Friday, September 22, 2017

I am a Recovering Grammar Nazi

'Grammar Nazi' is probably the most apt comparison of a benign, daily mentality and the horrific events that happened in 1930’s Germany. Nazism, a political party known for its desire to purge the world of so-called impurities defined by shallow and arbitrary attributes, wanted to prove the superiority of its members, not through action of good deeds and impressive accomplishments, but through religious upbringing, skin color, hair color, and other traits that were often easily determined by sight or documentation. If the failing was not immediately obvious, they would make it so with actual visualizations to help the “good” members of society not have to think.

On the one side, learning grammar, spelling, and punctuation grants the “speaker” better control over being understood. Even if he is not a writer, the nuances of language are powerful. Even if he isn’t worried about reputation or being “professional,” (superficial reasons to prioritize these things), actively practicing the differences between two words empowers those words.

I do believe checking for typos is important, especially when it comes to publishing.

But, despite being one of those people who will notice and be distracted by stupid little mistakes (except in my own writing obviously), I have long forsworn being a Grammar Nazi. Or rather, believe it has a time and place.

People don’t attack me for typos often. Less than they should, in fact. Every once in a while, I’ll get a polite message informing me of a mistake. Sometimes, unfortunately, they’ll try to be funny, which is when they’re at their rudest. But for the most part, people leave me alone about them.

Until, that is, certain subjects come up.

Every so often I imply in a blog that I would like people to point out my mistakes. (Which is true. It takes a village to find a typo.) For a few days after, I’ll get a splurge of “corrections.” These are not always actually correct, however, and on many occasions, it’s not the issue of proper grammar as much as it is a preference, or worse, hearsay.

Ending a sentence in a preposition has been a debunked grammar rule. It has been proven to never officially be part of the English language for a long time, but the internet has only picked up on it recently.

For those of you who haven’t heard, ending a sentence in a preposition, “What’s that for?” or “What did you step on?” or even “Wake up!” is a Latin grammar rule that a particular Grammar Nazi in the 1800s wanted to make into an English rule. His propaganda campaign worked and convinced people that it was improper.

But not only does not ending a sentence in a preposition sound strange and often lend to more distracting and not necessarily clearer wording, the fact is that it’s not a grammar rule. It just isn’t. So why is it I’ll get messages on a Facebook status saying I can’t say, “I can’t put my notebook down?”

Maybe because the post was about writing.

The only times I get grammar comments on my Facebook statuses are when I write about writing. Makes sense, doesn’t it? I mean, we should hold writers to higher standards, shouldn’t we?

Except that it’s not comments like I’m misusing “you’re,” it’s comments like, “You ended your sentence in a preposition!” or “How dare you use an Oxford comma!”

(Putting a comma before the conjunction in a list is called the Oxford comma, and it is correct either to put it in or not. “Jeremy, Susie, and I walked to the park. Zombies, monsters and penguins attacked us.”)

A fellow writer used a great example to suggest that using the comma or not can help cadence. Unfortunately, I can’t find the quote, but it did convince me (a previously pro-Oxfordian) that it should be chosen based on how you want the sentence to sound.

Even though both are accepted by all grammar experts, you will still have people complain one way or the other. I’ve once even witnessed a certain gentleman bitch at one girl for not using them to then, months later, complain to another when she did.

Why? Because Grammar Nazism isn’t always about maintaining the purity of the language, it’s often about proving superiority in the easiest method.

“Look how much I know the grammar rules!”

Grammar rules are the only black and white thing about creative writing. You can’t demonstrate to me you’re an expert in the field with just a few sentences. I mean, I know we claim that Hemingway could with his six word, “For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn,” but you’ll find when you give pieces of the masters’ writing to a blind audience, the lack of a reputation gives an influx of opinions on the prose. Which is to say, studies show that readers (or, in one specific case, music listeners) who don’t have any background information on an author and aren’t given ratings on what other people think tend to differ much more drastically on what is “good,” where those who are informed of what other people think tend to clump together.

Most “great” writers are polarizing, with people who love them or hate them. Many cases you have to give something a second (or third or fifth) chance before you realize just how deep/touching it is. I’ve hated most of my favorite shows before I was forced to get into them by friends and family.

And even if a writer was able to write like a god it very well might be that he couldn't just do it off the top of his head in a response to a Facebook status. We probably don’t even know exactly what made our writing so great, so we can't demonstrate the ability with abstract writing tips.

So I, a frustrated writer attempting to prove my knowledge, pull out a writing rule, whichever writing rule I can get my hands on at the time, even if I don’t actually agree with it.

The unfortunate thing is that, because it is motivated by a superficial superiority, Grammar Nazis will try and perpetuate grammar rules that are either untrue or just unhelpful. Instead of encouraging writing to be better, we attempt to discredit the speaker.

Just because a Grammar Nazi is strict doesn’t mean he knows what he’s talking about. Recently, a friend of mine said, “John’s coming over to visit you and me,” then corrected himself. “John and I.” I told him, supportively, he was right the first time. You put the other person first because it’s polite, but you use “I” when it’s the subject, me when it’s the object. (When in question, take out the other person and see what sounds right. “John is coming over to visit me,” not “John is coming over to visit I.”)

Considering himself a grammar expert, he was flustered and a little pissed off, even though I thought (albeit dumbly) I was telling him he was right. This is the same guy who tried to correct me on a part of speech (I was saying something was an adjective, he said it was a verb), and then called me a Grammar Nazi when I told him he was wrong.

Grammar Nazism is rarely about proper grammar as much as it is about proving yourself.

When it comes to an argument, I find that many people focus on proving the other person wrong, rather than proving their concept right. In high school, two of the biggest know-it-alls in class were in a fight whether or not all art is propaganda. The girl snatched up a dictionary and read what propaganda actually meant, which, if it did anything, only showed that he was using the word wrong (exaggerating, I would say), but didn’t disprove his belief that all art has an agenda.

Trying to prove that someone’s an idiot by claiming they used the wrong form of “you’re” is akin to calling someone fat. Yes, you did the trick in pissing them off, but it was obvious you were going for the easy target, and really, is it relevant to the issue at hand?

It is because of these things that several years ago, I decided to control my emotions better. I hated getting so irritated by petty things, and I didn’t exactly like looking like a know-it-all. From my own experience, having someone correct me on my grammar didn’t make me feel like they knew what they were talking about, but rather were obsessed with proving it.

Not everyone should forsake the sacred duty of being a Grammar Nazi. It does actually encourage and teach people to write better, especially on social media. But personally, until someone asks me to specifically do their copy editing, I, for the most part, struggle to leave it alone. Unless you’re hitting on me, then all bets are off.

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Monday, September 18, 2017

How to Tell If You’re Being Too Hard On Yourself

“I know I’m being a bastard, but don’t worry. I’m too hard on myself too.”

“Yeah. I’ve read your writing, and I don’t think you are.”

He had the tendency to tear the other members of the group apart, and like any hypercompetitive pissing contest, many of the writer’s group just let him sit with his ego. People refrained from criticizing him, tried not to pair up with him, and would smile and nod as he went on a rampage about their work.

He had just gotten done with a stream of condescending insults when he finally noticed the poet was pissed. She just sat, arms folded in front of her, watching him levelly. He, as many are inclined to do, back peddled, but only a bit.

