CategoryWriter’s Life

Life Imitating Art

Have you heard about YInMn pigment in the news recently? It was discovered back in 2009, but a company is going to start producing a paint based on it so it’s recently become a hot story. Look at it–it’s beautiful, isn’t it?

Well, the Atlantians think so too, because it’s the royal color there. It’s on tapestries, banners, tabards–even the shingles on the roof of Castle Atlantis are painted in this color! [Which is funny because the pigment can be used to help with energy efficiency, especially when used on roofing.]

Based on the science behind it, it’s feasible that Atlantian alchemists could have come up with the same pigment. I wasn’t thinking of that when I was worldbuilding though. It just happens to be a nice coincidence. It also happens to be topical to volume 3, as that is where we get a closer look at alchemy in Atlantis. Prior to this volume, any references to alchemy have been rooted in medicine–potions, elixirs, topical remedies–that kind of thing. Soon, we get to see alchemy used in a functional sense, and as a weapon. This is especially fun [for me] because I get to write about an item I’ve thought about for years, and now it’s finally being used in the story!

Despite being at a point in my story I’m excited for, I’m finding it a bit difficult to write due to my illness, so I’m not writing as much as I would like. I keep hoping this particular flare will pass, and I won’t feel like a dirty sock lying in a gutter because it’s difficult to write when all you want to do is drag yourself toward the nearest soft object and lay there quietly. This unfortunately never happens because: three year-old. If I take my eye off her for a second, I am fishing a whole roll of toilet paper slurry out of the sink, or removing toys from the garbage disposal because she sits there and throws them at that side of the sink like she’s shooting hoops. I didn’t get a child that sits quietly and colors, or plays with toys–that’s for sure! [She gets that from her dad; I was the sit quietly child and he was… not, ha ha!] So most of my free energy is spent watching/interacting with her. By the time my husband gets home and I’ve cooked dinner, then washed the dishes, I feel like this clock:

Don’t get me wrong–I adore her. I just wish this disease didn’t rob me of so much energy. Sometimes my husband brings home take out, which is expensive but worth the sanity it provides me. Because I didn’t have to cook/do dishes tonight, I was able to catch up on laundry and write this post. How awful is that? I never imagined I’d be at a point in my life where I’d have to choose between cooking and doing laundry because I’d be too exhausted physically and mentally to do both in the same day.

I compromise by trying to be active on social media when I don’t feel up to writing. This way I at least feel like I’m doing something productive while waiting to feel better. So if this blog is quiet for too long, you can catch up with me on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. I don’t bite–I swear!

The Masks We Wear Online

Yep, this again. Another post about social media.

I have three main social media pages I try to keep updated: Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter–mostly in that order. I have found considerable positive traction on Instagram [of all places!] and I am gaining a little ground on Twitter now, which I honestly didn’t expect. It goes to show that if you throw yourself at something long enough, eventually something will stick. Though now all I have in my head after typing that is a mental image of me beating the hell out of Twitter like it’s an old console TV on its last legs.

I’ve considered a YouTube channel for a few months now, but that also involves the artistic side of my light novels so it gets backburnered easily. [And we all know what the comments section is like over there…]


Roughly, yes.

Social media has been my bugbear for a while now, but you already know this. I’m a private person by nature, and it’s been difficult for me to come out of my shell while lacking that magic confidence anonymity lends people. As Oscar Wilde said, “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth”. Despite this being stated a century before the internet would even become a thing, it seems to be more true now than when it was originally coined. Human nature doesn’t change much, and with the exception of a few outliers, we all want to be liked and accepted. It gives people a sense of value to feel like others appreciate them and their ideas.

Creators put the intimate workings of their mind on display for people to pick apart and dissect–whether it be music, writing, or artwork. Social media makes two things easy: putting your ideas in front of millions of people the world over all at once, and allowing them to judge it–and you–from behind the safety of their own mask.


Sometimes multiple masks at once…

I don’t like taking off my mask. It’s not that I am secretly a cruel or unpleasant person, [Though I feel that I am much more amicable online than off…] but that I feel my discomfort and worry bleed through my words. I’m scared. I hesitate. I re-word, erase, and refine: “Will they like this? What if someone thinks it’s awful–what if it goes viral for being terrible?” [Like that last one? I always jump to worst case scenarios.]

But to be a writer–nay, an author–you have to have a thick skin! That means you can’t be afraid to take off your mask. You can’t be afraid to put yourself and your work out there! You need to handle criticism and praise with equal parts grace and aplomb. If you even hint at uncertainty, your peers will repeat this as if it is a magic incantation that will remove your doubt. I even find me telling myself this sometimes, which is awkward.

So what is a writer to do when they need to be honest and real on social media in order to connect with others in an authentic way, but find themselves full of anxiety and fear? They either stop writing, or do the exact opposite of what they are instructed to do: they create a new mask.

But… the goal was to not have a mask, right? Well, we see what happens when famous people use social media without their masks on–it doesn’t work. They alienate people, and quickly; a few of them even lose fans, and access to their own accounts for it. So you end up creating this half-mask, like the Phantom of the Opera, where you are both open and honest, but also guarded. Telling people how they should feel is stealing their agency–if something someone says about you or your work bothers you, you have every right to be upset about it! But the way you wear your own mask when others are watching says more about you than any thinly-veiled rant or tear-stained tweet ever could.

