The Story of My Middling Success (Part 1)

It happened in late October as I was organizing my thoughts for another NaNo book (this one was to be about a boy who runs away with the galactic circus). Just a week out from commencing the ludicrous endeavor of writing a 50,000 word novel in 30 days, I ran out of my usual circle of websites to click (which I do much as a Skinner Rat pounds his pleasure circuit — forgoing food, water, and sex for the thrill of mashing a button over and over). So I branched out a little and clicked on a periphery link, my KDP sales channel where Amazon Kindle purchase are tallied in near-real-time.

Scanning the Molly books and the Half Way Homes (the numbers change — well, I was about to say “glacially slow,” but aren’t those receding at breakneck speeds these days? Let’s just say that in those days, they changed slowly enough that I could recognize in a glance how many I’d moved that week). What caught my eye, however, was a little throwaway story with the sweet and cuddly name of WOOL. A dozen or so sales since the last time I’d checked. Weird.

The next day, I happened to stray from my Facebook-Hotmail-Gmail-Engadget-CanonRumors-Reuters-ScienceDaily-ESPN loop and once again clicked my KDP channel (no doubt, Skinner would say that the prior day’s experience had been a positive reinforcer for this behavior). What the hey? Another two dozen copies of WOOL sold that day. This was newsworthy, which meant yelling across the house to tell my wife.

“Very good, Dear,” I’m sure she said.

The next few days went by, and more weirdness: Amazon reviews. From far-flung readers, no less! Now, let me tell you something about me and Amazon reviews. If they could be embodied, whether by a cyborg, an alien consciousness, or some kind of life-energy swamp creature — I would have sex with it. Put them in a body moderately warm and able to mimic at least a half-dozen human characteristics, and my wife would have to move to Salt Lake if she wanted to stay with me. Sometimes, I think the only reason I spend thirty to forty hours a week pounding my keyboard is the slim chance someone will write me a 5-star review and tell me I don’t suck. Skinner would call it “Operant Conditioning.” Freud would say I have “Daddy Issues.” My wife (a psychologist) would call it “Worrying.”

So, Amazon reviews (the real ones, not the kind I would have sex with if they inhabited alien bodies), started trickling in. One a day for several days. Two a day. Twenty copies of WOOL sold in a single day. And then, as I was obsessing over this new hook-up wired into my mammalian pleasure-center, I saw that my Amazon product page had changed. Having long suffered with books ranked 1,294,206 on the Kindle store, WOOL jumped to 30,000-something. It was enough for it to show up in a list, which requires placing in the top 100 of some sub-category.

And so begins my horror tale with H.P. Lovecraft, one of the literary greats of the 20th century. Lovecraft, of Cthulhu fame, is king of Science Fiction Anthologies. He has a throne on high. Edgar Allan Poe and Philip K. Dick gaze up wistfully. At this point, of course, I was a nobody to H.P. I was ranked #95 in a category he lorded over. My aspirations were to catch the guy who wrote all the RENEWAL books, which seemed to be everywhere.

But then, the sales began to climb. Keep in mind that my glory days of selling a hundred books (to mostly friends and family) in a single day at a launch party were well behind me. Now I was writing MOLLY FYDE sequels for my dozens of adoring fans and the yearly NaNo book (HALF WAY HOME winning me dozens of more fans). I was a nobody as far as bodies are measured. You couldn’t tell that to the High Country Writers, a group of earnest elderly authors who would’ve killed for the several dozen books I sold each month. This was more than most of them sold in a lifetime! And you couldn’t tell this to the kids of The Millenium Academy in Mt. Airy, where I was up there with Andy Griffith and Jesus (at least to the Young Adult Literature Class of 2010).

These two adoring and envious cadres aside, I compared myself to my Facebook friends (sorta) like Jonathan Hayes (who sold hundreds of thousands of his debut novel, PRECIOUS BLOOD. {Awesome book, check it out}) and Dave Cullen, who won numerous awards for his sensational true-crime tome, COLUMBINE. I was realistic about my skills; I knew I had a little talent for telling a story, but I also knew I would never make a living at it. The odds are too long. The slog is too rough. The competition too thick. Barriers too . . . you get the idea. I’ve been telling my father since all this started that I’d never get rich doing it (still correct, so far). I told him I was going to write because I loved it, and that was all that mattered (he probably thought I was some kind of deadbeat hippie to utter such terrible aspirations).

By the end of October, I was tracking my daily sales and checking for reviews in a very manic, Skinnerian, manner. At this point, it was hourly (not as bad is it would get soon, let me tell you). My ranking in Anthologies moved up to the 40’s. And then the 30’s. I passed the RENEWAL guy (what a hack), and set my eyes on Douglas Adams. About this time, I finally cracked the General Science Fiction category. Now I was a minnow in a wide sea. All the heavies were stacked above me. I was #92 and sitting below a long totem that included Stephanie’s Meyers beaked mug, Kurt Vonnegut’s still-rotting corpse, and if you scrolled up far enough . . . the man himself: Orson Scott Card. Fellow North Carolinian. Penner of my favorite book as a boy, ENDER’S GAME, and soon to be my nemesis.