He did not expect her to respond that way.

It has become my policy that whenever someone looking for feedback says, “I’m too hard on myself,” to take extra precaution. Anecdotally, I have never met a person saying this who wasn’t extra sensitive to criticism.

And it makes sense as to why. If you really believe you’re too hard on yourself, it means you think or hope your work is better than you think it is. And, considering that we get most offended the more credence we lend to someone else’s opinion, and are most insulted when someone “confirms” our secret fears, it makes sense that those who get the most upset about feedback are those who are hoping their opinion is just too biased against their own work.

It’s a popular ideology amongst writers that you can’t like your own work, and if you do, you are delusional. We also constantly claim that you must have exterior editors because you can’t edit yourself.

These thoughts, while valid in some sense, are not entirely accurate. Not only that, but the writer who depends too much on other people’s opinions while renouncing the legitimacy of his own is going to be someone voiceless, mainstream, and even contradictory or overwhelmed.

I do recommend getting outside feedback. Highly, in fact. But I believe in the power of self-editing, I think it’s foolish to give away the first draft of a manuscript you haven’t actually read yourself (writing it is not the same as reading), and using your instincts to gauge what is “wrong or right” with your book is what’s going to make that book yours—and therefore need to exist. It’s your unique set of personal tastes that people are really buying, not what hypothetical generic American teen probably wants. Sure, formulaic books sell well, but most times the author genuinely did have those pedestrian tastes. They were passionate about what they wrote, with a sort of magic behind the simplistic words. While you can’t only depend on your own opinion, turning a blind eye to it and hoping others have a “better” sense of taste is silly.

The main problem with self-editing is about pushing yourself. There are definitely people who are far more willing to let unsatisfying literature slide if it’s their own, those people who don’t see the flaws in their “children.” The secondary problem is the opposite; we hold ourselves to too high of standards and refuse to produce anything because it’s “not good enough.” We delete perfectly good—maybe even brilliant passages—because it doesn’t meet our standards. Or, worse, because we’re afraid the risks taken will be construed as mistakes. We let fear cloud our judgment.

We would like to think we don’t have our heads up our asses when we like our work, we’d like to think we’re just being too harsh when we don’t. Sometimes it’s a big problem, especially when we wonder if we’re ready to submit.

It’s the biggest question: How can I trust my opinion on my work?

-You have a variety of opinions.

This, obviously, doesn’t work if you’ve only written one manuscript. However, if you have several stories, even unfinished ones, the big question to ask yourself is how do you feel about each of them?

If you see a commonality—i.e. you despise every single one—it’s a sign that it’s you, not the story.

The quality of your writing will never be consistent. You should have different opinions about each work. The more varied those opinions, the more seriously you should take them.

-You can see the good and bad.

Allegedly, if you see a 'bad' in a manuscript you make a change. But sometimes 'bad' doesn’t necessarily mean a 'mistake.' Sometimes it’s just a ramification of your reasonable choice. Maybe the genre of your book became popular and is now trendy while you were writing it. Maybe you know that having a minority as a protagonist will deter some people. Maybe you know that some people won’t like the romance preempting the action. In many cases, every choice has a good and bad side.

If you read your story and you can’t find anything good to say about it, you feel it is “just terrible,” it’s a sign you’re being biased. On the other hand, if you read it and can’t see anything someone might complain about, it’s also a sign you’re being biased. Yes, we all are often biased against our own work, but we're also biased in general - that's what subjectivity is. It's nothing to accept as fact because the author always needs to be able to rely on his own opinion as he can't always count on other people to accurately tell him what's "in good taste" as they're just as biased as well. But how do you know?

You have different standards for other people.

My brother and I—of all people—were talking about wedding rings once. I said that I wanted the man to pick out my engagement ring (while my brother said he would never waste the money on one at all. We’ll see.) because if he picked it out and there was something “wrong” with it—like it shanked my clothing when I walked—it would just be an honest mistake, completely forgivable. How could he have seen that coming? However, if I picked out a ring and there was something wrong with it, it would be because I’m a complete moron and need to be shot.

I often find myself forgiving people for things that I would never forgive myself for. I have far higher expectations and standards for myself than I do others (it doesn’t mean I’m a precise person, just a self-judging one). This has its benefits—I push myself to achieve and am less likely to show off something I’m not completely proud of. But it also has its consequences.

It took me fifteen full-length manuscripts before I actively started pursuing publication of my novels. Yet, when I bit the bullet, wung it, and submitted my short stories to literary journals, I, lo and behold, got published. There is merit in pushing yourself, but there is also merit in taking a risk.

If you have the tendency to judge yourself harsher in things outside of writing—like picking out a messed up wedding ring—there’s a very good chance that yes, you are judging yourself too harshly in this as well.

I believe that anyone who isn’t as successful as they’d like has a decent idea as to why. Either you’re not working towards it at all (haven’t written anything), or you’re not creating anything of good enough “quality.” Perhaps it’s that you aren’t getting the word out there, or a mixture of all three. Sit back and take a good hard look at your hang ups. You probably know what’s holding you back on some level. 

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Friday, September 15, 2017

How to Talk to Aspiring Authors about Their “Awesome Story”

I braced against being a career teacher for three reasons.

One, out of spite for all of those college professors who start out with, “Since you’re all going to be teachers anyway…”

Two, I don’t like the bureaucratic methodology of current academia.

And three, there are certain common breakthroughs that happen through experience and encouragement and cannot be sped up by words alone. After helping one person through it, or a class, you’re not really interested in turning around and going through the pain and agony again with a bunch of hard-headed optimists.

Truth is, you went through it yourself. You probably went through it the hard way. You’d like to make it easier on them, not to mention how inhibiting naïve beliefs can be to other parts of the process.

Most of these breakthroughs seem so stupid and obvious in hindsight: Acting is a lot more fun if you learn your lines. I can actually tell how hard you didn’t try by the results of your lack of effort. Who cares if you’re naturally good? Even if you are, you could be better if you actually tried.

I recently had a discussion with a man online who wanted to know what he had to do to get published. Unfortunately, he wasn’t asking for advice like, “What’s the first step?” He wanted to know where to find editors because he simply didn’t have the time to work on it himself. He knew that he had a great idea. He claimed that he may not be an amazing writer, but he had an amazing story. How much would it cost because he didn’t have a lot of money, should he do self-publishing, should he edit the full book or just the first fifteen chapters, should he CrowdSource. He wanted to be able to make enough money to be able to quit or cut down to part-time.

Many of these questions cause writers to cringe. Personally, the idea of seeking out editors itself is just horrifying concept to me, even though it’s a fair question. While a theatrical producer, I had to hire artists constantly, and as anyone who’s had to hire anyone finds out, you never really know what you’re getting. When it comes to art, there’s not a lot of standards on pricing due to name recognition and our tendency to undervalue our time. Just because you pay someone a lot doesn’t actually mean they will be good or accountable. True is same for editors. There are sites in which you can find standing rates, but now with self-publishing so prevalent and many freelancers out there—plus a greater increase in con artists or just amateurs targeting this pool—it’s hard to say what’s a good deal.

These kinds of naïve questions can come off as entitled and egocentric, even when you realize it is just inexperience.

Which is why it’s hard for writers to not turn around and snap, “YOU’RE NOT A SPECIAL SNOWFLAKE WHO CAN WALTZ IN HERE LIKE THAT.”