Ultimately, the magic author incantation is a lie. You cannot follow it as written. There is no way you can completely turn off your ability to care what others think about you, even if you try to convince yourself otherwise. We’re only human, and fall easily back into old habits… we trade one mask for another. It’s not a bad thing; this way we can fulfill the spirit of the incantation while being honest to both ourselves and our followers.

I believed in it for too long. I tried to bend my own feelings to fit it, trusting that it was right despite it feeling all wrong. I should know by now to listen to my gut, even when it contradicts what seems like solid advice. I took an impromptu trip to visit family recently, and had a lot of time to think about my online presence while not having much of an outlet through which to curate it. I didn’t pack my laptop, so I had what I could reach with my phone. [It was mostly Instagram, and it was largely pictures of the forest around my parent’s place in Missouri. It was… quaint… and you didn’t miss too much. Just some lousy photography of trees, flowers and my poor, misplaced-but-well-taken-care-of cats.]

I worried about leaving it quiet for so long, but it didn’t seem to make a difference. Now that I’m back and updating, having had this revelation about masks, I am seeing a better response to my posts and tweets. It’s kind of magical in its own sense, but I know that it’s because I learned from my past experience, and was willing to go against what I was initially told to do.

The lesson in this is: Don’t be afraid to be yourself online, but don’t forget to protect yourself either. Remember that we’re all wearing masks out here–even when at first glance it may appear that some of us aren’t wearing one at all.

Research and the New Writer: Don’t Overthink It

One of the major stumbling blocks I see new writers trip over is research. On writing forums you’ll see variations of these three questions being asked:

  • How should I organize the information I already have?
  • How do I perform research?
  • How do I know when I need to do it?

The answers are as diverse as literature genres, the first point especially so. Since we all think and organize differently, even if you start out mimicking someone’s method, you will eventually tweak it to fit your own habits. Some writers keep large files, while others just keep a running sheet of notes. I personally keep a large file [My file for Atlantis: TVC is so large I indexed it. Fourteen pages of characters, world building, and magic.], and a ton of super-organized bookmarks in my browser. But that’s just me. As I said, how you arrange it is best done in a way that accommodates you. If having individual files for each topic/chapter/character/place is how you roll, then who am I to say it’s wrong?

That’s not the part everyone seems to get hung up on, though. How to do it seems to be the most difficult aspect of research for new writers. It may come as a surprise, but that is the easiest part!

The information of the world is available at instantaneous speeds due to the internet–information just sitting on a server somewhere waiting to be accessed, or even a lone stranger on a backwater forum waiting for you to ask the question that will prompt them to shower you with the data you need–all of it is just a click away. When they ask how to do it, either they are admitting that they don’t know how to use a search engine, or that they really don’t know what they need.

That’s the difficult part. You’re told that you need to research, research, research! But what do you look up? It feels like you’ve purchased a new dresser, opened the box, spread out the pieces, then realized that it didn’t come with directions. It’s overwhelming, but I have good news: the answer is to stop.

That’s right. Stop looking. Instead, write. Whether it’s notes, an outline, or your actual manuscript, getting things out of your head and on to paper will lead you in the right direction.

I can’t tell you how often I will stop writing to find more information on something–the proper name of a weapon, a picture of a poisonous plant, how horses act when they are scared, etc.  Depending on the answers you find, you can end up in a several hours-long sinkhole of data that changes the direction of the plot. [Personal experience.] You’ll just be typing away and stumble over something that you need to know more about. Then you search for it. That’s all there is to it. There is no magic formula, or list of topics anyone can point you at, because everyone writes different things. [Unless it’s a technical question, like grammar, or formatting; if you need help with that, I have a wonderful Resource List you should take a peek at!]

Basically, if you’re hung up on research, you’re trying too hard. Your heart is in the right place, but you can’t look for the answer to a question that hasn’t been asked. The beautiful part of writing is that the questions that need to be asked will find youand possibly land you on some government watch list depending on your subject.

The Little Things We Take For Granted

I’ve had enough. I stole my husband’s keyboard.

Last night as we climbed into bed we were talking about my book sales over past weekend [The recent Heartwarming Sale was a huge success!] and I was saying how I needed to get started on the third volume of Atlantis: TVC soon, but that even typing up the outline was difficult because the keyboard I had bought to fit the smaller space available on my desk was too stiff to write on. So half-asleep he proposes: “Why don’t we just trade keyboards?”

Now, for reference, I had asked him to trade keyboards when I was still using my giant gaming keyboard and he said no, despite having way more desk space than I do. Now that I spent money on a new, smaller, stiffer keyboard he’s changed his mind? I say as much, and get nothing but a snore in response.

My husband never remembers anything he says while half-asleep. So after he left for work today I switched our keyboards. I’m writing this entry from his keyboard now, and it’s amazing. I press a key, and it actually goes down! I don’t have to smash certain keys to get the fact that I have touched them to register! My backspace is normal size! Bliss.

