Category Archives: eBooks

Kindle Unlimited For Self-Publishers, The Final Month

December of 2014 was the final month of my three month experiment with Kindle Unlimited, Amazon’s subscription service for ebooks. In October I started an experiment where I put 19 of my older short stories into the Kindle Unlimited subscription program. My goal was to have at least 34 Kindle Unlimited borrows, since that would match the sales I lost by removing the short stories from non-Amazon sales platforms, assuming the rate that Amazon pays for borrows stays above $1. For October the rate Amazon paid per borrow was $1.33, in November it was $1.39, and for December it was $1.43. I suspect Amazon will boost up the payment around the holidays and let it drop a bit in non-peak months, but we’ll see whether that’s right or not.

In October, the first month of the experiment, I had 49 borrows. In November, 61 borrows, and in December, 62 total. Now that the experiment is over, I’m phasing my short stories out of Kindle Unlimited, and making them available on Barnes & Noble and iBooks and the other sites.

So, after three months and 172 borrows, what conclusions have I learned?

-I think Kindle Unlimited would be most valuable to a writer who’s just starting out. Like, if you have two or three books and are working to find visibility for them. The free days of KDP Select and the ability for people to borrow out your book would definitely help with visibility. For someone like me, with as many books as I have (FROSTBORN: THE GORGON SPIRIT is going to be novel #36), I think it makes more sense to have the books spread across as many platforms as possible. If you have four or five books and have them all on Amazon, you’re not losing out on that many non-Amazon sales, objectively speaking. If you have thirty-six books (and 20+ short stories and 9 technical books) the non-Amazon sales really add up over time. Conversely, if I wanted to start, say, a pen name to write romance novels or political thrillers or something, Kindle Unlimited would be a good way to kick it off. (Not that I’m planning to – I barely have enough time to write books under my own name!)

-Another option might be to rotate an older series into Kindle Unlimited for a boost. I haven’t tried this so I don’t know how it would work, but movie and TV companies do this all the time – movies and TV series appear on Netflix and then disappear again after a while.

-Finally, if you have a nonfiction topic that would primarily be of interest to people in the US and the UK, Kindle Unlimited might make a good home for it, since KU is still primarily popular on Amazon US and Amazon UK. Like, a book on US Congressional elections would work on Kindle Unlimited, since that would be a topic mostly of interest to US readers. Whereas for my books about Linux, I’ve never even considered putting them in Kindle Unlimited because Linux is used worldwide. In fact, on iBooks and Google Play a large part of my sales to countries where English is not the primary language are my books on Linux.

So, that is my opinion of Kindle Unlimited. Feel free to share your experiences with it below, whether as a reader or as a writer (or both).

-JM

the writing goals of 2014

Last year, I wrote a post detailing my writing goals for 2014. Let’s look back and see how many of them I met!

“At least two or three more THE GHOSTS books.”

Success! GHOST IN THE COWL, GHOST IN THE MAZE, and GHOST IN THE HUNT, and I wrote the rough draft of GHOST IN THE RAZOR.

“At least two or three more FROSTBORN books.”

Success! FROSTBORN: THE MASTER THIEF, FROSTBORN: THE IRON TOWER, and FROSTBORN: THE DARK WARDEN. I also wrote the second half of FROSTBORN: THE UNDYING WIZARD in January of 2014.

“Return to DEMONSOULED. I’ve been bashing my head against the wall for a year trying to figure out what to do next, but I think I have it at last. More on that later.”

Success! I wrote MASK OF SWORDS and published it at the end of November 2014.

“Return to THE THIRD SOUL.”

Did not do this one, alas. I think writing three series simultaneously might be too much even for me.

“In 2012 I wrote 530,000 words, and in 2013 I wrote 863,000 new words. So in 2014, I’d like to see if I can push that up to one million words. This might not be doable, but I shall like to try. (Of course, reaching the first four goals will help with this. Synergy!”

I almost did it. In 2014, I wrote about 930,000 new words.

“A tech book. I didn’t write any new tech books in 2013, but I would like to do one. My new website, Computer Beginner’s Guides, should help with that.”

