Seduction and the New Writer

If you followed “seduction” looking for “sexy stuff,” I am afraid that I will have to disappoint you. Here “seduction” is the gentile, step-by-step persuasion that leads you down an unplanned path. Here, “seduction” plays upon your desires with the assurance that “this won’t hurt a bit.” Whether the end result is good or bad is always a matter of judgment.

I’m trying to become a writer. The pragmatist in me wants other people to read what I have written. I believe I have something to say. Having people read and react is the best way to confirm that belief. For me, such writing is to enter into a conversation. This post is more of a “thinking out loud” conversation with myself along my journey to becoming a writer.

As I have noted earlier, I am retired. My finances are in order. I have no expectation that “this writing thing” will make any “serious” money. But I also do not want to lose “serious” money. Like any hobby, and I think it is safest to think of what I am doing as a hobby, there are certain expenses. The trick for me is to limit those expenses to stay in my financial “comfort zone.”

This is the 21st century and a writer needs more than a quill pen and sheets of paper to write upon. I have a nice laptop, but I would have had a laptop no matter what I was planning on doing after I retired. I cannot in good faith attribute the costs of the laptop to my writing hobby. I have purchased several software products that I can tie to my writing. I use Scrapple to organize my thoughts before dictation. I use Dragon Naturally Speak to dictate the first draft of all the materials that I produce. I use Scrivener to organize the various piece parts of the novel. I use Aeon to manage the time line of the novel. I use Hemmingway to check on grammar and usage. I have Microsoft Office 365, but that came with the laptop. Each of these whispers, “I will make you a better writer.”  I am much too lazy to add up all the details but I estimate that so far I have spent well under $500 for my hobby. None of these “to be a better writer” seductions has taken me out of my financial comfort zone. Yet.

Where it gets interesting is when we get into the area of services. There are only so many things that I can do for myself with any degree of skill. I need cover art. I need an edited manuscript. I need a copy of the book to submit to online publishers in the proper format. I need marketing to connect readers to the book. Then there are legal, accounting, and tax issues to resolve. Each of these services mummers, “I will make you a more successful writer.” Who would not want such success?  The seduction continues.

But I am uncertain if the success each of these services would enable would pay for their costs. I saw an email that talked about spending tens of thousands of dollars on these services each year. The writer characterized the expenditures as “what a successful author needs to do.”

Ouch! I struggle to reconcile “minimal income” with “large expenses.” I am determined to go forward. And, thus, I search for ways to control the costs.

As a “general contractor,” I could hire people to take care of these tasks. I could hire someone to create a cover for my e-book. I could hire someone to edit my prose in a half-dozen ways. I could hire someone to format the book for publication. I could pay for advertising. I could pay for legal services. I could, if I were optimistic about how many copies I would sell, pay for accounting services. I could build an email list and pay someone to maintain it for me.

If I am not willing to be a “general contractor,” there are folks out there who will provide me package deals. I show up with the manuscript. They take care of everything else for me: formatting, publication, and promotion. All I have to do is wait for the money to roll in. These services target a population of people have more money than time. If the pundits are correct, these services also target the folks that have more money than sense

In any case, I have serious objections against using such packaging services. First, I’m retired and have the time to explore all the various aspects of writing. Second, I actually want to learn new things. Third, I believe that I will lose control of the book when dealing with these packaged solutions. All in all, these package do not smell particularly good to me.

Thus, I am going down the “general contractor” path. I have been busy trying to learn about all the various things I need to do. The biggest lesson I have learned is that there’s an enormous amount that I don’t know. This is a glorious opportunity for a lifelong learner. This is a formidable obstacle for someone who wants to get their book published and read widely.

The only way that I know how to deal with this situation is to break the problem down into smaller problems. What I learn solving one of these smaller problems will guide me in solving the next challenge.

This is a lesson that I learned over fifty years ago. I was a college student at Purdue University. I had a job as a programmer for a research group on campus. At that time, computer time was a precious commodity. I was responsible for setting up a series of jobs on the computer to analyze experimental data. I had gotten too clever and perhaps more than a little sloppy. The details do not matter but the consequence of my actions was that a couple of days of processing had to be redone.

