Trope Tuesday: The Chessmaster

The Chessmaster is a fun trope, especially when done well. A good villain is always at least one step ahead of the good guys, so when it turns out that he’s three or four or ten steps ahead of them, it can make for some interesting plot twists.

Of course, the chessmaster isn’t always the bad guy. Sometimes, it turns out that the mysterious figure behind the scenes pulling all the strings is actually working for good, even though he may sacrifice a few pawns along the way. Or is he? There’s always that tension, simply because of the chessmaster’s manipulative nature.

I’ve played it both ways. The last time I wrote a chessmaster was Gunslinger to the Stars, but the Patrician in Heart of the Nebula definitely also qualifies. In both cases, the character was introduced as a mysterious employer. I won’t tell you which one was the bad guy, and which one was the good guy.

I’ve never written a story from the perspective of the chessmaster. I imagine it would be quite difficult, since all of the plot twists would have to be telegraphed and/or th reader would have to be kept in the dark about the main character’s plans. Dune is an excellent example of the former, but I can’t think of any good examples of the latter. The Davinci Code comes to mind, but the way it kept the viewer in the dark (seen the movie, haven’t read the book) didn’t work for me.

Even as a non-viewpoint character, the chessmaster can be difficult to write. Careful plotting is key, of course, but so is the iceberg principle. For everything the reader can see, there has to be a bunch of stuff beneath the surface that they can’t see. It doesn’t require the same level of detail as the surface level stuff, of course, but you have to at least have an idea of what the chessmaster would do if the story went in a very different direction. Even if the chessmaster never reveals those plans, you can bet that he still has them figured out.

In part, this is what made Heart of the Nebula so difficult to write. The final draft bears little resemblance to the first draft, with characters and subplots cut out or combined with others. Still, I’m satisfied with how it turned out, and it seems that the readers are as well.

In Sons of the Starfarers, Gulchina isn’t a chessmaster so much as a magnificent bastard with delusions of grandeur. She has plans and does tend to be three or four steps ahead of everyone else, but she’s less interested in manipulating events than she is in manipulating people. Her ultimate goal, as revealed in Captives in Obscurity, is to establish a proud warrior race that will one day wipe out and take over both the Empire and the Outworlds. She doesn’t know how that’s going to happen, but she knows what needs to be done to lay the foundation for that work.

The chessmaster is a challenging trope to write well, but I’m sure I’ll use it many more times in the future. The storytelling potential is just too great to leave it out.

Beginning of September Update

It’s September, my favorite month of the year! Maybe I’ll revisit that post in a blast from the past or something. So many reasons why September is awesome.

Things are going well on the writing front. I’ve switched up my daily routine to make more writing time, and it’s working well so far. My alarm goes off at 5:45 am (just after oh-dark-thirty) and I write for about an hour before heading off to my part time job. I’ve found that I tend to write a lot more when I start first thing in the day, so the earlier I can start, the better.

I won’t bore you with the rest of my routine, unless you want me to write a post about it. There’s a bunch of interesting lifestyle tweaks I’ve been trying out, like reading a couple chapters from one of the books I’m reading as soon as I get back from work in the afternoon, in order to refill the creative well and not get caught in a Youtube / general internet trap. Stuff like that.

My current WIP is A Queen in Hiding (Sons of the Starfarers, Book 7) which is proving to be a surprisingly difficult book. It’s definitely one of the weirdest things I’ve ever written, and that’s saying a lot. In Captives in Obscurity, Reva and Isaac get assimilated into a hive mind, and things only get crazier from there.

Sometimes, stories come really easy, almost like they spring fully formed from the mind. Other times, I’ve found I have to throw out almost the entire first draft before I discover the story.

The weird thing is that it has nothing to do with actual book length. Stars of Blood and Glory and Outworlder are totally different lengths, but they both came out almost perfect in the first draft. However, almost all of the Star Wanderers novellas took multiple drafts filled with stuff that had to be cut. Heart of the Nebula took years to finish, and I had to throw out multiple characters and subplots. I struggled for a long time with Genesis Earth, until I decided to throw the whole thing out and start with a blank page. The book was finished less than four weeks later.

The holy grail, of course, is to write a perfect book in four to six weeks (or less!) every time I set off to start a new one. But as awesome as it would be to barf rainbows and poop gold, all of those things sadly remain out of reach.

