story Mastery, in their article 10 simple keys to effective storytelling, claims that the second of the 10 points of story telling is:

The events and turning points in your story must all grow out of your hero?s desire. Without an outer motivation for your protagonist ? a clear, visible objective your hero is desperate to achieve ? your story can?t move forward.? But in this story, the hero doesn?t really have a goal. Not at first. He?s just old, bored and ready for a change.

That same site claims this as it?s 7th point: ?Whatever outer motivation drives your hero, she shouldn?t begin pursuing that goal immediately. She must get acclimated to her new situation, must figure out what?s going on or where she fits in, until what has been a fairly broad or undefined desire comes into focus.? This actually defines the first two thirds of old Man?s War. The first part (called Part I) is before bootcamp. Part II is bootcamp. Part III is combat, but not a lot of it. There is a grand battle of sorts, and there are some high stakes (steal a piece of equipment from an enemy). But it seems too easy to have any real tension.

So what can I, an aspiring novelist in the same genre, learn from this first book by the current Stephen King of said genre?

That?s hard to say. I liked the story, but I felt that the book was a bit flat in the telling. It broke a lot of the rules of storytelling without offering a spectacular payoff for that transgression. Scalzi can write character amazingly well, something that I strive for, and so reading him definitely has that as a positive (I knew that already. I loved Red Shirts) but in this case, I didn?t think he told a great story. Yet, it got published, became famous and launched his career. It left me wondering what the publisher saw in the story that I didn?t.

I wondered if I was alone in my feelings. I found a bunch of reviews on GoodReads that echoed my thoughts. I thought this one said it particularly well. So what did I miss? WHat didn’t I learn from this story that I should have? Because now I’m questioning removing thre chapters from my WiP to get to an inciting incident quicker at the expense of my characters.