The Between — coming April 27, 2021

I’m not sure yet whether there will be an in-person launch at an Austin bookstore (which I would love) or something virtual. I’ll update this space when that gets figured out.

That cover is brilliant, isn’t it? It’s the work of Shayne Leighton. I was hoping for something that would stand out and grab prospective readers’ attention. If it caught yours, check out the summary below:

While landscaping his backyard, ever-conscientious Paul Prentice discovers an iron door buried in the soil. His childhood friend and perpetual source of mischief, Jay Lightsey, pushes them to explore what’s beneath.

When the door slams shut above them, Paul and Jay are trapped in a between-worlds place of Escher-like rooms and horror story monsters, all with a mysterious connection to a command-line, dungeon explorer computer game from the early ’80s called The Between.

Paul and Jay find themselves filling roles in a story that seems to play out over and over again. But in this world, where their roles warp their minds, the biggest threat to survival may not be the KoĊmaro, risen from the Between’s depths to hunt them; the biggest danger may be each other.

Here it is on GoodReads and Amazon.

Beta Testing Your Novel

A thinly-cited Wikipedia entry credits IBM with originating the “alpha/beta testing” terminology for software development. Even if you’re not a software developer, you’ve probably seen software with labels like beta and early-access. The objective of beta testing is to get real-life users to spend time with the software and find the show-stopping bugs before the product is made generally available.

In many ways, novels are like software: they are drafted, edited, optimized, tested, and (hopefully) eventually published. There are plenty of resources on the Web about how to alpha and beta test your manuscript (e.g., here and here), so I won’t duplicate their contents. Instead, I’ll provide some thoughts, based on my experience, about what makes the process work and what breaks it.

  1. Don’t confuse alpha and beta testing. Alpha testing is early in the process and generally should use a tester that is a good big-picture thinker who can tell you if the major concepts work. Beta readers, on the other hand, are readers who resemble customers that would actually buy your book. Your betas help you polish by identifying bugs. If your betas are finding major plot and character issues, you might want to rethink where you are on your manuscript development path.
  2. Dread, impostor syndrome, anxiety, etc. are all perfectly normal feelings once you hit send and your manuscript goes to betas. It’s rare in life that we put our flaws on display with the express purpose of having them called out. If you don’t feel uncomfortable, you’re doing it wrong.
  3. Diversify your readers. You want readers who closely resemble your target audience, but if they are all too similar in their likes and preferences, they’ll share blindspots that can be large.
  4. Beta readers are probably right when several identify the same problems. Remember, your story doesn’t take place on the paper; it takes place in the reader’s head. If you get consistent feedback that something is broken, assume that it is, or at the very least that it can be improved.
  5. Avoid biased readers, like close friends and family. So much can go wrong here. Overly positive feedback can be damaging — it can blind you to real problems. Also, assume that some beta readers won’t end up finishing your manuscript. If that’s going to create awkwardness each time you encounter this person going forward, maybe you don’t want them as a beta.
  6. Cherish good beta readers and respect them by only sending work that is truly ready. You’re asking someone to several hours attentively focusing on your work. That’s a lot to ask of someone. If you’re unsure whether your manuscript is ready, use writing workshops, critique partners, and other resources first.

Lifetime Maximum Radiohead

Sometimes too much of a good thing is, uh, well too much.

If you ask me what the best album from the 90s was, I’ll probably say Radiohead’s OK Computer (or, depending on my mood, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea by Neutral Milk Hotel). I haven’t listened to OK Computer in at least 5 years, maybe 10. And I don’t plan to anytime soon. You see, I hit what I call Lifetime Maximum Radiohead while about 10 minutes into a Radiohead concert. Like a switch had flipped, I suddenly had had enough Radiohead. For life. I still think just as highly of the band. I just don’t need/want to hear their music anymore.

I hit something similar with high fantasy novels based on pseudo European history. You know, the swords and sorcery stuff. Knights, dragons, etc. I loved that stuff growing up and read series after series. At some point I my hit lifetime maximum, and I struggle to get into these stories now.

I increasingly like fantasy that connects a familiar world with something very unfamiliar. The unfamiliar could be a made-up alternate world (think Jeffrey Ford’s brilliant The Well-Built City Trilogy) or it could take place with a real culture and history that’s foreign to me. For example, I recently really enjoyed The Devourers by Indra Das. It’s a werewolf/shapeshifter story, but it takes place in current and seventeenth century India. The writing is as beautiful as the cover art. Check it out.

Finding Time to Write

I’ve written two 100,000+ word novels in the last several years. I’m not breaking productivity records or anything, but I’m pretty happy with my output given that I also have a very demanding job and still make time for family and exercise. I frequently get asked how I make time to write. Honestly, it doesn’t seem that tricky. Let me examine why that is.

So how much time writing am I really spending? I’m not punching into a timeclock, so I’ll have to estimate. Including editing and making revisions, I’d say each block of 1,000 words has about 10 hours of effort behind it. My two books have around 215,000 words combined, which would equate to 2,150 hours. That’s a year’s worth of work at a 9-5 job, but it’s been spread over about 4 years. So, 500-600 hours a year, or 10 hours a week.

Where do those 10 hours come from? Here’s what I do:

  1. Ruthlessly prioritize. For me, it’s: family, work, exercise, and then writing. That means everything else gets pushed to the back of the list. Some stuff never gets done, or it gets done the expensive way: hiring someone else to do it so that I have time to write.
  2. Take the time when it’s there. Some weeks everything comes together: I’ve got more available time and the words are flowing. Other weeks (or even months), work and family obligations leave no time to write. So I try to make the most out of time when I know I have it. I go through productive bursts, and then I’ll have droughts. It all averages out.
  3. Remove the time-suckers. I love to read and can get lost in video games. It’s best for me not to own the latest Dark Souls game until I’m waiting on beta readers. Otherwise, it will call to me, and games occupy that same time slot as writing.
  4. Live with less sleep. Unfortunately this one is the truth. It’s probably not the healthiest thing in the world, but I sleep about 6 hours a night. Always have.
  5. Have an understanding with my wife. This one is the most important, by far. Fortunately, my wife is a writer as well, so she knows the time it takes. We protect each other’s time even more fiercely than we protect our own.

I said it doesn’t seem that tricky, and it’s not. It’s straightforward — but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. It takes constant effort to make time, and sometimes life conspires to keep you away from your project. That’s okay. In the long run, you’ll get that book done if you just keep plugging along.