Sunday, April 27, 2014

How to Overcome Shyness at Writer’s Conferences

It can be like a middle school dance. We’re all given permission to mingle, and we part the room like the Red Sea, staring at one another hopelessly. Despite all of us being there to talk and network, despite that there isn’t really anything else to do, you often get a bunch of introverts into a room, and suddenly it grows silent.

How can you overcome your shyness? It’s not often enough to just tell yourself to cut it out. You can’t tell yourself what to do. But there are a few ways to change your perspective that will make it easier.

1) Talk about yourself.

We’re told that no one wants to hear us ramble on about ourselves, that people are just waiting to say what they want to say. The problem with this mentality is, one, if no one talks about themselves, there’s going to be a whole lot of silence, two, you’re not going to know what to say, which causes a whole lot of silence, three, they’re not going to feel comfortable talking about themselves, and, four, they actually are interested, if they’re interested in talking to you at all.

Don’t worry about saying things about yourself. Yes, it can go too far—not letting them get a word in edgewise, bragging too much—but that’s different than not doing it at all.

Some people are really great at turning conversations back onto the other person without them noticing. If you do not have this skillset yet, certainly try, but don’t avoid saying anything. You’ll be boring, paralyzed, and make them feel uncomfortable.

2) Give them an escape route.

How do you know if you’re talking too much? How do you know they’re just being  polite and waiting to leave? You don’t. So give them amp opportunity to not be rude. If they take it, you won’t be wasting your time talking to someone who doesn’t want to talk to you. If they don’t, then you don’t have to alienate them by convincing them it’s okay they leave. Lastly, by feeling that they can get out at any time, makes them less likely to take the first chance out of fear and stick around longer.

Escape routes can be a pause in conversation. You don’t want to act like you don’t want to talk to them, so your side of the dialogue should have some information, but then you can pause—without asking a question—and they are more likely to feel they can leave at that point. Don’t do it too often, however, it will look like you want them to leave.

It can also be getting distracted. Props are wonderful for the shy person. If there’s reading material next to you or a piece of artwork, or even a trim you can feel up, by breaking eye contact and stepping away to examine something, yet still responding to who you’re talking to, they can chose to stay or take that moment to leave.

If you get the feeling they want to leave, but can’t, you can give them your business card or write down your Facebook/Twitter information and say, “Let’s connect.” That sounds like a possible dismissal, but also suggests you like engaging with them and so, they won’t feel pressured to leave.

3) “Yes and.”

“Yes and” is a rule in improv (an performance art improvised without a script) to prevent the scene from a crashing halt. I’ve found that it also helps to prevent conversation from a crashing halt.

The point is to not disagree with what they said—it would force them to change direction and come up with a new idea and put them on the defense—as well as add something to give them more ideas.

Short sentences with no information puts all the pressure on the other person to do the thinking. Which no one likes. Odds are, this person is as shy as you. Unlike many real world situations, in which introverts are drawn to extroverts, writer’s conferences tend to have a high number of awkward, insecure, or just plain quiet people. So when someone says, “What’s your book about?” don’t just say, “It’s a fantasy.” Say, “It’s a fantasy. I’m playing around with how to portray lazy female characters in a likeable way.” That gives them plenty of room for questions. You might even add a, “How about you?” But certainly don’t say, “I don’t talk about what I’m writing,” because then they have to come up with a new topic out of thin air.

(If they ask you a question you really don’t want to answer, make it a topic instead of a dismissal: “Do you think talking about your book before you finish it hurts the inspiration process?”)

4) If they approach you, don’t worry if they actually want to talk to you.

So, yeah, people can be fake. People can also have agendas. They can walk up to you and then be annoyed when you answer their questions. That’s not your problem. Remembering that will help you not shut out the people who do actually want to talk to you, and prevent you from shutting down.

You want to support the people who actually want to talk to you, and you don’t care about the people you don’t. If they ask you a question, answer it like they’re really interested. And if they weren’t, and you’re boring them, then they get what they deserve. Don’t worry about looking like an idiot, because, when networking, it’s preferable to looking like a bitch, and it’s really preferable to being isolated out of fear of possibilities.

5) Prioritize making them feeling good over you looking good.

