I'll keep this quick. I'm going to start posting chapters of my upcoming YA sci-fi adventure novel each week. If you like it, awesome! Please consider signing up for my mailing list. Pass the story around. Feel free to drop me a note with any thoughts or typo discoveries. The version I'm posting here is the third iteration of the third major draft, after having been scoured by nine beta readers. Thus, the copy should be fairly clean and 98+% true to what you'll see published on Amazon by the time we reach the end....at which point, Book 2 should also be ready.
Anyway. Please kick back and enjoy my little project that's been five years in the making...
Winston rubbed his eyes and wondered how on earth he could make it through this day. Only five hours of sleep had birthed a black hole where his frontal lobe normally sat and left him feeling slightly nauseous. On the concrete, sock-strewn floor of his bedroom, his robot – his contest entry, his life for the last five months, the fate of his future – sat motionless and indecisive, as if struck by a freak cosmic ray of stupidity.
“Why?” Winston moaned. “Why don’t you work?”
The compact machine could fit in his cheap, plastic laundry basket, which was how he carried it to and from school. With a LEGO control module head the size of a thick paperback book, four spindly legs, and a bulbous body fashioned from LEGO motors, a heating coil, and his mom’s old stainless steel salad bowl, the Stadlerator 7000 carried itself like an arthritic spider. The machine’s mission couldn’t be simpler: search and destroy. With its bulging eyes and recognition algorithms, it scoured its surroundings for worksheets from Mrs. Stadler’s seventh period English. Upon finding one, the Stadlerator snatched its prey with a slender grappler arm, dropped it in the steel bowl, closed the bowl’s lid, then heated the bottom of the bowl to 435 degrees Fahrenheit until the offending sheet baked into crispy oblivion.
Last week’s exercise – Copy This Paragraph in Ten Different Styles – lay in the bowl without so much as a browned corner. His “B-” grade in red ink remained perfectly legible above the words “Technically correct, but you should be trying harder.”
Trying harder. Yes, because the world needed more people able to describe an airplane ride in journalistic, comedic, pedantic, or minimalist styles at will. In his fourteen years, Winston had never been to an airport, much less set foot on a plane. Such worksheets were a distraction from working on his robot, and with only four days left until the district competition, he had no time for distractions.
The lid remained open over his homework. The Stadlerator’s eyes, scavenged from a couple of old webcams, stared with uncaring patience at his floor.
“The pincer releases, then a two-second wait…” Winston mentally reviewed the instruction code, trying to discover some flaw. “Rear camera confirms the sheet in the bowl. Initiate motor number five lid drop routine…”
Only the lid didn’t drop. Motor number five had worked last night, and now it didn’t. Again. Over and over, he mentally reviewed the robot’s instruction code, scouring each memorized line for possible errors, and found nothing.
Winston fell back onto his bed, not caring if he rumpled the clothes he’d folded a couple of days ago and never put away. From their posters taped to the ceiling, history’s greatest scientists and inventors stared down at him. In particular, the ever-grouchy Edison, scowling at the light bulb in his hand, seemed to rebuke Winston, as if saying, “I tried ten thousand designs until I figured it out. What’s your excuse?”
“I don’t know why it doesn’t work!” he told them all.
He didn’t have time to troubleshoot it now, and he’d be hard pressed to find the time tonight. Mr. Mendoza’s server lay dissected across half of Winston’s main workbench, awaiting resuscitation. Winston couldn’t afford to sacrifice his reputation as a cheap but efficient PC repairman. Without his income of several hundred dollars per month on top of his mom’s waitressing, how would they cover the bills?
Yet he only had four days to wow the district judges and advance to the state-level Robotics Tournament. Sure, being a team of one was a calculated risk. So was drawing attention through the automated destruction of homework. Did anyone else have his visual recognition systems, though? And wasn’t it a small step from finding and incinerating worksheets to, say, finding lost keys or picking up dirty clothes and putting them in the hamper? The Stadlerator 7000 was only a proof of concept, a stepping stone to affordable, next-generation robots that could make life easier for people like his mom. Surely, universities like M.I.T. or Carnegie Mellon would recognize his potential with a tournament victory under his name. Or perhaps Intel, 3M, or one of the other tournament sponsors would simply scoop him up out of high school in a year or two.
Then Winston and his mom would be set. She could retire and stop worrying about him so much. He would go on and live his lifelong dream. Winston had it all planned out…assuming, of course, that he could get the lid to go down.
“Honey, did you eat breakfast?” his mother called from her bathroom.
“No!” he hollered back.
“Well, can you hurry?”
Winston groaned and pushed himself out of bed. He wore the same T-shirt and jeans he’d fallen asleep in. His tattered backpack waited by the bedroom door, homework still unfinished, but he could probably catch up during lunch…if he didn’t spend it reviewing control code on his phone. Mr. Mendoza’s server demanded his attention, but there was no time to deal with it now. One desktop PC and two laptops waited in line behind it. Above his long workbench, all manner of tools and shelves containing sensors, soldering equipment, spare parts, and even an oscilloscope sat in scattered disarray that made complete organizational sense in Winston’s mind. He found something about living in the middle of an electronics workshop that used to be the home’s garage glamorously geeky.
He took a step toward his door, then paused to look down at the Stadlerator 7000. It would power off automatically after five minutes, or he could command it with a series of four snaps if he didn’t feel like hitting the red power button at the back of the mechanical beast’s head. Two claps put the robot into patrol mode. Three suspended patrolling.
Winston clapped three times, and the Stadlerator gave an electronic confirmation chirp. He clapped twice, hoping against hope that the order would work this time.
It didn’t. The stillness of the garage, with its dust-scented sprawl of clothing, plates, worn rugs, and exposed insulation, closed in on Winston a bit more, making him feel less like a robotics genius and more like an overambitious little boy.
Winston growled and ground his teeth at the robot. In his mind, he saw past the control module’s outer shell and into the circuit board, with its labyrinth of chips, wire traces, and interfaces. He visualized them all perfectly, having spent hours modifying the board for his needs, and probed for where any weakness might be hiding. His fingertips tingled with the intensity of his concentration.
