a look back on my time in China

Before I came to China I had already decided that if I really liked it I would stay for two or three years, but even if I hated it I would still stay for at least one year. When I told this to my housemate last week he thought about it for a moment, then asked, “So what does it mean that you stayed for a year and a half?”


No, the fact is, in a lot of ways I’m pretty sad about leaving China. I’ve made a lot of really cool friends here, and I’ve had a really good time. Plus I’ve definitely learned a lot, and not just about computational biochemistry.

I try not to have too many expectations when I go to a new continent, but I definitely have goals. And my goals for China were to write a good scientific paper and have it published in a respectable journal, learn Chinese to a basic conversational level, see as much of China as I could, learn as much as possible about Chinese culture, learn how to cook, finish my book, and date a Chinese girl.

Surprisingly, I succeeded at all but two of those things. Although I’m not entirely sure that I should really be calling my experience with dating a Chinese girl a ‘success’.

The main thing I failed at was learning Chinese. At this moment my Chinese is about as good as my Italian, which means I can insult people, hit on girls, talk a little bit about coffee and food, and generally make an ass out of myself. I have many excuses for why I didn’t learn Chinese, but really it all boils down to one thing: Chinese is fucking hard.

The other thing I failed to do was learn how to cook, but I don’t like cooking anyway so I don’t really care about that.

As far as my successes though, aside from the dating debacle things went better than I could have ever possibly hoped. And hell, even the dating was good in a way, because it really was a profound learning experience.

Ostensibly I came to China to do postdoctoral research in computational biochemistry. That’s what got me the visa, anyway. And although I know I could’ve worked harder, learned more, and done a better job, I’m still pretty happy about how things worked out. I wrote a book chapter on drug design, a paper on selenium-modified DNA, and I helped a friend of mine get his paper published. I also gave a series of lectures to my research group on how to give a presentation, how to write a scientific paper, etc. And to be honest, I found that I like explaining things, editing papers, and helping other people a lot more than I like actually doing research.

Might’ve been nice if I’d learned this before spending $60,000 to get a PhD in chemistry, but oh well.

And I know my experience would’ve been a lot worse if it wasn’t for the wonderful people in my research group. From the very beginning my boss was cool, patient, and understanding with me, and he’s always been a pleasure to work for. As far as the other members of my group, one of them became my best friend here and eventually my housemate, and I really hope to keep in touch with all the rest of them as well. They definitely are a great bunch.

And I’m not just saying that because I know some of them read this blog (hi guys).

China is a pretty damn big country, and while I certainly didn’t see all of it, I think I did manage to see a fairly decent portion of it. The Great Wall (twice), the Terra Cotta Army, Inner Mongolia, Hong Kong, and a bunch of other places with names that will be meaningless to almost everyone reading this, but they were pretty damn cool for me to see. What was especially cool was having my parents come visit, and getting to explore China with them. Because it’s highly unlikely they ever would’ve come here if it hadn’t been for me, so they got the opportunity to see some truly incredible things they never would’ve seen otherwise.

Plus they paid for a lot of my stuff too.

Before I left England I had this fantasy that once I got to China I would work during the day, then have the weekends and evenings to work on my writing. But like so many of my fantasies it really did not work out that way. Mostly because research took pretty much all my time and energy, and when I wasn’t working on that I was too exhausted to do anything else.

But finally, in November of last year, in a hotel room in Zhuhai, while smoking cheap cigarettes and drinking cheap liquor, both of which probably have taken a combined ten years off my life (but the shitty years at the end that I don’t want anyway), I managed to finish my book. And if nothing else, it showed me that if I really want to be a writer I’m going to have to make it my primary concern.

Which is why I’m moving to Australia tomorrow to spend a year on nothing but writing.

So yeah, I’m truly grateful for the friends I’ve made and the experiences I’ve had, but I’m ready to move on. Ready for the next misadventure. And although I’m not entirely sure about the wisdom of living my life based on a comic strip about a kid and his stuffed tiger, as I get ready to take off into the unknown…again…I can’t help but think of the last panel of the last strip of that comic.

