Find me around the internet

I’m finally getting some energy back after a few wild months of moving, changing jobs, and just generally throwing my entire life into the air to see where the pieces would land. I’m proud of myself for keeping Astra Nullius going with no interruptions despite the madness, and now that I have more energy it’s time to take promoting the series seriously.

I also finally had the time to clean up some bits of the site that desperately needed fixing. You may notice that the links are no longer weird colors and navigation links between stories are now at the top and bottom of each page.

Want to ask me questions or spread the word by reblogging my stories? Find me on Tumblr. Anonymous messages are turned on, so you don’t need to have an account to talk to me.

You might also have noticed that my posts now have links to my Patreon page at the bottom. Don’t worry, I won’t be putting the site behind a paywall, although if I hit certain funding goals there will be stories exclusively for patrons. I’m excited to start using Patreon’s poll feature to keep track of what readers want from Astra Nullius; I’ll be putting up polls to decide how to handle certain story elements like relationships between characters and new point-of-view characters. And of course, making a little cash off this site means I can start ramping up promotion efforts like buying display ads online and in con brochures.

Achievement Unlocked: Author Interview

Hey, here’s a writing milestone that came earlier than expected: my very first author interview. J. Young-Ju Harris is another author who’s self-publishing a serial story. He asked me some questions about why I chose to publish Astra Nullius the way I did, and I spent entirely too much time talking about Mass Effect boners, like I do.

Check it out on J. Young-Ju Harris’s site.

Do Authors Have To Care About SEO?

Ok, so there’s this thing you’ve maybe heard about before called search engine optimization. It has something to do with… Google? SERPs are a thing? There are… blue links?

A search engine is any piece of software that takes your input, searches through a database, and pulls up a result or a series of results that it thinks you want. The search engine you’re probably most familiar with is Google, or possibly its main competitors Bing, Yahoo, and DuckDuckGo. These search engines are designed to crawl and index the entire web, or at least the parts of it that haven’t been deliberately blocked from search engines’ view. Their purpose is taking your keywords and guessing as accurately as possible which page, out of all the billions on the internet, you wanted to see.

There’s a lot going on behind the scenes when it comes to making how these search engines work. Each has a proprietary and carefully guarded algorithm that weighs websites based on criteria like how long the text of the page is, how fast it loads, how many other reputable sites linked to that site, whether the keyword you searched for appears on the page, whether the keyword you searched for appears too many times on the page, whether users who visited the page immediately clicked away, and many, many other considerations. All of this happens in a matter of microseconds, and then, voila, your search results are displayed.

But not all search engines cover the entire web. Some are only designed for one specific site. When you type the name of a book into the search bar on Amazon or Goodreads, you’re using that site’s search engine. When you Facebook stalk the cute guy you met at a bar using his last name + high school combo to figure out his full name, you’re using a search engine. When it’s 3 a.m. and you’re frantically typing keywords into JSTOR to find that one citation that will tie your whole thesis together, you’re using a (really shitty) search engine.

As an author, you probably haven’t spent much time thinking about search engines, even if you use one every day to find answers to queries like, “what’s the minimum length for a novel” and “how long does it take to bleed out from a stab wound” and “cheap lounge pants for short people” and “itchy butt is it cancer.” But if you’re thinking seriously about publication, it doesn’t matter if you’re publishing through a traditional press, working with a self-publishing service, or slapping up posts on your own site: search engines are about to make or break your career.

Your Name (Or Your Pseudonym)

Ok, so this part’s easy. You put your name on your books, people search for your name, they find your books. Right?

Sort of right. The name that’s attached to your publications is your brand; you need one that’s unique, or at least impossible to mix up with someone else’s brand. You may have noticed that trendy tech companies often don’t use common nouns and verbs as words, but deliberately mash them together, misspell them, or shorten them: Lyft, Tumblr, Instagram, Netflix, Wikipedia, and so forth. That’s because it’s easiest to rank in a search engine for your own name–sometimes called a branded search term–if no one else is using it.

It takes a whole lot of clout to redefine the concept of Amazon or Apple. Those companies show up on the first page when you Google them because they’re marketing powerhouses. If you’re reading SEO 101 articles on a random self-published author’s website, sorry, you’re probably not a marketing powerhouse.