Come on, you rust bucket, he thought. Where’s your problem? I just…need you…to close…the lid!
The robot beeped once, and, with a soft grinding of motor gears, played out the center cable until the lid clanked shut.
Winston froze. The superstitious caveman part of his hindbrain instantly tossed up an explanation: magic! Then the mathematician in his forebrain helpfully offered a solution: Coincidence!
Of course. Somewhere in the control module, the commands he’d given sat queued up. For some reason, the processor was firing really slowly. That had probably been the command he’d given five minutes ago, and now the robot would inch its way through the pending instructions. Better to turn the thing off and figure out whatever glitch was gumming up his order flow later.
Magic, whispered his hindbrain.
No. Winston didn’t believe in magic. Magical things never happened in his life. One might create occasional exciting breaks from everyday routine, but everything happened due to a natural progression of cause and effect. Glaciers melted when temperatures climbed. Bullies punched and mocked for specific psychological and social reasons. And Winston’s mind shut down whenever he wanted to talk to Alyssa Bauman because…well, that scientific analysis remained unresolved.
But this? This wasn’t exactly figuring out cold fusion. This was coincidence.
Winston didn’t spend much time on social media, but he did texted his best friend, Shade, dozens of times daily. Almost with a mind of their own, his fingers reached for his phone and tapped out an update. Slipping the phone back into his pocket, Winston bent over to press the robot’s red power button.
Maybe it wasn’t coincidence, argued his hindbrain.
He paused, hand outstretched.
Feeling a bit ridiculous, even in the privacy of his own room, Winston straightened and whispered, “Fine.”
He couldn’t remember the exact order of commands he’d given that might still be waiting to execute, but he knew which ones he hadn’t given and so wouldn’t be in the queue. Winston again focused all of his attention on the robot’s head, picturing in his mind the control module as it existed within its shell. Green circuit board. Bluetooth radio chip. ARM7 processor. Serial buses and power input. Winston’s breathing slowed as he focused, and not only did the tingling return to his fingertips but little flecks of blue seemed to dance over the motherboard in his imagination.
Stadlerator 7000, he thought with slow, overly pronounced care in his mind, as if the machine were mostly rather than entirely deaf. Reverse fifty centimeters.
With an affirmative chirp, the robot clicked and hummed as it backed up over the rug and came to a smooth stop.
Reaching out to steady himself, Winston sat back down on his bed.
It wasn’t magic. Magic didn’t exist. But it definitely wasn’t coincidence.
Without taking his eyes from the robot, barely daring to blink, Winston tentatively reached a hand toward his creation, realizing that he must look as if he were trying to use the Force. He visualized the CPU, the data ports, the motors and winch…
Open. Wait three seconds. Close.
The Stadlerator 7000 obeyed.
Winston pressed his fingers over his mouth and stared.
“No…way,” he breathed.
His mind raced for an explanation but returned with nothing. It wasn’t coincidence, and Winston tossed telepathy in the same waste bucket as magic.
Only then did he wonder for the first time if he could use this strange ability in the competition. No more debugging necessary. He could make the Stadlerator dance through any challenge the judges dished out. That would be cheating, of course, and he knew as soon as the thought crossed his mind that he would never do it. If he couldn’t win fairly, he would inevitably fail later in his career — cause and effect.
So what could he do? What if he demonstrated this phenomenon at the competition? He would be disqualified, but imagine the wonder on the judges’ faces! Would Intel hire him on the spot and place him in a research lab? Whoever got to the bottom of this would make a fortune, maybe even change the world.
Winston had streamed enough movies and TV to know what would come next. Wherever a fortune waited for the good guy, gun-toting bad guys couldn’t be far behind.
Be careful what you ask for, he thought.
Keep your head down, his mother would caution. Be humble. Nothing good comes from attracting too much attention.
As if she could hear his thoughts, his mom appeared in his doorway. Her dark, still-damp hair hung about the blue and white shoulders of her Sam’s Diner waitress uniform.
“Winston!” she called impatiently. “Breakfast? What are—” She broke off when she saw his face. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” Winston started to say, but the word never came out. He didn’t actually know if anything was wrong. He looked from her to the robot and back. Should he tell her or keep his mouth shut?
“Honey?” She stepped hesitantly into the room, low black heels clicking on the concrete.
Should he tell anybody? Should he even give Shade details? Winston had shared everything about his life with Shade since they were in the second grade. This was so radically different, though. And if word got out at school…what would happen then? Winston had enough social problems already.
“Winston, are you OK?”
His mom stood over him, brow furrowed, studying his upturned face.
He could keep it from her and blame his weirdness on short sleep or school stress or a particularly stupid YouTube video.
What came next surprised Winston even as the word tripped awkwardly from his mouth.
He held up his hand and focused on the Stadlerator 7000 through the gap between his thumb and index finger. Again, he concentrated on the machine’s inner workings.
“Tell me something I should have it do,” Winston said.
His mom’s voice sounded odd and slightly worried. “Umm…go in a circle?”
Winston took only a moment to practice the maneuver in his mind and imagine how it would execute, then the robot complied perfectly.
“Well, good job,” she said. “You made it have voice recognition?”
He shook his head solemnly.
Winston watched as the look of confusion on her face eroded into something else. Her thin lips parted, and she took a slow, deep breath, as if preparing to be submerged.
“Mom, I don’t know what it is or how I’m doing it. Really. I just focus on the robot and how it works. Then I think about what I want it to do, and…it does.”
She took one step away from him.
“Mom, I’m not lying.”
Winston’s mother gazed into his face — not so much into his eyes, but at his features. He saw her linger over the white streaks in his hair, following them back from his temples to the back of his head. After several seconds, with a clear effort, she glanced down at the robot.
“It has to be a bug,” she said softly. “You’ll figure it out.”
“That’s what I thought at first, but then I—”
“Winston,” she interrupted with strange firmness. “You haven’t eaten breakfast yet. It’s a bug.”
