Why I’ll avoid the Sunday Star Times Short Story Contest again in 2017

Exposure is what kills people who go hiking without being prepared. Writers should always get paid.

Sean Monaghan - Writer

sst-logoLast year I posted about not entering the Sunday Star Times Short Story Contest, New Zealand’s “premier” short story contest (free entry, up to $3000 prize, has launched many careers, etc.), because the rules were egregarious. That is, designed to have writers forfeit rights to their stories.

That’s just plain wrong.

And this year, the contest is doing the same thing.

Last year I was disappointed. This year I’m kind of mad. Not because I would expect to win–I’m far too much of a learner-writer to be so bold–but because the organisers should know better than to have conditions or rules that make it possible to prey on naive writers. Especially young writers.

Here’s the rule I take exception to: “Fairfax Media and Penguin Random House New Zealand have the right to publish the winning and highly commended manuscripts of the Open Division and Secondary School Division entered without fee

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The Antagonist.

“Edward Blake, The Comedian, born 1918, buried in the rain. Murdered. Is that what happens to us? No time for friends? Only our enemies leave roses.”

— Rorschach, Watchmen

You know they are out there, plotting against you, watching your every move and waiting for you to fail. As hard to shake as your shadow on a fine afternoon and as difficult to control.

Antagonists come in all shapes and forms. As literary character types, they are my favourites and also my most frustrating.  Protagonists (often the good guys) are clear cut; they are fighting the good fight. Solving the mystery, going on the hero’s journey, and saving the world. Protags tend to be straightforward, their motivations are defined by the situation they are faced with. The conflict they must resolve. The MacGuffin they must return to the village temple before the demonic curse plague turns them all into melted cheese.

It all sounds so clear cut, right? Brave hero(ine) fights the forces of oppressive evil. Great, write it, edit it, and publish it.

The antagonist is the force they are up against. The dirt floor to their dropped cream bun, the darkness to their light, and the thing puts the conflict into conflict. My personal issue with writing antagonists is that I enjoy them more than the protagonists.

What drives someone (or thing) to oppose and act in a way that is not altruistic, or socially cohesive? It goes against everything that makes us human. To be a true antagonist you have to either suffer something traumatic enough to change your world-view or you have to be inhuman (either alien, or just a monstrous entity).

Rorschach’s comment above is what I like about antagonists. Only our enemies leave roses. They are the ones whom our heroes have given existence to. The protagonist is their raison d’être. There is no reward in being an enemy unopposed. It makes the antagonists really interesting.

Thinking over my books, my antagonists rarely take a personal form. In the Tankbread series the antagonists are the Evols (the intelligent zombies) and time (if you have read the book, you know that there is a deadline for the completion of the quest). Ultimately, it is the evol Adam in the first book. The further three titles also have similar faceless antagonists.

Apocalypse Recon: Outbreak – has a clear antagonist. The biker leader ‘Jesus’ is in direct opposition to Minty, his second in command. Sure a deadly fungus that turns people and animals into zombies is also an antagonist, but the main conflict comes down to Minty’s history and the secrets he has kept for so long.

Hell’s Teeth, it’s sharks.

EAT, the crazed Russian cannibal cult-leader.

The Trench, more zombie creating organisms, and the fight to find the source of the infection is the antagonist.

Not really a lot of well-developed personalities in that list. Some complex ideas and forms, but no Darth Vader, Judas, or Joker.

Is it enough to write these faceless antagonists? I hope so. As long as there is a reason for conflict, a force to fight against (be it faceless or a clearly defined main character) the position of antagonist is well filled.

Kindle Ummm…limited


The world runs on algorithms. I used to think that these were some dope beats being dropped by Al Gore. It turns out that the truth is far more complex and mystifying (and way less dope*).

At the beginning of the year, I went on a quest. It involved no rings, no hero’s journey, no treasure and a disappointing lack of dragons.

It did however involve asking Googling a really, really stupid question. “How many books have I sold based on my Amazon sales rank?”

This question is ranked #2 of the most commonly asked questions by authors (#1 is of course, “Hey buddy, can you buy me a drink?”)

There are some essential facts that you need to understand about Amazon Sales Ranks.

