Thursday, December 19, 2013

Ten Things I Learned about Writing from Working in a Fabric Store

Currently I make my living off of part-time jobs and freelancing my theatre skills. My main source of income is a fabric store where I might spend more than I actually make. During these days, I spend a lot of my time thinking about writing, and thus connections are bound to be born.

1.) Subjectivity is a real thing.

This year we had several showings of local quilters’ works, one in which we had the opportunity to vote on the best. We had three categories: Best of Show, Color, and Student. I helped to tally the votes at the end, and the ones I chose? They were on the lower side of choice, having some marks, but less than most.

The ones that won I understood a little bit. Color had the most colors (and I don’t like colorful; I chose the combination I liked best), Best of Show was the hardest to make, and the students was the only one that was not just a bunch of typical squares and stars. We had all predicted the one that would win—it was obvious—but I would have thought the ones I liked best would have done better.

Some of the ugliest quilts I’ve ever seen get a great deal of compliments—without the creator in the room. Color combinations I would never use, colors in general that I couldn’t make appeal to me with all the fabric options in the world, are some of my costumers and coworkers favorites.

Unlike in writing in which I—insanely, if not accurately—attribute many people’s love of a “bad” book as lying. You do not like Hemmingway and Jack Kerouac and Fitzgerald. Bullshit. Or my friend who thinks that she’s better read than her classmates. Both of these things can be true, but they aren’t necessarily true all of the time, and nothing shows the objective truth of subjectivity when it comes to favorite colors.

Some people like things other people don’t.

2.) Never ask stringent rule follows how to break rules.

I work with a lovely woman who is much older than me, and a completely different personality. She is a longtime seamstress, a perfectionist, who is very good at what she does. She knows how to do practically everything. But God forbid you want to do something weird.

I hesitate to ask for her help on things because it will generally be prefaced by “Why are you doing it at all?” I want to change a pattern, trace a pattern, move something, reorganize something, try something new, and I’ll have to explain to her my reasoning behind it. In her mind, we should never change unless there’s a reason to.

This is pretty common in writing sessions, but less obvious. Unlike sewing in which there is a pattern for, a clear rulebook, and logical standards of protocol, the “rules” on writing are pretty vague. And I’ve never met a writer who was willing to admit that he liked doing what he was supposed to.

But you’ll come across smart, experienced people who you disagree with in every way, or will question you on your choices, but will never outright admit that they don’t like rocking the boat. Hell, you might be one of those people. In these scenarios, the receiver of advice might not realize what is going on. I, for one, never even considered that people would balk at change or originality. I consider any criticism on such—always—as them saying, “You’re trying too hard to be original.” But no, there really are people who want things to be formulaic, who don’t want to break the rules, and who will actually say the words, “I just haven’t seen it done that way before,” as though it’s a bad thing by itself.

There is a thin line between being creative and looking like you’re trying to be creative, but when someone starts questioning why you would bother, making suggestions that you don’t agree with, it’s important to consider if maybe, just maybe, they’re a rule follower. If they are, and you aren’t, it might be the cause of the disagreement, and maybe you don’t just have your head up your ass.

3.) Comparison is important.

I would love a fabric. I would love it from afar, never having a reason to use it, never having a reason to pick it up. Then, one day, that would change. I’d take it out, cut off a piece, throw it in my box to make a display, only to pull it out a day later and go, “I liked this?”

Writing, like fabrics, is often evaluated by what it’s being compared to. On the shelf, a color is defined by the colors it’s next to. Books are defined by the others a reader is seeing at that time. Ideas that are great on their own change when put into context. How well something is received sometimes has nothing to do with what it is, but rather what it is being compared to.

4.) By making one arbitrary decision, great ones will follow.

When you walk into any fabric store for the first time, there’s generally a sense of overwhelming decisions to be made. If you have no pattern, no color scheme, have no idea what you want to do, it’s common to try and keep options open. As soon as I pick that fabric, I can’t pick this fabric, and many don’t like to limit themselves like that.

Authors do this all the time. Many people who want to write a novel say to me, “There’s just no idea that I want to commit to yet.” Many who start to write a novel then quit, say, “I just get in and then change my mind about what I want to happen.” People don’t like limiting themselves. They want to see all the options before they make a decision. They want to make the right decision.

This is, however, impossible. Because writing is subjective and because there are too many choices and possible combinations available, trying to wait for the right idea will often lead to nothing happening.

The moment, however, that we make a concrete decision—say, “red”—obvious decisions follow it. I can’t use orange, but I love black with red. Is orange bad normally? Not always. But in this context it is, and it’s easier to skip the orange section and get ideas without being worried about skipping the orange section.

It is far better to make a decision and change your mind than it is to wait around for the right decision to come along. Mostly, because making that first decision is more likely to help you understand what you want—or don’t.

5.) What I like best and what I am most impressed by is not always the same thing.

Back to the contest, I suggested to my boss that we have different option for favorite and for most difficult. She said she had something similar, but the costumers got too confused how to rate it.

I wanted it, however, because the quilts I liked best I knew weren’t that hard to make, but the ones that were impressive, I probably wouldn’t have in my house. Should I vote based on my honest feelings or my logical “shoulds”?

What is hard to do in writing isn’t always clear. The best authors make everything look natural and easy. Sometimes the most complicated and thought out moment is the one most glossed over.

That being said, there are a lot of books that I love that I’m not really impressed by, and those that I’m impressed by that I don’t really love.

Do I think Beckett is a good writer? Yes. As a person of study, to take him line by line, he is interesting. I think he was a fun writer, a good wordsmith, and analyzing him is a blast. His stories, however, would be something a theatre in hell might play.

I find him very, very boring.

It is helpful for every author to remember that they are not intrinsically connected, and that he might be prioritizing one that a reviewer or contest judge is doing the opposite. While, I believe, most people would like to have both, sometimes it helps to remember that not having one doesn’t mean a complete failure.

6.) You’ll get better without even realizing it.

Free motion sewing is a quilting process in which the seamstress becomes completely in charge of moving the needle. She pushes the fabric around with nothing to regulate her seam length or direction. The process would be akin to tying a pen in place than trying to draw by moving the paper. It’s hard.

When I first started, my coworker—a great quilter—said, you’ll be surprised at how much better you are by the end of the quilt.

She was right. I free motioned, making up flowers and leaves all along the edges of the blanket, and you can definitely tell where I started and where I finished.

This is true for everything, whether it be writing, drawing, playing an instrument. With writing it’s hard to tell because it’s not visual or audible, but abstract. What is good and bad is so indistinct that sometimes all we know is “I don’t like it.”

It is typical to feel like you’re never going to like what you do, or that it will take far too long to get there. Many times you don’t want to ruin the project you’re working on with your inevitable mistakes. But the only way to learn is to practice.

7.) You will disagree with people on what is “supposed” to happen.

I walked into my boss’s office to see new fabrics lined up by her desk. I’m not a necessarily a horse person—I like them, sure, but I’m not as obsessive as some others—but immediately I wanted to make something out of it.

Because we live in a tourist town in Wyoming, we sell a great deal of western fabric to quilters looking for things they can’t find in their hometown. (Yes, that actually is a pretty common thing for quilters to do.) These horses, however, weren’t really all that western. Running through a blue winter plain, they were unique.

When I put them together, I mostly used fabrics from the same line (a “line” is a series of fabrics deliberately designed to go together), but for the cornerstones (small squares of fabric that—usually—go in the corners of the quilt) I chose a pattern of blue horses from elsewhere in the store. Well, a coworker didn’t like it, so I let her pull out a great deal of alternative options. My boss came out and we asked for her option, to which they agreed on a brown one. I was asked, “What do you think?”

“Well, it’s okay. My only problem is that it’s kind of western, and I like the fabric because it is about horses, but isn’t so western.”

