Year End Wrap Up

2011 was a very eventful year for me. I published my first novel, Comet Jack. I tested for and attained the rank of sandan in Aikido. I wrote and illustrated my first picture book, I Like My Dog (True), and published that for Kindle and Nook. I wrote the first Pepperjane Gingersnap book, but alas it will not be published in 2011 (since that would require me doing it in the next few hours). So, while I predicted Pepperjane Gingersnap would be out this year too, it appears I set my sights a bit too high. The possible good news on the Pepperjane Gingersnap delay is that a talented and well-known artist is considering illustrating it. My fingers are crossed. If that comes through, I'll be ecstatic, and I'll be loudly announcing here.

All this pales, of course, to what my family has accomplished. I won't go into details here, because it involves other people, but let's just say my extended family triumphed over adversity this year. As did my immediate family, in large and small ways, over and over. They also started learning the piano and have been kicking butt, which is impressive because I can hear the difference day by day. Working on something every day yields impressive results. There's a painfully obvious message about writing I should take from that.

Back to writing... The three books are all very different, but in some ways very much the same. They fall into specific age-groups:

I've got a picture book for infants and beginning readers, a (forthcoming) short chapter book for intermediate readers, and a novel for, well, everyone. While Comet Jack might officially be a middle-grade novel (or middle-grade/young-adult... is that a category?), I'm very happy that both kids and adults have found Comet Jack entertaining and enjoyable. I was hoping the book would work on many levels and apparently I've achieved some measure of that.

So what's next? Comet Jack #2, naturally. The response to Comet Jack #1 has jazzed me up to roll my sleeves up and continue Jack's story. And while I work on #2, I find Comet Jack #3 is knocking at the door, clamoring to be heard. Also, I've got several first and second drafts of other novels, these decidedly more adult. By this time next year, maybe I'll have two or three Comet Jacks as well as a book or two in the next age category: adult. That'll make at least one Steve Kopka offering for every age group, cradle-to-grave.

Perhaps the biggest change for me in 2011 was my attitude toward writing and publishing. I went from thinking self-publishing was an experiment I'd try to thinking that it may be a primary avenue for being read (and with luck and perseverance, making a living). I'm big on math and it's hard to argue with the math. Instant and more or less free distribution, world-wide--that's hard to argue with. That would be the retail equivalent of having a store on every corner. In every city on the planet. While I'm a needle in the haystack right now, at any moment all eyes in the haystack could focus on my books. My plan? Write the best quality pieces I can publish. I hope more and more readers will find them and enjoy my work.

And when they do, I want them to have more than one or two pieces to read.

So I'm off to write! Please tell anyone and everyone if you've read and enjoyed Comet Jack or the others. Write a review. Tell your mother about them. Give one as a gift to a nephew. Pester your librarian. Ask me to speak at your school. Send me a note: give me feedback so I can make the next one better. Do the same for any author you like. Readers have more power than ever with digital publishing. You have direct access to the author, you have power to get the author read (or not). This new publishing world is not being built top-down, by someone who deems particular works worthy or not. It's being built from the ground up, by everyone, by all of us, readers and writers alike. It's pretty cool.

A "Working" Lunch

I had the great fortune to have lunch with Marcus Sakey the other day. In case you don't know, he's a talented and successful crime writer who lives right here in Chicago. He also just launched a television show. And Ben Affleck bought the rights to one of his books. And Tobey Maguire is going to star in another one. The guy is busy. A friend of a friend put me in touch with him and, really, I don't know how he found time to squeeze in a chat with an up-and-coming writer like me.

Marcus Sakey

But, man, am I glad he did. We had a nice long chat, over some delicious spicy food and BYO beers at Belly Shack. It was fascinating to hear some of the inner workings of publishing and how someone who is shooting up on a successful trajectory sees the current state of publishing. While I don't want to go into too many details, here's one thing he said (paraphrased):

If we were meeting two years ago, he'd have all sorts of advice for me and my publishing career. Now, though... the industry is in the midst of a storm.

Everyone on every level of writing and publishing knows something of that storm--bookstore struggles, publishers operating under what suddenly seem like old-fashioned models, e-readers, changing everything. It's not news (except that it's changing almost day-to-day, which I guess means it is news). What was new for me was hearing something of it from the point-of-view of a successful insider. I mean, this guy has award-winning, great-selling books, a publishing deal, movie options, even a TV show (that he writes himself). He's the definition of writing success. You'd think he'd shrug off this upheaval in publishing. Well, maybe not shrug it off, since obviously he's got some serious vested interest, but, you know, you'd think he'd be comfortable with it, or have some kind of steady mantra, a set and settled black-and-white opinion on the state of things.