He stood up from the bed. In the last year, he’d grown five inches and now looked down on her, a situation they both still found alternately funny and awkward. Winston realized that his mouth had gone dry, and he forced himself to swallow. Her reaction reminded him of a time several years ago when he’d had an accident on the playground. As a first-grader stuck in after-school care, he’d wandered over to where the big kids were playing baseball. Curious for a closer look, Winston wandered into the baseball diamond just as some burly sixth-grader nailed a hit down the line just west of first base. The ball never reached the first baseman, instead colliding squarely into the center of Winston’s forehead. The impact lifted him off his feet. The next thing he knew, he was on his back looking up at the clouds as blood trickled into his eyes. The pain was horrendous. When his mom finally arrived at the nurse’s office, the look of fear and worry on her face had been exactly what anyone would expect from a mother. The nurse kept blathering on about concussions, the speed of the ball, fracturing, and how they should go to the hospital immediately for x-rays. His mom straightened, and the change that came over her expression then reminded Winston exactly of how she was acting now. They’d gone home, cleaned up, and by the next day Winston had little more than a small cut to show for his troubles. When the nurse asked him how he was doing, he repeated his mother: He was tougher than he looked and healed quickly.
That was then, though. Winston was no longer a little kid, and he needed answers.
“Mom, I’ve never heard of anything like this, at least nothing without some kind of EEG brainwave headband, like the kind—”
“Winston, get your breakfast.”
Her eyes wandered about his room, first at the robot, then the ceiling and corners, back to his face, and with each second her expression grew tighter and more anxious.
“Mom, are you listening to me? I don’t have an explanation for this. I mean, I’m wondering if I should demo this at the competition and get—”
She reflexively grabbed his arm above the elbow, fingertips digging uncomfortably into his flesh.
Winston fought down the urge to pull away from her and instead calmly said, “Oww.”
But calm was the last thing he felt. He couldn’t remember the last time his mother had ever touched him in a way that came close to inflicting pain.
She released him almost as quickly as she’d clutched at him. “I’m sorry. Winston…”
Her eyes pleaded with him before again flicking away to search about his room. What was she looking for? Had she lost something in here?
He covered his exposed left arm where she’d squeezed him and rubbed at the aching muscles. Beneath his hand, Winston noticed that his skin showed a faint blue bruising. For many years, Winston had been prone to such discolorations. Injuries on other kids turned red or purple. With him, they seemed more indigo or sometimes a steel blue, but they passed quickly. Usually, his mom would put on a bandage, and by the next day he’d be back to normal. Someday when they could afford insurance, she’d say, they would get it checked out.
For now, though, he didn’t want her thinking she’d hurt him. That would only worsen her odd mood.
“Please,” she continued, tone strained and muted. “Let’s get you some breakfast and figure this out tonight, OK?”
She knew, Winston suddenly realized. His mom wasn’t baffled like he was. She was worried.
No. He looked again at her expression and read the truth of it. She’s scared. Why?
“Can we go?” she asked. “Are you ready?”
He nodded, knowing he wouldn’t get any information from her now. This was her hedgehog state, when she curled into a prickly ball, kept her head down, and waited for the current problem to blow away.
Winston resisted the urge to mentally command the Stadlerator to turn off and instead reached down to press the power button. With two descending beeps, its indicators went dark. He followed his mom up the single concrete stair and closed the door behind them.
There wasn’t much to their house. The narrow hallway that ended in the former garage also led to his mom’s “master bedroom,” which measured about one-third the size of his own. She turned off to finish getting ready for work. Five more steps took Winston through the hall and into their small kitchen. Beyond this was the living room, which contained little more than a couch and a still-functioning 1998 television with a remote control the size of a tennis shoe. Despite the spindly furniture and worn nearly bare carpet, Winston’s mom kept the home immaculate. She was a nut about keeping everything sterile, but it still felt gray and tired.
They had few non-essential things. As Winston’s mom often reminded him, things only broke over time, and college was coming up someday. When he was home, Winston essentially lived in his room. Most days, he would shuffle out for dinner or to share a movie with his mom, but his life and most of his heart was with his robots.
He grabbed some orange juice and two breakfast bars, then set about downing his meager meal while pacing the living room. In record time, his mom tromped down the hallway, hair still damp but now more thoroughly brushed. As he downed his last swig of juice and set the cup in the sink, his mother emerged from the refrigerator holding two stuffed brown bags, both crinkled from several days of reuse. She handed one of these to Winston, and he noticed that her eyes were wet with tears.
“Ham sandwich, salad on the side,” she said.
He stuck the bag in his backpack, wondering if he should try to say anything to make her feel better. “Thanks.”
His mom snatched her purse from the counter and said, “OK, let’s go.”
She wiped at her eyes and tried to smile.
“Mom, you’re kind of—” he started.
“Running late,” she cut in. “Come on, honey.”
No discussion. Fine.
She cracked the front door open and waited. As he passed her, she gave him a little hug in the doorway and kissed his cheek. Again, strange. She normally never kissed him except right before bed.
Then he felt her free hand press a slip of paper into his own and close his fingers over it. She held his hand closed to emphasize that he shouldn’t look at it yet.
Winston’s mom met his eyes and gave him a meaningful nod. He nodded back, unsure if she had mentally snapped.
She locked the door behind them and got into her ancient Honda Civic, a ‘94 model she had bought used even before he was born — with cash, she loved to remind him. “Credit is for people who don’t understand math,” she would say. “In my day, if you didn’t have cash, you could afford to wait.”
The car engine turned over with a wheezing heave. His mom rolled down the window half-way, her shoulder weaving back and forth as she turned the handle. They were the only family Winston knew of that had a car with manual windows. For a second, she looked like she was going to call him over to her, then she thought better of it.
“Have a good day, honey,” she said. “Learn lots.”
“Uh huh,” he replied. “You, too.”
It was his customary comeback to her customary morning goodbye.
She gave him a tight-lipped grin, rolled up the window, and backed out of the driveway. As she passed, he gave her a small wave, noticing once again that there were tears in her eyes.