  1. They are calculated using a proprietary algorithm that does what all good algorithms do (not make you want to dance) – it calculates a whole shit load of data and produces a result.
  2. An algorithm is a procedure for solving a mathematical problem (as of finding the greatest common divisor) in a finite number of steps that frequently involves repetition of an operation; broadly : a step-by-step procedure for solving a problem or accomplishing some end especially by a computer a search
  3. The result will have no relevance or bearing on reality.
  4. Approximately 100,000 people have worked out how to calculate the relationship to your sales rank on Amazon.com and your actual number of books sold.
  5. None of these people should be trusted to use a toilet properly without adult supervision.

There was a time, which future historians will call, BKU (Before Kindle Unlimited) aka, The Good Old Days, and it will differ from the current era, FYAB (Fuck You Amazon Bastards) aka, After Kindle Unlimited.

On the surface, Kindle Unlimited is a great idea. Amazon puts millions of dollars in a pot. Everyone who signs up their books to Kindle Unlimited gets a paid a share based on number of pages read. Consumers pay to access the service each month and can then download ebooks to read each month for no further cost.

Of course it took exactly eleven minutes and thirty-eight seconds for some people to work out how to game the system and make a complete farce of the payments authors should receive.

Amazon to date, doesn’t care cares deeply. Jeff Bezos’ minions have acknowledged this issue and say they are working on resolving it… just how – is less clear.

Of course the only way to have any insight on how your Amazon sales rank impacts your writing income, is to record your own data.

My advice in all cases is to not do something optimistic, like take out a loan with your local Russian Mafia boss based on your estimated income from your next quarterly royalty payment. Unless you are indifferent to having kneecaps.


Figure 1. The Amazon Sales Rank for one of my books from 1 April – 30 June 2017.



Figure 2. The same book but focused on that higher sales rank period – of June 2017


The number recorded in my spread sheet is the ‘Daily Sales Rank’ figure that Amazon populates its Author Central graph with.

Next important thing to note: The Amazon graph shows your book’s sales rank at a specific point in time in each 24 hour period. That is 12:00 AM PST

It is NOT an average of your sales rank over a 24 hour period. It’s the output of the algorithm applied which includes factors like how many books similar to yours sold in the last hour, and in the last 24 hours and the current moon phase and which dog won the 3rd race of the day at the Wanganui Greyhound Racing Club track on the 3rd Wednesday of the month, except when that day falls on an odd number.

Exactly how many books you sold in the last 24 hours is the kind of data that the algorithm probably sneers at. I mean seriously? What possible relevance would that information have to anything?

I do wonder if Amazon even knows. Or if they just make shit up to keep people confused and the entire thing is a giant Ponzi scheme with the same books being sold to new writer’s friends and family.

The Amazon sales rank data will tell you that ‘Your book is currently ranked X out over 1,000,000 books on Amazon.com.’ That number is out by a factor of at least 10. Again, no one knows exactly how many ebooks are on Amazon’s catalogue – but it’s closer to 13 million than 1 million.

The other thing to remember is that most of the seers who claim that, ‘If your sales rank is X your number of daily books sold is between Y and Z,’ are not taking into account the Kindle Unlimited pages read.

Amazon now includes this statistic in your sales ranking. So if you (like me) see a book ranking consistently in the top 10,000 books out of ALL of Amazon. You sigh. It doesn’t mean you’re selling 100 books a day (which would mean an income of around $100/day). It means that some thousands of pages are being read per day which given the way the Kindle Unlimited prize pool is being looted by bots and scammers, means I’m making more like 10 cents a day.

There are six year olds making sneakers in sweatshops who would refuse to work for that rate.

Amazon provides this happy scenario on their author information page for Kindle Unlimited.

For example, here’s how we’d calculate royalty payout if $10 million in funds were available in a given month with 100 million total pages read (Note: Actual payouts vary and may be less; check your Prior Month’s Royalty Report to see your earnings):

  • Author with a 100 page book that was borrowed and read completely 100 times would earn $1,000 ($10 million multiplied by 10,000 pages for this author divided by 100,000,000 total pages).

  • Author of a 200 page book that was borrowed and read completely 100 times would earn $2,000 ($10 million multiplied by 20,000 pages for this author divided by 100,000,000 total pages).

  • Author of a 200 page book that was borrowed 100 times but only read halfway through on average would earn $1,000 ($10 million multiplied by 10,000 pages for this author divided by 100,000,000 total pages)

So given their fund for the last few months has been $18 Million dollars, this seems like a sweet deal right?

Yeah, nah.