Success! I wrote WINDOWS 8.1: 101 TIPS AND TRICKS and UBUNTU: 101 TIPS AND TRICKS

“6 books available in print by the holidays of 2014. I’ve found it’s best not to think of them as “print books”, but as “holiday gift editions”. So, I hope to have 16 of my books available as “holiday gift editions” by the holidays of 2014.”

Success! 19 of my books are available in print right now.

“I’m hoping to get another book in the Top 100 for Epic Fantasy, since GHOST IN THE FLAMES & GHOST IN THE BLOOD made it into the Top 100 on Thanksgiving Day.”

-I didn’t do that one. I changed tactics, instead, and decided it was better to have my books sitting higher in a less trafficked Amazon bestseller list than lower on more popular one. It’s better to have a book that’s #5 on a less visible list than at #79 in the more competitive ones. Not too many people scroll down to #79.

“I hope to reach 1,000 total subscribers for my New Release Newsletter. Subscribe here!

Success! The mailing list is at 1,320 subscribers as of this writing.

“Sell a thousand copies of a one book in an individual month.”

Success! I did that a couple times, most notably with FROSTBORN: THE DARK WARDEN, which sold over 1,200 copies its first month.

“Have more books available on Google Play. I’ve heard rumblings that Google Play is growing as a market for ebooks, which makes sense, as there are something like a billion Android phones floating around out there.”

Success! Most of my books are available on Google Play, and I’ve been selling about 200 copies a month there. And I’ve learned all kinds of things about foreign currency. I had no idea that the currency of South Africa was called the “rand”, or that Sweden was not on the euro.

So, all in all, I’d say 2014 was a pretty successful writing year. Later this week I’ll lay out my goals for 2015.

-JM

how I make print books in CreateSpace

Another writer asked how I sell print books. She saw that I have print books available for sale on the Barnes & Noble website, and wanted to know how I had gotten them there.

Short answer: I used CreateSpace.com to do it.

Now for a much longer, step-by-step answer, but first some of my guiding principles for making print books.

PRINCIPLE #1: It is entirely possible to do a handsome print book in CreateSpace. Granted, the process is tedious and nitpicky, but it is doable. The first time is the hardest, and after you’ve gotten it down, you can go much faster. It took me a few weeks of on-and-off work to make a CreateSpace book the first time. Nineteen of them later, I can do it in about two hours if I put my mind to it. If I figured it out, you can too.

Realistically, it is far easier to create a print book now, right now as you are reading these very words, than at any other point in human history. Medieval monks spent months or even years creating print books by hand. Early printers had to toil for days with lead type, pages, ink, and binding. Even in the computer age, preparing documents for print publication was a lot of work. If you’ve ever spent any time with the abomination that was Quark eXPress, you know what I mean.

By contrast, creating a book with CreateSpace requires a few hours of fiddling with Microsoft Word. I think anyone can learn to do it.

PRINCIPLE #2: I try to make the print books as simple as possible while retaining an acceptable level of quality. This is because, by and large, people buy more ebooks than print books from self-published writers like me. Like, in December of 2014, I sold 17 copies of print books through CreateSpace, but over 6,400 copies of ebooks. So print books run into the Law Of Diminishing Returns. You can make an amazingly beautiful print book through CreateSpace, but unless you’re doing so for emotional reasons (like turning your grandmother’s memoirs into a paperback book or something of that nature), it generally does not represent a good return on the time investment.

PRINCIPLE #3: I try to sell the print book for the lowest possible price that will allow me to earn $1 per copy through Expanded Distribution sales. More on that below.

PRINCIPLE #4: This isn’t likely the Most Efficient Method to create print books, and I don’t claim this is the best way for you to do it, either. That said, it works pretty well for my workflow, and some of it might be helpful for you.

So! Now that those are out of the way, how does one create a print book in CreateSpace?

