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Shifting Loyalties Is Available Today!

Shifting Loyalties: The Piero Codex Book TwoYou can stop holding your breath! Shifting Loyalties: The Piero Codex Book Two has been released! (Okay, I know you weren’t really holding your breath, but I was!) This is my second novel, as well as being the second book in The Piero Codex series.

I’m excited to introduce shape-shifters into the Seers Guild world with this release. You have some new characters to meet (including the mysterious ex, Marina), some secrets of the Codex itself will be revealed, and Mack is going to get into a whole new mess of trouble! This second installment has more action, more magic, more pages, and possibly more bourbon (I didn’t count the drinks). Trust me, it’s even better than the first one!

If you pre-ordered the book, you should have it on your reading gizmo already. If you didn’t, hit your favorite ebook retailer and grab it today (links below for your convenience)!

I’m currently hard at work writing Summoning Courage: The Piero Codex Book Three to wrap up this trilogy. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy reading Shifting Loyalties!

Where To Get It

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Shifting Loyalties: Cover Art and Pre-order

Big announcement! Shifting Loyalties: The Piero Codex Book Two is now available for pre-order on most major ebook retailers!

Shifting Loyalties: The Piero Codex Book Two

Barb from CoverInked really stepped up her game on this cover, don’t you think?

When it’s a matter of life and death, how do you know who to trust?

Mack was never good at trusting people, even before he went underground hiding from the Seers Guild. But when the former love of Mack’s life (Marina) goes missing, and an unknown organization makes dramatic moves against the Protectors of the Piero Codex, he needs help. Continue reading Shifting Loyalties: Cover Art and Pre-order

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Cursing Fate Cover Art! And a FREE offer!

Cursing Fate: The Piero Codex Book One, is now available for pre-order on most major ebook retailers! This is the first book in my urban fantasy thriller series, The Piero Codex. Books two and three will follow quickly in a rapid release schedule, so don’t worry, you won’t have to wait long to read the whole trilogy.

I am unspeakably excited that my first book is finally available to the world. In fact, I’m so excited that you can call me Giveaway Bob, because I’m giving them away!

Continue reading Cursing Fate Cover Art! And a FREE offer!

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NaNoWriMo 2017 After Action Report

I wanted to record for posterity my first experience of “winning” National Novel Writing Month. As you may know, NaNoWriMo is a self-challenge to write 50,000 words in 30 days.

Throughout 2017, I have been tracking my writing statistics (screenshot provided). As you may see from the screenshot, before November, I never got anywhere near 50k words in a single month. So I took NaNoWriMo 2017 as a true challenge to get my word counts up and make some real progress, to prove to myself that I could truly improve both speed and quality.

Chart showing words written by month

Continue reading NaNoWriMo 2017 After Action Report

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Creating a Creative Process

I always aspired to being an author. In my teens and early twenties, I probably started a half-dozen “first novels” that never got finished (and that was probably for the best). When I started writing software, though, that became my creative outlet, and I stopped writing fiction. I even stopped reading fiction for many years.

In 2015, I decided to pick up that dream once again, and I determined to set myself to finishing a first novel. I dusted off some old ideas, tossed in some new twists, and began putting words down.

And I quickly realized that it wasn’t going to work.

All writers have a process (I’ve heard). Some writers are “discovery” writers or “pantsers,” who begin with a character or situation and discovery the story as they write it, “by the seat of the pants”.

I am not one of these writers. What I learned after ten thousand words or so, was that I needed a structured process. I am an outliner. And my outline was not strong enough to hang the writing on. I got stuck.

So I hung up the dream of finishing my novel during 2015’s NaNoWriMo, and resolved to take a more disciplined approach.

Currently I’m using a process similar to the one I use to create software. I’ve laid down the essential elements as cards in Scrivener: the main themes of the story, key scenes, major events. I arranged the events chronologically, and began to break down the story into acts, chapters, and beats. I’ve heard television writers talk about “breaking” a story in exactly this way to create an episode. That must be a much harder task for television writers, where the acts need to be strictly timed and fairly uniform in size. Fortunately (or unfortunately?) a novelist has a bit more freedom.

