Reviewers vs writers

I’ve been thinking a bit about reviewers lately.  Mostly it’s because I’ve been sending out oodles of requests for people to review my book (Awfully Appetizing).  There’s a longstanding love/hate relationship between writers and reviewers.  It’s kind of a parallel between the love/hate relationship between writers and publishers.

By the nature of what we each do, we are dependent upon one another.  Obviously reviewers need writers so that they (the reviewer) has something to do, while reviewers are able to present a book to a group of people who, otherwise, might never have even heard of it.  One might assume that there was a symbiosis between the two, and in a way there is.  But there is also a rivalry.  The rivalry is, I think, based upon an imbalance of power.  For every reviewer out there, there seems to be a thousand authors.  Or perhaps its just that every author is trying to contact every reviewer.

Whatever the reason, the effect is the same: the reviewers are inundated with requests from desperate authors.  When, inevitably, the reviewers find themselves unable to read every single book, the result is a collection of annoyed authors who feel that they’ve somehow been stiffed.  Not all of us, some of us have been around long enough to know that it isn’t personal, but when nine hundred people didn’t make the cut, some of them are bound to be resentful.

It’s an interesting situation.  And, frankly, it highlights some of the problems with the way the writing world works.

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Seven Favorite Sins

So, there are a lot of ways to go about building characters.  You can base them on people that you know, or exaggerated ideals.  You can make them to fit a special need in your writing, or you can imagine a crazy society and ask yourself what would come about because of that.

Sometimes, though, what I find myself with are too-perfect characters.  I make them, not into reflections of myself, but reflections of who I’d like to be.  I make them the ideal human, then wonder why nobody can relate to them.

Well, if you ever find yourself with a character that you think might be just a little bit too perfect, here’s something you can try: ask yourself what their favorite sin is.

There are seven deadly sins, let me see if I can list them all:

Lust

Greed

Wrath

Pride

Sloth

Gluttony

Envy

Now,as I understand it, there are people out there who have managed to completely rid themselves of one or maybe two of these, but let’s be honest here, for the rest of us, all seven are pretty big.  But the thing you have to keep in mind is that everyone has at least one of these that is there go-to sin.  Or, if you’re not a fan of the word ‘sin,’ let’s call it imbalance.  Whatever name you give it, it comes back to the same thing:  There’s something in you that drives you to behave foolishly.

Pick one, give it to your character, and whenever you write that character, remember that failing and make a point of bringing it out a bit.  It’s a fantastic way to make your characters be just a little more human, when you would otherwise be writing them as minor gods.

That Itchy Feeling

Human beings have a lot of skin.  I mean, a whole lot of it.  As it happens, I have a bit more than your average bloke on the street, partly because I’m taller than average ,but mostly because I’m… well, wider than average.

Anyhow, we’ve got a lot of skin, and our skin is feeling a lot of stuff pretty much all of the time.  And most of the time we don’t even notice it.

But if you want to find out just how much your skin is feeling all the time, all you really have to do is find one bug on your person.  Just one.  Maybe it’s a caterpillar that dropped into your hair as you were passing under an old oak tree.  Maybe it’s a beetle that was passing by and decided to land, just for a moment, on your arm or the nape of your neck.  Maybe, if you’re fast enough and have good enough vision, it’s a flea that was lying in wait as you happened to walk past some poor mutt.

Whatever it is, once you find one of them, your body goes on alert.  Next thing you know you’re getting information about EVERYTHING that could POSSIBLY be another insect on you.

Occasionally it’s actually in insect.  Most of the time, though, it’s not.  It might be a tiny sliver of grass that’s stuck to you, or a thread that’s hanging off your shirt and brushing against your skin.  Or it could be the wind catching the hair on your arm and tugging it just so.

You could go days without even checking to see if you’ve got a mosquito on you, but the second you catch one, you’ll spend the next four hours checking yourself every twenty seconds.

I recently sent a manuscript out to a bunch of my beta readers, and now, thanks to years and years of experience, I know that I cannot check that manuscript until I have at least half of them back.  Because if I find one thing wrong, one misspelling, one piece of bad grammar, one wrong comma, I will be spending every waking minute from now until I get those copies back searching for anything that could possibly be wrong in my manuscript.  And I’ll be e-mailing all of my beta readers with up to the minute updates.  “Found another comma splice, sorry about that folks.”  “Crap, subject verb agreement problem on page 155!”

So even if I’m pretty sure, pretty damned sure, that I forgot to take care of something in the last chapter, that I left a tiny little plot point open that I meant to shut, I cannot, cannot, cannot actually go fix it.  Not yet.

No, I have to accept the itch.  Just endure it.  Endure it just a little while longer…

Sometimes you have to go forward, to go backwards, to go forwards

So I’ve got an idea for a book.

