Five Years Ago Today . . .

It was five years ago today. I hit the “publish” button on my Amazon KDP dashboard. Several hours later, State of Grace was available for sale.

SoG Cover Mk V revised lo-resAfter several months of work and countless hours of research, I at last made my dream of publishing fiction a reality. As I wrote in this space at the time, I went from being a writer to being an author.

Despite all that research, I had no idea what I was doing — not that I knew that at the time. I’d educated myself, but there were vast quantities of information I desperately needed and didn’t have.

I knew all about publishing a book, but as it turned out, I knew next to nothing about marketing and selling one. Had I known even half of what I do now, I might have been more successful at it, because there were opportunities back in the early days of indie publishing that just don’t exist in the same way anymore.

There’s no sense crying about that, though. I did what I did and didn’t do what I didn’t.

But I did do one very important thing: I kept publishing. I wrote more books, I joined support communities, and I took courses to get better educated about how to be an independent publisher.

If there’s a revelation I’ve had in the past five years, it’s that I didn’t go from writer to author; I became a publisher. I’ve spent most of this fifth year concentrating on getting better at the business side of this endeavor (although I’ve been writing too).

Most importantly, I’ve embraced my destiny. I’ve been a storyteller all my life. I’ve made it my vocation, my career since November 22, 2011.

So 21 books later (I’ve been kind of prolific), I’m hitting my five-year anniversary and looking forward to Year Six. I’ve tried a lot of things that didn’t work and a few that have.

And I’m still here. I’m still publishing. Happy anniversary to me.

At last, THE ARMAGEDDON CLOCK

TAC Cover lo-resI’m very pleased to announce that the latest Wolf Dasher novel, The Armageddon Clock, is available for purchase.

In Wolf’s biggest mission yet, he must team up with a deadly Phrygian Shadow to find a lost artifact capable of counting down to the Apocalypse. Worse, the mad wizard who invented it has escaped from Hell and plans to set the clock in motion. If Wolf doesn’t stop the countdown, everyone everywhere on Earth will die. But can he really rely on an untrustworthy ally, whose ultimate goal is to betray him?

Get The Armageddon Clock on Kindle here.
Get it in print here.

I’m excited to have this book on the market, because, in a twist of fate, it is actually the first Wolf Dasher novel I wrote. I penned it back in 2008 and was planning on it launching the series.

But a couple things occurred to me that changed my mind. First, the novel is about averting Armageddon. If my hero were to save the entire world from destruction, where would I go from there? How do you write sequels that are as compelling if the first thing he does is stop actual Doomsday? It seemed to me that this story was a good one, but it needed to come later in the series.

Second, the original drafts of The Armageddon Clock told a classic Cold War thriller. The novel is set in Mensch — a fictional version of 1960’s Berlin — and follows an American and Soviet agent (Urlish and Phrygian respectively) as they try to put aside political rivalries long enough to stop the Apocalypse. It would have been timely and terrific in 1988.

But it was actually 2008 (2009, by the time I made the realization), and the Cold War had been over for almost 20 years. I realized the novel would be unlikely to resonate with anyone younger than I.

So I set to writing a new Wolf Dasher book, starting the series from a different point and with more contemporary problems. The result of that effort was State of Grace — a novel that sends a British-American-style agent into a fictional version of the Middle East.

But eight years later, The Armageddon Clock finally gets its turn. Wolf finally faces down the Apocalypse. And because it’s Book 6 instead of Book 1, well, it’s just possible he might fail. Maybe this is where Wolf’s illustrious career (and everyone else’s) draws to a close.

But no matter how it turns out, I’m excited that The Armageddon Clock is here at last. It is, actually, the book that started it all.

Click here to get The Armageddon Clock for Kindle.
Click here to get The Armageddon Clock in print.

Pillar of Salt

Every year, I try to rewrite my 9/11 essay, “Poo-tee-weet?”, so that it will be good. Every year, I fail.

I sit down with it, and I read it, and I cringe at how disorganized and poorly written it is. I start thinking about how to reorganize it and clean it up, so that it’s tighter and more eloquent.

And then I get to the end, and I just can’t do it.

The last section examines how I don’t know what to say, how perhaps there is nothing to say. And every year, I realize, I still have no idea how to intelligently comment on what happened – on the events of that terrible day or on the consequences we’ve all born as a result.

What I remember most about 9/11 and my feelings and the essay is how I recalled the words of Kurt Vonnegut:

. . . there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre. Everybody is supposed to be dead, to never say anything or want anything ever again. Everything is supposed to be quiet after a massacre, and it always is, except for the birds.

