An Improbable Year

Grab your champagne flute and somebody to smooch, y’all, because the year is done and done well.  It’s time to reflect and celebrate!  Stick with me as we reminisce about 2014 and look forward to what next year holds:

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Instead of going chronologically, I’m going to start with the little things, especially those you might have missed, and move up to the biggest things that impacted my year.

First, that which had the least major impact was my on-going and new projects.  I’ve learned that it is a tough thing to balance being a professional officer, a husband/caregiver, a father, and an independent publisher, and the thing that got the least attention in that mix was ongoing long-form work.  Short stories I was able to knock out with relative ease, with four published this year alone and another on hold with Baen’s Grantville Gazette for a possible buy.  Long-form, novel-length works proved to be my Achilles heel.  I have three projects in the hopper:  first, the sequel to A Sword Into Darkness, titled Lancers into the light, because EVERYBODY has been asking about it and I’d be a fool not to do one.  That one is still in the outlining phase, primarily since I needed a break from ASID, and also because I have two other projects to finish.  One of those is my long-suffering urban fantasy Echomancer, which is about 1/3rd complete and suffers from a lot of time/will/desire based writer’s block.  Basically, I hit a snag and never went back to it once I moved to other projects.  One of those projects is my last long-form unfinished work, which is going between the titles of Demigod and Dattoo, a Christian near-future hard-science young-adult philosophical thriller.  Is it a total genre mash-up?  Yes.  Is it going slowly?  Yes.  Is it my most exciting project and my best second bid for traditional publication?  YES.  So, the short answer is that I am working on the next book(s), but the going was slow in 2014, and I hope for more positive news in this next year.

Next in the highlight hit-parade is TNT’s “The Last Ship,” a great little show that premiered this year.  If you haven’t had the chance to check it out, you absolutely should on Blu-ray, DVD, or your streaming service of choice.  Eric Dane, Rhona Mitra, and Adam Baldwin star in a loose adaptation of William Brinkley’s 1988 post-apocalyptic novel.  It’s all about the last US warship, the destroyer USS NATHAN JAMES, which has escaped infection from a worldwide lethal pandemic, and which has the bead on a cure.  It is cheesy, fun, well-acted, well-plotted, and surprisingly accurate and respectful of how the actual US surface Navy works.  As a lark, I blogged about it all from a USN officer perspective and it did wonders for me.  It consistently brought the most traffic to the blog, and brought me a number of new fans as well, who took a chance on my reviews and tried out my books as well.  So, overall, a great success.

This next is not such a success story, at least in the relative sense.  Following good advice from my friend and mentor Jeff Edwards of Stealth Books that I needed to have something else out on the market to serve the audience that ASID was growing, I published five of my military and artificial intelligence short stories as a collection on Amazon Kindle.  REMO has been well-reviewed (39 Amazon reviews with 4.2 stars) and has sold all right, but it never has done the numbers that ASID did.  I may have been spoiled by how my first foray into independent publishing did, and I realize that collections don’t tend to sell as well long-form works, but I would have liked for it to have done better, for more people to have tried it out.  As of this post, REMO has sold 1937 copies on Kindle, with an additional 362 provided through Kindle Unlimited and the Kindle Owner’s Lending Library (which I still get paid for).  That’s around 2300 more people that have enjoyed my stories than would have if they had stayed on my computer.  Good, but not as good as magazine circulation.  One story in particular, “Dogcatcher Blues,” is my favorite and — I think — is almost Hugo-worthy (though Baen did not originally buy it and I failed to shop it anywhere else), but I doubt any Hugo voters will ever see it.  I guess I have no room to complain, but relative to the rest of the year, REMO is my regrettable disappointment.

