Friday, September 27, 2019

Academic Displacement

Today, I'm very excited to announce the release of my new novelette, "Academic Displacement," which is now available for free from Google Play and as an Apple iBook.

A Kindle Edition is also available from Amazon for just $0.99.

"Academic Displacement" will be featured in a short-fiction anthology I'll be releasing in 2020 but this is a great opportunity to read it early, and a great point of entry for those of you who aren't already familiar with my writing from my first two novels.

It's worth noting that, like my other works, "Academic Displacement" is aimed at adult readers and may not be suitable for children, even particularly advanced readers, as it's a rather dark tale.

I sincerely hope that you all enjoy this new story. Be sure to stay tuned here and on social media for more from me in the future.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

The Ultimate Gaming Headset

Historically, I've not been a big fan of SteelSeries' gaming peripherals. In general, I've seen their offerings as inferior versions of the sorts of mice, keyboards, controllers, and headsets made by others. In fact, the last SteelSeries gaming headset I attempted to use years ago was so subpar in just about every regard that, had I not received it for free as part of a promotion when buying an unrelated product, I would have likely sworn off the brand on principle.

Oh my, how things have changed.

Having made my way through a range of decent to good wireless gaming headsets over the past several years, I spent a fair amount of that time longing for the day when I could buy one without any noteworthy compromises, a device with great audio, a stellar mic, excellent battery life, and all the features that make for an ideal, auditory gaming experience.

After yet another, recent round of considerable research on the subject, I found to my shock that one name kept popping up when assessing nearly every criteria for a "dream" gaming headset, the "Arctis Pro Wireless" by SteelSeries.

A bit more research ensued amid some hesitation based on my past experiences with the brand, and some troubling reports regarding the build quality of the device from some customer reviews on various sites.

Ultimately, I decided to take the plunge and give SteelSeries another chance. I'm very glad I did.

In my experience with it thus far, the "Arctis Wireless Pro" is hands-down the best gaming headset I've ever used, and by a wide margin. In short, it's an absolute ringer, with rich, dynamic, immersive sound, the best noise-cancelling mic I've ever heard attached to a headset, and truly-robust battery life.

Having said that, it's in the details and the features that go above and beyond what one would typically expect from such a product where the "Arctis Pro Wireless" really shines.

With support for both RF and Bluetooth wireless audio, it's equally-well-suited to PC gaming, console gaming, or simply listening to any sort of media on just about any device. It's worth noting that the PS4 is the officially-supported console, despite it being possible to use the "Arctis Pro Wireless" with an Xbox One.

The headset also includes two, hot-swappable batteries, with the ability to charge one in the control unit such that the headset itself need never be plugged in at all. Let that sink in for a moment. This is a wireless gaming headset that never needs to be plugged in, ever.

Speaking of the control box, it sports an elegantly simple, yet feature complete, user interface that allows every aspect of the headset to be tuned and monitored. I especially like the equalizer, which allows for fully-customized presets, and the volume limiter, which has already saved my ears a few times from obnoxiously-loud default audio settings in games.

I could go on and on about how great the "Arctis Pro Wireless" is, from its comfortable, light fit, to its understated, but still visually appealing, design, to the overall feeling of quality it exudes. It really is that rare bird in the tech world that checks all the boxes with no obvious, significant flaws.

Yes, it's a bit pricey at $250, and yes, there does seem to be plenty of evidence out there that some bad units may have escaped the factory at some point, but in the weeks I've spent with it so far, the "Arctis Pro Wireless" has been rock solid and worth every penny.

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Powerbeats Pro Thoughts

After a little internal debate back when they were first announced, I eventually decided to pre-order the latest, wireless earbud offering from Beats, or should we just say Apple at this point?

Having spent a few days with them, I'm suitably impressed, which is no small feat given the spotty track record of both companies in recent years, particularly where new, first-generation products are concerned. Of course, most technical aspects of the Powerbeats Pro have been thoroughly field tested, refined, and proven at this point, so it really shouldn't be a surprise that they work as well as they do.

Still, there was a nagging, little worry in my mind right up to the point when I first slipped the buds into my ears that they'd be somehow disappointing, or not quite as good as predicted. In truth, I was initially rather underwhelmed by the sound of them until I quickly realized that, like many other such devices, placement within the ear factors heavily into the overall audio experience. Ultimately, I developed a repeatable technique for inserting each speaker stem with the main body of the device horizontal to align it with my ear canal, then rotating said body about 30 degrees to "lock" the stem into place, simultaneously setting the ear hook. I suspect that each person's technique for getting the Powerbeats Pro comfortably situated will vary at least a bit given the subtle differences in ear size and shape between users but, with a little persistence, and experimentation with the variously-shaped and sized tips included, I imagine that most folks will find a satisfying solution without too much hassle.

 As with other earphones that sit deeply in the ear, there's a bit of an adjustment period with the Powerbeats Pro that some might find unpleasant as one's ears adjust to their regular insertion, presence, and removal. To be fair, that's more a function of the sort of device they are as opposed to any objective shortcoming in their design. I'd certainly say that they're the most comfortable earbuds of their type I've ever worn and consider myself fully accustomed to them after just a few days of use.