And what do the birds say? All there is to say about a massacre, things like ‘Poo-tee-weet?’

Fifteen years later, I can’t do any better than the birds. I can’t think of any way to write something intelligent about a massacre or its aftermath.

And so, I recall the words of Vonnegut again:

And Lot’s wife, of course, was told not to look back where all those people and homes had been. But she did look back, and I love her for that, because it was so human.

So she was turned into a pillar of salt. So it goes.

People aren’t supposed to look back. I’m certainly not going to do it anymore.

I’ve finished my war book now. The next one I write is going to be fun.

This one is a failure, and it had to be, since it was written by a pillar of salt.

That’s all I can think of to say this year. Maybe next year things will be different.

But salt pillars don’t type very well.

Two Truths: A Dialectic Approach to a Controversy

By now, you’ve no doubt heard about San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s protest at Saturday’s preseason match with the Green Bay Packers. Kaepernick sat on the bench during the national anthem and then told NFL.com’s Steve Wyche after the game, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”

Cue an Internet firestorm.

Kaepernick’s protest immediately became about disrespect for the flag and the veterans who have fought and sacrificed to defend the symbol of our nation. Meme generators threatened to melt down, so fast were they used to create instant condemnations of the San Francisco quarterback’s words and actions.

Wyche must have felt like Woodward and Bernstein blowing the lid off Watergate.

The reaction, while swift and largely unforgiving, is all over the place. It ranges from defending Kaepernick’s right to do what he did while condemning him for being a bad American, to suggesting a millionaire NFL quarterback has no right to claim he or anyone else is oppressed, to throwing the spotlight on “the true heroes” — our soldiers who have sacrificed for the very flag Kaepernick chose too denigrate.

I know this is a hot-button, Internet argument, and I know this is an election year, but can I suggest that we all take a collective breath and think about this for a moment?

(Careful thought, I know, is not a terribly popular concept in social media, but maybe people could humor me for a couple minutes.)

Dialectic is a word that means two seemingly opposite things can be true at the same time. For example, “I’m really hungry, and I don’t feel like eating anything.” Or, “I’m totally bored, and I don’t feel like doing anything.”

The concept can be hard to accept, because it seems completely illogical that two opposites can both be true. We humans prefer absolutes. We want One Truth to Bind Them All.

Far-left liberals complain Hillary Clinton isn’t progressive enough. Tea Party conservatives vote out moderate Republicans for daring to compromise on legislation. Rigid adherence to ideology is the only policy we support.

And shouting down the opposite point of view on social media is what passes for debate these days.

All of which brings me back to the firestorm Colin Kaepernick engineered.

The U.S. flag and the national anthem are symbols of our democracy and nation. They are sacred to most of those who have served in the military, particularly those who have seen combat or lost friends and family in defense of our country. Honoring the flag is honoring them.

But refusing to honor the flag is not denigrating them or their sacrifices.

The service and sacrifice of our veterans and military personnel are noble and heroic. They fought and fight to defend our way of life.

However, that way of life includes systemic racism that unfairly oppresses citizens of color, particularly black citizens.  The way of life white soldiers fight to defend is not the same one offered to their black and brown brothers-in-arms.

And that truth does not make the service of our military personnel ignoble or unheroic.

It is possible to honor those who risk and in some cases give their lives to defend our nation while still acknowledging that we do not always live up to the ideals we ask those servicepeople to defend. It is possible to refuse to participate in the easy patriotism of saluting a flag and standing for the national anthem without denigrating the service of our military.

The dialectic holds.

If Colin Kaepernick committed a sin, it was choosing a form of protest that would obscure his message. By refusing to stand for the national anthem, he ignited the anger of military families and supporters instead of bringing awareness to the issues of systemic racism that inspired his actions and words.

But that doesn’t change any of the facts surrounding this issue. Those who choose to serve and sacrifice to defend America are noble. American society discriminates against minorities.

Two truths. Seemingly opposite in nature, but both true at the same time.

So maybe we should spend less time heaping mud on Colin Kaepernick in defense of one of those truths and spend more time working to make the other one false.

A Story about Fathers

I hadn’t watched Spider-Man (2002) since remarrying in 2013. The last time I saw it, my stepson was my girlfriend’s kid and I was introducing him to it when he was 10.

Flash forward five years to the present. The whole family is watching Spider-Man. Uncle Ben drops off Peter at the downtown library and is trying to find out why his nephew has become so secretive. When Uncle Ben says, “I know I’m not your father—” and Peter cuts him off with, “Then stop trying to be!”, well, that was hard to hear.