There was a weekly status meeting which we all attended. There was no way to avoid informing the director of the research group of the problem. The director was tall, Germanic, and had a temper. I sat in the status meeting, trying to be as small and inconspicuous as I could, waiting for the dressing down. The anticipation of pain is the worst kind of torture. My team leader explained the mistake. There was a silence that stretched out. The director looked at me across the length of the conference table. He got up and slowly walked to where I was sitting. He stood there in silence, towering over me. He leaned down and said, “Stonecash, small steps for small minds!” Fifty years later, it still stings. But lessons, well learned, are like that.

My first “small step” is to publish the book on Amazon KDP Select. In return for an exclusive access to the book, Amazon will promote my book to some extent. This is a “moving forward” decision. This is a “not stupid” decision, especially for a first-time author. I have some notions about how to market the book during the 90-day exclusive period. I assume that in the future, I will expand the distribution of the novel to other channels.

The trick in all these activities is to not make any kind of decisions that are binding for long periods of time. I will make some mistakes. I come from a world in which the mantra is “fail fast!” Do the smallest “next thing” that is useful. Recognize what works and what does not. Resolve the mistakes as quickly as possible. Repeat until successful.

The decision to use Amazon KDP Select gives me an outline of what I need. I need an e-book cover. I need a manuscript formatted such that I can uploaded it into Amazon. I need categories and keywords that describe the book and make it searchable. I need a book description that entices the reader to buy the book. I have to have each of these items in hand before I can load anything into Amazon. After the upload, I need reviews.

Scrivener will produce a file suitable for uploading into Amazon in minutes of effort. I understand how to define the categories and keywords. I have a book description. I designed the cover for my e-book and it was nice but not nice enough to do the job.

I buy a lot of books on Amazon and on its sister site Audible. I have a sense of how that buying process works. The cover of the book is critical. Prospective readers will give cover thumbnails no more than two seconds of attention. The cover has to sell the book within that time. The prospective reader either clicks on the image to load the web page or goes on to the next thumbnail. No click means no sale. The cover is a really big deal.

I am running a contest on 99 Designs to produce a cover for the book. This is going to cost me somewhere around $500 to $600 but it is an expense that I understand. An inadequate cover can doom the most brilliant of works. If nobody buys the book, then nobody reads the book. This cover will make me a “more successful writer!” I am seduced yet again.

In turn, I have to seduce the prospective reader.  The starting point is a list of titles with thumbnails of the covers. This might be from a promotional email sent out by Amazon or Audible. It might be from a keyword search on their respective web sites. The categories and keywords for the book determines who might buy it.

Thus the first step in the seduction is to classify the book so that it shows up on the right lists. The second step is to create a cover which entices the prospective reader to load the web page on Amazon for the book. The third step is describe the book and include reviews to induce the prospective reader to buy the book. The fourth step is to have a book worthy of the reading. The fifth step is to invite the reader to be a part of the author’s mailing list; that list is the basis of a conversation between the author and his readers. The sixth step is to write another book and repeat the whole dance again.

So far none of these expenses have taken me out of my comfort zone. But there is a black cloud called “professional editing” looming on the horizon. The current draft of my book is over 200,000 words. It is quite possible that the book is too long. A topflight editor might guide me to squeeze the novel down to a smaller, more enjoyable work. Here’s the problem. From what I can see, a topflight editor will charge me anywhere between four or five cents a word. Doing the arithmetic, that is $8,000 to $10,000. We are now well outside my comfort zone.

With such an editing expense, I could be losing some serious money on this first book. I’m certain that editing would improve the quality of my book. The question is whether it would improve the quality of the book enough to pay back the cost of the editing.

I am holding off any kind of decision on professional editing for the manuscript. I have a broad spectrum of beta readers lined up, including a published author. My plan right now is to wait until I get the feedback from these beta readers. If I get a lot of “too big” feedback, I will take a look at getting an editor. If I decide to use a professional editor, I understand that I’m going to have to put my book in the queue. That might delay the process by several months but I’m in no hurry. I am prepared to take the time it takes to put out a quality book, even if I’m the only one who knows that it is a quality book.

Such is the consequence of a seduction well executed.

