What They Fail to Understand…

… is that–in a free market–the customer is always right.

batteringram_18054_mdIt is a concept understood by many a small and large business alike across the globe, but–for some reason–when it comes to the book industry, this ‘golden’ rule is seen as brass, to be plucked from the wall, trampled upon and sneered at with startling alacrity.

The book customer, apparently, does not know what they want and cannot be allowed to choose for themselves. They must be told what to read, where and how they can purchase and how much they must pay, otherwise humanity is doomed.

In his rather well-researched blog post–consisting of many a prediction about the 2016 eBook market–Smashwords’ Mark Coker inadvertently joins forces with elitist relics of the traditional publishing world in decrying Amazon–and KDP Select indie writers–as the bane of the book industry:

“Yet despite the harm KDP-S and KU are causing fellow authors and the rest of the industry, indies continue to enroll in KDP-S to receive these privileged benefits,”

The above sentence surprised me, greatly. Smashwords was apparently founded on the premise of giving indies a place to publish and sell their work. Why not simply state the obvious: “Amazon’s KDP Select Program cuts out Smashwords completely, therefore I don’t like it.”

Coker then referenced a famous poem–on a subject that should not be trivialized by commercial comparison–inferring that KDP Select writers are likened to German intellectuals that ignored Hitler’s hideous path to power.

“No,” Coker wrote, “Amazon are not Nazis, but…”

It’s a free country; we can write what we like. Statements like the above quote, however, are why I’ve repeatedly taught my children that “bias” is the most honest word in the English language.

(I may be an indie writer without an editor on staff, but I think it’s “Amazon is not the Nazis…” or, perhaps “Amazonians are not Nazis…”)

I honestly don’t see how offering the consumer choices–in how or when they buy, or for what price–is somehow rendered as ‘fascist’ in appearance to those the free market has left behind. Neflix users are not considered ‘nazis’ but, somehow, Kindle Unlimited users are?

What many in the trad-pub industry fail to understand is that every revolution, political or otherwise, leaves some carnage in its wake. Admittedly, carnage is a terrible word and–like “hate” or “nazi”–it should not be used lightly. I’ll also allow that the rather vague notion of ‘change’ is not always for the better–as Neimoller and millions of others would no doubt attest–but in the case of the eBook revolution, I am biased in its favor.I am biased not only as a consumer of literature but also as an author.

Independent writers are now allowed to choose where and how their work is presented, as well as for how much; these are choices never afforded us before, let alone having our titles given equal billing with trad-pub authors. It is so, very sad that Amazon alone offers indies access to such options.

Who’s fault is that? Considering their collective years of experience in the industry and the amount of money they pour into advertising, I am astounded that big publishing firms haven’t invented a better mousetrap.

Consider this: I am merely an organic gardener who writes novels part time–with little more than a decade of business experience to my name–but even I know that in any free market one must adapt or go extinct. Perhaps trad-pub companies aren’t hiring creative people, aren’t firing incompetent people, are unable to change their ways or all of the above.

If trad-pubs are–as they are very fond of reminding their dwindling customer base–the backbone of the book industry, then they need to awaken from their slumber and procure new, young professionals to give them a swift spinal adjustment. They must build a platform that offers both the indie writer and the reader what no one else has. Only a re-invention of the market will attract attention away from the savings Amazon offers. And, they must do it soon. For, if they tarry any longer maybe Amazon will clone itself to Nile (with Congo to follow) in order to show some semblance of competition in the marketplace.

If Coker’s rather scary sentence regarding KDP Select writers is even partially true, then why would any writer sign up, or stay with it for more than a month? It’s elementary, Watson. The massive amount of Amazon website traffic is an enormous draw for indie writers… and something that Smashwords has yet to imitate, a fact I happen to have direct knowledge of.

When my husband and I first began to sell our indie-published Epic Fantasy series, we utilized the Smashwords platform. We were impressed with the stringent formatting standards (something Amazon could learn from) as well as the variety of proffered platforms on which we could sell our eBooks. Despite these choices, the small number of visitors was alarming; we made $143 dollars in three months, even with a sizable budget for google adwords, facebook ads, coupled with copious social media posts. We ended up in the red that quarter.

The next month, we signed up for KDP and its Select program, which required us to take our books off Smashwords… and we subsequently made $14,980 in royalties during the rest of the year (2014) with no further spending on advertising whatsoever. To this day we still make a cool $300 a month–on average–in spite the eBook “glut” and the various squabbles over Agency pricing. Like other indies we’ve felt the drop in readership in favor of more visual stimuli.

Money not only talks, but it happens to be the loudest voice in the room at the moment. Until there is a viable option to Amazon’s KDP platform, then most Select writers will (insert shocked gasp) likely stay where the customers are.

Put the issue of indie writers aside, the customer still is always right. In fact, the customer appears to dislike–very much–being told that they must give up choices for the greater good of an industry that largely turned a deaf ear towards them for decades  while simultaneously extracting huge fees for access to literature.

Not surprisingly, a mass migration has ensued. Customers turned in droves to Amazon and many indies, giddy with their initial success, began a short-sighted spiral down to the 99-cent book. Some books might be worth only 99 cents, but the majority of hard-working indie authors consider that number as much a slap in the face as charging $23 for an eBook is to trad-pub customers.

All that posts like Coker’s tell me is that the trad-pubs of the world didn’t learn a thing from the eBook revolution, one so recent the smouldering buildings are yet visible. The bandwagon they snootily refused to board marched merrily by them. Now, like a gaggle of disinherited adult children of Old Money–flung out into the real world of the free market–the trad-pubs sit and whine about the loss of their old life. A few of them might make a valiant show for the shareholders, using outdated methods to try to break back into the market, but so far none seem interested in going out and building a rival domicile.