Fortunately for me he’s on a miniature kick right now so he’s building armies and hasn’t been on the computer in almost two weeks. He still has several boxes left to put together and paint; it could be months before he notices.

I never thought I could hate a keyboard so much. I mean, I could have sucked it up and bought a different one, but not many are compact enough to fit in the space I have available. Plus there was no floor model for this particular board, so I couldn’t test it at the store. I tried everything I could think of to break it in, but even with several weeks of that there were still problem keys. I mean, I would be writing for five minutes, go back, and realize most of my words were missing the letter A. My fingertips hurt after typing on that thing! I looked up the model online to see if anyone else had that issue, or if it was just me. It was at this point that I discovered there were whole forums dedicated to “keyboard feel” and I was stunned. I wish I had known keyboard feel was a thing before I bought a new one. I thought that for typing, all keyboards were keyboards! Turns out that I am a dumbass and unknowingly bought one of the stiffest boards on the market.

SiiG JK-US0012-S1. DO NOT BUY.
Model: JK-US0012-S1. The “JK” stands for “Just Kidding–ha ha, you thought this was functional!“, right?

 

So I suffered through two months of crappy keyboard for nothing.

Well… part of that was negated by my torn rotator cuff, so it’s more like a month and a half–but it was still a month and a half of hurt fingers and swearing! At any rate, I’m finishing up my outline and plan to break ground on volume #3 tonight after the little one goes to bed. I am ridiculously excited to write again, and I hope to get this volume out just as fast as the first one. My goal was originally to release two books a year, [Back then I didn’t know any better!] but on average it takes me six to seven months to write the first draft, then two more months for edits, revisions, and creating the artwork. That means each book takes around nine months from start to finish and my output is two books every year and a half–which isn’t too bad considering that I’m raising a kid and sleeping on the rare occasion as well.

I already have a complicated relationship with sleep without hating the fact that I need so much of it to function. Besides that, energy drinks aren’t the greatest thing for you–and I have something like a +25 versus caffeine, which sucks. When I get in a writing [or drawing] groove the first thing I do is a quick calculation of what time the kid will wake up, and how much sleep I would get if I could only keep writing for just one more hour! Before I know it many hours have passed, and I only get three hours of sleep before my three year-old is running around and trying to climb the walls while I stumble out to the couch and stare bleary-eyed into space while cursing the me of last night who thought it was soooo important to finish that chapter. Also, once I achieve enough alertness to even think of reading what I wrote, there is a 75% chance I will hate it and need to rewrite whole sections of it.

All this would be made a thousand times worse by having to do it on The Worst Keyboard in Existence. I have never been so happy to be rid of something in my life!

Well, except maybe that landlord who used to sneak into our house when she thought we weren’t home. She’d eat our food, and once she came over naked to do it. Ugh. Why did I have to remember that, of all things? Thanks, brain.

Advertising: Facebook Versus Google

I recently ran an ad campaign, because over the holidays my sales slumped. Why were my sales slumping? Well, initial excitement over my second book had tapered off, and people were all wrapped up in holiday stuff. It’s fairly common. If I was smart, I would have set up a sale and ad campaign to run right after Christmas, to catch the eye of all those people getting e-readers for presents! But alas, I was caught up in holiday stuff as well, and didn’t take the opportunity. So I promised myself I would run a campaign for the next holiday, which was Valentine’s Day.

E-readers make excellent gifts! E-books… not so much.

This was dubbed the Valentine’s Heartwarming Sale*, and it recently ran over the weekend of Valentine’s Day, which was very convenient. I ran the promotion for three days in all, and I decided to try out a new ad delivery service, Google Adwords. I’ve run ads on Facebook before, but I’ve avoided Google in the past because I feel like with light novels the covers really help with letting the reader know what they’re purchasing. Google ads are… just words, like it says on the tin. But because there was also a promotion, I figured the sale aspect would generate a few clicks on its own. So I ran one ad on Facebook, and another on Google, just to see how they stacked up.

I have to say, I was totally blown away by the results! Here are my experiences with both sets of ads.

*=Because I like cheeziness, and I found this really cute stock photo of a heart-shaped mug of cocoa in snow that I really liked. Seriously.

Facebook

I have run an ad campaign on Facebook before, so this was nothing new to me. Or so I thought. My ad ran overnight, but then was pulled for having “Too much text on it”. Turns out, the text on the images of my book covers on the ad counted towards their 20% limit.

So I stripped all the text off–except for the name of the sale–and resubmitted it. What irked me the most is that I lost out on four to six hours of ad time on the first morning because Facebook never notified me that the ad was pulled. If I had never checked my stats to see how it did overnight, I would have never noticed it wasn’t running!

Ten points from Facebook!

Their interface is intuitive, though there were a few bugs with the targeting and demographics areas that I managed to work around. Other than the approval mess, it was a smooth process.

