Friday, October 20, 2017

How Do I Get Rich Quick? He Asks the Internet

Posted on a writing forum, an inspired soul asks:

I have a wealth of short story ideas so instead of leaving them dormant in a folder on my computer, I want to start publishing them on kindle.

I'll group 3 or 4 of them together, Use public domain images for the cover, start a website and offer up some stories for free so if people like them they can read more of my work for just 2.99 a month.

My friends also have some ideas so I can work with them and we can create new interesting stories together.

I love old pulp novels and serials and really want to recreate that with my work.

I have a ton of ideas, and I even have a few serial ideas so I can carry them through issues to, hopefully, keep people coming back. If this becomes profitable I may even start buying stories from people to put in the magazine.

I know I'm just an amateur but I've written 2 novellas, I've tried writing full length novels but I just can't get to that 60k word count so I think cutting my teeth on short stories would be a much better fit for me.

Is there anyone else doing something like this?

How much would you pay for one issue a month? The minimum is going to be 2.99 because of amazons royalty structure

What are some good ways to promote my magazine and get my name out there?

What would entice you to click BUY?

There’s a lot of stuff here, so let’s go in order:

I have a ton of ideas… but I just can't get to that 60k word count.

Ain’t it the truth?

A couple of years ago a blogger I love decided to do National Novel Writing Month, but instead of an actual novel, he wanted to do short stories. He failed pretty quickly. The next year, I decided to do the same (unrelated), trying to buff up my Stories of the Wyrd portfolio. I failed pretty quickly, having to speed out a the first 50K of a novel in two weeks.

Writing short stories seems like it would be easier than a novel, however, resetting all of the time can actually make it harder to use the momentum in your favor.

And how many times have we heard aspiring authors say, “I have a ton of ideas, if I could only write them down?”

After I started Stories of the Wyrd in 2014, I began to find it incredibly difficult to get out a story a month. For reference, the year prior I had written a 180,000 word novel in five months, the first 60,000 just that November alone. I haven’t be as prolific as I once was for various reasons, but writing a 2,500 word short story every four weeks can be surprisingly difficult. That’s not to mention quality. Today I still struggle with having the stories represent what I want Stories of the Wyrd to be. I have a reliable editor, but she can only do so much based on what I get her. Finding beta-readers can be a stressor in itself. Sure, you might find that a monthly deadline helps push you forward, but it’s pretty important to be dependable if you want to be taken seriously. You can’t be skipping deadlines due to writer’s block if you want to make a business.

Is there anyone else doing something like this?

There is always someone else doing something like this. In fact, whenever you come up with a ground breaking idea, it’s useful to ask yourself why don’t you see anyone else doing something like this: Either you aren’t informed about your competition/audience (as in, they are, you’re just naïve), or people have tried and failed. It is incredibly unlikely—I’d even say impossible—that no one has come up with something similar.

It doesn’t mean you can’t make it work, but it’s useful to understand why it hasn’t been successful yet, as well as be aware if other people are doing it and how they’re making it happen.

How much would you pay for one issue a month? The minimum is going to be 2.99 because of amazons royalty structure

Well, then I’m already priced out.

Market research, my friend. Many self-publishers ask the internet what cost their books should be and are often disappointed in the answers. I know. Your book is different than those “hacks churned out in a week!” but maybe you should just sit back and really make sure you know what your competition actually looks like. Why would I buy your self-published book for nearly twice the cost I could of a successful, vetted novel?

I can get an anthology of 20 self-published short stories for a buck. I can get an anthology of 20 award winning short stories for seven bucks. You’re offering me a 4 stories:3 dollars ratio, which becomes fifteen dollars for every twenty shorts. Depending on how long it is… maybe, but from a man who admits he can’t focus on getting 60K out there easily, I doubt the four stories would equal the nearly 300 pages of the 16 award-winning sci-fi short stories I just saw being sold for the exact same price.

Just shop around. Treat yourself as one of the masses, and be competitive. Truth is, there’s no way in hell that I would buy four electronic short stories from an unknown self-publisher for three bucks unless I somehow know it’s absolutely fantastic.

Which brings us to the problem of this whole suggestion.

While as a pet project, it could be fun and worthwhile, as a business he intends to make profitable, he’s asking the wrong questions.

What would entice you to click BUY?

An amazing pitch with an inspiring cover by a known author at a competitive price of course!

This sort of route (self-publishing) is best chosen for those who want to be creative and in control, not as a means to cut corners. An anthology of short stories is not easier to write than a novel. Hooking readers is not easier than hooking potential agents and publishing houses. If making a successful magazine could be as easy as blitzing out a few short stories every month, grabbing internet images for covers, and charging three bucks a pop, why isn’t everyone doing it?

I’m an advocate for the nonconventional route. Having vision and dedication will get you miles along a wide variety of paths. Most people’s success came from unexpected places. But working outside the system is appealing to a lot of people, so don’t assume that you have to stop being competitive just because the gatekeepers aren’t as obvious.

Good ideas are important, but they’re not the only thing to consider. Execution, showmanship, professionalism, and marketing all play into how well a book sells. You can’t just be slapping things up online and expect them to automatically do better than those who have put their blood, sweat, and tears into it.