It’s a magical world….let’s go exploring.


how to self-publish a book

At this point I’ve gone through pretty much the entire process of self-publishing a book—both as an ebook and as a traditional paperback—and I figured I’d share some of my thoughts on the subject, or what I like to call the Critical Awesomeness self-Publishing Pointers You’d Best Observe, Obey, and Know. Or CRAPPYBOOK, for short.

I kill me.

Anyway, moving on…

Write a book. Pretty obvious, but there are some points worth considering. For one thing, a traditionally published first novel by an unknown author should be right around 80,000 words. But for a self-published author it can be as long or short as you want it. Plus, when you don’t have to worry about impressing an agent or publisher you have the complete freedom to be as much of an “artiste” as you wish. You can write something as “unique”, “groundbreaking”, and “exceptional” as your heart desires, and you don’t have to worry about it being shot down by some stupid elitist agent or publisher.

Just don’t be surprised when no one wants to buy it.

Formatting. A traditional manuscript has fairly rigid guidelines you should follow. Double-spaced, 12-point font, 1-inch margins, a specifically formatted cover page, etc. Anne Mini’s Blog Author! Author! gives fantastic advice on formatting a manuscript for submission to a literary agent—and on every other aspect of submission as well, really. AgentQuery also has some good no-nonsense formatting tips.

Surprisingly, writers who plan to self-publish should also follow pretty strict guidelines—and not necessarily the same ones you’d follow if you were planning on submitting your manuscript to an agent. Whether you plan to self-publish your work as and ebook or paperback—or both—it’s best to format it the same way to begin with. Because you may change your mind later, and it’s a huge pain to go back and reformat everything, so you might as well start with a simple and easy-to-convert format from the beginning.

Mark Coker of Smashwords has written an excellent style guide for formatting an ebook. The Word for Kindle Guide is also extremely useful. For the paperback, CreateSpace has excellent resources on their site, and I’d also recommend reading this.

I could write an entire blog post just on formatting, but I’d basically just be taking stuff I learned from the links I just posted and passing it off as my own knowledge. If anyone wants more details on my personal experience just leave a comment and I’ll be happy to respond, but there are far greater experts out there on the internet than I.

Editing. Professional editing is one of the major advantages of going through a traditional publisher, and like it or not the reputation of self-published books is that they’re a mess of poorly-edited nightmare fuel. You can hire a freelance editor even if you self-publish, but is it worth it? If you’re like me, the answer is no. If people are going to assume it’s poorly edited anyway, why bother? But if you are like me, you’re probably not as good of a self-editor as you think you are, so you’re going to need at least five or six anal-retentive friends you can count on to read through your manuscript and check it for mistakes and typos. And even after they’re finished with it there will almost certainly remain grammatical, structural, style, plot, character, and punctuation errors. Such is the nature of self-publishing.

The Cover. Even an ebook needs a cover. If you have access to an artist, utilize them! A self-made, amateurish cover makes potential readers cringe instinctively, and since you’ll be self-marketing as well as self-publishing, you want your cover to look as professional as possible. I designed the cover of my book myself because I wanted to go through every aspect of self-publishing a book on my own for the sake of experience, but I can pretty much guarantee that you will never see another book cover designed by me.

Publish! Well, self-publish, anyway. Once you’ve got your manuscript formatted and edited and your cover is ready to go, it’s time to pick your means of sharing your creativity and awesomeness with the world. Amazon and Smashwords are the big names for ebooks (as far as I know), and Lulu and CreateSpace are the big names for paperbacks (again, as far as I know). I went with both Amazon and Smashwords for the ebook because Amazon is probably the most well-known ebook retailer, but Smashwords “ships” ebooks to Sony, Barnes & Noble, and many other retailers. I went with CreateSpace for the paperback, but I’m thinking about self-publishing a collection of short stories with Lulu, just to see how their services compare.

Both Amazon and Smashwords give you 60-70% of the profits from every sale, which is a damn good deal considering how they basically host and catalogue your books for free. They let you set the price as well. I’ve set mine at $2.99, which means I get about $2.00 for ever sale I make, which is pretty sweet, really.

The deal with paperbacks is slightly less good. Again I get to set the price, but I’m required to set it at above $14.00 just for the publisher to break even. If I set it at $14.99, I make 25 cents per copy. If I set it at $15.99, I make 85 cents. Don’t ask me how that works.