Judging from his books and his show, though, he's obviously comfortable in gray areas, so it shouldn't surprise me that he's still watching the storm, waiting, riding it out. (At least that's what it seemed to me.)

Everyone who tries to tell me exactly where publishing is heading sounds like a lobbyist. And, really, give me a smart person's not-wholly-formed thoughts on a subject over an on-message canned speech any day.

We also talked a bit about what a writer can control. Good stories, good quality writing, good editing. The work has to be excellent. That's what you shoot for.

And with a little luck a good writer finds an audience. I'll work on being a good writer and, if you're reading this, you can help with the audience part by pointing a friend to Comet Jack.

Here's to luck, striving for excellence, and 2-hour lunches with beer on a Wednesday afternoon! Thanks a bunch, Marcus.

John Scalzi: helping out the little people

Today on John Scalzi's blog he allowed and encouraged us non-traditional published authors to post to his Whatever: Shopping Guide 2011 (part 2). It's beyond awesome, of course, that John shares his considerable audience with people like me. He says in the post: " someone who published his own first novel on his Web Site long before it was available in bookstores, I can say good writing is where you find it. I hope you find some good stuff today." That is just ultra-cool. Thanks, John!

I had the pleasure of being instructed by Mr. Scalzi at Viable Paradise in 2008. I found him generous, entertaining, and opinionated, three traits that fed one another. Of course smart too, but you couldn't swing a dead cat at Viable Paradise without hitting three people with genius IQs. Anyway, those of you who linked over here from his blog probably know him better than I.

If you came from there, welcome. You might be looking for these helpful links:

Comet Jack on Kindle
Comet Jack for Nook
Comet Jack in paperback

Try a sample. Buy a book if you like what you read. Please let me know what you think!

I Like My Dog (True) art update

I was unhappy with what Amazon showed as a sample, so I changed it! Gotta love complete control of your content.

When you go to the Kindle page for I Like My Dog (True), you can "click to take a look inside". With Comet Jack, you can read many pages before you decide whether to buy the book, but I Like My Dog (True) showed only the cover and part of the title page. Since both of those pages were based on the same art, you only really experienced one illustration. As a consumer, even if I liked that one page, seeing the same artwork twice might make me think that's all there was!

So I made a new title page, with this artwork. It includes small versions of the artwork from many of the interior pages. While you still can't read very far into the book, at least this gives a sense of the action to come.

Now, seeing that, don't you think it's worth blowing a buck on it? (99 cents, actually.)

I Like My Dog (True) for Kindle

I Like My Dog (True) for Nook

I Like My Dog (True) is out!

My first picture book is now available on Amazon and B&N.

The girl in the story tells you about her dog and herself, as if she's putting on a play for you, and asks you some questions too. The dog is somewhat dubious of some of her claims, but it's clear they are the best of friends.

It's suitable for very young children, as a read-aloud, or for early readers. Beginning readers might find they can read the whole thing on their own. Others might memorize the text and flip through it on their own. (My daughter, while a little old for this, sat me down and read it to me from my iPad, showing me the pictures, like she was the teacher and I was the student.)

I did the illustrations myself, for better or for worse. The better: I think they look good in color, and they definitely have that independent homemade-with-care feel to them (outsider art, anyone?). Consider them folk art with a little help from the computer. So what's the worse part? Obviously there are better artists. Still, I've watched some readers chuckle where intended, so I think the pictures get that part of the story across.

What I really like about picture books is how a few words coupled with a simple drawing can sometimes create an unspoken juxtaposition that strikes a chord with a reader. If I've done a few pages like that, and they strike those chords with a young reader (or listener/picture-watcher), then I am happy beyond words. (And beyond words is the point here--the best picture books have delights in the illustrations that aren't spelled out in the text.)

But that's probably all I should say about that, lest you expect too much from my first picture book. I do really like the story, though, and hope kids will love it.

Currently available for Kindle and for Nook.

They look best in color, but I colored the pages such that they would look good on a black & white Kindle too. You can get apps for your iPads, iPhones, Android devices, computers, tablets, whatever, if you're like me and you don't (yet) own a Kindle.

I Like My Dog (True) for Kindle.