If you know your first and last name combo is completely unique in this world, congratulations! That’s your brand. Make extra sure to scour Google and Facebook to make absolutely sure that you’re the only person in the world who has an active online presence under your own name. If someone else had your name in the past but died, and that person was famous and got talked about in a lot of publications that are available digitally, or if they published any works that are still available, you may have a problem.

If you’re writing under a pseudonym, search Amazon and Goodreads to make sure that no one else is publishing work under that name. Check Google and Facebook and scope out anyone else who has an online presence under that name. Are they unlikely to publish a book in the near future? Fine, use that pseudonym. Is another author using that name already? Sorry–you’re going to need to choose a different name, especially if that author’s publishing in a genre close to yours.

If there are multiple people in the world with your first and last name combination, use Google to check that no one with your name seems to have any celebrity status that might edge you out of the rankings when fans try to search for you. Check Amazon and Goodreads to make sure no other author is using that name. If you truly don’t have any competition for that name as an author, or if you’re 100% confident that you won’t be mixed up with your doppelgänger, go ahead and use it! But if you’re the second James Doe to write middle-grade speculative fiction, you’re going to create needless mix-ups if you try to publish under a name another author is using. This sounds like a silly misunderstanding, but it can have major, possibly even career- and life-derailing implications if you’re mistaken for another author. (Content warning: that link contains some frank descriptions of suicidal ideation)

If your name is unique, but similar at a glance to another published author’s name, you can do what you want, but I’d strongly advise you to pick a pseudonym. Sorry to all the J.R.R. Tolkens, Neil Gamans, and Terry Patchetts of the world: any fans who type your name into a search engine are going to find it suggesting the other guy.

Your Book and Series Names

So I have some devastating news for you. That potential book name you’re completely attached to? The one that’s referencing a Shakespeare quote? Dozens of people are already using it,  and your chances of outranking them are not great.

If someone’s searching for the name of your book or your series, you’ve already done the hardest part of marketing: getting them interested enough to check your work out. But if they can’t find your book in an ocean of identically named books, they may just give up, especially if they can’t remember your name (this happens A LOT) or if you didn’t follow my advice about names in the last section.

Fortunately, this is an easy fix for an unknown author: give your stuff a unique name. If your series has a unique name, maybe you can get away with sharing a book name with someone else. If you’ve got enough name recognition as an author that you’re confident that people will be searching for your name, or you’ve got a big marketing budget to back your book up, you can also play fast and loose with this rule. As a matter of fact, if you’re working with a traditional publishing house and they’ve got a team of book marketers and publicists, ask the people you’re working with with what to do.

Use a proper noun or a first and last name combination that’s unique to your story. The Lies of Locke Lamora. Gunnerkrigg Court. The Rats of Nimh. Redwall. Malazan Book of the Fallen. Karen Memory. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Discworld. Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter. Dragonriders of Pern. Eragon. Gormenghast. The Hobbit. A Wizard of Earthsea. Mockingjay. The Spiderwick Chronicles.

Use the good old fantasy series trick to combine two interesting-sounding nouns that are rarely paired. The Wheel of Time. The Sword of Truth. Gentleman Bastard. The Dresden Files. The Laundry Files. The Black Company. The Magpie Lord. Lord of the Rings. Prince of Nothing. The Dark is Rising. Half a King. The Hunger Games. Girl Genius. Jurassic Park. American Gods.

Use a phrase with common words in an unlikely combination. The Time Traveler’s Wife. Stars In My Pocket Like Grains of Sand. The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. The Girl With All the Gifts. Life After Life. Full Dark, No Stars. Vampire Academy.

So I’m going to level with you here: I kinda sorta didn’t take my own advice here. I did make a list of potential series names when I was working on Astra Nullius, and I crossed off a bunch when it turned out I was competing with another book series, a video game, or a movie. But I didn’t come up with the phrase astra nullius; as a matter of fact, it’s been discussed in some scientific papers hosted on sites that Google trusts a whole lot. I’m banking on the fact that if I stick with it long enough, enough people will search for my work using that keyword that search engines will learn that people using that keyword don’t want scientific papers.