Out with the Old, in with the New

I cleaned my home office this last week. I haven’t given it a really thorough cleaning in a couple of years. It was time to do a thorough “take everything out, scrub everything down, and put the room back together” cleaning. I started on Monday and ended on Saturday, putting in an hour or two of work each day to accomplish one specific task:

  • I had a bunch of filing to do. All the papers that had accumulated as I disengaged from working and engaged in retiring were piled up on the corner of the table. I have said this before but I’ll say it again: retiring is not an easy thing to do; the weak shall perish and only the strong shall survive. I have the paper work to prove it.
  • My office is in a converted bedroom. There is a closet that was filled with “boxes that I might need”; it may be that I’ll regret recycling all those boxes but for now the emotion is one of relief.
  • I have a desk drawer that is an attractor of “decisions delayed”; two hours of sorting and throwing ensured that everything in the drawer had a legitimate home. I could tell you that I’ve made promises to myself to not let it get that messy ever again, but I would be destroying what little trust that we have with each other if I lied to you in such an egregious fashion.
  • I cleaned the windows, the ceiling fan and the floor. I’m sure there’s some witty and clever remark that I can make about these activities but nothing comes to mind.
  • All the wood surfaces in the room got a good dose of furniture oil.
  • I took care of recycling some old technology. There is more about this topic later.
  • I sorted through the books on my bookshelf. This is also important enough to me to warrant a separate section below.
  • Finally, I rearranged the room a bit. And this too gets a separate treatment below.

Our players are a collection of cleaning supplies, a vacuum cleaner, a garbage bag, and four grocery tote boxes. In our household these are called “Red Owl” boxes because we first bought such a box from a grocery store of that same name that has not existed for over 30 years. The past seeps into us like an old stain.

Recycling Technology

For years, three cardboard boxes have occupied my office, each holding a collection of wires, chargers, and other technological debris. Every so often, as was the case this last week, I’m motivated to pick through the contents and decide what should stay and what should be purged. This funeral procession is “quick and casual” with the only sound being the thud of old technology hitting the wall of the tote box that is designated for recycling and positioned on the floor within an easy throwing distance.

The switch to cable for household Internet obviates the need for DSL converters and RJ11 phone cords. Indeed it has been several generations of laptop since I’ve had one that understood and accepted an RJ11 connection. It’s been even longer since I’ve had the need to dial up to anything. I am sure that, with sufficient time and web searches, I could remember how to connect to a service over the phone line but it seems like a waste of my time. There is a multi-purpose printer in the next room is capable of faxing, if it had a RJ11 cable to carry the archaic bit stream from the 20th century. By now the tote box is several inches deep in faded technology.

All of the information devices in the house are now wireless, rendering all of the RJ-45 cables useless, but I kept two of the cables “just in case”. I also kept the four-port Ethernet switch and its attached cables; I did not have the heart to put an item that had given such value to me in the past out to pasture, at least this time. The layers of recycled technology in the tote box grow by another inch or two.

A box of blank floppy disk drives, having survived previous purges, goes into the recycle box. I no longer have any device that read or write such media.

A box of blank writable DVDs survives. I’ve actually had a need for a writable DVD in the last year or so.

Various and sundry “wall wart” chargers join the technology to be recycled in the box of “once-treasured technology”.

USB cables are always of value, at least until a new technology comes along.

Miscellaneous bits and pieces of technology, unable to explain themselves to me, also join the recycle pile.

My heart says that the recycler will find each of these recycled items a good home; my head cautions silently that it is more likely the story will be ugly. Had I been made of sterner stuff I would’ve thrown more items in the box. I’m not sure why I hold onto these bits of technology other than to say to myself, I will be ready no matter what the challenges.

Culling Books

I like books. Over the years I have bought several thousand books. For a long time during my career, I found technical books to be the most effective way of learning new things. For you youngsters out there, there was a time when there was no Google. If you wanted to learn something new, you read articles in magazines or purchased books on the topic in question. I know that you’re gasping in astonishment at this, but bear with me.

It takes discipline to write a book. It takes discipline to read a book. More times than I can count, I have found myself bouncing from one website to another, snatching a glimpse here and a glance there, to get just enough information to solve a particular problem. It is the ultimate in empiricist philosophy: make it work. If you understand why it works, okay. But first make it work. There is an aspect about books that says, you’ll need to do more than just skim. There is substance here and you will be expected to master that substance.

I did a similar purge of books on my bookshelves several months ago, but those books could be fairly characterized as being “old technology” which I would very likely never go back to. This round of purging involved books that touched on “new technology”. This purge represented the dividing line between “maybe I can still do some work in software development” and “that is a past that will not be re-lived.”

