Sunday, May 1, 2016

Making Up Details about Successful Authors

There are a few trigger words to never say to an aspiring writer: successful, hits, audience, sales, and anything referencing numbers and marketing. These words aren’t negative in their official definition, but to many new authors business words are the promotion of soulless enterprising, an enemy to creativity and truth.

But while these “sales” terms can be connected with money, they do not necessarily have to be. “Success” can be in the eye of the beholder, meaning anywhere from actual sales to being a household name to having a lot of devoted fans to even having effectively informed society of an ongoing problem. If you did what you set out to do, you are successful.

Despite all that, there are still some authors people call successful in a derisive way. If they made money, gained fans, became household names, but did not write in the way that the speaker appreciates or wrote on a topic the speaker doesn’t like, there can be a great deal of venom behind the word “success.”

Recently a post has been going around about the book Fifty Shades of Grey.

“His pointer finger circled my puckered love cave. ‘Are you ready for this?’ he mewled, smirking at me like a mother hamster about to eat her young,” the post quoted. “Next time you feel bad about your work, remember this shit got published.”

Except that it didn’t. I hadn’t read much of Fifty Shades—I devoured the one-star reviews and hence read the sample chapters—but even from the little I saw, this didn’t sound like her voice to me. Looking it up, it turned out this quote came from a fan fiction piece posted online in which a character is reading this out loud from Fifty Shades of Grey; it’s a parody.

I felt frustrated for E.L. James having a mockery of her writing being taken for her own, and to see the number of people jump on board simply because it confirms what they want to hear is hard to swallow. I’m not even a reader of the series and this kind of behavior is cringe worthy.

What’s worse, however, was the comments that included the gossip mongering. People started to claim things like she was self-published first, she had connections, and other typical stories to discredit her work and give good reason why they weren’t where she was.

Now, I’m not praising E.L. James here, nor do I mean to be implying that criticism of authors is inherently rude behavior. It would be hypocritical in fact, considering I just admitted loving reading the passionate reviews by people who hated her. This kind of talk can help continue the motivation to keep writing, it is basic human nature to gossip, and while it frustrates me to see people spreading false claims about what actually happened, that is to be expected with fame.

The reason I bring it up now is because of who had posted the original comment.

The gentlemen in question is an older individual, retired military who has decided to take up writing for the last few years. He has crafted long, Christian historical fiction manuscripts and claims to have been rejected many times. I’ve followed his posts for a while, and his biggest problem? He doesn’t do his research.

He claims that agents only want celebrities. When an author told him she was pulled out of the slush pile, he replied, “Well, of course you have connections! You went to college!

The author told him that she wasn’t sure her agent even knew she’d gone to college at all.

He claimed, “I do not believe you didn’t tell her. She cares. That’s querying 101!”

It’s not, really. In fact, I’ve heard more agents admit that MFAs can be off putting because they tend to be more theoretical than practiced. (I’m not saying to not include it in your query, but I know of no one who said they took on a client because they had a degree.)

He decided to self-publish initially because agents didn’t want the manuscript. Then afterwards he decided he was doing it because they would take him more seriously if it was out there, though he didn’t plan on selling very well. He does little to no advertising or promotion, is selling his ebook for twenty dollars, and yet is using The Martian as his standard for success as an indie. Instead of emulating this book's rise to fame, he merely accepts that it can be done before making decisions that weren't involved in that success. He charges a ridiculous amount because he believes his work, taking "more than two weeks to write" and professionally edited by a retired school teacher who only found 14 errors in a 400 page manuscript, is worth more than all the other terrible self-publishers. Instead of reading independent ebooks, genuinely checking out the competition and researching what he's up against, he assumes all his competition is terrible, half-assed, and his book is worth more than a traditionally published print book.

Most days he posts something about why he’s not successful, very similar to the comments on the Fifty Shades parody quote. They staunchly assert something that may have a basis in truth, but that’s simplicity makes it inaccurate.

Fifty Shades of Gray was originally a Twilight fan fiction posted online. It began to gather many excited readers. Later, James would rewrite and submit it to a small Australian publisher who accepted it for epublication and print-on-demand.

Due to her already existent following from the fan fiction sites and excited word of mouth, the books sold extremely well and would be picked up by Vintage Books—an imprint of Random House—in the states.

Why is any of this important?

The gentlemen on Facebook sabotages himself by banking on beliefs that make him feel better, not questioning those beliefs by doing basic research, and thereby not only making bad choices, but ignoring what he can learn from the real story.

I wrote of the Jonathan Jones debacle in which an art critic wrote a complaint about Terry Pratchett. He started by saying he’d never read one of Pratchett’s books and never would before going off on how Pratchett was highly overrated.

The comment section blew up with hatred, but one statement of note was when an individual asked, rhetorically, why someone had to read Fifty Shades of Grey to know it’s bad? Couldn’t we just trust what other people say?

No, is the short and short of it. The hatred of Fifty Shades and Twilight for that matter go much deeper than just bad prose. The infamous movie, The Room, was an overly funded, terribly written, horribly acted independent film, and yet it’s become something of a cult classic. Part of the reason? Because not all people are saying agree that Fifty Shades is bad. If we “trust what other people say,” we can’t just trust those who are already confirming what we want to hear. You have to listen to the ones who enjoy the story as well. The hatred of it comes from the irritation of having some people disagree with just how bad the book is.

I’ve promoted the artistic reasons for questioning why popular books you hate are popular—understanding why someone could fundamentally view a book differently than you, or more likely, what they prioritize over what you think is important—gives the author power over his audience’s perspective. He may not want to use the knowledge that people will accept cringe worthy writing as long as its sensual, but at least understanding the importance of sensuality (i.e. mood) may help him overcome the complaints of his own “purple prose” and learn to better combine atmosphere with a good turn-of-phrase.

But it’s more than that. Listening to these rumors about E.L. James’ “dumb luck” removes agency from yourself. Truth is, James’ success was not attributed to “knowing the right people” which most of us never will be able to. It was not because she stuck a self-published book out there and it happened to go viral without effort. She found an audience, maintained that audience, and that audience obliged her by word of mouth.

She was successful because she had a book that affected people emotionally and she had a pre-existing platform.

Again, I’m not saying her route is right for you, or for me even, but you don’t have to have “gone to college” and you don’t have to rub elbows with the higher ups. In fact, E.L. James’ route is far more obtainable. Shouldn’t that make us feel better? Shouldn’t the trackable knowledge of what events lead to her success, despite any distaste for her work, re-empower us?

Gossip can relieve fear, but research can overcome it. Most writers make the mistake of not fully informing themselves on what publishing is like, what to expect, and how they plan on overcoming pretty basic obstacles before getting demoralized. So, instead of accepting insults as facts, sometimes pulling up a cursory Google search will yield a more positive experience.

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