Okay, I’ve got oodles of ideas for books… for those of you who have writer friends and you want to tell them an idea you had that they could write about?  They’ve got plenty of ideas.  Ideas are the easy part.  But we’ll set that aside for now.

So, the problem I have with the idea that I want to write about right now is that it isn’t a FULL idea.  I don’t have all of the pieces.  I have an idea that I think will work well to hook the audience in, and which will force me to be more creative in the way I address certain things.  I have ideas for characters that I like.  They’re complicated, three dimensional (well, most of them) and well flawed.

The story itself I’m still working on, but that isn’t the hard part…

The hard part is the world building.

Please… don’t give me any advice, I’ve built worlds before.  Plenty of them.  I know tricks and tropes and techniques and… and… stuff.  That’s not the problem.  The problem is that I’ve got a fairly vast world, to which I have made a number of deep changes.  The way time is measured is somewhat different than what we’re used to. The kinds of currency that are used is different.  Certain expressions are very different.

All of which would be fine if I were writing this more traditionally, but I’m doing something a little bit different with perspective I’m writing this from.  In order to introduce the narrator correctly, I sort of have to ask the reader to take a couple of leaps of faith with me.

But you can only ask for so many leaps of faith.  You have to give the reader a place to start, a foundation from which to understand the story.

In the end I realized that the only way I could figure out where to begin, was to start in the wrong spot, go as far as I could go, then look back and figure out where I should have started instead.

It’s kind of frustrating.  I’m going to write three or four chapters that will all be thrown out just as soon as I figure out what I need to figure out here.  But it’s exciting too.  I can really go for it, I don’t have to worry about making everything comprehensible, or getting the terms just right.  I just have to pick up the bat and swing for the fences.

Go forward, so I can go backwards, so I can go forwards.  Maybe I’m biting off more than I’m ready to chew, with this project.  Maybe if I waited a couple of years and tried again it would flow perfectly and easily.

Then again, you never make progress if you only do what’s easy.  The more you struggle with a project, the more you have to wrestle all the details into place, the more you learn and the better you are when you start something new.  Right?

Reconnecting with nature, sort of

So, I’m away from home for a couple of days.  Specifically, I’m on a farm.  It isn’t exactly a nature preserve, but I’m definitely spending more time around plants and animals out here, and I have to say: I forgot how disgusting nature is!

There are a number of fruit trees on the property, and I’ve been going out and checking for ripe fruit periodically.  The problem is, I’m not the only one checking.  There are beetles and wasps and ants checking as well.  And man, once they start in on a fruit, it goes bad FAST.

Usually it’s the wasps that I have the most trouble with, mostly because they’ll hide on the far side of a fruit, then attack you when you grab at it, but this year the beetles are the ones driving me crazy.  They’re so bloody aggressive!  And loud!  You’d think that something that can’t sting would go running instead of trying to chase you away from its fruit.  Sorry, Charley.  If I’m going after anything anywhere near them, BZZZZZZZZ!  Divebomb!

I’ve got to take a net out there or something, see if I can catch a few of those bastards and feed them to the chickens.

Well, on the upside, even when the fruit is spoiled, I can always put it in the mulch pile… the mulch pile has had so many fruits and vegetables dumped into it that it’s basically a giant pile of maggots right now, which is AWESOME, because you can dump fruit in and just watch them devour it.  Why do I find the insects on the trees gross, but the ones in the pile cool?

Reflecting as I promote

So, one of the great conundrums in the world of promoting art is how you seek out your audience.

There are places, both real and virtual, where fans of particular kinds of art congregate.  For the sake of this blog, I’m going to focus on the fans of my kind of art.  Science fiction and fantasy books.

The problem is that the places, both real and virtual, which have the largest gatherings of potential readers are well aware of their potential value.  Places like comic book conventions, and io9, where my possible readers come together regularly and in droves, know that have created the perfect place for writers and the like to peddle their wares, so they charge for the privilege.  I don’t begrudge them that, after all they put a lot of time and energy into what they do.  It makes sense that people looking to take advantage of it should have to pay for it.

The problem is that for writers who don’t have an established fan base and can’t count on a certain number of sales, or cannot easily come up with the money required to rent a table, each purchase is a calculated risk.

So instead, when you don’t have the cash flow to buy a spot at one of the big places, you have to look for the little places.  Like blogs.  A few days back I found a list of blogs where people reviewed urban fantasy stories.  I went through them, checked each one out, and whenever I found an active site that looked like they were interested in my kind of story, I sent them an e-mail asking if they’d like to review my book.