As I began to visualize my story outline this way, I discovered major problems. First, a huge amount of the action was bunched up at the beginning. The entire middle was empty of any significant action. And there was no bridge from that empty middle to the resolution.

This is where Scrivener helped me a lot as a tool. Since all my scenes were tucked into these nice index cards, I started to shuffle them. I broke up that tight cluster of cards at the beginning and started to distribute them into the middle chapters. Then, realizing that there was still a huge empty space where the second act was supposed to be, I knew I needed to add a major subplot there to carry it forward.

With a strong outline, the process of actually laying down the words becomes much cleaner for me. I know more or less exactly what it is I need to say, and I can focus on the craft of how to say it. These are two distinct tasks — determining the action, and describing the action — and for me they require two different mindsets. Creating a detailed outline helps me separate them.

This led me to the (re)discovery that building the story and telling the story are two very different things. As a writer, I need to understand the chronology of the entire arc, and the back story, and (in my case) the future story as well. Since I am writing fantasy and building a world, I have history and cultures to flesh out also.

But not all these facts will be revealed directly to the reader. Some things that chronologically happen at the beginning won’t be revealed to the reader until the end (that’s the definition of a mystery, isn’t it?). Some of it is backstory or background color that will be sprinkled into the middle, as characters talk about their past (off-screen) interactions.

I’m finding that, if I’m going to do anything interesting in the telling of the story (mysteries, flashbacks, parallel timelines) I actually need two outlines: one a timeline of events that have happened, for me to keep things straight, and the other an outline of what gets revealed to the reader, the structure of the story. I haven’t really figured out how to do that. Scrivener is great at the story structure part, but it feels clunky using it for the author timeline. I know there are some dedicated timelining tools out there. Maybe I should look into them.

There’s plenty more I haven’t figured out. I know I need to mix character beats with plot beats with world building info-dumps. Currently I’m still “pantsing” that, and I don’t feel like it’s very effective. I would like to be more deliberate about exposing the world building and character stuff in the outline, instead of painting it haphazardly onto the plot as I write. On the other hand, a lot of those things don’t come up until I’m in the character’s head in the moment, and I’m like, wait, she’s writing a letter, but was there even a post office in the middle ages? How DID they deliver the mail? And is she sad, or relieved, that she doesn’t have a husband during this trial?

It took me many years to learn how to build software well. Doubtless, it will take years for me to reach journeyman level in the fiction craft as well.

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The Thing About Life Is…

Most people like to post on the Internet about their successes. I want to talk about failure. I can assure you, I am fully qualified to talk about failure. I’m an expert with thirty years of experience.

You see, the past few months I have been thinking pretty hard about where I am in my life, especially in relation to the dreams and aspirations I had as a teenager. I’m forty six years old now. Thirty years ago, I was sixteen, and I had big ambitions. I wanted to publish books. I wanted to make money in real estate. I wanted to find love.

So thirty years on, how am I doing? Two failed marriages, with a handful of failed relationships that never got that far. Finding love? FAIL. Two real estate purchases, one that ended in foreclosure, the other is worth less now than when I bought it, yet I owe more than I paid for it. Making money in real estate? FAIL. Number of books published: zero. Number of books written to completion: zero. Number of failed attempts: [I’ve lost count.] So, publishing books? FAIL.

You might be thinking, dude (or some equivalent form of casual address), you’ve been failing to achieve your childhood dreams for thirty years? Don’t you find that, you know, kind of depressing?

Frankly? Yes. Sometimes I do. Sometimes it crushes me under the weight of my failure so hard that I lie in bed and cry myself to sleep. But, just as frankly, that’s a fairly rare occurrence. You know what I do most days?

I keep trying.

You ever play Hacky Sack? It’s this game, or activity really, with this little bean bag, a little bigger than a golf ball. You’re supposed to kick the bag up in the air. When it comes down, you try to kick it again to keep it in the air. That’s basically it.

I figured out, a long time ago, that life is a game of hacky sack.

First off, playing it alone is really hard, and not much fun. Two people can do alright, but the game doesn’t get really fun until you have four or five people in a circle playing together.

The object is to keep the sack in the air, but you begin the game knowing that you are doomed to failure. You know, with compete certainty, that the little bag is going to hit the ground. When it does? You pick it up and start again.