I would like to see trad-pubs stop complaining about Amazon and try to outfox them. Maybe they could streamline and offer readers something other than another price hike. Maybe they could offer indies a free platform to upload their work for evaluation–including throwing out their obsolete elitist system of biased, redundant scrutiny–emphasizing to potential authors quality of service over Amazonian quantity.

Customers do want good literature, but they also want the best deal (especially in an economy that is barely recovering) and in such a market as this they will invariably flock to wherever the best deal is, regardless of past loyalties, nostalgia or the misapplication of the ‘nazi’ label.

The book market landscape will likely change again when the US economy begins to show signs of full recovery. For their own sake, may the trad-pubs be ready–in that moment–to emerge from their tired cocoons to display a wonderful inclusive, innovative platform with which to dazzle indie writers and readers alike.

~ ~ ~

L. R. Styles is a KDP Select author with Belator Books

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The Trap of ‘Busyness’

hanging laundreyIt’s far too easy — for most indie writers these days — to rely on the general public’s apparent understanding of the phrase “I’ve been busy” in order to put off serious work on one’s manuscript.

Every writer I know is busy with days jobs, family and practical hobbies, usually in that order, and the rest of the world seems to accept and respect this state of being, one which pushes back on the established expectation that “serious” writers must produce a novel at least once a year.

Writers of old were considered to be “writers”,and often nothing more; they could hole up in a room for days on end, working feverishly or disappear on writing trips to far-flung corners of the earth. They might not produce anything for years, eschewing phrases like: “I’m in a funk”, “I’m blocked”, “I’m taking some times for me as an artist to recharge” etc. and then be properly censured for such notions by their harder-working peers. The average indie writer of today is a different animal.

It’s been two years since I finished a novel, going on three. I have three partially-finished ones, the longest of which is the third novel in my husband’s and mine Epic Fantasy series. We hashed out the plot in note form nearly a year and a half ago, and fans of the series have been clamoring for news of it’s completion for months. I type rather lame replies to the queries on our WordPress series blog, talking about how my husband and I write in-between our day jobs, our four young children and our organic vegetable garden, answers which have been — thus far — taken (as they are meant to be) at face value, and so with a surprising amount of understanding on the part of the public… and the trap of ‘busyness’ is sprung.

I am honestly a busy person. My family, household and garden take precedence over every other inkling in my life, and I am unapologetic about it. I hang my laundry outside to save both money and the planet. I grow organic veg to feed my family with and for bartering with the neighbors for lemons & honey. I scrub my house with natural ingredients for both healthy and lesser-footprint reasons. And then comes my various freelance jobs — that pay surprisingly well — from re-wording corporate brochures to writing advertisement pieces. When my children are out of school, its time for us to dive into extra-curricular learning, whether cooking, gardening, literature or just outside exercise.

Unlike many of my peers, the internet does not steal away much of my time these days. use it for the promotion of my husband’s and my books, to look up a recipe or research stock charts (a rather recent development) but little else. Anyone in my near social circle, including family members, would gladly testify to how little time I spend on social media; I only go on Facebook once a month, if that. I hardly have time to write a monthly blog or tweet. Months go by where I don’t interact at all with the smattering of indie writing communities across the Internet, and when I do I delete about 300 read requests — maybe getting to one or two of my fellow’s novels to remark on — and then try to reply to polite inquiries on the various pieces posted there. I left off doing book reviews at all two years ago, as there simply wasn’t time.

All that being said, the one and only problem with being busy — as an indie writer — is that I tend to lean on my various daily accomplishments as ample reasons why I don’t have to write as much as I could. In all honesty, I could write more often and for greater lengths of time, but that would require a little thing called discipline… a word that has already inserted itself into every other part of my life. The rigors and echoes of time-management are present in my home, my finances, my chores, my children and even my garden, which is as it should be. Tasks get accomplished that way: laundry is finished and folded, floors are cleaned in time for meals, food is prepared properly, plants are watered fully, errands are run on time and things just fall into place.

For a long time I looked at writing as the last bastion of free-spirited creativity that I possessed, at least until I began to sell books. Now, it’s a business, and a profitable business but one I rather tinker at verses working on in a dedicated fashion. One can make all the viable excuses in the world, but the truth is that I do have more spare time in which to write… I just don’t always do it. I’d much rather spend my free time writing poetry, or knitting in my backyard, enjoying the beauty of the tree and flowers verses slogging away on the less-inspiring sections of my novels, but that’s just my writing side being lazy. And the world is full of folks that can attest that the road to ruin is paved with “I’d rather do anything than work.”

Thank goodness for folks gifted with frankness for situations like these, who give advice that can be recalled, even now, with fondness. In this situation, my grandfather would have said:

“So, you’d rather starve than work?” “No.” “Then get off your ass and get workin’.”

Or, my personal favorite: “If you say you want to do it, then do it… or you’re just lyin’ to yourself.”

It boils down to me asking myself: How much do I really want to finish this book?

Answer: if I really want it done, then I will make time to do it.

Well, after stalling most of the morning, getting all my other chores out of the way, I left myself with little alternative but to do exactly that, and get several pages under the proverbial belt before vegetables must be found, picked and prepared for dinner.

* * *
L. R. Styles is a writer with Belator Books

The “Death” of Reading?

50012_library_mdSales of many independently-published eBooks have taken a marked downturn in recent months, one that–to the average indie writer–seems almost as sharp as that of the price of crude oil during the same period.

Authorearnings.com recently posted, in its January 2015 earning report, that “U.S. ebook sales have plateaued — or are even declining, relative to print — declare some widely-cited industry statistics.”

Many an industry expert seems baffled by “the slowdown” in eBook sales and none of my writing contacts seem to really be able to explain why, exactly, nor how to remedy the problem. Format and medium diversification strategies don’t seem to be as effective, nor do social media promotions, paid advertisements, pricey PR campaigns nor the old standby of limited-time Free eBook promotions.