For the first time in years, there are no books stacked on the floor and there are gaps in my bookcase. There are other books that I will buy and to some extent they will fill up these gaps. For example, on my last run to Half-Price Books, I spent some of the money for my re-cycled books to replace the 53-year-old thesaurus that I had been using with one that is only 7 years old. But it is likely that the digital nature of today will leave some of those gaps unfilled for a very long time.

Re-arranging the Room

I have had an “office in the home” for several years. Until my retirement, it was a place to store my stuff from work with the expectation that it would be kept out of sight. The office represented a secondary location for work. My “real” work location was at Magenic’s office or at a client’s location. When I came home my home office was a “temporary” place to store my Briggs and Riley roller board briefcase stuffed with everything I needed to survive at a client site

After my retirement, the space became the primary work place. Of course, from time to time I have packed my Surface Pro 3 into my Patagonia man purse and taken up residence in coffee shops. I am writing a novel. I am pretty sure that there is a federal law that requires me to write at least a portion of that novel in one or more coffee shops. I am just trying to follow the rules here.

Because it has become my primary work location, I needed to fix the little things that have irritated me but that I was able to ignore. I don’t have a lot of choices about how I can arrange the room, but I have repositioned the table, the chair and the filing cabinet. This effort does not rise to the level of feng shui but it is better than it was.

A life well lived is a stream of actions, each of which make things a little bit better.

A Sense of Finality

I write about all this because there is a sense of finality to these actions. I’ve gotten all of my medical items switched over to Medicare. I’ve made and implemented all the financial decisions so that I will be comfortable in my retirement. So far as I can tell I’ve transitioned all of the day-to-day ties associated with being a worker bee to a post-retirement world. I am well on my way to establishing a rhythm of activity in my retirement.

Cleaning my office this last week was the final brick in the wall that separates my life before retirement from my life after retirement. It is an event worthy of note.

The Quest for Connectivity

I have more or less tamed the tangle of websites and passwords. Picture a bare-chested man with flowing hair and sword held high, the light of crushed and burning URLs reflecting off his well-oiled muscular chest and abdomen, surrounded by the sound of passwords tortured into substantial entropy.

We are going to pause here for just a moment to savor that image. Now we return you to the reality of the situation. The truth is that I was much more of an overweight and balding trash man, picking through the debris left behind by my digital travels.

By dint of dedicated de-duplication and ruthless removal of redundant resources, I was able to bring the number of active websites in my LassPass vault down from over 150 to 71. Maybe 20 of the 79 entries that were “put to the sword” were duplicates that my careless use of LastPass created; I could delete those entries without much effort. That left 50 websites that no longer made any sense to keep in my present circumstances. It turns out that most of these now-obsolete websites have no mechanism, at least visible to the mere mortal, to delete an account. So I created a fake person with a fake email account. I updated the username, email address, and password for each of the websites to point at my fake persona, and coldly set each of these websites adrift on their individual ice floes. They are still out there but now they no longer have any connection to me. At some point in time, the website will die and take all of its user information into oblivion. Or perhaps the website will survive but in time will throw out a lot of garbage; my account that was, will be no more.

A few of the surviving websites are vestiges of a previous life and will no longer be relevant in a year or so. Most of the rest are “necessary” to operate in the world of today: email, finance, and places to buy things. And then there are the four websites that nag at me. I speak of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and GoodReads. And for each of the websites that I have mentioned, there perhaps a dozen more with similar ambitions. Each of these websites wants me to “join the community” and “become part of a conversation.” All that I have to do is give them a lot of information about me, participate, view the ads that are presented, and “good things will happen”. I have spent the last couple weeks updating profiles, adding information to these sites, and looking at the feeds presented by each of these websites.

I understand that I have to invest some time and energy into these websites in order to get a return. And I actually have quite a bit more time available to invest. My problem is that I’m just a little bit fuzzy about what the return is going to be. I’m not a “joiner” by nature. I am willing to put in the time and effort if it advances me toward some goal. Or to make it more precise, if this particular approach will give me more “bang for the buck” than other approaches in achieving that goal.