Shameless Self-Promotion. The other big drawback to self-publishing is that you are 100% responsible for getting people to buy your book. Which means you have to be getting your message out there constantly, with Facebook, Twitter, blogging, book bloggers, forums, email signatures, lurking in alleyways, etc.

I…I can’t do this. I just can’t bring myself to go around and tell people that they should buy my crappy book. The other night I went out with a couple of guys I met on the internet (no, it’s not what you’re thinking) and somehow I got on the topic of my book. I explained the premise, and one of the guys said he’d actually be interested in reading it. So I told him I’d email him a PDF copy. I just couldn’t bring myself to say, “Well, you can buy it from Amazon or Smashwords for the low low price of $2.99.” I just couldn’t do it.

Also, I fucking hate twitter.

Okay, I did create a page on Facebook and a blog specifically to promote the book, but I only did so as part of the learning process. Or at least that’s what I tell myself so I don’t feel like a filthy, dirty book-whore. But the fact is, if you want to sell copies of your book, people are going to need to know it exists, and for that you’re going to need an internet presence, and some kind of platform, such as a blog or webpage. And that sucks if you’re like me and aren’t too fond of shameless self-promotion, but that’s just the way it is.

Book Bloggers. Book bloggers are, as the name implies, bloggers who read books and then blog about them. This is great for a self-publisher, as the New York Times isn’t exactly going to be reviewing your unedited self-published masterpiece any time soon. Surprisingly, positive reviews from book bloggers actually can skyrocket you to fame and fortune. That’s how Amanda Hocking did it. Unfortunately, most book bloggers aren’t too keen on reviewing self-published books either because of their reputation for lack of quality. As far as I can tell, the only way around this is to join a lot of reading and writing forums, make personal relationships, and then gently broach the subject. Basically, whore yourself out. Metaphorically.

Or literally, if you think that would work.

Note: DO NOT get your friends to give you 5-star reviews on Amazon. People are catching on to this. When a self-published book has twelve 5-star reviews from people who haven’t reviewed any other book, it’s pretty obvious what’s happening. And this can backfire on you big time. Don’t do this. Trust me.

And yeah, a friend of mine did give me a 5-star review on Amazon, but I didn’t ask him to. But aside from the 5-star part, he actually did do a really good job of describing the book.

And finally….

Write your ass off. Some people seem to think that anyone can bypass the traditional publishing industry and rocket to million-dollar stardom through self-publishing. Hell, a 26-year-old girl did it in a year. Well, apparently these people didn’t read the fine print. If you read Amanda’s own account, she’s been writing for as long as she can remember, and sometimes she writes 9-12 hours a day. And no, she didn’t really just do it all in a year. She took writing classes, she submitted her work to agents, she took the advice agents gave her along with the rejection letters they sent, and she constantly worked to improve her writing ability. She’s also hired professional editors and cover designers. And now, in spite of all her self-publishing success, she’s signing on with a traditional publisher.

So yeah, you can have a lot of fun with self-publishing, but it’s not some kind of magic ticket to success. A lot of people have tried to do exactly what Amanda’s done, and still they toil in obscurity. If there were a single guaranteed route to success, everyone would be taking it. There are a lot of factors you can’t control, and for sure not everyone will succeed.

But if you want to maximize your chances, you have to read a lot, write a lot, edit a lot, and take a lot of criticism.

And you should probably be reading someone else’s blog besides mine.

self-publishing vs traditional publishing

It used to be that self-publishing was the realm of vain, delusional losers who paid large sums of money to have their books printed, only to find that no one wanted to buy a crappy book written by “some guy” or “some girl” that had never passed through the hands of an editor.

But times have changed. Now self-publishing is, well, exactly the same as it was before except these days the author no longer has to pay any of their own money up front. And that is simultaneously a good thing and a bad thing.

Because with self-publishing, you get to have complete creative control over your work. You get to make the decision about the cover, the layout, the format, and most importantly, the content. And you get to control when, where, and how your book gets published. Plus, you get to keep a greater percentage of the profits.

And that’s pretty awesome.

