A Deeper Silence

On Wednesday my computer broke down without warning. I suspect it’s a hard disk drive failure, but time will tell the true cause. The digital silence that followed gave me the time I needed to coalesce some thoughts that were floating about in my mind, specifically pertaining to silence and speech.

As an introvert, silence comes naturally to me, and in prolonged silence I find the space and concentration necessary for deep thought and creativity. As a professional communicator, silence is a potential harbinger for disaster and long periods of it means you will be ignored and forgotten. I’m coming to understand this fundamental tension between my inclinations and my profession. Now I’m trying to put this into practice, discussing very recent events and making some updates.

Firstly, I’m pleased to report that the third entry of the American Heirs series, I, Eschaton, has completed the first round of proofreading and is entering the final stage of edits. I also managed to back up the last round of changes before my computer’s untimely demise. Work is on hold for the moment: I’m working on a loaner at the moment, and I would rather not keep sensitive information on it if I can avoid it. I am, however, planning for publication within the next couple of months, and am doing what preparatory work I can.

Secondly, I have also begun planning my next set of stories. It is not necessarily the fourth installment of the American Heirs series. It is not necessarily the same mishmash of science fiction and military tropes either. In the early days of the creative process I’ve noticed ideas come and go very often. I don’t think it’s prudent to raise expectations by talking about a product that may be dramatically transformed between conceptualization and publication.

Thirdly, I regret to say that my video game project, Odyssey: Remnants of Terra, is on hold indefinitely. The problem was mechanics: Odyssey was originally conceptualised as a shooter, and despite my best efforts I could not find a way to fit it into our chosen game engine, RPG Maker. After some intense discussion we concluded that the only way for Odyssey to work is if we choose another game engine, learn it from the inside out, and maybe expand the team. This takes time, money and contacts. Not to say we have given up on it completely, but we need to line up our ducks in a row before we can execute.

With that in mind, we are still going to create a game. Odyssey was a learning journey, and we came to better understand the ins and outs of the RPG Maker engine. As it transpires, I have an (as-yet) unpublished story that would, with some reworking, fit RPG Maker’s mechanics far better than Odyssey. Time will tell, but with this new pivot I hope we can finally create a product.

Finally, in spite of my quasi-weekly update schedule I noticed that readership has significantly tapered off. Part of this can be attributed to the shift in URL. In hindsight I should simply have maintained the old wordpress site and redirected visitors here, but it’s a bit too late to cry over spilled milk. All I can do is keep on keeping on.

Beyond that, though, sometimes it just feels like there’s nothing to say. That I’m either too busy working or else too preoccupied with other matters to blog. With a personality like mine, I’m beginning to understand and appreciate the need for quiet time, to process and analyze before acting. I don’t like to fill my pages with empty talk, and usually if I only have a few lines or paragraphs to talk about something they go on Facebook instead of my blog.

Content is king, as the saying goes. Now the question is what kind of content goes here, and how much. I have a headful of ideas. Some will stick true to the core Benjamin Cheah brand of deep analysis of politics and other issues. Others will take it into different directions. With a very small readership I’m effectively rebooting my brand. The question is where it will go from here.

That, I think, is something I need to answer first in a deeper silence.

Price revisions for Payhip and Keepers of the Flame

One of the benefits of direct ebook sales is that I get to enjoy very high royalties. 95% from Payhip, all of it mine. This is a stark contrast to the 45% I get from Amazon and Smashwords after the IRS takes their cut. What this means is that I can offer deeper discounts on Payhip than other platforms without actually losing money.

Novellas on Payhip will now be priced at USD$2.99, and novels at USD$4.49. In addition, if you share the purchase links on Facebook and Twitter, you will get an additional 30% off. If you haven’t already, you can pick up American Sons, Keepers of the Flame and my standalone novella At All Costs at far lower prices than my other distribution platforms.

In addition, I’ve also adjusted the price of the paperback version of Keepers of the Flame. Previously, it was USD$15.99. Now it is only USD$12.99. You can buy it here. The initial 5-star review has been very positive. To quote:

“Keepers of the Flame is akin to 40 different cameras following 40 different characters taking photographs of how the same overall event proceeds. And it does not feel nearly as disorienting as it sounds, since the progression is coherent though the perspectives constantly change…In seeing events unfold from multiple differently biased sources, it becomes possible for the reader to attain what feels like a form of objective view on the situation depicted in the novel. And it is, indeed, a very precisely described view.

“…[A]t times the words seem to disappear, their place being taken by a high definition video of the story; yet it never devolves into purple-prose territory. …[I]t feels like how you would naturally take in details from your surroundings – never so few as to be unaware to them, never so many that the framerate of the video is compromised by its resolution.”

You can think of it as an action movie in the form of a novel, with the occasional digression into politics and philosophy.

In other writing news, I am planning to create a newsletter specifically for book releases, and will be implementing discount codes and preorders in the future. This means that if, for whatever reason, you prefer Amazon or Smashwords, you, too, will enjoy discounts at a later date.

Finally, I’m working up edits for the next entry in the American Heirs series. It is a novella that takes place about a week after the climax of Keepers of the Flame, and I am aiming for publication at the end of March. More details will be forthcoming in the future. But for now, I can share with you the title:

I, Eschaton.

