Category Archives: Quincy Allen

Goal Setting and the Metrics of Success and Failure

This month on the Fictorians, many of us are following up on posts we made back in January and July. We’ve given a great deal of thought over the past twelve months to setting goals, meeting them, and coping with the inevitable shortcomings and failures that are common with people managing their own destinies.

Like most careers, becoming a self-sustaining writer is not unlike climbing a mountain—but one that has no summit. It’s more a matter of reaching one plateau after another in a line of them that extends to the end of our days.

I use that analogy deliberately because of something I noticed recently on Amazon.com. Amazon—that mega, web-enabled shopping cart of doom—has become a mainstay for traditional, hybrid, and indie-pub authors alike. We ply our wares there, and many of us track the status of our success or lack thereof in a little place called Author Central. If you have books or stories of any kind, regardless of publisher, that are available on Amazon, then I would recommend you go through the exercise of setting up your Author Central Account and tying in all your available works back to that account.

Once you have this mechanism in place, you can track where you sit in the Amazon author rankings. I must add here that it may be a bit daunting at first. To give you an example, my data goes all the way back to September 28th, 2012. My rank started at 386,929. Between then and November 2nd of this year, I saw a low of 629,888 and a high of 35,451. It’s a jagged graph that seems to plot, at least partially, when the novel came out or was revamped in a new edition. It also seems to reflect when the anthologies I was in came out.

Then something happened. On the 2nd of November there was a sharp spike in my ranking. It jumped to 4,500 and then slid back down slightly to hover for the past month around 20k. That is the plateau I was talking about. The beauty of it is that I can track that spike to three separate releases that all occurred at roughly the same time. Essentially, One Horn to Rule Them All, Fantastic Holidays: The Gift of Stories, and The Best of Penny Dread Tales all hit the streets or had media spikes almost simultaneously, and this gave me a bit more “street cred” in Amazon’s ranking algorithms.

I mention this all because while goals are an important aspect of being a writer, tracking metrics on your successes and failures is the first step in truly managing your writing career. We all need to have an understanding of what a success is—beyond just finishing a story or getting it accepted somewhere. There is a bigger end-game that many of us work towards: namely, making our writing career a viable means of self-employment. You can’t steer your course unless you know where you are succeeding and failing. Author Central is just one mechanism to do this. Maybe what you are looking for are positive book reviews, or sales data, or invitations to conventions. The metric you use isn’t nearly as important as having the knowledge of where you are in your career path.

Be aware of these things. Set your goals, implement the tools to track your success, and consider each “failure” as a stepping-stone to the next success. I quote Thomas A. Edison who said, “I have not failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” While it wouldn’t surprise me that Edison stole that quote from Tesla, the import of what he said is paramount to us. Failures are inevitable. We need to know each one intimately, so continue to have them, and use them as a foothold to the next success. And have a means of knowing when you’ve reached your goals. It’s always more than just finishing a story. In fact, finishing the story is just where the work begins.

Keep writing.

 

Q.

Of Lightning and Umbrellas

Imagine that fool on the hill dreamed up by the Beatles. Now, imagine him sitting up there in the rain, with storm clouds rolling over, thunder pressing down, and the ominous flash of lightning a strobe in the black tumult above.

He’s tired and alone, the rest of the world pointing fingers laughing at what they believe are hopeless dreams. Now imagine him atop that hill, in the rain and lightning, surrounded by a forest of steel-shafted umbrellas stuck in the ground and as many as he can hold clutched tightly in each hand.

He plants another umbrella and stares at the sky. And another. And another… hoping that lightning will strike.

 

That is what it’s like to be a writer, to be that hopeful soul chasing his or her dream regardless of the scorn, the derision, the laughter… and the torrent of rain that comes in the form of rejection after rejection.

And those umbrellas?

Each one is a tale—a short story or novel crafted in solitude—raised from the limitless depths of imagination in hopes that more than our loved ones will find some sort of connection within the words. It’s the very definition of madness. Truly. Doing the same thing over and over in hopes that there will eventually be a different result.

It was Lord Byron who wrote, “If I Don’t Write to Empty My Mind I Go Mad.” He understood. Most writers understand. Those who aren’t possessed with the compulsion to pour out our words couldn’t possibly comprehend what it’s like to have an army of characters, a galaxy of worlds, all crammed together inside one’s skull. And yet, the ones who can’t write are often the ones who, every once in a while, crave the creative fruits of those who can. And those of us who can, love it.