“Success,” if there is any in the game, comes when every player in the circle gets in a kick before the sack hits the ground. But, there isn’t any score keeping. There’s no competition. There’s no way to win.

The object of the game is just to keep kicking.

So I still hit that keyboard every day, adding words (currently 47,547 of a target 80,000). Some days, all I can do is stare at the screen. Some days, I’m so swamped I can’t even look at the computer. Tomorrow, I will try to add 1,000 words.

I’m still hammering away at the house, in the literal sense as well as the figurative, working to turn it into something that people would pay money to live in. Most days it feels like the building is out to get me. More than once it has injured me physically. This weekend I’ll be repairing the overhead lights in the den. Again.

Love? I still believe in it. I still have hope of having a love all my own one day. Until then, I have a couple of very close friends, you know, not the type who will help you move, but the type who will help you move a dead body. And I have far more friends of the help you move type, with whom I share mutual respect and the occasional beverage, than I ever expected to. Tomorrow, I’m having drinks with a bunch of them. And who knows what happens next?

Maybe I never actually make money on that house. Maybe that book never quite makes it (but I think it will). Maybe that perfect someone will simply never be mine.

But I’m still here. And I’m just going to keep kicking. Because that is the point of life.

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The Worst Book I Will Ever Write

Something I have been struggling with during the work on my (current) first novel is this: I am very likely producing the worst book I will ever write.

Assuming I finish it — which given past history is not a foregone conclusion — suppose I find the whole thing too exhausting to do again? Having written only one, it would, by default, be the worst one (and the best I suppose). If I go on to write the second, I should have learned much from writing the first, and the writing should improve. Skills are supposed to improve with practice, are they not? So I am destined to look back on this book and recognize how bad it is.

But there’s no getting around that. It was the same thing when I was learning to write computer software. Every six months, I would look back on my code from six months prior, and be disgusted by how bad it was. Most programmers recognize this feeling. It’s how we know we’re getting better. If ever we look back on old code and feel satisfied with it, it’s a sign that we’ve stagnated, and maybe it’s time to look for a different career. Have you considered middle management?

I expect I will find writing the same. I will struggle to do my best with each succeeding story. And every time I look back, I will be sickened at how badly I botched it. But I will be determined to take my lessons learned to make the next one better. And if ever I look back on a story I’ve written and feel fully satisfied with it? That will be the sign that I’m done writing, I guess.

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The Tale of the Tail

For nearly twenty years, the most concise description of me was “the guy with the really long pony tail.” That’s no longer the case, and I am frequently asked why. I find it curious that there is such a widespread assumption that a person needs a reason to change their hairstyle, but as it happens, I do have one. This is the story of how it came to be, and why it is no more.

From 1989 to 1995 I was an active duty Marine, which meant that I wore my hair very short, and had it cut every single Friday. When I left the military, I found myself needing to make a decision about hair style for the first time in years. At the time, I had been reading a lot of Viking Sagas, and I was reminded of King Harald Finehair, who first united all the kingdoms of Norway. He received his epithet because he had sworn an oath not to cut his hair until he reigned over all of Norway, and he stuck by the oath for the ten long years it took him to achieve his goal. Being young and still somewhat foolish, I decided to make a similar romantic gesture. I would swear an oath not to cut my hair until….

In order to understand that oath, it might be helpful to understand my circumstances at the time. I was 25 years old, freshly discharged from the military after six years, two overseas deployments, and one war. My family was working class, with no assets to speak of, living from paycheck to paycheck, so there was really nothing for me to fall back on. The most important relationship of my life had just broken up. I was drifting, unsure where to go, or what job I should be looking for, or really just how to live in the world. I was working a dead-end job for well below the median income, and wondering if that was all I was worth. That high school I-can-do-anything confidence had now faded into the I-have-to-pay-the-rent real world, and the impedance mismatch was tearing at my soul. In short, I was miserable, lonely, lost, and broke.

And so I swore an oath. I would not cut my hair until I was satisfied with my life. And I would tell no one what the goal actually was until it was achieved. Because talking about it was my litmus test. I didn’t feel comfortable talking about how uncomfortable I was in my own skin, and in my own life. I knew as long as I felt that way, I would not have achieved my goal.