I Like My Dog (True) for Nook.

Hey, cool! has reduced the price of the trade paperback of Comet Jack to $8.63! I didn't even know they could do that, but I am totally delighted.

67,000 words, most of them in complete sentences no less, a sweet cover. I know I'm utterly biased, but this sure sounds cheap for hours of entertainment:

Kindle and Nook: still $2.99

Paperback from Amazon: $8.63

Trade Paperback Books Now Available!

Comet Jack is not just for modern e-book readers any longer.

Actual, physical trade paperbacks are now available, featuring 248 real paper pages, Phineas's incredible cover, and that new book smell!

You can find them for sale here:



These definitely look cool sitting on the shelf. (I am clearly biased, though. Please judge for yourself.)

And, of course, Comet Jack is still available for Kindle and Nook, for only $2.99!

Quantum locking

Wow. This looks like it's right out of Star Wars--a floating, flying object, trailing smoke. But this is real science, not science fiction or special effects.

Here's an article that explains how it works.


So CreateSpace sent me my physical proof a few weeks ago. I checked it for formatting and everything looked fine. They recommended I read through it too. Now I've read it. A lot. Like ten times. More if you include early drafts. I was tempted to just let it go, approve it, and have the trade paperback available for purchase. There are some people waiting for it.

But I read it anyway. First I found a hyphen problem. No big deal. Then I found a paragraph that wasn't indented. Not great, but maybe not enough to hold up production. Then I found a sentence that was messed up--on my last edit, I'd changed it's structure but forgotten to delete a word. That did it. Now, this is what it looks like:

I now know how misspelled words, jarring repetition, and wrong punctuation make it into books. Seriously, I had combed through it before. And several people had read it too, catching a bunch of mistakes.

Granted, a few of these are stylistic tweaks, such as fixing a sentence for clarity or trimming some unnecessary words, but most of these are straight up editing issues. (Note: See * below for a special note on Scrivener, smart quotes, and em dashes!)

I'll be uploading the finished product shortly, and the trade paperback will be available soon. The great thing about the eBooks is that I can update them at any time.

So... if anyone who reads it finds errors (or questionable writing!), please drop me a note at oops [don't forget to put at sign here] cometjack [dot] com so I can review it. It takes a village, people. (And, yes, I know I just put "village" and "people" right next to each other.)


* Note: Here's another very specific editing problem I had, and its solution, just in case it'll help other Scrivener users. If you don't use Scrivener, don't care too much about typesetting, then you can probably skip this as it will bore you to tears.

I imported the original text of this novel in plain text, from Word, meaning I'd stripped out the smart quotes (those quotes that "hug" the dialogue, instead of being just straight up and down) and em dashes (those long dashes you see in books, instead of the double dash, like so: --). I realized, for appearances sake, I wanted these back in. No problem, I thought, Scrivener can handle this.

There is a way to convert straight quotes to smart quotes: In Group View mode, select all your scenes, have your cursor in the text window, then do: Format > Convert > Quotes to Smart Quotes.

Next, you have to find and replace all the double dashes to em-dashes. You can just type a double-dash in the text window, followed by a space, and Scrivener turns it into an em-dash. Delete the space, select the em-dash, cut it, then paste it in the Replace box of find and replace. (In Find, you obviously put your double dash.) I found the first one, hit Replace to make sure it did what I wanted, then hit Replace All.

Are you done? Not quite. One more problem: In Scrivener, the smart quotes are backwards following an em-dash in dialogue. (I predict at least one person will find this by googling that exact phrase... unless Scrivener makes an easy fix for this in the next release.)

Here's how I fixed that: in the text box (right in your document), type


The dash will turn into an em-dash. By typing two quotes, you'll get one of each kind. Delete the quote that points away from the em-dash (the wrong one). Now select the em-dash and remaining perfect quote, cut, and paste into the Replace box of find and replace. Copy one of the offending em-dash/smart-quote couples into the Find box, then do your find and replace thing. (Again, I started with one or two, made sure I liked the results, then hit Replace All.)

So there you have it. I'm sure Scrivener will have a more elegant solution soon. Maybe there's one already that I don't know about. If so, please share! If not, I hope this saved you the couple hours it took me to search for solutions than invent this one.

Happy formatting!

Fermilab shuts down the Tevtron

After 28 years of smashing particles, Fermilab shut down the Tevatron last Friday. To commemorate this, I recommend you do three things:

1. Google Fermilab and look at it on Google maps. You can see the big circle right next to it. That gives you some idea of the scale.