You start by creating a new project on your CreateSpace member dashboard. Once you do, you’ll need to fill out some basic information about the book – title, author, and so forth. You will also need to select an ISBN, both an old ISBN-10 number and the new ISBN-13 numbers. CreateSpace offers free ISBNs, but then CreateSpace gets listed as the publisher. Some writers prefer to buy their own ISBNs so they can list themselves (or their LLC or S-corporation) as the publisher. I think that is a prestige thing and I don’t think it’s worth the trouble (ISBNs are expensive, and frankly in my opinion obsolete), but that’s up to you.
The next step is the interior layout. This is where you can get really elaborate, and this is also where inexperienced people can trip themselves up. Print book layout is much harder than ebook layout, since the ereader or tablet can adjust the text size and layout on the fly. Once a print book is printed, it is set in stone (or print). So here I try to keep things as simple as possible.

I use the CreateSpace suggested Word template for 6 x 9 print books. What I do is convert the EPUB of the book in question to an RTF. Then I copy and paste the chapters one by one into Notepad to scrub out all the formatting, and then copy the plain text from Notepad into the Word template. This means all the raw text inherits the formatting of the template, so I get a nicely formatted book without much effort.

There are a few things I have to guard against. The template does have a bad habit of forcing the final line of a chapter to be justified rather than left-aligned, so if the last line of the chapter is only a few words it looks weird. I also use a triple hash mark (###) for scene breaks, so I need to make sure they’re all centered. It is also important to remember to copy and paste your text into Notepad so it scrubs out the formatting, otherwise all the formatting comes from the RTF file and then into the template, overriding the template’s settings.

Also, the template file itself can get pretty huge – a 4 megabyte Word document for a book of, say, 240 pages. This is normal. It can take Word up to 20 or 30 seconds to save the file when you make changes because of all the formatting. This is also normal.

Once you’re finished, you upload the book file to CreateSpace, preview it, and then approve it. That means it’s time to do the cover.

How you do the cover depends on how you made the original cover. Some book cover designers can create a cover for you at this stage. They’ll just need to know the physical dimensions of the book along with the page count, which CreateSpace will tell you after you’ve uploaded the interior file, and they can create a PDF wrap-around cover you upload. Otherwise, you can use one of the CreateSpace templates and drop your own image into it. This is what I typically do.

After you’ve uploaded your cover, CreateSpace will do an automated print check to make sure the files can print without making their printer explode (I presume). This usually takes about 24 to 48 hours. Once the print check is done, CreateSpace suggests you order a physical proof to examine the book before making it live. This is a good idea to do – the cost with shipping is usually under $10, and you can see firsthand what your book will look like. You can check for any egregious errors that you might have missed in the layout.

Finally, you will have to decide on your book’s price. There is a minimum cost based on the size of the book, but after that you can set pretty much any price you like. You might be tempted to set the lowest possible price, but I would recommend that you avoid that. The trick is to set the price high enough that you will get paid at least $1 through Expanded Distribution. This is because small bookshops can order CreateSpace books through their catalogs, and small bookshops like discounts. If the price is high enough, the distributor can offer a discount, which makes it easier for small bookshops to order your book. (They’re unlikely to actually carry your book unless you’re hugely popular – what is more likely is that a customer will ask for your book and the bookstore will order it for them.)

After you’ve set your books price, be sure to include Expanded Distribution as well. This is what will push your book into the distributor catalogs, allowing bookstores (including Barnes & Noble) to order it. Otherwise, your book will be available only through CreateSpace and Amazon. Granted, most of my paperback sales come through Amazon and Amazon UK, but Expanded Distribution is the way to get your paperback in other stores. And since Expanded Distribution is now free (CreateSpace previously charged a one-time fee of $25 per book, but that was dropped at the end of 2013), there is literally no reason not to use it.

Once you have examined your print proof and decided upon pricing, all that is left to do is to approve it. The book will go on sale. It will appear on the CreateSpace site immediately, on Amazon in a few days, and in Expanded Distribution catalogs in a few weeks.

-JM

Chromebook: 101 Tips & Tricks For Chrome OS

This is really more a topic for my other website, but I thought I would mention it here in case someone found it useful.