At the time I swore that oath, I had a very naive vision of what it meant to be satisfied with one’s life. I imagined myself independently wealthy, with washboard abs, thrilling women with my fabulous athletic body and intimidating men with my real estate portfolio and unshakeable self-confidence. I proceeded to work toward that vision with great vigor. And I became even more depressed.

I settled in to daily life, merely trying to get by, that oath and the hair it spawned always right behind me, at the back of my head. Slowly, over the years, I found opportunities to grasp the things I had told myself were the brass ring. I found a career that I loved. My income steadily increased. I bought property. I dated women far more attractive than I deserved. I fell in and then out of love. Every time one of these milestones passed, I would ask myself, is this it? Is this the magic line where I become satisfied with my life? Every time I found that, having crossed the goal line, I felt no different about my life than I had before. Eventually, I just resigned myself to the idea that I would never get there, ever. And I stopped talking about my oath.

Then came the crash. I lost my job. I lost my girlfriend. My favorite pet died tragically young. The world came crashing down around me, and I lost all hope. The despair of being unable to achieve, and of being unable to appreciate anything I did achieve, led to an emotional crisis. I even contemplated suicide. I broke in a spiritual and psychological sense.

And when I did, my eyes opened. I saw, somehow for the first time, that I was not alone. I had friends around me who actually cared. Not many (because frankly I had been an insufferable jerk in my self-involved despair), but enough to have someone to talk to, someone to lean on. With the help of these friends I learned to see life from other perspectives. I came to understand what my life looked like from their point of view, and how they looked at their own lives. I discovered that everyone was just as lost as I was.

One friend took me to church with her, and though I was not a Christian, I found solace and friendship there. Religion was not ultimately my path, but I gained immense insight by learning to see the world from their perspective. I learned to understand finally the concept of Faith, and the way God helps everyday people, not through miracles, but by helping to lift their emotional burdens.

I began to study the Buddha Dharma, because it promised relief from dukkha, which is often translated as “suffering” but really encompasses a fundamental dissatisfaction in all things, and I felt this was an apt description of my inner state. I learned that the inner core of soul one identifies as “self” is an illusion we create, and that is why, no matter how we try, we can never reconcile it with the reality of our lives. I learned that all things are impermanent, and that our illusory “self” becomes attached to impermanent things. When those things change, as they must, the self suffers from the attachment. That suffering is dukkha and it is a condition of life.

I also learned about Imposter Syndrome, and thereby discovered how very common it is for someone to achieve “success” yet be unable to feel successful. More and more I learned that my own experience was merely The Human Experience.

To turn a cheesy movie quote into deep philosophy, there is a difference between knowing the path, and walking the path. Although I was learning these new concepts and using them to understand my past failures, it was difficult to understand how to apply them to my daily life. I continued going through the motions of life, trying to understand my failure, trying, as I phrased it, to learn to live in this world as a human being.

I took the advice of the Dalai Lama and began to practice compassion intentionally. Everyone in the world was suffering the way I was, and if I could not cure my own suffering, perhaps I could help alleviate theirs. The fact that I often found it surprisingly difficult to feel compassion for certain others convinced me that this was the right path. I still struggle with it. I’m sure I always will.

Most of you who know me today never met that early Vince. Only a handful of friends managed to hang with me through that time (and thank you all, I love you). Those who met me afterward might not even recognize that angry, depressed, and confused young man. The crisis and transition I describe above is now fifteen years in my past.

This is what led, fifteen years later, to the resolution of my oath, and the cutting of my hair. The intentional practice of compassion allowed me to internalize that life is not about things, it is about people, and compassion is what holds people together. I steadily worked to replace attachments with relationships, impermanent though they may be. As I aged into mid-life crisis territory, I increasingly appreciated the people in my life. And I began to examine the things in my life with great scrutiny. Do I really need this thing? Does it provide me any value, any satisfaction, any joy? Thing after thing went on the rubbish heap as the answers kept coming back negative.

And so finally, this year (2015), I found myself asking of my oath, and the hair that represented it, do I really need this thing? Does it provide me any value? Any satisfaction? Any joy? I was frankly astonished to find myself answering in the negative. I don’t need it anymore. I am comfortable with myself, satisfied with my life, and in fact I have been for a few years now. I don’t need that hair anymore. I don’t need that oath anymore. I am, finally, comfortable with being me, and comfortable talking about being me.