Pros:

  • Ads connect to your series page, author page, or directly to your website
  • Can use an image
  • Ads can also appear on Instagram
  • Can set a detailed target audience
  • Can set daily price limits or total campaign limits
  • Can set custom time period
  • Can choose to pay per click, per impression, or per unique view
  • You can choose where your ad shows up [mobile devices, the side bar, apps, etc.]
  • Easy to read reports

Cons:

  • Does not notify you if your ad is not approved/removed
  • Will run your ad despite it being in review status, and make you pay for clicks/views in that time period even if they do not approve it
  • Buggy Interface [Image upload and audience targeting, specifically.]
  • Ads appear to be served in a set rotation with other ads which keeps the impressions low
  • Cannot have different ads to cycle through in the same campaign
  • Help center/FAQ is difficult to navigate and did not answer many of the questions I had

 

Google Adwords

I’ll admit, their stark interface had me worried, but it really is a full-featured program. There are many options, one of which is the ability to pause a campaign, which I really liked. I was also impressed that there was phone support available–even if I didn’t need it. [Compared to Facebook’s help center, which was… bad.] And when I poked around the advanced reports, a step-by-step tutorial walked me through building a custom report. [Which gave me a ton of data. Seriously, loads!]

Maybe… too much data.

It holds your hand quite a bit, which was comforting to a newbie like me. The hardest part was staying within their character limits! People who do that Twitter thing will feel right at home; for me it took an hour to figure out how to say what I needed to with so few words. Now that the ad has been running for over 7 days, the tools that help fine tune your ads are offering suggestions, and everything they recommend is working. Today–with no sale running–I received 25% more clicks than I did during the peak day of my sale! I went in with no expectations since I’m technically a little fish to Google–but I came away pleasantly surprised.

Note: Today I noticed they had options for image ads and YouTube video ads available now, which is pretty cool! I don’t know if I unlocked those somehow, or if they were available from the beginning. I may experiment with an image ad and see how it performs versus the text-only ad.

Pros:

  • Ads can connect to any web address
  • Can set daily price limits
  • Can set custom time period
  • You only pay for click through, not for views
  • You can define a custom bid per click setting
  • Ads can show up on any partner network–YouTube, Gmail, Blogger, etc.
  • Can create multiple ads within a set that will cycle randomly, or only appear for certain keywords
  • Can set ads to only run during certain times
  • Has instant tools to help you optimize and tweak your campaign to get the most value
  • Has step-by-step tutorials for any non-intuitive feature
  • Many ad blockers have them whitelisted because they are unobtrusive
  • Give coupon code for $100 worth of free ads for new accounts that spend at least $25 in their first month
  • Free Monday – Friday, 9 AM to 8 PM EST phone support
  • Tons of data available through advanced reports
  • Image and video ads available

Cons:

  • Text ads are limited to a title, and only 2 lines of 36 characters each
  • Relies on search keywords to define audience
  • Ads can fail to be served if they have a low relevancy rating on any of your keywords
  • Ads can fail to be served if your bid per click is lower than competing ads
  • Initial reports are straightforward, but detailed reports need to be manually compiled
  • The position of your ad is based off relevancy rating and the amount of your bid per click settings
  • Ads are unobtrusive, and are sometimes ignored

Results: Facebook

Total Impressions: ~7,500

Click Throughs: ~20

Total Cost: $15.72

0.26% Effectiveness

Best Day: Saturday

Best Hours: 12 PM – 6 PM

Peak Hour: 2 PM

Results: Google Adwords

Total Impressions: ~12,500

Click Throughs: ~40

Total Cost: $1.23

0.32% Effectiveness

Best Day: Saturday

Best Hours: 6 PM – 10 PM

Peak Hour: 10 PM

Final Thoughts:

Overall my sales tripled from the combined ad campaign! For a self-published author writing in a niche medium, that is amazing for less than twenty dollars total!

Though sales have dropped with the end of the promotion, they haven’t leveled off. Why not? Because the Google ad was so cheap, I decided to keep running it! It seems to be pulling me an extra couple of sales/lends per day, and it’s only costing me pennies a day to maintain, so why would I not? I know a 0.32% rate looks dismal, but I’d happily pay $2 for it as opposed to $16 for 0.06% less. That’s just smart shopping. As far as Facebook goes, I’ll stick to boosting posts for $5 if the mood strikes me, or when volume #3 releases.

Maybe someday I’ll get brave and try Twitter ads, but I really don’t care for Twitter. Plus whenever I clicked “Get Started” to explore pricing it just took me back to the analytics page in a constant loop. Not particularly inspiring.

Later, I found an independent site that listed Twitter’s rates as $0.50 – $2.00 per ad click. No thanks, Twitter.

No. Thanks.

 

 

 

 

Free E-Book Offers, Scammers, and You

It has recently come to my attention that an unscrupulous website is using one of my novels as bait to phish data and garner illicit revenue from unsuspecting fans!

SVU detectives can't even believe it!
I know, right? Rude.

This brings up a subject near and dear to my heart. That subject is how humanity can suck, and Sucky Humanity + Money x Anonymity + The Internet = Scammernado Central. So I decided that it might be good to have an entry detailing all the ways people on the internet can be jerks when money is involved, and how you can protect yourselves from them.