For this next paragraph, I have absolutely no complaint.  Short stories have been my sort of thing for a while now.  I started writing them years ago, to hone my skills and get my foot in the door of the traditional publishing industry, but success had eluded me.  I had two stories bought in years past, both by Baen publications (my favorite publishing house), but nothing to anyone else.  This year, in large part due to synergy with ASID’s success, I have published four stories in pro and semi-pro/amateur markets, with a fifth on tap for the new year.  I kicked ass in 2014 when it comes to short stories.  First was my sale of “The Rememberists” to Daily Science Fiction.  That story was HUGE for me, though it was my first flash-length story and literally VERY short.  I’ve had tons of tweets, facebook posts and fan e-mails from that one, along with two short-film producer/directors who intend to turn it into a film project.  Next, I came into contact with the crew over at The Writer’s Arena, who allowed me to participate in one of their short story contests.  Basically, you and another writer get a general topic and you each have to complete a short story in a few days, which the audience and two judges then vote on.  And my story, “The Gaslight Consultant” won!  That led them to checking out ASID (as well as my old Masters thesis online) and mentioning me a couple of times on The Human Echoes Podcast.  The first mention was all zany fun, and the second mention garnered me a very good, well-balanced review for ASID.  My next pro sale was as part of the Riding The Red Horse anthology from Castalia House.  I got an invitation to participate in their inaugural volume, and after a prompt from the editor Vox Day that they were looking for a literal sea story, I turned in “Within This Horizon,” which is now featured alongside stories and essays from Dr. Jerry Pournelle, Tom Kratman, Ken Burnside, Steve Rzasa, Christopher Nuttall, Chris Kennedy, and many others.  The association with Castalia House and RTRH has been all positive, leading to potential new projects and hopefully a chance to participate again next year.  And lastly, a little bit of victory fun.  For the holiday season, I participated in Liberty Island Magazine’s Alternative Holiday Fiction Contest, looking for genre-alternative Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa/Festivus stories.  I turned in a cute little redux of the Christmas Truce of 1914, but this time between our AI robots and the combat drones of our bitter enemy Canada.  And it won the grand prize!

And the last bit of professional writing news had the second biggest impact on my life:  the independent publication of A Sword Into Darkness through Stealth Books.  I cannot thank enough my publishing partner Jeff Edwards and all the readers who gave me a shot.  You guys made my year.  As of this posting and not counting an unknown number of pirated copies (I’ve truly arrived . . . people are stealing my shit), I’ve sold just under 30,000 copies of my little military sci-fi / hard-science space opera.  Here’s how the percentages break out:

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As you can see, ASID is available in trade paperback, on Kindle, Nook, Smashwords, Kobo, iBooks, and as an audiobook read by Liam Owen from SciFi Publishing.  And it is a well-regarded debut novel, with 4.4 stars on Amazon out of 349 US reviews, 3.88 stars on the tougher crowd at Goodreads through 33 reviews and 525 ratings, plus reviews and accolades from Winchell Chung of Atomic Rockets, PT Hylton, Carol Kean at Perihelion SF, 20four12, PG’s Ramblings, Castalia House, Kaedrin Weblog, the Human Echoes Podcast, and others.  I even got the Christmas treat of making PT Hylton’s favorite 14 books of 2014 in song form:

I don’t know how others do on their debuts because I’m too new at this, but I’m very very very happy and blessed with how ASID has done.  And I’m very hopeful about the doors it may open up for me.  I got a whole lotta nothing from agents and publishers for the last three years, but over the last year I’ve proven that I can at least sell a well-regarded book as a solid mid-list author.  They say you should not use self-published titles on your query letters to publishers, but if I can tell them that on my own, with no resources other than help from friends and a few judicious ads and sales, I sold 30,000 copies of my debut. maybe then they’ll give me a closer look.  Oooor, I’ll just stick to the indie crowd and continue taking in 70% royalties instead of settling for 10-15%.

And last but certainly not least, the thing that had the biggest impact on my year.  It was not the job, though that did have biggish news and a may appear here next year.  It was not my kids, though I am very proud of them and the improvements in their grades and schooling.  It was not my personal health journey as that mostly involved me getting fatter and slower despite my half-hearted efforts.  No, the biggest thing for me this year was standing by my beautiful wife, Jen, as she kicked breast cancer’s ass.  She is an inspiration to me, and I don’t think she adequately realizes how proud I am of her, how humbled I am that she continues to put up with my crap and allows me to walk beside her in life.  This woman faced down a double mastectomy, chemotherapy, radiation, reconstruction, complications to her own gastric bypass from years ago, and all the ravages to the body, psyche, and soul that all of that can wreak upon someone, and she refused to let it break her.  In fact, she used it to inspire others to get tested and to persevere, no matter the diagnosis or prognosis.  She endured shaving her head (my son and I joined her in this), losing her hair, dealing with the pain of neuropathy, the fatigue, the burns, and the fear that it would all be for naught.  She had low days indeed.  Who wouldn’t?  But she always came out on top.  And now she is on the mend and headed to being certifiably cancer free.  Her mother and I served as her caregivers, but that never stopped Jen from providing care to her family and a wider circle of friends than I will ever know.  Jen Mays, I love you and my hopes and prayers are for a great 2015 for us both.  We deserve it, and especially you.

Have a great year, everybody.  Toodles.