She drove off, a little slower than usual, leaving Winston alone in the driveway. Theirs was by far the smallest home on their cul-de-sac, one of the poorer and more run-down pockets in this area of Beaverton. The morning air was clear and warm for October. Sunlight filtered through the trees. Winston knew that other homes had gardens in their last bloom, stained glass knickknacks in the windows, and other signs of suburban decoration. Meanwhile, their house had a couple blotches of grass and a white picket fence in dire need of braces. Mustard-colored siding paint flaked like a week-old sunburn. They didn’t bother with window decorations because his mom almost always kept the curtains drawn. The screen door had a rip in the bottom where Winston had tried to drive a toy tractor through it many years ago. One corner of the gutter sagged lower than the others.
He’d seen more luxurious accommodations in trailer parks. Still, this was Winston’s home, and he was used to it. They didn’t make much, but the house was paid for, and even in eighth grade Winston was able to help pay for some of the bills.
With a sigh, he started down the street, but he couldn’t shake the image of his mom shushing him and searching around his room. Then he realized that the slip of paper his mom had given him still waited in his palm. He opened it and recognized her handwriting, hastily scrawled in felt pen.
Assume you are being watched. Do not show what you can do to ANYONE. Discuss tonight.
Winston read the note over and over. Perhaps she really had gone off the deep end…but he doubted it. Her bizarre behavior, while frantic and disturbing, fit too closely with what he’d seen long ago in the nurse’s office. She didn’t seem crazy. If anything, she seemed like someone suddenly realizing that last night’s nightmare hadn’t entirely been a dream.
Assume you are being watched.
As Winston pondered her words, he found himself glancing around at the neighborhood’s power lines and scattered ash and elm trees — for what? Snipers? Evil spy birds?
“Get a grip,” he murmured as he shoved the sticky note into his jeans pocket and started down the street. “She’s just stressed with work or something. And the robot…”
Yes, the robot. Neither development offered any rational explanation yet, but Winston felt sure that both were related.
Assume you are being watched.
If his mom wasn’t crazy, why would she say this? There must be some basis for it. And if her paranoia had been triggered by watching him mentally command the Stadlerator, then that meant…she wasn’t surprised. She was afraid, but not surprised. She knew something about Winston that he didn’t.
Do not show what you can do to ANYONE.
A speed tracker stood at the cul-de-sac’s entrance, one of those mobile units with solar panels on top and a big readout showing an approaching car’s speed. One block off of the main street bordering their neighborhood, Winston had thought it was a stupid place for a speed sensor ever since it had shown up there a couple of years ago. Now he found himself studying it as he walked past. Tucked underneath the solar panels, a dark plastic block mounted to the central post. Presumably, infrared or laser sensors hid within the block. Winston knew that the sensors had to face toward Denney Road in order to detect drivers’ speeds. Could there also be a camera pointed toward his house?
He shook his head. No, the idea was both ridiculous and irrational, just the sort of fantasy any ordinary, bored fourteen-year-old would cook up to have some excitement in his life. He kept walking.
Still…what had his mom been looking for in his room?
Winston swallowed hard and glanced back at the speed readout sign. Was someone watching him? Could his home, even his bedroom, be under surveillance? The thought that someone might have cameras or microphones in his private space made his heart skip with sudden embarrassment. Then he realized that any cameras would have also seen what he could do with the Stadlerator 7000.
His mother worried about him telling anyone, but what if the secret was already out?
"I love reading copy filled with trademark symbols and at least one five-word product name in every other sentence," said no reader.
The purpose of writing -- any writing -- is to engage the reader and convey meaning. Think about those two key words.
Imagine being at a social gathering, and you spy Bob across the room. You've been wanting to talk to Bob for weeks about this idea you have that could help him. So you nudge and muddle your way through the crowd, make eye contact with Bob, step up to him, and engage.
You keep your head down, voice almost robotic, and murmur, "Hello, Bob. My name is Whatever. I am from That Other Group. I think you would be pleased to hear about an idea of mine. I call it the Idea of Considerable Potential, but please don't use that name yourself as I'm trying to keep it for my own."
Naturally, Bob is already looking at the exit, convinced that you're socially awkward at best, probably a hopeless bore, and possibly a bit imbalanced.
I nearly can hear you from here. "Wait," you're thinking (loudly). "You said I engaged Bob. That's not engaging! That's fizzling with failure!"
Exactly right. So why, then, would you ever release a piece of writing of any kind with the same awkward, lackluster approach? Are you intentionally trying to push readers toward the exit?
Just yesterday, I received a blog post draft back from a client. The project manager had left nearly all of my content alone, but she'd inserted about a dozen trademark symbols (on her own brands, mind you, not those of other mentioned companies) and expanded all of my product model mentions out to their legally approved, grossly distended dimensions.
I cringed while reading it. Do people use trademark symbols when they talk? And for crying out loud, did anyone in casual conversation ever pronounce all seven words of "Microsoft Windows XP Media Server Edition 2005"? No, it was just "WinXP"!
You want to engage. You want to convey your meaning with concise, powerful effectiveness. You want to look Bob right in the eye and say, "Bob, I'm so glad to meet you. If you've got a quick minute, I'd like to share something that could make a real difference for your group."
While mulling over my project manager's additions, I went to Apple's site to look for similar marks and nomenclature in their product pages. Guess how many I found.
One -- the copyright 2015 fine print down at the very, very bottom of the page. Otherwise, nary a trademark symbol or lengthy product name to be seen.
BMW follows a similar approach on its site.
And so on. When you read the content of those companies, it flows. It's natural. It sounds like a friend talking to you. It's real.
Is it any wonder that their content is so effective? To the reader's eyes (and inner ears listening to the brain read that text aloud), naturally written content feels trustworthy. Shuffle up to someone and stick a bunch of legally sanctioned prose under their nose, and you'll instantly lose that person's attention -- perhaps even their future consideration.
I'm not a lawyer. I've never studied the whys and wherefores of legal brand use. But I'm going to take an educated guess and say that such stilted measures are no longer necessary in today's marketing copy.
So for the love of all that is good and legible, please...be real. Write to your customer as if you were trying to make a new friend. They might just reciprocate.
If I had to do college all over again, there's little doubt in my mind that I would abandon pursuing an English degree in favor of Psychology. The older I get, the more I'm fascinated by what makes people and groups tick. Being a writer, it's no surprise that I find the psychology of communication, especially through writing, most fascinating of all.