Despite our break-out success last year post launch, compared to last year’s eBook royalties for March, this last month was downright dismal ($250 VS $5700)… and worse, this statistic is also suffered by 90% of the indie writers I have queried on the subject.

Apparently many traditionally-published authors–backed by media departments with wide advertising budgets–are also going through a kind of sales ‘funk’ of sorts. Some of the more well-known authors have turned to desperate measures, such as awkwardly hawking their ‘new’ books on badly-scripted television spots.

Smashwords’s Mark Coker recently blogged about the slowdown of 2014 eBook sales, as well as the slower “growth projections” for 2015:

… most authors experienced a slower growth year – especially when compared against the go-go days of exponential growth from 2008 to 2012. The causes for this slow down include a new equilibrium between print and ebook formats; immortal ebooks published by publishers and indie authors alike that will never go out of print; the continued growth of self-published titles; and myriad low-cost and free non-book alternatives competing for slices of consumers’ time such as social media, Internet video and games.

In the same piece, Coker also predicted that many indie writers would drop out of the self-publishing market in 2015, after finding dwindling sales too steep a precipice to descend.

While my own experiences and observances, regarding the indie eBook glut and increased traditional-publisher price slashing, seem to corroborate Coker’s predictions, it does not allow for a rather ugly market variable: decreased interest in leisure reading.

Recently, I found myself in a library–yes, the building kind–a place I had not visited in nearly two years.

My seventeen-year-old wished to use her new library card and read through C. S. Forester’s Hornblower series, as well as get free materials to brush up for the SAT with. As my daughter bustled around the quiet, bookish smelling aisles grounded in comforting gray carpet and well-used stepping stools, I moved–as if my instinct–over to the “Classics” wall and selected one of my favorite weighty tomes The Count of Monte Cristo, unabridged.

Having procured my book, I settled in one of the many vacant reading chairs by picturesque window and began to read. A few pages along, however, I reflected on how long it had been since I spent a considerable length of time reading for leisure. I began to count the minutes–during my average day–that I really read. Between fellow writer’s blogs posts on eBook advertising strategies, articles on digital publishing industry trends, articles on the stock market and oil futures, and well as various sources for world news, I spend–on average–three to four hours a day just reading. But, hardly any of my daily reading has to do with personal enjoyment, let alone expanding my personal bank of consumed literature.

I am not alone in this modern reading ‘vacuum.’ Writing and editing expert Judy Goldman responded to my query on the slowing market of leisure reading:

I know I would be one who falls into that category. My ‘knee-jerk’ reactions to what I read these days is to respond to it somehow, not just read to absorb and enjoy.

I write about and respond to what I read, I don’t have time or desire to read for enjoyment and that is coming from someone who wouldn’t be caught dead without a book in her hands…

Adults are hardly the majority in the Reading Vacuum. Looking up from The Count of Monte Cristo, I saw (as I did upon my last library visit) quite a number of warm bodies sitting in front of the dozen-or-so library computers. Every computer was occupied. Unlike my last visit, however, the users were all young, ranging between the ages of fourteen and nineteen.

As discreetly as possible, I got up and moved around the stacks by the PC section and utilized a particular quick glance (the kind most mothers nowadays are experts at) at what each young person was so engrossed in.

SAT studying? Negative.

Applying for summer jobs? Nope.

Reading a free eBook at Project Gutenberg? Wrong again.

teens watching streaming videosEach young person was either chatting on social media, watching streaming videos or playing an online game. Each and every one. Those sitting and reading books–digital or paper–were all my age (late 30s) or older, my daughter’s presence notwithstanding.

The Reading Vacuum expanded as I walked around the library. The children’s books section in my last visit had been nearly full of moms reading to their young children. Now, it now boasted just two toddlers  playing with toys–or pulling books off of shelves–while their mothers were (I kid you not) busy swiping the screens of smartphones nearby, oblivious.

Not to sound all ‘Andy Rooney’ here, but libraries used to be the springboard for learning reading and leisure reading in off-school/work hours. Certainly there is room for technological moderation in our lives, but I don’t think pointing at gadgets/devices is helping to really identify the root of the problem.

In 2013, Robert Rosenberger posted an article in Slate magazine, pointing to the distractions present on tablets as the culprit for declining eBook sales. The theory, then, was that eBook sales matched the sale of dedicated eReaders, a device that has rather fallen from gadget grace in recent years.

While eReader stats may be a factor, the problem that I became aware of in the library points to something far more sinister: lack of interest in leisure reading at all.

Next generation of readersLong ago–in a decade far, far away (1991)–Mitchell Stephens, an NYU journalism professor, wrote an article for the LA Times titled The Death of Reading. In said piece Stephens outlined how distractions abounded in the modern home, that libraries and reading nooks were overrun with televisions and Nintendo and that architects had largely scorned bookshelves in favor of “media” centers. He blamed distraction and said the move away from reading sounded the death-knell of thinking civilizations worldwide.

Ironically, but not coincidentally, reading has begun fading from our culture at the very moment that its importance to that culture is finally being established. Its decline, many theorists believe, is as profound as, say, the fall of communism, and some have taken to prophesying that the downturn in reading could result in the modern world’s cultural and political decline.

Stephens went on to cite another work Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman:

We are losing a sort of psychic habit, a logic, a sense of complexity, an ability to spot contradictions and even falsity.

I thought on these things as I sat in the library, with Dumas’ complex and contested work sitting forgotten in my hands, gazing woefully at the young blank faces intermittently lit by the flickering media upon opposite screens.

But, all hope is not lost. A few young people–my resident teenagers have informed me–are still interested in a particularity type of leisure reading, or at least talking about it. Of the many YA book ‘fandom’ sites, chats and boards still in daily use, fully 1/3 of the people posting have actually read the title being discussed… according to my own brood of ‘experts'(whom also haunt said sites.)