They’re not putting themselves into the shoes of others. They think their experience is unique to them, that the thing they came up with on their first try is going to be so much superior to the infinite number of books out there, hell, even just the 400 books an agent has submitted to him that month. People think if you’re destined to do it, everything will come easily.

I don’t mean to trash first books, of course, and I certainly don’t discourage taking your own opinion of your book into account—you’ll see me often promoting the merits of self-reliance. It’s more about the frustration of trying to explain the hard things you’ve had to learn as you went along without committing to catharsis and outright insulting who you’re advising. Or demoralizing them.

My best suggestion to aspiring authors? Aim high, but expect standard, and don’t confuse the two. If you know it’ll be hard to sell ten books, make your goal a hundred. When you sell ten, be happy. Feel that accomplishment. When you don’t hit a hundred, don’t feel like a failure. But do your research, and work your butt off to achieve better than average.

The problem is when writers haven’t done their research, and there is the possibility if they truly understand how hard it is going to be, they won’t want to do it. When in a pissy mood, it makes you want to say, “Good.”

That’s not a beneficial reaction and considering that us writers have to deal with that throughout our lives, there’s a lot of reason to let go of the anger and attack it from a more sympathetic manner.

I answered him in the most factual way I could, keeping my responses to the exact questions asked. In the end, it came down to if he didn’t have time or money, he would not be able to self-publish, not in a way that would allow him to quit his day job. And if he did go through traditional publishing, he would still be required to do edits himself, though with the suggestions of his editor and agent.

His response was he decided to not go through self-publishing, he would edit it through once, hire a good editor, and send it out. He was “not aware of how much promotion went into self-publishing.”

I’ll admit that tough love has its benefits, and we all have our own philosophies on the best way to encourage and teach one another. I see it as likely that experiencing different teaching methods is more effective than just one kind. For that reason, it’s up to you to decide how to explain to someone that their “awesome idea” isn’t enough. But if you’re anything like me, you might feel compelled to smack them upside the head, which I insist tends to cause them to dig in their toes even more. Truly understanding the difficulty of becoming a successful writer isn’t something people will get through description. They have to put themselves out there, try and try again. They won’t give up just because you told them off, they won’t believe you just because you explained your experience.

Admittedly, I don’t understand this man’s naivety; why wouldn’t everyone go into self-publication if it didn’t require effort? However, I do get what it’s like to bank on a little bit of destiny to help you out, and in some ways, that’s a big part of not getting demoralized. Try to be nice to people who don’t really know what they’re in for, and remember that even if they don’t take your advice immediately, sometimes words can have a lasting effect on them years later. I never took that adamant crushing of dreams to heart—to my benefit! However, there have been times that someone’s advice turned relevant years later, after I too had lived what they were talking about.

So, when someone approaches you with their amazing idea, you don’t have to bite your tongue if you don’t want, just consider what would have been best way to deal with you when you were in that stage.

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Monday, September 11, 2017

The Quantum Effect of Soliciting Criticism

Several years ago whenever I’d meet with a published author, editor, or agent I’d always ask them, “What do you do about criticism you don’t understand?”

Each time the answer, after a hesitated consideration, would be the same. “What do you mean, ‘don’t understand?’”

I couldn’t say. I couldn’t believe no one had had the same feeling as me, that no one knew where I was coming from, no one had that moment of someone giving you a piece of advice and you just don’t get it. I could give them examples, like when my professor out of the blue told me I should, “Add in another character,” but the responses to this weren’t very helpful.

“Did you only have one character?”


“He just wanted you to add him in.”

Their guesses seemed speculatory and inaccurate.

Over time, it took a lot of self-analysis to finally explain what exactly I meant, to figure out how to explain what ‘not understanding’ was and thus how to solve it. Yet to this day it still shocks me that so few people relate to what I mean when I say there’s feedback I am confused about, even though it’s probably the majority of what I received.

Disagreeing with a criticism is you thinking it is incorrect. Not understanding a criticism is where you don’t see what problem it would solve, or maybe just don’t  understand why it’s so important to the reader. Sometimes they’ll harp on one word that I consider fine either way, that no one else has mentioned before and no one will seem to care about after. But they’re so adamant that you can’t but help wondering what is missing.

One day, while complaining about this to my dad, he said, “Well, sometimes you just need something to say.”

That rang true.

In a constructive criticism session, it can be a complete waste of time if no one has a response, but in many cases responses don’t come naturally. The most painful moment is when someone brings in a manuscript that is fine. It doesn’t have any obvious mistakes, doesn’t have any issues, but you don’t really love it either. What do you say to that person? Yes, I have scanned through a manuscript looking for something to say because I know how annoying it is to have people go, “It’s good,” and add nothing else.

You’ll note that when you give a manuscript out to someone, in the beginning, it’s chock-full of line notes, little anal comments on you using “slightly” instead of “lightly.” Sometimes this is useful, but in many occasions the notes are contradictory with other people’s versions, the one word that So and So complains about is not something that Joe Snuffy cares about and something that Joe Blow absolutely loves.

Over the course of the manuscript, further into the text, the line notes get less and less, growing into more bigger picture issues. The reader gets more engrossed in the story, has more information to go off of, and so stops feeling the need to rewrite the book for you, but actually starts to have some opinions.

But even those can sometimes feel forced.

Most readers naturally judge in hindsight and rarely analyze why they felt the way they did. Processing this way makes the book more enjoyable, makes the world more real. It’s one of the things authors complain about after they started writing—you see books differently once you decide to create them for yourself. Writers begin to dissect and go meta, struggling to be immersed and just let the story happen.

Which is why I recommend getting feedback from readers who don’t write along with any professionals or experts you can find. Readers are going to have a more open minded, result-based opinion than those of us who have been dissecting stories for the last decade, and are less likely to fixate on rules but rather reactions.

The issue is that getting specifics from non-writing readers is difficult. They only know if they liked it or not. They’re not able to tell you what exactly made them apathetic, just that they were. Many people will, of course, try, but that’s when we get into the quantum effect.

Quantum physics is a science that studies (among other things) photons and atoms. One of its concerns is about deciding if something is a wave—an oscillation accompanied by a transfer of energy that can travel through space and mass—or a particle—a minute fragment or quantity of matter—The most famous experiment, however, is when they attempted to determine the state of light and came to find that it possesses both qualities of waves and particles.

According to Wikipedia:

“In the basic version of this experiment, a coherent light source such as a laser beam illuminates a plate pierced by two parallel slits, and the light passing through the slits is observed on a screen behind the plate. The wave nature of light causes the light waves passing through the two slits to interfere, producing bright and dark bands on the screen—a result that would not be expected if light consisted of classical particles. However, the light is always found to be absorbed at the screen at discrete points, as individual particles (not waves), the interference pattern appearing via the varying density of these particle hits on the screen.”

In order to eliminate the interference, they decided to send one particle through at a time. When doing so, it acted like a particle, being “stopped” by the screen.

But they noticed something strange when it came to calculating the experiment’s results. When they attempted to measure the light, it acted like a particle, when they didn’t, it acted like a wave. Quantum physics suggests that once you try and measure the outcome, you can actually change it.