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Monday, October 16, 2017

The Joys of Being Difficult

In my short stint trying online dating, I met a guy with a cute dog and agreed to meet up with him. The problem with these sites is that the vast majority of men are not photogenic, almost always looking better in real-life than their photos. A man’s attractiveness has to do with how he moves, what makes him smile, his energy, the light behind his eyes when he’s thinking, none of which is conveyed in an online block of text or a two-dimensional photo of him in his bathroom.

So, I wasn’t actually too enthused to meet him in the first place, but I wouldn’t have agreed if I hadn’t had any optimism.

But then he made it hard.

He argued with my suggestions of locations without offering up any alternatives, he refused to give me concrete answers to direct questions, and when I said, “Okay, look. Just tell me where you want to meet and when, and I’ll be there,” he just said, “lol. Why don’t you give me your number and we’ll figure it out later in the week?”

Then he started texting me, asking inane questions he wasn’t interested in and giving perfunctory and dull ones to mine.

“What do you do for a living?”

“I’m an architect.”

I don't think you understand what we're doing here.

He was dismissive of my comments and attempt at jokes, and while not an awful person, it was almost as if instead of thinking how to make the conversation flow and my life easier, he was doing the exact opposite. How can I make this a thousand times harder?

My ex had done this to me. There was no solution to his problems, no compromising, no making him happy. He just would demand you’d take the lead so he could criticize your decisions. It was an act of insecurity, I know, and I don't think he meant anything malicious by it. In terms of this new Romeo, his stubbornness resulted with me engaging with the guy as little as possible, to stop putting in effort myself, and when he finally asked me if I wanted to meet up again, I diplomatically informed him that we just don’t seem to click. He took it fairly well, at least. Love lost...

While interviewing authors, most of them don’t intentionally make my life harder. When they do things like sending me back the answers without the questions, formatting it funny, or misunderstanding the intention, they obviously just didn’t think about it. I mean, these things didn’t even occur to me would be somewhat annoying to deal with until after I've dealt with them.

However, during the process, I found one woman to be an especially difficult individual. I was first alerted to it when she sent me an email reading, “I couldn’t answer to questions” [sic].

These were not personal. “What trends, styles, or subjects would you like to see become popular in modern writing?” “What would you like to see disappear?”

“I really can’t,” she said. “I really just can’t answer these questions.”

This annoyed me. I realized that the exasperated and emotional tone I read her response in was mostly me, but I thought, “This is your time to be interesting. What is so painful about saying, ‘I really wish we could write in third-person omniscient’?” Make something up, lady!

Admittedly, she lost a little credibility with me, coming off as somewhat dense. But I’m easily agitated, and I was doing it more for her than for me. I’ve seen this before, writers seize up when embarrassed, but usually it’s on the question of, “Tell us a little about your book.”

Her husband, who I had interviewed earlier, had done the same thing, where he refused to answer two questions. They weren’t that big of a deal, and I couldn’t comprehend their issue. What is so hard about redirecting it? Ad-libbing?

Whenever anyone gets emotionally constipated at a question, it defeats the purpose of the interview. A benefit to doing these interviews is that I learn and consider what’s successful from both sides, and I’ve realized that it is better to answer the question with a completely nonrelated response than to shut down.

Part of this is because you want anyone doing an article on you to be on your side. There are pretty common stories about journalists intentionally warping quotes, putting them out of context, to dramatize and boost sales. Sometimes your interviewer gets a lot out of making you look bad, and irritating them is going to encourage that.

Of course, I don’t get anything out of that. I mostly print the interview verbatim, with a few copyedits for grammar and spelling and the like. Basic proofreading. But when it came to the questions in which she refused to answer, instead of doing what I would normally had I not been agitated—cut the questions all together as if they never existed—I marked them as “redacted by author’s request.” I drew attention to the fact that she refused to answer them, and made the mystery of what those questions were a bigger deal. What personal thing did she absolutely refuse to answer?

Petty, I’m sure.

But it wasn’t just the abject horror of having an opinion that caused me problems. When she sent it back to me, she said that it was in big font because she had trouble seeing these days.

Well, understandable, but you couldn’t resize it before returning it? Her strange formatting with extra spaces and other odd alterations surprisingly took a good twenty minutes to fix.

Her photograph was grainy and pixelated. Her bio was not in third-person as I had requested. To top it all off, at one point in the interview, she began to normalize scams, suggesting that agents selling packages for ebook formatting and editing was just a sign of the time.

Keep in mind, buying an “editing and formatting package” from a literary agent is like hiring a car salesman as a mechanic. Agents do help authors with editing, they can often be former editors, but editing is not actually why you’re hiring them. They are negotiators and networkers, legal representatives for contracts, sales people in a way. They are not publishers, they sell to publishers. They sell First English Language rights to publishers. Having an editing and formatting department for self-publishing can be promoting against their best interest, and would require an entire new staff to have time (and skills) to do it. Agents are ridiculously busy and they make their money off of selling books to publishers. If they’re not doing well enough that they have to supplement with a new gimmick that has little to do with their original job, then at best you have to question their abilities. But more commonly, that’s a sign that they’re one of those companies that make money off of scamming dreamers, not doing getting books published.

There was a point in which I considered sending her an email saying, “I’ve decided against posting this.”

One of the reasons I recommend to any writer to become a judge of a writing contest, start a literary journal, or even yes, interview authors is how much you learn about being in the other person’s shoes. You get a good idea of what not to do, why they want things done a certain way, and even why rejection really isn’t personal.

