Monday, September 28, 2009

Getting Started with Volunteerism

During the writing of Rising Shadow, I gave a lot of thought to volunteerism and how empowering it is. One of the key points I want to drive home in the books is that you don't have to have supernatural powers to be extraordinary. Empowerment comes from facing your demons, taking control of your actions, and working toward a goal that's greater than yourself. If just one person reads my books and gets the message that they're not useless and can make a difference in the world, I'll claim victory.

But where to start? It's all very nice to say "go get involved", but where, and doing what? I did a lot of thinking about the greatest areas of human need and distilled it to five categories in order of necessity: water, food, health care, safe shelter, and education. Each of these areas is very important, and some people will be more interested in helping to educate people than providing clean drinking water. The beauty of volunteering is that when you find something that really speaks to you, you get as much or more out of volunteering than you're putting into it.

Once I'd come up with these categories, I had no idea how to start selecting charities in each area until I found Charity Navigator. This is a great web site, because not only can you find charities that meet certain criteria, they also rate each charity based on their efficiency, so you can make sure that you're donating money and time to an organization that's using their resources wisely. I decided to select only those charities that had the highest rating, were international in scope (so that people all over the world could work with them), and offered opportunities for volunteering time as well as donating money.

The result is the list of charities on my site. My pledge is to donate 20% of my royalties to these charities, so when you buy a copy of one of my books, you know that some of the money you spent is going to worthy organizations. For example, I just saw that Direct Relief is committing up to 50,000 for their partners in the Philippines to help with relief from the floods. That's definitely a worthy cause.

If you're interested in hearing more about what's happening with these organizations and other ways to volunteer, you can follow me on Twitter, where I retweet information that I think will be most interesting to my readers. I also have a Facebook page where I post similar information.

Have you had an experience volunteering that you want to share? Or do you know of a great organization that you want to promote? I've set up bulletin boards on my site where you can share this information and get ideas from others. The important thing is just to get out there and start trying some things. As Ashlyn says in Rising Shadow, volunteering is just an obvious social responsibility. You'll be amazed at how quickly it makes you feel like a hero.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

What Do You Mean Your Book Is Free?

This is the question I get asked more than any other, right after "How in the hell do you have time to write novels?"

Yes, Rising Shadow is available for free as a PDF file on my web site.

No, it's not just a Look Inside preview. It's not just every other page. And it isn't covered with ads. It's the whole thing formatted in smaller pages so it's easier to read online (less scrolling).

The reason for providing the book for free is simple: I am a huge advocate of volunteering your time, money, and resources to the best of your ability, and making my book available to those who can't afford it seems like the most obvious way I can give something back. (It's also going to be available for free in Braille for the visually impaired on I'm fully aware that many people will start reading the PDF, decide it's too much hassle to read it online, and order a copy, which is great. I also have a Donate button on my web site, so those who want to read it but can't afford the $12.95 cover price can contribute any amount they like. This makes my book available to everyone who wants to read it without the pesky money thing getting in the way.

I got the idea for giving the book away from working in open-source software. Before I joined my current company, I couldn't understand how you made money by giving software away for free. But I quickly learned that there are a lot of people out there who are willing to donate their time and expertise to a community-built project, and that you can build a company around giving something back to the community (new features and testing) as well as make money off the venture (provide premium features and services for a fee). Now that I've been there a while, I can't imagine doing business any other way. It's awesome.

People also raise their eyebrows when they hear I donate 20% of my royalties to charities instead of the usual 5 or 10%. I suppose people are afraid I'll never strike it rich by giving my money away, but I don't really see it as "my money" in the first place. Sure, I believe in being compensated for your work, but whether that's 100% or 80% of the arbitrary price printed on the cover is irrelevant. I'm just thrilled that selling this book will give me extra money to donate to organizations that I know are doing good in the world (in my next blog post, I'll talk about how I chose the charities I did).

And speaking of the cover price, people also ask why I priced my book so low. Again, I'm just not interested in trying to squeeze as much money out of my readers as possible. On the contrary, I set the price as low as I could to just cover my costs plus a couple of bucks a copy so I have something to donate.

The truly cynical out there will call this whole approach a gimmick. That's fine. If you want to think of me as a brilliant businesswoman, I certainly won't stand in your way. For my fans, though, I really hope you enjoy the books and that you feel like you're getting value for the money you paid. Especially if you read the free version.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Crazy Journey of Writing Novels (What Was I Thinking?)

On Sept. 1, 2008, the idea for The Soterians series dropped out of the sky. I was sitting with my family, having a lazy weekend, when suddenly the idea struck me. What if there were people who developed special powers in response to the balance of good over evil shifting too far in evil's favor? What if evil could never be destroyed, only brought into balance? What if the main character was a heroine, strong and independent, but battling her own inner demons, struggling to create that same balance within herself? What if she could fly?

I got on my computer and started writing, and a year later, Rising Shadow was in my hands, all printed and looking ever so lovely. I knew nothing about writing novels or ISBN numbers or the Creative Commons License. I only knew that this story was pouring out of me uncontrollably, and I had to show up and write it. I wrote it mostly on the train during my commute, but it also ate into my evenings and weekends when I probably should have been doing something else, like spending time with my family.

Let me say right now: I consider myself a storyteller, not an author. I do not have an MFA, have no aspirations to write the Great American Novel, and will never hold a candle to my idols Rowling, Salinger, Twain, Tolkien, and Faulkner. I am trained as a technical writer, whose approach to writing is to have no voice at all, to get the information into your brain as quickly as possible without you even being aware that you're reading.

But I love my stories and my characters. I laugh out loud as I write their dialogue, and I yell at them when they're doing something stupid. I gasp when they get themselves into hot water, my eyes bulging as my fingers fly over the keyboard. "Really? You're going to do that now? Huh!" And away they go.

My stories are not for everyone. If you like to savor the words in a book as if you were eating an especially fine meal, you'll be reaching for the salt when you read my book. But if you like to lose yourself in a story, root for characters who quickly feel like old friends (even when you want to slap them), and maybe think a little bit about some of the demons you have to battle on a daily basis, give The Soterians series a try. After all, in real life, the bad guy doesn't fall off a cliff or get blown to smithereens in the end. He's always still there, day after day, driving you crazy. I love writing about an enemy that can't be destroyed, instead of the same old suffer suffer suffer until finally the bad guy gets it between the eyes and everyone lives happily ever after. If you're interested in exploring this theme, check out Rising Shadow (you can download it for free as a PDF file, or purchase the paperback).

And while you're at it, have some fun and take the quiz on my site to find out what kind of Soterian you are. Once you do, you should also check out the Missions page to learn about some cool charities you can get involved with. And if you want to network with other Soterians, check out the bulletin boards off the Network page.

I have four more books to write: the first draft of the second one is already done, but I spend a long time editing, so don't expect to see it before the end of 2009. The first draft of the third book is halfway done, and I've outlined books four and five. If you want to join me on my quest, you can check out my Facebook page (The Soterians), follow me on Twitter (Soterians), or come back to this blog. One thing's for sure: it's bound to be a crazy journey.