When people read for entertainment, they read differently than when doing so for analysis. Instead of letting themselves react and then determine if they liked it or not, they will try and recognize how they feel as they go, looking at each specific detail and trying to judge the whole of the story. It suddenly becomes impossible to not complain of adverbs and passive sentences, they get hung up on words they don’t know instead of skipping over them. They might start playing dumb and understanding less than they would if they hadn’t been looking for errors. They often let the details get to them and don’t notice the bigger picture issues.

Sometimes this is just sensible. An excessive amount of typos is naturally jarring and expecting someone to get immersed in the story despite commas and spelling errors confusing cadence and meaning is a little hopeful. Plus, it’s not as though they’re completely wrong when they don’t like a word you use.

It’s just that, sometimes, what people complain about, what makes them feel a certain way in a draft isn’tnecessarily how people are going to feel in a published book. You’re more limited when someone is deliberately trying to give you criticism. Sometimes they’ll not only allow, but enjoy your creativity in a published work that they would have scoffed at if done by a peer.

So what do you do?

Telling the difference is hard, but important. Many great writers were criticized before they got the reputation for people to trust their “strange” behavior. What made them famous was what was keeping them from getting their foot in the door. If you alter every unusual choice because that’s what people chose to complain about, you will likely produce an acceptable, but homogenized, uninspired piece of fiction. On the other hand, if you just ignore it, you might very well be shooting yourself in the foot. If you want other people to read your work then obviously other people's opinions matter. The question of how many people will feel the same way and in what context is important.

How can we avoid the quantum effect? How can we determine if it’s a result created from our attempts to measure it or if it is a constant reaction in any context?

1. Ask your readers not to mark up a manuscript.

Get one or a few readers to not actually use a red pen, but rather just read the manuscript without any notes at all. Afterwards, discuss their reaction, ask them how they felt, and see if they have any ideas for your problems. Tell them you’re using them to gain a better understanding of your piece, not actually looking for specific criticism.

When they’re not reading to make notes, they’re more likely to take it as it is on the whole, and their responses can be taken more seriously. Instead of trying to parse out if each individual phrase is actually problematic or if they’re just rewriting it in their way, hearing them say, “I love the way you write, but it can also be jarring sometimes,” can be taken as a more serious reaction. They’re more likely to forget each individual and perhaps petty critiques and only remember the more serious issues.

2. Make two lists of your favorite and most admired works.

On the first list, write out books that you enjoyed reading, whether you actually respected them or not. On the second list, name the works you admire regardless of if you actually had any fun reading them.

When someone gives you a criticism that you question, see what the people on those two lists actually did. If someone is telling you, “No one likes prologues!” but every book on your list had one, than you know it’s more of a question on why was theirs successful, and now can ask if the criticism on yours about what you did, a matter of personal taste, or just the critic looking for something easy to point out.

If books you enjoyed and respected did it, it now becomes a question of whether or not you did it well/if it’s an issue of trust and reputation. (Your reader didn’t like it because it was you, a peer, rather than they didn’t actually like it.)

If the books you enjoyed did it, but not the ones you respected, ask if its merit is actually about entertainment and if it’s the decision that lost respect.

If the books you respect but didn’t enjoy do it, ask if you are just trying to mimic them, or if perhaps the reader assumes you’re only doing it to look literary.

If none of the books on your list do it, it might be a good sign that it is a problem. You may consider looking at the stories you hate and seeing if they don’t also make the same choice.

3. Look for hypocrisy.

Check out your readers’ favorite authors. If your reader is a writer, see if you can’t go through some of their work. You may find that they’re reputation focused, i.e. Stephen King can get away with something Richard Bachmann can’t because King’s already been proven. Or it might be that they’re projecting—They try to write like their favorites all the time, so they are more critical when they think other people are doing it too. This doesn’t necessarily tell you if you should make the change one way or another, but it does give just a little bit more information to help you decide.

Same goes for if they write the way they’re telling people not to. It might be an issue of them being harsher on their own flaws, or it might be that they think they can get away with it; it’s something only the greats can do. It also might be something that other people have harped on them for, and we tend to give criticism in the way we receive it.

4. Get more readers.

It should be obvious, but the good side of the quantum effect is that it tends to lack consistency—also the reason why it’s a problem. When people are looking for something to say or are inorganically trying to come up with some sort of feedback, they tend to go to different places. If the feedback isn’t a genuine feeling, but rather something somewhat forced, it’s very likely that few people will say the same thing.

But keep in mind that sometimes, especially when the reader is only offering solutions without explaining the problem, two people can be saying the same thing in drastically different ways. Look for the common denominator before writing it off as being inconsistent, and whenever someone is telling you to do something (don’t use adverbs), make sure that the reason why they’re telling you to do it (enhance tension) isn’t the same motivator as another person also telling you to do something (shorten your sentences.)

5. Take conversational criticism more seriously than intentional criticism.

After you start producing work, writers begin to overhear conversations about their stories. People start approaching you to tell you what they think, they will discuss your blog on a forum, they’ll leave comments on your page, and feedback comes in from all kinds of places outside of an editor/review place.

Sometimes you can discard this information due to the differences of opinions and subjectivity (don’t ever pander to your enemies at the cost of your fans), but in many cases, if someone wants to tell you something without obligation, it’s a sign of a genuine feeling. There are many reasons to not listen to every layman with an opinion, but you can, at least, assume that it came from a real reaction rather than the man-made ones that might result when we force ourselves to have a response. Intentional criticism, like Amazon reviews or peer critiques, can be fantastic, well informed, and far more thorough, but it can also focus too much on logic and the way the world “should be.” Both criticisms should be taken seriously (as well as with a grain of salt), but just know there’s a reason why the feedback you got in a room with writers isn’t necessarily the feedback you’ll get from the internet.

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Friday, September 8, 2017

How the Sacrificial Ending Ended a Relationship

Sort of.

I just finished up season eleven of hit television show, Supernatural. If you’ve followed me up until this point, you’d know that I haven’t been that impressed with it.

“Then why the hell are you watching it?” you, if you’re anything like my brother, might be wondering.

I don’t know. I sit on Facebook a lot, and I don’t particularly enjoy that either.

But my past reflections on the series were definitely based around the low point I had found myself in while I attempted to get through it. It was good enough, at least, to be better than the gaping void that filled me, but the negativity and T.V. formulas bothered me to a deep level.

Now that I’m in a better place, my confusion of the show’s popularity had waned. I see the humor more, am less put off by philandering, and don’t struggle to concentrate nearly as much as I used to. I take things in as they come, and can appreciate the “escape from reality” storytelling of daytime television.

So while I do appreciate the show’s qualities more, I stand by my irritation at the vast majority of their endings. Not just seasons, but each episode. Do the writers know how to tie things up if they couldn’t just murder everyone? Hell, the main characters die just about as often as the minors (I was about to say minorities. Apt.) except usually they’re brought back to life.

In any case, as I get to the final episode of the season, yet once again they are trying to taunt the audience into worrying about the brothers’ safety. Of course each brother wants to be the one who sacrifices himself. Of course he offers to do it without the remotest of fear, despite that these self-sacrifices have caused a lot more problems for the whole of humanity than anything else.

I mean, to give credit where credit is due, the writers never back down from a shit storm their last solution caused, which is one of the greater qualities of the series. They have no problem hurting their protagonists, and it’s not like they’re going to get off scot free, even when you know their noble volunteering won’t actually be the catastrophe otherwise suggested.