My goal at this point is to publish the last four Sons of the Starfarers books in 2018, two months apart from each other. Ideally, I’d like to have the next one up for preorder in time for the previous one’s release. It’s going to take some coordination, but I already have all the covers, which leaves just the writing and editing (metadata and formatting doesn’t take more than a day).

Unfortunately, that isn’t going to happen unless I can get A Queen in Hiding ready to go by December. So that’s what I’m trying to do.

Gunslinger to the Galaxy is on hold for now, though so far it’s coming along very nicely. I should be able to pick it up and finish without too much trouble. Edenfall is also on hold, for how much longer I really don’t know. Before the end of 2018, I’d like to publish either the one or the other, but publishing them both is probably a bit of a stretch.

Also, I haven’t even started The Sword Bearer yet (second book in the Twelfth Sword Trilogy), though I have lots of great ideas for it. Since The Sword Keeper is coming out in just a couple weeks, I should probably get on that.

On the publishing side, I dropped the ball a bit in August. It took so much energy to get The Sword Keeper ready for publication that I totally spaced publishing anything. I do have a bunch of shorts that are nearing the end of the submissions gauntlet, and some bundles that can go up too.

I don’t sell many print books, but I want to get print versions of all of my books up, including short stories. That’s going to be an ongoing project for a while. I also want to put up audiobook versions eventually, but it’s going to take some time to get that ball rolling. However, it has moved up the priority list.

That’s pretty much it. So much stuff I want to do, so little time to do it. Time, money, or youth: you can only pick two (and one of them isn’t your choice).

Take care, and thanks for reading!

All of my books and stories, in series order

A friend of mine recently asked me to give him a list of all my books in series order. That was just the kick in the pants I needed to put this page together. For your convenience, I’m putting it up as a blog post too. The links to all the book pages will appear on the series page as soon as I can get around to it.

Joe Vasicek

Gaia Nova

The Gaia Nova books are all mid-sized novels (75k to 110k words). It is a far-future space opera series that takes place in a galactic empire long after Earth has been lost to legend. They can be read in any order, but they take place in the same universe with recurring characters. They are listed in the order in which they were published. Heart of the Nebula is a direct sequel to Bringing Stella Home.

Bringing Stella Home
Desert Stars
Stars of Blood and Glory
Heart of the Nebula
Mercenary Savior (forthcoming)
Empress of the Last Free Stars (forthcoming)

Star Wanderers

The Star Wanderers books are novellas (15k to 35k). They take place in the same universe as Gaia Nova one thousand years earlier. The first four books are linear, while the last four books are parallaxes of the first four, from the point of view of the side characters.

Outworlder
Fidelity
Sacrifice
Homeworld
Dreamweaver
Benefactor
Reproach
Deliverance

The Jeremiah Chronicles (Omnibus 1-4)
Tales of the Far Outworlds (Omnibus 5-6)

Sons of the Starfarers

The Sons of the Starfarer books are short novels (35k to 45k words) that take place in the same universe as Star Wanderers, with a few recurring minor characters from those books. It is a linear series.

Brother in Exile
Comrades in Hope
Strangers in Flight
Friends in Command
Captives in Obscurity
Patriots in Retreat (forthcoming)
A Queen in Hiding (forthcoming)
An Empire in Disarray (forthcoming)
Victors in Liberty (forthcoming)

Sons of the Starfarers (Omnibus 1-3)

Gunslinger Trilogy

These books are all short to mid-sized novels (50k to 90k words). They take place about 40 years in the future, after Earth makes contact with the galactics.

Gunslinger to the Stars
Gunslinger to the Galaxy (forthcoming)
Gunslinger to Earth (forthcoming)

The Twelfth Sword Trilogy

These epic fantasy books are all mid-sized to long novels (85k words and up).

The Sword Keeper (forthcoming)
The Sword Bearer (forthcoming)
The Sword Mistress (forthcoming)

Genesis Earth Trilogy

These are all mid-sized novels (about 70k words) that take place in the near to mid-future.

Genesis Earth
Edenfall (forthcoming)
The Stars of Redemption (forthcoming)

Short Stories and Novelettes

Below are all of my short stories and novelettes, in the order in which they were published. If they first appeared in a magazine or anthology, I’ve included that in parentheses.