“One out of three?” I thought, frowning at the nearly empty Fiction aisles across the quiet, gray room of the library. I glanced again at the PC users and shook my head, wondering if Prof. Stephens was being proven right faster than even he anticipated. Were the next generations doomed to forget how important literature and leisure reading are to civilized society?

At that moment, just such a young person flopped onto the empty chair beside me.

“I found it,” my daughter informed me, holding up a worn copy of one of Forester’s seafaring books. As she thumbed to “Chapter One,” her side pocket buzzed. Drawing out her phone, she glanced at it, shut it off and slipped it back in her pocket. She settled back in her chair and immersed herself in a world of sun-bleached, salty deck planks harboring borderline-scurvy-ridden crewmen unfurling sailcloth and scampering about under the hawk-like gaze of the captain, high up on the quarterdeck.

She was–of course–blissfully unaware that her mother was at that very moment gazing at her dewy-eyed, struggling not to weep aloud in sheer joy at what had just occurred. She was distracted, but not by digital screen nor any pixelated thing, but by a scene composed by a great writer long deceased, powered by nothing more than a fingertip and movements of the eye.

Suddenly, I was overwhelmed with gratitude for the foresight of people who had encouraged me to read daily to my young children, from toddler-age onward, and not leave such a weighty responsibility in the hands of under-paid, overworked teachers at school. That effort on my part, which then seemed like a chore (and intellectually stunting to repeatedly read sentences such as “the fat cat on the mat”) paid back enormous dividends in that tiny moment, there in the library. I went back to my own book, feeling a bit better about both the younger generations and the recent slowdown of eBook sales growth.

Is leisure reading truly dying? It may be in a distraction-induced coma, perhaps, but it’s not entirely dead.

Children Reading

L. R. Styles is a writer for Belator Books

I should be writing…

sick_man_24338_md… but I got sick last week.

“Sick” is hardly the word, really. This state of being seems to have hearkened straight from an unabridged Charles Dickens story… having a body desperately ill, wracked by ceaseless bouts of coughing and all the while drawing ragged breaths through an inflamed esophagus, that refuses to be comforted by either medicine or tea.

Sick, indeed.

I came by this virulent guest honestly enough; my husband and children were struck with it first, after an innocent visit to a park on President’s Day. The fever made itself present within 48 hours and my workload effectively doubled. Our  book was paced on hold as I made restorative soups, disinfected surfaces and doorknobs like a mad woman, soothed feverish heads and doled out an herbal tisane during the day and medicine at night.I fantsied myself quite the nurse and bustled about to make certain the laundry didn’t pile up, but the novel was not far from my mind.

A scene in our latest book became all the more real to me during this process for the hero of our epic fantasy series was–at the time we all fell ill–enveloped in the grips of a virus, while imprisoned in an enemy island fortress.I made copious mental notes as my husband ran the course of his illness and eventually grew well enough to return  to work. The virus made its way through our four children, and then paused. I dared to hope that I had downed enough Vitamin C and Echinacea to have withstood its invisible power.

But, it was not to be. With a feverish  brain I lay abed, inwardly forming arguments to rain down on the heads of the parents–if I ever found out which they were–whose naivete had allowed sick children go to a public park and infect their neighborhood. Ours was merely one house among many along our street to feel the viruses feverish brush.

As I tried to sleep in such circumstances, I keenly wanted to write… to pay attention to the character I had left in such limbo. What woe he must feel, to be ill, hundred of miles from home and at the mercy of uncaring captors. I felt grateful for the warm confines of my bed and relative quiet of my home and tried to imagine the scene where Lord Asher recovered.

But, there the concentration ended, as well as what energy I possessed. For over 2 weeks I have not written a word on the story. Other things have been lost, the children piano lessons have been delayed, my garden ignored and my supply shelves ravaged, but thankfully, we’ve emerged from the fog of influenza unscathed and with added immunity.

Though my cough yet remains, I am back, once more filling the breech of words between “unfinished novel” and “completed manuscript.”


L. R. Styles is an author with Belator Books

The Death of a Cup

1 fZOmYVoxSftlIbFQscFhKQA few minutes ago, I dropped my favorite cup on the driveway.

I could easily blame it on the particularly strong gust of wind that bandied my front yard at that moment (indeed, is still doing so outside) or, that my grip was weakened because my knuckles really wanted to be cracked and weren’t. I’d resisted the urge to do so, in order to prove I could. For this I silently congratulated myself as I stood in the wind outside, seeing my husband off to work.

It must have happened quickly—Sir Isaac Newton (I am certain) would assure it me that it did— but the event, itself, seemed inexplicably slow. As a gust of wind ratcheted up—sounding like a small jet engine chewing a million dry leaves—the cup simply leaped from my fingers. I felt its loss instantly, for the cup took the warmth of my hand with it. My fingers tingled with a puzzled sort of alarm. I watched my cup fall down in an elegant spiral motion, the last bits of its coffee splayed outward with the centrifugal force. And then it stopped. The cup was whole and then it exploded, sending shards of itself about and coming to rest in the most tragic kind of heap possible for ceramic to attain.

I have connected with few objects in my life. Influenced as a youngster, by a practical Scottish grandmother, I regard most material things as resources to be either used or passed on to those who can. But, no ordinary cup was this. It found me… rather than I finding it.

In browsing the aisles of a local thrift store—a half decade ago—I brushed up against a slightly rickety display rack of ceramics. The cup in question fell from a higher shelf and—in a highly unusual display of dexterity on my part—I reached out and caught it.

