Looking Back on 2020, Looking Forward to 2021

Write, Plan, Desk, Notes, Pen, Writing, Taking Notes

2020 shook up the entire world. Yet somehow, my writing, and my blog, saw modest growth.

For years, on days when I didn’t post anything, my blog saw a daily visitor count in the single digits. Now it has broken into the double digits on silent days. Visitor counts on days where I do post content is roughly 1.5 times that of non-posting days. It’s not spectacular by any measure, but growth is still growth. This is probably due to two major posts.

The first is my exposé of Kumaran Pillai during the 2020 General Elections. The most popular post I have ever written, it garnered 9217 views. I do not know what effect it had on the wider society, but Kumaran Pillai was soundly defeated in the election. I consider it a success.

It did, however, tell me about the state of the media in Singapore. Not a single media organisation touched it. The mainstream media refused to cover the story—I have emails from every major newspaper in Singapore attesting to that—even after I provided documented proof. Not only that, the alternative media giants, The Online Citizen and The Independent Singapore, ignored the story.

I expected TISG to blackout the story. Kumaran Pillai, after all, owns and operates it. A story like this would weaken the opposition cause, so it is expected, but disappointing, for TOC to leave the story alone. As for the mainstream media, which has historically been a ‘nation-building press’, I imagine they see themselves above gutter politics and personal disputes. Only small-time blogs and Facebook groups covered this story.

The key takeaway from this episode is that the media will not report all the news. Be it mainstream or alternative, a media organisation will only report the news that serves its interests. It is only human to do so, after all. Do not trust any single media organisation for the whole story, or to even report all the news. Trust only that a media organisation will report an event in accordance with its political leanings and interests.

More than ever, you must seek the truth for yourself, without depending on the media to do it for you.

The second post came as a shocker: a review of the manga Talentless Nana, first posted in 2018, with 12,502 views, spread out over 3 years. The majority of these views came in October 2020, with 5,688 views.

This is entirely because of the Talentless Nana anime. I suspect people began hunting for reviews of the anime when it was released on 4 October, but were not as interested in the manga. That would explain why there were so many views, but so little engagement. To date I have received zero comments on the website, and only one private message about that post.

This post tells me that a writer can enjoy pseudo-virality entirely by accident, when something that he wrote about suddenly becomes popular. It also says that it is not enough to write about content tangential to what people are looking for. People looking for anime reviews may not be as interested in reviews of the manga the anime is based on. Content that does not squarely fall within a reader’s interests is not likely to hold a reader’s attention, long enough to spark engagement.

I don’t consider my current viewership as anything worth boasting about, only that it took half my life to reach this point. It probably means that for half my life I’ve been doing something wrong, if I want to grow my readership. To grow this blog, I need to start writing about what people want, not necessarily what I want.

2020 was my best year ever for fiction. Which only reveals I have a long way to do.

With 2 crowdfunding campaigns in 2020, I made 2.87 times the amount of money I raised for Dungeon Samurai in 2019. While I am grateful for this, it is also barely enough to cover my total costs. A major difficulty is that I am paid in Singapore dollars, while my costs are in USD. Conversion rates are painful. Going forward, I’ll have to revise my cost estimates and set a reasonable buffer. Especially for profits.

Royalties on Amazon are slightly up. This can probably be attributed to the semi-rapid publishing of Singularity Sunrise, as well as the promotional campaigns I’ve run in the latter half of the year. Going forward, I plan to continue publishing at a fast pace, and step up my own advertising and marketing efforts.

In 2020, I published 6 books, and put up 2 free books. These include Babylon Blues, Confessions of a Keyboard Monkey, Singularity Sunrise and its prequel, Prince of Shadows, and Sane in a Crazy World.

A fast pace, to be sure. On the other hand, while the common wisdom is that rapid publishing leads to outsized profits in the long term, for now it is challenging to justify spending so much time writing and publishing.

As I’ve disclosed in Confessions, I spent most of my life hammering at a keyboard, doing low-value high-drudgery work. It is not sustainable. With expenses mounting and new responsibilities coming, I need to find new sources of income. I can’t afford to dedicate dozens of hours every week on work that does not lead to commensurate reward.

This does not mean I am giving up writing. But I will have to adjust my writing and publishing schedule.

My first fiction book of 2021 will be titled Babylon Red. It is a cyberpunk action horror collection, compiling the adventures of Team Black Watch following the events of Babylon Blues. The first three have already been published. The fourth is being planned. There will be five stories in the collection in total. Publication is slated for Q3 2020, but this may be shifted up.

The third book in the Song of Karma series, Rogue, is currently with Silver Empire. In this story, Adam Song goes undercover to penetrate a ring of supervillains. Where the previous two books are big and bombastic, Rogue is more personal and intimate, delving deeper into the characters involved in the plot.