On the down side, quite a lot of people out there simply have zero interest in buying a self-published book. And for good reason. Because when you see a publisher’s logo on a book that’s come out recently, it signifies that the book has gone through an agent, a contact person at a publishing house, and a full-time editor employed by said publishing house. Whereas a self-published book has probably at most gone through the hands of a few of the author’s friends who were too kind or too embarrassed to tell the author that their book sucks. And the few truly exceptional self-published books that are written run the great risk of being drowned beneath the towering waves of all the crappy ones.

My book sucks. I’m fully aware of this. It’s sold a grand total of nine copies so far, and I’m almost positive that every one of those was to someone who knows me personally. But I’m ok with that. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps, and my Peace Corps memoir has exactly 50 chapters. It was a personal goal of mine to have the book published this year, and as it was rejected by every agent I sent it to the only way that was going to happen was if I self-published. So I self-published it. If nothing else, the only way for me to find out what people actually think about it is to put it out there, so I put it out there.

The thing is, it’s exactly the way I want it to be. Typos and all. Because I actually wrote at least half of it while I was still in Africa, and while it could doubtless benefit from the skill and expertise of a professional editor, I can’t help but feel that something valuable would be lost. The rawness, intensity, honesty, and laughable naivety that I put into that first draft as I sat in front of my laptop in Korogwe, Tanzania may not perfectly translate into quality reading, but it reflects a pure, unfiltered distillation of the life of a Peace Corps Volunteer in Africa. And that’s what I was going for.

I’ve already started a new novel. I’ve got the first draft of the prologue, chapter 1, and chapter 2 written so far. And in terms of quality it’s light years ahead of my first book. And I’m going to do everything I can to get it published by a traditional publisher.

Because I always want to be improving myself and my writing. And while I would love to say that I know better than any literary agents or publishers, the amount of books that they’ve sold versus the amount of books I’ve sold pretty much says it all.

In a lot of ways it’s analogous to the movie industry. Blockbuster films are often familiar and formulaic and have big names attached to them because movie producers have a good idea of what’s most likely to sell tickets and want to maximize the chances of a profitable return on their investments. But at the same, they’re reluctant to take any really big risks. Independent films on the other hand are more willing to take chances, and while they do sometimes end up getting it right and produce something truly moving, brilliant, groundbreaking, and awe-inspiring, more often than not they simply suck ass.

So I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’ve written my “Indie” book, and now I’m going to see if I can write a “blockbuster”.

Wish me luck.

Oh, and if you’re interested on reading something more insightful on the topic by someone who actually knows what they’re talking about, check out this post by Stephen Leather.

I made the right decision

I used to believe in Fate. I’m not sure if I still do.

I read a book while I was in the Peace Corps called The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho. In the book, the protagonist was guided virtually every step of the way by people encouraging him to fulfill his destiny. And while he faced many challenges, through the strength of his convictions he was able to overcome them, and in the end he succeeded.

Which is why I think that book is a complete load of crap.

Because it’s easy to pursue your destiny when you know exactly what your destiny is. For me, the greatest challenge I’ve faced in being a writer is my own self-doubt. If someone had come along and told me that Fate had decreed that I was meant to be a writer, that success was a foregone conclusion, I’d probably have several books published by now. Because writing itself comes easy to me, but the fear that my writing sucks is a constant hindrance. So I procrastinate way more than I should, because I’m afraid to confront the possibility that I am simply not good enough of a writer to succeed.

On the other hand, if I knew for a fact that I was destined to succeed, it would take all the satisfaction out of the success. I wouldn’t feel any sense of accomplishment if I knew for certain that I was guaranteed to be successful no matter what. Given the choice, I would definitely prefer not to know.

So yeah, I don’t know if people have a Fate or a Destiny or anything like that, but I definitely am 100% certain that I made the right choice in leaving the field of scientific research to pursue my dream of being a writer.

For one thing, I’m just so much happier now. I feel so much better than I did before. And don’t get me wrong, because my boss was awesome and the people I worked with were really, really cool, but for the past few months every single day  I went to the Institute was a complete fucking drag. I couldn’t make myself interested in what I was doing, and I just felt constantly drained of energy and motivation.