In the past few weeks, I’ve begun to realize just how important it is to not be unreasonably difficult, to make things easier for people and never let insecurity stop communication. When working with someone, it’s important to stand up for things that you don’t agree with, point out real problems, and not just cater to their every whim, but on the little things, always think about the success of the project first and foremost. When you want something to happen, don’t fight the small stuff.

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Friday, October 13, 2017

Ten Things I Often Would Like to Say to Other Authors (But Don’t)

1. I don’t care how old you are.

If I’m overly interested in your age, it’s probably because I'm going to find a way to confirm my already existing bias.

2. No, you’re not too old.

Unless you’re planning on dying within the next year, you have enough time to write your book.

3. But I don’t like your writing.

I admire the confidence it took for you to give me your work directly after telling me I’m not writing the “correct” way, however, if you’re going to challenge me about our credentials, I’m taking you down.  I don’t know why you didn’t see that coming. Because I’m a mature professional? Ha.

4. No, I don’t know if you’re going to be a successful writer.

How fast are you likely to get discouraged? Do I think you can get published? Even traditionally published? Yes. If you stick at it. I mean, let’s face it, some pretty terrible stuff has been produced, so it’s not just about what I think of your writing.

And personally, I believe you can become talented even if you’re not yet. If you stick with it.

Keep in mind I don’t know what your definitions of success is. Will you be a bestseller? Statistically unlikely. Should that stop you? I don’t know. If you find yourself in 20 years with a whole slew of books published, a decent fan base, and yet still not making enough for it to be your day job, will you regret writing those books?

I’m not going to tell you whether or not you’re going to be a best seller because I don’t know, and it’s not really my business. It’s up to you to decide how much work you’re willing to put in and how much you’ll regret. I will say that, yeah, it’s unlikely you’ll be the next J.K. Rowling, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.

5. Your idea is boring and not that original. (But write it anyway.)

Oh, thank you. I’ve always been lacking in ideas! I was just waiting for someone to ask me to ghost write their brilliant vision while I wasted my time imagining my own stories.

Your idea has been done before. No, I don’t want to write it for you. Execution is more important than ideas in most circumstances, and you’re asking me to do all the work. Of course I think my ideas are better. Why would I be a writer if I didn't think I had something of merit to say?

On that same note, you’re probably not going to find an idea that hasn’t been done before, and because execution is important, you can craft an idea into something unique by contributing different elements.

Don’t bank on the originality of your idea; think about the level of inspiration it gives you.

6. Shut up about bad reviews.

Most of the complaints I hear are good things. That vague negative review that only said, “There were swear words!” deters the people who will care, and not anyone who doesn’t. That review that called you fat? Now readers are going to be on your side. No one likes that kind of hostility. Spoilers? Sorry, but your tiny synopsis that tried so hard to hide what actually happens in the book didn’t appeal to me. Those spoilers actually told me something interesting. They didn’t finish your book? How can they accurately judge it? Yeah, well, as a reader, I don’t want to pick up a novel that’s going to bore me to tears halfway through—even if it does have an epic ending. It may not help your sales, but it helps the readers, and that’s who the reviews are supposed to be for.

Remember, negativity sells.

7. I’m not going to tell you if you’re a good author.

I can tell you why your book does or does not work for me. I can tell you why I get the vibe you do or don’t know what you’re doing. I can tell you why I think your book isn’t going to have a satisfying ending, or the way I think other people will react to it.

I can give you my personal experience and perception, but I can’t predict everything. I can’t tell you if you’re a good author, or how much potential you have in being a good author. Don’t put that responsibility on me.

8. I don’t believe you actually like Hemingway.

Look, I’m willing to acknowledge that I might be wrong, but let’s examine the facts: You put down your favorite authors as Joyce, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway. What do these authors have in common…? Not writing style. Not even subject matter really. Pretty much the time period and their reputations. When I talk to you, you don’t really seem all that interested into camping trips or grasshoppers or the sea. And you then you told me you liked him because his prose wasn’t distracting. I’m not sure you’ve read him at all.

If you do like him, that’s your own choice and you shouldn’t give two shits about my opinion. But you should know why I’m just smiling and nodding.

9. You spelled “writter” wrong.

In a recent descent against self-publishing, a woman went on a rampage against these indie authors saying, without irony, anyone thinks they can be a “writter” now. Another man vented against self-publishers claiming that if their books were good enough, they would be picked up by a traditional publisher like him. A traditional publisher, I came to find, who doesn’t design book covers, market, or check for typos on the back cover.

My Grammar Nazism is hard to curb on a good day, but my tongue is the most bloodied when people start casting stones.

10. How the hell did you do that?

Shockingly, sometimes other people impress me. There have been occasions where I see the amount of response they receive, have a successful submission, or just do something genuinely stunning and I think, “How on Earth…” Typically I try to support them in a subtle way, buying their book, putting into their Kickstarter. If I know them well, I’ll ask them about their experience, but if you’re just someone I watch from afar, I’ll just sit back and wonder.

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Monday, October 9, 2017

Damn Those Hot Studly Romance Writers

Some time back, a man posted a strange opinion piece that had the indie romance community up in arms. He suggested that using a profile pic of a hot man and a pen name was catfishing, that he couldn’t understand a reason to use a pen name outside of catfishing, and tricking women into buying books from a “hot author” was wrong.

His conclusions were very different than my own experience; being a woman who buys romance novels and makes a point to support self-publishers, I have never looked at a profile picture of abs and thought anything more than “Stock Photo.”