I primarily purchased the Powerbeats Pro for work, having the sort of day job where I'm often in conference calls, consulting with other software engineers, or listening for notifications from various systems. My ears are bit unusual such that standard Apple earbuds and AirPods tend to fall out of them quite easily, so the snugger, hooked design of the Powerbeats Pro is more conducive for all-day wear, as is their verified, 9+ hour battery life.

As many others have noted, the Powerbeats Pro really shine when it comes to music playback, with a strong, balanced, full sound that is easily among the best I've heard delivered via Bluetooth. I have some rather nice wired and wireless headsets by Corsair, Koss, Logitech, and Sennheiser and I would say that the Powerbeats Pro compare quite favorably in terms of audio quality.

As with other Bluetooth devices, the Powerbeats Pro aren't capable of maintaining their high-quality stereo output when the built-in microphones are in use, so don't expect to continue rocking out while on a call. This also makes them ill-suited for use as a gaming headset since you'll need to choose between using them to capture your voice or output game/VOIP audio, or suffer a brutal drop in audio playback quality by using the "hands-free" virtual device for both.

Additionally, with regard to gaming, a dedicated gaming headset making use of a proprietary RF transmitter will almost-certainly produce a better, more consistent wireless experience for gaming than the Powerbeats Pro. Your mileage may vary, but the Powerbeats Pro partially cut out frequently enough to be annoying while outputting the combined, stereo audio from Rocket League, Spotify, and Teamspeak during my testing on Windows 10. Again, I see this as less of an issue with the Powerbeats Pro specifically and more of a confirmation of the limitations of the Bluetooth standard, or perhaps some issue with the way Windows mixes multiple audio sources down to a single, stereo Bluetooth signal. In any case, I think it's fair to say that the Powerbeats Pro are at their best when dealing with one audio source or target at a time.

All things considered, I'm quite happy with my Powerbeats Pro purchase so far and I'm not anticipating any significant issues moving forward. If you're in the market for a really nice set of wireless earbuds with top-tier stereo Bluetooth audio quality, that can accommodate a wide range of ear sizes and shapes, I'd say these are definitely the ones to beat, pun intended. :)

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Book Sale - May 2019

I've always believed that it's very important for creators to value their work for a variety of reasons, particularly when aspiring to earn a living from it.

The amount of time, effort, and in many cases money required to create, refine, and release high-quality content is generally quite significant. As such, I've never been shy or reluctant in my efforts to monetize my work in various ways to help justify those investments.

To me, it boils down to a simple truth. If I create something of quality, I believe I have just as much right to profit from it as anyone else doing the same, which is why I never hesitate to set the prices of the products I sell based on generally-accepted industry practices, and never sell products at a loss.

For example, without going into too much detail: The prices I normally set for my books are selected to ensure that I earn an amount of money comparable to the amounts earned by my printing and distribution partners. As a result, any discounts I offer on books during book sales are mostly taken from my third of the proverbial pie. In other words, when I sell my books for any less than I normally do, my printer and distributer still make nearly the same amounts they typically would, while my personal profit is significantly diminished.

As one might expect, things are a little different with eBooks as there are no printing costs involved, which allows me to offer more substantial discounts, while still maintaining a somewhat-fair profit share with my distributors.

I bring all this up because I've decided to offer the deepest discounts I possibly can on my first two books for the month of May in an effort to give as many people as possible the opportunity to read and enjoy them.

I don't know if I could ever adequately convey how inherently-unappealing the thought of earning significantly less for my work than I believe it's worth, not to mention significantly less for it than my business partners will earn, feels to me but at the end of the day, I'm willing to take that hit to get my books into more people's hands, and build my reputation as an author.

So, without further ado, behold the new prices for my first two novels, which will be in effect from May 1st, 2019 until June 1st, 2019!

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Moving Forward as an Author

Over the past two years, I've spent a lot of time and effort establishing myself as a professional writer. In a lot of ways, I've experienced some arguably-amazing instances of success, particularly given the fierce competition inherent in the field, and the generally-limited number of opportunities that tend to be available to newcomers entering it.

Despite those successes, writing does not pay my bills, at least not with any consistency or reliability. At the end of the day, I still heavily rely on employment opportunities related to my previous profession as a software engineer to make ends meet.

With that reality in mind, I've found myself carefully considering the best way to move my writing career forward, while maintaining the ability to financially support myself in the likely event that the revenue generated by my written works continues to prove insufficient on its own.

Historically, my approach has been to commit for a time to an all-consuming, high-paying, full-time IT job, or a series of short-term contracts, accumulating enough money to support myself through the likely duration of one or more creative projects.

The big advantage to this approach has been that it allowed me to completely focus on particular tasks. When working an IT job, I was able to put everything I had into it and achieve impressive results. Similarly, when expressing myself creatively in-between IT jobs, I was able to give those projects my full attention and intensity.

Over the years, I've found that the down side to this methodology is that it tends to lead to some extreme and ultimately-unhealthy behavior on my part, particularly when working in the IT field. For many years, I was the guy who would spend 60-80 hours a week writing code and tackling complex technical problems, nearly completely immersing myself in my work duties to the point where other aspects of my life suffered.