Your Site

So, here’s some good news: as an author, you don’t have to care as much about search engine optimization for your own homepage as most business owners do. You’re not going to have to sweat about whether your business shows up in the Map Pack or whether it’s ranking first for “buy cheap books online.” That’s just not how people search for individual authors.

You should have your own website. Don’t tie your entire online presence to a social media account. Of course, you should be on social media too, but that’s a whole different article and we’re not going to get into that right now.

Where you choose to host your website and what you choose to do with it is up to you. There are easy options like Wix and Squarespace that let you pretty much drag and drop your way to a decent-looking site. There are easy-ish options like WordPress.com that come with certain tradeoffs in flexibility and arbitrarily withholding features. You can also go ahead and purchase your own domain name and hosting and build your own site, trading the occasional technical headache for much more flexibility. If you’re happy with your layout options, your content management system, and your analytics, that’s good enough.

And then, use common sense. Don’t:

  • Build a site that’s really difficult to read or navigate, or that discourages people from getting to the place where they can give you money.
  • Take tips from the kind of people who cold email you saying things like, “Greetings of the day, I can get your site to #1 on Google.”
  • Deliberately spam keywords, hide text full of spammy keywords, pay for spammy links, or pay for “traffic” that does nothing but move a hit counter.
  • Start and then abandon dozens of blogs with your name on different hosts, littering your search results with their desiccated corpses.
  • Leave a bunch of broken links all over your site.
  • Delete a post without redirecting that address somewhere.
  • Forget to renew your own domain name (I am totally guilty of this).
  • Let a torrent of spam pour forth unchecked in your comments.
  • Start a blog, then leave it inactive for years. If you’re going to blog, then you gotta keep adding that fresh content.
  • Forget to block your own IP address in Google Analytics, visit your live page dozens of times while you’re editing it, and then get excited about all those sweet hits (also guilty).
  • Make every image on your site as gigantic a file as it could possibly be.
  • Accidentally hit a button that prevents search engines from indexing your page (I’m hopefully not guilty of this, but it’s easier than you might think to screw this up in many content management systems).
  • Post the same content over and over.
  • Put up short blog posts many times a day, unless you’re Seth Godin, then you can do what you want.
  • Host your blog on a different domain than the rest of the website–unless, again, you are Seth Godin or you’ve got a really great following on a different blogging platform already.
  • Steal content from other people.

One slip-up won’t destroy your entire site’s rankings forever–unless it’s the spam thing, so don’t do the spam thing. When in doubt, think about the kind of site you want to see: one that’s easy to navigate, pleasant to look at, quick to load, and regularly updated with new content if there’s a blog or newsfeed. Then make that site. If you’re feeling bold, you can get into manually editing your title tags and meta descriptions and using the Google Search Console, but you don’t have to sweat those things as an author. Getting into those technical details is only necessary if you’re a business trying to outrank your competitors–and if you followed my advice about your name and title, you won’t have anyone else competing for your search terms.

The newer and less well-known you are as an author, the more you have to care about search engine optimization. Unless you’re hand-selling all your books at a table at a con, or you’ve got big marketing bucks securing you a prime spot in brick-and-mortar bookstores, you need SEO. Search engines are how people who’ve heard of you once will find you a second time, and a third time, and that time they want to recommend you to their friend, and that time they remember a funny post you wrote two years ago, and the time when your name pops into their head at just the right moment and they decide to look you up on Amazon at long last.

Introducing Writer Robot

I built a robot for you.

Ok, actually, I didn’t built a robot. I built a Twitter bot using a spreadsheet. It composes random tweets by building sentences from fragments I plugged into it. So that’s less impressive.

When you follow @writer_robot, you’ll get a new bite-sized bit of writing encouragement delivered to your timeline once every four hours. Pretend it’s your helpful little sidekick. Tweet abuse at it when you’re stuck on a really annoying scene. Correct its lousy syntax. Write some nasty fanfic about it. Whatever you need, Writer Robot probably can’t provide, but you can imagine it falling over and flailing its little robot legs helplessly in the air. That’s adorable. Thanks for suffering for our amusement, Writer Robot.