It was a pale blue latte coffee cup that some hobbyist potter had crafted to mimic a fashionable ceramic plate design popular in the 90’s. One of the cup’s sides featured a delicate stem of cherry blossoms; its handle seemed to fit my slender fingers perfectly. I liked the weight in my hand at once; the matte, powder-like glaze appealed to me, seemingly unassuming compared to its glossier peers. Turning it over I saw no date nor maker’s mark. I looked for more such cups and found the unknown potter had made twins, along with two bowls and two small plates. Purchasing the lot for less than $20, I helped the check-stand girl wrap them in newspaper and took them home to use. That night I made my own version of Tom Ka Gai—a delicate and delicious Thai soup—not in homage to the maker’s continent, but because I felt like the new dining items deserved to serve it.

Those with children know how much they assist one in getting over attachments to material objects. In less than two years all the cherry blossom pottery was broken beyond repair… except for the cup that had leaped from its shelf to join my hand. It sported a small chip on one side by the handle—a parting gift from a near brush with a garden trowel—which, in my mind, merely added to the cup’s character. When full of steaming coffee or tea, my cup held just the right amount of stimulating liquid to get through an op-ed article, or four pages of fiction, or a poem, or a phone call to a relative.

As I stood over the cup’s remains this morning, staring down at the pieces on my driveway, I felt dazed both by my own clumsiness and the surreal nature of its fall.

“Aw… that was your favorite cup, wasn’t it?” my husband called, from the driver side window of our car. I nodded and looked over, giving him a quick ‘don’t worry, I’ll clean it up smile,’ one he’s seen many times since children were introduced into our household. Knowing instinctively that words in such a case are useless, my husband gave me a sympathetic half-smile before backing down the driveway.

Kneeling down on the wet surface of the porous cement, I picked up the tiny shards with care, feeling a ridiculous wave of sadness wash over me. I silently mocked myself for feeling bad about it, knowing full well how much real cause for grief is present in our world. Carrying the cup’s remains to the trash bin, I dropped them in without ceremony, letting go of yet one more thing.

Inside the house, a row of other such vessels met my eye in the cupboard. Briefly, I searched for a particular shape before I caught myself. The last of the coffee was poured in another object; it felt different in my hand but adequately conveyed the warm liquid to my mouth as it was designed to do.

The death of a cup, however endearing, did not dampen the sounds of wind outside, nor cause the steady sounds of typing to halt. Yet, it did inspire me to write—one last time—with prose leaping to mind as readily as the cup fell into and out of my hand.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

L. R. Styles is an author for Belator Books

O’ Bending Light

{A short inspirational story}

“The sun is leaving now, painting in its wake a fleeting promise to return, as it sinks below the weathered wooden teeth of our fence.”

Muriel glanced up from her laptop and over, at the backyard fence. The aging planks indeed seemed to bite at the late afternoon sky. Warped with time, the fence was hideously in need of sanding and paint… or a sledge hammer. At the moment, however, Muriel didn’t see just the fence, for over its top the setting sun freely cast red and orange hues across the firmament. The fading rays tinted the fleecy rounded edges of the high gray clouds with their rosy breath.

Smiling at the scene overhead, Muriel closed her eyes, accepting a final warm kiss before the back fence swallowed the sun whole. A cool breeze stirred itself from slumber, fanning Muriel’s face the moment the last golden ray stopped lingering.

Opening her eyes once more, the woman was confronted by her decaying fence. Muriel regarded it with an impassive expression, deciding whether or not to let the warped details and gray hues sink into her notice.

A patch of dying Bermuda grass at its base arrested her gaze, however. Mercilessly shorn and stiff, the weeds resembled a wire sculpture, ragged and unyielding, clawing at the air in a last show of defiance. Muriel caught whiffs of the chemical bath she’d poured over the patch days earlier. She’d long given up pulling it out every month. With a snort she returned her gaze to the entire scene, eclipsing the one problem with many.

The weathered wood, the bleached, cut weeds, the bold snails coming out of hiding… these caught her eye and held it, her hackles building up behind each observance. As she glared, Muriel’s poetic eye felt blinded. She did not see the yellow roses blooming in one partially-shaded corner, or that the rose petals appeared to recline under the long, splayed boughs of the adjacent cedar. Her red and pink geraniums also went unnoticed, as did the sword ferns and hydrangea bushes that almost hid her aging fence.

Muriel saw beyond the beauty to the hidden, creeping things that sought to destroy the work of her hands… the imperfect, the uninvited, the broken and the out-of-place. The garden—sans sunshine—seemed grayer and only full of things yet to be done. Opening her laptop, Muriel wrote one last line in her tiny, Twitter field.

“O’ bending light, how well you hide life’s blemishes… or at least better their appearance.”

The breeze grew cooler as she typed. Shivering a little, Muriel hesitated in getting up from the still-present warmth of the chair. Her nightly routine was waiting within doors she knew. The vegetable garden needed watering as well; it waited patiently in its corner of the backyard, the plant fronds, buds and stems trailing expectantly over the raised edges of their beds.

“The sun has left me with my work,” Muriel wrote. “Tomorrow may it return to see a bit more of it completed.”

Posting her last tweet for the evening Muriel shut down the laptop and closed its lid with care. As she moved from the chair, her eyes were drawn once again, to the fence. Out of habit, she ruminated upon the cost of replacing the entire back fence, even with the cheapest-possible cedar slats one could purchase from the grandiose home improvement store, just a few miles away.

Muriel shrugged. A new fence… or a specialist root canal? Both cost about the same, even with their dental plan. The offending molar send down a twinge of pain as the twilight breeze drew more coolness into the air. Gingerly feeling the top of the tooth with her tongue, Muriel winced a little. She made a mental note to regale her children with yet another ‘brush-your-teeth’ admonition, perhaps with a few horrific pictures of massive tooth decay downloaded from the internet.

Smiling at the thought, Muriel stepped carefully through the main lawn on emerging, favored type of grass–Fescue but sowed a few weeks before–moving almost reluctantly towards the back fence. Chores and tasks silently called out again from inside the house, but something in the way the old slats leaned against one another made Muriel step closer, past the pruned shrubs to stand on what remained of the beleaguered Bermuda grass.