If you get people to like you, the world is at your feet. Sure, the old belief about likability not garnering respect holds true. A likable person makes his fellow conversationalist feel like she has some sort of power, like she is the one being respected. And, when she starts thinking that way, she can get annoying. But don’t worry about it.

It’s far easier to control your likability than their perception of you, because all you have to do to be likable is act like you like them. By smiling at them, seeming excited when they talk to you, not behaving like you want to go crawl underneath a chair and hide, they will associate you with pleasant feelings. They might not think you know what you’re doing, or have faith in you as an author, but they are more likely to support you, even if it’s just out of pity.

Friendly people are far more successful than the non-friendlies, so basing your actions around making them feel good is the most sufficient way to network. And, more importantly, when in the middle of the conversation, asking yourself, “How do I make this person happy?” solicits faster and more effective answers than, “How do I make them think I know what I’m doing?” and, even, “How do I make them like me?”

By not worrying about looking like an idiot, you can talk to someone who might be just being polite. You can ask questions you are actually interested in hearing the answers to (instead of being limited to keeping up the appearance you’re the authority—even if you are.) You can give out more information—and be more interesting—on things that people might judge you for. You can be a better communicator just by not worrying about what they think of you.

You can talk to people by not worrying about what to talk about.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Why Not to Take Writing Advice from One-Star Reviews

The other day I watched a cute video of a child arguing with his mother. She was angry (but not enough to put the camera down) because he tried to grab a cupcake when she explicitly told him not to.

“Linda, Linda, Linda,” the three-year-old said, interrupting her.

Well, after watching the video I couldn’t help myself, but went down to read some of the comments. This never ends well for me emotionally, so I don’t know why I bother. No self-control, I imagine. In any case, there was a lot of disagreeing posts about the “cuteness” of the child and more statements about parenting advice—what the mother should have done, shouldn’t have done, what’s wrong with kids in the world, etc.

I like parenting advice because, unlike writing advice, the objective viewer doesn’t necessarily assume the critic is always right. It was immediately apparent why the mother should ignore most of the naysayers. Not necessarily because she unequivocally did the right thing, but because it was a lot of people with different priorities, talking on impulse, or talking out their ass.

A lot of Amazon reviewers say they try to form their reviews to give the author’s advice on how to improve their craft. Okay. Fine. That’s not really what it’s for, and I find the people who don’t are much better reads than the people who do, but there is something nice about being a writer and having a clear place to read about people’s reactions. And it would be stupid not to take those reactions into consideration.

That being said…

I read a lot of one-star reviews in my free time.  Most books I decide to pick-up are from the one-stars (not the fives), and so it’s rare for me to go into a story not knowing how I possibly will react. It’s also easy for me to see the effects that bad reviews have on sequels, and I have to say that when I read a book that addresses the problems discussed in these one-star reviews, it ends most often in disappointment.

One of my favorite books is not a very well written one. It’s supposed to be a historical paranormal, meaning set in Victorian England, but where magic exists. The characters act modern, the magical aspects aren’t well developed or unique. The female protagonist has the personality of a bucket, and the only real reason I loved it was for one character.

The male love-interest had exactly the problems you would expect. He was cocky, sarcastic, and callous at times. That’s why I liked him. But of course people complained, which they have every right to do. I can see why that’s unappealing to some, why they see sarcasm and cynicism as undesirable and mean traits. Being sarcastic and cynical, however, I enjoy it, don’t you dare take that away.

In any case the sequel comes up, and low and behold, the book suddenly explains that he’s not really this mean or callous, he just has to push people away because of mumble mumble mumble.

Okay, wait. You’re telling me that the one thing I like about this story, the one person I love so much he compensates for everything else, isn’t really how he is? That he’s actually a different person? This is his fake persona?

Then why do I care?

Now, of course part of the issue is that this was a poor solution in general. It didn’t address people’s actual concerns—Why are girls so attracted to assholes? And yes, it’s a disturbing question… At least when you take it in that respect. Changing the fact that he’s not really an ass doesn’t alter that people like him as an ass. And really, some people just don’t find that charming, and so dislike the character. Faking it doesn’t solve the problem. So now the author didn’t prevent the naysayers and ruined it for the loyalists. Good job.

But what can you expect from taking advice from one-star reviews?

