Keith Alan is a nom de plume. Not because I’m embarrassed, but because my last name is too long to sign over and over and over again. Even though it has a cool ‘x’ in it, I decided, when fantasizing about success, that I would rather sign a shorter name.
I started writing fiction when I was but a boy. My first work is titled “A Peanut on Pluto” and I’m pretty sure my mom has it saved somewhere. I wrote some more in high school and took a class on creative writing in college, but I believe all that work is lost (I’ve lived in well over a dozen houses in my lifetime, each move results in some permanent lossage of history). As a teenager, I thought I wanted to write an epic fantasy and spent a great deal of time working on the titles and the font for the title. I wrote a few paragraphs, but that was it. I got daunted with the effort to produce the 1,000 pages I thought was necessary and, after all, was young and stupid (as opposed to being old and stupid today).
I like to write – my friends and family often complain that I write novel for emails – but I don’t ‘need’ to write. I had a really good friend, sadly no longer with us, who had a compulsion to write. He alternated between wanting to just dump all his writing into the public domain (I created a web page with some of his stuff) and paranoia that people would steal it. He made only half hearted attempts to publish, he could never really be happy with anything he wrote and always felt it wasn’t finished. I, on the other hand, am all about the ‘Benjamins’. I attempted to get several nonfiction works published, though the level of effort to find publishers wasn’t that high.
My first attempt was to market a proposal to write an information security book targeted toward middle managers (I have a strong ‘infosec’ background, doanchano). The book would give these middle managers the tools and information to cost-justify the addition of security to IT projects. Even though I had a really nice sound byte from a senior Microsoft security engineer, I wasn’t able to get interest from either of the publishers I approached (yes, I know that people get rejected all the time, but I can easily live without being a published author, so don’t care for it).
My second ‘attempt’ (I never actually submitted it) was to write a book on the topic alternative energy and why the heck it’s so hard for it to be successful. I wrote a summary I intended to submit to publishers(you can read it here if you are curious). I planned to write a 100-200 page book that would essentially expand each section into a chapter. This time I felt I would make use of a literary agent, thinking that’d help solve my problem about getting published, but it seems that getting an agent is at least as much work as getting a book published in the first place! Add to all this the fact that a well received non-fiction book sells 10-20K copies (in total!) and the average payment to the author is $1-3 per book, and you can see how there isn’t a lot of economic payback.
My third ‘attempt’ (again, never submitted) was a collaboration with a friend on a topic we initially called “The Engineer’s Guide to Marriage”. A co-worker and I had very wide ranging discussions over a large number of topics and at some point covered marriage and dealing with spouses. He regaled me with his experiences learning the tricks of the pickup community and applying those elements he thought valuable to making his marriage a happier one. Because I found the topic interesting and amusing, I suggested we collaborate on a book and try to make a few bucks. Well, long story short, he moved on to another job and, after I made one half-hearted attempt to find an agent, we agreed to allow the project to die. This I also posted on-line.
Professionally I’ve held a wide variety of jobs. My author blurb speaks to a few. In the amateur realm, I’ve been involved in a wide assortment of projects. As a youth I intended on starting a business building space stations and moon bases. With the confidence, arrogance and ignorance of a teenager, I blithely stated I would be a millionaire by 25, billionaire by 30 and have my corporate headquarters in orbit by 40. Well, I’m 53 as I write this, you can judge how well things worked out. I never let ignorance keep me from starting a project. Indeed, ignorance built a house in the country as well as an indoor pool/greenhouse. It took 3 years and a lot more money than intended to build the house, then nearly 5 years and an even bigger pile of money to build the pool/greenhouse. Had I known how long or how expensive either project was going to be, I never would’ve started. Indeed, there was a summer while working on the house where if it weren’t for my wife picking me up from work and driving directly to our construction effort I might have walked away in frustration (I spent most of that summer standing on my feet running wire throughout the house; I never had any idea how much effort that was!).
In February of 2015, I reluctantly accepted that I wasn’t going to get the computer game I was working on finished. I’m just too tired after 8 hours of programming to come home and spend more time doing the same. I really wanted this game, not the least to play together with my son, but even though I had bits and pieces of it working, the prospects of going further ranged from grim to none. I’d already been blogging for years, though I only get a few hits a day. I’d already written a number of other nonfiction things, though no one was reading those either. So what prompted me to invest the time and energy into novels and screenplays?
Scott Adams, of Dilbert fame. He was offering to host some additional bloggers on his blog, as a way to pay back to society some of his success, and asked for some examples. I sent him a selection of what I felt were my most interesting posts and was surprised that he got back to me. Below is his email:
Oct 29, 2014
Thanks for pitching! I like the areas you write about, and you definitely have an agile mind. But I think your writing is just below commercial grade, which is a compliment that doesn’t sound like it.
I think you need to work on focus. Your writing takes my mind too many directions and tires me out, even though I like every one of the directions. It is interesting but exhausting simultaneously. Simplicity in sentence structure, more brutality in staying with a point, and perhaps brevity would elevate your writing.
I see a lot I like but I think you need to hone the writing. I once took a “business writing” class that showed me how to be concise. It changed my life in two days. I recommend looking into one.
I really appreciated his considered reply and thought a lot about it. Since I basically had no one reading my blog and had no faith that I could ever monetize that work, I replied that doing what he suggested would rob the pleasure from my blogging effort. I didn’t see the value in losing the pleasure with such slim prospects of a financial reward.
A couple of times earlier I interacted with some professional writers and they basically said it was necessary to love writing, because the prospects of financial reward was so small there’s no economic justification in doing it as a career. So, with that, any prospects of writing nonfiction for more than personal pleasure went out the window. However, I like to write, so started to think about reviving my old interest in fiction. Initially I was thinking about writing short stories. I did some research and found a few locations where I could reasonably expect 5 cents a word or more for accepted work (one place would pay up to 25 cents a word!). I took typing back in high school (thanks for insisting on that, mom!) and can blaze away at 60+ words per minute when I get going. The most naive calculation then came up with 60 wpm * 25 cents/word = $900/hr.
Of course, editing and head scratching would eat into that quite a bit. I’ve been keeping track, and my ‘finished’ wpm runs between 10 and 15 once I’m done reviewing my editor’s changes. That drops the naive rate down to 10 wpm * 25 cents/word = $150/hr. On the other hand, going with the lowest rate of a nickel a word, the hourly rate is $30/hr. For me, getting paid as a professional programmer, that low isn’t worth the effort. However, the range was such that I started to think about writing and decided to try my hand at it to see if it were possible for me to write, after sitting in a chair in front of a computer for 8 hours.
I surprised myself by being able to write fairly consistently a couple of hours a week and turned out my first short story, “The Starfarer’s Journal” in very little time. I liked the writing process and, while not effortless, it was certainly an order of magnitude easier than trying to do the programming I have largely not done over the last half dozen years. I began to think about other topics I could write about which lead to my “Diary of a Contract Killer” which was my first novel. I rapidly followed that with a sequel and got a strong start on a third to make a trilogy (I even have ideas for a fourth). It’s been a whole lot of fun so I got what everyone talked about: joy in writing, so that if I never get published at least I lost nothing.
I like to read books where I get to use my imagination, so I decided fairly early on that I would write with sparse descriptions. I also have a bad time thinking of names so would largely keep the number of important characters to a minimum. I also decided to write in ‘intense first person’ [I’ll try and remember to add the relevant link later], at least initially, as that is what flowed most easily for me.
So there you go, in nauseating detail, about me as a writer. There should be plenty more posts, hopefully with more useful information regarding the writing process.