Muriel did not dare look to her left. Full well she knew what her eyes would see bordering the neighbor’s yard: a new, redwood fence in back, topped with finely beveled lattice, perfectly stained and treated against the weather, rimed by the most glorious, weed-free flowers one could ever wish to see. Looking at her own fence, Muriel wondered if her neighbors had paid for their fence project outright, or merely put it on a credit card.

“Card,” Muriel thought, scrutinizing her fence closely, “Unless Mindy’s husband has taken on a second job.”

Reaching out, she touched the ridged, pocked-marked surface of a loose board. Muriel felt the rough lines and wondered how tall the tree had been from whence it had come. Was it from a burned trunk, one of the many leavings of a rampant forest-fire? The scent of burning wood hung faintly in the air–Muriel noted–most likely from a fireplace down the street. The fire theory seemed plausible; the wood of the fence felt tragic to the touch, and it looked the part.

“Tragic… and yet you’ve looked out over this yard for over thirty years.”

The words left Muriel’s lips before she was even cognizant of thinking them. The idea struck her silent. She and her husband were not the original owners of this place, but they knew the man who’d built the house… and the fence. Her hand still touching the board Muriel felt a sudden sense of shame fall over her.

“I’ve let you fall apart,” said she. Though spoken quietly, the words of her admission seemed to hang in the air nonetheless.

Stepping back, Muriel’s foot brushed against a small stack of scrap lumber, leftover from making the garden boxes. Squinting down at the haphazard pile, Muriel remembered placing them there herself, thinking she’d return later that day and put them away. Scowling at her own forgetfulness, Muriel picking up the topmost piece of wood from the pile and shook it, dropping it back to Earth. A small black widow spider atop the board met a swift end under her shoe.

After inspecting the wood more thoroughly, Muriel picked it up again. Squinting at the fence she held the board up before it. She knew that she probably looked insane, standing there in the shade of the cedars, clutching her laptop to her chest with one hand and picking up wood scraps with the other. Smiling, Muriel set the piece down and continued searching. A few more spiders, a few more boards… and then, an epiphany.

One of the scraps bore a distinctly curved side, a left-over piece from a weekend project months before: an Adirondack chair, pieced together with the help of an old issue of Popular Mechanics and assembled with marginal success. Turning the piece of oddly-shaped wood over, Muriel glanced at a particularly sagged section of the fence.

“With a few more pieces,” she thought, “I can bolster up the fence… with tangible art.”

The breeze blew in the cedar branches overhead. The flat needles stirred up that strange, rushing sound only they knew how to make. It invigorated the very blood in Muriel’s veins to move, to do something other than complain and glare.

Haste was present in her movements as she put away her laptop. Muriel located gardening clothes; pulled from the baskets in the laundry room they still harbored that morning’s mud. Thusly arrayed, Muriel searched the sheds on the side of the house for more scrap lumber. She dragged out her husband’s old miter saw and two paint flecked saw-horses. A smile graced the woman’s face as she hauled over the scrounged bits of lumber and wayward bags of mismatched screws. The fence–blessed with one touch–soon felt many, along with the cool, metallic feel of a measuring tape upon its surface and the scraping of a stubby pencil. Muriel drew a rough sketch of the picture in her head on the back of an advertisement envelope, now plying an eraser, now biting her bottom lip.

The sharp buzz of the miter saw filled the backyard soon after, its noise gearing up to a tearing crescendo before tapering off to a low whine and then starting up again. Weathered bits of cut lumber stacked up next to the saw, one end as bright and new as the day it left the mill, the other graced with age and weather. Muriel paused between each to cross out yet another measurement, impatiently flicking her hair from her face.

Home from school, her children stood at the glass door to the patio, looking out into the backyard, plainly wondering where their dinner was. Muriel smiled at her offspring and waved them closer. Directing her oldest daughter to re-heat leftovers she sent her son to find his father’s hammer while the younger girls fetched the ‘outdoor’ plates.

“We’ll eat outside,” Muriel told them, turning off the saw. “Like a picnic.” Stepping over small piles of sawdust, they cleared the patio table and set up chairs.

Turning on the backyard floodlights, Muriel she marked and pre-drilled scraps of wood. Mosquitoes flocked to the electric light, all too willing to feast on the seated forms nearby. Muriel’s oldest daughter brought out a half-empty bottle of tea tree oil. Giving her neck and wrists a quick slather, her mother thanked her and resumed drilling.

With little hands to help hold the fence up, Muriel drove a strengthening stake on each end of the fence and set the first board–the curving Epiphany Board–across the fence’s drooping waistline. Making faces, Muriel drove galvanized screws deep into the wood. The fence beneath creaked and squealed at such treatment, but Muriel paid the sounds no mind. The initial glimmer of inspiration in her eyes gave way to one of determination as the next pieces were fitted, spaced and secured.

With each new addition the crude sketch —now fluttering amid the sawdust—transcended its two dimensions, ‘growing’ planes and lines with scope. An Escher-like fence began to emerge, with rotating curves and blunted points, neatly covering cracks and adding stability where none had been in over a decade. The lines of the boards seemed to mimic the shrubs in front, the flowers providing depth for the eye as well in their night-dampened colors and forms.

An hour passed, then two. Muriel stood back from the fence, looking at her handiwork as the children cleaned up dinner. It was a far cry from the neighbor’s staid and pricey border, standing so thin and erect to one side. The newly-enhanced wood-structure made up for its lack of status quo with dimension, with artistic curves and enough re-claimed items to make any green-minded relative crow with delight.

Tenderly feeling a newly-emerged blister on her hand, Muriel smiled at the fence with real joy as she stood amid scraps and sawdust. The moment swelled in her mind, putting words in her soul to utter… but she grabbed a broom before breaking out in verse.