I have, as of yet, to see an “hot male author” selling himself to hock romance stories, and even if I just missed something, it also begged the question of why did it matter? Was there a woman who was stupid enough to believe a photo of abs and the name Horace Nightingale was a real person she was romantically connecting with? I mean, even if the writer was a beautiful sculpture of the male physique and it did lead to most of his sales, what woman was being “emotionally” toyed with in doing so?

Are there indie authors tricking people into thinking they’re some hot, wonderful man? I’m sure someone has tried, but it doesn’t seem to be successful.

Nevertheless, I do think this gentleman got an excess amount of flak for something he didn’t say. People twisted his words and misinterpreted his point. He buckled down, however, announcing he was right, everyone else was wrong, and he’ll never speak his opinion again on the internet.

I followed him for a while on his blog, but his negativity worsened over time until finally I dropped him. The day he lost all credibility with me was the day he posted a piece on cults, discussing how he did a massive amount of research on them, but ended with the question:

“What makes a cult a cult? I believe all religions are cults.”

Massive amounts of research? You ended with the first question everyone asks. There are answers, actually, official answers, ones that don’t involve a faith even. Many cults are not religiously based at all. What makes a cult is how it isolates you from anyone outside of it, cuts you off from friends and family, and has a “misplaced admiration for a person or thing” that cultivates malicious and/or self-harming practices.

Sure, the echo chamber of many religious groups is strong—many religious groups put pressure on their young to hang out and marry with believers—and what is malicious or self-harming is extremely up for debate. But that’s the point; he added no personal insight into this hard, commonly debated question, meaning that he was too unaware to know just how unaware he was.

He didn’t know what he was talking about.

As an overthinker, I advocate a certain self-trust in your common sense and gut instinct. There is too much information in this world to try and “know” anything before you talk about it. You always have something of value to say, and questioning that will hold you back.

But not doing your research, or assuming you’re an expert on a subject is also a huge problem.

They say the more you know about something, the more you realize you don’t know. So how do you know if your confidence is founded in a genuine sense of self and where it’s just your naivety talking?

I criticize the belief you can’t edit your own work or trust your own opinion on it. Certainly, you should seek out the reactions of people other than yourself and always question your biases—because you will, in fact, be biased both positively and negatively—but if you try to spend your writing career handing your book to someone else to “evaluate” it, you’re going to have an influx of contradicting information.

This is why I rarely give a first draft for editing. For one thing, your partners will only tell you things you could see for yourself—it’s difficult to dig deeper until you’ve cleaned up the top layer a little. But, more importantly, the writer needs to understand what he’s actually created a little better, know what he wants to have done. Book serve multitudes of purposes, everyone has different tastes, and even when you do decide to make a change, you need to be sure you understand why you did it a certain way in the first place and the overall effect that change will have.

I myself had taken a seemingly fantastic criticism, started to implement it only to be halfway through when I realized why it didn’t actually make sense in practice.

It’s important to know your opinion on something and to trust that opinion before you start incorporating others’. But how can you trust your feelings? How can you know if you’re being biased? Stubborn? Prideful? How do you know when it’s your gut talking or your naivety?

If you’re new to this business, you have something valuable to say. Don’t keep your opinion to yourself just because it might be naïve or inaccurate or cliché. You’ll never be sure how everyone else sees your thoughts until you put them out there, even when you are more experienced.

The trick is, however, to learn how to sound sure of yourself while not sounding like an arrogant idiot. When dealing with subjective issues like writing, sounding unassured will magically turn completely valid choices into mistakes. Confidence—faking it until you make it—is key. Yet, you don’t want to staunchly assert something to only have people laughing at your ignorance.

Knowing what you don’t know is complicated. The best thing I’ve learned is that my opinions have merit in some vein, but sometimes that correctness is a little more common than others. It’s not that your ideas are wrong, but they are likely to be cliché and simplified.

Step outside yourself and recognize the way other people see you. If you are a man discussing how women buy books and women are disagreeing, examine why you think women buy books that way. Have you seen it first hand? Anecdotal evidence means a lot in writing, and it’s far more interesting to use specifics in your discussions. Does it fit into some appealing ideology of why your books aren’t selling? Maybe you’re hobbling yourself due to misinformation.

Assume that your initial reactions are typical. The questions, the conclusions, the belief system is going to evolve over time and your knee-jerk stance is going to follow suit with people who have the same information as you. The best thing you can do for yourself is be personal, don’t generalize, and don’t attack when expressing your opinion. Learn how to be open, inclusive, and really listen to those speaking around you. But most importantly, remember that listening means active listening: Talk. Engage. Question.

The blog in particular was interesting and opinionated, different than what other people are saying. The problem wasn't the belief itself, but that he never questioned if maybe, just maybe, he was operating in a blind spot.

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Friday, October 6, 2017

So Why Choose That Book? The Controversial First Edition of J-Lo’s Film

I did have myself a shocking giggle when I watched the scene from The Boy Next Door. I like Jennifer Lopez and her movies, and didn’t expect much when someone posted the video saying, “No one caught this ridiculously glaring mistake.” Usually my reaction is, “Oh, get over it.”

When the young man comes in and hands Lopez a “first edition of the Iliad” I was dumbstruck. How could he be so naïve? I wondered. Everyone knows Homer’s epic poem to be an ancient Greek tale, right? Obviously that’s not a first edition because it was originally an oral telling, and even when it was finally put in print that was still much older than the copy looked. (Year 1616 is the earliest English translation I’ve found so far.)