Lessons from Failure

In the technology field, a popular mantra goes, Fail early and fail often. The idea being to try out new ideas while the company is still new, understand your mistakes, then incorporate these lessons into future products. I’ve been applying this to my writing, figuring out what works and what doesn’t. Along the way I learned that this idea is incomplete.  The full mantra should be: Fail early, fail fast, fail often, fail smart, fail forward.

Fail early

A writer’s career doesn’t start with publication. It begins when he puts pen to paper, when he commits to writing. It doesn’t matter how famous that person is; when he’s got nothing to his name he’s writing on a blank slate. At that point, with no writing brand to his name, he can afford to make mistakes. The kind of mistakes needed to grow. Mistakes like telling too much, using overly fanciful writing, switching points of view too many times. He needs to finish his stories and send them out, and learn what he can from the inevitable wave of negative feedback. In my case, I learned these mistakes with the first series of Michael Chang stories, and all the other stories I wrote along the way that never saw the light of day.

Later in the writer’s career, when he has an established brand, failing early takes on a new light. ‘Early’ no longer means finishing a story and publishing it or sending it out. ‘Early’ means the space between writing the first word and before publication. If a pro’s story has to fail, let it fail before people see it. This minimises the risk to a writer’s professional brand, and maximises the space, time and resources available to fix the mistakes that led to the failure. This skill can be thought of as internal quality checking, and it’s a skill that can only be learned by failing early in one’s career.

Fail fast

Writing is work. Writing is an investment of time and energy. As an indie writer, it is also an investment in money — to cover the cost of publication. Failing fast in this context means reaching the point of failure fast enough to minimise sunk costs. For instance, when a short story reaches a point of failure, the writer would have spent between a week to a month working on it. A 300000 word doorstopper, on the other hand, requires much more time to write, and to pick out points of failure. And in that time, that story is not generating any return on investment — only costs. By failing fast, one minimises costs and the time needed to incorporate new lessons. It also enables the writer to produce even more stories, eventually leading to success.

The key to failing fast is producing what is termed the minimal viable product. This is the smallest possible package that encapsulates the functions and ideas of the overall concept. In a computer game, this would be a single sequence that showcases the core mechanics. In the manga industry, publishers test the market by publishing a lengthy one-shot piece, and if the audience is receptive the author is given a contract to extend the one-shot into a series. When seen in the context of writing, this means short stories and novellas. American Sons, for instance, was a proof-of-concept story that opened the way to a wider series. I’ve also been working on a fresh set of short stories, banging out the ideas in my head, and modifying or rejecting them accordingly.

Fail often

One failure is not going to be enough. The craft of writing encompasses a staggering array of fields, some relevant to a given writer, some not. Some writers (like myself) have a huge array of interests, and the only way to tell what works and what doesn’t is to write stories and see which work the best. When a writer goes pro, he has to decide what price points and distribution channels work for him, because everybody’s situation is different. The only way to learn these lessons is to see what does not work and adapt accordingly.

This ties back to the earlier principles. Failing fast and often is practically a necessity in fast-paced fields, and the indie publishing revolution is transforming the industry into one. To fail often, one needs time, energy and resources; to minimise expenditure of these assets on failures, one has to fail fast and fail early. I have a portfolio of about two dozen short stories, written in the past two years; a number of them are too poor to be published, but they served as lessons for the road. By failing often, a writer learns that much more often.

Fail smart

Failing is easy. One simply refuses to experiment, refuses to think, refuses to plan, refuses to do. But that’s not the point of the failure mantra. To fail smart is to look back on one’s failures, to understand what worked and what did not. This is the point of failing so many times. By not picking up these lessons, there is little point in failing to begin with.

Failing smart requires a great deal of honesty and professionalism. Creators need large egos to stand true to their work during the process of creation, but when it is done they need to be able to stand apart and understand what went wrong. This means knowing when to stand fast and when to adapt, when to defend yourself and when to acquiesce. This means being so well acquainted with the bitter taste of failure and criticism that it is no longer repulsive. At that point, the writer can look back on his work with a critical eye, and learn what needs to be learned.

Fail forward

The final edition of Keepers of the Flame was nowhere close to the first draft. The novel went through five major revisions and multiple minor ones before taking its final form. And yet it only took a little over two years of total writing and editing time to complete. That was because I made a point to apply the lessons I had learned and quickly turn things around, revising over and over and over again until I could not improve on the manuscript any further. I failed early and fast enough that mistakes could be corrected, often enough that I picked out the major flaws of the story, and set myself up to fail with an eye towards learning.

The principle of failing forward is to apply the lessons you have learned. If you must fail, do so with an eye towards self-improvement. Do it consciously, so that it becomes a learning process. Failure is something to be acknowledged, to be embraced, and to build upon. Otherwise, failure simply becomes the equivalent of mindlessly bashing one’s head against a concrete wall over and over and over again.

Embracing failure

Singapore is a risk-averse culture. Singapore is a place where failure is verboten, a sign of weakness and lack of capability. I suspect this is true for every culture and institution that seeks to create people who to perpetuate the system instead of creating new things. Yet failure is precisely what is needed to grow and to create. The school of hard knocks endures because sometimes it is the only way to truly learn something.

Embrace failure. The road to success is pitted and rocky, and those who walk the way of the pen will trip and fall many, many times. But each failure contains the seed of success, showing how to avoid future pitfalls and how to find smoother roads. This is the philosophy I choose for my work, and maybe, just maybe, it will pay off soon.