I read recently that emoticons tend to be used more by women than men. See, this bugs me, as I happen to enjoy a good emoticon every now and then. Not tons. I don't spray them around like exclamation points at a teen shopping adventure. Just a few to be friendly.
So imagine my sense of relief upon finding that emoticons can help during online negotiation processes. That's right. The smiley may yield an actual beneficial business result. Take that, ya misogynistic emoji haters.
However, since my online source for this tidbit seemed less than reliable, I went digging. Apparently, the root research that spawned this revelation had more to do with general communication than emoticons in specific. In particular, the research focused on mimicry during negotiation, both in person and via text. That's the emoticon tie-in: If the person on the other end uses emoticons, you'll do better by using emoticons in a similar fashion.
You can read the paper for yourself: "Early words that work: When and how virtual linguistic mimicry facilitates negotiation outcomes." The idea boils down to the fact that if you copy the mannerisms of the other person in the first ten minutes of a negotiation, they'll tend to like you more and you'll end up with a better negotiation outcome than you would have otherwise, including if you started mimicking in the last ten minutes. The researchers state, "Our results suggest that – even when cloaked behind the anonymity of a computer screen – strategically mimicking a counterpart's language early in a negotiation can be a powerful way to facilitate the negotiation process."
Note that the point is not to be a mirror or to parrot. If you blatantly copy people, you're just going to annoy them. This is about subtly relating to people and "speaking their language," even if that means body language. It's a valuable skill to be aware of if you're a heavy email communicator and another good reason to listen to others before opening your mouth -- or setting fingers to keyboard. ;-)
"You never get the order unless you ask for it."
From the time I was old enough to understand what making a sale meant, my Granddad drilled this phrase into my head. Usually, I dismissed his efforts to induct me into the stressful world of sales. That was for insurance salesmen like him and my dad. It didn't apply to me. I was going to become a writer.
Which I did...only to discover that writers are salespeople, too. Just about everyone is. If you create or provide something that other people want or need, you're a salesperson. Writing, hot dogs, door knobs, tax preparation, house cleaning, teaching -- it all gets sold.
After countless family dinners spent in arduous boredom, left out of conversations about accounts, chargebacks, renewals, and endless political intrigues in which my parents were inevitably the tragic victims, I grew up with a deep-seated resentment of selling. Selling meant stress. Selling meant cajoling people into buying things they don't want. Not surprisingly, when I went on to run a computer parts distributorship in my early twenties, I failed miserably. The job involved lots of selling, and, by God, I wasn't going to be a salesman.
It would take another two decades for me to realize that, in one way or another, everyone is a salesperson, and selling isn't bad. It's not what I thought it was. As with anything else, there are right and wrong ways to sell. Done right, the process is about helping people and providing them with more total value than the amount of money they give out in exchange. I don't mean things like when Office-a-Palooza offers to sell you a $29.95 extended warranty for an $89.95 inkjet printer. That's just taking advantage of people's ignorance and fears. I mean things like providing a great story to someone in ebook form, something that will entertain them for five, ten, maybe twenty hours, for only $4.99. That's amazing value. That's worth selling -- and buying.
Viewed in this way, selling isn't a bad thing. It's good, maybe even noble.
Only lately in my career as a freelance technology writer did I discover the value that my talents could offer to some companies. People told me for years why they liked my writing, but I didn't get it. Honestly, I thought any monkey could do what I did, and, when it came to benchmark-heavy hardware reviews or the like, that was more the case. You don't need a lot of talent or insight to operate a stopwatch and plug numbers into a spreadsheet. Which product is best? Well, that one, obviously.
However, I've been doing my day job for long enough (almost 18 years now) that I've learned a few things and gained a little perspective. Combined with a passable ability to translate Geek into English, I realized that I have a fair bit of value to offer commercial clients. Some companies are willing to pay for this value. I use the word "value" here instead of "expertise" or "talent" because I believe that, if I do my job right, they will get more in return through my work than the dollar amount I put on my invoice. It's a good deal for both parties, and, for the first time in my professional life, I understand that.
I'm not a monkey. I'm not a swindler. I'm just trying to do my best to help people, deliver real value, and make a living in the process. This is true of all of my writing work, commercial and fiction.
I wonder how many people are at or near my stage of life and haven't figured out their value proposition yet. It's debilitating, all of that self-doubt and aimlessness. You have to know your value proposition, because then...it's OK to ask.
Last week, I had a client renewing my contract for the upcoming quarter. They gently tried to nudge me to the bottom of my price range. I almost caved out of habit, nearly giving in to that old fear that it's better to have some work than risk having no work at all.
Then I looked at my schedule spreadsheet. No. I was going to be fine next month and probably the month after that. I could breathe. More than that, I knew my value, and I knew what it was worth. I countered with a number 50% higher than they'd offered. Two days later, they agreed.
This morning, I got final sign-off on a white paper I wrote for a different client, a new one I'd never worked with before. I was finishing the obligatory "thanks, glad you're happy, umm...bye-bye" email that would conclude the job. But before I typed my name, I heard my Granddad in the back of my head saying, "You never get the order unless you ask for it." It was kind of surreal, almost like Obi-Wan telling Luke to use the Force.
Before my name, I typed something I'd never written at the end of one of these messages: "So...what's next?"
Thirty minutes later, he sent me an invitation for tomorrow to discuss more jobs.
As parents, we're never really sure how to get through to our kids. My Granddad left out a couple of key tidbits in his message. Yes, you never get the order unless you ask for it -- that stands above all else. But when you ask for it, you have to know your value. You have to understand it and believe it, because once you know that, it will be obvious to everyone. You won't have to convince people to say yes. They'll be happy to say yes, because they know they're going to get the better end of a mutually beneficial deal.
Have you figured out your value yet? It's the foundation you stand on when you lift those around you to a slightly higher place.