New Year’s Resolutions

Normally, I finish up each year by posting charts of my word count. 2016 threw a wrench in those plans–although I did write a whole lot, it wasn’t in a format that’s easy to track. I revised a novel that still needs many more revisions, rounded out my first full year as a full-time web content manager, and did some piecemeal work on side projects that may or may not be novels someday. I also spent a few months not writing fiction at all, because writing is a hobby that takes a whole lot of mental energy, and I didn’t have much brainpower to spare after the curse of 2016 slammed into my personal life at full force.

So instead of looking back, I’m looking ahead. These are my resolutions for 2017. I’m keeping them intentionally vague, because this year also promises to be full of possibly unpleasant surprises, and I want to celebrate some victories even if they’re small.

1. Advance in this career I stumbled into back in 2015.

I’d had a hunch for a while that marketing might be a good fit for me, but “marketing” is an amorphous term that covers dozens of actual occupations and hundreds of possible skill sets. Towards the end of 2015, I was finally ready to move on from my admin job, and I ended up in an entry-level digital marketing gig with a small company. I learned a ton on the job–everything from understanding Google Analytics to laying out print books.

Now, after more than a full year in digital marketing, I’m confident that this is a field I’m going to be in for a while. If you told me two years ago that I’d be this excited about work, I wouldn’t have believed you.

I’m still not sure exactly what I want to specialize in, but now at least I know what I still have to learn. That’s why I switched the hosting of this blog off wordpress.com (and beefed up my domain name registry so badly): although you can’t see it from the outside, there’s a lot more going on behind the scenes, and I can get my grubby mitts all over the tools I need to learn more about.

2. Take care of my body and my brain.

I did some smart stuff in 2016. I put a lot of miles in on my treadmill desk; I took up fencing; I managed some extremely stressful situations with more aplomb than even I expected. But there’s still room for improvement. In 2017, I’m going to try to be more proactive about my health. That means making mental health care a regular thing instead of the final option in a crisis, doing exercises not just because they’re fun and stress-relieving but because I need to take care of every part of my body, and being more thoughtful about what I put into my body.

There’s nothing quantifiable here, no number of pounds I plan to lose or inches I plan to trim off my waist. That’s fine. 2017 is not going to be the year I turn into a bikini babe, and I’m ok with that.

3. Put my fiction in front of other people.

First drafts are fun to write, but my relentless focus on word count produced a whole lot of trunk novels. In 2017, instead of producing another first draft of a novel, I’m going to be releasing some bite-sized fiction. And I mean actually releasing it: those words are going to be right here, on this blog, in front of your eyeballs.

This is, I think, going to be the hardest resolution to stick with. It’s also the most important one. After years of guarding my hoard of trunk novels, it’s time to start thinking of myself as a writer who can produce work that’s readable now, not somebody who will maybe finally write something worth reading in 10 years’ time.

I’m starting with a genre that has been a great source of comfort for me: pulpy science fiction. I’m not going to psych myself out by telling myself that I can’t put my name on anything less than great literature here. These aren’t the greatest stories ever written, but they’re the greatest stories I can write right now, and that’s enough for me.

WHOOPS

So I did something really dumb, and accidentally lost access to the domain name I had been using. Now demetriaspinrad.com is temporarily unavailable for purchase, and might not be released for up to 120 days.

WHOOPS. My bad. Sometimes you learn a valuable lesson about domain name registrars the hard way.

The bad news: A lot of links on this site are going to be broken. Please leave me a comment if you find one so I can direct it to the right page. Visit astranullius.com to get to this site.

The good news: I have been screwing with this stuff because I’m preparing to ramp up my publishing schedule and start posting more of my original fiction here. Starting in January 2017, I will be posting:

  • Once a month: A 4,000-word piece of a serialized science fiction story
  • Once a week: Link roundup of my favorite free fiction available online
  • Whenever I feel like it: More blog posts about nerdy stuff

One story, told twice

So I’m going to tell you about two characters.