I assumed one of two things: The script had only written “a first edition,” and the prop master, possibly going off of a list alone—though that seems foolish for a major motion picture—just made an old looking classic book. Or they were looking for Ulysses, a story about the odyssey of one soldier returning home from the Trojan war, written by James Joyce in 1918. But really did no one say anything? Possible, if the director was a colossal dick-head. You get a bunch of people who don’t care about the project dealing with someone who tears them a new-one for idiotic reasons, you’re probably not going to be the one to say, “Wait a minute…” especially considering the possibility that you might be the one poorly informed.

Including me.

I typed in “first edition of” and before I even got to “Iliad,” it had popped up. Apparently this was a pretty popular question. In fact, the first thing to come up was about people’s search for first editions copies incited by the film.

As it turns out, the director had made a comment.  

While the original screenwriter claims no responsibility over the scene, it having been added long after she lost any control, the director claims that this choice was intentional and he’s not an idiot, but in fact a collector of first editions and knew exactly what he was talking about. He explained that a “first edition” is not necessarily the first ever printing of a book, but the first version of printing by a company, or rather, the first “setting of a type.” If the company decides to do a second (or more) printing without making any changes, the book is still considered a first edition, but first printings of first editions are what’s collectable.

So, he argues, it was a first edition of the Iliad.

The argument makes sense. Pretty well informed, in fact. Yet while it is accurate, something still doesn’t seem right. There is something about that seen that still comes across as fake.

I once wrote a somewhat controversial (in which everyone had staunch opinions) post about what to do when the truth is vastly different than what common assumption is. I discussed examples like how the preview audience of Cloverfield was certain the head of the Statue of Liberty was 100 times the size it actually was, or what to do when the technical name of something is different than what locals use. In it, I discussed the common problem of when your audience is more naïve than you are, and yet you’re the one who looks wrong. What do you do?

He should have been aware of what the common populace’s belief of what is meant when someone says “first edition.” Considering he wrote that specific scene and helped decide on the actual prop, he definitely pulled that specific title out of somewhere.

According to the prop master, the copy seen in the film is an 1884 translation by Alexander Pope. The first printing of his work was in 1715. One copy of this version was going for 2,500 pounds, which, according to the last time I went to Britain, is close to 5,000 American dollars.

So my first thought was that they were just looking for any book that fit the aesthetics and a first edition of Pope’s translation of the Iliad would be considered valuable; they picked that title because it fit.

But Annie Brandt’s exact words were, “"While searching for copies of the Iliad that would be used for the film, the style and look of this book was chosen by myself and Rob Cohen.” (The actual prop in the film was printed by a company who wanted to make beautiful versions of classic novels, as many publishers do today.)

If her wording is correct, it means that the Iliad was chosen before the copy was found. The director picked it deliberately.

Again, why?

We have the overall issue of most people thinking “first edition” means the true first edition. This, as a collector, as a writer, as a director, and as someone with a room filled with people making the scene, he should have known. Maybe he did and just chose to ignore it. But for what purpose?

Let’s start in-world. Why did the character choose that book?

According to the director, he lied about getting it from a garage sale so as not to embarrass her. That’s what I assumed when I heard him say those lines; it just sounded like a lie. If we pretend that the lie is true, which is far less ridiculous than a person who doesn’t know how valuable a book like that would be happen to have it lying around, the character made the point of finding it and buying it.

Some years ago I ended up buying a signed anthology of short stories for my boyfriend’s birthday. It cost an arm and a leg, but featured over 200 signatures (huge book), including Stephen King and Dean Koontz. It was horror, which I knew he liked, and obviously contained some known names, but the book itself was not something which most people would recognize the title of, and though he likes King, he’s not his favorite writer. I bought it because it was the coolest option of what was available to me. First editions, signed copies, and even good looking books are hard to find, especially if you want something specific.

A first edition of Alexander Pope’s version would require a lot of effort and money to find. And if we were to say it isn’t Alexander Pope’s version, but another first edition, if it was something that anyone cared about, it would still not be sitting around in some bookstore. I’d wager it’d be in a private collection, available for sale strictly through them. If it wasn’t one of these coveted versions then I’d have to ask who cares? In fact, even if it was Pope’s edition I’d still have to question the character’s reasoning. While a book is a great gift to get into a bookworm’s pants, I’d have to say that the Iliad would be low on my list. Sure, if I got offered it, great! But I much rather have a personal gift—like any old version of the guy’s favorite book—or, if we were going to go for grandiose gestures, I’d want a book I loved, one I cared deeply about, was interested in, inspired by. Personally, I rather have the complete compilation of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series. Out of the classics, the Iliad is a wondrous but dense and tedious read, one that I have no intention of completing again. If I was going to spend a lot of money on a booklover, I would first and foremost try and find something that is more than just, “You like books and first editions are expensive, here you go!”

And that’s where we get to the nitty-gritty. The book was not chosen due to its availability. He had to seek it out. If we were to stay with in-world criticism, only two things can be assumed: the young male is ignorant to most literature and, like many pretending to be wise in the field, stuck with what he knew to be considered great, or it was genuinely personal, as in the Iliad was her favorite classic novel or maybe it was a translation she believed to be important, a preference that many teachers have. But considering her reaction, I’m going to go with no. Later the director claimed it was because that’s what she was teaching and what they bonded over.