Perhaps part of it is ego. Every writer wants his or her writing to be savored and then craved, to have an audience that hangs on the next word, the next story, desperate for more. Writers hunger for such adulation, and will endure all manner of trial and travail to find it. But there is more to it than just ego. We write even when we’re certain no one will ever read a story. We write because that’s what is inside us. And in some respects, the accolades from being read, particularly oft-read, are a happy circumstance, an accidental result of our efforts.

I suppose there’s a contradiction there… that man on the hill with all his umbrellas… he would place them in the thunderstorm regardless of whether he got struck by lightning or not. And he would do it again the next day… and the next.

We are writers.

We understand.

 

Q

Weird Antho Angst

It’s not the waiting the kills… it’s the waste.

One of the more common ways of getting into the writing business and building “street-cred” is to peruse the calls for submissions on sites like Duotrope.com, Ralan.com, and Submission Grinder. Those sites are great for providing loads of opportunity. The problem is that many of the themes listed are pretty specific. Most of them run along the weird paths of cross-genre or niche topics that are hell-and-gone from the mainstream.

Sure, it can be fun writing a story about zombie porn or purple unicorns, but it’s also exceedingly risky. And yes, I have a buddy who is in a zombie porn antho called 50 Shades of Decay, and I just had a story come out in a purple unicorn anthology titled One Horn to Rule Them All. I can say with confidence that the quality of stories in these off-the-beaten-track collections is on par with mainstream fiction, and can be even better as a result of the topic.

The problem stems for the fact that once you write the story, you have to wait weeks or even months to hear back on whether you made the cut. That’s the same as with any short story submission, certainly, but with one of these, the bar is sometimes a bit higher than “normal” fiction. With regular fiction the bar is established and fairly well understood by the community. With non-traditional anthos, however, you not only have to write a good story, you must more accurately discern the tastes or intent of the editor or publication putting out the call for submission.

It can be like trying to hit a kangaroo from orbit with a drunken koala.

(Just let that visual sink in for a minute).

Now, if you make it in, great. But statistically speaking, the odds are that you won’t make the cut. That’s where the real pain comes in. If your story isn’t selected, you have one to six-thousand words that you’re going to play hell placing elsewhere. I mean, what are the odds that Asimov or Fantasy & Science Fiction want something that was written specifically for someplace else? It can be done, but those are pretty long odds, especially if the story wasn’t good enough to make the cut for the antho.

There are no easy roads into the business, and while weird anthos are one of them, you may want to go with the more mainstream topics when you’re first starting. Once your writing is cleaner and you’re placing stories more frequently, or even at will, then it’s time to hit the weird stuff.

Texas Heart Shot

There’s a ton of preamble I could put here, but let me set this tale with three twenty-year-old college students living for two months in the deep backcountry of Alaska. Deep. I’m talking deeper than Deliverance deep, but without any amorous hillbillies. To get there, we drove seven hours over an undulating strip of ragged pavement stretching across tundra under stormy skies. We flew 120 miles in a single-engine crate to land at an airstrip cut out of thick forest. We rode ATVs another seven miles to an extinct mining camp built and abandoned in the 40s. We took up residence smack-dab in the middle of the Wrangell Mountains.

We laid modern sleeping bags over rusty cots and draped mosquito netting over our heads. We coated ourselves in mosquito dope (that’s repellent to normal people) and spent a good portion of our days digging into the side of a riverbank and panning for gold. I could relate how I almost drowned in the river. I could tell you of the rainy afternoon when one of my buddies fired his .44 magnum past my head while we were sitting at our rickety dinner table.

However, this story about is the still vivid memory of watching that same guy—the one with the .44—sprinting down one side of a mountain saddle and up the other in hot pursuit of a wounded mountain goat.

I’m literally laughing as I type this. Don’t worry, though, this story has a happy ending.

About three weeks into our trip, my buddy and I got it into our heads that we’d go hunt and subsequently eat a mountain goat. His uncle (a then-resident of Alaska and facilitator of this trip) had encouraged us to break federal law and go poaching.

Yes, it was a monumentally stupid idea.

What can I say? We were twenty-year-old big-dumb-males taking advice from a questionable source. The uncle in question had fled to Alaska in the 70s to escape the draft, squatted an entire mountain valley, married an eskimo, and then sold the squatted land back to the government for some millions of dollars.

But I digress.

One bright, sunny morning, my buddy and I set out on “The Hunting Trip”… me with my .357 and he with is open sight 30-6. We hiked all morning from our already elevated campsite, through mosquito-infested underbrush and the occasional sign of grizzly bear, in search of our prey.