In the early days of my IT career, this focus and determination had a lot to do with simply wanting to do a good job, opening potential opportunities for advancement within the organizations where I worked, but as years went by, my motivations changed a bit. At a certain point, my immersion became more of a way to prevent myself from becoming distracted, or spending the money I was accumulating so that I could more-quickly accomplish my IT-related goals and return to a more creative existence. As a result, there are spans of time in my life, some lasting for years, where I recall little more than constantly working on major technology projects, and not much else.

I wouldn't say that I regret those choices but I have become more aware of them as I've aged, and I've certainly developed a desire and practical need to avoid such situations moving forward in an effort to lead a more balanced, consistently-fulfilling, and healthy life.

As such, I've decided to try something I've never attempted before, and actively work on a writing project while holding a more traditional, 40-hour-per-week job. As one might expect, some changes and compromises have been required on both fronts to that end but I find myself optimistic that I'll be able to find a way to make this new scenario viable long-term.

The good news for fans of my creative output is that I won't be forcing myself to completely put those efforts on hold for a time as I have in the past. Consequently, things like this blog will likely continue to be updated on a far-more-frequent basis than would have been possible using my old methodology.

Of course, there's no way of predicting whether or not this new scenario will prove more or less effective than what I've done in the past but I'm eager to give it a try. If nothing else, I'm looking forward to comparing the new results with those from my prior efforts.

Another technique I'm keen to attempt with this next writing project is to expand my marketing strategy based on what I learned from promoting "309." As such, expect to hear and see a lot more from me about my next book well in advance of its release.

In summary, buckle up! Things are about to get interesting.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Out of Steam - The End of Valve's Gaming Empire

All things pass, no matter how mighty, how formidable, how iconic of their time. Inevitably, every empire either fails or diminishes to a degree as new empires are born.

This phenomenon echoes throughout history and manifests in a variety of ways, be it in the literal context of international affairs, or the rise and fall of corporate entities.

It's therefore completely unsurprising to see the current predicament of Valve's Steam platform playing out in a similar fashion within the landscape of the video game industry. The only real question I find myself pondering is precisely what form and role Steam will take now that Ubisoft, one of the last significant purveyors of third-party, AAA game content on the platform, has actively begun to move away from it.

In some ways, the dwindling amount of third-party, AAA content on Steam could be viewed as a positive. The platform has certainly cultivated and maintained a strong reputation and community around independent (indie) game development over the years. One could argue that the absence of titles by major publishers like Activision, Blizzard, Bungie, EA, Microsoft, and Ubisoft undoubtedly enhances the visibility of indie and middle-market offerings that might otherwise be overshadowed by releases from those giants.

Of course, it could also be argued that AAA, third-party titles have historically served as a catalyst, drawing new users to Steam who might not have otherwise adopted it. As such, it seems reasonable that the near-total absence of such offerings moving forward may adversely affect the platform's long-term growth.

It's no secret that Valve has actively been working on new, first-party titles for the past several years, likely in anticipation of this exodus, but it remains to be seen how effective they will be in filling the void. If the negative to lukewarm reception for "Artifact," Valve's recently-released collectable card game, is any indication, the company's renewed first-party game development efforts may well prove insufficient, or outright ineffectual in retrospect.

Personally, I don't see Steam going anywhere anytime soon; however, I do think Ubisoft's slow-motion departure from the platform does represent a pivotal moment in its lifespan. In my mind, and I suspect in the minds of many gaming enthusiasts, Valve and Steam are no longer the big dogs of the industry, leading through innovation and excellence. I increasingly see them as just another participant in an increasingly-fragmented and competitive marketplace, having nearly lost track of all the various game launchers I currently find installed on my PC.

As a consumer, I absolutely see the objective value in this increased level of competition, despite it often creating a somewhat-less-convenient and streamlined user experience. Moreover, I readily acknowledge Valve's many mistakes over the years, particularly those they've yet to properly address. Still, there's a part of me that misses the simplicity inherent in the vast majority of my game library being consolidated within Steam. There was something comforting and reassuring about the experience that meshed well with the escapist, often-artificially-simplified nature of gaming as a hobby, which I always found compelling. Of course, reality and its complexities always, inevitably intrude into every sanctum as surely as empires rise and fall but in my mind, the Empire of Steam was a worthy, wonderful thing while it lasted.

Friday, March 8, 2019

Assimilated: The End of Gaming Culture?

I love video games. For over 40 years now, I've been playing and enjoying them and there's nothing about any of those experiences, even the particularly-vexing ones, that I would say I regret.

Indeed, looking back on my time with the hobby, my only real points of lament or frustration have little to do with the actual act of playing games, and far more to do with the undesirable cultural elements that sometimes surround them.

That's not to say that I've found participation in gaming culture to be a predominantly-frustrating, or even generally-problematic experience. Moreover, I've certainly had far more positive and worthwhile experiences with it over the years than negative ones. Still, I have found myself noting with increasing frequency in recent years that the entire concept of a discrete gaming culture seems to have outlived its usefulness in a lot of ways.

There's a lot I could unpack here regarding the specific instances I've observed, such as the co-opting of gaming culture by groups and individuals in attempts to mask or enable behaviors that are widely and rightfully considered unacceptable in society at large, such as racism, sexism, and the like, or the mob-like dogpile that can occur when a vocal minority within the gaming community attempts to shout down or suppress ideas, or points of view that don't mirror their own on a given subject.