2. Watch this excellent video, where a scientist and artist tracked themselves via GPS riding bikes around the main ring of the Tevatron. It's cool.

3. Read this excellent quote which brings a tear to my eye because of its simple truth. Over three decades ago, the first director of Fermilab, when questioned in Congress about whether the proposed accelerator would be good for national defense or for what, Robert Rathburn Wilson replied:

"It has only to do with the respect with which we regard one another, the dignity of man, our love of culture. It has to do with: Are we good painters, good sculptors, great poets? I mean all the things we really venerate in our country and are patriotic about. It has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to make it worth defending."

Wow. I got goosebumps typing it. Right on, Dr. Wilson.

(source for #3: this article. Look especially near the bottom, with the paragraph that starts, "All good accelerators...")

Faster than the speed of light

So this could be big news. Perhaps the biggest. A team of scientists at CERN announced that they had recorded particles moving faster than the speed of light. This is not supposed to be possible according to physics's main man, Alfred Einstein. And when I say "not supposed to be possible," I don't mean like a two-headed goat. I mean that it is physically not possible in the accepted model of how our universe actually works.

The constant speed of light is the backbone of Einstein's Relativity, which is in turn pretty much what physics has been all about for going on 100 years. It's the "C" in E=MC2, which describes nuclear bombs and reactors, and the workings of the sun. The effects of Relativity have been proven over and over again. Without accounting for Relativity, your GPS would be off 6 miles a day. It's why gold is colored gold (I like this article, but sorry about the poems). Relativity is real.

If things are traveling faster than the speed of light, though, where does that leave Einstein's equations? If the history of physics is a game of king of the hill, Einstein knocked Newton off the mound. Einstein has been king ever since, but that doesn't necessarily mean he'll be king forever.

If true, this discovery changes everything.



The proof arrived today. An actual, real book with my name on the cover.

The cover looks great, as I pretty much knew it would. (Cover by Chicago illustrator Phineas X. Jones.) I did the interior layout, relying heavily on Scrivener's awesome compile features. There was a small issue with page numbers--I'd told Scrivener to skip numbering one of the "front matter" pages, which threw off the pages. My first upload had even-numbered pages on the right, which apparently is Not Done.

I fixed that, sent the files off, and a few days later... Look what's in my kitchen! A trade paperback of my novel.


Oh, yeah: copies will be available for purchase soon, and I will definitely let everyone know! First I need to check this thing over to make sure I didn't accidentally paste the text of some old paper on William Blake or a recipe for blue cheese burgers in the middle somewhere.

Print version update

All this stuff takes a little more time than I first thought, which is the case with absolutely everything about writing. It shouldn't surprise me that the same is true with publishing.

I've sent the files to CreateSpace, where they will turn it into a Real Life Book With Pages And Everything. I needed to format the interior first, which was fun. I learned about gutters. I played around with spacing. I tried about 25 different versions before I settled on something I thought looked great. One of my biggest problems is that I didn't want a chapter to end with just a single line at the top of the page. It looked lonely and out of place up there. When I was satisfied, I finally knew how many pages the interior of my book had.

You have to know how many pages inside before you can work on the cover, because before that you don't know how thick the spine is.

Phineas X. Jones did the print cover too, and I must say it's awesome. Here's what the artwork looks like.

I'm not sure how long the rest of the process will take, but I am that much closer to offering trade paperbacks. Sit tight! And read the eBook in the meantime. Download a free sample here:

Comet Jack for Kindle

Comet Jack for Nook

Print version coming (with a nod to ancient Egypt)

I'm very gratified by all the interest in the book so far. Thanks to everyone who downloaded! Quite a few people have been asking about a print version, which surprised me. I knew I would do this eventually, but I'm stepping up the pace to have trade paperbacks available ASAP.

Amazon prints these on demand, and frankly I'm amazed at how cheap they are. Not as cheap as an eBook, of course, but still very cheap considering they are printing as little as ONE copy at a time.

I don't have the exact number, but I see others that appear to be in a similar situation as mine are priced right around $13. Compared to $3 for the eBook on your Kindle or Nook, that's a lot of money. Compared to what you would've paid to have, say, a copy or two of your dissertation typeset, printed, and bound even just a few years ago, it is downright amazing. As this technology gets cheaper and easier, I'm assuming we'll see kiosks with hundreds of thousands of books available to print, much like we have kiosks where you can get professional grade photographs from your camera's digital memory cards.