Decision LZ1527 (Leading Edge Magazine, December 2009)
Memoirs of a Snowflake
A Hill on Which to Die
Starchild
L’enfer, c’est la Solitude
(Perehilion SF, March 2016)
The Curse of the Lifewalker
(Sci Phi Journal, June 2016)
The Gettysburg Paradox
Utahraptors at Dawn
Welcome to Condescension
Killing Mister Wilson
My Name is For My Friends
Jane Carter of Earth and the Rescue that Never Was
The Open Source Time Machine

J.M. Wight

Short Stories

Worlds Without Number

Thoughts on series and perma-free

For the last five years, the conventional wisdom among most indie writers has been to write short books in sequential series and make the first book permanently free. It’s a strategy that works, to a certain extent. It’s what got me from making pizza money on my book sales to making a humble living at this gig. However, I’m starting to question that wisdom.

I have two books available for free this month: Genesis Earth and Star Wanderers: Outworlder (Part I). Genesis Earth was my first indie published novel, a “standalone with series potential” (specifically, a trilogy) written according to the conventional wisdom for breaking into traditional publishing. Outworlder is a very different book: the first in an eight-book novella series, strong enough to stand alone but short enough to leave the reader wanting more. And for several years, it was perma-free.

Outworlder was the first of my books to make it big. It’s gotten tens of thousands of free downloads and driven thousands of sales (I don’t have the exact numbers because I haven’t yet collated all of my sales reports from the past five years, but that’s something I plan to do). It was largely on the success of Outworlder and the Star Wanderers series that I built my early career.

But over time, downloads of Outworlder slowed to a bare trickle, and sales did as well. I could give it a short-term boost by running a few strategically placed ads, but it would always fall back down to a baseline that was simply unacceptable.

Also, when you have a book that’s permanently free, it tends to accumulate a lot of negative reviews. It’s strange, but some people seem to feel more entitled to XYZ when they get it for free, as opposed to paying for it. Or maybe these are the people who try to go through life without actually paying for anything? Who hoard everything, even the stuff that they hate, so long as they can get it for free? I don’t know.

Certainly, that’s not true of everyone who reads free books. But when you have a perma-free book, it tends to accumulate more of the barely-coherent “dis buk sux” kinds of reviews from people who probably weren’t in the target audience to begin with. And over time, that tends to weigh the book’s overall rating down, which unfortunately can be a turn-off for people who are in the book’s audience.

Contrast that with Genesis Earth. I launched it at full price with a blog tour (which I put together myself, among writer friends whom I knew personally and who had readers who would probably enjoy the book). It sold about a hundred copies in the first ninety days, then slowed to a very low trickle—maybe one or two sales each month, if that. Things continued like this for several years.

Then, back in December, I made it free for one month. Downloads immediately shot up, and continued strong throughout the entire month. Even without any advertising, I was still getting maybe 50 downloads per day on Amazon, plus a constant trickle on the other platforms. For the next couple of months, sales of all my other books grew as well

For April, I decided to make it free again, just to see if I could duplicate that kind of success. I haven’t done any paid advertising for it, but I have submitted it to various sites and newsletters that will promote free books. The result? Thousands of downloads, with a baseline rate of more than a hundred downloads per day.

Genesis Earth has never been perma-free, but every time I set it free for a limited time, it’s like I’ve released the pent-up flood waters. In contrast, Outworlder struggles to get any downloads at all, even when it’s free for only a limited time.

Part of this may have to do with the reviews. Genesis Earth has a much better overall book rating, simply because most of the people who read it over the years were the ones willing to pay full price. This also means that the book has grown into its own niche organically, since the people who have bought Genesis Earth also tend to buy other books similar to it. Retailers like Amazon take note of this, and tend to associate these books with each other in things like also-bought recommendations.

This is all just speculation, but when all of this comes together, it seems to result not only in a higher download rate when the book is free, but more downloads from people who are in the book’s targeted audience.

The mos fascinating result of this is that when the book goes back to full price, sales get a small but long-lasting boost. I’ve seen this with Bringing Stella Home, which was free in March. It’s not a huge boost—maybe only five or six books a month—but it boosts all of the other books in the series as well, and lasts for a couple of months. It’s not just Amazon where this is happening, either—in fact, it may be boosting sales on the non-Amazon platforms even more.