Especially knowing her first statement was about money, lacking any sort of surprise or genuine joy, the whole scene seemed incredibly superficial. It looked to me that the director chose the Iliad because it was a classic. It made her look smart. He picked that prop because it was attractive whereas most first editions are fairly cheaply made (as they are meant to be read), ugly from the damage and fading over the years. He wanted something expensive because as we all know, women only care about money.

Even if we were to say that it was the audience’s naivety that caused the backlash, even if we were to say that it’s their own damn problem, that moment could have been much improved by a different book. Instead of having another generic literary lover who likes all of the academically approved things, she could have been defined better by a more specific choice. He could have been defined by the book he gave her. I’m not saying him handing over a first edition of Lolita wouldn’t have turned heads, but even something like Lady Chatterley’s Lover would have simultaneous linked back to the movie’s concept, hinted at him already pushing his boundaries, and been less likely to get people to roll their eyes at the grandiose gesture being that, while a classic, it is a newer classic and one that you wouldn’t expect every college student claiming as their favorite. If he had picked something less generically “good literature,” it would have suggested the director’s love of fiction and not as much his desire to look like he loved fiction. I’m not expecting a J-Lo flick to be intellectually stimulating and wouldn’t ask them to make it something it doesn’t want to be. I like them for their lack of social risk taking. However, when you have a writer writing about a character who loves literature, I do expect more insight, less airs, less snobbery, more honesty.

The willing incredulousness of an Iliad first edition came down to the false feeling of the moment. Perhaps if, as a book collector, the director had really considered what books he would actually want, what books were actually obtainable, and what books really meant something to these characters, people wouldn’t be so quick to write him off as an idiot.

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Monday, October 2, 2017

She’d Be Less Harsh If She was Actually Blunt

The illustrious Paris Review (and I say that in full sincerity) posted a letter from the French novelist known as Colette, a woman nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in Literature in 1948. In the letter she gave some constructive criticism to her friend, Marguerite Moreno:

… I should like to talk earnestly to you about your copy for Les Annales. You still do not have quite the right touch. You lack the seeming carelessness which gives the “diary” effect. For the most part you have approached your gentlemen as though they were so many subjects assigned in class … For one portrait which works—Jarry—there are two others—Proust and Iturri, say—who don’t. They are just not sufficiently alive!

I am speaking to you now just as bluntly as I would speak to myself … You, who are magic itself when it comes to oral storytelling, lose most of your effects when you come to write. You leave out the color. For instance, your Proust—pages 3, 4, 5. If you were talking to me, this scene would be stunning. But in your written version what do I find? “Madame A. had a critical mind and brought ruthless judgments to bear … a chorus of flatterers agreed … the conversation took a bitter turn … mocking exclamations, derisive remarks,” etc. Do you realize that in all that not one word makes me see and hear what you’re talking about? If you were telling me this in person, you would paint old Madame A. and her husband, Papa Anatole France, and the whole company in fifteen lines. You would transform your “untethered mischiefmaking” into a single line of dialogue, of heard conversation, and it would all come alive. No mere narration, for God’s sake! Concrete details and colors! And no need of summing up! I don’t give a damn whether or not you ask Proust’s pardon for having misunderstood him. Nor do I care whether or not Sardou was “one of the kings of the contemporary stage”! Do you see? And the same goes for Iturri. A “charming and delicate dinner party”—“a conversation which wandered from one subject to another”—what are you showing me with phrases like these? But nothing! Paint me a décor, with real guests and the food they are eating! Otherwise, it’s all dead! In spite of yourself, you’re thinking of Madame Brisson. And I forbid you to do so! Liberate yourself! And try, oh my dear heart, do try to conceal from us the fact that you loathe writing. Try also to pardon me for throwing all this on paper so hastily. I must dash. Write me at Blvd. Suchet. I love you, I hug you, and I am determined that you shall write “marvelous” things, do you hear? My paw to Pierre.

I’ll give her some credit for translation, but let’s face it, she could have been a lot less of an ass if she stopped trying to excuse her assholishness and just got to the point.

-The dairy effect needs more carelessness.

-Proust and Iturri aren’t sufficiently alive.

-On pages 3, 4, and 5, add more sight and sounds, including more detail on Madame A., her husband, and the whole company, but don’t spend too much time.

-Cut down on 'untethered mischief making' to a single line of dialogue.

-Less narration, more details and colors.

And so on and so forth.

I still wouldn’t critique someone in this manner, and I feel some of the above needs further discussion and explanation for me to fully understand the issue if I was receiving that feedback—though I haven’t read the story in question.

Sometimes being actually blunt isn’t the same as allowing yourself to speak down to a fellow writer, and in many cases, being straight and to the point is less offensive than putting in all that extra fluff apologizing for it.

The entire letter is unnecessarily rude and condescending, and I believe Colette’s real aim is to cathartically explain her feelings, not to give the most beneficial review possible.

Being from an author held in such esteem, it can be hard to criticize her methods, but this letter contains huge issues that every critique partner needs to consider before offering up their opinion.

1. Her efforts to compliment are forced and overshadowed by the following criticism, and cause the actual criticism to be stated in a way more insulting and less clear than if they had just been said on their own:

“You, who are magic itself when it comes to oral storytelling, lose most of your effects when you come to write. You leave out the color.”