“It’s not western!” my boss said. “It’s just brown.”

Well, my lovely coworker from above came in soon after to give her opinion, to which she said, “I like this one.” (pointing to the majority’s favorite) “It makes it look more western.”

I started laughing, and my boss explained, “That was the wrong thing to say.”

When my boss explained way, my coworker was so flabbergasted; she couldn’t even form her thoughts into words.

“It’s about horses!” she said. “It’s western! Deal with it!”

Everyone makes assumptions about the way things are supposed to be and what other people are going for. She could not comprehend how I could possibly want a horse not to be western, and I could not comprehend why that wouldn’t be incredibly obvious.

All writers will have this conversation at one point or another. A reader will make the assumption as to what the author’s going for, as to how things are supposed to be, about personal tastes, and the writer has to decide if he agrees or not. Whether it be mixing genres, morals of the story, or just little, unpredictable details, at one point in time someone will say something isn’t the way it’s supposed to be.

8.) What seems like common sense to you isn’t always that common.

A guy came into the store a few days ago needing a thin strip of felt, 60 inches long. He had a worse temperament than most of the men. It is common for them to be uncomfortable, hostile, and abrupt in a fabric store. (There are a lot of men who aren’t, of course, but who notices them?) He gave me that same constipated, monosyllabic tone reserved for someone who just underwent surgery, and kept staring at me, waiting for me to deliver whatever the hell it is he wanted.

He said he needed felt, so I pointed the direction it would be in. He waited. I walked over with him, saying, “This felt is 72 inches, and we cut width of fabric, so you’ll take the whole 72, but it will be long enough.” I showed him the felt bolts (cardboard wrapped in about 15 yards of fabric). He stared at me. “Do you know what color you want?”

“Don’t you have anything else? I just need a strip.”

“Well, we have felt squares, but they’re only a few inches wide and long.”

“Don’t you sell it in ribbon form?”

I didn’t expect this. “Nope.”

He eyed the felts and, deciding that it wouldn’t work for him, “Can you tell me any other options?”

At this point in time, I had no idea why he couldn’t use the felt, and he was so abrasive, I didn’t care.

“This is all we have. I don’t who else would sell felt.”

“I just need a thin strip.”

Now I just stared at him.

“And that’s too much,” he said, gesturing at the bolt.

“I can cut as little as one-eighth a yard, which is about four and half inches.”

“Oh. Okay.”

He lightened up. Then he stared at me.

“I’ll do that then.”

And he stared at me.

“What color?” I said finally.

Selling fabric is a weird business, and it’s understandable why people are uncomfortable and confused. The problem is there are so many different possibilities as to where they might be confused, I don’t know what they don’t know. Now, having worked there for a while, it seems like second nature to me. I knew he was concerned about something, but I couldn’t figure what. In hindsight, it’s obvious why he wouldn’t know how little I could cut, yet I have no idea how much he thought he had to take. It seems like common sense that the bolt would have worked for him, but because he didn’t understand anything about the process, he couldn’t even begin to ask about the miscommunication, and I couldn’t begin to guess.

The number one reason I don’t understand feedback is when the peer glosses over something “obvious.” Instead of saying, “I’m confused who’s talking here,” they say, “Just use their names.” Instead of telling me, “I don’t know who I’m supposed to root for, so I root for no one and don’t care,” they say, “You have too many characters.

By assuming “common sense” neither party is able to understand where the miscommunication is happening. Of course, you can’t explain everything to everyone without sounding condescending as hell, but when miscommunication happens, you can start by considering what you don’t know.

9.) Many customers won’t understand that what they want is unique to them.

I’ve worked there for eight months now, and in this time I’ve had a few costumers upset that we didn’t have what they wanted. Most handle it pretty well. If you’ve lived in Jackson for more than three seconds, you know this is a small town and we have nothing. Go to Idaho Falls if you want a Furby.

But there are those who—usually due to procrastination—are very upset about not having it. I had one man give me a ten-minute long rant about how he keeps coming in there and we have nothing he wants, and I need to be sure to deliver the message to my boss. Because, yeah, what she really needs to hear today is some old jackass complaining we don’t have the color of Velcro he needs. I’m sure that will change everything.

The funny thing is that in all of these situations, the person complaining is often the first person asking. I’ve never been requested for it before, and I haven’t been requested of it since. The items that we do get a lot of requests for, the people haven’t been alarmed about not having it. The tantrum throwers want something that, while not unique, is not something I picture being sold in bulk.

I’ve had people like this in writers’ groups, where they tell their fellow writers what their book needs to be or needs to change, completely unaware that their request is unique to them. A man once started by saying, “I don’t like detective novels,” then telling the mystery writer what she shouldn’t do to fix that.

Unless she was writing mystery novels for non-mystery readers, this is advice that probably isn’t that useful.

10.) People don’t like labeling themselves.

When someone comes up to buy a lot of fabric, I ask, “Are you a quilter?”

What I really mean is, “Do you have any idea how much this is going to cost?”

Nine times out of ten, they hesitate.

“Well, I’m a beginning quilter,” they say.

“I quilt,” they say, “But I wouldn’t consider myself a ‘quilter.’”

Like calling ourselves “writers” people have a problem with putting a label that they don’t think fits them fully. It becomes a big step for us to admit, yes, I am a writer, yes, I am a quilter, and the amount of pressure we put on those labels can be funny.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

“Do You Know Any Good Publishers?”

About two years ago I was sitting around “writing” (i.e. “reading articles about writing”), and I came across an interview with a traditionally published author. I didn’t know who he was exactly, and I certainly don’t remember him now, but he was fairly successful as a novelist and in the most accepted sense of the word.

He told a story about an aspiring author’s comment during a book signing. The man came up to him, tapped on his book, and asked, “How much did this cost you to make?”

The author said, astonished, “Not a thing.”

This was the first time I had heard the belief authors were supposed to pay to be published. At the moment, I was really surprised. Yet, with actual statements like, “I’m going into self-publishing because I don’t have the time, energy, or money to do it traditionally,” getting round the internet pretty frequently, it has started to become apparent to me that it is a fairly common thought.

The publisher finances the project. That’s the reason an author would agree to share his profits.

Which is why I wonder what these potential writers think a publisher does, and why I don’t know how to answer the most typical request on any writer’s forum, “Do you guys know any good publishers?”

That depends on what is meant by “publisher.”

Some people mean self-publisher, some people mean traditional publisher, and some don’t know the difference. Despite the repetitiveness of the question, this unfamiliarity with the publishing process remains, this is the reason behind so many successful scams, and is why so many people get burned.

Publishing is just like any other business. You have the guy with the money who pays the people with the skills. He gets to decide who he hires, and he looks at a resume (query letter) and a portfolio (the manuscript). The only real difference is that, one, the author has already done the work, and, two, it’s the author’s brainchild instead of the guy with the bank account.

So the power therein is a little unclear. The publisher works sort of like an investor as well as a boss, the author is expected to take a good amount of personal investment and opinion into the scene, and instead of it being majorly the boss’s name on the line, it’s the artist’s. Sure, HarperCollins looks a little bad when producing a terrible book, but most people won’t even know who the publisher was. John Smith is the idiot who thought it was a good idea.

(Not that Mr. Smith could ever been an idiot.)

The symbiotic relationship between traditional publisher and author works like this:

The publisher puts up the money so the broke author doesn’t have to. If the project fails, the publisher is the only one financially affected. But in return for this risk, if the project succeeds, the publisher gets the profits, paying the author with royalties.