The scum of the internet rely on people being one of two things–desperate, or uninformed. If you are desperate, I cannot save you. But on the other hand, knowledge is power, so here we go!

Sailor Chibimoon knows what's up!
Knowledge looks like a cute bell. Work with me here, people.

Note: For the purpose of this entry, I will be using the term e-book. You can replace it with anything: MP3s, Programs, or Apps–and it will still be applicable.

First of all, I won’t get into antivirus software, malware monitoring programs, script limiters, or adblockers*, because if you aren’t using one already then this post won’t convince you to. Plus, these sites can still trap you by manipulating you into disabling these features, or by being designed to work around them. [Still, it doesn’t hurt to have them. I highly recommend you pick at least two.]

Powers!

* = This may seem like I am going against myself, but malware can come from infected ads that even the webmaster or content provider does not realize are infecting people. You can whitelist providers you trust, or you can consider making a donation to a site you enjoy while blocking their ads. The choice ultimately lies in your hands.

General Safety Tips

  • First and foremost–trust your gut! If something seems like it is too good to be true, it often is. If e-books that would normally need to be purchased are being offered for free through an unfamiliar site or service, then the cost is made up in other [usually unscrupulous] ways.
  • If a website is asking you to sign up for something else in order to receive a free e-book, then it isn’t free. Only download e-books from authorized retailers!
  • If you see an unfamiliar website or service offering paid content for free, look up the name of the site plus a keyword in your favorite search engine, such as going to Google and keying in the search string “notreallyfreebooks.com+scam”. Often you will find links to watchdog sites in the results–these have ratings and testimonials that can help you decide if it is legitimate or not. Best of all, you can see that info without needing to sign up for anything!
  • Email the author! I probably would have never realized my book was being used as bait if not for a concerned reader pointing it out to me–an author will always be happy to point you to legitimate places where you can purchase or sample their book. Always.
  • If you hover over a button or link on a website, you can usually see a preview of the url that you are sent to when you click it. If it leads anywhere off the site you are currently on, it could be an Integrated Affiliate Advertising Redirect–also known as a Forced Click. If it’s not disclosed, then this is usually a sign of shady business practices, and should send up red flags!
  • If you have to click a link or button, or perform an offsite task to “unlock” or “decrypt” a file, get out of there!

Lies!
Lies!

Click Fraud and Affiliate Links

Affiliate links are links through which website owners send their visitors to access products and services they would normally look for. The innocent ones will reward the webmaster for sending you to a site you were going to anyway. For example, DIY blogs often include Amazon affiliate links to buy the materials needed to create a project they are detailing. If you click that link to go to Amazon, the blogger will get a small reward when you purchase the items. You can buy your materials in one convenient place, and the blog might be able to remain ad-free through that reward revenue. Everyone wins! But if you don’t want to click that link, you don’t have to in order to enjoy the post. Most places that are on the up-and-up have programs in place to make sure that someone can’t sit there and click a link over and over to artificially inflate the amount they get paid. Some people use click farming to get around it, employing people to click site links at a low wage. This is usually done in countries where labor is cheap.

However, aggressive advertisers and companies make affiliate links dangerous. They will pay well per click, but force the webpage user to sit through an ad or promotion–or even worse they may install malware on the their computer without them realizing [or authorizing] it. The webmaster then has to trick their visitor into clicking on the link, since no one is going to willingly watch an ad they can’t close or go somewhere where they might pick up a virus. A method that has popped up to get clicks is the “Free File Site”.

The site will advertise something that is not normally free, as being free through them. Once you are on the site, they will force you to click their affiliate links in order to receive the file, or a download link leading to the file. The fun thing about these sites [from a legal standpoint] is that they do not get in trouble for hosting copyrighted content, because they do not actually provide it! Once you click the download or unlock link, they are done with you. All they needed to do was trick you into providing that click.

Archer Glitter Gun gif

Special Offers, Surveys, and Malware

In addition to tricking visitors into giving them money through force clicked affiliate links and ad revenue, some sites will take their deception further. They may require you to fill out a survey, apply for a free trial of a service, or “accept a special offer”. These things give the webmaster or affiliate a bonus–your information.

Information is valuable! Social Security Numbers [SSNs], bank account info, and credit card numbers are all primo bits of information. You’ve probably heard time and time again to never give these things out. But what most people don’t realize is that people who seek this data network, and even innocuous things like your name, or an email address are valuable commodities.

For example, you go to BadSite B, and they have you take a survey where they ask your name and email address. “Oh well,” you think. “What’s a few pieces of spam mail? My filters are awesome–I’ll never see it.” So you give it to them. Using that information alone, they can bring up aliases and usernames for you–they can find your social media, and glean things like your exact location, age, phone number, photos of you, and plus your current and past addresses. That is scary by itself, but if the owner of BadSite B talks to the owner of BadSite A, where you were required to apply for a credit card a few months back to obtain a “free” book, it gets worse. She has your name, definite billing address, and the last four digits of your SSN. She either buys the missing data from BadSite B, or she sells her data to him. Either way, someone is opening a new credit card in your name and going on a shopping spree! And that is just a best case scenario–with a little more data, they also have the ability to become you.