Being good at oral storytelling is irrelevant here. The point is she needs more vivid details. I, personally, would be less offended to hear that a story 'needs more color' than to have it implied that I suck at writing even if it meant I was good at storytelling (which is probably not true considering how many people’s compliment in their compliment sandwich is false.)

2. Rhetorical questions are always insulting, ineffective, and often direct you right to a counterpoint.

“Do you realize that in all that not one word makes me see and hear what you’re talking about?”

Well, either I did realize it and I did it intentionally, which means you have to do more than just state you don’t think it’s a good idea to help me understand your position, or, no I didn’t realize and your implication that it is obvious is also insulting.

3. The accusation of “You did” over “I feel.”

“You lack the seeming carelessness which gives the ‘diary’ effect.”

“You” is often an attack and puts people on edge, which is why therapists and English teachers recommend not using it. People are more likely to listen to someone who is displaying their perspective rather than acting like that perspective is reality and the author’s perspective is wrong (all the while assuming what that perspective is). The statement here is that a diary must have carelessness and that is something Moreno definitely did not have. It is disparaging, of course, because though it must be that way, obviously Moreno has not realized it.

This might very well be the case, but it backs the author into a corner. If a writer is put in that situation—in which a critique tells her her book must be a certain way and that the writer has not achieved it—the writer must either admit her own incompetency in both taste and skills (and the critic’s superiority), or find a reason why the critic is wrong. And, when dealing with absolutes, it is pretty easy to find arguments that disprove the overly simplified criticism.

Even when you want to use someone’s feedback, if they deliberately make it hard for you to swallow, you’re more likely to tell them to go screw themselves.

Plus, most criticism is flexible, and subjective, and if there is any doubt about the critic’s opinion, it becomes imperative to analyze and be critical of that opinion, or you might make a bad choice despite doing what they suggest. Implementation requires pretty strong understanding.

Sometimes authors make fully analyzed and carefully considered choices only to have someone else go, “Obviously that was a silly mistake! Let me fix that to the clear proper way for you!” Not only is it demeaning, but when they give no credit to the writer’s vision or decision skills, it can be a sign that they actually haven’t put any thought into it at all, but just want you to do everything their way. People who think the answer is obvious and universal are less likely to be those who have dealt with the issue a lot.

4. She acts like reading is an imposition, and writing better is a personal favor.

“No mere narration, for God’s sake!”

This, for me, is the word, “Please.”

By blowing it out of proportion it is likely she thinks she is cutting the tension, but it’s really just an unnecessarily embellishment that makes it sound like the writing is so bad it’s a huge, painful ordeal. Maybe it is, but is it really beneficial to tell the author that? It is demoralizing and yet not actually informative. As I’ve stated many times before, you only say please out of proper etiquette, begging, or to not look like an asshole, none of which lessen the blow that someone hated your choices, just tells you how much they really did.

I’ve seen many people look disgusted at the writers who “forced them” to give feedback, and it just makes the speaker seem arrogant. These folks are often getting off on venting, making their complete revulsion for the writer's choices even more personal than it needs to be.

Because criticism can be fun to give, especially when you stop censoring yourself, people who have deliberately put themselves in the position to give you feedback have no right to act like your writing is a huge imposition.

5. Trying to be clever and funny at the expense of the writer.

“And try, oh my dear heart, do try to conceal from us the fact that you loathe writing.”

I once received a private criticism in which the person, filled with disdain, pointed out a typo and made a pointed joke: “I find that whenever people write about typos, they always have one. Thank you for not straying from that tradition.”

And thank you for knowing your audience.

(The article was not about typos, though the sentence was a comment on how bad I am at finding them. Something Freudian, I suppose.)

When it comes to making fun of someone, it’s a good idea to consider if it’s actually going to be funny to that individual. I did laugh at Colette’s comment, and I believe that the Madame Brissone she is speaking of might be a past writing teacher, which would make the comment more reasonable to Moreno, in which case, I don’t see a problem with it.

However, it could easily be an amusing attack on her writing ability, a common tactic for less secure critics. And while it did make me laugh, it wasn’t a letter for me; it was a letter to the butt of the joke. Even if this isn’t the case, it made me think of the times I’ve seen this happen, and I have to say it’s a bad move.

Trying to be clever holds its own set of problems, like muddling the point for the sake of wordplay. When someone tries to be clever in a way that won’t appeal to the only other person in the room, it shows the criticism as what it’s truly about: the critic.

Which, in the end, is what causes the letter to fall short. Most of the wording is harsher than it needs to be. Colette's letter is not phrased in the most diplomatic way, nor the most friendly. It is not intended for the audience of Moreno, but for the catharsis of Colette's pent up opinion while reading. It makes Colette feel smart and good at the cost of Moreno.

The article in Paris Review is called “Speaking Bluntly,” and the word “blunt” most people interpret to mean as honest.

This isn’t really blunt though. It’s a long, repetitive list of faults fluffed up with condescending embellishments and insincere apologies. If she had actually gotten to the point and said how she was feeling rather than adding in rhetorical questions, forcing irrelevant compliments, and trying to be funny, it would have actually been a lot more palatable and clear. As it is, this gives several examples on how to handle advice in the worst way possible. It is much better to just state the changes she’d like to have seen rather than tacking on disparaging additions like “Do you realize” and wasting space claiming that she’s just as hard on herself.

People often confused being “blunt” with cathartic purging. But sometimes it's better to just stick with the facts.