The thing that interested me was just how many of the sites were defunct.  You had to keep your eyes open, check out how long ago the last post had been put up.  There were places that looked perfect for my kind of book, it just happened that the last time they’d done anything on their site was 2011.  Funny.  And kind of sad.  A bunch more just weren’t taking reviews at the moment, so, all told, of the hundred and fifty blog sites that I looked into, I think I sent off just a little under twenty five requests.

But man, there were a lot of dead sites.  In a way, looking at all of the review sites reminded me a lot of writers.  There are a lot of writers and would-be writers out in the world, trying to make a go of it, desperate to be seen, desperate to be heard.  We tell ourselves that this is our calling, that this is what we want to do with our life.  But somehow, the longer you go, the more ‘bodies’ you start seeing on the side of the proverbial road.  Eventually most people quit.  And I can’t fault them for it. Pursuing your dreams is a rough road to travel.  You take a look around you and you see the people who’ve made it, you see the io9s and the comicons, and you know where you want to end up, what you want to be.  But at a certain point you just sort of realize that you’re not going to end up there.  You can do well for yourself, potentially you can become  a great niche artist, but your name will never reach the acclaim of, say Stephen King or Jim Butcher.  It’s a bit troubling, when you have to readjust your aim, shoot a little lower.

Rules for Reviews

A few years ago I was chatting with a writing buddy of mine who also reviewed books.  He told me something interesting: apparently he doesn’t give bad reviews.

Now, to be clear, that doesn’t mean that anything he reads automatically gets a good review, but if he reads a book and he can’t give it at least three stars (I think it was three, it might have been four) he just doesn’t review it at all.

A year or two before that, he’d confided something similar to me when we was judging manuscripts for a writer’s conference competition.  In that particular instance the potential score for a book had ranged from zero to, I think, eighty.  He told me that he never gave a score below sixty.

In that particular instance it rather made sense.  A score of less than seventy by one of your judges pretty much knocked you out of the running for winning the competition.  My friend felt that giving a score lower than sixty was basically just adding insult to injury.  Kind of like if an editor sent you a rejection letter that said ‘you should really quit trying to write.’

But while I agreed with him about the contest scores, I couldn’t help but feel that his rules for book reviews were a little less logical.

Mostly it’s a question of who you are writing the review for.  If you’re writing a review for the author, then the rule makes sense.  I have, on several occasions, read a book by someone I know, or a friend of someone I know, intending to write a review for them.  But when I get to the end of the book and find that I can’t give it four or five stars, I generally don’t do anything at all.  Because I went in to this planning to help them.  Writing the review that I feel the story deserves would be like slapping them in the face, and I just can’t do that.

But most of the time, if I read a book and it just sucks, I mark it like I think it deserves.  Because, as long as I don’t know the author, I’m not writing the review for them.  I’m beholding to the reader, and I don’t just want to put good books into the hands of readers, I want to keep bad books out of their hands.

My friend has been a writer even longer than I have, and he’s more sociable than I am, so I think that on some level he feels a greater kinship to other writers.  And perhaps he’s been burned by more cruel reviews than I’ve had to face, or more low scores without any explanation.  I do know that those are incredibly frustrating.

But maybe another part of the problem is that we can’t agree on what the various stars mean.  I remember looking at the goodread stars one time.  It turns out that, from their perspective, only one star reviews are ‘bad.’  One start is for ‘didn’t like it’.  two stars is supposed to mean ‘it was okay.’  three start is I liked it, for starts is I liked it a lot, and five stars is “I loved it!”

But when I’m scanning for books to read, what do I usually look for?  Four stars and above.  A 3.2 star ranking isn’t very impressive even though it means, if the star system is to be believed, that on average people liked it.

Or maybe they don’t.  When I take a survey with five answer slots the slots are usually ‘strongly agree, agree, neither agree nor disagree, disagree, strongly disagree.’  I’ve sort of always done my reviews the same way.  After all, if I read a book and think it kind of sucks, I don’t want to recommend it, but I don’t want to give it the same score as a book that I think is unreadable.  If I had my druthers (whatever a druther is), I’d change the way we do reviews.  get rid of stars, come up with a scale that made sense.  Something…

A funny story.

So, a few years ago I moved to a new town. Sometime in the first week or so that I was there I found a nice little bookstore/coffee house with good lighting and relatively cheap drinks where I could sit for hours working on my stories.

Eventually I met the owner, a nice guy.  We got to talking and I found out that he also ran a small press.  I told him that I was a writer and had submitted a lot of books to small presses over the years, but I never had much luck with it.  I told him my theory that there was very little carry over between the skills associated with writing a book, and the skills associated with writing query letters and synopses and everything associated with getting a book published.

From there we got onto the subject of bad query letters.