Bringing Stella Home is different, though, because it’s a full-length novel (about 110k words, or +300 pages) in a series that can be read out of order just fine. In other words, more of the “stand-alone with series potential” that was the convential wisdom in the old tradpub world. Like Genesis Earth, it has never been perma-free.

So what’s the takeaway?

That maybe the convential wisdom among indies is all wrong. That perma-free actually taints books and makes it harder for them to stick in the rankings, or to grow into their natural audience. That longer stand-alone books with recurring characters set in the same universe may be better for gaining long-term traction than shorter, more episodic books. Also, that the more books you give away for free—not just first in series—the better that all of your books will sell.

My experience is purely anecdotal, and there’s a lot more analysis I need to do before I can say anything for sure. From what I can tell, though, it seems that the best strategy is to write longer, fuller books that satisfy more than they entice, and to use free as a marketing strategy for only a limited time.

In other words, the collective wisdom of KBoards is completely off the mark, and Kris Rusch (who regularly gets vilified on KBoards) actually knows what she’s talking about most of the time.

Like I said, this is all anecdotal and more analysis is required. But I’m very curious now to make some of my non- first-in-series books free for a month, just to see if it has a similar boost. With Bringing Stella Home, for example, a lot of readers seem to be jumping over books 2 and 3 to read Heart of the Nebula, the direct sequel (but book 4 in the Gaia Nova series order). It would be very interesting to see if Desert Stars has an awesome free run as well, resulting in more sales after it reverts back to full price.

Lots of interesting stuff to consider. It’s definitely going to inform my writing and marketing efforts in the future.

State of the Vasicek 2015

I recently read a post over on Brandon Sanderson’s blog where he did an exhaustive recap on his writing and update on all of his WIPs, and called it State of the Sanderson. Since it’s the end of the year and I’m already looking back in order to make some new resolutions for 2016, it seems like a good opportunity to do something similar myself.

In 2015, I managed to publish five books, including two novels, a novelette, and two short stories:

Tag: 2015 Release
Friends in Command
Starchild
Heart of the Nebula
Worlds Without Number
A Hill on Which to Die

In addition, I wrote a number of short stories that are currently on submission to the major markets, and will probably be published (by myself or in the magazines) sometime in 2016. These include:

  • Killing Mr. Wilson — Time Travel (950 words)
  • My Name Is For My Friends — Sword & Sorcery (2,000 words)
  • Utahraptors at Dawn — Cyberpunk (1,950 words)
  • Welcome to Condescension — Sci-fi Humor (750 words)
  • A Less Than Perfect Game — Sword & Sorcery (1,250 words)
  • Elusive Eden — LDS Science Fiction (2,200 words)
  • The Janus Anomaly — Space Opera (4,400 words)

All of these stories will get out eventually, though it may take a while. I’m putting them on submission to the short story magazines and anthologies that pay at least semi-professional rates, since none of them buy exclusive rights to the stories. Why rush to self-publish if I can get paid twice?

In a lot of ways, it was a pretty decent year. In other ways, I wish it had been more productive. I didn’t publish anything for the first six months, except for A Hill on Which to Die, which I later unpublished in order to take it out of Kindle Unlimited (the first and probably last time I will ever experiment with exclusivity). I made up for it later, but still.

Next year is going to be a lot more productive, I hope. I started a lot more projects this year than I finished, so in 2016 I plan to refocus on the writing and substantially increase my output.

As for writing projects, here is what I’m working on:

Major Projects

Sons of the Starfarers

There are five more books before this series is complete, and while I know more or less how the series is going to end, I’m still in the process of writing it. However, I’m making good enough progress to publish at least two more books in the series this year, possibly three or four.

Captives in Obscurity (Book V) is already written and ready to send off to the editor. Trouble is, cash is kind of tight right now and I probably won’t be able to send it off until after I’ve filed my taxes, which I hope to do early February (I always try to get a jump on tax season each year). For now, that means I’m looking for a launch in May.

Patriots in Retreat (Book VI) is my current WIP, and I hope to have the first draft finished before the end of January. A lot of stuff happens in this book—it’s kind of like the Empire Strikes Back episode, where crap hits the fan and things get real. Then again, Friends in Command (Book IV) was kind of like that too, and Captives in Obscurity has some really crazy developments… point is, I think you guys are going to like these books.