As far as I can tell, the moment went right by the children. They were caught up in the film and didn’t notice the parallel. My wife did. She quietly took my hand and squeezed.

When you’re an adoptive or stepfather, nothing is ever given to you on credit. Every single piece of love, respect, and admiration must be earned.

Because the threat of “You’re not my real dad!” is ever-present, waiting like a jaguar to pounce from a tree branch and disembowel your credibility as a parent. Even perfect kids like Peter Parker are willing to use it.

As he got out of the car, I was silently begging Peter to apologize. I knew what would happen next, but I tried to use my will to rewrite the story.

Please, Pete, I thought. Please say you’re sorry. Please tell him you didn’t mean that. Don’t let that be the last thing he ever hears from you.

But of course, Peter doesn’t apologize. He leaves his verbal knife sticking in his uncle’s heart, and several hours later, Uncle Ben is dead at the hands of a thief Peter had a chance to stop and didn’t.

Peter Parker is a good kid, and he feels immense regret at the things he said and how they turned out. And as an adoptive and stepfather, I feel terrible for him because I know he didn’t mean it.

But the basic truth of not being the biological father remains. You have to earn every piece of the child’s love. You don’t get any for free.

And that’s really hard. Parenting is a difficult business as it is. The crouching jaguar always waiting for the step-parent is cruel.

Spider-Man is an interesting film. Despite driving an emotional knife through Uncle Ben’s heart and then unintentionally abetting his murder, Peter Parker internalizes his stepfather’s most important lesson: “With great power comes great responsibility.” Peter transforms from a kid with freaky powers into Spider-Man because Ben Parker was a good father. He taught his adopted son right from wrong and the call to service, so that, when fate bestowed great power on Peter, he chose to do good.

Contrast that with Norman Osbourne. Like Peter, he starts the film as obsessive and self-absorbed. Unlike Peter, he doesn’t grow. He descends into madness, motivated purely by greed and the lure of power.

And like Ben Parker taught the values of responsibility and helping others to Peter, Norman teaches his own son to be like him.

Harry Osbourne is Peter’s friend, but he dates Mary Jane behind Pete’s back, knowing how Peter feels about her. And his concern for MJ seems to focus largely on the status she can bring him. She’s beautiful, she’s fun, and she looks good on his arm. He wants her to impress his father, because Harry hero-worships his dad and wants his approval. Norman is the biological father, so he gets everything on credit; he doesn’t have to earn Harry’s love and admiration, even though he deserves none of it. He’s a terrible father who doesn’t believe in his son, and he treats Peter – his son’s best friend – better just because Peter is a good science student.

And when Norman says horrible things about Mary Jane, Harry doesn’t defend her. He backs his father instead. When Norman is killed by the very weapon he was attempting to use to murder Peter, Harry blames Spider-Man, not his father.

Harry has little to offer the world besides the money he got from his dad. And all he wants it for is to have an apartment in the city and to buy Mary Jane pretty things so that she will like him. He allows Peter to live with him, but he otherwise doesn’t use his wealth for any positive purpose.

Meanwhile, Peter truly cares for Mary Jane – not because he wants her for a girlfriend (although he does), but because he loves her. He comforts her when her own father abuses her. He takes two buses and a cab to show up at her audition to see if it went well. He consoles her and offers to buy her dinner when he learns things went poorly. He confesses his feelings to her in a way that makes her feel worthy of love for the first time in her life. And he refuses to be her boyfriend, because he believes that’s what he must do to protect her.

Peter Parker loves. Harry Osbourne just wants.

And they both get it from their father.

Spider-Man has been my favorite superhero for nearly as long as I can remember. I have often identified with Peter’s everyman struggle just to make it in a world that seems designed to work against him, his constant battle to make the world better even though the effort is largely thwarted and unappreciated.

But as I watched Sam Raimi’s 2002 masterpiece, I realized my life has changed. I may want to be Spider-Man, but I can be Uncle Ben. I have three children, none of whom I sired. They are all teenagers struggling to figure out who they want to be. I may not be their biological father, but I can still teach them great power does indeed come with great responsibility; it’s not just a catchphrase in a comic book.

And if they sting me with “You’re not my real dad!”, if they unleash that always-lurking jaguar from the trees, that doesn’t actually change the truth. Fathering is more than creating children; it is raising them.

Peter Parker is wrong. “This story,” he says in the film’s opening voiceover narration, “like any story worth telling, is about a girl.”

It’s not about a girl. Spider-Man is a story about fathers. One makes a villain. The other shapes a hero.