Misha Burnett and I are collaborating to produce a writing guide titled Pulp on Pulp. It is a collection of essays from some of the rising talent in the indie writing space, offering advice to writers on how to write pulp-style fiction. I am aiming to push this out by the end of the month, hopefully sooner.

My other planned nonfiction book of 2021 will be called Zen and the Art of the Cut (tentative). It takes key Buddhist teachings and applies them to everyday struggles, from procrastination to low motivation to struggles from deep-seated emotional difficulties. Publication date has yet to be determined.

My current major fiction project is called Saga of the Swordbreaker. This is a cultivation story with elements of cyberpunk. Li Ming is a biaohang, an adventurer-for-hire who hunts monsters and escorts VIPs. The realm of the rivers and lakes have been corrupted by secret societies, government interests and powerful megacorporations. Armed with his swordbreaker, he will restore justice and virtue to the world. Or so he hopes.

Saga of the Swordbreaker runs to 8 novels and a short story. 3 novels, and the short, are complete. Previously, I’d planned to complete the remaining 5 books this year. And yet, going back to the lessons outlined above, I’m re-evaluating my strategy.

Saga of the Swordbreaker is a cultivation fantasy with strong science fiction elements. Over many discussions with other writers, we’ve figured that the average reader will only tolerate one major deviation from established genre tropes. That makes it harder to sell this series. This series has more in common with, say, Final Fantasy VII, with its seamless integration of tech and magic, than a typical magic-heavy xianxia story set in an imaginary China.

Furthermore, while Saga of the Swordbreaker may have the aesthetics of a cultivation novel, it touches on much different themes. The typical cultivation series is a power fantasy. The hero steadily grows in power until he becomes immortal and can challenge gods and demons. Romance is nice, or else hot and steamy, and perhaps with harem elements. It caters to male fantasies.

Saga of the Sowrdbreaker, in contrast, covers other themes. Gongfu and martial ethics. Clashes of cultures, civilizations and worldviews. Whether the strong should protect the weak, or dominate them. The never-ending chase of money and power. It poses a direct challenge to the themes of the typical cultivation story from a foundation of Chinese ethics, philosophy and culture. In many respects, it is a return to the original wuxia genre, promulgated in the works of Louis Cha and the Four Classic Novels of Chinese literary history.

In an age of wanton degeneracy, it is a story that must be written.

Yet it is also a story that is only tangential to what most readers are looking for.

The same logic applies to the Babylon series. It is a cyberpunk series with elements of horror and faith. When people look for cyberpunk on Amazon, they find LitRPG. For years LitRPG writers have tacked on the cyberpunk category to works that are clearly not cyberpunk. The few genuine cyberpunk works are grounded entirely in materialism, with few to no elements of the fantastic. The closest analog is Shadowrun—but where Shadowrun paints the life of a glamorous elite underworld mercenary, Babylon is a story of rebellion against groups of demons that have seduced the world, and a return to faith.

My greatest gift is the ability to take disparate genres and fuse them into something never seen before. It is also my greatest curse. I tend to create works so weird that there is only a small audience willing to read them.

Where does this leave me? Do I strive on regardless and pursue art for art’s sake, or should I focus on what is profitable and leave the artistic stuff behind to a late date, when or if I break out?

It is a question I must examine in greater detail.

This is not an end to my writing, or even a pause. But it does require an honest re-evaluation of my plans.

Marketing remains key. It doesn’t matter how well I write if nobody knows what I write. Over the coming weeks and months, I’ll be studying and implementing marketing principles.

I will also adjust my writing schedule. Recently I have accepted another job, above and beyond my other work. While it is demanding, in the long haul it could potentially replace my other jobs. Even if it doesn’t, it would spell a significant boost in income. With bills mounting, this is something I need to prioritize.

This would also cut into my writing time. I’ll have to block out two or three days a week to focus on this new job. While I still have the rest of the week for writing, it still means reduced writing time for my own pursuits. Any story I start will naturally take longer to write. At the high end, writing time could potentially be doubled.

I’m going to test this strategy by writing the fourth entry in the Babylon series. After I work out the kinks and figure out the new writing schedule, I’ll move on to longer and more ambitious works. I can say, however, that rapid publishing and the hopes of increased royalties will have to take a back seat to the reality of increased income.

My goal, in the end, is financial freedom. Should this new job work out, I will make much more money than before, while working much less. And give me even more time to write. This is something worth working towards.

2021 will be a year of changes. When change comes for you, change with it, or be broken against it.

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Looking Back on 2020, Looking Forward to 2021
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