I could spend a lot of time and effort breaking all this down but in considering the myriad of ways I might do that, it occurred to me that it would be a largely-pointless exercise beyond its possible worth as a historical point of reference in the future.

The truth as I see it is that the writing has been on the wall for a while, with the vast majority of positive elements from gaming culture having already been accepted and assimilated into popular culture. As a result, gaming culture can increasingly be viewed as an ever-shrinking, ever-less-relevant husk, largely containing the bad ideas, attitudes, and behaviors that were rejected.

Thus, the lifespan of gaming culture might be said to mirror that of many plants, beginning as a small, potent seed that grew into a complex, fruit-bearing organism, which was harvested for its best, most useful and satisfying elements before being left to rot.

Of course, if we carry the plant analogy a bit further, there is the possibility that gaming culture may produce, or already be in the process of producing new seeds that may manifest in some uniquely-positive (or negative) way in the future. Even so, I suspect that the end is near for gaming culture as we've come to know it.

Again, I don't see this as a universally-positive or negative thing. It's more of an observation based on some realizations I've had concerning what little impact a lot of the most talked-about and widely-publicized events in recent months have had outside the increasingly-tiny bubble "hardcore" gamers tend to inhabit.

In truth, it's been quite a while since I've self-identified as a "hardcore" gamer, having stepped outside that context with such frequency over the years as to ultimately find myself feeling disconnected from it. These days, I tend to view the remnants of the compartmentalized gaming community as one might perceive a dying star, slowly collapsing in on itself as it exhausts its remaining fuel.

I absolutely concede that my personal perspective on this topic may be a bit skewed based on my own experiences and where I currently find myself from a philosophical standpoint but no matter how I turn this notion around in my mind, I can't help thinking that the gaming community and gaming culture of my youth has been split into two entities: a larger, better one that transcended and integrated into the world at large, and a small, dark den of misery, well on its way to the grave.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Easy Come, Easy Go - The Social Media Conundrum

One of the big hurdles many content creators struggle with involves establishing, growing, and maintaining a presence and following on social media. Like it or not, social media platforms such as Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook have become all-but essential to help cultivate and retain an audience beyond the venues where one's work already appears.

A particularly-tricky aspect of this process involves formulating and executing an effective, individualized social media strategy based on a variety of factors, which often aren't given a lot of consideration by content creators until they find themselves in some form of trouble.

While an exhaustive analysis of such considerations would be well beyond the scope of a blog post, here are a few key concepts I believe are worth pondering that may be applicable and useful for folks trying to enhance their social media presence.

#1 - Determine Your Endgame and Focus on It

Why are you on social media? Do you want to be famous? Are you trying to promote a product? Do you enjoy sharing your opinions with others, or engaging in public debates? Are you attempting to educate people regarding a particular subject? These and many others are all valid, proven uses of social media but as one might suspect, attempting to achieve more than one of them at a time can be problematic.

As a general rule, content consumers tend to favor stability and consistency from content creators. For example: If a person follows you on Twitter because you post something clever or interesting about a particular subject, they may just-as-likely unfollow if your next Tweet is about something totally unrelated.

It's certainly possible to build a community of followers on social media without maintaining a rigid focus on a particular subject or goal, but it's absolutely a more difficult, time-consuming, and potentially-risky path to take.

#2 - Keep Your Opinions to Yourself, or Don't

This might seem like an obvious point and it certainly relates to #1 in terms of consistency, but I believe it also warrants individual consideration.

Sharing personal opinions about things on social media is one of the fastest ways to both gain and lose followers. One might assume that the gains are always based on ideological agreement, while the losses are simply down to an opposing viewpoint but it's sometimes a bit more complicated than that. Some content consumers simply inherently approve or disapprove of content creators expressing their opinions on particular topics, regardless of whether or not their own tendencies align. A classic example of this sort of mindset that pre-dates social media manifests in people's thinking and behaviors concerning celebrities who express their views on subjects beyond the form of entertainment that led to their fame.

The key takeaway here is understanding that expressing opinions about literally anything on social media will often attract or repel potential followers. It's up to you to determine whether or not that's a good thing, or conducive to your overall strategy.

Again, it's certainly possible to build a thriving social media presence by consistently expressing one's opinions on a variety of subjects but it's a far trickier thing to accomplish, particularly as the range of topics being touched on broadens.

#3 - Play the Long Game

One of the worst, most unproductive things you can do as a content creator where social media is concerned is to focus exclusively on short-term success or failure. Constantly obsessing over follower numbers, or the performance of individual posts, or any sort of excessive, micro analysis of one's social media metrics, then making knee-jerk adjustments based on such assessments, is usually a recipe for disaster. With the exception of an essential response to a catastrophic faux pas or blunder, a far better, more effective approach is to think long-term, and periodically evaluate larger sets of data to get a clearer, more consistent picture of your overall social media performance.

Look at where you are now versus three months ago, or six months, or last year. If your numbers are up or down for that span of time, that's a much better indication of the effectiveness of your strategy. Of course, even if you're doing well, there's always room for improvement and it's certainly easier said than done to not be affected by short-term wins and losses, but it's critical to recognize that effective participation in social media is more of a marathon than a sprint.