The publisher has more resources; they can buy the books in far higher bulk and thus have cheaper costs, they have a working relationship with bookstores and so can get their novels on shelves easier and book signings faster, and they have a better reputation which, in this business, means a lot. No one is looking for typos because they assume there won’t be any. They are experienced in the commercial aspects of novels. Each person in the company has made a lot of their mistakes already and learned from them, warned each other about them, and developed a system to prevent them from happening. They have a good sense as to what works and what doesn’t. The publisher tackles the writing world from the financial angle which allows the author to focus on the artistic one.

The symbiotic relationship between the publisher and the author in self-publishing:

They are the same person.

Self-publishing is exactly what it sounds like. The author, instead of turning to a company for investment, fronts the financial side of it by himself. This allows him to have complete control over his own project and reap all the rewards. But it means that he is on his own.

The self-publisher does not have a good reputation. Currently (and that must be emphasized because the literary world is changing fairly fast), the majority of people see the self-publisher as the “I needed the instant and guaranteed gratification for my work that self-publishing supplies, and am too lazy and/or arrogant to get a ‘real’ book, and so slapped whatever unedited crap I spewed onto paper on the internet and expect destiny to take over from there.”

Of course, this isn’t necessarily the case, and I’m not trying to dissuade anyone who is interested in this avenue. I’ve read many good self-published books. But, to be fair, I have read a lot more terrible ones. Or, at least, started to.

My point is that, while there are a lot of reasons and benefits to self-publishing, before an author takes that route, he can’t be disillusioned about how people are going to see him. As A.A. says, the first step to solving a problem is by admitting there is one.

Self-publishing is that it is just like starting your own business. If a writer is not good with business or marketing, or very inexperienced, he needs to consider that before trying to start his career in this way.

Can you get people to friend you on Facebook? Follow you on Twitter? When you were selling candy bars for girl scouts/boy scouts/sports/school electives, did you do a good job? Did you hate it beyond all belief? Have you promoted and produced any sort of smaller projects before? How did those go? Do you have enough money to pay for advertising? Do you know how books are advertised? Have you ever tried to make money via self-employed means before?

Because of the current stigma, an author who has self-published a book that was not a surprising success now has a black mark on his career. Publishers aren’t impressed by this action, and worse, they tend to believe you’re going to be harder to work with (see above perception), and if you don’t provide the name of the publisher in your query, they’re going to think (know) that any “published” book is just self made. If you don’t mention it at all and they look you up on the internet and see it, they’ll be annoyed that you didn’t talk about it. (I’ve heard agents complain about this.) This leads to very limited options in terms of proper etiquette when trying to switch back to the traditional route.

This is to say there are reasons not to do self-publish if you’re not prepared to make it successful. Considering how many times I’ve read a blog that said, “I was just going to put my book up on the internet and let whatever happen happen,” I know it’s not uncommon for authors to never have any intention on putting in the effort.

Self-publishing isn’t easier. It’s just that the hard work comes when the book is already out.

Authors who want to be traditionally published have every reason to go for that route first. Many self-published writers didn’t bother with it, for various motives, and turned straight for the guarantee. Make sure that the publishers really are a bunch of tasteless suits before assuming that they’re not going to like what you wrote. They very well might like it, and there’s a lot of benefit to having financial back than having control and no support. Traditional publishing may be the worst route for an artistic and financial genius, but it allows for skill compensation for us without both.

If your goal is, however, to just have a book in your hands and not have a long standing career (which really is some people’s), then we can turn our heads to the vanity press. This is a publishing company that, by means of the print-on-demand option, will (as an unsaid rule) accept pretty much anyone and make a printed book available to the public online. They aren’t actually created until someone orders them, so the press isn’t out any money.

The problem with vanity presses is that they are poorly edited, (I believe not at all), and very expensive compared to other books. That’s how they make their money. They get authors to buy the novels themselves (sometimes in a hostile, manipulative manner), and some from their families, and then, by sheer bulk of the creations, create a profit that way.

This is great if you don’t care about getting readers or them in bookstores. It is a perfect way to have your story in tangible form for twenty bucks. If that’s someone’s goal, (and only goal) I actually would recommend it.

Or, you could actually go the self-publishing route, have them offer the book on print-on-demand, and buy one of your own for a couple of bucks.

In this day and age, it is really easy to get a book available without paying a dime (a singular book). This is important to remember. If your goal is just to have one or a few copies of a story, then you can do it by paying for the books themselves and don’t need to put in thousands of dollars.

All an author needs to understand about a self-publishing company is:

They are a printer not actually a publisher. All they are doing is creating a tangible product you paid them to make.

Some will offer more services as well as printing. This is not necessarily a scam, but the author is still in charge. First, he should have the right to only pay for printing. They might advertise that they have great graphic design artists for the cover, that they have great editors to look through the book, and, in all honesty, this is might be true. But because it’s the writer’s money, he needs to be and to be able to be the responsible one. Before paying for any of this, he should know who’s doing it and what type of work she does. He should also be able to bring in his own artists. If the company says, “Ours or nothing,” or especially, “You must pay for a graphic designer/editor before we will print anything,” it’s a scam and you can get a better deal through other companies. There are too many options to put up with this.

Lastly, and this is the most important part, a self-publishing company should work by commission OR by an upfront charge, but not both. Anyone ever asking for both is definitely a scam. Either the company charges you for printing/specific services (in which you know exactly what those services are), and then you’re on your own, or they don’t charge you anything, but get a percentage after a book has sold.

Simply:

You pay for hard copies. They print those hard copies (in the exact form you have given them) and send all of them to you. The price should be low enough that you can sell them to others for the same amount an average, traditionally published book would go for. Then the company has no investment if the book sells or not. They do not edit, market, or design the novel for you. They take the product as is, no acceptance or rejection involved. (Avoid any self-publishers that have a submissions process.)

OR

You pay nothing. They offer print-on-demand and ebooks online. When someone purchase the copy, (say for $10), they keep a percentage ($2 to $4) and you get the rest ($8 to $6). You should be able to buy your own books for their “percentage” price ($2 to $4), not the retail price ($10). (In this case of not paying anything, it’s because you have also designed and edited it yourself instead of hiring someone.) They do not edit, market, or design the book for you.

Maybe you added some extra services that they offer:

You pay $300 (for example) for a cover design. You pay $3,000 for an editor. You hire a P.R. agent to do the marketing. You need to include those in your cost of books and consider how much you’d need to charge to make that money back. If it gets ridiculous, do some research for what’s normal.

But you never, ever pay for a Printing Fee, a Reading Fee, Marketing Fee, or any extraneous/ambiguous price. You should know exactly what you are getting out of your money, and how much you should be spending on that service. You are paying to get something very specific back, and not paying for their “time” or “consideration.” It should make clear sense as to what the purchased service is. You should be able to opt out of the other options as well/bring in your own artists. You should not be pressured into buying your own books. If they mix traditional publishing with self-publishing, it’s a scam. Luckily, they will advertise it like it’s a good thing. Lastly, the services should be a separate distinction from the printing process. You pay for the service one at a time, and should never be pressured into doing something faster. If you pay for editing, they shouldn’t be charging you for printing. You pay the editor, she edits. You wait as long as you want. You pay for printing (maybe with a different company even), you get the physical books. You should not have to pay for the printing of ebooks.

If you are looking for graphic designers and editors, I recommend working outside the self-publishing company and seeking freelancers. You have more control and more personability that way, and are less likely to be pulled into some sort of money grabbing scam.

The publishing world is changing quickly, and as time goes on, the more self-publishing becomes acceptable. But with more and more authors producing their own work, the more there are people able to collect on our dreams. There’s nothing wrong with self-publishing; it’s just important to understand it first, and realize that it’s the choice, not the norm.