I’ve always hated the self-sacrificing trope, honestly, long before I even realized it was common enough to be a trope.

It’s really easy for people to say they’ll do the right thing from the safety of our own homes, but most of us have sat around at one point thinking, “I would never cheat/do drugs/steal/backstab!” before reality struck us with a ton of bricks and we very much fucked it up via poor decision making, selfishness, or unpredictable factors beyond our control.

I always thought I would stand up for people in need if confrontation happened in front of me, but I didn’t factor in how something unexpected can hobble you, or how little nuances can make your planned reaction look over the top and emotional.

For instance, some time ago I watched a video featuring a man striking his girlfriend in the middle of the street. The “Candid Camera” situation saw people of all sorts coming to her aid. When the roles were reversed and the girl was beating the crap of her boyfriend, no one said anything.

Well, I’m not going to do that, I thought.

Lo and behold, it’s New Year’s Eve in New York City. The sidewalk around Central Park is crowded and people are shoving to get through. One man is shouting loudly—obnoxious, but somewhat comical—about the stupidity of people trying to get a glimpse of Times Square from 59th street. His girlfriend (I presume), right behind him, smacked him upside the back of the head.

“Shut up!” she said. “You’re being a jerk.”

It happened quickly. She hit him twice and kept moving. Neither of them were angry—irritated, but not hostile. It didn’t sound hard, but I bet it stung a little. It was certainly bad enough that I might have said something if the genders had been reversed, but as it was, I didn’t exactly think about it, I wasn’t involved in the conversation, both of them were bigger than me, and honestly what would I have said, in New York City, to a couple I don’t know, when neither of them seemed to be bothered by what had occurred?

I’m not saying it wouldn’t have had an effect; a great deal of abuse or just toxicity occurs because it has been normalized. Pointing out that I don’t think it’s appropriate to strike your partner would have at least caused them to question it. But it probably would have also gotten me yelled at.

My point?

It’s easy to say that you’d do the right thing theoretically, that you’d sacrifice yourself for the greater good if came to that. It’s even easier to have a character do it. And there are people who really would die for a cause. But I, for one, have never felt tension or admiration at a character’s offer to make the leap. In fact, not making the decision hard on them trivializes it in a way. Truly touching in on the smaller sacrifices can be far more effective than screaming, “I WILL LOSE MY SOUL FOR YOU!” It’s unrelatable.

This exact argument was a straw in the camel’s back of a break up. I mean, it wasn’t just that, and it didn’t even end it at the time, but my staunch philosophy and refusal to budge on this subject brought into light for the first time my biggest flaw in that (and subsequent) relationships.

I can be a surprisingly good doormat when I want to be. I suppose that one of the reasons I don’t like black and white mortality or the bluff of self-sacrifice is how important doing the right thing is to me. How, despite constantly reflecting on my beliefs and appropriate behavior, I can still do the wrong thing from time to time, sometimes that being too accommodating.

In any case, five years ago my boyfriend at the time was a director for a repertory group. He needed a play to fit the cast, and I offered to co-write it with him. He’d never really written a play before, but that didn’t concern me. He was a good oral story teller and honest about his tastes which are pretty good foundations for being a talented writer.

The problem? He really didn’t have a lot of artistic respect for me.

My first lesson from all this mess is to value yourself and what you’re contributing. I felt because he was taking a chance on me—an unpublished unknown—I needed to suck up and attempt to make the play he wanted.

He was indecisive, passively critical, and surprisingly closed-minded about anything out of his comfort-zone. To be clear, I consider him a kind-hearted person, a giver himself, none of his actions malicious. But he was easily influenced by reputation and I had none.

So we rewrote the entire plot about three times. If he had had his way, we could have had an upwards of 12 totally different plays. He couldn’t focus on one concept or incorporate those into each other. Everything he read or watched inspired him, and I struggled to lead him away from overt plagiarism. It wasn’t until I took charge and stuck with one idea (of his) that I liked that we got rolling. I put a little of all his concepts together, none of them fleshed out enough to be a story alone, and added characteristics and details that made the piece interested and inspired me. He wanted to write it together, but also wanted to procrastinate. When we did eventually sit down, we tried him dictating it to me, but his dialogue was far too on the nose and insincere to pass. Any criticism shut him down immediately, even if it was a mere idea.

As we went through, I bent over backwards in order to make it the play that he wanted, and I will say this: It is one of my better pieces. He was a plot guy while I’m a character girl. By writing for him instead of for myself, it forced me to think outside the box, care about areas I normally ignore, and really flesh it out before starting. I’d say the concept, the base idea, is mostly his/Stephen King’s, but everything else—from character to style to events to how the plot actually pieced together—was me. Despite the enormous amount of frustration and feelings of disrespect, working on that piece really pushed me into different areas of my abilities.

But the real kicker? The ending.

See, I was more frustrated than he was. Spending most of my time thinking about what he would like and getting him to have fun, I allowed for a great deal of dissention and criticism that I did not supply out. I chose my arguments very carefully and tried to compromise to write something we’d both like. He did not recognize my efforts.

In fact, the opening night, we were walking to the theatre and got into an argument:

“You know that I factored in all your ideas? I wrote the play that you wanted to write!” I said.

“What did you want to write?”

I reminded him of the concept I pitched on our first meeting, to which he replied, (and I quote) “Well that’s because your idea was stupid!”

He did apologize after the show did very well and thanked me, but the damage had already been done.

I had suspected that he didn’t see eye to eye with my perception of my compromise when it came down to the few things I put my foot down on, things I had a staunch artistic reason not to do: plagiarize, write contemporary, and have the main character falsely go to sacrifice himself at the end before he is miraculously saved.

Plagiarism was a morality issue, writing contemporary was more of a knowing myself—I really, uniquely struggle to be inspired to write about modern day Earth—but as for the ending? That was the idea I thought was stupid.

A good ending has tension or meaning. It’s relatable. It’s an analogy. It teaches us. It excites us. It brings out emotions we struggle to experience on our own. It doesn’t need to do everything, but it needs to do more than just have a quasi-stakes that induce meta-thinking and showcase two-dimensional morals. It can’t just be a cliché bang that does it’s perfunctory job of “and now it looks like the hero might fail!”

I might end up being a hypocrite here depending on your interpretation. The play did end with a character sacrificing himself, just not the protagonist. He achieves redemption in his death, to the heartbreak of the other characters. Some didn’t like the “unhappy” ending, but I believe it worked.

I have another manuscript in which the love interest goes to sacrifice himself for the world until the heroine doses him. Then there’s the one in which the hero throws himself into the arms of his slavers in order to get vengeance on the man who hurt someone he love. I don't count these because, well of course I don't! But also because I believe the characters have agency. They know what they're in for they find their way out of it. There's tension outside of "Will he die?!" Perhaps one of these days I’ll end a book with the full blown cliché itself, in which case, feel free—please—to tear me a new one.

But I’m not actually saying that a sacrificial ending is always a bad thing, something to be criticized or avoid. Just to always remember that most people don’t expect you to go through with it, and there’s much better ways to show what a good person your protagonist is then him giving his word for a plan that everyone knows won’t come to fruition.