In my teens and early twenties, I would go with the men in my family to hunt mule deer in the hills outside of Prineville, Oregon. In all the years I carried a gun, I only took my safety off twice. Mind you, this is after growing up listening to endless camp stories about supposedly mature men getting drunk off their asses, prancing through bonfires, having their hands duct taped to tent poles, and having their sweat freeze to the rocks under them as they sat waiting, usually hung over, on their hunting stands before sunrise.
In nearly a decade of carrying a gun, I only took my safety off twice, and I never fired. I got what they call “buck fever.” My hands would shake. I couldn't control my breathing. I never trusted myself to make a clean shot that wouldn't torture the majestic animal afterward. Every time I would lower the gun, I found myself wishing I was shooting a camera instead. (I was something of an amateur photographer in my high school years – another on the short list of pursuits I'd like to pick back up “someday.”)
Time passed. The area where my family had hunted for two decades, a place where the group would often bring back several deer per year, was only yielding one every two or three years. It was rugged, dusty, buzzing, achingly peaceful land, and I spent countless hours there playing cribbage with my Dad and Granddad, having my first illegal drinks, and hiking around the hills. I remember a little place named Shepherd's Pond, a small spring only five or six feet around and always covered in water cress. The place was always thick with the circular depressions made in the grass from deer bedding down, although I never saw a deer there. Finally, the Bureau of Land Management declared the hills off-limits and logged it all off. For me, they might as well have dropped a nuclear warhead right on the Lunch Tree, the lone juniper that stood in the center of the Big Saddle where we would meet for lunch when the day's hunt was over. I've never seen those hills since.
Last summer, in the middle of one of the busiest business months I've ever had, my family took a week to camp at the Prineville Reservoir state campground. On the last day, knowing it would make me tired for the afternoon and evening, I woke up half an hour per sunrise, just so I could once again see the sun come up, gold breaking through blue-gray, on these craggy hillsides. I'd even scoped out the table I'd wanted to write at over the prior couple of days. It's next to the fishing platform overlooking the water.
I had set my alarm for a few minutes before sunrise but actually woke up twenty minutes before that. For important things, your body knows. I crawled out of bed, got dressed, grabbed my notebook, and walked the path down to my selected spot. The sky was already gray brightening toward pale blue. Nobody was walking their dog yet. No kids were clamoring for breakfast. No boat motors obscured the occasional screaming caws of the pre-dawn crows. It was about 50 degrees on an August morning. Not quite stick-to-your-rock weather, but still brisk enough to warrant three layers and a pulled-up hoodie.
When I reached my table, I found a doe and her two fawns grazing there, silhouetted against the lake behind them. I snapped a few pictures with my phone. It was as if they were posing for me. “Would you like us here, between the trees? Heads up or heads down?” When I moved, they moved. So long as I kept a respectful distance, they were happy to allow me my contentment.
I smiled all throughout my picture snapping. It was as if the hills had waited 25 years to grant my wish. All I had to do was rise early and be still.
Moments like these require some luck, but, of course, luck happens where you make it. When your wish is quiet and noble and you let it come to you like a silent deer against the brightening horizon, every once in a while, the universe will throw you a bone.
...is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results, right? We've all heard that, no matter how misattributed. Well, to some degree, I've been doing that for quite a while.
Having been a full-time freelance writer since 1998, I can assure you that there's a difference between doing a job to your clients' satisfaction and doing a job well and efficiently. My clients tend to be a pretty satisfied lot, but for the better part of two decades, I've worked mornings, nights, weekends, and all points in between. It got to be so common to work constantly that I no longer questioned doing it. The default answer for all questions from family and friends was, "Maybe, but I'm pretty busy." As if I was the only busy guy in the world.
With only one career in hand, I could skate by in this state. But with two careers -- my existing freelance business plus a fledgling career in fiction -- I could no longer ignore the obvious. Whatever I was doing wasn't working well. I was treading water with my commercial clients, keeping roughly the same income level for over five years. My fiction production was erratic and impossibly slow in getting to market. My family still didn't get to see much of me, even though I worked from home. And wasn't that one of my main motivations for being self-employed, in order to be involved and experience my family growing up?
One of the reasons I joined my wife in attending CrossFit lessons two months ago was because I'd heard people talk about how self-discipline with physical health often bled (literally in CrossFit's case) over into other life areas. If I could tackle CrossFit, I reasoned, perhaps I could gain the mental discipline necessary to improve my work processes. Six or seven weeks later, I was over that initial hump of substantial exercise training agony, but nothing seemed to be changing elsewhere for me. Imagine that -- a grown-up has to do the tooth fairy's work. Perhaps magic only strikes when you make it strike.
Habits and Help
While I was waiting for the tooth fairy to visit my daily routine, I came to a sudden if glaringly obvious realization: I have no routine. I went to bed every night knowing what needed to be done the next day, but I had no methodology for tackling the tasks. As a result, many days ended up as if I'd spent the last ten hours chasing my tail in an endless pursuit of email, calls, IMs, social media check-ins, family needs, and everything else. I needed to become a lot more efficient if I was going to make headway in my day job, much less ever see the light of day as a novelist.
Self-improvement coach Tony Robbins always encourages people to ask better questions, so rather than ask a vague question, such as "How can I get more done?" I tried an approach I'd never taken before: "How can I cultivate better work habits?" That question led me to probe the nature of habits, how they form, and how they can be remolded. Before long, I was listening to the audiobook for Charles Duhigg's fascinating The Power of Habit.
Some of the basic principles in this book were a stark eye-opener for me. Habits are comprised of three parts: cue, process, and reward. As I surveyed my days, I realized that I had very few predictable, recognizable cues that would trigger a positive work process and result in a desired reward, such as a sense of accomplishment.
I found myself wondering how other successful people go about their days, apply structure to themselves, and use habits to achieve their objectives. I'm not out to reinvent the wheel, after all. I'm in the business of interviewing people, so I started looking for anecdotes and asking around. One of the people I went to was my CrossFit trainer, Chuck Gonzales, owner of the facility I use three times a week and a guy for whom I have ever-increasing respect. Chuck recommended that I subscribe to Success magazine for a steady stream of ideas, and he pointed me to a site called nobrowndays.com.