Don’t get me wrong. I still have goals, and too many failings to count. There are many things in my life and in my self that I want to change, and I will keep working at them. It is a very long journey, and I am only in the middle. But I have achieved that young man’s goal, in a most unexpected way. Neither wealth nor status nor outward appearance brings satisfaction with one’s life. Through the practice of compassion for others, I have discovered that being satisfied with one’s life means having compassion for oneself.

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A New Mission for Media

Facilitate the flow of information to the point of its highest value.

The media industry at large has lost its path. Most media companies are heavily tilted toward media as entertainment, rather than media as information. As a result, they are engaged in a digital race to the bottom, where falling ad CPM drives them to seek higher page view numbers on thinner margins, focusing on quantity rather than quality, on usage rather than utility. This has left a huge, blue ocean of market opportunities in focused information services open to software and technology companies, who are growing at exponential rates while traditional media companies struggle to slow the rate at which their business is shrinking. Media businesses can stop drowning and start growing again if they recognize and adopt the mission statement above, the mission that media organizations have always had.

As a media organization, your mission is to facilitate the flow of information to the point of its highest value.

That doesn’t just mean its highest value to you, the business, but the highest value over all to the community you serve. Journalism can be seen as a fulfillment of this mission, because information about corporate malfeasance or government activity has more value to society when it is in the hands of consumers or voters. But media organizations, and especially newspaper organizations, need to embrace the idea that news is more than just journalism, and media is more than just news.

A perfect example of an information service that should have been, but was not, created by a media company, is Waze. Waze is a mobile application that feeds its users real-time traffic information and turn-by-turn directions. Now, media companies have been providing their users with traffic information for decades, even going to the expense of paying for aerial observation helicopters to monitor traffic conditions. They knew there was a market need there. They thought they were filling it. Then Waze came along and stole their thunder, because Waze gives users exactly the information they need, at the exact time that they need it, and that makes the information much more valuable to the consumer. The fact that you publish the same information on your web site or broadcast it over the radio is irrelevant. Waze provides that information at the point of its highest value. Waze is doing the job of a media company.

Why didn’t a media company invent Waze? In fact, why didn’t every local media company across America re-invent it? It’s certainly not because they didn’t know about the market need. I think it’s because they lost sight of their mission. They were thinking about attracting audiences to their products, when they should have been thinking about how to serve their audiences better. Had they been focused on facilitating the flow of information (rather than merely the flow of advertising dollars), they might have recognized the opportunity.

The proliferation of personal, always-present, always-connected, location-aware mobile devices presents a huge growth opportunity for media businesses. More than ever before, it is now possible to deliver information to your audience at the exact time and place that it will have the most value.

You, as a media business, should be brainstorming every day to find new situations where a specific person needs some specific information at some specific time, and crafting new products for those situations. Some of these products will be so valuable that your audience will pay for them. Some will be better suited to an ad-supported model. Still others may be sponsored by a single business or organization. Some may lend themselves to in-app purchase opportunities. By addressing the timely information needs of your audience, you open the possibility of multiple revenue streams. If you perform this brainstorming exercise, you will come up with many, possibly hundreds of ideas.

It is your responsibility, media executives, to structure your business as a pipeline for testing and scaling these ideas. Train your audience development team in the latest (fastest and cheapest) user research methods. Train your product development team on the latest mobile and web technologies. Leverage the on-demand compute power of the cloud to reduce up-front capital outlays, quickly shut down experiments that don’t pan out, and rapidly scale the ones that take off. Use application templates to shrink your time to first prototype. All of these are ways to reduce the cost and risk of testing new products.

Get your assembly line running and don’t let it stop. Ship a new app every quarter, then every month, then every two weeks. If they don’t make a splash, no worries. It’s a small investment, easy to write off. If they do hit, scale them up and leverage the new revenue streams.

The key is to focus on the essential mission of the media, to facilitate the flow of information to the point of its highest value, and never stop asking how you can better serve your audience. Do this, and you will turn your foundering media business into a rapidly growing information services company.