While some of the one-star reviews shared my complaints about the characters constantly breaking society’s rules or the storyline not being that unique or interesting, they tended to gloss over it. Their focus was on the author’s propensity to keep writing in the same universe over and over, the male character’s attitude, and how stupid the protagonist was. (Okay, the last one I agree with.) They didn’t really discuss nuance or execution—save for generally complaining about it—yet focused on the author’s choices (I don’t like that kind of person! What? Love triangle?!), and where she got her ideas from (This was originally a fan fiction!) The three-stars were much more useful—If I was looking at them as an editing tool—the reviewers trying to be objective, and far more talking about actual continuity errors, or what prevented them from loving it other than “This has been done before! Here, here, and here!” The reads weren’t as interesting, but they were far less biased, and, in a way, less stupid, focusing on more important things. And, more importantly, while I didn’t agree with all of the changes or complaints, they didn’t ask to change the few things that made the book successful.

I see authors pander to the one-star reviews in later work, and it rarely works out. The thought process is, if something’s giving me bad reviews, I should change it. Except there is such a thing as "you either love it or hate it." And the mentality of the layman reviewer is complicated and takes far more unpredictable elements into consideration than just, “This choice had these effects.” There’s a reason why every book online has an average of four-stars. It can’t be that they’re all of the same quality (unless you believe there’s no such thing as quality, in which case, I don’t know why you’re worried about ratings). It’s not that there isn’t viable advice in there, it’s that the reason they’re giving you a one-star is more about subjectivity and reputation than it is that a book was that bad.

For someone to give the lowest rating, they have to hate a book. In order to really hate a book, it has to be really bad, or gone in a weird direction, or you want to hate it that much. If it was just about issues of the first, than very few one-stars would be given, and probably reserved for the typo-ridden, five paged, child-erotica “novellas” written by someone who clearly doesn’t speak English. The most likely reason someone felt passionately about a work was because it did something that they don’t like, such as have another arrogant asshole illustrated as sexy, or has swear words, or incest, or big words, or even focuses on elements that they just don’t care about, like too much description, or (and yes, I’ve seen this) too much tension. If it’s just boring with poor pacing or two-dimensional characters, but nothing really angers you then people are likely to give you the benefit of the doubt and you’ll probably end up with three-stars (or more likely, no review at all). There has to be a bad choice made, a bad direction, for someone to really hate it. And one man’s bad choice is the other’s niche, meaning that you can’t be certain what they’re complaining about isn’t why other people like it.

One-stars are not your audience. They may have complaints that are congruent with the fans (or possible fans), but they will also focus on the things that are important to them, which might not be important to the author. And it’s very hard to tell the difference between “just them,” and “everyone ever,” (as they imply.)

So, I’m not saying that one-stars don’t have viable advice, but it’s hard to separate out the bias. People judge books in hindsight (This is how I feel, so now I will find evidence that I should feel that way), and they often discussing convincing confirmation over effective. If we were to all listen to the one-star reviews (metaphorically) in our lives, we’d be changing who we are in hopes to make everyone like us. There would be no niche books to read, no reprieve for the “outsiders” of the world to read what they like. This would only lead to homogenized, safe crap being produced over and over.


If you’re going to look for advice in reviews, you want to pay attention to the complaints in the five-stars, the three stars, maybe even the two sometimes. Those are the people who are giving you the benefit of the doubt, who are trying to be kind and support you, and who you owe it to—if you owe anyone—to hear them out. If you start focusing on the bitchy wheels, you have a good chance of changing what the quiet ones enjoyed most.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Help! I’m Subconsciously Ordinary

I started writing when I was about twelve. I was very into fantasy. (Still am) My first books were primarily about made-up worlds set in an England-like medieval age, or Final Fantasy VII, guns and swords type of world. Very magic based, not Earth.

(Do I like these old stories, you ask? NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS.)

In any case, I was always interested in enchantment, so that’s what I wrote about. And low and behold, I was just the right age for Harry Potter. Got a little older and I went a little darker. I was into the supernatural—vampires and ghosts. When Twilight came around, I was writing about demons and séances. I love vampires. Never wrote about them because I believe in sticking with the lore, but when that lore is so convoluted, it’s a little hard. But I love them. And I found, if you watch my progression as a young writer to today (No, you may not) you’ll notice a trend, namely trend following.