But that would be November. It’s only late October at this point, and I’m starting to pester my wife and my tenuous friend Jonathan Hayes with daily sales updates. I yell a number across the house, and my wife knows I’m referring to WOOL.

“FORTY-FIVE!” I might shout.

“TOTAL?!” she’d scream.

“No, TODAY!!”

“SHUT UP!” she’d tell me, which Skinner would call a Negative Reinforcer, but my wife would consider a colloquialism from her pseudo-South (Florida) upbringing.

“TOTALLY FUCKING SERIOUS,” I might reply. Which I wouldn’t, of course. But I might have.

So the sales are ramping up, my ranking is climbing in two categories (Amazon only allows two these days. Used to be four), and meanwhile: November is approaching.

One of the first reviews to really make me pee my pants a little (still the top review for WOOL if you want to go read it) has been taunting me for the last two weeks of October. It’s a five-star review (almost all of them have been, and at the time, nearly every single one was) that only had one complaint: It wanted more. More WOOL. It wished it was a full-length novel.

Now, I make precisely $0.35 for every copy of WOOL I sell. THIRTY. FIVE. CENTS. Bums are tipped more than this to shut the fuck up. That’s what I get paid to tell you a story for an hour or two. So, when my WOOL sales climb over 350, the math is pretty easy. I just made $100 off a short story I very nearly never uploaded to the Kindle store. A story I didn’t even talk about or have a link to on my frickin’ website until November, long after the craziness was out of my hands. That’s one hundred bucks that I was making for something I already did. No more work was required. Dinner and a movie (with popcorn for fucks’s sakes) for a story I played with for a month and tossed online. My NaNo plans were beginning to get a little shaky.

When it looked like I might sell 1,000 copies in October, I knew I had to do something different. Why write this awesome galactic circus story when what people really want is a bunch of groundhogs dreading Windex? With a week to spare, and the pace of sales climbing, I announced to the world (my dozen or so fans) that my NaNo was being scrapped. Well, not scrapped, but altered. Instead of writing a single novel of 50,000 words, I was going to write THREE stories of 20,000 words each, a little longer than the original WOOL.

It would qualify me for the prize of NaNo Winner (a digital badge and a verbal pat on the back), but more importantly: it would give readers what they were clamoring for. And hopefully, for me, more outlays of change in $0.35 bundles.

I’m not sure if it’s immediately obvious or not, but writing three 20K stories is a LOT more difficult than writing one 60K story. Once a story has legs, you can fill it up with all that boring shit in the middle. You can feed it dialog like doughnuts and pad that sucker up. The tricky bit, as anyone who’s attempted to write a novel can tell you, is the ending, making the story arc nicely and conclude in a logical manner. I was going to tackle three of these in a month. And since I was going to Colorado for Thanksgiving and flying out a week early, I really had just a little over two weeks.

So I planned to hit the ground running. I spent the last week of October outlining the rest of the WOOL story (five or six in total). I wanted to know everything. The characters, their motivations, their backgrounds, the scale of their world, the reason they were there, the conflicts they would face, everything. While I put the next three stories together, WOOL The First picked up its pace. Suddenly, it seemed as if it really could do 1,000 copies in the month of October. That would be phenomenal for someone of my stature (and with ZERO promotion). While I’m outlining, my wife and I are watching sales daily. It literally came down to the last few hours. We both posted on Facebook that I was close to a mystical number, and NOW was the time to buy!! and I stayed up two and a half hours past my bedtime (until midnight) . . . and took a screenshot of my KDP report.


I had done it.

Hell, I haven’t stayed up to see the ball drop in at least six New Year’s in a row. I almost woke up my wife to show her. I emailed the screenshot to myself so I would always have it. My writing life had peaked, it had topped out.

Or so I thought . . .

Next, I’ll tell you about my November, a wild orgy of book sales, NaNo insanity, Astronomy exams, meeting old friends for the first time, and sitting at a Thanksgiving dinner surrounded by authors, and sorta feeling like one myself.

4 responses to “The Story of My Middling Success (Part 1)”

  1. I hate loving music or books or movies and not being able to tell the creator how much I loved it, so I’m hoping you see this. Wool was one of the better short stories I’ve read, not to mention the most soul-crushingly sad. You had me so drawn in to the happiest, most hopeful ending I could have imagined, so utterly convinced that he had reached paradise. Not many stories have affected me like it did. I got so excited when I saw Wool 2, and realized that there was more. I just finished Wool 4. This is the most exciting, thrilling saga I’ve read in a long time. I love the ideas, the characters, the writing, and I love getting it in little chunks so I don’t devour it all at once. Keep them coming!

  2. You bet I see this! I can’t stop reading it!

    Thanks for the flattering compliments. It really motivates and pushes me to hear that people are enjoying the series so much.

  3. […] your predictions! Meanwhile, I’ll be writing under the crippling pressure that comes from Middling Success, trying my damnedest to concoct a series of events with such craft, precision, and care that each […]

  4. […] book sales crept up on me and I began losing sleep over their eventual plummet and gruesome end. Then I regaled you with my chilling November, where the fall should surely have come to return me to ignoble obscurity. And now this little […]

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