Based on a different book of mine, with Kindle Unlimited pages read from October 2016 – December 2016: total pages read: 48580.

Total royalty payment for this stream: $101.50

Which suggests (based on the shiny example given by Amazon) that there are a shit load more than 100 million total page reads going on (see earlier commentary about bots and scammers). 3 of those titles have been ranked in the top 20,000 in the last six years. Okay, technically it has been the last 8 months and that is entirely due to one publisher who has a marketing plan that works. I just provide the books and they sell them.

What’s the answer?

The answer is the same as it has always been. I have 24 ebook titles on Amazon, including anthologies that I have a story in.


    1. Don’t give up your day job – unless your day job is writing more books. Then really don’t give it up.
    2. Write more books.
    3. Write more books




* Feel free to insert an appropriate word instead of ‘dope’ to match the current nomenclature of your youth culture dialogue.

We Are Mused.

There’s always been this legend, mythology, or wishful thinking even, around The Muses. Fathered by Zeus and born of the personification of memory, there were nine Muses in the ancient Greek version of pop-culture.


The Muses were goddesses and water nymphs. Some ancient Greeks (ancient Geeks?) considered them to be primordial deities – children of Titans (Uranus and Gaea).

The nine Muses delivered inspiration like hot pizza. They covered all the creative bases,  literature, art, music, science, mathematics, geography, and like totally drama.

Poets like Homer invoked them at the beginning of epic poems. Later epic poets like Samuel Taylor Coleridge invoked opium.

Homer’s contemporary, Hesiod, said there were nine Muses. Mostly focused on poetry (I wonder why a poet came to that conclusion?) According to the Roman scholar, Varro, there were only three; Melete (Practice), Mneme (memory), and Aoide (song).

Varro sounds like a straight-talking guy, even if he was a miserable sod.

The number of guests at dinner should not be less than the number of the Graces nor exceed that of the Muses, i.e., it should begin with three and stop at nine.

~ Varro.

If nothing else, this quote indicates that Varro didn’t have more than 3 friends and therefore changed the number of Muses to make his soul-destroying dinner parties less awkward.

It is also said that King Pierus of Macedon named his nine daughters after the Muses. Because in ancient stories, kings are known for doing things that piss-gods-off. Seriously, you never hear of an ancient Greek farmer calling his kids Zeus, Apollo, and Uranus (still the funniest word the Greeks ever gave us).

The princesses were turned into magpies. No I don’t know why magpies as opposed to say, swallows. Gods move in mysterious ways.

In true visual movie style – we now cut to Present Day.

Goddesses are harder to come by these days (unlike opiates). So, finding someone to fill in the role of Muse can be challenging. Unless you are living the tortured artist trope, you probably have at least one person who loves your poetry, your Twilight fan-fiction, your finger-paintings, and that song you wrote about how your love is like a tea-towel.

If you have a Muse in your life. Treasure that person. I hit the jackpot, because I married my muse. Damaris is hard to explain. I mean, she’s a perfectly normal and wonderful human being – obviously. The hard to explain bit is a bit…. hard to explain.

Damaris generates whimsy. She has a sense of humour that often leaves me gasping for air having laughed so hard I almost collapse.

She also has a sharp mind. She is good at puzzles, and at their core, most stories are puzzles. You are presented with a situation where questions are asked. Conflict arises and drives the plot – questions are resolved by the end and everyone feels smug for having worked it out by page 120 (that’s position 2347 of 4693 for you Kindle users who have never read an actual book with page numbers).

Sometimes I find myself with an idea, that has a blockage. It’s an obstacle that is locking a story down. I can’t write it because it’s just not hanging right. It’s the creative equivalent of being OCD and trying to hang a picture of the Leaning Tower of Pisa straight on the wall.

At times like that, I go to Damaris and I say, “Hon, this is the scenario. This is the problem.”

She immediately tells me the solution. It can be as simple as two words. Like, “He’s married.” Or, “Corn chips.” Sometimes she asks the right questions, like; “Why is the secret agent wearing lingerie to the PTA meeting?”

I love Damaris. She’s as close as an atheist like me can come to worshiping anything and as a Muse, she is the best.







For a blog post on beta readers it seems appropriate to have a range of options for the title. It’s the sort of thing that a beta reader might have an opinion on.

Which is the entire crux [nub, heart, essence, most important point, central point, main point, essential part, core, centre, nucleus, kernel, bottom line] of beta readers.  Opinions.