Case in point: One might look at my current subscriber and follower numbers on various platforms and not be particularly impressed; however, the fact is that my social media presence has consistently grown year-over-year. Moreover, its slow growth makes sense given my intentional choices to directly address a variety of topics, while sharing opinions on even more.

I have no doubt that I could easily accumulate many more followers, much more quickly by adopting the techniques mentioned above but my social media endgame has always been to build a dedicated, core audience with diverse tastes, who appreciate the range of subjects I tackle, and my personal style. That's not the sort of thing that happens overnight but I consider it a more satisfying and worthwhile goal than pursuing the sort of easy come, easy go engagement I might otherwise cultivate.

At the end of the day, I primarily use social media to promote my creative works but I've also come to understand and appreciate that many people, particularly my most active followers, prefer to know (at least to some extent) something of the person behind the content they experience. I think social media is a good tool for accomplishing that and hopefully, this post has given you some useful, new ideas about how to wield it more effectively.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Nobody Succeeds Alone

As I wrap up the marketing efforts for my latest novel, "309," I wanted to take a few moments to acknowledge and thank the folks who've helped me in various ways throughout the process. It would of course be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to do that for every individual but hopefully, the following shout outs will properly convey my gratitude to everyone:

To my Customers and Readers

I have to start with you folks because ultimately, you're the ones who've made "309" a success. Every time one of you buys the book, or reads it, or tells someone about it, you make it that much more "real" and present in the world. I can't thank you enough for that.

To the Book Bloggers and Reviewers

If not for you, a lot of people wouldn't even know that "309" exists. If not for you giving me, a relatively-unknown, independently-published author a chance, and an honest review, "309" would just be another book lost in an ever-expanding sea of releases. I am truly grateful for all the time and effort each of you has graciously provided in support of my work.

To all the Helpful Folks on Social Media

Every like, every share, every comment, indeed every action associated with my efforts to promote "309" on social networks like Facebook, Goodreads, and Twitter has helped to increase people's awareness of the book. As I've said in the past, the internet is in many ways a numbers game and everything you have done has pushed "309" closer toward winning that game.

Some Additional Thoughts

When I was a kid, one of the biggest, most pervasive falsehoods perpetuated throughout American culture was the notion of the self-made individual. Actually, back then, the concept was almost exclusively invoked in the masculine, describing the mythical "self-made man," a fella who through his own skill, grit, determination, and will succeeded at a given task, or in a given field, alone, often in spite of an opposing individual, group, or obstacle.

This fable was frequently trod out as a means to motivate folks, particularly young people, to pursue aspirations and ambitions beyond the limitations of their socioeconomic class, with time-tested mantras like "If you work hard enough, you can accomplish anything," or "you've got to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps" frequently used as a sort of battle cry by a multitude of individuals seeking a better set of circumstances than those they'd been born into.

The problem with this mindset has proven to be twofold for our society as those who espouse such a philosophy, who happen to achieve a measure of success in life, often wrongfully assume that they are the sole architects of that success, while those who fail in similar efforts often do so because the philosophy prevents them from recognizing the critical element missing from their approach.

Perhaps one of the greatest revelations brought about by the Information Age, and the consequential ubiquity of communication resulting from it, is the irrefutable evidence indicating that literally nobody in this world succeeds at anything of significance without the assistance of others.

A political leader is nothing without their supporters, a celebrity is nothing without their fans, an employer is nothing without their employees, a writer is nothing without readers of their work, and so on. No matter how self-sufficient one might be, or think oneself to be, it is all-but-certain that they rely on somebody for something vital to their existence on a daily basis. In a deliciously-ironic twist, the more successful, prominent, and influential a person becomes, the more that generally proves to be the case.

Thus, I often find myself pleasantly surprised by and deeply appreciative of people who support my creative efforts. There are so many worthy voices in the world, constantly vying for attention and struggling to reach an audience, that content creation can often feel like whispering into a hurricane and hoping to be heard.

I bring all this up not to boast of my limited success in this regard, but to acknowledge just how meaningful every bit of support I've received for this project has been. Hopefully, "309" will continue to flourish and reach an even-wider audience of readers as time passes but if nothing else, I'm very humbled by and grateful for the support and love you all have shown it so far.

Thanks again!

- Michael -

Monday, January 28, 2019

The Art of Appeal

When I wrote and published my first novel, "The Big Men," back in 2017, I had a few specific goals in mind for it. Mostly, they centered around the notions of challenging myself artistically, and completing the project to the best of my ability.

I knew from the onset that "The Big Men" would face an uphill battle in terms of finding its audience, not for any lack of quality or value as a novel, but by virtue of being an independently-published debut from an unknown author, featuring an unorthodox premise and literary style. In short, I did not expect much of "The Big Men" from a commercial standpoint beyond the relatively-modest goal of establishing myself as a "professional" novelist via its meager sales.

In retrospect, I still feel good about the way I handled the marketing of my first book: Keeping things rather low key and low impact, and letting the book find its audience at an organic, albeit somewhat glacial pace. I've always been a firm believer in the idea that some manifestations of creativity are more art than product and to me, "The Big Men," being one such example, warranted a more subtle approach.