For a long time the predominant goal of such activities was to advance my career. Retirement, at least in one sense, means that my career has come to an end. That makes LinkedIn’s efforts to alert me to the existence of new jobs somewhat pointless. But retirement, at least in my aspirations, means that I want to become a published writer. Can I bend LinkedIn to serve my needs in this area? Or Facebook? Or Twitter? Or GoodReads?

In a very real sense this is very much like any other project that I have started. There are some very high level goals, some sense of the time and energy available to accomplish those goals, a seemingly infinite number of resources available out there in the Internets, and a very large blank canvas. The path is not clear, the ambient lighting is uncertain, and there are distractions strewn about. Pretty much, the “same old same old”, except where it’s different.

This retirement of mine is not for the fate of heart.

Flit! Or the Flight of the 70-Year-Old Hummingbird

Hello! My name is Jon and I am a webaholic.

As a part of my ramping down into retirement, I have been trying cleanup my presence on the web. I suppose that there are people that have a more significant problem than I do but that does not excuse me. I am listed on dozens of mailing lists and registered on a wondrous number of websites. How did I get to this sorry state of affairs, you ask? It was with the best of intentions, I assure you.

First of all, I am naturally curious. If the Discovery Channel is showing a documentary of how sewers work, there is a good chance that I will watch it. I have no desire to build, clean, visit, or have anything to do with sewers, other than the minimum that is required by natural bodily processes that are clearly outside of the scope of this discussion. I just value the knowledge, all knowledge. I read blogs. I read books. I read magazines. I read on-line news sites. All of this in pursuit of more knowledge.

Second of all, it has been part of my job. There are two aspects here: one noble and one not so much. The noble part of my job is that as a consultant, I have to figure out what problem the client has and what technology can be used to solve that problem. The problem is that there are a whole lot of different kinds of technology out there and they seem to breed like rabbits in perpetual heat. There is no way that anyone can know about all of these technologies.

But we have the ability to search the web. With some effort, it is possible to find information on these technologies and learn enough about them to solve the problem at hand. This is a skill that I, and many other consultants, have. Find a lot of possibly relevant information, jam it into the brain blender, pulse it a couple of time, and fish out the bits and pieces that seem to be relevant. Use these bits and pieces to find more information. Repeat until an answer to the question emerges.

The not-so-noble part of consulting is the BS factor. As consultants, we come into a client to solve a particular problem, but we are always looking for opportunities to help the client in other ways with other problems. There might be casual conversation in which the client asks if you know anything about X, where X is the latest technology to find its way into the popular literature. The goal of the consultant is to be able to string together a handful of sentences that demonstrate mastery of the topic, beg off discussing details, and run home to learn enough to have a “meeting on the topic” or find another consultant in the company that can “walk the walk and talk the talk.”

Both of these purposes require me to flit from one website to another like a hummingbird in the pursuit of information. It is a dirty job, but someone has to do it. The dirty part of the job is that many of these websites want you to “become a part of their community.” In other words, you have to sign up, register, and provide some intimate details of your personage to gain access to the website. They always want your email address so that they can share the “good news” about whatever it is that excites them. There is enough of a chance that there is some value to the website, that you are willing to reveal your secrets in return for treasure.

But around the fiftyish such interaction, the cynicism mounts and you start lying about everything. To the security question about what you favorite color is, you say “bratwurst” without the slightest tinge of guilt. I have a problem that needs a solution. The client and my teammates are looking to me to come up with a solution. The answer is out there somewhere on the web. Maybe this website is the one that will show me the way to salvation, or at least, give me another search term that gets me closer. It may well be a “slippery slope” but a desperate software developer is willing to brave all sorts of dangers, moral and spiritual, in pursuit of an answer.

I mean, how bad can it be to lie to a pile of hardware and software? Unless it is a truly advanced artificial intelligence, can it even understand the concept of what a lie is? Besides, how is the website going to catch you in a lie? Another software developer wrote some logic to capture the data entered in the web form into a database. Chances are that no human being is ever going to actually look at the answers. More programming logic is going to send out the emails. Clearly, no sentient beings were harmed during this registration, no matter how far away the supplied data might be from objective reality.

The one thing that it is difficult to lie about is your email address. Increasingly, the clever website asks you for your email but does not let you in until it has sent you a confirmation email and you have responded to that confirmation email. Here there are real consequences for lying. The unfortunate part of this interaction is that the website now knows where you live, at least with respect to where you receive email, and website cannot resist the urge to reach out and connect with you. Frequently!