Opinions are what beta readers provide. Somewhat humorously there are people who charge for this service. I don’t know what they offer that unpaid beta readers don’t provide, because I have never felt the urge to pay anyone for a second opinion (unless they are a doctor and that rash is just not healing).

Opinions are the core of what beta readers provide – hence the collective noun, an Asshole of Beta Readers.

Editors, formatters, book cover designers, these are services I expect to pay for if I am self-publishing (or the publisher will pay for). But why not beta reading?

It comes down to what I am getting for my money; expertise is the main thing.

I expect that an editor, a cover designer, or anyone else being paid for a service in relation to a book, is doing something that I cannot do myself. More importantly, I expect that they will add value to the project. They will do some sorcery with Photoshop. They understand the subtle nuances of grammar and know their prepositions from their propositions. They can make a book layout work in any device.

These are all things that are worthy of payment due to expertise and a saleable service.

Beta readers on the other hand read books and give opinions. I’ve had beta readers say the kinds of things about my books that I would normally expect from my mum (not, “Oh God, you gave me nightmares!”) but the “I’m very proud of you, well done!” variety of response.

I’ve had other beta readers who completely missed the point of a key element of a character. Things that were pretty clearly laid out and while I could have included a handy diagram and bullet point list – to really make it clear, this writing thing is about suggestion, implication and not giving all the details because when a reader reads, they put their own perception goggles on and view the story through their filters.

The result is I am left wondering if they were on the kind of medication that has a warning on the label advising you not to operate machinery, drive or beta read while under its effects.

Because their output is opinions, beta readers are not objective. An editor may not give a monkey’s pancreas that your main character is a gender-fluid, nihilist philosopher alien who is in love with a trombone. There are simply there to make sure you make words good.

A beta reader will either enjoy the story or they will reject it because it doesn’t fit with their gender-static, life-affirming, brass instrument phobic world view.

Mostly, I don’t bother with beta readers. Sometimes a publisher will use them, which is their prerogative. The bit that grates like bone dust in my synovial fluid, is when the opinion of a beta reader is taken as so important that the story must be changed to change the bits that they did not like.

On the flipside of this is the creepy reader who reads a horror novel and sends you fan mail about an implied act of sexual assault from a scene in the book. While you wrote it as a ‘most-goddamned-awful-thing-I-can-imagine’ they write to tell you about how much they liked it. I mean, really liked it.

At least the creepy fan with a rape fantasy paid to read the book.

Tankbread 4: Black Snow


Tankbread 4: Black Snow

Tomorrow the fourth and final book in the Tankbread series is released by Permuted Press.

I was reminded of this through the power of Google Alerts. Which (as the name suggests) alert you when key words appear on the Internet.

I have alerts for the usual key words, Paul Mannering, Tankbread, Engines of Empathy, Cross-dressing Gnomes with bangle fetishes.

The most common alert I get is for Tankbread, and it’s always a link to the latest site offering pirated copies of the book. Which is why I was reminded by Google Alerts that Tankbread 4: Black Snow is out tomorrow.

The pirate sites have it on offer already – or at least they have the page waiting for it to be on offer tomorrow. You can download it in mobi or PDF format.

If you do, you can also go and fuck yourself with a rusty chainsaw.

There have been screeds written on the issue of online piracy. You can probably download all the literature for free from pirate sites.

It’s a difficult issue – you can’t control it. You can’t stop it. You also can’t ignore it.

Responses from content creators (the Millennial term for people who make stuff that people click on to generate advertising revenue for websites) ranges from Pulp Fiction style Biblical rage (And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger…) to the rather quaint idea that all information should be free.

Some will say, “They weren’t going to buy it anyway.”

I’m not going to buy a new Mercedes either, but it doesn’t give me the right to fucking steal one from the local European car dealership.

Others will say, “It’s not really stealing, because it’s copying.”

Yes, it is copying – but I get paid for the thousands of hours I put into writing these books by selling copies. Every time you acquire a copy without paying for it – I don’t get my return on the investment. If you don’t want to buy a copy, don’t fucking read it.

This is like raging at the ocean because a wave came up the beach and made your shoes wet. It doesn’t change anything and just leaves you feeling frustrated, powerless, with wet shoes.

Publishers have to take the losses into account – which is nearly impossible because (the downloaders weren’t going to buy it anyway) so you can’t easily put a value on the lost income.