The first is FN-2187, aka Finn, from 2015’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens. He’s one of the protagonists of the movie, a coward with a heart of gold who starts out as a Stormtrooper but stumbles into an adventure while fleeing from the First Order.

finn-star-wars

The second is Rhys, from 2014’s Tales from the Borderlands. He’s one of two playable characters in the game, a middle manager at Hyperion who stumbles into an adventure while attempting to dethrone his asshole boss. The player can choose how he responds to certain choices in the course of the story, making him a snarky jerk or a coward with a heart of gold-ish substance.

rhys-borderlands

Here, let me describe their arcs in more detail. (Spoilers for both stories below, of course)

  1. He begins the story working as a minor stooge for the main villainous organization of the franchise.
  2. Instead of climbing the ranks, he ends up being demoted to janitorial duty on the villainous organization’s big bad base. This base can shoot missiles through space to attack planets. Ships without clearance cannot get through this base’s force field.
  3. He’s got a nemesis in the villainous organization: not the person at the very top of the food chain, but a hyper-competent manager who’s keeping a close eye on him.
  4. His character design is deliberately intended to make him look innocent and not battle-hardened. He has a round jaw, a beardless face, and no visible scars. He’ll stay beardless even in situations where shaving is clearly not a priority, such as while wandering in the desert and while unconscious. Despite the fact that his one-syllable Celtic name is uncommon in America, he has an American accent.
  5. On a desert planet, he’s confronted with the true consequences of working for the villainous organization, and decides that he’d rather be out for himself.
  6. He has a close friend who travels with him from the villainous base. This buddy is his best bro; they work well together, and they’re never set up as rivals in romance or in their careers. For a long stretch of the story, this buddy appears to be dead, but pops up again to rescue him later, having improbably survived an attack by the enemy.
  7. On the desert planet, he runs across a spunky brunette with an unglamourous career on the margins of society. Though the two start off on the wrong foot, they eventually develop a mutual respect.
  8. His arc with the spunky brunette is not about being saved from evil by the love of a good woman, nor is it about his destiny as the chosen one relegating her to sidekick status. She’s the one who kicks butt and takes names; his role in the story is to be impressed and give her valuable intel about the enemy.
  9. The spunky brunette has unclear parentage. She wears a distinctive brown outfit that includes an asymmetrical pouch on one hip. She receives a small gun as a gift from a cantankerous old con artist who is a father figure to her, but not her biological dad. When it’s time for them to ride a hunk of junk into space together, she’s the pilot. A protagonist from an earlier installment of the franchise becomes a mentor to her, symbolically passing the torch on to her.
  10. His time on the desert planet will involve a lot of sequences in which he’s shocked, hit on the head, knocked down, or forced to do something gross. Watching a card-carrying member of the villainous organization suffer will be played as both a catharsis for the audience, and the beginning of a redemption arc in which his suffering gradually transmutes him into a sympathetic character.
  11. In his travels, he meets a ball-shaped robot with child-like characteristics. This robot has a map that leads somewhere very important, and his journey involves following the robot across the world. Powerful, dangerous people are on the hunt for this robot. The spunky brunette will initially be tempted to sell the robot, but will decide against it.
  12. In at least one scene, he will need to climb something using the spunky brunette for support, and she will complain about it.
  13. Halfway through the story, our heroes end up leaving the desert and entering a forest. There, they meet a spry elderly person with round googles with interchangeable lenses. This person gives them a tool they need to continue on their journey. When an enemy searching for the robot outguns them in the forest, the sequence ends with a woman being kidnapped.
  14. A former friend from the villainous organization will attempt to kill him.
  15. At the climax of the story, our heroes need to sneak onto the enemy base with the help of his insider knowledge. Although the spunky brunette appears to need rescuing, she’ll end up holding her own just fine in a fight, and he’s actually the one who’ll need to be rescued at the end of the sequence. A protective figure dies and falls towards a glowing blue light. The enemy base explodes. At the end of this sequence, he passes out.
  16. The story ends with him electing to remain with the friends he’s made on his journey, who are the enemies of the organization he started out with. However, he does temporarily part ways with the spunky brunette, who is parted from him not knowing whether he’ll survive.
  17. As a visual indicator of his change in allegiance, the jacket he is wearing changes. By the end of the story, he’s wearing a jacket with an eye-catching reddish strip over the left breast.