You don’t even have to willing agree to give them data, either. They can just quietly infect your computer and steal it slowly over time–passwords, login info, your search history. This is done through malware and viruses. These things are written to install silently and only need one click to get in. They hide in ads, and masquerade as files you may get access to for completing “special offers”. Once they are in, they are complicated [or impossible] to remove–if they’re even detected at all!

My brother–who for the most part, is fairly tech savvy–had a virus on his computer for six months, and never knew until I found it while trying to figure out why he was going over his data cap every month. All he knew was that he was receiving several gigabytes of overage, often to the tune of a $300 internet bill! The virus recorded every keystroke he made through screenshots that were then uploaded to a file storage server. It took a new screenshot every five to ten seconds. It was so ingrained in his system that it would restore itself after a low-level disk format and operating system re-install. He had to change all his bank cards, put a freeze on his credit, and throw out the hard drive–losing five years of programs, save files, and pictures in the process. How does he think he got it? He was looking for a serial code for an old game he owned, but had lost his legitimate serial for and went to a shady site. It’s not worth the risk.

Some especially insidious sites will use all three methods–forced clicks, mandatory “surveys” in order to unlock a file, and said “unlocked” file that turns out to be an installer for malware that gives them unlimited access to your sensitive information.

Yeaaaaaah! Checklist.
Yeaaaaaah! Checklist.

How to Spot a Malicious Site: A Checklist

If a website is offering an e-book you would normally have to buy, for free–but they require you to do something that seems digitally unsafe to obtain it, then leave. This includes the following:

  • Asking you to click a link or button to “unlock” the file or download link to said file.
  • Asking you to fill out or participate in offers that require you to submit sensitive data. [SSN, Home Address, Phone number, etc.]
  • Directing you to a different website while browsing.
  • Appearing sparse or like a generic template.
  • If there is no contact information for the webmaster on the website.
  • Hotlinking to cover images from legitimate sites.
  • If all the comments or reviews are the same across all available files or seem to be entirely posted by anonymous people.
  • If the website is taking too long to respond, or causes your web browser to ‘hang” [Stutter, or freeze entirely]. This can be a sign that an unauthorized add on, widget, or program is installing itself without your permission.
  • If the website asks you to turn off or otherwise disable safety software such as running antivirus programs, malware monitoring services, firewalls, etc.

Using the information found here, hopefully you will not fall prey to these tricks. I want my readers to stay safe!

Yay!

Additional Resource Links

Watchdog Sites

Web of Trust

Scam Adviser

Spam 404

Free Online Virus Scanners

Virus Total

Where to Report Bad Sites to Search Providers

Google

Yahoo

Bing

Verified Safe e-book Retailers

Amazon

Google

Apple

Smashwords

Nook

Kobo

Further Reading

Integrated Affiliate Advertising Redirects/Forced Clicks

What is a Virus?

What is Malware?

Lolcat Rainbow Defense, Activate!
Bonus lolcat!

Grand Theft: My Intellectual Property

I know I said I was going to let my shoulder rest, but this is too important to wait on.

I was informed of a website where an unauthorized copy of my latest book, Atlantis: The Visionary Continent, Volume #2: Awakening, is being offered! I couldn’t believe it, so I had to go see for myself. When I confirmed it, I was furious. Livid. Enraged! Other synonyms for insanely pissed! The more I investigated, the angrier I became. It was being offered for free!

Me, after reading my email.

I fumed. The book has barely been out for three months! After a half-hour of spitting anger, I started getting over my shock and began to formulate a plan to deal with this. I ran a Google search, but there really isn’t anything regarding stolen e-books, except advice to not offer books as a direct download from your site. [Which I was not doing–they’re exclusive to Amazon at the time of this posting.] I found some advice regarding DMCA [Digital Millennium Copyright Act, yo.] and decided to do a Whois search on the domain, so I could figure out who to send a takedown notice to.

This turned tricky fast, due to the culprit having a ton of domains that point to other domains, which then pointed to subdomains. I was going in circles. I took a closer look at the site to see if I could find any more info. 293 downloads? Anonymous people with no avatar posting very recent and generic comments? Something didn’t smell right. The work of other authors was on the site also, so I checked some of their listings–the number of downloads varied, but the pages were identical–right down to the comments.

I clicked through to the download page. I reached the instructions, and suddenly, the situation became clear. I quickly viewed the source code of the page, and discovered that my story wasn’t being offered illegally. They didn’t have the actual book–it was being used as bait for a phishing scheme!

Now, I know the classic argument is: “If people are looking for free copies, then they weren’t going to buy your book anyway, so you’re not losing sales“. This is a valid argument, except that what is actually happening is harming public opinion of my brand itself. That is much more difficult to recover from than a sales loss!