There were several occasions that led me to believe my ex was not going to be the one. I cared about him deeply. He was good to me on many non-artistic levels. Most of our issues could be attributed to both of our immaturity. But there were signs that my opinion and needs weren’t as important as some others’, that we didn’t see eye to eye on our plans for life. This wasn’t necessarily the moment that I started to realize we wouldn’t last, but it was the moment that I knew if he couldn’t at least be open to the validity of my philosophies as a long-term writer, I wasn’t going to be able to stand him for the next 50 years.

As Buffy the Vampire Slayer says before she goes to sacrifice her life to save the world, “The hardest thing in this world is to live in it,” and the hardest sacrifice to make is the one you have to keep making over and over again. Sacrifice is not always the best way to solve a problem, and killing your characters might just kill your relationship instead.

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Monday, September 4, 2017

Asked: “How much of your second draft changes from the first?”

“How much of your second draft changes from the first?”

The obvious answer is that it just depends on the piece. Contrary to popular assumption, the manuscripts that need the least amount of work could either be the ones written extremely quickly or were thoroughly brainstormed before starting, no middle of the road for this girl! The further out on the panster-plotter spectrum I am, the more cohesive the work tends to be. BUT, I say that with the additive there’s usually a reason I was capable of writing something quickly; it made sense to me, I was inspired, and it just flowed. The worst manuscript I’ve been working on in recent history was a National Novel Writing Month piece that was getting patchworked together as I forced myself to come up with a plot.

As for brainstorming, it involved other people to bounce ideas off of, not just me sitting there outlining. Prepping for a novel before beginning does some good for me, but for the most part, I work best by letting the pieces fall where they will and then rearranging them. I’m good with nuance and going with the flow, bad at predicting issues, abstractly recognizing cause and effect, or creating atmosphere around mechanically tailored plots. Having someone to talk the story out with, or, more importantly, who gives me an anchor of what I’m trying to do—as in, write something they'd like—enables me to create a fully immersive storyline without the clinical process of outlining that often leaves me uninspired.

But mostly, things just come out unexpectedly, regardless of tactics, and the fact is, I won’t know how much work a draft needs until it’s all said and done.

However, what’s interesting about this question is that my first recommendation to anyone who is struggling with the editing process is to avoid getting overwhelmed: don’t worry about making a lot of changes in the second draft.

The “novice writer,” as he called himself, had previously did a few edits for grammar and typos here and there, but now really wanted to improve his work and push it further. Curious about other peoples’ processes, he wanted to have a better idea of how much he should expect to change, and I found myself a little surprised by the answers.

Most people underwent a huge amount of change, a lot of them rewriting every word.

I remember, when it came to The Dying Breed, someone who I was brainstorming with about the lack of enthusiasm it was receiving asked if I had thought about doing a complete rewrite. No, if I was going to do that, I decided, I’d just write a whole new story. The concept, the pitch, the expected setting, was the real issue. It was the characterization and atmosphere that makes the manuscript have its merit. Once people got hooked, they were thrilled with it, but like many stories, it took becoming invested in the characters for the work to stand out. If I were to completely rewrite it, it would be the foundation of it—what made it that story—that would need to change, and with that, all of the character development, wording, and mood would alter as well. To fix it, I'd rewrite everything, and if I was going to do that, I might as well do something totally new.

But I’m also hesitant to restart things from scratch in general. This isn’t about the work going into it, but rather that starting over for some tends to be a go-to to combat disappointment, but in my experience it often just changes the issues rather than making less of them.

True, you get better the more you write, but your second manuscript isn’t necessarily going to be better than your first, and assuming so is going to get you into trouble. Just like being 60 doesn’t automatically make you a better writer than a 25 year old, your tenth manuscript is going to have qualities and flaws that your first didn’t even touch on. As I go back over writing, I see how successful I was in achieving some things that I’ve struggled with, but also some of the qualities I’ve lost.

You learn a lot from tweaking, and the less things change - the more precise you are about fixing things - the less likely you are going to add in new problems.

And what goes for critique partners goes for you. It’s fairly common that being absorbed in correcting all the little issues makes people miss the larger problems—like the case when only one person caught that my gun had disappeared mid-scene, and she was the one with the least amount of corrections on it. So not only will obsessing over making it work now overwhelm you, it also increased the chance you won’t pick up on plot holes, or other larger, more abstract problems.

How you edit is based around your personality, the way your mind works, and your goals. None of this is to say that doing major edits for round two is problematic, but what interests me is how much I’ve actively deviated from that mentality the more I write. I find that making huge changes is tempting, but a part of that tends to be not being able to figure out what went wrong.

What’s to stop me from making the same mistake again in a different way?

My second draft doesn’t change much from the first, and in some ways, I prevent myself from being brash. The Dying Breed underwent massive alterations from the first to the eleventh variation, five total rewrites of the first few chapters, cut probably around 80,000 words cut with an estimate of 10,000 added. I moved everything around several times, added layer, took out threads, and while the bare bones of it are the same, it really isn’t the same story. Even the characters have changed, some for the better, and it was almost like a rewrite except I could be precious about what I kept.

As you can see though, I personally work better with more drafts, trial and error, seeing what I have, and processing. For some, they despise drafting and editing as you write helps git-‘er-done. And if you know what you want to change and how to fix it, there’s not a reason not to do it.

However, what I suppose my point is, it sometimes feels like people think if they don’t make massive changes to their story, they’re not being harsh enough, they’re not being a good, devoted writer. Sometimes the best thing you can do is sit back and ruminate on what it actually is before worrying so much about what it could be. Being thoughtful is just as important as being merciless.

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Friday, September 1, 2017

The Woman Who Gamed the NYT List

Last August, the entertainment website, GeekNation, got up one morning and decided to become a book publisher. What compelled them isn’t clear. Originally, they described themselves as “the ultimate mecca of entertainment through articles, blogs, podcasts, vodcasts, videos and web series to serve as a lifestyle and entertainment hub for the ever-growing geek contingency and pop-culture enthusiasts.”

It seems it is essentially an online magazine that mostly just shares content like an independent Facebook page. The website, right now, seems to be down, which could be due to a surge in traffic after the controversy of Lani Sarem and Handbook for Mortals, or an embarrassed pull by the creators. Or it may just be my computer. In any case, I can’t say for myself exactly the intent of the site or how many novels it had set out to publish.

Slated for the week of September 3, Handbook for Mortals knocked Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give off the top of the charts. Not too shocking in itself as the New York Times Best Sellers List is a fickle beast. It has long been accused of cherry picking its sales, especially in regards to the surge of ebooks. People before have bought their way onto the list, and while the New York Times attempts to fix problems with gaming the system, even people who legitimately make it to the top ten are soon after lost to obscurity.

However, it is a fantastic place for marketing, having, “New York Times Best Selling Author” on your cover garners just a little more trust for your potential readers, not to mention simply getting your name in a place where people might actually see it.

So how does one get on the best seller’s list? Well, that’s not so simple. They intentionally keep the formula secret, and it’s not entirely based on sales. The number cited commonly today is 5,000 copies, but the truth is it’s affected by how well your competitors are doing. It also only counts sales from certain places, at certain frequencies, and will consider bulk buys “corporate purchases,” so often will only consider an order under 30 books.

How did Sarem and GeekNation do it then? Pretty overtly.