I wrote a short introductory guide to using a Chromebook, partly because the topic interested me, and partly because many educators of my acquaintance switched to Chromebooks at their schools and found that they had a bit of a learning curve. If that’s a topic that interests you (or if you’re forced to use a Chromebook at your school ) you can get CHROMEBOOK: 101 TIPS & TRICKS FOR CHROME OS for $0.99 at the links below:

BNChromeOS

Available at Amazon, Amazon UK, Amazon Germany, Amazon Canada, Amazon Australia,Barnes & Noble, (iTunes coming soon), Kobo, Google Play, and Smashwords.

-JM

RIDING THE RED HORSE, an anthology of military science fiction

A review of RIDING THE RED HORSE, an anthology of military science fiction, published by Castalia House of Finland. The publisher sent me a copy of the book for review, and since I am down with getting stuff for free, here we go.

“Only the dead have seen the end of war.” – George Santayana

One of the insolvable problems of human nature is that the social nature of humanity encourages humans to form groups that engage in conflict with each other. The social dynamic, indeed, seems to proceed the reason for the conflict. You can see the dynamic at work in arenas as banal as the committee in charge of a church potluck (perhaps as vicious a field for politics as any in history) to cold wars between powerful nations. The specific reason for the conflict, whether nationality, or ethnicity, or money, or religion, seems almost an excuse, a tool for whatever it is within human beings that cause us to form groups and fight each other. Indeed, this cannot be fixed, only ameliorated. I suspect that if some well-meaning yet nonetheless deranged social engineer were to wave a magic wand and change humanity so that everyone was the same race, the same religion, the same height, the same ability, and the same level of income, so that all the traditional reasons for war were gone, we would still find ways to form into groups and fight each other.

“You see, hidden within the unconscious is an insatiable desire for conflict. So you’re not fighting me so much as you are the human condition. All I want is to own the bullets and the bandages. War, on an industrial scale, is inevitable. They’ll do it themselves, within a few years. All I have to do is wait.” – Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows

So war, as part of the human condition, has always been a topic of fiction, and speculating about what wars might be like in the future is the subject of both military analysts and scholars and military science fiction. The English Civil War of the 17th century was nothing like the American Civil War of the 19th, and World War I was a radically different war than World War II despite a gap of a mere twenty years, so what might a 22nd century war be like? The basic principles of winning a war never seem to change, but the tactics and the weapons are reinvented endlessly.

“Get there first with the most men.”  – Nathan Bedford Forrest

In the 19th century there was a genre of literature called “Invasion Literature”, where writers would speculate about what would happen if Britain were invaded by a foreign power (usually Germany, sometimes France). The US had its own tradition of that during the Cold War, speculating about what would happen if the Soviets took over the US or if Communists came to power. The movie RED DAWN, about a Soviet invasion of the US, is perhaps the most well-known example. Military science fiction, in some sense, is “invasion literature” of the future, speculating on the nature of war in the future using theoretical or hypothesized technologies.

“This country will be drenched in blood, and God only knows how it will end. It is all folly, madness, a crime against civilization! You people speak so lightly of war; you don’t know what you’re talking about. War is a terrible thing!” – William Tecumseh Sherman

RIDING THE RED HORSE is an anthology of military science fiction, speculating on what the wars of both the immediate and the distant future will look like. It alternates between nonfiction essays on the nature of war and short stories. None of the essays or stories were bad, but my favorites were:

-Jerry Pournelle’s HIS TRUTH GOES MARCHING ON takes place on a distant colony planet. Later some refugees are assigned to the planet, to which the original inhabitants take offense, and the situation unfolds with predictable violence from there.  Basically, it’s the Spanish Civil War IN SPACE! The story follows an idealistic yet nonetheless capable young officer who gradually loses both his illusions and his innocence during the fighting.

-William S. Lind’s essay on “The Four Generations of Modern War” rather presciently pointed out some of the serious problems with the Iraq War. His thesis postulates that we are entering a period of history where technology enables non-state organizations or even individuals to wage wars effectively, much like the Middle Ages when the state did not have a monopoly on war. (A good example of that is the Hanseatic League,  an organization of merchants which actually defeated Denmark in a war during the 14th century, or the various civil wars of medieval France and England where powerful noble families fought each other with no central authority able to restrain them.) While I lack the expertise to determine whether the essay is actually correct or not, I nonetheless think it helpful in trying to understand the various conflicts in the world today. Admittedly the hack around THE INTERVIEW film, which took place after I started writing this review, caused millions of dollars in economic disruption and is likely a good example of fourth-generation warfare, regardless of whether a government, a non-state group, or simply a group of disgruntled employees did the hack.

