Category Archives: eBooks

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

Kindle Unlimited For Self-Publishers, Month #1

Last month (October) I started an experiment where I put 19 of my older short stories into Kindle Unlimited. (My reasoning is explained in this post.) My goal was to have at least 34 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.

So, for the month of October, the 19 short stories had 49 borrows between them, exceeding my goal of 34 – 44 in the US, and 5 in the UK. GHOST PRICE was the most borrowed short story. I should also point out that most of the stories were not listed in Kindle Unlimited until October 12th, which means November will be the first full month of my Kindle Unlimited experiment. So the experiment looks promising so far.

That said, I think short stories are more valuable to the self-publisher as a promotional tool, and a book in Kindle Unlimited is also in Kindle Select, and a book in Kindle Select can be given away for 5 days out of the 90 day enrollment period. In October, I set THE SOULBLADE’S TALE, THE MAGE’S TALE, THE TOURNAMENT KNIGHT, and GHOST CLAWS for free, and between the four short stories I gave away 647 copies. I usually saw a small uptick in the related novel series for a few days after the giveaway (like, 1-5 copies more than usual). A small bonus, but certainly a welcome one.

For now, I think I will keep to my plan for short stories – giving them away for free with my new-release newsletter via Smashwords coupon code, and then phasing them into Kindle Unlimited after a month or two. My novels and technical books will continue to remain available on all ebook platforms.

Tune in next month to see my results for November!

-JM

 

 

Smashwords and DRM

Reader Miguel Guhlin has some nice things to say about my books here, along with some entirely accurate criticisms of DRM.

I should mention that, whenever possible, I upload my books without DRM. So if you buy one of my books off Amazon, you can always download it, convert it through the free Calibre program into an EPUB file, and then load it onto a Nook or Kobo reader or whatever your device of choice.

But if that sounds like too much work, you could always get it off Smashwords in all formats at once. :)

-JM

THE RAVEN, THE ELF, AND RACHEL by L. Jagi Lamplighter

THE RAVEN, THE ELF, AND RACHEL, sequel to 2014’s THE UNEXPECTED ENLIGHTENMENT OF RACHEL GRIFFIN, follows the adventures of Rachel Griffin, a thirteen-year-old girl at the Roanoke Academy for the Sorcerous Arts. (Roanoke, of course, having disappeared when the Parliament of the Wise, the governing body of wizards, hid the school to keep it from the Unwary, or non-magical mortals.) As is traditional for wizard schools, there is trouble afoot, with a sinister secret society of wizards plotting to bring about the end of the world. Much to her vast frustration, none of the adults in Rachel’s world seem to take the danger seriously, so if someone’s going to save the world, it’s up to her.

Rachel makes for a compelling protagonist, largely because she is a genius who nonetheless has the personality flaws and weaknesses of a 13-year-old girl without those flaws becoming annoying to the reader. She hasn’t quite grasped the fact that her emotional state is not necessarily reflective of the actual state of the universe, and her intellect and eidetic memory causes her to hoard secrets, refusing to give information unless she receives some in turn, which quite naturally causes trouble for her.

THE RAVEN, THE ELF, AND RACHEL is a entertaining fantasy YA novel with compelling protagonists and an intriguing setting, though I suspect the book will be more enjoyable to teenage girls due to the amount of space devoted to Rachel’s examination of her feelings.

-JM