 “O’ bending light, well you hide imperfection,

Though in your leaving you betray one’s pride;

How happy are we to live and let live,

To ignore that by which we daily guide.

O’ drenching sunshine in your wake

The idea sprung and work took hold;

Old and forgotten becomes used again,

And so with motions worth their gold.

O’ bending light, thy veil is needed no longer…”

A swift glance back, at her children, made Muriel laugh. The little faces—so like hers in feature and form–bore either uncertainty or an elevated eyebrow.

“One day you’ll like poetry,” said their mother. “Now, help me clean up before Daddy gets home from work.”

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Follow author L. R. Styles on Twitter @writerlrstyles

Steven & L. R. Styles write novels for sale on Amazon, with more in the works.

The Old Wooden Gate

The old wooden gate–outside my window–looks ready to be opened

It leans forward, hoping the wind pushes it far enough to swing out

Or, even better, that maybe someone will brush up against it

It longs for that slight, warm touch of hand to handle

The quick grasp–and lift of the latch–are all the gate wants

It must only dream of sanding and primer

Of lacquer and stain and constant use

I watch as the gate sits on undisciplined hinges

That long ago grew lazy and relaxed

The gate looks far older than it is, for Time has dressed it

In a web of cracks and taken bites from its domed top

Just out of sheer pity I go outside and walk over

The gate rattles–as I draw near–as if to say

“Do hurry and go through! No, don’t hurry… take your time.”

I admire this polite form of desperation and comply

The hinges squeal out reprimands at once

Ignoring them I hold the gate open at arm’s length

Allowing it to look up and down the lane

It revels in the breeze, scents and movement

As I release the gate, it settles back into place content

Moving slowly as an ascending queen

The sigh isn’t audible, but I feel it as I depart

Pen in Hand

L. R. Styles is an Author with Belator Books

It Pays To Be Swayed

An indie writer is a strange creature, even by the standards of today’s market with the ingrained expectation of ‘multitasking’ members.

Ten years ago, when my husband and I began to devote the majority of our free time to writing novels I did not think I would need to learn marketing, social media, make connections, maintain an online presence or delve into writing genres that I otherwise would have even looked at in a bookstore. But, I have been swayed to think otherwise and–more importantly–to do all of the above.

Marketing on the cheap is a hard sell, but to the average indie writer/publisher it is often the only option until they get more sales with which to pay for better services. It is a huge amount of work, and getting data with which to formulate your marketing strategies takes up even more time and effort. Books sales statistics are hideously expensive but a here and there kind organizations reveal little hints of said information to sort through and glean from. These gems among the rough swayed us to keep looking, gathering and polishing until the beauty of applicable data revealed itself.

To traditional business folk, this sounds all backwards.”They told me to get a business loan”might be found written on the tombstone of many a failed entrepreneur. Perhaps that worked for some businesses, maybe most, but not everyone is in a position–nor harbors the inclination–to shoulder a large amount of debt before their product has been proven profitable.We were swayed to launch our books ourselves, without a loan and without expensive PR services, paying for prepossession editing out of the profits.

A flooded eBook market has its benefits, such as a glut of data. To us, the trends are little more defined as more indie writers enter the market, showing up as trampled digital pathways pointing to what consumers really want. Studying our slowly-garnered free stats, we noticed the alarming dive of literary fiction, the pop-trends of supernatural-type fiction and the rather stagnant line historical fiction wound itself into over the recent years. Epic Fantasy showed promise however, so we were swayed to drop our other novel projects and dust off my husband’s EF series. We sank our time and effort into making those books as good as we were able.

The results surprised us… greatly. After launching in the last week of this February, we’ve made more in royalties int he months since than we thought possible–a little over $14K–utilizing free self-marketing, social media, blog posts and non-obtrusive (no spam) ads.

We’ve been swayed to branch out into other genres as well, to help our brand gain more recognition. Romance Fiction has captured our attention as the rising genre; we’ve released just such a novel for that vast audience in the same month as our 18th wedding anniversary. This winter we’re planning to release the third book in our Epic Fantasy series and have a sci-fi time-travel novel ‘in the works’ for release next year.

In this crowded market, struggling indie writers need to sway themselves to become super business folks: capable of altering their business model in a single season, able to recognize and adapt to the ever-shifting book market, write both relevant and opinion-laden blogs on the industry, search out more free corners of the Web to post unobtrusive ads and, finally, entice (not drive) new customers towards their desired platform profile.

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L. R. Styles is an author with Belator Books

A Writer’s View: Driving

LRStyles2004Driving—to me—is a novelty, bordering on an altered state of being. One is in a metal and plastic ‘bubble’ of sorts, traveling along a road at a high rate of speed, always at either the verge of immanent death or arrival at one’s destination. Looking at all the people within the other cars as they pass—or are passed—makes for an interesting ride, every time. At least, for a writer it does.

The many diverse faces and colors never fail to amaze me, not to mention the expressions, hairstyles, actions and correlations between these things and the type of car or its present state at the time of passing.

I sit—with my notebook balanced on my knee—my latest chapter sprawled on the lined page in my own messy handwriting. As a car passes I glance at it through my window. The driver is singing to a song, nodding her head as her hair bobs up and down; beside her a pre-teen obliviously plays a game on their phone with ears budded. They drive on to wherever it is they are going. In the pages of my new chapter a preoccupied woman suddenly appears—along with her sullen child—busily walking past the main characters.

Next up in my view is a shiny SUV, harboring just one person—though it is capable of hauling five or six, complete with a polished wax job. My mouth falls open upon beholding the driver, for the young woman therein is putting on her makeup… while driving on the freeway. Cue one oblivious female character entering my pages, narrowly escaping the consequences of her own foolishness. Happily—and fortunately—no one, fictional or otherwise, is maimed this time.