Except, and here’s the weird thing, I’m not a trend follower. Not deliberately. I had long been writing with the sheer ignorance and naivety that only a teenager of my narcissism could possess. I didn’t pay attention to what other people were doing. And, in many circumstances, I wrote my books before the similar one came out. Okay, okay, you’re going to have to take my word for this, because the point isn’t, I HAVE THE RIGHT TO BE UNORIGINAL, but what that actually means for me as a writer.

Whatever’s influencing the masses is also influencing me. I am, for all intensive purposes, normal.

Shit.

Well, of course I am. I’d have to be stupid to think I was a shielded wall of individuality—although it would explain the communication problems I have. But I didn’t realize to what extent it was until the movie Divergent came out.

I… haven’t read the Hunger Games. Yet. Alright, alright, I’ll get to it, I promise. But I did see the movie, and that counts for something, doesn’t it? When was that? Movie II just premiered, so Movie I must have been last year… 2013?

No, I won’t look it up.

Late 2012, I wrote a dystopian novel. It was my first science fiction book, though I had written many Steam Punk (kind of) style fantasies that involved fantastical technology. The idea came to me in a very simple form: I wanted to kidnap someone on a motorcycle, and realized the kidnapper would have to not slow down for anything to keep her on it. Where would he be? Subconscious, let’s talk Road Warrior.

(Foundation concept, my friends. Foundation. It’s not Road Warrior; it’s anarchist dystopia, and the similarities end there. I hope. Leave me alone.)

Anyway, it was a strange derision for me, but it came from living in my head, so I thought nothing of it. I had, I think, not heard of Hunger Games or Divergent or Matched or any of the thousands of Young Adult dystopian books that are coming out now. I did just play Fallout New Vegas, if that says anything. For the most part, I wasn’t worrying about originality—I didn’t think there was anything to worry about. I didn’t think it would be a trend. It may have been a trend already, but I am oblivious.

From my perspective, my interest is obvious. I don’t like Earth. I like living here, sure. I guess. Preferable to the sun anyway. But I don’t like reading about it. I want a new world to explore. I like fantasy. I’ve read a lot of fantasy. I’m getting sick of fantasy. Okay, let’s lay off the elves for a while. What else is there?

I believe the interest in dystopia is many people like different worlds, but many others disrespect other worlds. Say what you will about the current immature trends in the genre, but dystopian authors rarely get asked, “So, why dystopia?” Or not as much. As a fantasy author, it’s not uncommon to have to explain yourself. We take 1984 and A Brave New World seriously; The Giver and The Running Man, great. Lord of the Rings, nope. Black Cauldron, uh-uh. The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe? Maybe. Macbeth?

… I don’t think that counts. You know what I mean.

 Sure, science fiction is often remembered as that dime store crap, shelved next to that romance crap, but the potential for political discussion can often make apocalyptic futures serious.

In any case, the trend from Harry Potter to Twilight to Hunger Games is obvious. People are looking for character-based other worlds that tie into internal conflict and relationships. Most fantasy and science fiction tends to be plot oriented, typically assumed as “Save the world,” kind of jaunts. Going from fantasylands to dystopia makes sense, and I’m all for it. These are the kinds of books I want to read, and I hope the popularity doesn’t stop any time soon.

But what does it mean for me?

I have been working on this book for two years, and it’s the first one that I really settled down with. Most of them, I write, and then write something else, because, hey, I like writing. I’m a slut. Commitment issues, baby. This, however, I chose to be loyal to, and I’m not entirely sure if I ran around too long.

The Divergent movie came out. And, more importantly, the criticisms came out. Everyone’s talking and I don’t like what I’m hearing. I had no idea just how popular dystopia was until it got over the hill.

But, I don’t normally think that way. I read an interview with Holly Black about the Coldest Girl in Coldtown and she got the question, “So, why vampires even though they’re so over done?”

My response, as an objective third-party, was write what you want to write about, whether it’s popular or not. Duh.

And yet, here we are.