Of course, there's nothing fundamentally wrong with a given work having an inherent, commercial appeal. Many might argue quite successfully that such efforts often represent the pinnacle of any medium, being simultaneously artistically and commercially viable.

Still, I've always had a soft spot for the sort of avant-garde, off-kilter manifestations of art that by their very nature, challenge the traditional standards of comfort and acceptance in those who experience them. As such, I can't help but be proud of what I accomplished in that regard with "The Big Men" as I feel it manifests those qualities in satisfying, compelling ways.

 As rewarding and personally fulfilling as the experience of writing "The Big Men" and bringing it to market was for me, I felt it was important to begin to show my range as a writer with my second novel, which led to me taking a very different approach, with a very different set of goals in mind, as I began work on "309."

For me, one of the more interesting takeaways I've gleaned from my experience is that there is in essence a different form of artistry in creating something of quality intended to be broadly appealing. When preparing to write "309," the cynical portion of my brain had repeatedly sparked a protest in my conscious mind suggesting that there was something invalid or unworthy about the premise of creating something with the specific intent of mass appeal. It was as if I'd been conditioned to view such an effort as less than artistic.

Ironically, this could not have proven to be further from the truth in my case. As it turned out, I found myself artistically challenged in a very different way by virtue of the constraints I'd willingly adopted. I have no doubt that such constraints are often used as an excuse for lazy, or half-hearted creative efforts in many circumstances but I was genuinely surprised to find just how much creativity and intellectually-satisfying output was required from me to ultimately craft something artistically valid, yet broadly accessible.

Having said that, I still often embrace and generally appreciate the value of a less constrained, more raw artistic expression but I feel I've also turned an important corner as a writer by challenging myself in a different way, without compromising my core standards of quality and authenticity.

As an added bonus, the critical response to "309" has consistently backed up that assertion. A development that, while absolutely not essential, certainly doesn't hurt. :)

Monday, January 7, 2019

Juggling Fire - Reflections on Self Publishing

It's been nearly two years since I committed to the idea of publishing my first novel. The story behind that decision is one I'll probably tell at some point but for the purposes of this post, I want to focus on what the self publishing experience has been like for me as I approach the end of my marketing efforts for my second novel, and prepare to begin work on something new.

In truth, I've been self publishing for much longer than two years. From the multiple incarnations of this blog, to indie music releases, to a handful of video game projects, to releasing content on several YouTube channels, plus live streaming on Twitch, I've never been shy about putting my creative works out there and making the most out of the self-publishing tools and platforms available to me.

That said, there is something a bit different about book publishing. For one thing, it takes considerably more time and effort to write, edit, publish, and market a novel than some of the other things I mentioned. Of course, recording, mixing, mastering, distributing, and marketing an album is no joke either, not to mention the borderline nightmarish to-do list associated with publishing a video game, or other complex piece of software. Still, there is something particularly intense about self publishing books.

To an extent, I think it comes down to two related factors:
  1. The time investment required versus the statistical likelihood of a return on that investment, be it monetary or some other form of fulfillment.
  2. Facing broad competition on a mostly-level playing field.
In the first case, when you look at the time investment versus the likelihood of success of self publishing a book compared to other creative endeavors, I'd argue that the ratio is, at least on paper, the least favorable for the content creator. You could quite literally spend months (or years) writing a spectacular novel of a given type but if any other aspect of the process falters, editing or marketing for example, your project will almost certainly be doomed to obscurity.

Perhaps even more daunting is the full comprehension of the second premise. It's more than a little intimidating to start, much less finish, a novel-length writing project knowing that there are literally thousands of other people, who may have a similar or even superior set of skills and experience, simultaneously doing the same.

In the worlds of music, or computer programming for example, there's a certain skill gap that prevents many people from even attempting to create software, a video game, a song, or an album. Even in less technically-demanding venues like YouTube and Twitch, there are still skills and levels of commitment that tend to organically separate content creators into tiers. Additionally, the visual nature of those platforms often make those distinctions obvious at a glance.

Of course, there's a similar effect in the world of books when it comes to potential readers browsing cover art and book jackets to see what catches their eye; however, with the sea of new titles being constantly released, the odds are definitely stacked against anyone self publishing, even with a solid marketing strategy.

So, why bother? Why even attempt to self publish a book, much less two in the span of two years, when statistically, the odds of success are so low?

I suspect that the answers to this question may well vary significantly from person to person but for me, it boils down to a couple key principles:

First and foremost, I have an inherently strong desire to create things. At the end of the day, that's just the way I'm wired and as I've aged, I've felt compelled to push the boundaries of my creativity, attempting to find the limits of my various abilities. Music production and video game development in particular have proven to be very useful experiences in that regard as they've both allowed me to grow and refine skills, while simultaneously learning important lessons about my creative limits, and the value of working with other talented, creative people to fill in those gaps when necessary.

Beyond that, I'm a firm believer in the idea of choosing the right artistic medium for what I'm trying to express, regardless of any financial considerations. If I can make a point in a few words, a simple tweet might suffice. If I want to show the raw, unfiltered experience of playing a video game for the first time, a three-hour Twitch stream might be necessary. Along those lines, if I want to tell an intricate, extensive story, a novel is simply what's required.