These exist already! In fact, in a poetically satisfying full-circle of old-world meets new-world, the legendary Library of Alexandria (well, it's descendant, but still) has a print-on-demand machine. One fascinating fact: your book is ready in TEN MINUTES!

That bodes well for me having a print version available soon. But first I have to stop googling about the Library of Alexandria and get to work.

IT'S HERE! (The Big Announcement)

World, meet Comet Jack. Now available for Kindle and Nook. (If you have neither of these, both have free apps for your various phones, pads, pods, and computers.) You can download a free sample to your Kindle, Nook, or app at the links!

Needless to say, I am very excited.

A note on timing: I set a deadline to have this book out by the time my son started fifth grade. Jack, the hero of the story, is starting fifth grade at the beginning. My son starts tomorrow.

Let me know what you think! Also, please let others know. You can add a review of the book at the same links: Comet Jack for Kindle, Comet Jack for Nook.

Indents and Peppermints

I think I have solved my Kindle indentation problem. And, yes, I did just eat a peppermint.

I'm compiling Comet Jack in Scrivener, which is pretty much a fantastic program for writers. BUT I ran across some issues trying to get it right for Kindle. Scrivener will export directly to .mobi, which is the format Kindle prefers, and allows me to skip some steps publishing at Amazon (as opposed to messing around with Word and HTML and who knows what else). Most of the export seemed just fine--nice table of contents with links, for instance--but when I looked at the final product in the Kindle Previewer, all my paragraph indents had been stripped out! All these long hours of trying to get this book as good as I can make it, and suddenly it looked like I didn't even know what a paragraph was.

Google research turned up lots of similar issues, but no solutions for my exact problem. So I started changing indent-related things, one at a time, then exporting the book again. By version 13, I had, through trial and error, figured out how to fix my problem. (For Scrivener-ites: in Compile, under Formatting, check "Override text and notes formatting," then adjust the indent for Text in the box below for the appropriate Levels. And, yes, I do realize this sounds like a foreign language.)

For the record, instead of any fault of the program, this is definitely based more on my refusal to crack a manual until I run into a problem. (And I bet this would've been a non-issue if I had just taken the Scrivener tutorial, which I will be doing REAL SOON).

I double-checked my results with my Kindle-owning fellow writer, Marko Kloos, and he confirmed my indents were in place.

Woo hoo! My reward? A peppermint.

Also a book that is GOOD TO GO. The next post you see will be The Big Announcement.


T-minus... well, a few days. I promised I'd have the book up by the time my son hits fifth grade. He starts next week.

The good news, though, is the book is almost ready to go. I have a list of minor repairs my gracious beta-readers found--mostly relics from previous edits like words I forgot to delete when I changed phrasing. These should be taken care of today or tomorrow. (But if you find more, lay them on me at oops _at_! It's really never too late to correct mistakes. ...Life lesson there somewhere, but I digress.)

I'm good to go at Amazon and at Barnes & Noble, but awaiting word on iTunes. Also, I've discovered iTunes requires an ISBN, so I'm getting a crash course in exactly how to obtain that (which is clear and expensive) and why you need one (less clear this is true at all). I may wait to add iTunes availability because of this.

BUT the book will be available somewhere very soon. The countdown is on. T-minus somewhere between two and six days. Give or take.

Closer, closer.

The first corrections are rolling in. It is amazing that I can miss such obvious gramatical mistakes and misspellings, especially after reading and editing so many times (and with so many sets of eyes having read this before!).

There is no greater help to a writer than volunteers willing to read the work, to critique, to ask all the questions you thought you'd answered, to point out that a character's name is spelled one way in Chapter Four and a different way in Chapter Twenty, to tell you exactly how your science fiction science could never work. Feedback is essential. You discover just what you've accomplished versus what you hoped to accomplish. Then your job is to close the gap. (Or, in some cases, cast aside what you were trying to accomplish the first time because the readers saw something even cooler.)

Every day I get a little closer. Thanks, everyone, for the help and support. I hope to eventually thank everyone properly.

Beta batch away!

I've just finished compiling the .epub, including this awesome cover from Phineas X. Jones. I've contacted several generous beta readers who will look for formatting issues and the like. Some of them have read several versions of Comet Jack, so I don't use the word "generous" lightly. This is my last chance to catch anything boneheaded that has made it this far into the project. The step after this one is... going live.