At one point, people on Twitter began to talk about how an unknown book from an unknown publisher with an unknown author sold enough copies of a manuscript you all bookstores had listed as out of stock. The question went viral and bookstore clerks commented about how a simple phone call asked, “Is this a New York Times reported bookstore?” Under 30 copies, please!

The calls said the books were for “events” but when the clerks pointed out that they had no idea when the book would be delivered—as it was out of stock—the caller wasn’t concerned. And, as it turns out, Barnes and Noble has a policy that a book order can be returned as long as it isn’t delivered, and the books can’t be delivered because, low and behold, they’re out of stock.

What’s more fascinating is the cover art was directly taken from an Australian artist, Gill Del Mace, and that the author is being cited as the leading lady in the upcoming film. Hearsay is that the actress needed to get buzz about her script and so wrote it as a book series. The introduction by Skye Turner proves the script came first.

But Pajiba tells the story better.  I’m not here to rehash the strange way that Sarem’s book got to the New York Times Best Seller. Rather, my interest falls into the concept of subjectivity and the humorously harsh review of the beginning of Sarem’s book by author Jenny Trout

I have a weird love for Trout. She is, ironically, one of the bloggers to make me strongly question my negativity. I constantly read writers’ blogs to understand what works for me and what doesn’t, to better know when to restrict my emotional reactions (thus avoiding an obnoxious and mean post) and when to let them fly. Both my best and worst posts are angry rants about something, and while I am inclined to judgmental thrashing, many times I find it unsavory and unappealing. Sarcasm and critical thinking are good. Being closed-minded and insulting are bad. But sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference, especially when seeing red. To be honest, people love me best when I’m not censoring myself and social interaction flows more readily when I’m not too concerned. But oh, how I can make an ass out of me.

Jenny Trout is one of the key places I struggled with that difference. She is hilarious and interesting, her blog a great place to distract or inform yourself, yet she can also come off as bitter and insecure on occasion. She has both been an advocate against bullying and criticized for bullying, and I can honestly see both being true. She often directs her readers to “injustice” and suddenly the victim of her criticism is faced with a surge of anger from the populace. In some cases, it has done service to an underdog, such as drawing attention to Laura Harner’s plagiarism of Becky McGraw’s (and many other’s) novels. But it’s the quintessential issue of vigilantism, and the reason we have a legal system to protect people from the biased and emotional public court. Some cases are more complex than just outright playing for numbers or plagiarism, and so keyboard warriors can be dangerous.

I joke that aspiring writers have to learn when to tell someone to “shut the hell up” in a writers group because unvetted (bullying?) criticism tends to escalate, and you don’t have to say something true to poison the minds of others. Which doesn’t literally mean say shut up (necessarily), but that contrary to popular belief, there are moments where you need to stand up for yourself if you think that the person is indulging their anger, envy, or insecurity into hyperbolic and unhelpful suggestions. If I wanted to screw over another writer, all I would have to say is, regardless of the actual text, “This is sexist,” and I guarantee at least one person would believe me, tainting their view on your work.

Sarem’s book listing is now diluted with negative reviews, most of which admitting they’d never read it. I was curious about the actual content, given the weird combination of both cutting corners but having the expertise to do it with precision. The five stars all came across as pretty unreliable to me, vague and familiar, against the “haters.” Mostly though, they really didn’t seem to tell me anything about the book.

Those one-stars claiming to have read the entire thing stated the writing was atrocious, crafted like it was the first draft by a 12 year old.

I am not remotely immune to being swayed by the opinions of my peers. Part of my concern between being wishy-washy versus being closed-minded comes from my all or nothing personality. Which is to say, I’m either very gullible or completely cynical. It’s an exhausting way to live.

So let’s be honest about the Halo Effect: an attractive cover that elicits an emotional yearning or curiosity for more is going to be given the benefit of the doubt. Hearing that she had conned the list but still naïve to the fact the cover was stolen, a part of me wanted to like the book. Regardless that, plagiarized or no, the art was not made by the author herself, when it represented what the novel could be, Gill Del Mace’s image invoked a sense of wonder. Plus, I like the title.

Upon finding that Ryan Kincaid’s drawing was distinctly based off an Gill Del Mace’s already existing painting, some of my curiosity turned sour. This was no longer an image inspired by the book, it was another cover created by a Google search and some Photoshop. (I mean, I do believe Kincaid drew parts of it, and, let’s be honest, there’s been quite a few of good artists being found out for cutting massive, plagiaristic corners. I myself have cheated from time to time in fallible moments of frustration.)

Jenny Trout’s criticism came in order of appearance, and initially, I found no disagreement.

Handbook for Mortals begins with a foreword by author Skye Turner (yeah, me neither), in which the pronunciation of Lani Sarem’s impossibly confusing first name is cleared up.

“As an author myself,”

Holy shit, are you an author, Skye? I feel like you haven’t mentioned it yet in this forward to your friend’s book that you are supposed to be writing about your friend and her book.

Skye Turner’s introduction didn’t work for me. It did come across as a self-promotional plea in parts. On a quick search of t3h interwebz, I found that Turner was a highly trafficked (many ratings, pages likes), self-published erotica author, however, the introduction seemed more clunky and poorly written than the first few pages of the actual book. That comparison alone is worth noting because it says something about criticism, ratings, and numbers when Sarem is torn to shreds but Turner is, at least on paper, extremely successful.

When it came to Trout’s mocking of the protagonist’s dismay at her inherent uniqueness—“Woe is me, the object of everyone’s envy”—the blogger accurately described the reason why characters who are written to be weird rubs me the wrong way. Talking about something good as if it’s such a plight—including the first person P.O.V. mentioning how beautiful the protagonist doesn’t realize she is—doesn’t fool anyone. It’s the meta-motivation of the author eclipsing the character’s actual inner dialogue.

Let me tell you something about thinking you’re ugly; I recently read an autobiographical essay by a friend of mine who describes in depth her weight and perception of herself. She painted a picture as if she is a grotesque monster, like Jabba the Hut, and it was incredibly painful for me to read. It is not remotely close to how I perceive her, and we had a long discussion about how, while that specific section is wonderful and should stay how it is, it is also misleading to the audience and at some point in the memoir I still strongly believe she needs to indicate that it is only her warped view of her because it changes the story. Her portrait of herself is so convincing that the reader would not think to question it. She is overweight, but beautiful, bubbily, sexy, and just lures men in in a way that I don’t even think she realizes is abnormal (and isn’t just because of her self-proclaimed “easiness.”)

As for someone who has heard through the walls how “beautiful” I am, that too affects me in an non-ignorable way. I still can look in the mirror and sometimes not like what I see, but I think, “Eh, I’m in a bad mood. I’ll be prettier tomorrow.” Again, I’m susceptible to suggestion and highly gullible, but the point is that Sarem describes the protagonist in attempts to paint her in the best light, not reflect on how people actually see themselves. It is just as Trout says, obvious and unappealing.

Jenny Trout’s insights rang true to me at first, and accurately stated what I normally felt about those sorts of decisions. On the other hand, something about Trout’s mockery started to feel a little unfair too. I didn’t feel sympathy for Lani Sarem, but I felt the criticism was exaggerating the ‘horror’ and incompetence of the painful writing.