So as to the question, “Do you know any good publishers?” the answers are…

If you are looking for a traditional one, you probably want an agent, not a publisher. For those, look in the current Writer’s Market and the acknowledgement section of books in your genre (most authors thank them.) Most publishers do not take anything without an agent, which is why they are usually your first step. And many of them get furious at receiving unsolicited work. If you really want actual publishers, all books have theirs listed in the copyright page. Writer’s Market also has some that will take unagented work.


If you are looking for a self-publisher, CreateSpace works great for paperbacks and ebooks. They have good spines and look great (depending on the cover given). I have heard that Lulu has nice products and more options, like hard cover (also are a little more expensive). IUniverse is a scam, Publish America is a vanity press. Do a Google search if you’re unsure about any company.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Why I Disagree with the “Silent Treatment” in Critiques

“The Silent Treatment” seems to be a common academic strategy used in critique sessions to prevent hostility and argument. The rule is the author is not allowed to respond with anything other than “Thank you.” Hoping to prevent the typical tirade of that bastard, The Egotistical Author, a group session will structure its proceedings strictly, preventing people from falling into the “self-defense” rant associated with our favorite stereotype.

The arguments in promotion of the “Silent Treatment” make sense—an author won’t be allowed to defend or explain himself to his readers, so if they don’t get it, they don’t get it. Plus, when in a controlled and secure situation, a peer is more likely to actually speak up than when someone might start screaming at her.

These make sense to me in a contextual sense, but, unfortunately, my priorities are different than the above. The way I see it (respectively): A manufactured criticism session in which people are reading work to give feedback rather than enjoy can’t give a “real” reaction to the story anyway. Next, just because someone’s not speaking doesn’t mean I’m not worried about them hating me. Giving a space for someone to talk freely encourages lack of censor, which is fine for helpful and considerate souls (granted, many people) who need that set up (less people), but not for others, say, The Egotistical Author, there to prove his superiority and knowledge. And, most importantly, criticisms can be fun discussions, once we get over the “being attacked” stage. But nothing makes a person feel like being attacked more than being unable to do anything about it.

While a fine short-term solution, I find not engaging a dialogue problematic for the long-term.

1) The situation is temporary and artificial.

Currently Americans are attempting to remove the concept of winners and losers from our children’s vocabulary. Everyone gets a ribbon, there are no hurt feelings, “no child left behind,” and all that nonsense.

My community was a big part of this, and I have to say I hate them for it. It can’t last forever, and the moment that I got into a truly competitive world, I didn’t know how to function. It disturbed me immensely, and I learned the very hard way that life was no longer set up for me to do what I wanted. The school-created opportunities, their secure, dictated situations weren’t like the “real world.” The contests, the plays, the events, the workshops, hell, even the projects themselves were not just sitting there for the taking. Young people are catered to (as I believe, in terms of opportunities, is a good thing), people dishing out a good amount of money so I may be in a play or have a teacher give me feedback on my writing. But anyone who wishes to continue with the same activities after school soon learns that those same opportunities depend on self-reliance. We have to fight for what we want, we have to force ourselves to do the best possible job we can. If you fail to do your work, if you piss everyone off, if you just don’t do good work, you may not get another opportunity again.

Writer’s groups, classrooms, and chat rooms that ask for a “no response” policy are creating a temporary and artificial world. (Granted, maybe forum moderators don’t care.) It solves the immediate issue of no fights being in the classroom, but it doesn’t help people once they leave that world.

Criticism and how to handle criticism needs to be learned. Neither is an innate trait or an easy skill. It can only be learned through practice and feedback.

Authors need to learn how to say no to someone important in a well-thought out and non-offensive way. They need to learn how to ask questions, how to understand what someone is telling them without sounding like they’re “questioning.” They need to learn how to respond to people who truly are just being horrible jerks (we all know at least one) without starting a screaming match. And a writer who is not conveying his message needs to learn how, and the critic is more able to give useful suggestions that if she actually knows what that message is.

And because authors will be critics at some point in their career (even if it just for themselves), it is important to practice giving feedback, expressing thoughts well, and saying things in a way that will make others respect him rather than thinking he’s a tremendous dick. By getting responses to his responses, he is better equipped to critiquing next time.

Yes, no response will prevent arguments from happening, but it won’t help anyone learn how to prevent arguments when that shield is gone.

2) It promotes a “versus” mentality instead of a collaborative one.

When I criticize this “no response” attitude, the first reaction is always, “You just want to defend yourself!”

Because that would do a lot of good.

I’m not going to pretend that I am immune to getting hurt, feeling defensive, saying things I shouldn't, misbehaving in a critique, or anything else that manifests in “unacceptable” behavior. In fact, I’m not going to even try and prove that I’m not defensive because it doesn’t affect my point.

The perception of the critic versus the author is a counterproductive yet common one. They’re on the same side, and the moment everyone involved accepts that, the situation will be better. This idea of “defending yourself,” is exactly the problem, and the fact that this is people’s first image of the hypothetical situation just tells us how horribly communal it is.

Of course we feel that people are trying to attack us. Writing is a highly competitive field and no matter how good of a person someone is, she still wants to prove her value in the world, and that is inversely linked to the value of those around her.

I’m not saying it’s stupid to think people aren’t just trying to help you; considering how cynical I am, I believe it’s a sure bet. I’m saying that promoting that attitude will not lead to a good experience.

By making the assumption that the author’s reaction will be hostile, it indicates that he should feel hostile. By tying his hands and forcing him to face people who may or may not know how they talk to others, it causes the author to brace before he has even heard a word. By creating an atmosphere that values one side over the other, it widens the gap between them. But when encouraging an open dialogue that is about listening and speaking, both parties are more inclined to feel they’re able to get their point across, not be misinterpreted, and are willing to expend the energy used to shut down to the dialogue. At worst, by being forced to respond, they won’t be able to just sneak away into their own heads.

Will they listen? Will they behave as they should? Will they stop trying to one-up each other? Nope. Not at first. Not unless they’re special and unique. But by facing the ramifications of their actions by seeing others’ responses (author and critic) teaches them to listen, to behave, and to drop the competition far sooner than teaching passive-aggressiveness does.

3) True respect is believing the other person has a point and trying to understand it.

There is one man in my writers’ group who I couldn’t disagree with more. He is an old political essayist, Republican, sexist, bigoted rule-follower. I am a young science-fiction/fantasy writer, filled-with-such-apathy-to-politics-it-would-be-too-much-effort-to-quanitify girl who couldn’t identify a boundary, let alone follow it.

About 90% of the revisions made to my manuscript were his suggestions.

Why? Because, while he was not my intended audience, while he prioritizes things I don’t (in literature and in life), while he doesn’t understand where I’m coming from, he always helps me understand him.

I am the sort of person who assumes that every new stranger knows what he’s talking about. I, often to a fault, have high respect for the criticism of others, always believe they have a good point, I’m just not seeing it.

But, for the reason expressed above, it’s hard to communicate that to someone who is worrying about how I perceive him. While it is the minority, there are those that, when asked to elaborate, will freeze up, get upset, and believe the author doesn’t respect their opinion. These are often the people who create the “no response” ruling. They see respect as full-blown faith.

I understand there are people who trust experts explicitly. I envy them in a way. It certainly makes life easier when you can trust the decisions others make for you. But I don’t consider respect blind-faith. It’s not about always thinking someone’s right, but what you do when you think they’re wrong.

Now I may not respect this man’s political viewpoints, while I may not think it’s the end of the world if he doesn’t like what I’ve written, I listen when he talks. When I don’t understand what he’s saying, when I feel I disagree, I believe there is something I’m missing, that I’m misinterpreting. This isn’t uncommon for me. So I ask questions. We talk it out until I understand. He doesn’t get upset, he doesn’t worry about proving he’s right. Because we are able to have an open dialogue, he has more than one opportunity to say what he wants, and I have more than one opportunity to understand it.