Hunger Games and Divergent and many other new novels are dystopian. Divergent is about a young, brave girl in a society that separates people into different factions, each trying to maintain goodness in the form of one trait: bravery, intelligence, honesty, kindness, selflessness. Tris chooses bravery, a fraction that’s job is to protect the other civilians, so she learns to fight, and goes through some horrific trials, etc. Hunger games is about a young, brave girl in a society that punishes twelve districts by taking two of their children and forcing all twenty-four to fight to the death.

Divergent is criticized for being a Hunger Games wanna-be.

So, I did read Divergent, finally, before the movie came out. I’m not going to go into how I feel about it, because it’s a long story involving a lot of different elements that has nothing to do with the writing. In any case, I do not think for three seconds Veronica Roth wrote that book because of Hunger Games. I really don’t believe she sat down and said, “What’s popular right now?” or “I’m going to make a strong female character like Katniss!”

I don’t know where some of these naysayers have been, but “strong female character” has been a growing stereotype since 1999. (Not to imply that Katniss is a stereotype. This may have been a tangent.)

Sure, Hunger Games might have to do with why Roth got published, but why she wrote it? I don’t believe it.

But right now the internet is full of people complaining about too much dystopia. And I know, no matter what happens, I will get called out for trend following. But that doesn’t bother me nearly as much as the fact that if I been more diligent and gotten it out faster, it would have been right on mark, not trying to come out in the aftermath amongst many others. So many times do I realize that I was a part of a growing trend too late. So am I doing that now? Am I not working on something that will be popular in a year? And by that time, I’ve missed the boat?

Uh…

I think it’s time for the silver lining.

The fact that I am apparently normal can actually be a good thing. If my tastes organically flow with my peers, than write fast enough, clearly I can catch a ride before people are like, “Oh God, not another one,” right? Right?

Okay, it’s become apparent that I am average. I need to just use that to my advantage. Suck it up, you know? If I am so typical, then others will agree with me. I should listen to my instinct.


Well, my instinct likes this book. My instinct says I’m just being a coward. My instinct says I have cold feet. My instinct says I’m an idiot. My instinct might be abusive. Where’s my narcissism when I need it? 

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Why So Much Fear of Fifty Shades of Grey?

I’m not an easily shamed person. I’m one of those idiots who appreciates the attention from shock value. As a teenager, I would deliberately say my favorite stories were things like Gulliver’s Travels, 1984, and Twilight, just because I liked people’s surprise at the disharmony. Sure, I wasn’t lying—I did like them. But the reason why I said they were my favorites—a bit of a stretch—was to force people not to pigeonhole me.

So, I see humor in the image of a girl decked out in black and eyeliner reading Fabio and His Wand of Light, or whatever. Picking up Fifty Shades of Grey was never an issue of keeping up impressions.

Mind you, I haven’t actually read the book. I eventually bought it—a funny story for another time—but it sits there, unread, because I have other things to read first, and contemporary settings are always hard for me to get into.

But, as with many writers in my life, I enjoy reading about authors, especially controversial ones, and so every time a blog with Fifty Shades in the title came up, I read it. And what I’ve found over the past few years? People are really afraid of that book.

I’m not talking about people with intimacy issues. If you don’t know what Fifty Shades is, simplified, it’s a romance story with graphic sex scenes about an S and M relationship. Many people don’t like it because they think that’s in poor taste. I understand that mentality, and I don’t criticize them (or don’t mean to be) for not wanting sex to become a mainstream discussion. I don’t either because I like the forbidden aspect of it and keeping some of the mystery. Pretending it doesn’t exist makes it more fun. So do whips, apparently.

There's also the issue of romanticizing abuse and the misrepresentation of BDSM, mostly confusing it with abuse. But I'm actually not referring to the subject matter in this.

What I’m talking about is other writers and their fear of the book's existence. Last year I attended a class on writing sex scenes—because I actually do have intimacy issues—and it degenerated into a rant about Fifty Shades of Grey. The teacher was not a very strong person; she had the skill set, but not the teaching ability, so it was easily hijacked by the white man who thought it was cool to speak in Spanish for twenty minutes before the class started. And just now I read an article by a fearful erotica writer. For a while I’ve seen a great deal of the same mentality, with a great number of people wondering, “If this is successful, what does that mean for me?”

And this is scary. For a long time now, I’ve decided there is no actual thing as quality of writing, not in terms of a concrete, universal definition. What there is, I believe, is a subconscious cultural connection in which the way we interpret things, the desires we have, and the way we are influenced tends to be similar within a current time and place. Those similarities is what the author has to look for when he’s trying to write “well.”