We hiked over several peaks searching for any sign of mountain goats. After the third peak, we were starting to get a bit discouraged, and, frankly, I was running out of steam. The thought of butchering a goat on the side of a mountain and hauling it back to our camp was starting to feel like an even worse idea than when we started.

However, my buddy is one of those guys that simply doesn’t give up. Ever. He’s what I like to refer to as dogged and relentless. He was committed, therefore, I was too. At the crest of the fourth peak, he stopped dead in his tracks, held up his hand and went down into a crouch.

The game was afoot, as Sherlock would say. Of course, Sherlock Holmes would have been smart enough not to be in that situation to begin with. We crept over the lip of the peak, and a small group of lazily grazing mountain goats came into view high on the far side of a grassy, rock-strewn saddle. They were a few hundred yards away. My buddy whispered that we needed to move closer so he could take a shot. We went into crouches, inching our way down the hill. Obviously, crouching would ease the suspicious minds of the goats. I should add that they just kept grazing. We were probably the first humans they’d ever seen.

Eventually, about 150 yards away, my buddy slowly unslung his rifle and went down onto one knee. It was an up-angle shot, so he couldn’t lay prone. I paused about ten feet behind him, crouched low, and held my breath as he took aim.

Seconds ticked by. More seconds. I looked at him, wondering if he was having second thoughts.

BANG!!!

His first shot rang out, echoing across the mountains around us. Adrenaline pumped through my system. I looked up the hill and saw a small cloud of dust drifting away about thirty feet high and to the right of the nearest goat. To my surprise, the goats shuffled left a bit and went right back to grazing. My buddy quickly chambered another round and took aim.

BANG!!!

“High and to the right again,” I said over his shoulder. His shot was closer this time—about twenty feet—but the goats still seemed oblivious. They shuffled a little farther left again and went right back to grazing. My buddy darted forward thirty feet and took aim.

BANG!!!

Another miss, I thought. I was laughing inside. The shot hit about ten feet behind one of the goats, and this time it ran up the hill and curved back, finally settling down and looking around, roughly fifty feet from where it had started.

I just couldn’t believe it: three misses and the goats apparently unaware of what was going on. It was laughable, ridiculous, comical. I felt like I was in a sit-com episode. And we weren’t even finished.

My buddy quickly took aim again, clearly frustrated by the failures.

BANG!!!

He snapped a shot off, and this time the goat bolted.

“You hit it!” I shouted. However, the expectant “prey dropping to the ground” moment didn’t happen. We were shocked and appalled to see the whole heard tearing straight up the mountain.

All I could do was stare. The first thing I thought was that the goat was injured and would end up dying miles away. It would have been wasteful on our part, even shameful. It was about that time I realized what a bad idea the outing had been. I keep reminding myself that twenty-year-olds are not well known for comprehending consequences.

My buddy, however—the dogged and relentless one—did more than stare. He went streaking after them, losing his straw cowboy hat in the process. Did I mention he was on the track team? Javelin thrower. Weight lifter. Runner. He raced down what was left of our side of the saddle and started up the other just as the goats disappeared over the next ridgeline. My buddy didn’t even slow down. He tore up the far side of the saddle, rifle in hand, intent on finishing what he started. We were pretty much committed now, but I knew that there was no way I could keep up with him, let alone the goats.

As he was halfway up the other side, he shouted back, “Head back to camp!” I have to admit, I was torn. Part of me wanted to follow along and help. However, common sense got the best of me. I retrieved his hat and headed back where I waited with our other friend, the one smart enough not to go. Naturally, my buddy came back empty-handed, but we at least got the rest of the story, which was a relief to us all.

“Did you get it?” I asked with mixed feelings about the whole thing.

“No,” he replied.

“But what about the goat?” Our folly was really starting to hit home. “You hit it.” I was worried that it would die out there and we would be responsible for wasting that life.

“It was a Texas heart shot,” he replied, a great deal of embarrassment on his face.

“A what?”

“A Texas heart shot,” he repeated. “I grazed its ass. Barely nicked it. It’ll be fine.”

It was too much. I’d already told the friend who stayed behind what I could, and at that point the two of us just cracked up. We couldn’t stop laughing.

To this day, we still talk about “The Hunting Trip” in Alaska where there is at least one mountain goat who would rather not have met humans. It is our belief that he lived a long life with a wary understanding of how stupid twenty-year-old big-dumb-males can be.