Things are so different now. In the week I’ve been away from work, I’ve written a short story and a nonfiction essay and submitted them to a literary magazine, finished the prologue of my latest novel, designed a cover for my book, learned about various publishing options and formatting guidelines, and uploaded my book for publication as a traditional paperback from Amazon.com, as well as an ebook from Amazon, Sony, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords, and other retailers. It should be available in various formats within the next couple of weeks.

And like I said before, I don’t expect to make a lot of money from my Peace Corpse memoir. But it is helping me a lot to learn the process of writing, editing, revising, and formatting. And in the near future I expect it’ll help me learn about promoting and marketing. Which should be interesting.

I’m definitely making a lot of mistakes though.

I asked a friend of mine to design the cover because he’s a fantastic artist, but he’s pretty busy at the moment so I went ahead and designed one myself. I showed it to a couple of friends and they said it was kind of ok, but really not that great.

Which means it matches the contents of the book perfectly. So I think I’m going to go ahead and go with it.

Within the next few days I’m going to start a new blog to specifically promote the book, and I’ll be contacting book bloggers and asking them to review it. From what I’ve read this seems to be the best way to promote a self-published book. And who knows, I may get lucky. All it takes is for the right person to like it, and if that happens I’ll be pretty much set.

But the important thing is that I’m doing exactly what I want to be doing with my life. Honestly, I can’t think of anything else I could do that would make me happier. And while I may never be good enough of a writer to make a successful career out of it, I really feel like this is the right thing for me to do with my life right now.

This is what I wish for all my friends and family. I hope everyone can find something they truly enjoy; something that they actually look forward to pursuing, engaging, and working on.

And yeah, I do realize that some dreams are unrealistic, and pursuing them will simply result in agonizing and soul-crushing defeat, but that’s just part of the fun of life, right?

so far so good

Technically last Friday wasn’t my official last day of work since I’ll probably still make an appearance at least once a week for the next few weeks (to make sure the student who’s taking over my project doesn’t have any problems), but for all practical purposes I’m done.

And I’m pretty happy about that.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful for the experiences I’ve had and the things I’ve learned, but I’m glad to be done with it. As a friend of mine pointed out, I’m not really into the idea of being a computational chemist. It would be nice, but just not good enough. It’s just not something I could devote my life to.

But I think writing is. I spent all day Saturday researching options for publishing, and I spent all day Sunday formatting my manuscript. I have a good friend who very kindly agreed to design a cover for me, and as soon as that’s finished I’ll be ready to sell it.

I’ve decided to go the self-publishing route. And by “decided” I mean “all 27 literary agents I sent a query to rejected me”. Apparently there just isn’t a booming market for Peace Corps memoirs written by someone who isn’t already notable in some other way. Who knew?

Still, self-publishing isn’t what it used to be, thanks to the internet. There’s actually a growing number of writers having pretty decent success with it. Amanda Hocking and Joe Konrath are two notable examples.

With self-publishing you get to have complete creative control over your work and you receive a greater percentage of the profit from sales. Which is pretty cool. But at the same time you have to take full responsibility for promoting and marketing your work yourself. And when you consider how many books come out each month that your work is effectively competing against for a potential reader’s time and money, this is a pretty big deal.

For the record, I don’t expect my first book to be a huge success. Hell, if I sell ten copies, and more then two of those are someone besides my mom secretly buying multiple copies to make me feel better, I’ll be happy. As I said, there just isn’t a big market for Peace Corps memoirs, but if nothing else it’ll be a major learning experience for me. I plan to use this book as a test run to see how the process works, and hopefully I’ll be able to gain the knowledge and experience I need in order to have greater success in the future.

Regardless, I am absolutely certain that I made the right decision in quitting research to pursue a career as a writer. I really enjoy learning everything I can about the process of producing and marketing a book. For the most part, research generally felt like a chore to me. Sure I had moments of enjoyment, but by and large I was doing it because I had to, and not because I wanted to. And while I may end up failing hilariously and spectacularly, at least I’ll be able to say that I gave it my best shot, and I wasn’t afraid to take the chance.

Of course, I’ll still be in pretty big trouble when my student loans come due, but I’m sure I’ll figure out something.