But most people disagree with me, believing there is such a thing as a good book or bad book (though they would rarely say it like that), and I think this is where the terror about Fifty Shades of Grey comes into play. For someone who has spent his life seeking out success as an author, trying to write the “best possible book,” and then turns around to find something he considers poorly written smut to be doing so well, what is he to think? Either his definition of quality is off—not good news for him—or success is not based on quality at all. What is it based on then? Luck? Marketing? Touching on base emotions? Inciting one reaction really well?

The success of Fifty Shades bothers people, many considering it an affront on their own work. “What’s that to say for the rest of us who don’t want to write that way?” a class-mate said to me. Well, in my opinion, either you’re telling the truth, in which case there will be people who agree with you—people who don’t want to read that way either, and that’s your audience—or you’re lying on some level, in which case maybe you should stop with the self-loathing and actually accept your own desires instead of being humiliated by them.

People often ask me if I liked my earlier books. (No, none of my novels have been published, thanks for asking. But read a short story) I started writing novels when I was 12, and have done at least one a year for the past decade. The question on many’s mind when they hear that is the difference between the later works and the earlier, if I hate everything I’ve done, and if I liked the amateur garbage I produced in practice. No, I don’t hate everything, yes, I like the amateur garbage, and the main difference is two-fold: Nuance and self-pandering.

As a beginning writer, I was fairly upfront about everything—This is what happened. This is what it looked like. This is people’s opinions on it—It lacked subtly. BUT, it was clear. Now I have a great deal of nuance and subconscious connection, which makes it not so obvious as to what I might be telling you, making the story much more atmospheric and a hell of a lot denser. There’s consequences and benefits to both, but I prefer the latter.

But that’s not why I bring it up. It’s the self-pandering that ties in. In my beginning books, I censored myself less. I tended to make more appealing decisions over intellectually viable ones. I wrote what I wanted to read about, and what came of that was much more appealing fluff. The stories, I would say, have humbler execution, but are actually far better escapism. Today, I hold back from having events that appeal to me. I try to keep up the integrity of the work by not making the villain try to force the protagonist into marriage. “That’s stupid,” I tell myself. A childish fantasy. And so, I keep out elements of my books that would make them far more interesting to people like me. Because what? What I like is stupid? Is that really something I’m going to admit?

I’ve only recently consciously come to this conclusion, and as soon as I realized it, I tried to find a balance. I’m not wrong in thinking that pandering to unthought-out fantasizes makes for a bad read, but considering I want to be an escapist author, fantasizes are what it’s all about.

Authors fear our own desires, for good reason. Having a perfect, beautiful, talented, super powerful, and kind hero is the mark of an unrestrained amateur. But having an average, mediocre, weak, boring, Everyman is the mark of reality. Why would I read about that? That’s not really the book I want to write, but I’m embarrassed to include the details that I deem too dreamlike to be taken seriously.

I don’t believe the people concerned with Fifty Shades of Grey are those fighting back their sexuality, afraid of their own desires. What I mean to suggest is that this pressure to retain literary merit is so strong, that writers are afraid to include a little smut—some raw, pure emotion unrestrained by keeping up intellectual appearances—that when someone doesn’t, and succeeds, it scares the shit out of us. Everything we’ve been trying to do better, every area we’ve been preventing ourselves from delving into, maybe that’s exactly the area we should be in. Maybe that’s what we’ve been doing wrong. While I feel the reasons behind the Fifty Shades hatred is complex, I do think a big part of it is the issue of why. Why is this book so popular? Is it because no one cares about the things I was told we were supposed to care about? Should I do what she does? Am I doing it wrong?

Good news, I say. The success of the erotica book is a good thing to those who wish to do something different. Fifty Shades already exists. We don’t need another one. And while it is probably setting way for a new trend, like how we consider Hunger Games the latest in the Twilight/Harry Potter line, that trend isn't as straightforward as we'd assume. And there’s many who want something more than that. So there’s a good chance that instead of Fifty Shades ruining readers, it will open them up now that they’ve got their naughty satisfaction.

Remember, the only thing to fear is dumb luck, and we can't control that.