Removing the ability to discuss feedback promotes the attitude that respect is about immediate acceptance, that people only deserve one chance to “be right or wrong.”

This does a disservice to both critic and the author.

4) Successful blind obedience requires starting at the same perspective.

Perspective is what makes people different from each other. We take our memories, our moods, are passions, our futures, our experiences and bring them into every decision we make, into every interpretation.

Two people entering into a situation will have two different perspectives. Those perspectives can merge, they can look at things in the same way, but they need a signal to find out where the other person is. And, for that matter, they need to find out where they are first.

Our perspective is so ingrained that we’re not even aware of it, not even aware that we might be making abnormal assumptions. The biggest cause for miscommunication in constructive criticism is making conjectures that are true from where we stand, but not necessarily viewable from someone else’s point of view. It is important for the critic to show the author where she’s coming from—and, at times, the author to show the critic where he’s coming from—in order for him to see what she does.

My very respected bigot from above told me once that he had “so many questions,” when reading my book. “It was too confusing,” he said.

“What do I need to explain more?”

He didn’t seem to know. He just kept reiterating, “Too many questions,” unable to tell me exactly what it was he didn’t understand.

Now, had this been a place where I couldn’t respond, that’s all I would have gotten. I would have known he was dissatisfied with the number of unanswered hints in the opening, and I would have either had to ignore it or go through and try to guess as to what he wanted to be clearer.

But we kept talking, and he finally he said, “Well, for example, are we in outer space? Because it seems like we’re not.”

I was stunned. I had no idea why he thought that should be explained. Then I thought about it, and I realized: To him, “Science Fiction” meant space. From the perspective of someone who didn’t read it, he just assumed that it would be on another planet, and when it wasn’t, he was confused—or rather, had “so many questions.”

Had I taken my book home and crawled through it trying to find everything he questioned, I would have never guessed that he was confused about it not being in space. From my perspective, “dystopian future,” said “Earth” or “Earth-like.” For him, science fiction said, “Other planet.”

Back when I didn’t understand how much I didn’t understand the criticism given to me, I would take stuff home and do what was asked of me (every once in a while). I would then return with worse results, according to both me and the critic. I’ve seen this happen to other authors also; it’s a decently common phenomenon. If the writer tries to do what the critic tells him exactly without really understanding the why or the what, he is unlikely to have solved their problem.

Discussion illuminates differences in perspective that one-sided reviews will gloss over, blissfully unaware of incongruity within the listener’s mind.

5) The best answer is based around the author’s vision, not the generally accepted solutions.

Once I was told with a dismayed shrug, “I just haven’t seen it done that way before.”

“Thank you,” I said.

Not only is every person in the room going to have their own perspective, but they’re going to have their own goals and tastes. This is important in a feedback session because perfectly good solutions will be rejected for nothing other than not being what the author wanted.

And that’s a good thing.

What will keep consistency in a book, what will allow the author to gauge the quality and success of his work, is his own personal vision. Writing is too subjective, too comparative an art form, for culturally accepted blanket-solutions to rule all.

Many critics are smart, opinionated, and helpful, but they can only go so far if they don’t understand where the author is coming from.

A writer has every right to say no to any piece of advice. But anyone who’s not been satisfied with his work and not known why, anyone who has sought out outsider perspective and yet found himself more confused, not moving forward, doesn’t want to just say no. He wants answers, he wants solutions, and he wants help. And, if the point is self-satisfaction, then being told that the best solution is not to go in the direction he wants won’t help.

A lot of criticism comes in this form. Most feedback writers get asks them to take whatever is different about their story and “cut the crap.” Whether it be switching P.O.V.’s, using weird words, telling a story backward, or having sparkling vampires, most comments will say that what makes a story unique is what makes it bad.

Hell, the author might agree. There is a very fine line between being creative and looking like you’re trying to be creative, and so these comments can be helpful.

But it can also stifle creativity.

The most helpful criticisms are the ones that takes the author’s goals and tastes into consideration. Instead of suggesting pure eradication of the “weirdness” the critic gives ideas how to make it more palatable; she tries to solve her problem while keeping the author’s stipulations in mind. This often leads to novel writing (see what I did there?), opening the box rather than trapping him inside of it.

This can’t happen very well when the critic doesn’t know anything about the author’s vision.

I think it’s great to have a response before the peer understands what the author is going for, but then there needs to be a second part of that, in which she is able to digest her actual response with his desired response. How did she feel, and why didn’t she feel how she was supposed to? The answer to those questions are some of the most helpful realizations the writer can get, and it can only come from an outside source, from someone who is able to have a better insight into the actual reaction without his perception, goals, or tastes considered.


Criticism, no matter the negative stereotypes imposed on it, no matter the authors’ hopes for humility, is a collaborative process meant to help the author. He needs to recognize this, of course, not be a jerk, be grateful, but that doesn’t mean that he needs to be bolted down and gagged. Everyone has something useful to say, but sometimes it’s only by asking, clarifying, and encouraging that we will get it out of them.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

My Journey in Writing Female Characters

Several weeks ago I encountered an old man who decided to “take me under his wing.” By that, I mean, boss me around and be surprised when I wasn’t interested.

I am a quiet, young girl, small, thin, who makes a point to smile because otherwise people think I hate them. I am, what I would call, a bully in nerd’s clothing.

I have talked about before how, in constructive criticism sessions, the person who gets the worst of it is not the worst writer or the biggest jerk, but she who looks like she won’t fly off the handle at every insult. The person who looks like she will say, “Oh. Okay.” I look like that person. I can be that person. I’m rarely that person. Especially when you tick me off.

The first time we met, I questioned him. By questioning him, I mean, he told me—his voice harsh; he might have been constipated—“You contradicted yourself there,” and I said, “Yes. He [the character] doesn’t know what she’ll do.”

He stared at me.

“Did it not look like that’s what I wanted?”

Then the man crumbled into himself as though the organs had all fallen out. He wouldn’t respond at first; someone had to do it for him.

We continued on without him.

He stopped talking, and we let him be, I, completely unaware at the time.

Because I have a big stack of drafts at home, all filled circles around words I should not be using from 20 different people, none agreeing on which words, when someone tells me something is awkward and should be changed, I always say, “Do you mean that it was hard to picture the image? Or that it was distracting or…?” Because it would be easier to rewrite my whole book in a different mindset then try to “fix” every word that someone doesn’t like to a word that everyone is okay with, especially when I’m not sure on the problem.

So after the meeting, I took a draft in which someone wrote, “Expand for clarity,” at the top, asking her to point out specifically where. He is waiting, and I thought to talk to her, when he says to me, “Can I interrupt?”

“Sure.”

“I didn’t want to say this while other people were around, but you are very defensive.”

The little space behind my ears went red hot. It was a weird sensation, because I did not believe for a second I was—I know what defensiveness feels like—so I wasn’t offended or embarrassed, just annoyed, knowing that I would be thinking about this for a while.

I said, “If I’m defensive, what do you think my reaction to that would be?”

I told him that I would often go home from these places and look at these remarks and not understand why that person found this problem so important. Why this wording was awkward, but that wording is okay. What they mean when they say, “Fix” or “?” or “I don’t understand.”

Then, by this time, another writer had returned, hearing the tail end of this conversation, and said, “I don’t think she’s defensive.”

And the old man bowed his head again, looking down as he muttered something about, “I just thought you should know.” Then leaving.

He’s a lawyer. He should be better at arguing.

My point here is not about whether or not he was correct in his assessment of me, however. I can’t prove anything, and I could be wrong. My point is that this old man waited for a good time afterwards to tell me I was being defensive, and I can’t imagine he does that for every person who he feels is behaving inappropriately. Why could he say it to me? Because he’s older, wiser, and I’m a nice young girl who would appreciate having the advice of someone of his stature.