The only way to be sure would be to say, “If offered the choice, would you buy this book or download it from a pirate site?”

Anyone who says yes to the pirate download, you can quote Ezekiel at them and eat their burger.

Wizards (1977)

Wizards (1977)  Director/Screenplay/Producer – Ralph Bakshi,

An illuminating history bearing on the everlasting struggle for world supremacy between the powers of Technology and Magic.

PLOT: It is two million years after civilisation has been devastated by a nuclear holocaust. The radiation has caused races of elves, dwarves and fairies to mutate. In the elvish kingdom of Morganthar, a queen gives birth to two sons who are psychic opposites of one another – the charming Avatar and the vile Blackwolf. Both become powerful wizards. Avatar becomes the ruler of Morganthar but Blackwolf reviles his name and chooses self-exile in the kingdom of Scortch, a nuclear wasteland. There he rallies the mutants and demons of the underworld under him, although they lack the volition and unison to be an army. However, after researching into history, Blackwolf discovers all about weapons of war and finds that he can unite the troops together around old film footage of Adolf Hitler. Wizards


Bob Holt – Avatar, an old but powerful wizard

Jesse Welles – Elinore, Avatar’s love interest

Richard Romanus – Weehawk, a noble elf warrior

David Proval – Necron 99/Peace, Blackwolf’s former minion. He is renamed Peace by Avatar.

Steve Gravers – Blackwolf, Avatar’s evil brother

James Connell – President

Mark Hamill – Sean, king of the mountain fairies

Susan Tyrrell – Narrator (uncredited)

Ralph Bakshi – Fritz/Lardbottom/Stormtrooper (uncredited)

Angelo Grisanti – Larry the Lizard (uncredited)


Ralph Bakshi is one of cinema history’s most tragic figures. Certainly the most tragic in animation. By which I mean that the financial success of his films fell short of his vision and genius for storytelling.

With grand vision hampered by a far less grand execution, projects like his Lord of the Rings film remain as cult-classics because of the vastness of the vison (and the vastness of the vision of the source material) that trying to make one film to encompass it all was impossible. Sir Peter Jackson made 6 films to tell the same story.

For me, Ralph Bakshi’s Wizards (1977) remains as the pinnacle of his creativity. An original story, a fantastic mashup of fantasy, science fiction, post-apocalyptic adventure and ultimately, a war film.

The film opens with Susan Tyrell’s droning voice over. She was so unimpressed with the project that she asked to not be included on the film’s credits. However, her timelessly aged voice has always been one of the great features of the film and she has regretted her request ever since.

Some reviewers speak ill of Ms Tyrell’s voice over. To me it encompasses everything that the film is about. It’s a voice of an ancient Gaia – the Mother Earth spirit. A world that has been torn and burned and ravaged. Has been engulfed in an epic firestorm of nuclear weapons and has healed over millions of years. A world with scars and the weight of billions of years. That is the voice of Susan Tyrell. It is eerie, and ancient and spine-tinglingly good.

The soundtrack varies from 70’s guitar wa-waah to haunting electronic synth. It feels like a 1970’s rock opera overture through most of it. The overall sense of the music is a lyrical jazz, experimental rock n’ roll fusion.

Fox Studios refused Bakshi’s request for further funding, and the DIY nature of much of the animation is part of its unique charm. The rotoscoped battle scenes from classic films looked really good, so Bakshi decided there was no need to animate them further. He paid for the additional footage and animation out of his own pocket when the studio money ran out. George Lucas also asked for more money for Star Wars around the same time (they refused his request too).

Famous artists like Ian Miller contributed backdrop scenes, particularly for Black Wolf’s city and the more pastoral Montegar.

Historical allegory is the most important theme of this film. Twenty-five minutes in and the stage has been set with a direct metaphor for Nazi Germany’s rise in Nationalism and rebuilding of their war-machine in the 1930’s.

The chilling part is the scene where the elf veteran of the previous wars is chuckling about what useless troops Blackwolf has. His confidence is matched by his fellow troops, though the young soldier who has no experience is less than convinced. The scene that follows is one of the grimmest ever put to animation. It cements Wizards position as an adult animated film, not a family-friendly movie that you could let your kids watch.

Wizards has rightly become a cult classic. The initial box-office taking was small, but this is a film that is just as relevant now as it was 25 years ago.

Rating: #3 in my Top Five Films of All Time