So I am faced with the prospect of dozens of websites that I no longer care about, if I ever cared about them at all. I could just go through the ritual of unsubscribing to all the distribution list that they use to send out emails like dandelion seeds in a summer breeze. Then I could ignore them. The problem is that these websites still have my email address and in many cases the password that I supplied. It is possible, cough, cough, that I did not practice good password hygiene in all instances. But in my defense, my involvement with some of these sites goes back over a decade. In those days we were all so young and innocent and didn’t realize just how nasty the web could be and how little it took to trigger that nastiness. What is the harm of using the same password at a dozen different websites? What could possibly go wrong?

If you’ve been paying the slightest bit of attention to what’s been going on out there in the Internet, you realize that most websites are not even marginally secure. It is almost the case that you can see commercials on late night TV for Crack O-Matic; for $19.95 plus shipping and handling you too can have your own personal copy of software to crack virtually every website out there in the world. The family that cracks together, stays together. And so on. Furthermore, it turns out that it is pathetically easy to crack passwords. Add to this, the willingness of some websites to sell your personal information to marketers or other nefarious folk, and you have a real danger not just to being annoyed by spam but to being subject to identity theft. This is most unpleasant.

So, at least for a while, I’m going to have to take off the hummingbird suit and clean up the mess that I have made. For each website that I no longer care about, I must:

  • Change the password to the strongest one that I can generate.
  • Change the email address to a throwaway email address I don’t care about.
  • Scrub the account profile to remove as much personal information as I can.
  • Delete the account if possible, ignoring the fact that the website might perform a “soft” delete which does not physically delete the data but merely hides it from view.

This might protect me, but then again, who knows?

Trust me on this: retirement is not for wimps.

Eating my Way into Retirement

One way that people celebrate retirement is to eat.  I worked for a consulting company, Magenic, and provided services to one of their clients (who I do not have permission to name). People from my client took me out for lunch at the local Green Mill.  The folks from Magenic took me out to a local restaurant, The Loop, for happy hour. Both were very nice, however, the third gift of food was the nicest of all.

Yesterday I got a  pair of packages from Zingermans. My nephew and niece, Drew and Kim, send us a “build your own pastrami sandwich” kit. Here’s a picture of what we got:

WP_20150304_003 (2)

I’m not sure that there is enough food in the kit to feed us for a week, but it will certainly take care of lunch for several days.

I thought that I would do a web post covering the un-boxing and kit assembly as a way of thanking Kim And Drew.

We I opened up the box, this is what I got: macaroons and a container of perishable food:

The contents of the boxes
The Boxes within the Boxes.

Unpacking the perishable food container, gives us the following:

The Components
All of the Piece Parts to Make the Pastrami Sandwich.

This is all of the things that you need to build a delightful pastrami sandwich with sides of potato salad and coleslaw. I took these pictures on the second day that we made sandwiches. All the containers have been opened and resealed. We took a couple slices out of the loaf of bread. And to be fair there were brownies in the original package. They did not survive the first day. They were delicious!  The macaroons are standing in for the brownies.

We also had directions for the kit (first the marketing come-on):

Kit Description
The Description of the Kit

And on the flip side, the step-by-step instructions on how to assemble the sandwich:

Instructions
The Step-By-Step Instructions

Here we have sliced the bread, added the Swiss cheese, and are warming it up on the stove:

In the Skillet
Warming the Bread and Melting the Swiss Cheese

At the same time we had the pastrami, wrapped in aluminum foil with a couple of tablespoons of water, in the oven. After a few minutes of pastrami comes out steaming hot.  If you look closely, you can see steam in the picture:

The Steamed Pastrami
The Steamed Pastrami

We unfolded the sandwich, added some sauerkraut and the steamed pastrami The first day we did not warm-up the sauerkraut but the second day we did. We are voting for warm sauerkraut for the rest of our run with this kit.

Everything is in Place
Everything is in Place

We buttoned the whole thing up, cut it in half, added some potato salad and a pickle, and enjoyed it immensely:

The Finished Sandwich
The Finished Sandwich

We’ve had two sandwiches on this kit so far and think that we will get at least two more before we are done. This is been a delightful present. Thank you Kim and Drew.