In the discussion, he never critiques the men. Not unless it’s one of those “agreeable” guys who accept everything they’re told. Then he’ll contradict everything. He always is harsh and abrupt, and downright rude towards the women. After our little tete-et-tete, he started treating me in the same manner as the guys. He would rarely say anything, and if it did, it would be as small and unsubjective as he could make it. Typos and such.

Now the biggest problem with sexism is that you’re never really sure if that’s what’s going on. I’m not positive if he confronted me because he thought he could get away with it, but it certainly looked like it. I do not believe he would ever do that to any one of the highly competitive men in our group. He would not do that to someone who he thought would say, “Go to hell.” I, being forty years his junior and a girl, fell into the more submissive category. So, it was okay.

What does this have to do with my evolution of female characters?

Well, about two weeks later we were both in a writer’s workshop (it’s a small town), when out of the blue he brings up, “I think everyone has a hard time writing for characters of different genders and different races because you don’t know what it’s like.”

I don’t know what it would feel like to get my arm blown off, doesn’t mean I can’t imagine it. That’s called, empathy, sir. Something I know you do not have.

This gentleman was sure that his problem was everyone else’s, and in reality, it isn’t. I have read the first books of some men that characterized women in interesting and believable manners. (They were, of course, good at characters in general, which helps.) One of the big parts of writing is to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, no matter what gender, and try to figure out an appropriate way to react to a situation you have never been in before. And, I know a lot of women who don’t write well for women either.

Because women are hard.

Why? They’re just people, right? And women can relate to other women, right? So what’s the problem?

The problem is not “relating to them,” although, that would definitely be my first suggested to the fine gentlemen. Or maybe, get your head out of your ass. (This is the bully part I’m talking about.) The problem is there is no “correct” way to do a female character, that standards for fictional women warped our understanding of real women, and that we succumb to trying too hard very quickly.

I started writing when I was thirteen, and my first characters were, for lack of a better term, bitchy. They were contradictory and aggressive and unlikeable. Even at that age, I had a firm opinion against most of the women in movies and television shows who were also contradictory, aggressive, and unlikable. I thought I could do better, and I struggled with it.

I kept writing them, trying too hard to make them strong/independent, though I didn’t realize that was what I was doing. The consequence of these choices was alienation. They were sarcastic, but they weren’t funny. They were independent, so they had nothing to do with the story.

Soon I developed my first tactic to prevent this: Acknowledgement. The fellow characters in the book, especially the boys, would recognize her bitchy behavior and make fun of it, mock it, point out that I knew how she appeared. This helped the overall appeal of the book, saving the other characters from being brought down with her, but she was still unlikable.

Lesson number one? The other character’s reactions are important.

Then, one day, I saw Ironman. There I was introduced to Pepper, one of the most annoying female characters I’ve ever seen in my life. I hated her, mostly because I loved Tony Stark so much. It was not a jealousy issue—the way I enjoy movies demands for my favorite character’s happiness with the people of their choosing—it was a, “Stop being such a buzz kill!” issue.

And I had to wonder why I hated Pepper so much, why her lines were not funny at all, yet Stark’s had me in tears. They were written by the same people. The difference was tiny. Was it the acting? Yes, I think that was a big part of it. Was it the different way I perceived women and men? I hoped not, but a possibility. Or was it something about the difference of their personality? Bingo.

Pepper behaves as an antagonist to Ironman, except that her “antagonism” is also always correct. She is always telling him he’s wrong, he shouldn’t do that, saving him from stupid decisions that we expect Stark would make, but couldn’t possibly make without dying. She was the voice of reason, but that made her obnoxious.

I wrote a book called Silver Diggers, a story about siblings who live in the Wyrd, fighting supernatural beasts. In it, Kaia had the same sarcastic personality, a borderline bitch, but she was always on her brother’s side. They fought a lot, but she defended him at times, and they let each other live. Both acted as the voice of reason for the other, both got angry, but they never tried to force the other into taking their advice. They let their sibling make a mistake, and thus, Kaia, a selfish and greedy woman, ended up being fairly likable.

Then I started the book I named The Fallen Prince, in which an exiled prince is asked to return home, followed by the singular maid, Paris, who had sided with him at his banishment. As I began the first few pages, I immediately felt my dislike of Paris and knew that I was falling back into my old trends. So, approximately twenty pages in, I cut all her lines.

She wasn’t allowed to talk. I developed her as a shy girl. She had those contradicting and sarcastic thoughts, but she just didn’t say them. Not until she and Prince Anders were alone. In which case, her true self came out, which developed a connection between them, and illustrated her trust in him. It also made sense because of her standing and history.

Lesson number two? Not all reactions have to be verbal.

A couple of false starts later, I eventually began a beast of a novel, The Dying Breed, in which, for the first time, I had no idea what I wanted the female lead to be like. A dystopian romance, I sat down, for the first time saying, “Be whatever you wish to be.” It led to a lack of cohesion, but, by the time I finished it, Libra had become a better developed personality than I had of any other character. She was also sexist as hell. At least, in the beginning.

A brainwashed child of a cult, I had to go back through and make her more submissive, more pathetic, more afraid. She is kidnapped, and though is angry about it, decides to stay with the man doing it. It’s not Stockholm syndrome—she loved him before—it’s just stupidity. The character is not the most likeable person, but she is a character of her upbringing. For once I stopped worrying about looking sexist, (women can fear that too) and just let her be what she needed to be. It was freeing.

Lesson number three? Don’t worry so much.

Sometime later, as I was screwing around and writing the 100 page outline for another book in which I considered making the protagonist a deliberate bitch, I saw the preview for the new Hansel and Gretel movie. In it, we see Gretel walk up to the leader of a town and head butt him, and I thought, “It must be nice to be a woman and get away with assault.”

Now the movie actually handled it better than I gathered in the preview, but it led me to another epiphany. Women, in these movies, rarely have to face ramifications for their actions. And that’s the problem. You introduce a character to a world, then have her break the rules of the world and not pay for it, she doesn’t really belong to that world, does she?

I realized something very important. The reason why many women—Pepper, Gretel, Kora from the Last Airbender—are irritating is not because of their actions, but because their actions make for hard reactions. If it is so easy to break societal rules, why isn’t everyone doing it? If it is so easy to be a strong and independent woman, why is this girl the only one in the movie? If you are untouchable, why wouldn’t you just do anything you wanted? What’s stopping you? Your morality? Boring.

Lesson number four? Punish her.

It’s hard for people to humiliate women. For many, they can only do the extremes. Invincible or raped, those are the options.

With this in mind, I started the book The Imposture’s Prison, in which the sister of a fallen Chosen One is asked to take his place. I had one basic rule for Iris: She is allowed to act on impulse, but once she does, so is everyone else.

She was injured throughout the majority of the book.

Because I wanted her to live in a semi-barbaric world, and I could not motivate removal of sexism all together—nor did I really want to—I had her defy the societal rules, and gave good reason why most people wouldn’t. She said something sarcastic, someone backhanded her. She voiced her opinion, people pretended she didn’t exist. She was a loose cannon warrior on the edge, and she sat in the stocks—despite winning. I was hard on Iris. She spent many days starving, bleeding, invisible (metaphorically), and just in a lot of pain. And she was likable. She is my favorite character, male or female, to date.


Lesson number five? Strength only means something if it’s hard to come by.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Ten Tips to Getting Me to Read Your Self-Published Novel

I actually buy and read more self-published books than I do traditional ones. There are several atypical reasons to this—I am more interested in authors than I am characters, I don’t feel bad about being uncommitted, I enjoy overtly bad writing, I accidentally find more of them, I am more likely to impulse buy an ebook (but I don’t like ebooks when paper ones are available), and I like supporting people. So that being said, my motives for purchasing a book or not are always universal, but here’s the truth:

1) Make it easy.