I aspire to be Uncle Ben.

The Importance of Infrastructure

You don’t realize how important infrastructure is until you try to build it.

Selling books is a difficult business. There are lots of readers out there, and there are many, many more books than readers (which is good for readers). That means you have to figure out how to find people interested in your books and then let them know you exist.

Facebook offers one of the best advertising platforms on the Internet these days, and I have attempted, unsuccessfully, to use it multiple times in the past. So I did some research, took a course, and now understand how it actually works.

I’ve been using a reader magnets strategy to build my mailing list (offering a free book in exchange for signing up) in the past, and I have had some success. But my strategy depends on people finding my books, to see the magnet ad. Same problem.

So I decided to enhance the offer (putting two books and a short story in the magnet) and then pushing the offer on Facebook. It all sounded like a good idea.

But I had almost none of the infrastructure required to make this work.

And because I’m an independent author, I have no one to do it for me. I had to do it all myself.

The deal works like this. You give me your email address, and I send you the Wolf Dasher short story, “The Darkline Protocol,” and the first two novels in the series, State of Grace and Red Dragon Five. I didn’t want to bombard readers, so I need to send those books one at a time over several days. That meant I needed a series of automated emails that trigger as soon as someone subscribes.

So I had to set that up in MailChimp, writing each of the emails and providing links to the free books and to software to help you sideload them onto your Kindle.

Of course, to make them easier to download, I needed a service that is pro at it and offers better customer support than I can, where the whole thing is super-smooth. So I had to subscribe to BookFunnel, and then create the .mobi and .ePub files to be downloaded and then upload them to my account.

But back up a couple steps. I was offering the Wolf Dasher books, but I wasn’t happy with the covers. So before I could do any of this, I had to work with my cover designer to re-brand the whole line — all five books and the short story.

Then I had to remove the old magnet ads from the interiors of the Dasher books and update them on Amazon along with the new covers. Once that was done, I had to create those aforementioned updated .mobi and .ePub files.

But wait, there’s more.

With all that work in place, I was able to start designing an ad campaign for Facebook. That meant I needed an image for the ad. So I had my designer do that too.

But before you can create a lead-generation ad for Facebook, you need to do a couple things. First, you have to have a lead card, which requires an image and some other info.

So I modified the ad image with new copy to keep the imagery consistent but make the message on the lead card (which you see after clicking on the ad) read something relevant to filling out the card.

Secondly, Facebook won’t let you collect leads through them if you don’t have a privacy policy. So I had to create one of those based on a boilerplate, put it on the website, and then provide a link.

Great, now that everything is done, I’m ready to advertise.

Well, not quite. You see, Facebook collects those leads for me, but I have to do something with them. If I don’t want to manually subscribe people (which might be fine at the beginning but become hard if the campaign is wildly successful), then I need a service that handles all that.

So I had to subscribe to Zapier so that, as soon as you submit your information, it automatically subscribes you to the list and starts MailChimp’s automation. And that meant setting up the links and testing them to make sure they work.

As you might imagine, this process took weeks to build. And, while I want it and understand its importance, it’s not the kind of thing I enjoy. Some people like engineering, major in it, and go on to have fine careers. I majored in English and minored in Music and in Philosophy.

So putting all this together was grueling and tedious for me.

But it’s finally done. I’ve got an ad running on Facebook, and it’s generating results. It’s a good beginning.

If you want to take advantage of the offer yourself and haven’t been served the ad, click this link, or click on the ad image below.

Regardless, infrastructure is really important. Building it takes a lot of work. Here’s hoping I did it right.

Three Stack -- Shaken Not Stirred

Home Stretch for THE ARMAGEDDON CLOCK

Got The Armageddon Clock (Wolf Dasher, Book 6) back from my editor yesterday afternoon. I haven’t looked at it yet, but I’m sure it’s covered in red ink. That’s how these things go.

I’m pretty excited, though. This is the deepest edit the book gets (after my own revisions from first draft to second). By the time I’m done going through it and making changes, it’ll be close to publishable shape.

The Armageddon Clock has 50 chapters, and I can usually go through 10 chapters a day. So it should take about a week’s worth of work to mold it into near-final shape. Then I’ll be sending it off to my beta readers for their evaluations.

Speaking of which, I still need plenty of beta/ARC readers. Want to read The Armageddon Clock BEFORE it’s released? Drop me an email at john at johnphythyon dot com and tell me you want to be on the team. I’ll add you to the list and send you a copy of the book as soon as it’s ready.

I’m really excited. It won’t be long now!