Haven’t outlined any of the other books in the series yet, but I’m a pantser so that’s normal. I do have a climactic ending that I’m working toward, which will tie in this series with all of my other books in the same universe. It’s going to be great to see it all come together, and I expect it will over the course of the next year!

STATUS: Book VI currently in progress.

Gunslinger to the Stars

I started this book in earnest a few months ago, then hit chapter 2 and realized I had a beginning and an end but no idea what to put in the middle. So I put the project on the back burner, letting the ideas percolate until I’m ready to pick it up again and go full throttle. With luck, that will happen very soon.

This is a really awesome project, and one of the ones I’m most excited about. I’ll post a few excerpts in the next few weeks to give you guys a taste, and I think you’re really going to like it!

STATUS: On the back burner, will resume again soon.

Queen of the Falconstar

A few of the readers who enjoyed my Star Wanderers books have mentioned that they wish Jeremiah, Noemi, and Mariya had ended up in a polygamous relationship. While I don’t think that would have worked for that particular story, in Queen of the Falconstar, it’s a major plot point. In addition, the book is an origin story for the Hameji, which should be a lot of fun for readers of my other books as well.

I’ve been working on this project off and on for the last year or so, and while I have a pretty good handle on the main storyline, I’m still a little iffy about how to proceed. It may have some promise as a hybrid between Space Opera and Sword and Planet (sword and starship? Is that even a thing?). The Princess of Mars books are on my reading list, so I’ll probably revisit this project after reading through some of those.

STATUS: On the back burner.

The Sword Keeper

I really need to finish this book. It’s already more than half written, and has some really fantastic potential. For the last three years, I’ve been working on it off and on, but 2016 will definitely be the year that I finish it (though it might still be a while before it’s published).

STATUS: On the back burner.

Secondary Projects

Starship Lachoneus

In spite of finishing the prologue and publishing it as “Worlds Without Number” under my J.M. Wight pen name, I haven’t yet made a serious attempt to write this book. The main reason is that it’s a passion project that I don’t expect to pay off very well or earn me much prestige. Still, when my career is at a point where I can afford more time for a passion project, I will probably pick it up.

STATUS: On the back burner.

The Genesis Earth Trilogy

Genesis Earth is a standalone book, but I realized soon after finishing it that I could easily turn it into a trilogy. Back in 2011, I even started writing the second book: Edenfall. But one thing led to another, and it got put on hold in favor of Star Wanderers.

The trilogy is still on hold, but if there is enough interest, I could certainly resume work on it. I made Genesis Earth free for the month of December, and it’s had a much stronger free run than I’d anticipated (especially with almost no advertising). Depending on the feedback I get from readers, I’ll finish this project sooner or later.

STATUS: On hold, may resume soon.

Mercenary Savior

This is a prequel to Bringing Stella Home that I’ve had kicking around in my head for the last two years. The interest in Heart of the Nebula has been surprisingly steady, even more than a month after publication. If either of those books starts to break out, then I will definitely pick up this project. Otherwise, I can’t justify making it a priority.

STATUS: On hold.

Empress of the Free Stars

Empress of the Free Stars is a sequel to Stars of Blood and Glory that I started back in 2013 but never got further than the prologue. Again, unless my Gaia Nova books start to break out, I can’t justify prioritizing this over my other WIPs.

STATUS: On hold.

Children of the Starry Sea

This one is a novelized sequel to Star Wanderers, with all of the major characters from that series. I know there’s some interest in this one, but for now I think my time would better be spent launching new series rather than returning to old ones. But in 2016, that may well change.

STATUS: On hold.

Lifewalker

This is a standalone I started back in 2013, and I even got several chapters into it before I put it on the back burner. Haven’t touched it since, so right now it’s really more on hold, but my Dad keeps bugging me to finish it (he read the first chapter and really liked it). So yeah. Someday.

I will say this, though: if the short story that’s derived from this book gets picked up by one of the magazines, I will definitely move it up in the writing queue.

STATUS: On hold.

A Brotherhood of Swords

This book is supposed to be a Sword & Sorcery prequel to The Sword Keeper, but since I already have plans for that book, this one is on hold. I did get a really good short story out of it, though.

STATUS: On hold.

That pretty much does it. This next year is going to be super, super busy, and hopefully productive as well. My goal for 2016 is to get back in the saddle, writing full-time again as soon as I can. There are other resolutions I plan to make as well, but those can wait until Thursday.