It's fair to say that I've taken some rather significant financial hits over the years for the sake of my creative efforts. In truth, I've only ever lost money, often quite a bit of it, by pursuing my artistic leanings. Thus, I'll absolutely echo here what many other content creators have said in that regard. Self publishing is generally not a path to financial security. For every financially-successful, self-employed content creator, there are literally thousands of others working one or more day jobs, dipping into savings, or relying on some form of investment to absorb the expenses incurred by their efforts. Casual observers often assume that these folks simply "aren't good enough" to "make it" but the hard truth of content creation is that we do not exist in a meritocracy and there are far too many hard-working, extremely-talented content creators languishing in obscurity as I write this for me to believe otherwise.

Having said that, I remain committed to the notion that creativity is its own reward. Even with my limited commercial success as a novelist to this point, the sense of personal satisfaction that I've attained, combined with the glorious sensations I experience when interacting with fans of my work, conspire to fuel my creative fire.

The trick of course in dealing with fire is to handle it carefully and responsibly, particularly when juggling it.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Relentless - a poem by Michael Shotter

Often, when I'm preparing to start a major writing project, I like to knock out a few, small mood pieces to help set the tone and get my mind into the right headspace for the task at hand.

These efforts are almost always exclusively for my own benefit since they tend to manifest as fragments of ideas that may or may not evolve into more as I work; however, occasionally, I'll end up with something that feels a bit more complete. I thought I'd share one of those with you today as I'm pretty happy with it and feel it acts as a nice, bite-sized teaser for what I'm planning to unleash on you folks in 2019.

More on that later. For now, enjoy this happy, little poem. :)

a poem by Michael Shotter

There is a creature in my mind,
a constant, seething something.
Born of a need to create,
or fear of making nothing.

Its bright eyes pierce, a laser's gaze.
Its mouth, drawn grim and eager.
Its claws, outstretched toward my throat.
Its malice, far from meager.

I cannot run. I cannot hide.
One weapon aids my cause.
Alone, I fight. Now, I must write,
relentless, with no pause.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

My Favorite Albums of 2018

Back in December, I shared a playlist featuring my favorite albums of 2018 on Twitter. Having recently broadened the scope of this blog, I thought it might be fun to expand on that list, explaining a bit about each of the projects I selected, and why.

Obviously, I didn't listen to everything that was released in 2018 and these picks are just my personal favorites based on what I did hear. As such, don't be sad if your favorite album isn't listed and definitely don't take an album's absence from this list as an indication of its quality. With that said, let's begin.

#10 - Above & Beyond - Common Ground

I've always been a fan of EDM and electronica but I have to admit, it's pretty rare for an entire album's worth of such material to capture and hold my attention these days. I don't know if Above and Beyond's "Common Ground" is something I'll be listening to from beginning to end years from now, but I did find myself happily taking it all in more than a few times in 2018.

#9 - Gorillaz - The Now Now

Left rather disappointed by the last Gorillaz release, "Humanz," I was equally cautious and hopeful to give "The Now Now" a spin. As it turned out, I've found it to be a consistent, pleasant listen. While certainly not as bold, varied, or unique as earlier efforts, I think there's plenty here to like and the project has a nice flow that I feel makes it work well as an album.

#8 - Muse - Simulation Theory

In my opinion, this is the best Muse album since "The Resistance." I'm also a fan of many of the alternate versions of songs included as bonus tracks.

#7 - The Smashing Pumpkins - Shiny and Oh So Bright, Vol. 1

I really enjoyed The Smashing Pumpkin's "Oceania" back in 2012. This new album kinda feels to me like an extension of that project. Admittedly, it comes across a little light on content and new musical ideas but I do also enjoy listening to it.

#6 - You Me At Six - VI

A solid, fun pop-rock record with a little bit of edge, and sporting a few interesting musical wrinkles. Nothing wrong with that in my book.

#5 - Jack White - Boarding House Reach

If you're in the mood for an intricate, challenging, yet ultimately satisfying rock record, this new Jack White album won't disappoint.

#4 - Judas Priest - FIREPOWER

Easily, one of the best hard rock/metal albums I've heard in the past 20 years. Also, Rob Halford's vocal performances are nothing short of amazing, particularly given his age.

#3 - The Sword - Used Future

Not sure I'd call this a full-blown concept album but it's hard to deny the consistent, atmospheric presence of "Used Future." Definitely a great mood piece, with some fantastic, memorable instrumental elements amid a solid collection of ear worm-esque rock tracks.

#2 - Death Cab for Cutie - Thank You for Today

Historically, I haven't been a huge "Death Cab for Cutie" fan but this album really surprised me and I've found myself listening to it far more frequently than I ever thought I would.

#1 - Shakey Graves - Can't Wake Up

For me, this is the album from 2018 that everyone should own. So good, on so many levels. Beyond its musical excellence, I can't help noting that "Can't Wake Up" for me uncannily captures the essence of the year itself. I can absolutely envision myself listening to these tracks in the future and being transported back to this time, despite the generally-timeless quality of the music. It's a difficult phenomenon to articulate but there you have it. If nothing else, do give this album a try. There's something genuinely special about it.