The thing about buying an unknown book from an unknown author with a huge spectrum of possible quality is that it’s often now or never. If I pass, even if I decide I do want it later, I’m going to have a hard time finding it again. And because I come across them in bulk on writer’s forums and Facebook, I’m going to take one look at it and then move on to the next.

If someone advertises their story and I find it, the best thing to do is to give me a link directly to the purchasing page. While I am usually more interested in the author’s website than I am the actual work, if I have to go browsing through it to find the book in question, I’m more likely to lose interest.

I am also more likely to buy if it’s on Amazon than if it’s on any other website. The reason is simple: I don’t want to put my credit card into some unknown place. Also, I don’t like putting my credit card in at all. Getting up and fetching the bitch is just problematic enough that I will blow off a sale of even something I really want. Made for people like me, Amazon has a “One-Click” option which involves nothing more than a confirm. I will then have the book immediately before I get bored and move onto something else. That instantaneous retrieval is more likely to actually get me to read the damn thing too; by the time I've completed the billing process, you've already lost me.

I never look at self-published books with the plan to buy. It is very much an impulse thing, and like most impulse purchases, any obstacle will dissuade me.

2) Be clear about what it is.

The most annoying thing to me about self-published works are the weird lengths. You get some story that is 30,000 words long, and it’s too big for a quick read and too short for a full investment.

I hate buying books then finding out they’re short stories or just really short novellas. While my first recommendation is write something closer to “industry standard” size (under 20,000 or over 70,000 words.)

It is flexible, and professional, traditional novellas are commonly printed from 50,000 to 70,000 words. But I don’t buy those either.

But, really, the size isn’t much of a make or break deal as long as I know about it first. I prefer short stories around 5,000 words, and really want books around 90,000, but these preferences are not primary motivators for me. I’m using buying it because I like the author. Or, sometimes, hate the author.

Amazon.com has an approximate page number before you buy, but often times I can’t find how big the book actually is. It’s less of a problem to me that it’s 30,000 words and more of a problem that I didn’t know that. If I bought your book because I’m actually interested in reading it, and I find out it was really short, or worse, a part of a story with no ending, I’m really angry. I expected a satisfying read, and now I’m disappointed. If you admit this is a just a part, then I might say, "You know what? I’ll buy the first, and if I like it, I’ll by the second." Weird lengths are undesirable, but they won’t stop me. Having a proper amount and a full story gives me just a tiny extra push, but it's not necessary. What is important, however, is to not make me feel ripped off.

Or even when it is a short story and the author didn’t make that clear in the beginning. When I thought I was getting a novel, I can be pretty annoyed.

And I might add, while knowing that something is only a short story or novella-poser might dissuade me from getting it, I have been burned enough to never buy something that doesn’t explicitly state what it is. And when I have felt tricked, that’s when I’m inclined to leave a one-star review.

Let the reader know how long it is and if it’s complete. If it’s being published as a serial and has a huge hook, waiting to explain things in the next story, tell us. If it’s a secondary book in a series, say it in big letters. The reader should know exactly what it is he’s getting. It may not matter if your book is fantastic and exactly my thing, but if I find it on the edge of great and okay, (there is no “just good” in my mind) it will make or break it.

3) Let me see a sample.

I will not buy books that I can’t look inside at first. Funnily enough, the sample rarely changes my decision if I’m going to get it or not, but when I can’t look at all, I just move on.

Amazon does a good job of this, but many other self-publishing websites don’t. Especially if your book is not a dollar and/or is paper printed, I need to have an idea of what it looks like before I get it.

If your website doesn’t have that option, then include an obvious link where I can get the first chapter, probably in the summary box. For readers like me, it’s fairly necessary.

To be honest, I’m not necessarily looking for well-made books in these samples. I am looking for what I should expect; typo-ridden crap or  beautiful indie stories, or something in between. I’ll buy books because they look really bad, really good, or just on the edge of good with just a little bit missing. So, to me, what the sample is doesn’t actually matter. It’s just a little security blanket, letting me know what I’m in for.

4) Be clear what it’s about.

This is the same advice for any query letter. A lot of time when authors first summarize their work, they focus more on having a hook and being mysterious then actually letting us know what we’ll be reading.

If I’m not buying the book because I know it is God-awful (which I do do), then I actually do care about the reading experience and whether or not I will be interested in it. If I don’t have a pretty good understanding of what the reading experience is likely to be like, I’m inclined to think it will be bad, as most random books are.

Now, in traditional publishing, the publisher knows this. They recognize the benefits of being not predictable while seeing the negatives of being unpredictable. Because they have to sort through thousands of horrible queries every day, they are aware of what needs to be in a summary. A first time publisher often does not.

Things that I need to know to see if I’m interested:

The setting—This one is especially important to me. I have very specific tastes about what I do and don’t like, and the majority of them fall into setting. I don’t like contemporary places, I hate police and military matters (that aren’t at least a hundred years ago), and I want supernatural elements. Now, this isn’t universal by any means, and my point is not to write about these topics, but to let the reader know what topics the world will supply. A good portion of readers are interested in setting, so if they’re not clear about the where, and the uniqueness of the where, they aren’t going to risk it.

The tone—My biggest issue is, being that I read supernatural stories, when I’m not sure if the author intended scary, campy, or didn’t care what came out. It is important to me what the author was going for. If I pick up a book that seems silly, and it’s clear the author didn’t want that, then I don’t trust him with my emotions. If the author doesn’t care how I feel, I still don’t trust him. And I will never invest my emotions in a story I don’t trust, for obvious reasons. Again, I just want to have a little understanding on what the reading experience will be like. I can do creepy, I can do funny, I can even fluctuate between extremes, but I don’t want to do some watered-down mixture. Let the reader know exactly the atmosphere you’re going for so they feel safer in your hands.

The conflict—Letting us in on the conflict lets the reader know what she might want to happen, and therefore, why she might care. If it’s about “Susie is a vampire, but she wants to be human again,” then I know I should want Susie to be human again. If I don't like vampires, or don’t likes stories about "supernatural people wanting to be normal," I won’t waste my time. If it’s about “Jimmy wants to get his sister back from an evil overlord,” then I should want Jimmy to get his sister. Just by that information I can start to decide if I actually do care or not—Which is the very reason people leave it out. How can I really know how invested I am in Susie’s humanity until I’ve actually met Susie? Authors think it’s best to reveal it through their hard spun words, and it’s true that it’s easier to make people invested by showing instead of just explaining. But that only works if I’ve already picked it up. Again, if I don’t know whether or not I’m going to care about the conflict, I’m going to assume I don’t.

5) Let me know it exists.

When I go to writer’s blogs and forums, I’m actually looking for this kind of crap. I want blogs and self-published works, and I go to one every time I see a link for it.

Now, I realize I am not the norm, and that many people who go to these places are looking to promote, not support. It can be very frustrating to see competition posting and not see results. Which, you won’t. I sometimes make an effort to comment and let people know I’m reading them, but it is only done out of common courtesy. Even if I love a blog or story, I’m not likely to go about reviewing or commenting on it. So, because support is done from the shadows, it feels like everyone is being narcissistic, and, considering how hard it is to self-promote anyway, authors tend to say, “I don’t want to be that guy.”

Honorable, but if I don’t know the book exists, I can’t buy it.

Sure there are times to promote and times to not, and it can be hard to tell the difference. I struggle to find new writer’s blogs to read and new books to look at because self-advertising is so hard. But the reality is that while no one likes to be spammed, most people who will respond negatively are those who wanted to do the same thing. Everyone else is happy about it or ignores it.