-WITHIN THIS HORIZON, by Thomas A. Mays follows a Space Navy officer in a distant future where the major powers have developed space fleets, and therefore armed conflict has moved the the asteroid belts and the comets. Ground-based forces are left to wither. The Space Navy officer in question, after sustaining serious wounds, is reassigned to the terrestrial water navy, and figures his career is over. The enemy, however, has other ideas, and the story is an excellent tale of integrity in the face of cynicism.

-TURNCOAT, by Steve Rzasa, takes place in a far future interstellar human empire called the Ascendancy. A faction called the Integration has developed human-to-machine brain uploading, creating the first posthumans. The ascended posthumans are engaged in a war of extermination against normal humanity, but one AI warship starts to develop doubts about its mission of extermination. Usually stories about AI involve the AI going psychotic, so it was interesting to see an AI develop a conscience instead.

-My favorite story of the anthology is THEY ALSO SERVE by Tedd Roberts, about a brilliant military surgeon who pioneered the use of surgical nanobots. His techniques have saved thousands, perhaps even millions of lives, yet the surgeon is starting to unravel under the pressure, feeling guilty that he has healed injured soldiers only to send them to die in a new war. This is a common problem one sees in those who do good and noble work – the pressure of seeing so much pain and suffering eventually wears them down. A crisis comes that forces the surgeon to make some hard choices, and perhaps validate the choices he has already made.

In the end, RIDING THE RED HORSE alternates between entertaining science fiction and insightful essays. Definitely recommended. The tone of the anthology is at times grim, but it is good to remember the science fiction usually fails pretty abysmally at accurately predicting the future. William Gibson’s NEUROMANCER had pay phones, after all, and Jerry Pournelle’s story had the Soviet Union existing long beyond 1991. Perhaps it is best to close with the words of a man who, while not a science fiction writer, had nonetheless seen the worst that war had to offer:

“It is not despair, for despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt. We do not.”

-JRR Tolkien, THE LORD OF THE RINGS

-JM

Christmas short story superswarm!

Merry Christmas, everyone!

I’m thankful and grateful for many things this year, and to celebrate the holiday, I’m giving away six short stories for free on Kindle for the next two days – GHOST ARIA, GHOST THORNS, THE ASSASSIN’S TALE, GHOST SWORD, GHOST PRICE, and GHOST RELICS. Links are below!

GHOST ARIA: Amazon.com, Amazon UK, Amazon Canada, Amazon Australia

GHOST THORNS: Amazon.comAmazon UKAmazon CanadaAmazon Australia

THE ASSASSIN’S TALE: Amazon.com, Amazon UK, Amazon Canada, Amazon Australia

GHOST SWORD: Amazon.com, Amazon UK, Amazon Canada, Amazon Australia

GHOST RELICS: Amazon.com, Amazon UK, Amazon Canada, Amazon Australia

GHOST PRICE: Amazon.com, Amazon UK, Amazon Canada, Amazon Australia

Kindle Unlimited For Self-Publishers, Month #2

In October I started an experiment where I put 19 of my older short stories into the Kindle Unlimited subscription program. (My reasoning is explained in this post.) My goal was to have at least 34 Kindle Unlimited borrows, since that would match the sales I lost by removing the short stories from non-Amazon sales platforms, assuming the rate that Amazon pays for borrows stays above $1. (For October the rate Amazon paid per borrow was $1.33, and in November it was $1.39.)

In October, the first month of the experiment, I had 49 borrows.

In November, the second month of the experiment, I had 61 borrows, and I also gave away 1,003 copies of short stories using the free days that come with Kindle Select. GHOST RELICS had the most borrows, 10 total, with GHOST PRICE, THE THIEF’S TALE, and THE ASSSASSIN’S TALE coming in second with 6 borrows each. 43 of the borrows were in the US, 16 of them were in the UK, and 2 were in Germany.