So, which one ripped the other off? Neither–they were both in development at the same time, and both projects were developed in secrecy to avoid spoilers. The similarities might be uncanny, but the writers weren’t cribbing off each other.

Of course, both stories exist in the shadow of the same science fiction edifice: the original Star Wars trilogy. Star Wars shaped so much of how we imagine a well-worn science fiction universe that it’s just inevitable that certain aesthetic trends will carry over: blue-tinted holograms, robotic prosthetic hands, run-down desert outposts, escape pods, spaceships held together by creative engineering and prayer, and so on.

Plus, both franchises reference classic Westerns as well as films by Akira Kurosawa (The original Star Wars is heavily inspired by The Hidden Fortress, and The Force Awakens references it too; Tales from the Borderlands uses the framing device from Rashomon). It’s not that surprising to see a similar set of tropes coming out of the same cultural well.

And then, sometimes story elements just manage to bubble up from the collective unconsciousness in many different places. In a world filled with obedient robots, the idea of a human getting demoted to janitorial duty is particularly funny. It’s satisfying for modern audiences to see the trope of the damsel in distress turned on its head. A lifetime of Western media consumption has left most of us with subconscious associations about face shapes, costumes, and hair colors and styles. We have an instinctual tendency to anthropomorphize robots and to think of rounded objects as childlike. The banality of evil and the redemption arc very, very old themes.

These are far from the only stories with remarkably similar parallels. Go on, try the same exercise with Simon Tam from Firefly, Jake Sully from Avatar, Commander Shepard from Mass Effect 2, Wikus from District 9, Douglas Quaid from Total Recall, and Nux from Mad Max: Fury Road. Not every detail will line up perfectly, but you’ll be able to pick out a generous handful of common character types, themes, images, and scenes from any two stories on the list. These two happened to line up so perfectly in part because they started from the same place, as spin-offs of a massively successful franchise that had already established its setting and its villains.

What I’ve been up to

I’m still slogging gamely through manuscript edits, working on draft 3 of ?????. I’m also planning a wedding long-distance, working in a job with a heavy focus on content creation, and picking up a new martial art. So content here will be light for the immediate future.

If you just can’t get enough of works written by me, my latest day job project is Safer Seattle, a news blog with a focus on car, bike, and pedestrian safety in the Seattle area. Need to know all the exciting minutia about sidewalk closures? Want to see how I convinced my boss to let me write about Pokemon Go on company time? You can read my articles here.

How to revise your manuscript without losing your mind

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Seriously, does anyone know how to do this? If you do, please tell me, because my mind done got lost about halfway through the process.

So, I’m done with draft 2 of a novel that is slowly, slowly inching towards readability. This is the first time I’ve ever revised a manuscript of this length instead of tossing the whole thing in the virtual trash and starting over fresh. This was the first time I ran into a whole new set of challenges as a writer:

  • I had no idea how to estimate how long it would take me to revise a manuscript. I set a deadline for the end of March, and ended up staggering over the finish line in the middle of May. I hate blowing deadlines, even self-imposed ones, even ones that were completely untenable from the get-go.
  • I didn’t have an easy way of charting my progress. I tried Pacemaker for a while, but it wasn’t nearly as visually exciting as the charts I made to track my rising word counts in years past. And that was part of the problem: I’m very motivated by watching a number counting up towards a complete manuscript, but I hate to see one counting down towards a deadline.
  • I also didn’t have a reliable way of quantifying how much effort I was pouring into my work. I breezed through many of the scenes in Act 1, making only minor tweaks, but I scrapped and rewrote a good chunk of Act 2 and the entirety of Act 3.

And there’s the rub: I rewrote a lot of this manuscript, but not always in massive chunks. A paragraph here, a few pages there, and it didn’t take long to lose track of how much of my word count was new. So, no pretty graphs this time. And no excerpts to post on the blog yet, either, because this sucker still needs a lot of work.

So what’s next? Some well-deserved rest, some tinkering with just-for-fun projects, and then I’ll jump back into the third draft towards the end of 2016. I plan on using this blog more actively, both for funny articles and for some shorter works of fiction that don’t need a massive multi-year editing process to smooth off those rough edges.