At first, I was put off by how infomercial-y this site appeared, but I quickly realized that there was very little for sale here. The key concepts all appeared to be given away for free. The main idea is to color-code each day on the annual calendar according to focus in one of four areas: personal time, money making, administration/development, and planning. While each day might involve more than one of these elements, every day should have a primary focus. Sure, you might have to take a sales call on a personal day or go to a kid's band performance on a planning day. But overall, a day should be dedicated to one of these four pursuits and result in a calendar similar to the one shown here.
What do you get when you combine all four colors? Brown. And how would you typify such a day? Pretty crappy, right? You try to do everything and nothing gets done. Bingo. I made my annual calendar and set my quarterly objectives. Most days are green, but I have a lot of yellow on there, too. I have never blocked out so much personal/family time before in my life. It's a little terrifying.
This still left one big question unanswered: How do you execute a green, money-making day efficiently? I had family tasks, day work tasks, fiction tasks, personal communication tasks -- all these different kinds of activities that needed to get done in such a way that they could proceed from regular, predictable cues and form good habits. Wasn't there a daily system for diverse task sets like that applicable to self-employed writers like myself?
Of course, and I couldn't believe I'd missed it for so long. It's called school.
No School Like Old School
I spent two days ripping apart all of my activities, goals, capabilities, and so on, and I came up with what I think is a sustainable system. To the left, you can see a sample day that balances freelance work and fiction work. One of the things Chuck told me was that his day starts at 5:00 AM. This matches what I've read countless times in interviews with successful authors. I've always dismissed this possibility, because ever since I was old enough not to have a bed time, I've been a night owl. "That's just how I'm wired."
Or is it? Is being a night owl a biological imperative...or a habit? Specifically, is it a habit that's not serving me effectively? One way to find out.
From 5:00 AM to 10:00 PM, my week proceeds in blocks, just like school periods. When do I do email, Facebook, and other similar distracting tidbits? Between periods, just like in school. When class is in session, you sit, focus, and get stuff done. What if a call has to get scheduled for 9:00 rather than the 12:00 where I'd like it to go? Before, such a shuffle invariably threw my morning into a tail-spin. Now, thinking of these things as blocks, all I have to do is switch two items around on my daily calendar. Easy.
And yes, that is a nap you see sitting there at 2:00. My work week schedule only allows for a maximum of seven hours of sleep per night, which is one less than I've found I really need. Tack on the physical demands of CrossFit, and I've learned that I survive far better with a mid-day nap. Laugh all you like, kiddies. Middle-age is coming for you, too.
This all might sound ridiculously obvious, but as a self-employed guy who had to figure everything out by trial and error and with no professional guidance, well...it's a process. I don't pretend to be smart, but I do try to improve over time. This is how I'm going to try things for a while. I'm going to give it my best shot, because, honestly, I don't have any better ideas.
I hope my family and friends understand when I take longer to respond to things. My kids will have to learn that I am effectively not here until 5:00 during the week, and if you're bleeding, you better put a Band-Aid on it yourself. No movies during the week. No late phone calls with friends. No leisurely lunch breaks with my dad. This is all new to me. But if this is what it takes to achieve goals, then let's get going.
I woke from a nightmare this morning.
Twenty years ago, I worked for a computer retailer. Well, two of them, actually. I was at one for about five years, the other for maybe three weeks. Before that, I ran a computer components distributorship for a year or two. I wasn't a very good salesman. I've always had trouble with cold calling and "getting out there." If a customer walked in, I was always happy to provide loads of information. I prided myself on being an engaging educator who happened to occasionally sell things. Helping people and giving them the information the needed mattered most. Come to think of it, this is probably why I'm so bad about staying on top of my invoicing today.
In this dream, I worked at a desk in a huge warehouse. I was dressed nicely -- slacks and button-down. I don't think I was selling computers, but it felt like it, if that makes any sense. I had the impression of waiting to help when, in the back of my mind, I knew that I was supposed to be on the phone, drumming up business. Getting out there. Behind me, several of the boss's kids ran amok around the business.
Next thing I knew, I was in the boss's office, and he was dancing around giving me the sack. You knew from the hemming and hawing what the punchline would be, but he didn't have the nerve to just come out and say it. I waited with outward calm and a mounting sense of dread. At one point, the boss's young son appeared behind me and spilled a plate of spaghetti down my right arm. He didn't reprimand the boy. I left the noodles there as my boss continued speaking, as if it were a badge of persecution.
When I finally left his office and walked home, I wasn't thinking about how I needed to make more money with writing articles, which is what I've done for the last 17 years. Instead, I wondered how quickly I could write novels until my scant money ran out and my family was on the street. How little sleep could I live on and keep functioning? Was there a cheaper way to buy Top Ramen than by the case?
I was terrified, of course, but also excited. My safety net had been removed. There was no more opportunity for excuses. It was time to write or die. And then I woke up.
My friend and collaborator, Baron Schuyer, came over today for another eight-hour marathon of character profiling and scene mapping for our imminent fantasy series, currently code-named "The Dragonette." (The actually refers to the protagonist's ship rather than the protagonist herself.) We have bumped this project back numerous times to give Baron room to create maps, perform period research, and otherwise let us chart a detailed map forward before embarking too far on a series that will probably span over 500,000 words. That's not Game of Thrones long...but it's pretty damned long. As of today, we are dangerously close to having the entire first book mapped out. I begin writing in September.
Why not now? Well, because the YA sci-fi adventure duology I've been cranking on for months suddenly became a trilogy today. Closing in on the half-way mark of Book 2, I realized I was going to be right around 75,000 words, which is spot on for an average-length novel. Baron asked me, "Can you split it into two and still have a contained story?" I said no. Then I thought about it. And I realized that, with some tweaking, yeah, I probably could. It might feel a bit like the end of The Empire Strikes Back, but it would work. So, a trilogy it is, and I need another eight to ten weeks to draft Book 3.
Then there's the apocolyptic sci-fi series I'm not writing on my phone. Shorter pieces this time. I'm trying to keep it in the 40,000 to 50,000 range for each of the seven installments in the series, but I can already feel Book 1 starting to balloon a bit on me. I'm about 10,000 words in on this first episode and am hoping to have first draft wrapped by the end of August. I'm not planning on releasing until January, though, because I want to get a little ahead and set this series on a regular four-month release schedule.