Take, for example, protagonist Zade’s announcement of where she’s going to start the story…

Instead, I’ll start on the day I left home. It marked a turning point–a fork in the road, if you will.”

Somebody bought Lani Sarem the Trite Metaphor A Day calendar. I’m not saying it was Skye Turner, but it was probably Skye Turner. But the bold choice to tell the reader when the story starts instead of just starting the story there is probably all Sarem’s work.

It is obnoxious when framed in Trout’s view, but when I read the sample chapters later, I don’t think I would have noticed the meta-element of announcing where the story will be started. Despite that I tend to notice that sort of thing, in this case, it seems to make sense with the flow of the story. It’s a slow beginning, but not as slow as Trout implies, and there is an air of wistfulness that the writer was clearly going for, even if it is over the top.

Or when the author explains what memory is…

“People say some memories will stick with you forever. They burn brightly in your mind and each detail is as clear as the day it happened. Each color, each smell, the way things felt, the way you felt–it all pierces your mind each time you think about it. You can practically place yourself there at that moment, as if it were happening all over again. Close your eyes and breathe in deep and all of a sudden you are back in that time and that place.”

Trout’s mocking—“If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of memory, don’t worry. The author will explain it for you. Four. Times.”—was true. However, I have previously criticized people’s tendency to be looking for literal information instead of allowing the emotional effect of the passage to be its intent. Which is to say, I don’t think Sarem wrote this as a way to intellectually remind people of what memory actually is (obviously), but to give us the sensation that comes with reminiscing. To put us in the mood, if you will.

Does it work? I mean, it’s a little too obvious and not enough meat for my taste—a good passage has both ambiance and information—but this was a major point where it felt like neither Trout and I were giving her any credit. If I had met Sarem in a writers group and someone had talked to her the way that Trout did, I don’t think I’d be siding with the critic.

I don’t meant that Sarem was aware of her actions or had a masterful control over her mood, just that every writer does something for a reason, and it would be insane to think that Sarem even subconsciously needed to explain memory to people. It is possible that she believed she needed to frame how her P.O.V. character ‘could possibly remember those details specifically,’ (because there are idiots who make criticisms like that) but I think it’s far more likely she was trying to convey a feeling. This is important because I have often seen the ramifications of prioritizing literal meaning over atmosphere by pedantic and unimpressed critics.  When I cut down a larger manuscript by getting rid of “excess words,” I realized just how much of an effect that had on tone and ambiance. I believe vehemently that anytime you’ve done something so obviously mockable, it’s because it served another purpose. Often successfully so. It might not be important or useful in the context, but not acknowledging it is doing a disservice to learning.

Another interesting example is the word “regardless.” Or rather, “irregardless.”

The handbook says…

“That might be the worst part, knowing they actually believe in [magic] as well but they are all just afraid to admit it. Though if they really knew what we actually were they’d probably end up reopening the old “burning people at the stake” idea. Something our family is quite familiar with. Regardless, it’s been hard for me because of it.”

Wait, regardless of the fact that the townsfolk would burn you at the stake, it’s been hard for you? Getting potentially burned at the stake is the easy part, and regardless of that, things are still hard? Words mean things. You can’t just go, “This sounds like a smart transition,” and slap it on there, fully ignoring the context of the last paragraph.

Despite the hate it gets, ‘irregardless’ is actually a colloquial term typically from the south that does not mean regardless. It means, “I’m done talking about this.”

I’ll wager Sarem, from the south, went to use ‘irregardless’ as what her long linguistic socialization told her was natural, knew the complaints of ‘irregardless,’ and quickly changed it to ‘regardless.’ Yes, this was a mistake, and it’s not on Trout to second guess why. Should someone have caught this in editing? Of course. The point isn’t that Sarem didn’t make a mistake, but that this is a key problem to just dismissing people’s errors as being their own pure stupidity and not more complex (and interesting) than that. And, in many cases, the writer might be right and the overly literal, proverbial witch-hunter is just wrong in her oversimplification of things. I say this because I have had people give me similar criticism: “YOU’RE TELLING A STORY. YOU’RE NOT JUST TALKING ABOUT STUFF!” in reference to an important albeit boring scene and my response was, “You’re right. I’m not.” It’s easy to dismiss being dismissive, and when you’re a young writer, having someone wrongfully attribute why you did something loses them credibility and doesn’t help solve the problem. Knowing why an author did something can help you come to better solution.

Now, Trout is being a critic here, not a constructive partner, and it is not her job to teach Sarem, nor even the audience technically. But I bring this up because the sensation I found as I went along through Trout’s review tied into how constructive criticisms, even those I merely watched, go wrong… and I strongly felt that had the book come across Trout’s awareness in another context, her opinion and tactics might be different.

The fact is, people perceive books differently based on what they want to see.

They can’t deny everything. It’s not as if I’m defending Sarem’s book as unfairly judged. But I’ve seen worse writing, and the condemnation on her has everything to do with her actions outside of literary merit. Hell, the seemingly successfully Skye Turner’s introduction actually had the sentence, “Soon, I decided to take the plunge from editing other author’s [sic] books…” and she still doesn’t have any complaints about her poor typos on Amazon in the same way Sarem does. Are Turner’s reviews and likes gamed? Did she try the same thing and just get more successful at it? Do her books have something so wonderful it compensates for redundant word choice and punctuation errors?

People who know Lani Sarem stand by her, regarding her as a genuine and fun person. I believe she’s friendly, charming when you meet her face to face, and just happened to be one of the people who got caught for common crimes against literature. I feel no remorse for her, but it’s interesting to see how online reviews and criticism are effected (or not?) by external factors.

When I read her book, I find the isolated quotes of Trout’s insights to be less true. Trout claimed that enjoying a storm for its ‘magical’ components was a contradiction to the character’s normal life, but when reading it, she was really saying she liked the rain and loud thunder. Not exactly unreasonable for someone who feels like an outcast. Its clear simple explanations were ambiance inspired, and while I still find the character obnoxious and nothing to phone home about, there is a difference when hearing about a story through the lens of someone else’s interpretation.

It’s really not about Sarem though. I won’t lose any sleep over Trout’s review and got a good laugh. But what if it was someone else? I can’t stand reading negative reviews of books I adored. I doubt that I would be so amused if it were me. This situation with Sarem’s one-stars spoke to me about the writing world as a whole, how fickle we can all be, and how assure someone can be defending something they want to believe.

I don’t think Trout’s reaction to this book would have been the same had it not the negative narrative behind it. I don’t think she would have liked it exactly—in fact, in the most objective opinion I can get, I bet that its cover wouldn’t have kept my interest passed the first chapter had the circumstances been different. But I don’t think her writing is as horrible as people state, having seen much worse in my travels, and would probably rate it no less than three-stars for the prose and editing in the sample chapters. I know there are other people who have messed with the system and many who would argue it’s fine because the system is screwy. Some people believe that focusing on a beautiful cover is trickery in itself, or fixing it for typos ruins your voice. I adamantly believe that many of the marketing ploys aren’t inherently immoral and anyone who fights the business side of thing is trying to shoot themselves in the foot. Getting your name out there and learning to show the best side of yourself is important in life, and is a totally different skillset than writing a good book.

However, I will say this; marketing is only one side of the coin. You can have a good book that will die in obscurity if you don’t get the word out there, but you can’t get the word out there and expect people to think it’s a good book.

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