So, what conclusions have I drawn after 1 2/3 months of Kindle Select?

-I definitely would not put any full-length novels in Kindle Unlimited. I am entirely certain the amount of borrows would not make up for sales on B&N, iTunes, Kobo, iBooks, and Google Play. Granted, I suspect there are writers for whom that would be true, but I imagine only a few of them. That said, KU still seems to be a primarily US-based program. In 2014 I sold lots of books through iTunes UK, iTunes Australia, Google Play Australia, and Kobo Canada. I couldn’t have done that if those books had been in Kindle Unlimited.

-I have actually made more money off 61 borrows in November ($84.79) as opposed to selling 61 copies of those short stories on non-Amazon platforms. (Roughly $42.48, give or takes a couple of dollars depending on currency conversion rates, and specific retailers’ policies.)

That said, the math only works because I usually sell short stories at $1.99, of which I personally receive $0.70 or so. The math is very different for novels. For example, FROSTBORN: THE GRAY KNIGHT currently sells at $3.99, of which I personally receive about $2.79. So trading $2.79 of a non-Amazon sale for the $1.39 of a Kindle Unlimited borrow means I would have to have 2 Kindle Unlimited borrows for every 1 non-Amazon sale. That does not seem likely, and may become even less likely if the rate for borrows drops below $1.30 or so.

-There’s also a dark side to this. Lately I’ve been getting emails from people who are annoyed to discover that the short stories are no longer available on non-Amazon ebook platforms. Granted, there are not a lot of these emails. I suspect most readers prefer full-length novels over short stories, and I mostly write short stories to add value to my new-release newsletter. (I do also enjoy writing them.) Nonetheless, there are people who do read short stories. Essentially, I’m trading a slightly wider footprint on Amazon for a narrower footprint elsewhere. Since it takes a long time to build up a footprint on a retailer (reviews and ranking and so on), having a smaller footprint might be a bad strategy long-term.

-The ability to give away short stories for free is useful, but I’m not sure giving away short stories leads people to look at the rest of the books in the series. It’s much more useful to give away short stories to people who were already going to buy the book anyway (such as my new-release newsletter subscribers).

I don’t think there’s a right answer here. Going into Kindle Unlimited has one set of advantages and disadvantages, and not going into Kindle Unlimited has a different set of advantages and disadvantages. It’s a bit like choosing between a PC and a Mac,  I suppose.

Currently, I am planning to drop my short stories out of Kindle Unlimited and back onto the other platforms starting in January, once the three-month term of Kindle Select for the various stories starts expiring. I think that is the best decision for the long-term. Though the fact that I haven’t had any Kindle Unlimited borrows since Dec. 15th does make it an easier decision. :)

-JM

Thanksgiving short story superswarm!

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

I’m thankful and grateful for many things this year, and to celebrate the holiday, I’m giving away five short stories for the next two days – GHOST CLAWS, GHOST OMENS, THE THIEF’S TALE, THE MAGE’S TALE, and THE PALADIN’S TALE. Links are below!

GHOST CLAWS

Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon Canada, Amazon Australia.

GHOST OMENS

Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon Canada, Amazon Australia.

THE THIEF’S TALE

Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon Canada, Amazon Australia.

THE MAGE’S TALE

Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.ca, Amazon.com.au

THE PALADIN’S TALE

Amazon.com, Amazon UK, Amazon Canada, Amazon Australia.

-JM

2014 Writing Progress

Once MASK OF SWORDS is done, I will have written seven novels this year.

GHOST IN THE COWL, GHOST IN THE MAZE, GHOST IN THE HUNT, FROSTBORN: THE MASTER THIEF, FROSTBORN: THE IRON TOWER, FROSTBORN: THE DARK WARDEN, and MASK OF SWORDS.

Also, I wrote the last half of FROSTBORN: THE UNDYING WIZARD in January, and I’m really hoping to get most of the rough draft of GHOST IN THE RAZOR written in December yet.