And there it is: three different series now in various stages of development. Beta readers should start seeing material by late summer. First publications should start going live in Q4, and 2015 is going to be...ridiculous.
You know that bit about 10,000 hours to achieve mastery. Well, in the fiction writing world, the equivalent number is widely (and unscientifically) said to be one million words. Yes, any writer needs to pound out his or her "million words of crap," and by then the results should be salable. That's when a writing career might commence in earnest.
Personally, I don't believe that fiction and non-fiction fluency overlap well. The voices, strategies, objectives, and other elements of composition are usually very different. I've been a full-time non-fiction writer since 1998, but that hasn't seemed to carry any relevance for my fiction pursuits. So when I sit down to wonder where I'm at on that million-word mission, I have to throw out that whole side of my life, including all of those school essays.
What's that leave? Well, let's consider high school. I mean, that's where you're supposed to take your first steps in understanding the craft of fiction writing, yes? We could figure perhaps one thousand words of composed fiction per month. Eight months per grade. Four years. That's maybe 30,000 words in high school. Wow...it sure seemed like more at the time.
College? I took as many fiction writing classes as I could stomach, including the Playwriting sequence from the Drama department. (For the record, I learned more about crafting fiction from Playwriting than every other writing class I've ever taken combined.) Two years of classes, say. One per term. Ten thousand words per class. That's probably being generous. Let's call it 40,000 words for college.
Then my twenties.I started a handful of books and wrote a bunch of stories, some of which were completed, one of which got accepted somewhere. Let's say 20 projects that averaged...ohhhhh...4000 words each. Another 80,000 words.
By then, my life veered into a career in computing and journalism, and my fiction efforts went on hold. I can ballpark 150,000 words for what I might call Phase 1, which spanned ten to twelve years.
By the start of 2012, I was beginning to have an inkling of the direction I wanted to go with fiction and how I was going to do it. In that year, I produced two non-fiction books (not counted here) along with two short stories and a novelette. Total fiction: 35,000 words.
When 2013 rolled around, I got serious about tracking numbers. I wrote 212,000 words of fiction on PCs and another 41,000 on my phone. Of course, not all (or even most) of this was published. This is only first draft material, some of which got round filed before being completed. But that's the way it goes. Rough total for 2013: 250,000 words.
For various reasons, I'm off to a slow start in 2014 and just passed the 100,000-word mark. That puts me at about 535,000 words out of my first million. But I should cross the million mark sometime in the second half of 2015. Will the stuff I publish before that point be salable? Will it be "any good"? I can't tell you. I hope so. I'm trying as best I know how to create enjoyable stories that are at least worth the price of a latte. But along the way, I keep thinking and studying and endeavoring to become better. By 2016, I hope my works will speak for themselves.
"If it was easy, everyone would do it."
We've all heard that a thousand times, but it couldn't be more true for independent publishing. The rules for success in this business, if there are any rules at all, are sublimely simple: 1) write a good book, 2) make sure it's well-edited, 3) put a good cover on it, 4) price it attractively, and 5) repeat the cycle every three months. That's it. After ten or forty repetitions, depending on random luck and some other factors, you'll probably make a fair living.
If you know me, you know I like numbers and patterns, so here's how it works:
The average novel is about 75,000 words long.
I can write about 1,500 words in 90 to 120 minutes. Call it two hours. I suspect that's pretty average for someone who calls him/herself a writer.
It follows that, spending two hours per day on writing new text, one should be able to write the first draft of a novel in 50 days.
Hugh Howey once told me that he spends just as long on his second draft as he does on his first. Dean Wesley Smith told me that he doesn't do second drafts in the conventional sense; his editing is more like clean-up work that only takes a couple of days. Both are successful novelists. Let's split the difference and call it 25 days.
Figure ten days for a third draft, plugging in edits from beta readers, and final polishing.
We're up to 85 days. That leaves five days for breathing and planning the next book.
See, if I answer "yes" to that, then I'm giving myself an out. I'm giving myself the psychological slippage necessary to never hit that pace. Right now, in 2014, those five steps are what it takes to get into the upper strata of independent publishers, the people making six figures or more annually.
Those numbers don't include social media interaction with readers, marketing, promoting to build a mailing list, or other writing-related activities. They also don't reflect getting sick, heavier than normal work loads from the day job, your spouse spraining his or her ankle, your dad landing (repeatedly) in the emergency room, helping four kids with activities and homework, or life in general.
Full-time writers can blast out 3,000 to 5,000 words per day like clockwork. That's a novel draft in 20 days. Of course, full-time writers also find themselves encumbered with rights negotiations, conference events, mountains of reader email, and all manner of distraction typical of a higher writing career level.
The fact is that writing books is easy. Time management is hard. If I were in charge of a Professional Writing course at some college, the first two weeks would be spent doing nothing but time management training. Talent can elevate you a notch or two, but you can succeed without talent. Honestly. However, lack of personal discipline will kill a writing career before it ever starts.
I think a 90-day book schedule is possible for full-time writers. I really don't know how a part-timer with a family can do it. I would love to interview someone who is doing it. For now, I have to berate myself (a little) for not meeting this schedule and use that guilt to spur myself continually to find new ways to improve my efficiency.
Next week, I'll be 50,000 words into my YA sequel novel, and once first draft is done on that, I can polish off and release the first book. I should get both out this year and possibly fit the first installment of my collaborative fantasy project in before the holidays. But it'll be a close call. I wanted to have six major releases this year, and it looks like I might hit three. Whatever it turns out to be, the goal will be to do better in 2015 -- and keep doing better year after year until I'm finally full-time and releasing those books every 90 days. Or less. You never know.
William has been working in the tech field since 1991, when he began his long journey through working for a manufacturer's rep, being a distributor, moving into retail and corporate sales, shifting into journalism, and gradually transitioning into content marketing. In 1997, he sold his first articles to local computer magazines. By 1998, he was a full-time tech freelancer and now produces content for several of the industry's top companies.