I’m not saying to go to every blog and writer’s forum and post your book there; know the location. If it says don’t do that, don’t do that. If a lot of other people are, then no one cares, go for it. Worst that happens, you’ll be ignored.

Feel free to splatter across your Facebook. Go make interesting, conversational comments on forums and blogs before including a link. Most websites have a place just for that. It won’t guarantee a lot of traffic, but you’ll get people like me who just go through the comment sections to find new websites and works.

You know what’s a great place to post? My Twitter page. I can guarantee at least one hit.

6) Focus on describing what happens over quality.

This is actually a very specific comment. I don’t see this a lot, but I do see it enough.

The author uses a lot of adjectives like “amazing,” and “acclaimed,” and not a lot like, “frightening,” or “comedic.”

Okay, yes. I will agree that subconsciously this may lure in more people. But for me, I'm outright critical.

The summary should tell me what my experience will be like atmospherically and specifically, not that I will like it. Knowing and understanding my reactions takes a lot of skill and experience that I am unlikely to think the author has, especially a self-published one. Being able to predict reader’s reactions is a useful and important talent that writers take years to develop.

While, yes, descriptive adjectives like “humorous” or “romantic” do imply I will find it humorous or romantic, they give me a good impression of the specific the author was going for, specifying how I will enjoy it and not just that I will. I don’t need to know he was going for “good,” I figured that.

7) Tell me about yourself.

Again, the primary reason why I read self-published books is because I like writers, and I feel more connected with the self-published and their plight than I do with those big, lofty authors. This means that the more I know about you, the more likely I am to buy.

People hate talking about themselves. It is so common to be accused of lying or being “modest” or being narcissistic, we don’t want to tell others how we see ourselves. So, many people don’t.

Here’s what happens: I find a self-published work and I go to the purchase page. I think, “Eh,” and move on. But wait! There is an author’s website, which I was more interested in anyway. I go to it and read their biography. Then they have a blog. I read that too. Then, after spending a good amount of time with them, I feel more inclined to purchase their book. And even if I don’t at that juncture, if the website has promises of consistently new information, I’m likely to come back. And I'm more likely to be able to find their website or Facebook page that I've liked than their book I glossed over. Once I read a woman’s blog for two months before suddenly deciding to purchase her book.

Some people don’t give two licks about who wrote the story. But they are also unaffected by how long a biography is on the website or how many blogs she has. There are a good portion of people, like me, who are interested, and just by having material available will utilize it. The more I know about an author the more I connect to her, and the more I connect to her, the more likely I am to buy.

Have a website, have a bio, talk about yourself. Get a blog. Post a lot.

8) Format the inside well.

I can tolerate typos—sometimes I like them. They confirm my expectations without actual thought—but poor formatting drives me nuts.

I need page numbers. Traditional ebooks will have them naturally underneath, but many of the self-published works don’t. On my Kindle App on my computer, they’ll tell me, “Location: 68 out of a billion.” Next page? “102 out of billion.”

Very useful. I love not knowing how long this book is, especially when it could be any wazoo size in the first place.

Books need page numbers, even ebooks. If I lose my place without bookmarking it, I have an impossible time finding my way back. If I want to see how far I have to go, it becomes an ordeal.

Large font sizes are obnoxious. I’ve had some books that had three sentences per page. This really disturbs the reading process. Many ebook readers have the ability to change the size of the font, but not all do. And sometimes, I just can’t figure it out. (I have about four different places where I read ebooks, none of which I spend a lot of time understanding. My fault, but sometimes it's an issue of formatting.)

There are no spaces in between paragraphs. Especially if it’s indented as well. Here, in this blog, you’ll notice, I do have spaces instead of indentation. I do this because it’s online and HTML can’t screw it up as much as it wants to, so it’s easier not to have indentation.

While I am not one to advocate “doing things how they’re done,” formatting paragraphs the way that traditional books do will make the read far less unusual and flow better. When I read stories with spaces in between paragraphs, I subconsciously put a longer space in between them. No matter the story, it has always ruined my reading experience. And, if the author is attempting to hide the fact that it is self-published, nontraditional paragraphs, weird fonts, and stupid formats are the first way to botch it.

9) It’s a dollar.

This, unfortunately, is a deal breaker for me. I will buy it if it’s a dollar or less. I will not spend any more money on it.

I have, as of yet, to buy an ebook for $2.99. It’s not impossible, and maybe, if I’m really excited, I will. Up to now, however, I haven’t bothered.

From my experience, reading through samples, temporarily free editions, previous works by the authors, and stealing from my friends, the $2.99 books are often worse than the dollar ones.

Keep in mind it’s a correlation, not a causality thing. Also a generalization thing. But here’s my logic:

Most self-published works can be bought for 99 cents. Tripling that amount implies an ignorance of the field or a high level of egotism. Now, I am the first to argue writers need to be paid more for their work than just a dollar, but it is a supply and demand issue. There is a low demand for self-published books and a ridiculously high supply. Added with the limited quality control, there is nothing to say that the book is worth the extra two dollars.

At best, the author’s a genius and he recognizes it. The book is fantastic and he wants to be taken seriously. He chose to get self-published, and we’ll say it’s because he rightly knew that maintaining his vision was the only way to keep its integrity, and he could not do that with other people trying to make it “sellable.” In this hypothetical, this isn’t in his head, it’s just true.

I, the reader, don’t know any of this.

Why didn’t he make it the cost of a normally published book? Self-doubt? That doesn’t inspire me to have confidence in him either. (Not that I would ever spend ten dollars on a self-published ebook. Not that I would spend ten dollars on any ebook.)

If the author lowers his costs, he lowers the audience’s expectations. A dollar says, “Take a chance on me.” Ten dollars says, “I’m worth it.” Three dollars says, “I’m not Prada and I’m not Kmart. I’m a pricier knock off.”

Now, I wouldn’t be surprised if a three dollar book was good. I’m not saying it immediately devalues itself. I’m just saying that I’m taking the same amount of risk for more money from someone who might just possibly think he’s worth more for the same amount of work. Considering how many people throw up an ebook with the expectation that destiny will make them viral, readers are constantly on the lookout for that behavior.

But I’m not the rule. While the price is a firm line for me, it might not be for others. So, if you can get the money, go for it. I'm just saying, if you're looking for readers, price is a big factor.

10.) The cover.

I hate to put this on here because it’s obvious. That being said, I’m more likely to buy a book with a crappy cover than a good one—just not for good reasons.

If a cover has the tell-signs of a self-published book (singular default fonts, solid pictures without layering or fading, and no artistic risks), I’m likely to buy it for the “tearing it apart” pleasure. If a cover looks beautiful, it doesn’t stand out to me any more than “regular” books. I'm less likely to buy it, but if I do, it's for actual reading pleasure. If I think that it might be self-published, I will dig through it more to figure it out. That might just buy some time for me to actually consider the content.

I’m not advocating a crappy cover. I’m saying the opposite. A beautiful cover will lead me to taking the book seriously. A crappy book will make me doubt the author’s every action. I admit to buying more of the horrible covers, but that’s with the intention of never finishing them, having something to rant about, or just supporting the “poor struggling indie.” When I do come across a gorgeous cover, it becomes about the actual story, and I’m more likely to trust the risky choices inside.

And then I don’t care as much.

It may be confusing as to what I am suggesting here. My point is, people judge a book by its cover, and the content inside will be affected. I have to admit to buying poorly crafted work in the name of honesty, but the book would have to be far better for me to give it faith. I do buy “pretty” books, and I give them far more credit, which means that any risks will be construed as artistic experimentation rather than “trying too hard.” I buy more books with crappy covers, and judge it so harshly that its rare anyone will have a chance. I buy a lot of books with beautiful covers with the actual intention to read it as a story, and am more committed in the beginning. I ignore mediocre ones completely.