-JM

Stop Yer Whining! – three rules for self-pitying characters in fiction

Recently, I read a thriller novel about a middle-aged female detective we’ll call Cheryl. Having spent all her twenties and thirties working hundred-hour weeks to make detective, Cheryl wound up driving away her husband, and by the time she was forty-six, lived alone with no major relationships in her life. Cheryl admitted that her woes were entirely of her own making, but spent a lot of time feeling sorry for herself.

Which got me to thinking – how much self-pity is too much in a fictional character? Or, more specifically, how much self-pity is acceptable in a protagonist or a main character? If the villain feels sorry for himself while committing crimes, that can be part of his malevolence. (Think of the ungrateful debtor from the Bible, who was forgiven a debt of millions yet threw a man into prison over a trivial debt.) Yet self-pity is generally an annoying quality in the main character.

For some readers, no amount of self-pitying is acceptable, and they will immediately reject a book with a whiny protagonist. Yet one aspect of the human condition is that people feel sorry for themselves and sometimes complain about it. In Real Life, this can last for years – I once met a man who inevitably brought every conversation back to the social difficulties he suffered in high school twenty years ago. However, in fiction, this can become tedious. No one wants to read a 300 page novel about a protagonist who spends all his time whining and feeling sorry for himself.

I think there are three rules for a protagonist to feel self-pity without alienating the readers.

First, the character needs to have something worth self-pity, something significant enough that the reader will not feel contempt for the character. A character who feels pity because, say, his family died, will be far more sympathetic to the reader than a character who feels bad because all the treadmills are full at the gym or because McDonald’s ran out of chicken nuggets at lunch. In other words, the nature of the self-pity cannot inspire contempt for the protagonist in the reader.

For severe problems (death, injury, illness, financial ruin, mortal peril, and so on) this is easy. It becomes harder with a less threatening problem. For instance, consider the the classic love triangle – a woman trying to sort out her feelings for two different men. If the writer is not careful, the woman can quickly become unlikeable if she spends too much time dithering or bemoaning the necessity of the choice. The trick for self-pity is to make it understandable, even in problems that are not life-threatening. In THE KING’S SPEECH, the protagonist is in no physical danger, but after seeing all the suffering his speech impediment has caused him, it is entirely understandable that he feels sorry for himself and doesn’t want to try and overcome his impediment at first.

Second, if the character feels sorry for himself because of something he did, he needs to own up to it at some point. In Cheryl’s case, her self-pity was not annoying because she freely admitted that all her problems were her own fault – her obsessive focus on her job (in the fine tradition of dogged detectives everywhere) had driven away her husband, alienated all her friends, and left her alone. Now, if she had blamed everyone else for her problems while denying her own culpability in them, that would quickly have become annoying and made her a less compelling character. Cersei Lannister from A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE is an excellent example of such an unsympathetic character. Her misfortunes in the fourth and fifth books are almost entirely her fault, yet at no point does she realize that the blame lies with herself.

Thirdthe self-pity can be made part of the plot, allowing it to be overcome as part of the protagonist’s character arc. The essential nature of storytelling, boiled down, is about a character who faces a conflict as a result of a problem and resolves the conflict. This can be as kinetically violent as Conan of Cimmeria killing the evil sorcerer Tsotha-lanti, or (to cite another example from the Bible) as quiet as the prodigal son reuniting with his father after squandering his inheritance. Self-pity can be part of the conflict to be overcome. Properly handled, the self-pity can become part of the protagonist’s character arc.

The parable of the prodigal son is an excellent example of this. After moving to a foreign land and squandering his inheritance, the prodigal son spent time bemoaning his fate and feeding pigs to support himself. Like the detective Cheryl or Cersei Lannister, his problems were entirely of his own making. (Though to be fair, Cheryl had been hunting down murderers while the prodigal son had been partying with prostitutes.) However, unlike Cersei Lannister, the prodigal son realized that his problems were his own fault, and traveled home to beg forgiveness of his father.

To sum up, I think the best use of self-pity in fiction is as part of a character’s arc, as something that is eventually resolved one way or another. Like any other storytelling tool, it can be overused, but when employed well, it can contribute to a powerful story.

-JM