 

“A” is for Anxiety, “B” is for Bitterness, “C” is for . . . .

Cancer.

As Tweeters, Facebookers, Tumbl’rers, bloggers, and writers the internet over tackle the challenge of summing up 2013 and looking forward to 2014, my post turns out to be a hell of a lot different from the one I thought I’d be writing when The Improbable Author began last year.  This was the year I was to be published, whether by a big house or as an indie.  ’13 was to have been the year I put on my big boy pants and tried to make my own way through the marketplace.

Instead, the last two months of this year — during which I had grand plans for a book launch — were instead waylaid by something a lot more terrifying and important than whether or not my pulpy space opera would do well or not.  Just after Halloween, my wife Jen received news that scared us a more than any monster possibly could:  she had tested positive for breast cancer.  The moment I received that first teary call from Jen relaying the doctor’s diagnosis, all plans I’d had fell by the wayside.  Whether I had the time or not to devote to writing or book-marketing, I couldn’t even gather the thoughts needed to work out the details.  I was numb, and angry, and dismayed, my emotions and thoughts contradicting themselves as fear and hope, pragmatism and delusion swirled around my brain.  And I think I’ve remained in that state ever since.

Everything after the diagnosis seemed to proceed at a fast-forward pace.  My day job’s insurance is (thankfully) very, very good, so doctors, specialists, and hospital staff jumped on Jen’s diagnosis with the enthusiasm of a hungry stray.  We leapt from diagnosis (invasive ductile carcinoma), to planning the surgery, to informing our family and friends, to the surgery itself in almost no time. Less than a month after finding out about the lump in her right breast — the week after Thanksgiving — she went under the knife.  Jen’s family has a long, sad history of cancer, so she made the brave and terrifying choice to not merely have a lumpectomy, but instead opted for a double mastectomy with reconstruction, with the full concurrence of the medical team.  Once there, however, as our luck goes, it became more complicated. The cancer had spread to the lymph nodes on that side, such that they all had to be removed as well.

Recovery from surgery was another ordeal entirely.  She had a horrible time managing her pain, with complications arriving at every turn.  Where many can leave a day or two after surgery, she was not able to check out for four days.  And then she was in and out of the emergency room and re-admitted a few days later when another complication arose with her medication along with a surprise fungal infection out of left field.  Finally, she came home to stay home, but things did not necessarily get easy from there.  The drains leaked and pulled and awkwardly, painfully obstructed everything from laying down to going to the bathroom. Stiches, tissue expanders, her entire chest, EVERYTHING hurt, almost all the time, interrupting her sleep and keeping her loopy on meds when she could stay awake.  She could only gingerly hold her beloved children and my every move seemed to be the bumbling, jerking motions of a golem targeted upon annoying and hurting her despite my intentions.  I grew frustrated, angry, confused, fearful, petulant, and lonely — and then guilty for wasting thoughts on my lot when nothing I felt could possibly compare to the fear and anger of my wife who ACTUALLY had a reason for her feelings beyond mere selfishness.

I thank God for her mother and her sister, who were there to help her in a much more soothing manner than I could manage.  I’m also appreciative of the help our neighbors have offered, for Facebook’s numerous contacts that have enabled strangers and distant friends both to stay in touch, provide advice, and buoy her spirits.  And I’m completely in the debt to the wonderful doctors, nurses, and staff of the Portsmouth Naval Medical Center.

2013 ended on a very sour note, but there were good things about the year’s end as well.  Jen is on the mend, off the meds, and getting better every day.  Christmas wasn’t the holiday she looked forward to before the diagnosis, but it was a good Christmas nonetheless.  And though my book launching plans completely hit a wall (with apologies to all of those to whom I made promises and owed things which went totally unfulfilled), my partners in crime have kept working, garnering praise for this thing I created and then left untended.

2014 offers challenges, fears, hopes, and surprises as well, of course. First and foremost, my wife’s reconstruction and treatment continue.  Chemotherapy is supposed to be a different kind of hell to experience, with the only good thing about it being that it has a fair track record at killing cancer and keeping it from coming back.  I fear for the nausea, pain, and muddled thinking it carries with it and wish a child’s wish that I could face it instead of her.  When it and the radiation are done, though, and when the reconstruction is complete and all the hair has come back, my more realistic hope for 2014 is that my wife can be not just a proud cancer survivor, but a genuinely happy, hopeful, and strong woman, fully aware that she excites me now just as much as she did when we were dating.

And I also hope to get a book out. 🙂