The setup is a common one, where the site offers a file: a program, MP3, video–or in this case e-book–and leads you to a page where you can download it. EXCEPT there is a catch–before the download link becomes available, you are usually directed offsite to apply for “special offers”. These look like credit card and loan applications, or free trials to subscription services. They ask for vital info, like social security and credit card numbers, home addresses, etc. More often than not, these are elaborate phishing scams where they use a person’s willingness to get something for free to convince them to give up sensitive info. You don’t get anything except a lot of spam email, and the hassle of having to freeze your credit and apply for a new bank account. Then if you can actually download the file, it’s usually not what was advertised–often it’s a Trojan designed to infect your system so these people can get more information from you. Then they either sell the data they collect, or use it for themselves.

Since the file wasn’t actually on the original website, I had no valid DMCA claim. I went to the root of the site to see if I could glean any info, when suddenly I was on… a legitimate cloud storage site? After poking around a bit, I discovered that the root site was set to redirect to a legitimate site–even though the file is clearly not on their servers. Why would that happen…?

The site is mocked up to look like a filesharing site, but it’s owned by the same person who owns the original site I found the listing on! This is an elaborate deception–this person thought this through, and wants to remain hidden. [Probably because the information they scrape and the malware and viruses they distribute are their main source of income.]

They didn’t even host the cover image themselves! It’s hotlinked from Amazon! The download link sends you to the fake filesharing front, which then redirects you to affiliates where you fill out the offers that will supposedly allow you access to my work. Well, as I said before, I viewed the source file and there is no download. Everything forces you to a file “locking” site that has a pretty bad safety rating itself.

File locking sites are commonly used for something called an integrated affiliate advertising redirect*, also known as a forced click. [Read more on them here.] When you click the download link, it forces you to view ads in an non-closable window, makes you apply for a “free” offer, or sometimes you’ll be told to take a “survey” before it lets you have access to the files you want. [Completing these actions supposedly unlocks the real download button or link.]

Every time you click the download link, the scammer running the fake site gets paid–sometimes even if you back out and don’t follow through! Not only that, but a savvy coder could use it to gain a click and steal your info. Several thousand clicks a day, plus sell-able or exploitable data? That adds up, especially the way this person has it set.

You see, at the end of this person’s setup, the user is presented with a blank white window. That’s it. No file. You are no longer useful. Your clicks and data have been taken. Get out.

It’s bullshit because it’s using my hard work to trick my unsuspecting readers into giving away sensitive information, and earning money fraudulently while doing it. Not only my readers–but anyone who might think it’s a legitimate source for free e-books! They scrape Amazon, using the allure of prose authors have slaved over as bait. They poison brands authors have worked hard to build in the mind of the people they trick. Not. Cool.

At first, it seems hopeless. How can I DMCA content these people don’t have? How can I go after them, not knowing who they are, or even knowing what country they are in? The person who set this up knows this. This is the cloak they wrap themselves in.

But me? What can I do?

Vocaloid. Specifically Hidoor Utopia by Miku
Vocaloid.  Specifically Hidoor Utopia by Hatsune Miku.

I know the affiliates won’t care–after all, they make money through the ad clicks. Web searches care, because the site is linking to content that could harm someone’s computer. They’ll pull the data, but it will be restored by the next web crawl. I could report the shady behavior to the domain registrar and get the domain revoked. That could work–for the amount of time it would take the person to figure out the domain is cancelled and buy a new one. So what can you do? What can I do?

For now, this is all I have been advised to say. I have several options, but in the meantime, I am going to focus on educating people. The more people that are informed, the less often these kind of sites will trick people. My hope is that over time, the profitability of these sites will drop, and they will no longer be worth opening. So share this post, [and the post linked above] and help get the word out!

Please remember you can ONLY purchase my books from Amazon.com! Volume #1 is $0.99 cents right now!

 

Thank you all for your support–stay safe out there!

 

*= What, you couldn’t cram “synergy“, or “omnichannel marketing” in there too?

 

P.S: If you are an author and want to check the site to see if your work is being used, please contact me through one of the methods on my contact page, and I will PM you the url.

Injured! [Again]

So, uh, I tore my left rotator cuff a few days ago, and now my arm is in a sling.

Pro: It was my left, so I can still draw. Con: Can’t type. [Doing this single-handed right now, so it’s short.]

So if you don’t hear from me for a few weeks, don’t be horribly surprised. [I’m still going to put short things up on my Facebook and Instagram because I can copy/paste.]

For now, enjoy this video of me sketching some Atlantis characters!

https://www.facebook.com/authormelissawong/videos/745902278873010/

The World of Social Media

I know I touched on this topic a bit back in this entry, but I want to revisit it again now that I’ve had the better part of a year to explore different platforms.

Right before Christmas the fan on my heatsink died, and I couldn’t find a replacement for it. I had to special order a new heatsink, a new fan, and wait two weeks for them to be delivered. Since the screen on my laptop is broken, and my desktop was dead–I was officially computer-less.

So I turned to the last option I had left–my phone. Just the two of us, out there in no computer-land.

Now, browsing the internet on a phone is an okay thing, provided it’s done in small amounts. If you want to write on it, you’re out of luck. Trust me, I tried. I tried several times, but it just didn’t work. And drawing? Well, typically I’d say forget it, but I have a Galaxy Note, and drawing is totally feasible on one… but I wasn’t inspired to draw at all for those two weeks. So, in a fit of… I dunno… curiosity, boredom–maybe both–I decided to set up an Instagram account.