A trucker powers by in the massive 18-wheeler. Through the high window I see him eagerly drinking from the enormous coffee mug in his hand. To me his face and posture rather resembles a medieval Viking, replete with untrimmed beard, sitting in a mead hall and ceaselessly downing golden liquid from a polished tankard.

*writing*

While the main characters—in each of our novels—are dearly conceived in my husband’s thoughts as well as mine, the lesser folk and faces that make but a brief performance on our literary stage are most often inspired by the strangers we see around us.

Said inspiration is in the quick nod of a head; the movement of the eyes; teeth flashing in conversation; long looks of boredom; the small smiles and bashful tilt of tiny chins; angry hand gestures and the sharp intake of breath… these are all important to the storyteller and can be captured in the few seconds it takes for a car to pass by my window.

L. R. Styles is an author with Belator Books

What is it about Books, really?

I read a particularly heartfelt essay in early 2011 that explored a writer’s personal book memories, expounding on the many reasons why paper books were important in spite of the modern-day acceptance of their digital counterparts. The essayist listed some of her fonder memories of packing books in a suitcase to read over the summer and climbing a tree with a paperback wedged in her back pocket.

After I finished reading the essay, I noted how the writer’s musings paralleled my own experiences. Nearly everyone I know–who has ever read a good book–remembers when they first read it, where they were sitting (or standing) while they read it and most remember all the characters and (most of) the minute details the good author penned.

While I enjoyed reading the essayist’s delightfully varied book memories, she came just short of really explaining why many folks cling to the paper medium in a sort of desperate nostalgia. I’ve heard the “book smell” argument, the tactile-feel-of-the-page rebuttal, the defense of the cover, the full-page illustrations argument, the ease-of-use pleas and the cases presented for paper books being one of the last “unplugged” items. I have not, however, heard or read about why a physical hold-it-in-your-hand paper book really appeals to humans.

To me, it is because the contents of a paper book defies the physics of its appearance. Without the aid of electricity (and with little to no fanfare) what seems to be a bunch of squiggly lines–on pieces of pressed wood pulp, slapped together with industrial glue—is in actuality an invisible treasure chest, just waiting to let that golden glow out onto the face of the reader upon being opened. A good book is the closest thing to real magic that a logical person can experience. Opening this unassuming recyclable shape sets the imagination loose… no film, soundtrack, digital screen, online platform, remote or batteries needed. It is a self-contained, self-perpetuating parallel universe that can contain knowledge, opinions, poetry… or an entire realm of fictional creatures entirely consumed in their own lives, waiting to begin or continue their respective journeys.

Just the act of reading provokes the most profound memories, which is something I’ve not only witnessed in others but have experienced, myself. My first memory of books was of my father reading The Hobbit out loud–to my brother and I–by the flickering light of a campfire (a thing which just made the trolls and goblins all the scarier.) The Lord of the Rings followed in the summers—and winters–to come, interspersed with the Chronicles of Narnia, The Princess & The Goblin, Robinson Crusoe and many other tales. My parents gave us paper and colored pencils to draw with while we listened at home, or laundry to fold; my mother would knit or sew as the stories filled the air, while the television–in the corner of the room–sat dark and silent.

In middle and high school–during which I discovered how heartily I disliked the company of my fellow youngsters—my parents remedied my abject loneliness with piles of books; Austen and Forester; Peters, Wodehouse and Shute; Stevenson and Defoe; Doyle, Dumas and Durrell… such minds were these! Such stories did they write on this strangely bland medium of paper and ink. I began to look upon these writers first as visionaries, and then friends, teachers and finally, muses. Like the essayist at the beginning of this piece I, too, began carefully selecting books to take with me various places and even scaled (numerous times) a nearby alder to sit among the breeze-blown branches and read.

That is the reason many are so disinclined to stop regarding paper books as “real” books despite the advances of technology, social movements toward anything labeled “green” and the very real threat of younger generations growing up with all-digital libraries. It is not a thing so singular as ‘smell’, or ‘touch’ but it is rather the entire experience of opening printed paper pages—with no flash animation–and yet one is still able to ‘see’ a full realm billow out of the object, the details of which (if the writer knows their stuff) engage all of the senses… and is powered only by the brain.

Books are literally the stuff dreams are made of, only tangible.

Can eBooks ever really capture that unique experience? As an eBook writer and proponent I can only say “I hope so.” EBooks continue to sell globally in the billions of dollars, so I assume at least a few million folks-with-money think they come “close enough.” It is true that most eBooks need assistance in order to make up for the loss of paper smell and physical page-turning, such as swiping animation, music, digital bookmarking, images, re-flowable text and other bells and whistles.

But, hope is not lost, for there be one more asset in the digitized book industry’s arsenal… a transition between the old and the new: the audio-book.

It is a category within publishing that seems to still sell extraordinarily well, and in this I am not surprised. The voice carries a weight to it, soulful inflections that digital text (nor computers) cannot plausibly imitate… yet. Handy to load on one’s music player/phone and listen to during commute/ travel/ waiting-in-line, audio books seem to be the most popular when read by someone with a voice that can spark the imagination… one that re-captures that ethereal, memory-laden notion of “real” books being read aloud.

It is that still-burning desire for paper that led several of our epic fantasy series fans to request that we offer our series in paperback. Once considered a daunting quest–for a small operation like ours–the POD system proffered by CreateSpace made this dream fulfill-able, helped along by the somewhat recent decrease in printing costs. For about $11 retail we were able to put out the first of our Kingdom Isle series in a 304 page paperback last week, doing the formatting with InDesign and Fireworks for the cover art. We are not only pleased with the result as it appears online, but once the first proofs made it to our doorsteps, we experienced that unique sensation of holding the full weight of our work in our hands.

You can see (and buy) our very own out-of-book experience Here.

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L. R. Styles is an author at Belator Books