One of the ones that came to mind for him actually hadn’t started out that bad.  The story seemed like it could be interesting, but after the first paragraph or so it had kind of meandered off point and the writer had kind of started complaining about his life and how hard it was to get any response from anybody.

The letter sounded vaguely familiar.

Several years later, while visiting home, I was digging through some of my old files and low and behold, I came across an old submission letter I’d written to a small press in that particular town… that’s right, I wrote a letter so bad that years later and hundreds of miles away, I got to hear somebody complaining about it.

Delayed Reaction

Woo!  Sorry about that last post.  As  rule I should avoid blogging when I’ve been up for more than twenty hours at a stretch.  I know people who can function after a couple of days without sleep, but let’s face it, I need eight hours a day or I’m delirious.

Anyway, after finding out a couple of days ago that I’ve sold all of seven copies of my book over the last three weeks (SEVEN?!?), I’m going to be spending quite a bit of time over the next couple of days focusing on promotion.

But one of the problems I have with promotions is that the best forms generally take a lot of time, and are incredibly hard to attribute directly to the source.

For example, the form of promotion I think is most effective is word of mouth.  If somebody reads your book and loves it so much that they start telling everybody about it, that is probably the single most effective method of reaching a wide audience that you will ever find.  Now, it’s true that if the person who read it and loves it has a platform, it’s even more effective, for example, if Oprah Winfrey loves your book, that’ll get you more sales than if Ms. Bennett from apartment 3A loves your book, but either way, if you can make somebody a fan for life, then you’ve got an advertisement that will keep on working for you for years to come.  Not to mention the fact that an endorsement from someone who is obviously not being paid to endorse your work will carry more weight than any paid advertisement.  Oh, and by the way, you also have somebody who wants to know when your next book comes out.

But getting word of mouth going requires time.  After all, you have to get the book into the reader’s hand and wait for them to actually read it.  Plus, who remembers the name of a book recommended to them in a casual conversation?  You have to tell it to them half a dozen times before they remember that it was Storm Front by Jim Butcher, not the Butcher Store by Jimmy Front.

And attribution is a bitch as well.  Promoting is a lot like putting on a blindfold and throwing darts at the board.  When you finally take the blindfold off and see that one of the darts got you fifty points, how the hell are you supposed to know which throw it came from?

So even if you find the perfect way to promote your book, once you’ve done it, how the hell do you figure out which of the techniques is actually responsible?

I’m sending review requests to a bunch of book reviewers over the next couple of days.  I’ve done this before, when I was promoting a book under another name.  I sent out reviews to about a dozen bloggers and exactly zero of them replied.  But hey, maybe this time…

Sleep Schedule

I have to say, I’ve hated every job I ever had.  Even the ones that I liked.

Over the years I’ve accumulated a somewhat eclectic resume including such jobs as an animal caretaker, typist, farmer, and usher.  Some of my jobs just sucked.  Bad pay, annoying work, rude coworkers, bad boss, some of my past jobs have had absolutely nothing redeeming about them whatsoever. But I’ve had a few that were pretty good, objectively speaking.  My last job was working for people that liked me, with people who respected me, doing something I was pretty good at.

Most days I still hoped for some accident that would lay me up for a couple of months just so I wouldn’t have to be at work.

It wasn’t that I’m lazy… I mean, I am lazy, but that wasn’t what this was about.  I’ve known for most of my life that I wanted to be a writer, so every job I’ve had that wasn’t directly related to that felt like a waste of time.

But one thing I will say about all those jobs, they kept me on a schedule.

It’s 8:50 in the morning, and I haven’t gone to bed yet.  When I don’t have something specific forcing me to keep to a normal sleep schedule, my mornings and evenings just kind of… slide.  They slip a few minutes here, a half an hour there.  Suddenly I find myself waking up in the middle of the afternoon and working on my writing until the sun comes up.

Now, give me a couple years and I (hopefully) won’t be complaining about that.  Working at night is fantastic.  Something about being up when everyone else is out just makes you feel… creative as hell.

But I’m not to the point that I can do that yet.  I may not have a job, but I still have responsibilities, I have phones to answer, I have things to do.  I take care of some odd jobs for friends and family, and they don’t much care for me trying to take care of that in the middle of the night.

So now I’ve got to choose, I can try to force myself to go to sleep earlier and earlier, or try to stay awake later and later.  You’d think that schedules would slide back into place as easily as they slide out of it. You’d be wrong.  Sleep is a fickle mistress, and there’s nothing she likes more than to tease you to death.

Alright, I’m going to stay up one more hour, just one more.

If I had any caffeine in the house it wouldn’t be nearly so hard to pull off, but I just ran out and I don’t want to drive to the store when I’m this tired.