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Friday, September 29, 2017

Why Good Enough Means Way Better than Average

I once got yelled at for saying that I only took a book seriously once it got above 50 reviews when asked, “How many reviews is enough?”

The other answers seemed to be like, “I have ten. I think I’m doing pretty well.”

And they were doing well. I don’t mean to disparage how hard it is to get reviews, nor say that you should feel like a failure if you don’t have 50. But, let’s be honest: Most self-published books are poorly crafted. I can’t say that I like the majority of the traditionally published I read, that they don’t have flaws, but you certainly can expect a much greater amount of half-assery from a random indie book than a random one from Penguin. Anyone who reads indie books knows how amazingly awful some can be.

Because of this, self-publishers have a harder time of selling their work - Though, fortunately, the low bar some indies hold for themselves makes it easier to regain some credibility. Have a good cover, a clean summary and first couple of pages? You’re already doing a world of difference.

I don’t read reviews for information. Five stars aren’t exactly the most trustworthy. One stars tend to be biased and pissy. In only one case did I find the reviews to accurately predict my reading experience, and it was for a highly successful book that only a minority of one-stars agreed with my dislike. Usually, even if I didn’t enjoy a read, the reasons other people talked about hating it had nothing to do with the problems I felt.

So what good are reviews? Why a number thing?

I have a lot of books to read. I’m very backed up. I’m not too fast anyway, and reading is put down on the priority list. I rarely go on the hunt for a random book, and these days I pretty much buy new ones for one of three reasons: Someone gushed about it, I want to support the author, or I feel like it’s something I ought to have read.

Self-publishers predominately fall into the second category. I meet them online. I follow them. I consider if I want to spend the money on their book. I am so broke right now that I even have to be careful with a few bucks, but even before that I am inundated with so many options that I could easily break the bank by buying them.

Considering my limited amount of time, I tend to prioritize people when they have something that I might actually want to read. Sensible, no? This typically starts with genre, but there are a lot of people with pretty good ideas and desirable enough settings which means that genre doesn’t take enough out of the running. As for summary, well, I’ve never been convinced by a book’s pitch, regardless of the situation.

Next I look at the cover and if it seems homemade, I get suspicious. This may seem shallow, but it actually as a unifying link with the quality of writing: If the author doesn’t see the flaws in his cover art, didn’t push it further, half-assed it, it tends to be reasons of personality, which will mean he is unlikely to be any better at doing those things in his writing. Not impossible, just typical.

I’ll read the first couple of pages, but again, rarely does a book hook me in like that. I have to be emotionally invested—I have to know I’m going to read it and finish it—and so for deciding to buy it, it’s likely that no matter what your beginning is, I’m not going to get interested. I have to warm up.

This is where the reviews come into play. Despite what we, and I, say, self-publishers often being really sloppy, there are also many that aren’t. They are polished, professional, and seem to have their shit together. So even though this process cuts out any major issues (which is why these things are so important), there’s still a huge number left over in a month, not to mention they’re competing with the books I’ve already bought and still have to read.

They’ve either slightly gotten my attention or not. If I was amazed, I wouldn’t get this far; I’d have already bought it. By the point we get to reviews, I’m on the fence. The author hasn’t gained my trust yet, and that is vital.

Getting 50 reviews is pretty impressive. A hundred or more tells me your book is successful. This doesn’t seem to make sense, but you have to realize that most novels sell based on word of mouth. “A friend gushing about it.” It suggests that not only have you sold at least that many books (probably more because of how few people review), not only that you’re a dedicated and diligent worker, but also that people liked it enough to talk about it.

My favorite book, an indie book, I found through a blog post, a review someone had done. Normally I don’t trust blog reviewers (Five stars for everyone!) but her enthusiasm was genuine and made me want some of that emotion.

Lots of books have no stars. Many have three to five. Getting above ten is a feat, and I’m not positive I would be able to do it without a lot of groveling. But this is a time to look outward-in, not the other way around. Just because it’s difficult to do something doesn’t mean that it’s impressive. For the writer getting ten reviews may have taken months and a butt-load of labor, but for the reader, well, I’m going through hundreds of self-published books monthly. It’s not that hard to find something with ten reviews.

The reason getting around 50 is impressive is because so few people do it. It’s not a dealbreaker for me in any case, but it’s a pretty obvious way to gauge if there’s something different about it. Even if it’s just the work gone into it, when you’re trying to sort through a ridiculous pile of options, something like that is going to stand out, while something with a moderate amount of reviews is going to be… just that.

The man who became annoyed with me went on a rant about how difficult it was to get that many reviews, bemoaning my snobbery and keeping him out of the favored circle. I know it’s hard, that’s the point. It means something when you do it.

You take fifty of the best and brightest. You put them in the same competition. Forty of them have a success rate of ten. The rest have an upwards of 50. One has over 100. The competition may be stupid, it may not factor into genuine quality, but you can see why, if all we have to go by is this measurement of success, we’re going to take the top ten and ignore the first forty—even if the average Joe would hardly be able to get one.

I’m not saying to worry about reviews, necessarily. Nor do I mean to invalidate the effort it takes to even get a handful. But when asking questions about outsiders’ opinions, it’s important to remember that you are being compared to others, and ‘good enough’ isn’t ever going to be some absolute number. It will change based on what those around you are doing.

Sometimes it sucks, but that’s the point. If it were easy, everyone would do it.

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