[I’m poking fun at myself, because my first post was of cheese. I like cheese.]

I originally stayed far away from Instagram because of the failure that was my Twitter [More on that in a bit] and because it’s a visual medium. I didn’t think it was a good fit–until the computer died. Then I thought, “Hey, light novels have pictures. I have a lot of images of my characters, actually. Maybe this could work…”

Within fourteen days of starting my account, I have tripled my monthly sales, and all I did was post some pictures–sketches, some previously unseen completed artwork, some pics of stuff from my day-to-day life–a random smattering of things. I don’t even have that many followers. I really regret not utilizing it sooner. Something I was neglecting to take into account is that people are highly visual these days, and they are often browsing social media quickly between tasks. You only have a small window to capture their attention–and as the saying goes, pictures are worth a thousand words.

PICTURES!

Authors–self and traditionally published ones alike–have to do their own promotion nowadays. For new or aspiring writers, this can be a tough task! It is difficult to sell yourself and your work, but having the right platform to do it through can make all the difference. This is what I have gathered from my personal experience with Social Media:

-Facebook-

Age of Account: 1 year+

Pros:

  • Large, diverse audience
  • Your page can be “suggested” based on other things people have liked [it’s like a free targeted ad]
  • Ads are cheap
  • You can schedule status updates

Cons:

  • Sometimes smaller pages and posts get lost if you don’t tune your page settings
  • Audience tends to be older
  • After a certain amount of free “reach”, you have to pay to stay in people’s newsfeeds
  • When posting links, preview pics seem to be pulled at random

-Twitter-

Age of Account: 1 year+

Pros:

  • Large, diverse audience
  • Able to post images

Cons:

  • Difficult to gain followers
  • Unless you post often you are lost in the crowd
  • Hashtags eat into your character limit
  • If your posts don’t fall under “trending” tags, then they are rarely seen
  • Pictures use up a portion of your character limit
  • Cannot schedule tweets unless you pay
  • Character limit

-Tumblr-

Age of Account: 7 months

Pros:

  • Highly visual
  • Younger audience
  • Able to categorize posts with hashtags

Cons:

  • User base has infamous reputation
  • Hashtags are abused
  • People heart and reblog, but don’t really interact with or comment on your stuff
  • Difficult to build a following

-Instagram-

Age of Account: 2 Weeks

Pros:

  • Extremely visual
  • Easy to use app
  • Hashtags actually bring people to your work
  • Ads work just like on Facebook [same parent company]
  • Small image size [keeps image theft down]

Cons:

  • Only able to update through a phone
  • Random tags from spammers
  • So. Much. Random. Porn.
  • Small image size [Hard to show large-scale artwork]

In conclusion, if I was forced to choose only two social media accounts, then I would pick Facebook, followed by Instagram. The others have [sadly] been useless in driving people to my work, or even encouraging people to engage with me. Those two outlets, combined with this blog and the natural mysterious powers of Amazon, have been the driving force behind my sales. For standard authors, I don’t think Instagram would be as useful, but because light novels are visual it works to my advantage. But this is just my opinion/experience. I know of many authors that have gained traction and sales on Twitter, but had poor luck on Facebook. Your mileage may vary.

PS: Follow me on Instagram!

The Inside of My Head

Every story is the most beautiful, thought-provoking, awe-inspiring tale the world has ever laid eyes on–a brilliant, flawless diamond–while it lives inside your head.

I’m currently in that stage right now, where this thing I’m thinking of, this idea, is amazing. It’s going to be the next indie hit–mark my words! People will tell everyone of its greatness, and praise will be heaped upon it for its beautiful, topical theme! Of course, that’s all in my head. In reality, I will try to put pen to paper [or rather, pixels to… more pixels?] and I’ll feel like I’m ruining it. I will agonize over what comes out on the page, writing, and revising–plotting and erasing–until I have a barely-passable shadow of what was in my mind’s eye. Writing is awful like that.

What keeps me going are those times where words fall like spun gold from my fingertips; elegant, beautiful, meaning-filled prose that sounds like it came from someone who knows what they are doing. You’ll know when it’s happening and you’ll ride its wave, like a bird taken to wing until you spiral down to the pavement, utterly depleted.

I am actually scared to put this piece to paper. It has such potential to be a great piece, but I’m worried I’m going to ruin it. I’m so worried, in fact, that I’ve been procrastinating by baking. Yes. Baking. [My friends will be happy–they’re reaping the benefits of it. My husband’s co-workers too, heh heh.]

And while I’m baking, the damn story still swirls around my head. I won’t stop talking about it to my husband, who probably just wants me to write it and stop bothering him with it. [It is a romance, after all…] I’m running out of things to bake. I have literally used all the sugar in my house. It’s the last thing I think about as I fall asleep at night.

This blog entry in and of itself is probably another last-ditch effort at putting it off. I just need to take that first step, to see that maybe it won’t be as far off on the page as it is in my mind. Then I can stop overthinking it.

After all, even diamonds start out as carbon, right?