As an added bonus, here's a playlist featuring my favorite tracks of 2018, which includes three songs from each of the albums listed above, and some additional music genres.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Why Apple Should Care More About Power Users

I've been an avid user of and advocate for macOS ever since the initial release of "OS X" back in the early 2000's. For many years, I've considered it to be the obvious choice for just about every possible task one might wish to engage in when using a computer, with gaming being the one, notable exception. In truth, when it comes to the things I tend to use a computer for these days, macOS is still the best solution for me; however, Apple does have a bit of a problem on its hands in 2019, which is worth examining. Ironically, it's a problem of their own making, which certainly isn't unprecedented, but still a bit frustrating for those of us who are comfortable using Apple gear, and who aren't particularly keen on the alternatives.

In a nutshell, that problem can be boiled down to a troubling lack of support in recent years for a small-yet-influential group, often referred to in technology circles as "power users." Depending on the criteria used to define said group, it could be argued that power users represent 2-10% of all computer users on the planet at any given time. These are folks who push a computer to its limits on a regular basis for a variety of reasons and they tend to be the most astute, demanding, and difficult to please customers a tech company might attract with its products.

The conundrum power users pose to a corporation like Apple is that, while they represent an empirically-insignificant portion of the company's sales, they simultaneously require significant investments of capital, R&D time, and extremely-specialized technical support resources to cater to their needs effectively. As a result, on paper, it might seem like a no-brainer to shift emphasis away from power users and toward the average consumer, particularly as the company and its products grow in popularity, as Apple has in the past decade.

The simple truth of the matter is that 90% of people who use Macs and iOS devices these days use only a tiny fraction of the capabilities of those systems. From customers purchasing desktops and laptops to primarily check e-mail and surf the web, to most cell phone and tablet users regularly using six or fewer apps by many estimates, it's easy to see why a company like Apple would want to soak up as much of that easy money as possible for as long as it can.

Unfortunately, by focusing the vast majority of its attention and resources on the low-hanging fruit of mass-market, consumer electronics, particularly in the past five years or so, Apple has accumulated a rather significant technical debt that has begun to manifest in some rather alarming and embarrassing ways. You need look no further than the "Mac Pro," the desktop computer purported to represent the pinnacle of performance and functionality for macOS users, which hasn't seen a significant update since 2013 to begin to see the cracks in Apple's armor that hardcore technology enthusiasts have been lamenting for years.

Beyond that, Apple hasn't done itself any favors in recent months by releasing half-cooked OS features like macOS Mojave's "Dark Mode," which comes across to me as more of a demo, or proof of concept, rather than the refined, fully-functional OS feature it was billed as, or the company's recent efforts to lock down macOS to utterly prevent the execution of unsigned binaries, effectively forcing all software developers and users to play ball in Apple's walled garden or take a hike.

The sad reality is that I could go on and on citing the myriad of ways Apple has either let down or flagrantly rebuffed power users in recent years, which has led to the first significant exodus from its platforms by said users I've seen in over a decade. Why does this matter if power users represent at best 10% of the user base? Quite simply, power users are the influencers of the technology world. They are the people the other 90% turn to for technical support and recommendations. In many cases, they also create the software, data, and media products that drive, not only the tech industry, but other professions that heavily rely on technology. Thus, if a tech company loses them, it inevitably loses everything.

One could certainly make the argument that Apple has been overtly attempting to transition from being a tech company into a sort of service provider and lifestyle brand via efforts like Apple Pay, Apple Music, and the Apple watch in recent years. Still, the vast majority of Apple's value as a company remains inextricably linked to its traditional hardware and software offerings, which are the most likely to suffer the consequences of the inevitable blow to its mindshare within the tech industry should power users continue to seek greener pastures.

For me, there are two big questions when it comes to Apple in 2019:
  1. Do they have any interest in solving this problem? 
  2. Is it too late to turn the tide?
Personally, I think a lot is going to hinge on what happens with the "Mac Pro" in the new year. It's been known for quite a while that Apple has been working on a new, modular version of its flagship desktop computer, which is supposedly going to address most if not all of the long-standing complaints power users have had about the platform. If that does come to pass, I think it could be an important, first step toward Apple beginning to regain some of its lost credibility.

Of course, releasing the computer it should have shipped six years ago in and of itself probably won't be enough to convince those who have already jumped ship and this is where I think Apple has the biggest issue and hurdle to overcome. Apple's blind spot in recent years has been a presumption of excellence with regard to its own products, and a failure to look beyond its current success. It's pretty evident that Tim Cook and company have been diligently wringing the last bits of magic out of the playbook Steve Jobs left them upon his passing to good effect but its also quite clear that Apple is in desperate need of some new ideas, or at the very least, a return to the fundamental principles that got them where they are.

Can that happen in time to prevent a total collapse of Apple's ecosystem? Perhaps. I certainly hope so because, frankly, the idea of having to use Windows or Linux to do anything important kinda makes me sad. Fortunately, I'm fairly confident that I'll be able to continue using macOS for years to come, regardless of how this all plays out. It would just be nice to be able to, once again, feel good about the future of the platform, and less like it being the lesser of three evils.

To wrap things up, I'd like to give a quick shout out to MacRumors. I've been visiting that site for ages and their "What Do You Want to See From Apple in 2019" post definitely inspired me to speak out on this subject.